Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876)

Stage Actor & Opera Singer

A descendant of Robert Cushman, an organizer of the Pilgrim emigration to America, Charlotte Cushman was born in 1816.

As a means of supporting herself following the early death of her father, Cushman studied opera and made her stage debut at the Tremont Theater in Boston on April 8, 1835. After her singing voice ‘broke,’ she turned her focus to dramatic theater.  At age 19, she appeared as Lady Macbeth, and was known throughout her career for her Shakespearean roles. In 1845 she made the journey across the Atlantic as the second American actress to grace the London stage, and experienced great success for her role as Bianca in Fazio at the Princess Theatre.

Charlotte and her sister Susan would often share the stage where Charlotte portrayed the traditionally male roles of Shakespearean theater thanks to her commanding contralto voice. Later, Cushman would go on to star as Hamlet, another gender-defying role.

An engraving of two women as Romeo and Juliet on a stage
The Cushman sisters, Charlotte and Susan, as Romeo and Juliet in 1846

Letters and primary accounts have been unearthed detailing the many romantic relationships Cushman shared with other women, many of whom were artists traveling in Cushman's creative circles. Two women who were prominent fixtures in Cushman's intimate life were Matilda Hays and Emma Stebbins. Both of whom shared a "Boston Marriage" (referring to a non-traditional domestic relationship between two women) with Cushman at different points in Cushman's career.

Two women posed for a portrait. One seated, one standing.
Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays

After spending four years abroad in various artistic communities, Cushman returned to America and was acclaimed as the leading actress of the American stage. She continued to perform after her retirement in 1852 until she moved to Rome in 1858.

She made her final return to America in 1870, staging her final farewell appearance in Boston as Lady MacBeth on May 15, 1874. She died in Boston during a residence at the Parker House Hotel after a long battle with breast cancer.

A large obelisk in a cemetery

Charlotte Cushman is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 4236 on Palm Avenue.


Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson, as published in Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Person of the Week: Charlotte Cushman, 1998.