Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

George W. Cutter and Mrs. Drake
Mike McCormick
Tribune-Star (Terra Haute, Indiana)

No published Vigo County source alludes to Frances Ann Denny. Even after she wed Terre Haute lawyer George W. Cutter, Denny was known here and throughout America as "Mrs. Drake, First American Lady of Stage" and "Star of the West." During the antebellum, theater notables routinely identified themselves as Mr., Mrs. or Miss, presumably attaching dignity to a suspect vocation.

Born in Schenectady, N.Y., Nov. 6, 1797, Denny made her debut at age 14 as Julia in the comedy "Midnight Hour" in Cherry Valley, N.Y. Two nights later, she played Imma in the tragedy "Adelgitha" at Cooperstown. The shows were part of a noble experiment by frontier theater architect Noble Luke Usher. A respected Eastern thespian, Usher situated in Lexington in 1808 to build the first theater in the present state of Kentucky. Unable to persuade professional companies to hazard into the wilds, he used amateur casts. Soon he opened auditoriums in Frankfort and Louisville.

In 1814, while playing Macbeth at the Bernard Theater in Albany, N.Y., Usher urged English-born stage manager Samuel Drake to organize a group to perform at his Kentucky playhouses. Usher died before returning to Kentucky but Uncle Luke Usher agreed to lease the theaters to Drake in 1815. Veteran actors rejected Drake's venture so he relied upon his own theatrical family: children Samuel, Alexander, James, Martha and Julia. Denny, 19-year-old Noah Ludlow—two upstate New York novices—and three others joined them.

The Drake Dramatic Company worked its way west by wagon and riverboat, performing nightly at stopovers. By the time the theater company reached Lexington, Denny was remarkably proficient. During her first four years on tour, she cultivated fame in the Midwest and the South and beguiled Alexander Drake.

In late 1819, Frances embarked on her own. After triumphs in Quebec, Montreal and Boston, she made an acclaimed New York debut on April 17, 1820 in "Man and Wife" at the Park Theater.

Drake's company performed in Vincennes, Ind., in 1820. During that protracted visit, troupe member James Douglass drowned while bathing in the Wabash River. Sol Smith, a printer with the Vincennes Western Sun, joined the company for $6 a week.

Denny was reunited with the Drakes by 1823, marrying "Aleck" and assuming the name by which she is still remembered. The couple acquired an elegant residence in Covington, Ky., to raise their daughter Julia, but Mrs. Drake performed regularly in the East.

British tourist James Stuart saw Mrs. Drake in Louisville, declaring her the best tragic actress in America. Though Aleck died in 1830, his widow's grandeur survived the celebrated emergence of renowned English actress Fanny Kemble in 1832.

On March 15, 1834, the New York Dramatic Mirror. America's premier theater tabloid, called Mrs. Drake "an ornament to the American stage." "She particularly excels when womanly dignity is to be sustained, energy of purpose expressed or convulsive passion depicted."

Cutter, meanwhile, located in Terre Haute in about 1826 to work with newspaper publisher John Willson Osborn, his cousin. By all accounts, the Canadian-born Cutter was a talented writer and a natural poet. Judge Amory Kinney urged him to adapt those skills to the law. For several years, Cutter studied and practiced with Kinney, Salmon Wright and Samuel Barnes Gookins in offices on Ohio Street, west of Second Street. Living in bachelor quarters behind his one-story office, Cutter sporadically submitted poems to Osborn's successor, newspaper publisher Thomas Dowling.

George W. Cutters rank in the history of literature is equivocal. In 1860, he was enumerated among America's finest poets. The Civil War inspired a new genre of patriotic lyricists, eclipsing Cutters decorous style. His early Terre Haute years were relatively uncomplicated. His services as a lawyer, orator and Whig state legislator often were engaged. Cutter also was active in the Congregational Church.

