Birthdate: December 29, 1825
Death Date: December 28, 1895
Plot Location: Section 123, Lot B, 2 from east line
After living his first 12 years in London, William was fascinated with America. He moved with his family to New York to find the language was not quite the same English he learned. Everything was new in 1837, not like the centuries-old city where he was born. After a few years he set out on his own to Philadelphia where he began learning to set type in the printing business.
What fascinated him most was live theater productions and those who made a living by performing on the stage. He was 22 when he became one of those performers in Washington, D.C. Not long after that he returned home to play various parts at the Walnut Street Theatre. Known today as the oldest theater in America, its first production in 1809 had President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in attendance on opening night.
In 1852, William married a Philadelphia girl, Louisa Samson, but the wedding occurred in Massachusetts while he was performing there. They made their home in Philly where the first of three boys, William Francis Wallis, was born in 1853. Edgar arrived in 1860 and Harry in 1865.
William played at two other famous venues in Philadelphia, Arch Street Theatre and Chestnut Street Theatre, and traveled with several well-known touring companies. Unlike today, entertainment was always live, and that meant extensive travel. (That may explain why their children’s births were spaced so far apart.) William was fortunate to find steady work, even when it involved touring across the country.
Among his acquaintances was America’s most prominent Shakespearean actor, Edwin Forrest, also from Philadelphia. He also knew the Booth family of actors. Father Junius Brutus Booth even named one of his sons after Edwin Forrest. Edwin Booth owned “the Walnut” at one point before building his own theater in Manhattan.
William helped an aspiring Irish actor get his first professional job at “the Arch” in 1857. That actor, John McCullough, is also buried at Mount Moriah and has his own notable life story here.
During the Civil War, William worked on the stage with Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes Booth. He was well aware of John’s hatred of President Lincoln but one day he simply had enough. The two were standing at the corner of 6th and Arch when the conversation turned heated, as described here. William punched him in the mouth and had no regrets.
More than 30 years later this veteran of the theater earned the title of Philadelphia’s oldest actor. His strength was in playing comedies in different character roles. He often played the role of an old man, which required less makeup as time went on.
For the 1894-95 season William was on tour across the country with a New York company. He began to feel weak while they were playing in San Francisco in February. Chronic kidney disease forced him to withdraw from the stage in Kansas City, but he stayed with the company until they returned to New York on May 3rd.
A newspaper account said that the next day he was at a railroad station in Philadelphia, “so ill and with his mind so affected that he could not tell where he lived. His address was finally obtained and he was taken in a cab to his home on Juniper Street. There he has been ever since, failing steadily, but tenderly nursed by his wife and his son, Harry Stuart Wallis.”
William died just one day before his 70th birthday. Louisa lived another 13 years and was buried nearby at Fernwood Cemetery. Two of their three sons were married, and two of the three took their place beside their mother. There were no other relatives at Mount Moriah with William.
His unmarked grave is in the “Elks Rest” section, so named for Lodge #2 of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. The large pedestal in the background of this photo, left, originally had this 850-pound bronze elk statue on top of it when it was installed in 1880. No one knows when or how it disappeared.
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