Finding something previously lost in Albany history really isn’t that rare when you think about it. With 400 years of European history stomping around these streets, there are bound to be little nuggets that fall through the cracks of those old granite setts. When one of those little morsels is a piece of one of Albany’s most popular and ironic tales, then you know you’re sailing in strange waters. The story I’m referring to is, of course, the tale of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth walking our familiar Albany downtown on the very same day.
As the story goes, Lincoln arrived in Albany on the afternoon of February 18, 1861, while John Wilkes Booth was preparing to return to the Gayety Theatre on Green Street. Six nights earlier, he accidentally injured himself with a prop dagger that was in his coat’s inner right pocket. It’s odd to think that while Booth was bleeding profusely on a small Albany stage, Abraham Lincoln was celebrating his 52nd birthday in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Gayety Theatre first opened two years earlier, in the spring of 1859. When we say the place was small, we’re not kidding. A packed house held 600 people and that was probably breaking every fire code in the book.
There’s always been one little caveat when it came to the Gayety. Where exactly was it located? Well, it’s complicated and we didn’t really know for sure – until now.
Why would finding the address of an old Green Street theatre be that hard? For starters, there was another theatre on Green Street named the old Green Street Theatre that ran for a number of years in the early 19th century before converting to a Baptist Church and again some years later in the mid-1850s. After the Green Street Theatre closed in the 1860s, it was later reopened and renamed the Gaiety Theatre at 61 Green Street. Yeah, same name, different spelling. Over a number of years, this has led to a bunch of misconceptions as to where the actual Gayety Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth performed, is located. To make matters worse, another stage called the New Gayety Theatre opened in the early-mid 20th century on that same street (and in a different location than the Gayety and Gaiety Theatres at 74 Green St). That’s a lot of Gai(y)ety for one narrow little street.
Through the process of elimination and the power of the 21st century internet, the location of the Gayety Theatre has been found. How did we get there? In the 1880 book “Players of a Century: A Record of the Albany Stage,” it states the Gayety Theatre sat on “the east side of Green Street, two or three doors south of Beaver.” Excellent start. The hunt was immediately chopped down to one side of one block: Green Street’s even numbered buildings between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue.
Now that the exact block is known, it’s time to dig up the Albany City Atlas of 1876. This atlas goes in depth on where each numbered lot sits. Between Beaver Street and Hudson Avenue are the addresses that range from 26 – 44 Green St.
Next up – combing through the 1866 Albany City Directory and searching each individual address. No hits came up for 26, 28 or 30 Green St. A little firework goes off for 32. It states it’s a carpeting and upholstering business. Interesting. Prior to opening as a theatre, the building was, in fact, a carpet store. Let’s dog-ear it and keep looking. 34 Green Street is next on the list and a search turns up it was the home of the American Theatre, which also served as a saloon. Could it be? The name was gone but the service is there. A man named Samuel Fitzpatrick was the proprietor. No further searches were found stating an American Theatre ever existed on Green Street. The trail went cold for the building, but Samuel Fitzpatrick opened a whole other method of hunting. According to an 1862 edition of the “Albany Morning Express,” Fitzpatrick was a proprietor of the Gayety Music Hall (home of the “late Gayety Theatre.”)
Fitzpatrick is now tied to the former Gayety Theatre (we have no address) and an American Theatre (we do have an address). More searches would show Samuel Fitzpatrick was tied to the Gayety Music Hall all the way through 1864, when one article from the “New York Clipper” stated the Gayety Music Hall was being “thoroughly renovated, painted and upholstered,” and hoped to reopen in August of that year.
It must have reopened at some point, at least for a little while, because according to the 1865 Albany City Directory, Sam Fitzpatrick worked for the Gayety Theatre on 34 Green Street. There you have it, the long lost spot of the Gayety is 34 Green Street (currently slated to become a portion of the Tower on the Hudson.)
Its exact location has no fanfare and is merely a parking lot and parking garage. This chunk of blacktop and brick is the site where our American history could have been completely altered. This is the site where John Wilkes Booth’s blade could have gone an inch deeper into his right armpit, causing him to completely bleed out and die on that little Albany stage on Lincoln’s birthday. Instead, it’s nothing more than a tragic side note in local theatre lore. Had that happened, Abraham Lincoln would have never been assassinated, he could have completed his second term and ridden off into the sunset. James Garfield would have become the first U.S. president to be murdered and labeled the country’s martyr. You can go on and on with all of the “what ifs.” We’ll never know because that blade landed where it did. But what we do know now is where it all happened. 34 Green Street, the site of one of America’s largest “what ifs.”