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Heron, Matilda (1830-1877)


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. She was said to have “began her career as an actress under discouraging circumstances, and fought against the entreaties of her friends in the determination to cast her fortunes upon her natural ability…” Though Richings initially discouraged Heron from attempting a theatrical career, two years later she made her first public appearance at his theater in 1851. Heron toured Baltimore and Washington as an actress, “meeting with some harsh criticism, but achieving a gratifying popular success.” Heron visited San Francisco as an unknown in 1853, but eventually found an enthusiastic audience in her role as “Bianca” at the American Theatre (“Matilda Heron”).

On January 22, 1857, Matilda starred in Camille or the Fate of a Coquette at Wallack’s Theater. She played the part of Camille, her most famous role, for seven weeks and forty-six performances across the country. O’Brien became her press agent that same year, while developing an infatuation for her (Wolle 139-40). She reportedly earned $200,000 for this part alone (Wilson & Fiske, ed. 184). Heron married the "accomplished musician" Robert Stoepel (Old Friends 100) in December of 1857, but the pair split in 1862. The couple had one daughter, Bijou, who also became an actress (“Matilda Heron”).

In explanation of her popularity, Tice Miller writes that "[s]he exhibited a style of emotional acting which seemed real to the audiences of her day" (10). Henry Clapp, Jr. was greatly impressed by Heron’s use of the "emotional school" of acting (Miller 35). According to Charles Bailey Seymour, Heron learned this approach from Mr. H. H. Davis (328). He saw her performance of Camille multiple times because, as Clapp explains, "she puts so much of herself into it--so much of her strong, impulsive, irrepressible genius--that she could no more play it exactly the same way two consecutive evenings than she could be exactly the same person two consecutive evenings" (35). Edward G. P. Wilkins disagreed with Clapp and criticized Heron’s performance in Camille as "a high pressure first-class Western steamboat, with all her fires up, extra pounds of steam to the square inch. The effect is fine, but the danger of an explosion is imminent" (62).

While there are no definitive sources placing her at Pfaff’s, several Pfaffians in addition to Clapp and Wilkins were familiar with Heron’s work. Clare discusses her performances in several articles in the New York Saturday Press (Clare). On March 15, 1862, William Winter "joined the Pfaffians in praising Matilda Heron as the ’most characteristic actress on the American stage,’ and described her as possessing ’a peculiar genius and natural power for acting’" (Miller 80). Heron eventually fell out of favor with Winter because she "pandered to vulgar tastes" by playing characters of questionable morality (T. Miller 91), but he later wrote, “She was a magnanimous, great-hearted, loving woman, and she was one of the most potent elemental forces in the histrionic vocation that have ever been exerted on the American Stage” (Winter 71-72). Andrew C. Wheeler was also critical of Heron, writing, “To-day she was the actress of the world, tomorrow she became the abject wreck” (Miller 151). Fitz-James O’Brien, on the other hand, cites her as an example of an actor “who has the courage to utterly and entirely lose himself in his part” (3). Rose Eytinge mentions meeting Heron at Bulfinch Place in Boston, a selective “actors’ Mecca” and living area (57).

Heron went abroad following this success, making her debut in London in 1861, but soon returned to the U.S. after failing to find similar success. Heron acted until 1875, after which she lived quietly in New York City as a teacher of stage elocution (Wilson & Fiske, ed. 184). Having had wavering health throughout her career, Heron died at the age of forty-six, with “Camille” engraved on her casket along with her real name. She reportedly “suffered in her last days mental as well as physical pain which many strong men would have quailed before and sunk under” (“Matilda Heron”). According to an article detailing her funeral, “the house was crowded with sympathizing friends,” including Pfaffian Charles Gaylor, and “floral pieces, the tributes of friends, stood in every available place in the room” (“Matilda Heron’s Funeral”).