Published: October 24, 2016
London’s famous West End was haunted for years – and still might be – by the ghost of a leading actor savagely murdered at the stage door of a theatre on this day.
Suave William Terriss was one of the biggest stars of the late Victorian era and had it all – talent, charisma, good looks and an ability to turn in fine performances playing anything from a swashbuckling hero such as Robin Hood to comedy roles and melodrama. He was equally adept at classic drama and was a noted Shakespearean actor.
On this day he arrived at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre to prepare for an evening performance of a melodrama called Secret Service when, according to a witness, “somebody rushed from across the road and struck him two blows most rapidly on the back.”
When the stunned Terriss turned around, the assailant “raised his arm a third time and plunged a large knife deep into the actor’s chest.”
Terriss cried out: “My God, I am stabbed! Arrest him!” A number of theatre staff rushed to his aid and, according to one newspaper report, “formed all too late a bodyguard.” Terriss was carried into a passage behind the stage door and propped up on pillows but he could not be saved. As he died, his lover, actress Jessie Millward, heard him whisper: "I will come back."
The killer was a deranged actor named Richard Prince who, because of his drinking and mental instability, had become unemployable. Although Terriss had helped him in the past, Prince blamed his plight on the West End star and had lain in wait to carry out revenge.
He was put on trial for murder and found guilty but insane. He was sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life.
Terriss’s promise that “I will come back” apparently came true in 1928. According to reports, a young actress was resting in her dressing room before a performance at the Adelphi Theatre when her couch began to shake. When it happened again she saw a green mist. Then something grabbed her arms and held her down. Her ordeal continued until there were two knocks on the door.
She learned later that the room had belonged to William Terriss who, through superstition, would always knock twice on the door with his cane before entering. In the 1950s Terriss was reported to have been seen emerging from a green mist at the theatre.
At nearby Covent Garden Tube Station, ticket collector Jack Hayden said in 1955 that he saw Terriss walking along the platform. “He was wearing an opera cloak and gloves, holding a cane, and had a very, very sad face and sunken cheeks,” he said.
The actor is even said to have been seen walking through a closed cafeteria door. The last reported sighting was in 1972.
Why Terriss should haunt the theatre and surrounding area is anybody’s guess. But as everyone knows, thespians just love making an appearance . . .