Just up the street from the burial place of Alexander Hamilton, you’ll find St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest standing church in New York City. George Washington prayed here the day of his inauguration, and the church served as a port in the storm during the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Despite the enormous devastation that day, St. Paul’s emerged without so much as a broken window.
But St. Paul’s Churchyard is also home to the ghost of one George Frederick Cooke, an English actor who got in over his head living the high life in New York in 1810—so much so that he allegedly, well, lost it.
After a successful career in London as a stage actor, marred only by his alcoholism, Cooke was persuaded to take an American tour in 1810. He made his American debut as Shakespeare’s Richard III to glowing reviews in the New York press. He then made his way around the Northeast, undertaking performances in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Providence. But the outbreak of the War of 1812 stranded Cooke in New York, and on September 26, 1812, he died, from complications of cirrhosis.
Cooke’s life had been turbulent and he was deeply in debt. His celebrity made his corpse somewhat of a morbid curiosity. Legend says that Cooke’s toe or finger was stolen by a fellow actor, who sent it back to his wife in London. The wife, understandably disgusted, threw the extremity away.
Apparently, when Cooke’s body was moved from the “Stranger’s Vault” to a public grave at St. Paul’s, his head was said to be missing. A likely scenario is that Cooke may have donated his head to science as a means of paying off his creditors. Cooke was reburied under a new memorial financed by his protégé Edmund Keane in 1821. By then, his skull had reportedly been making the rounds as the Yorick skull prop in New York productions of Hamlet. Whether it was formally donated or stolen is unclear. Finally, in 1938, the skull was donated to the Thomas Jefferson Medical School Library in Philadelphia.
For centuries, theater lore has told the story of real human skulls being used to portray the skull of Yorick in productions of Hamlet, mostly those of famous actors or musicians who bequeathed their severed heads and skulls to remain in the life of the theater long after their death. Most recently, the pianist André Tchaikowsky donated his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company upon his death in 1982, citing that it was his wish that it be used as the Yorick prop. For many years, no actor felt comfortable using the skull, until 2008, when David Tennant used it in a series of Hamlet performances at Stratford-Upon-Avon. The stunt received much publicity. Though the production claimed they removed it to avoid distracting the audience, Tchaikowsky’s skull went on to perform in Hamlet productions in London’s West End, and in a televised performance on the BBC.
Since around the time of the monument’s installment in 1821, visitors have reported the ghastly sight of a headless man roaming the churchyard, looking for something—presumably his head. Alas, poor George Frederick Cooke, the ruined actor whose private demons and love for the drink led to his demise. Perhaps he could rest if he knew his missing skull had gone on acting, long after his death—to hopefully good reviews.