Correcting the Record Regarding a Stabbing at Boyd's

11:04 AM

If you go to the Wikipedia page about Boyd’s Opera House, you’ll discover that there was supposed to have been stage manager named Arthur Sprague who stabbed a song and dance man named Jim Mulligan after Mulligan insulted his wife. Mulligan is then supposed to have quietly bled to death in the wings, unnoticed.

Now, anybody who has ever been a stage manager in the world of Omaha theater understands the urge to stab an actor, but, alas, this story is misreported. In 1963, the World-Herald ran a story called "When Omaha Had Its Golden Age of Theater," and this is the only local reference to the feud between Sprague and Mulligan. The reporter doesn't credit its source, and his source is wrong.

There was, in fact, a Sprague and Mulligan, and a stabbing, but it didn’t happen here. And the true story quite a bit more amusing than the World-Herald’s version, so, in the service of correcting the record, as well as sharing a diverting tale of a bloodshed, I’ll tell an abbreviated version.

The story took place at the Tivoli theater in Denver in April of 1882, reported in the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and there is one additional character: Mrs. Sprague, better known as Madame Desiree. According to the newspaper, Sprague and Desiree made "a serious assault upon (Mulligan) ... stabbing him in a frightful manner.” Mulligan’s first name was John, not Jim, as long as we’re setting the record straight.

There was, it seems, a longstanding quarrel between Sprague and Mulligan based on “alleged familiarity” with Madame Desiree. When Desiree appeared at Mulligan’s theater, he had the temerity to call her a “bladder,” which was then slang for an incompetent actress. This enraged the Spragues to such an extent that they attacked Mulligan backstage. Arthur Sprague drew a dirk that was in a “place of concealment in his wife’s bosom” and stabbed Mulligan a few times in his chest. Desiree claims to have tried to discourage her husband, receiving a wound on her wrist for her trouble, but once Mulligan was down she helped her husband beat his soundly with a cider bottle. Mulligan eventually escaped, hiding in the audience.

Sprague claimed Mulligan simply injured himself with a razor he used to make stage properties, and, besides, Mulligan had insulted Madame Desiree many time. Mulligan, who had survived the experience, showed up to court with a doctor, revealed ghastly scars on his chest, and had the doctor testify that only a dirk could have caused such injuries.

It’s a terrific story, but not an Omaha story. How did it end up connected with Boyd’s Opera House? Who can say? The only other John Mulligan I could find in the World-Herald was a 66 year old man who was reported to have died in New Hampshire in 1937, the victim of an especially vivid dream in which he was butted by goats, which caused him to fling himself out a window while still asleep. Again, not an Omaha story, and not the same John Mulligan. Or, at least, one hopes it wasn’t the same man, as who survives being stabbed by a bladder only to be butted to death by dream goats?

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.