Matilda Heron was born in poverty in Labby Vale, Draperstown, Ireland in 1830 and came to the U.S. as a child. Matilda came to Philadelphia in 1842 with her parents and two sisters, Fanny and Agnes, where she took lessons from Peter Richings of the Walnut-street Theatre.
Though much of her early life, including her real name and exact date of birth, remains in shadow, Laura Keene is thought to have come from a well-to-do background. She was widely read and spent time in Turner’s studio during her childhood. After performing with Madame Vestris’ company, Keene journeyed to New York in 1852 at the invitation of James W. Wallack. She became the leading lady of his theater and enjoyed great success.