Composed in an apartment attached to his Ohio Street law office, Cutter's sentimental odes were universally lauded. His first book, "Elkswatawa, or the Moving Fires, and Other Poems," was issued in 1840, featuring the epic 50-page title verse empathizing with Native Americans' plight against white oppression:

"From Labradors eternal snows
To Patagonias frigid strand;
From where the blue Atlantic flows,
To where Kiomis forests stand;
Of stream, or forest, field or flood,
There's not a foot their conqueror owns,
But has been colored by their blood,
Or whitened with their bleaching bones! . . . ."

According to Col. William E. McLean, Cutter first saw Mrs. Drake in "Ingomar, the Barbarian," at an Indianapolis theater in 1839, during his second term in the Indiana House. Captivated, he sought her out the following day. Whether he offered her his heart and his hand at that meeting, as McLean suggests, is uncertain. At best, historian Arthur W. Shumaker deduced, he acted very foolishly. The courtship was short. One night he awakened Marion County Clerk Joseph Brown to seek a marriage license.

Having already charmed Eastern audiences—articularly when she saved Junius Brutus Booth at New York's Bowery Theater in August 1831—widow Frances Denny Drake was content to linger in the West touring with companies headed by former associates Noah M. Ludlow and Sol. Smith.

Branded a man of great literary ability, Cutter brought his bride to Terre Haute for several months. She made her local stage debut in March 1840. However, the couple moved to Covington, Ky., in 1841. Some of Cutter's best work appeared in the Terre Haute's Wabash Courier, owned by Judge Jesse Conard, in 1841 and 1842. One poem, "E Pluribus Unum"—proclaimed by lecturer Bayard Taylor as the finest lyrics in our language—was adapted to music:

". . . Then up with our flag let it stream in the air
Tho our fathers are cold in their graves;
They had hands that could strike they had souls that could dare,
And their sons were not born to be slaves."

Writing for nearby Cincinnati newspapers and practicing law, Cutter maintained contact with Terre Haute friends Thomas Dowling, Amory Kinney and Samuel Gookins. Mrs. Drake made fewer junkets but preserved her stage name.

Some blame Cutter's possessiveness for his disintegrating marriage. Without reservation, he was an incurable romantic. There is some reason to believe that the couple separated before the nation was embroiled in the Mexican War. A Letter to his stepdaughter defined the poets attachment:

". . . I did not think, dear Julia, when you started,
That I should feel so dreadfully, you see,
But, somehow, ever since your room
Has been to me as lonesome as a tomb . . . ."

On Tuesday evening, Oct. 17, 1848, Capt. George W. Cutter, formerly of our town but now of Covington, Ky., gave an electrifying address at a crammed Vigo County Courthouse.

"Such burning eloquence, such thrilling pathos, such invective, we have seldom ever heard," publisher David S. Danaldson asserted the next day in the Terre Haute Express. "The crowd was convulsed at intervals with laughter, or was saddened nearly to tears." "Brilliant!," declared the Wabash Courier. "At an early hour the house was filled with anxiety. In description and anecdote, Cutter is very happy," publisher Jesse Conard wrote. "He can raise a laugh to enforce belief upon understanding."

In 1846, Cutter steered his passions to support the Mexican War as captain of a company of Kentucky Rangers. He reaffirmed loyalty for his commander, Zachary "Old Rough and Ready" Taylor, during his 1848 election campaign.

Plans for Cutters second tome of poetry "for my wife's pecuniary benefit during my absence" was shelved by the commitment. Finally released in February 1848, it featured "Buena Vista," a ballad composed in a tent near the battlefield that claimed more lives, including that of Col. Henry Clay Jr., than any other engagement in the war. Cutters valiant effort to save Clay earned him a special citation.

"Buena Vista," which underscored Gen. Taylor's bold rejoinders to demands for surrender to Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's enormous army, was embraced by Whigs nationwide:

"Here, May, go thou invite him,
Ye need not tarry long;
Tell him that I would fight him
Were he fifty times as strong.
Thus answered Rough and Ready
One hurrah rent the sky
And our ranks grew firm and steady,
Beneath his eagle eye."

