DeGive’s Opera House, Atlanta, May 5, 1891: Alone on a stage a thin man in false whiskers and a robe is trying to speak. Beyond the gaslights a mob howls. Fruit, vegetables and link sausages thud and spatter around him. He raises his voice against the roar; a bouquet of roses sails through the air and lands in front of him. He stoops and the audience shrieks as the flowers dance away, yanked by a string from the gallery. He stumbles downstage after the bouquet. He has forgotten his speech. The stage manager lowers the curtain. It falls between Scott Thornton and the roses. Footstools and cabbages crash silently against the thick velvet folds which roll slowly under the blows, shimmering in the footlights like the luminous nocturnal swells of some equatorial sea as the roses lurch unpursued along the proscenium.
Procorus Scott Thornton was born in Atlanta Nov. 19, 1859, fifth of the six children of Simeon Willis and Mary R. Thornton. He was named after the doctor who delivered him, but in adulthood abandoned the gaudier forepart for simple “Scott.” His parents were pioneer Atlantans who had come to the young city from Pike County in 1853. Simeon Thornton was bailiff of the Fulton Superior Court and, when the war came, a volunteer in Cobb’s Legion, then a captain in the Georgia State Reserve Infantry.
After the war, the family moved to Mary Thornton’s old home in Alabama and farmed, returning after a few years to Atlanta, where Simeon got a job as a conductor on the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad. May 26, 1870, he was crossing the railyard when he was cut in two by a switching engine.
Simeon Thornton’s death left his family in a precarious position. Marcellus, 22, the oldest son, had just begun an unsuccessful career as a lawyer; Samuel Cincinnatus, 19, was working for the Western and Atlantic. They continued to live with the family at 123 W. Peters St., supporting their mother as well as Elizabeth, 17, Jerome Bonaparte, 16, and Scott, 11, who were in school, and the baby Mary, only a few months old.
Marcellus abandoned his law practice and became a reporter under Henry Grady at the Atlanta Herald. Brilliant, handsome, witty and eccentric, he was soon one of the best-known men in the city. Grady impishly promoted Marcellus’ unwritten novel and advertised his never-delivered lecture, “The Attractableness of Gravity.” After the Herald folded, Marcellus covered Atlanta news for an Augusta newspaper and was nearly elected a Fulton County delegate to the state’s 1877 constitutional convention over former governor Joseph E. Brown.
In 1879 Marcellus began a correspondence with James Garfield, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Garfield had scant white support in the South and upon election, he rewarded Marcellus with a clerkship in the Pension Department in Washington. There Marcellus met, wooed and wed Mrs. Elizabeth Rutherford of North Carolina, a wealthy widow 13 years his senior. In 1881 they returned to Atlanta where Marcellus bought the Daily Post-Appeal, which for three years amazed the city with editorial policies and journalistic standards as brilliant and inconsistent as its publisher.
Scott Thornton idolized his oldest brother and was from an early age fascinated with Marcellus’ reckless bohemianism. School fascinated him considerably less. He preferred to apply his considerable intellect and prodigious memory to reading and studying on his own. He never graduated from high school, but took a job as a store clerk for several years until Marcellus’ triumphal return from D.C., at which time he went to work as a bill collector for the Post-Appeal. Scott was doubtless the collector who was chased out of the law offices of General Lucius Gartrell after Marcellus had abandoned his backing of Gartrell’s candidacy for governor, then billed the general standard ad rates for the editorials he had run in his support.
The Post-Appeal lost so much money that Marcellus was forced to sell out in 1883 (disputes arising from the sale would result in the murder 16 years later of the son of Reconstruction governor Benjamin Conley). Scott found work with another of his brothers, Jerome. Jerome was an expert candy cook who taught Scott the trade on which he would fall back in times of need for the rest of his life.
Scott Thornton was odd. He lived with his mom. He had no love for any of the jobs he was forced to take up in order to live. But he had one passion, and overriding fascination with the theater, and one unshakable conviction: that his name was destined to be inscribed alongside those of Macready, Power, Forrest and Booth as one of the great tragedians of the age.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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