“Miss Cushman is a very dangerous young man”: The Meteoric Rise and Posthumous Erasure of a 19th Century Celebrity

June 24, 2024

This is a guest blog post by Bianca Scialabba, MA in History and Museum Studies at Tufts University. Bianca is a 2024 Buchanan Burnham Fellow.

A Note on Terminology: This blog post describes the life of someone who, had she lived today, might have considered herself a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Because Charlotte Cushman lived in a time period in which this terminology to describe sexuality and gender identity did not yet exist, the author of this blog post has chosen to use period-appropriate language to describe her and her relationships, including language that she herself used. This blog post also briefly mentions words that have been used as homophobic slurs in historical context. 

Photographic print of The Corners, Charlotte Cushman’s home on Catherine Street in Newport, RI where she lived with Emma Stebbins. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1872. It was demolished in 1938. P5601, collection of the Newport Historical Society.

By the time Charlotte Cushman retired to her newly built home in Newport in 1872 with her partner, Emma Stebbins, she was one of the most—if not the most—beloved Anglophone actresses of her age.1 With her forceful stage presence, powerful voice, and not inconsiderable height for the time period (a whole five feet six inches tall!), she dominated the stage on both sides of the Atlantic throughout her multi-decade career.2 Cushman never married and used this aspect of her life to portray herself in the media as a chaste “true woman” who sacrificed her domestic life out of dedication to supporting her family and her art after the untimely death of her father (who had actually abandoned his family years before).3 This was a tactic meant to deflect concerns about the reputation of the theater for “immoral” sexual behavior. In reality, Cushman, who was known to surround herself with a circle of female friends and admirers, had a number of romantic relationships with other women throughout her life. The wealth and fame that Cushman earned from her popularity on the stage allowed her a degree of freedom not available to most women of her time. She was known to sometimes don “masculine attire”4 in public and lived as the head of a household of “emancipated women”, which included several of the female romantic partners that she had throughout her life and a group of unmarried women artists and writers, whose careers she promoted and financially supported.5 

In some of her most popular roles, she was known for embodying strong-willed women who drove the plots of the plays that they were in, such as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering. However, her big breakout role, and the one that she was most famous for throughout her life, was that of Romeo in Romeo & Juliet. During the mid-19th century, it was not uncommon for women to take on “breeches” roles. Male characters outnumbered female characters by a 2 to 1 ratio, and the female roles that were available were often limited in scope and portrayed a narrow range of morality and beauty. Additionally, it was a common belief that women did not feel sexual desire, and therefore that a female performer’s displays of love for other women on the stage did not carry the risk of impropriety.6 

Illustration by Margaret Gillies of Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, published by John Tallis & Company, circa 1864. Charlotte Cushman debuted her Romeo alongside her younger sister, claiming that she only played Romeo in order to support her sibling’s fledgling career. She may have said this to protect her public image as a moral reformer in the theater industry. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cushman was not the first woman to portray Romeo, but she was certainly by far the most popular, especially with women who were enamored with her passionate and gallant performance. Emma Crow, who would later become romantically involved with Cushman herself, wrote that Cushman’s Romeo was “the incarnation of the ideal lover”.7 Martha Le Baron wrote to Cushman that she “could not help being very absurdly jealous of pretty Juliet when you drew her head against your bosom & kissed her”.8 A female audience member remarked that “Oh, Miss Cushman is a very dangerous young man”.9 This adoration was not restricted to just audiences, either, as critics gave Cushman rave reviews. The London Times wrote that “it is enough to say that the Romeo of Miss Cushman is far superior to any Romeo that has been seen for years”.10 Even those who generally disapproved of actresses taking on male roles were willing to make an exception for Cushman; the New York Dispatch claimed that “we specially dislike seeing a female take a male part in the serious drama. But let us confess that our reason for disliking this, does not apply to Miss Cushman, as she by no means deals in that precise and prim squeamishness which too many critics dignify with the name of delicacy”.11 

When Cushman died in 1876 at the age of 59 from breast cancer-related pneumonia, her funeral was widely reported on in newspapers across the United States, and the funeral service itself was overflowing with hundreds of attendees.12 She was widely eulogized for weeks after her death, and tributes to her life were circulated in the national press, including several sermons that presented her moral example as one to emulate—highly unusual in a time period in which the church was one of the greatest critics of the “demoniac” theater.13 However, Cushman’s posthumous legacy later began to tarnish in the early 20th century as the discipline of sexology began to pathologize people who sexologists saw as deviating from sexual and gender norms, using terms such as “lesbian,” “uraniad,” and “invert” to claim that people like Cushman were psychologically twisted in some way.  