Taylor's courageous defense at Fort Harrison north of Terre Haute in September 1812 still was fresh in local memory. Moreover, the town furnished a company for the 2nd Indiana Regiment at Buena Vista. In the speech, Cutter recognized the Hoosiers' contributions. Lewis Cass, the Democratic Party's presidential hopeful, gathered meager patronage after chiding Taylor's battle leadership. Cutter even poetically praised Mr. Atwood, the artist who sketched Zach's contemporary oil portrait.

"That eye but, no, twas brighter then;
Twas beaming with a prophets glow,
That cheered our few and weary men
To battle with a countless foe."

Local historian Blackford Condit defined "The Song of Steam," which also appeared in "Buena Vista," as "the key of the poetical arch that shall commemorate Cutters memory." Other critics called it one of the best lyrics of the century.

"Harness me down with your iron hands,
Be sure of your curb and rein;
For I scorn the power of your puny hands,
As the tempest scorns a chain. . . ."

Cutter wanted to be named the ambassador to Morocco. However, Taylor died before making the official appointment and his successor, Millard Fillmore, gave him a job in the Treasury Department. His marriage to Mrs. Drake soon dissolved when she refused to located in Washington, D.C. Haplessly, Cutter rarely revisited the elation displayed in Terre Haute on that October evening 150 years ago.

Capt. George W. Cutter published three additional poetic anthologies but little else went well following the divorce from Mrs. Drake. The commander-in-chief he revered died after serving 16 months. Treated as a celebrity for awhile by Washington society, he worked for President Fillmore until early 1853. Once a temperance advocate, Cutter cultivated an alcohol addiction.

Predictably, he again fell in love. Tragic details of one alliance—which may have included marriage— recited in a lengthy autobiographical poem, "To Althea," published in the Cincinnati Commercial and reprinted Nov. 14, 1855, by the Terre Haute Express:

"My little Pet, my little Pet,
Dost thou remember still,
The quiet spot where first we met
The grove upon the hill;
With the stately capitol in sight,
The green sloping grounds,
Where oft beneath the starry night,
We walked our lonely rounds? . . .
Thou were pensive, then, my little Pet,
Thy lid had lost its hue,
Thy fawn-like eyes were often wet,
Thy words were sad and few
Thy lovely curls were parted
O'er a brow as pale as death,
And I listened broken-hearted,
To thy slow and fainting breath.
My grief I may not ever speak
As I watched thee day by day.
And saw the life upon thy cheek
Like sun light, fade away. . . ."

Cutter returned to the West after Althea's death, settling near Cincinnati. Working for a newspaper, he wed again but, according to critics, "sank into sporadic idleness." With assistance from old Terre Haute friends, he landed a job in the Lincoln administration. It is unclear whether Cutter's wife, known only as "Widow Spencer," and two children returned with him to Washington.

Unable to retain a responsible post, he became a clerk. On Christmas Eve, 1865, he died at Providence Hospital at age 64, having been admitted as a pauper with paralysis by the Commissioner of Public Buildings order. He was buried in Congressional Cemetery by St. Johns Masonic Lodge. Thirty-five years later, the Rev. Blackford Condit wrote: "Few young men start in life with such bright prospects. Cutter's memory is still cherished in Terre Haute, as he was while here, a young man of promise, of high ideals and of noble purposes. After he left us, however, his prospects were blighted and his last years rendered miserable by intemperance."

Despite undeniable frailties, many consider Cutter Indiana's leading man of letters in the 19th century. A Chicago newspaper obituary described a pathetic scene transpiring after his fame had paled: "Brooding and penniless, Cutter was sitting on a curb in the nation's capital one winter night, listening to music emanate from stately residences nearby, when Gen. Fighting Joe Hooker's future wife, a talented soprano, patriotically sang his acclaimed poem, 'E Pluribus Unum.' Amid the distant gaiety, the neglected poet tearfully laid down and fell asleep."