Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

039: Benjamin Curzerpursong, playing Uncle Tom: 1903

Benjamin Curgerpursong (sometimes Curzerpursong), aged 51, a “negro” was charged at the Old Bailey in July 1903 with feloniously wounding William Beaney. Beaney had been in hospital for six days; found guilty of “unlawfully wounding under great provocation” a three month sentence was pronounced. See oldbaileyonline.org ref t19030729-594.

I had stumbled on a report in the West London Reporter and back-tracked to uncover details. Beaney and his brother Alfred, with another, ex-soldiers, had been cut by Curzerpursong (5 in/13cm cuts to their necks). He told a police officer “I did it, but they drove me to it” for the victims had remarked “Look at that black *******”. An actor playing the old slave Uncle Tom in John Tully’s company at Hammersmith, he was bailed for £25. The case went to the Old Bailey on 21 July 1903. Curgerpursong (sic) told how the three broke a stick on his head, that he had defended himself, and then fetched a police officer. The jury decided he was not guilty of grievous bodily harm but found him guilty of “unlawfully wounding”. The judge remarked that the black actor had been provoked, but the use of a knife “could not be passed over”.

The West London Reporter (11 September “Uncle Tom to be released”) and  The Times (8 September 1903) reported that the Home Secretary had responded to an appeal by Sir Thomas Dewar, M.P., and Curzerpursong had been released. The “native of Carolina earned his living as an actor”; and there had been “extreme provocation”. Dewar, a millionaire whisky promoter, and M.P. for St George’s Tower Hamlets (1900-1906), was involved in the agitation that led to the Aliens Act of 1905.

Apparently from North Carolina (although his name seems Ghanaian), the actor’s treatment by the jury, magistrate, judge, Home Secretary and the Member of Parliament appears to have been fair. A colleague in Tully’s theatrical company at Hammersmith was actress Amy Height, a close associate of the Afro-Canadian Bohee brothers in Britain from the 1890s. In mid-1900 she had appeared in Madame Delphine at Wyndham’s Theatre in central London, and was at that time reported to be “quite in demand for coloured parts”.

Curzerpursong said he had lived in England since 1880. The actor-singer John Harris Boehm was to be described as “29, native of the Gold Coast” in 1913 when he was managing a dance troupe in Russia having played Uncle Tom at the Empire, Holloway Road, north London in January of that year.

In all these complexities the involvement of the Conservative M.P. with the early release of Curzerpursong seems the most unlikely.

Extracted from “Uncle Tom, the Chinese laundry man, and ‘Justice’ in England and Wales, 1888-1905” presented at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University, 16 September 2009.

See page 38: Uncle Tom and the Chinese laundryman.