Frank Frayne’s Fatal Shot Echoed Through the Decades in Over-the-Rhine

In 1882, the show that was supposed to be Cincinnati theatre’s biggest moment ended in a tragic death.
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Although it appeared to be a tragic accident, Frank Frayne’s fatal shot haunted him the rest of his vaudeville career and some of his audience never forgave him.

When Frank I. Frayne’s troupe rolled into Cincinnati back in 1882, there was scant indication that he would precipitate the darkest night in Cincinnati theater history.

Frayne managed an immense production bankrolled by New York impresario Harry Miner. It was really big. Frayne’s show was so big, it was advertised as a “combination.” That was a term the biggest circuses used to describe their organizations. The “circus” meant only the acts in the sawdust ring. Add a sideshow with various freaks and a traveling zoo and you had a combination. That’s what Frank Frayne brought to Cincinnati. An advertisement [28 November 1881] gives a fair inventory of Frayne’s traveling ensemble:

“During the week and Wednesday and Saturday Matinees, Harry Miner’s Frank I. Frayne Combination and Dramatic Artists, and the Wonderful Acting Dog Jack, the African Lion Emperor; also the two Performing Bears Bruno and Chio. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Wednesday Matinee, “Mardo, or, The Nihilists of St. Petersburg.” Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Saturday Matinee, “Si Slocum.”

One year later, in November 1882, Frayne was back in Cincinnati at the Coliseum Theater on Vine Street with the same two melodramas, but this time his menagerie was enlarged by the addition of a small pack of hyenas. Jack the Dog still got star billing. The Coliseum Theater up on Vine Street was the jewel in Hubert Heuck’s chain of theaters here and in various Midwest cities. It was formerly a beer garden but Heuck converted it into a theater and opera house at no small expense.

It appears that “Mardo” was Frayne’s personal adaptation of a play by Oscar Wilde, “Vera, or The Nihilists.” Frayne’s script has not survived, but the newspaper reviews suggest that it was a ton more exciting than Wilde’s drama. Here is The Enquirer [28 November 1882]:

“There are any amount of desperate actions, dastardly threats, fire scenes, murders, &c., and the lovers of this style of drama will see almost a lifetime of sensation in each act of “Mardo.” The dog Jack is a show in himself and acts his part with the best of the cast. During the play we see the Nubian lion, the ferocious hyenas and the wrestling bear, and these, together with a very passable cast, make it impossible for “Mardo” to be at all dull.”

Kentucky native Frank Frayne was a trick-shot artist and found ways to incorporate his riflery skills into popular melodramas like “Si Slocum.” // PHOTO FROM LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Frank Frayne himself was fairly well known. He was a sharpshooter at a time when that was a popular stage act. Among his contemporaries and competitors were Annie Oakley and her mentor and husband, Frank Butler. Frayne found enormous success incorporating his rifle tricks into the context of various melodramas in which he portrayed heroic men of action forced to shoot their way out of diabolical predicaments.

Frayne’s second Cincinnati offering, “Si Slocum” was written especially for Frayne by Clifton Tayleure, a successful Broadway producer. The plot is inconsequential, but involves Frayne as Si Slocum, a poor but honest rancher whose lands are coveted by the nefarious scoundrel, Vasquez. It is doubtful that Tayleure envisioned all the zoological extravagances and sharpshooting folderol Frayne piled onto his script. In the course of five acts, Slocum kills a lion, gets rescued by his faithful hound, shoots a pipe out of a ranch-hand’s mouth, plugs a half-dozen playing cards, shoots a bear, scatters the stage with random crockery and saves his wife several times. Somehow, the hyenas made an appearance as well. This stuff sold tickets back then. The Coliseum’s 2,000 seats were occupied the entire week of Frayne’s residency.

The role of Slocum’s wife was played by 25-year-old Annie Von Behren, an up-and-coming actress who was at that time Frayne’s fiancée. Brooklyn-born Miss Von Behren had an extensive theatrical resume before she took on the role of Ruth Slocum. She was thoroughly familiar with the Coliseum Theater, having performed for a couple of years among the stock company of that venue. She later joined a traveling troupe that took her to New York, where she met the widowed Frank Frayne, joined his combination as leading lady and won his heart.

At a critical scene in “Si Slocum,” Vasquez has Slocum cornered, with a dozen bandits drawing a bead on him. Vasquez announces that he likes Slocum’s “pluck,” and offers to free Slocum and end their feud if Slocum can shoot an apple off his wife’s head, while facing backward and aiming the shot with a mirror. Frayne had performed this trick shot hundreds of times over the years.

For reasons never fully explained, Frayne’s trick shot failed, and he sent a bullet through Annie Von Behren’s brain. Frayne screamed in terror as he rushed to his fiancée’s side. The curtain dropped immediately as the audience sat in petrified silence. Theater manager James Fennessey sent H.M. Markham, the actor appearing as the villain Vasquez, to the front of the stage to calm the audience. Markham nervously informed the crowd that the dead Annie von Behren had sustained a slight injury and they should collect a refund on their way out the door.

Opened with great fanfare as the Coliseum Theater, public sentiment after the Frayne shooting led Hubert Heuck to rename his pride and joy as Heuck’s New Opera House. // DIGITIZED BY PUBLIC LIBRARY OF CINCINNATI AND HAMILTON COUNTY

The next day, Coroner John Rendigs conducted an inquest, at which Frayne appeared. Some witnesses claimed Frayne’s rifle malfunctioned and that, in particular, a screw broke as the gun fired, dropping the rifle barrel downward. Some suggested the cartridge was defective. Other witnesses questioned why Annie was not wearing a metal cap under her wig as she usually did. The coroner declared the death accidental, caused by a bullet fired without criminal intent. Frayne announced he would never return to the stage but did so within a year, reviving the role of Si Slocum. Soon after, he married a woman named Margaret Thompson, who wisely refused to go on stage in his act.

Another victim of the Frayne shooting was the Coliseum Theater itself. Robert Heuck, son of Coliseum owner Hubert Heuck, explained [Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Volume 20 No. 4, October 1962] that the theater had to be renamed as a result of public opinion.

“The court decision declaring [Frayne’s] innocence was not taken lightly by a great many people in Over-the-Rhine. The show was only closed November 30th and December 1st, however; the receipts for the 2nd and 3rd were light. The court decision was so unpopular that it was thought best to change the name of this new theatre. In fact, it was called just that, “New Theatre,” for some time. In 1883, the name of the New Theatre between 12th and 13th on Vine was changed to Heuck’s Opera House, and the former Heuck’s Opera House at 13th and Vine was re-named ‘People’s.’ Of course, it’s confusing! Many accounts relating to actors and plays of those earlier show days are in error for lack of understanding of this gobble-de-gook.”

The rechristened Heuck’s was renamed again in 1930 when it became a movie theater known as the Rialto. The building was demolished and the site is today a parking lot.

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