Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle
September 09 , 2008
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
Monroe County has been a destination for famous people for years. From presidents to actors, many have come to enjoy the relaxing environment offered in the Pocono Mountains. One such notable actor of the 19th century that came to Monroe County, specifically to Paradise Valley, was Joseph Jefferson.
Jefferson was born in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1829. He was the fourth generation of actors to perform on stage and got his start at age 4 by singing “Jump Jim Crow.” By 1858, Jefferson had received his first acclaimed title role as Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin, a comedic play about the introduction of an uncomfortable and ill-mannered American to his aristocratic British relatives.
In 1850, Jefferson married Margaret Lockyer. Jefferson’s father-in-law, Thomas Lockyer, purchased the Paradise Inn and an adjoining house around 1859, and the Jefferson family spent many summers in what is now known as the “Jefferson Cottage.”
In 1889, Joseph Jefferson wrote his autobiography. In his work, Jefferson recounts his re-discovery of Washington Irving’s 1819 tale “Rip Van Winkle.”
The story of Rip Van Winkle takes place in New York’s Catskill Mountains before the American Revolution. Rip is a lazy farmer who is constantly nagged by his wife. One autumn day, Rip wanders away from his responsibilities on the farm into the forest where he encounters ghosts from Henry Hudson’s crew and drinks their liquor. He falls asleep under a tree and wakes up 20 years later to find is children grown and his wife dead. Not knowing about the recent war between the colonies and the British crown, Rip gets into trouble after pledging his allegiance to King George III. Rip returns to his life of idle work and becomes the envy of other hen-pecked husbands in the village.
In his autobiography, Jefferson writes that “during the summer of 1859 I arranged to board with my family at a queer old Dutch farm-house in Paradise Valley, at the foot of Pocono Mountain, in Pennsylvania.” One rainy afternoon, Jefferson climbed to the loft of the barn located behind the house. There he read Irving’s memoirs, titled The Life and Letters of Washington Irving. In his book, Irving wrote that he had seen Jefferson perform the role as “Goldfinch” in The Road to Ruin. Jefferson was so proud that Irving had seen him act. Jefferson wrote, “ …and to find myself remembered and written of by such a man gave me a thrill of pleasure I can never forget.”
Inspired by Irving’s complement, Jefferson immediately re-read the tale of Rip Van Winkle and started to develop the Rip character for a stage performance. According to Jefferson, the story was great, but not dramatic enough for the stage. Also, Rip spoke fewer than ten words in the story.
The Rip Van Winkle character was the role Jefferson had been seeking for years. He spent the entire season secluded in the barn in Paradise Valley creating a play based on the old tale. Jefferson had confused the Pennsylvania Dutch with the Holland Dutch and traveled around the area talking to local Monroe County farmers to copy their accents.
By the end of summer, Jefferson was ready to “transplant it [the play] from the rustic realms of an old farm-house to a cosmopolitan audience in the city of Washington.”
Jefferson knew he was taking a chance by reworking the original story, but he knew Americans would love it – it’s an American story by an American author performed by an American actor. Jefferson was right; the audiences thoroughly enjoyed the performance. One reviewer for the Chicago Times wrote, “Mr. Jefferson’s impersonation of the character of Rip Van Winkle is one of the most natural and perfect that has ever been witnessed on the stage in Chicago.”
Jefferson went on to portray Rip Van Winkle on stage for the next 40 years.
Joseph Jefferson died April 23, 1905 in Palm Beach Florida and is buried in Bay View Cemetery, Sandwich, Massachusetts. According to the newspaper, Sandwich Independent, Jefferson was always an admirer of rugged scenery. The surviving members of the Jefferson family wanted to mark the grave with a fitting memorial - a large rock. Upon hearing this request of the Jefferson family, a Mr. W.G. Beale of Boston, Massachusetts sold a 10 ton boulder to the family for one cent. A bronze plaque was placed on the moss-covered boulder, which measured 12 feet high and 15 feet wide, to mark the actor’s final resting place. The rock is there today, indicating the burial of this 19th century actor who was inspired in a small barn in Paradise Valley, Monroe County.
Above: 1896 footage of Joseph Jefferson playing Rip Van Winkle, at age 67. Short scenes were necessitated by the very crude motion picture photography of the day. There was no sound, and no title cards. The performers worked in pantomime.