Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burton, William Evans

BURTON, WILLIAM EVANS (1802–1860), actor and dramatist, was the son of William Burton, sometimes called William George Burton (1774-1825), printer and bookseller, and author of 'Researches into the Religion of the Eastern Nations as illustrative of the Scriptures,' 2 vols. 1806. He was born in London September 1802, received a classical education at St. Paul's School, and is said to have matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, with the intention of entering the church ; but at the age of eighteen he was obliged to undertake the charge of his father's printing business. His success in some amateur performances led him to adopt the stage as a profession, and he joined the Norwich circuit, where he remained seven years. In February 1831 he made his first appearance in London at the Pavilion Theatre as Wormwood in the 'Lottery Ticket,' and in 1833 was engaged at the Haymarket as the successor of Liston; but on Liston's unexpected return to the boards he went to America, where he came out at the Arch Street Theatre, Philadelphia, 8 Sept. 1834, as Doctor Ollapod in the 'Poor Gentleman.' His first engagement in New York was at the National, 4 Feb. 1839, as Billy Lackaday. Burton was subsequently lessee and manager of theatres in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and on 13 April 1841 essayed management in New York at the National Theatre, which was consumed by fire on 29 May following. In 1848 he leased Palmo's Opera House, New York, which he renamed Burton's Theatre. Here he produced, with extraordinary success, John Brougham's version of 'Dombey and Son,' in which he personated Captain Cuttle. The Metropolitan Theatre, Broadway, New York, came under his management September 1856, with the title of Burton's New Theatre. Little satisfied with his success in this new house, he gave up its direction in 1858, and commenced starring engagements, his name and fame being familiar in every quarter of the Union. His humour was broad and deep, and sometimes approached coarseness, but at the same time was always genial and hearty, and generally truthfully natural; while in homely pathos and the earnest expression of blunt, uncultivated feeling, he has never been excelled. His power of altering the expressions of his face was also much greater than that possessed by any other actor of modern times. His name was almost exclusively identified with the characters of Captain Cuttle, Mr. Toodle, Ebenezer Sudden, Mr. Micawber, Poor Pillicoddy, Aminadab Sleek, Paul Pry, Tonv Lumpkin, Bob Acres, and many others. In literature he was almost as industrious as in acting. He wrote several plays, the best known being 'Ellen Wareham, a domestic drama,' produced in May 1833, and which held the stage at five London theatres at the same time. He was editor of the 'Cambridge Quarterly Review,' editor of and entire prose contributor to the 'Philadelphia Literary Souvenir,' 1838-40, proprietor of the 'Philadelphia Gentleman's Magazine,' seven volumes, of which Edgar A. Poe was sometime the editor, contributor to many periodicals, and author of 'The Yankee among the Mermaids,' 12mo, 'Waggeries and Vagaries, a series of sketches humorous and descriptive,' Philadelphia, 1848, 12mo, and 'Cyclopædia of Wit and Humour of America, Ireland, Scotland, and England,' New York, 1857, 2 vols. 8vo. His library, the largest and best in New York, especially rich in Shakespearean and other dramatic literature, was sold in the autumn after his death in upwards of six thousand lots, ten to twenty volumes often forming a lot. A large collection of paintings, including some rare works of the Italian and Flemish school, adorned his two residences. His health was failing many months prior to his decease, which took place at 174 Hudson Street, New York, 9 Feb. 1860, from a fatty degeneration of the heart, in the fifty-eighth year of his age. As an actor he held the first rsnk, and in his peculiar line the present generation cannot hope to witness his equal. He was twice married, the second time, in April 1853, to Miss Jane Livingston Hill, an actress, who, after suffering from mental derangement, died at New York on 22 April 1863, aged 39. His large fortune was ultimately divided between his three daughters, Cecilia, Virginia, and Rosine Burton.

[Ireland's Records of the New York Stage (1867). ii. 235-38; Ripley and Dana's American Cyclopædia (1873), iii. 478; Drake's American Biography (1872), p. 147; The Era, London, 4 March 1860, p. 14; Willis's Current Notes, 1852, p. 38; Cyclopædia of Wit and Humour (1857), with Portrait.]

G. C. B.