Title: Actor, comedian
Birthdate: November 6, 1850
Death Date: January 14, 1892
Plot Location: Section 203, Lot 64, southeast quarter

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The Sloan family lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where both of George’s parents were born, and the fathers of both parents were in the Revolutionary War. Five of their 11 children died in childhood before the Civil War ended, followed by their move to Philadelphia.

Before he was 20, George was on his own, playing bit parts on the “variety stage” (as opposed to “serious” theater like operas or melodramas). George’s lineage wasn’t German and he didn’t speak that language but he built an excellent reputation as a German dialect actor. He combined that with a comedy routine and starrted using the name George S. Knight. From a local venue in the city, he went on tour with a song-and-dance troupe that played in Cleveland in 1871, then to the Theatre Comique in Washington, D.C. He received rave reviews across the country, like this one when he returned to Washington in 1873.

By 1875 he made his dramatic debut in a play written just for him where he played four different characters. That same year he married Sophia Worrell, age 28 (shown here at top), the oldest of the three very popular Worrell Sisters. They had risen to fame as teenagers with song-and-dance performances in the mid-1860s, and that brought them to Broadway from 1867-1872. They were so successful they bought their own theater while producing, directing, and acting in parodies of plays and musicals. It was a comedic art form that would become known as burlesque.

The newlywed couple made their home in Brooklyn at first, in the same house as Sophie’s parents, sisters, and their husbands. A baby girl was born in 1877 but she died six months later. Sophie then joined her husband on the road, and they bought a home in Orange, New Jersey. 

Her stage name was Mrs. George S. Knight in a number of productions, including “Otto” at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It briefly featured Sophie’s sister, Irene, but it was written especially for George to display his unique talents as a mimic. They made a small fortune as they took it across the country over a six-year period.

They starred in a musical comedy, “Over the Garden Wall” for a number of years in American and English theaters. For relief from 40 weeks of touring every year, they bought a beach house in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. They made “a barrel of money” from that play, according to one newspaper account; it totaled over $75,000 in four years, according to another. Unfortunately all that cash was swallowed up by another production that consumed George, both financially and physically.

He spent $5000 to have a play written for him, entitled “Baron Rudolph von Hollenstein” in which he and his wife co-starred for a period of time before having it revised, probably around 1886. He spent a couple of years and his entire fortune to make it into a grand production, even spending thousands of dollars to have a portrait made of himself as the title character. This poster was likely based on that painting.

The play was an artistic success but a financial failure and he couldn’t understand why. Apparently his image as a comedian was so strong the audience couldn’t appreciate his genius in a dramatic role. 

For a time the Knights performed “Over the Garden Wall” to packed houses the first half of the week, followed by “Rudolph” to empty seats during the latter half. This ad ran in a Massachusetts paper in late 1887, and one of the last performances was in his hometown at the Walnut Street Theatre in March of 1888.

Brooding over defeat and failure brought on paresis, a condition typified by muscle weakness and sometimes impaired movement. He remained at home the rest of the year, although Sophie told the press in January of 1889 they went to a local performance of a play called “Partners.” Had he not become ill, he was supposed to perform in that production in Australia. 

Perhaps that only made him more despondent. On the recommendation of doctors, George was sent to the Burn Brae Hospital for ‘mental and nervous diseases’ outside Philly (in Clifton Heights, not far from Mount Moriah). He later left under the custody of his mother, and Sophie returned to the stage to support them.

Before he lost the ability to speak, George asked his devoted wife to never accept charity on his behalf and she never did. It was reported that she even sold her diamonds to pay his expenses. What confined George to bed was partly immobility and partly losing the will to live. 

The end finally came in 1892 when he was just 41 years old. Some obituaries perceptively noted his death was essentially the result of a broken heart. Other giants in the entertainment business suffered in the same way when their star began to lose its luster. Paresis resulted from the unbalanced mental state of actor John McCullough, who was buried at Mount Moriah in 1885. The emotional highs resulting from success can come crashing down when an inflated or fragile ego is bruised, confirming the notion that “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

If George had died while at the height of his stellar career it would have been headline news across the country, but under the circumstances the accounts were brief and muted. Reflecting his modest and unassuming personality, his funeral was private and his burial was simple. The grave is marked with a beveled ledger stone that now includes the names of three of his sisters: Mary, Jessie, and Margaret and his mother, Rebecca. 

In late 1896, Sophie married Hugh O’Donnell, a newspaper editor and briefly resumed performing on the variety stage, which by then was well-known as vaudeville. She died in New Orleans in 1917 and was buried in the Worrell family plot in Brooklyn.

Japanese maple tree in front of a monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

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