Photographic print of Charlotte Cushman, year unknown. Cushman was one of the most popular performers of her age and toured regularly across the United States and United Kingdom. P5651, collection of the Newport Historical Society.

During her lifetime, Cushman’s closeness with other women was only occasionally questioned because of a general disbelief in the existence of women’s sexuality (at least for white, upper-class women) and because of Cushman’s own efforts to destroy evidence of the true nature of her relationships, including burning much of her own correspondence to protect her reputation.14 Additionally, the cultural emphasis on the separate spheres of men and women created room for what are known as “Boston marriages,” in which two upper-class women lived together as life partners in what could be a convenient cover for a romantic relationship. Emma Stebbins, Cushman’s partner during her final years, also took pains to downplay Cushman’s love of other women by selectively editing her biography of Cushman’s life, Charlotte Cushman: Her Memories and Letters of Her Life, to remove references to any potentially “suspect” relationships or people.15 Some of Cushman’s later twentieth century biographers did the same in an attempt at shielding their subject from being interpreted through the lens of Freudian theory that would portray her as “aberrant”. Others pathologized her or insulted her for her “masculinity” or “celibate life and total lack of sex appeal”.16 Charlotte Cushman’s life, like those of many who defied societal norms, was heavily obscured by a thick layer of homophobia and misogyny aimed at stigmatizing and denying the historical existence of queer individuals.  

Despite many attempts at burying and mocking Cushman over the years, her story lives on. As the discipline of queer studies became more prominent in universities in the 1990s, historians began to reevaluate the approaches that their predecessors had taken to studying historical figures who didn’t fit mainstream gender and sexual norms, identifying those who had been unfairly maligned or erased from public knowledge due to bigotry. Dr. Lisa Merrill, whose research is the basis of much of this blog post, revisited the archives that held many of Cushman’s personal papers, including her surviving correspondence and diary, and published her findings in 1999’s When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. As Merrill found, a large portion of the information about Cushman’s relationships that wasn’t destroyed by Cushman herself or by well-meaning lovers and friends only survives because Emma Crow, one of Cushman’s lovers, refused to burn her letters when asked to.17 Much of the truth of Cushman’s life has been rescued from obscurity because of this choice. While she may no longer be a household name, Charlotte Cushman’s legacy has been restored by historians (and fans) who continue to celebrate her groundbreaking theatrical performances and personal life. 


[1] Newport Historical Society. 49 Catherine Street House History, 2020.

[2] Emma Stebbins, Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life (Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1878), 23.

[3] Stebbins, 19.

[4] The Illustrated American News. “Miss Cushman in Male Attire.” August 9, 1851.

[5] Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators (University of Michigan Press, 1999), 177.

[6] Gillian M. Rodger, “Female Hamlets and Romeos: Cross-Dressing Actresses in Nineteenth-Century Theater,” in Just One of the Boys, Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage (University of Illinois Press, 2018), 17-19.

[7] Emma Crow Cushman, “Charlotte Cushman: A Memory” (unpublished memoir, 1918) quoted in Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman (University of Michigan Press, 1999), 122.

[8] Letter from Martha Le Baron to Charlotte Cushman, n.d., quoted in Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman (University of Michigan Press, 1999), 129.

[9] J.M.W [Jessie Meriton White], “First Impressions of Miss Cushman’s ‘Romeo,’” People’s Journal, Vol 2, July 18, 1846, 118.

[10] Times (London), January 3, 1846, quoted in Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman (University of Michigan Press, 1999), 115.

[11] New York Dispatch, November 10, 1860, 5.

[12] Boston Daily Globe, “CHARLOTTE CUSHMAN. – FUNERAL OF THE GREAT ACTRESS YESTERDAY,” February 22, 1876, 5.

[13] New Orleans Republican, “Horace Bushnell and Charlotte Cushman”, March 5, 1876, 8.

[14] Merrill, 212.

[15] Merrill, 250-251.

[16] Robert Speaight, Shakespeare on the Stage (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1973), 79.

[17] Merrill, 212.