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DAKOTA IMAGES | Jack Langrishe

DAKOTA IMAGES | Jack Langrishe

Jack Langrishe was an Irish American theater impresario who toured the mining towns of the American West, earning the nickname “the Comedian of the Frontier.”

Born John Sewell Folds Jr. in Dublin, Ireland, on 29 September 1825, he immigrated to the United States in 1845. By 1850, he had adopted the stage name Jack Langrishe, founded the acting troupe “Langrishe and Company,” married fellow actress Jeanette Allen, and began touring the United States. Langrishe and Company performed far and wide with stops in Chicago, San Francisco, and even Mexico. Recognizing the lucrative potential of the mining booms, in 1860 the couple arrived in Colorado and spent the next decade performing in Denver, Leadville, and other mining towns before moving to Montana in 1870.

A classically trained actor, Langrishe specialized in respectable, high-class entertainment and built theaters without attached dance halls or saloons that would distract from the performances. Although the Langrishes were beloved and successful wherever they went, the high costs of stage production resulted in a series of bankruptcies. In 1876, Langrishe and Company fled to Deadwood, South Dakota, to evade creditors in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and put on their first play in the town, The Banker’s Daughter, on 22 July of that year. Langrishe went on to stage hundreds of shows—including Hamlet and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—in Deadwood. He rented out the Bella Union Theater for his productions and leased the building for the first murder trial of Jack McCall, Wild Bill Hickok’s killer. Langrishe was also an active participant in Deadwood civic life.

In 1878, Langrishe built his own theater in Deadwood and two in nearby towns. His Deadwood theater, however, was among the three hundred buildings destroyed in the fire of 1879. This disaster marked the third great inferno of Langrishe’s life: a fire in his father’s print shop forced his family to leave Ireland, and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed all his troupe’s equipment. Langrishe left Deadwood to tour again, hoping to raise money to rebuild, but never returned. In 1885, he retired from the stage and settled in Idaho, where he served in the new state’s legislature. Langrishe died on 12 December 1895 and was buried in Kellogg, Idaho.

Image: Courtesy of the Western History Department, Denver Public Library