A famous actress from the 1880s

Katie Putnam is an example of someone who was once very famous but now almost completely forgotten. Mary Catherine “Katie” Putnam, born in Chicago, was a revered comedienne, playwright and actress who lived from 1854 to 1924.

Katie was the daughter of a musician, Samuel Porter Putnam, and an actress, Mary McWilliams.  She seems to have taken to the stage at quite an early age and toured first the midwest, and then the world (I have records of her performing in Sydney, Australia and also evidence that she visited London, England).

Young Putnam

1872 Katie Putnam arrival in London

putnam and press

Amazingly, since I started researching Katie just a few months ago, someone else has written a book containing a few pages devoted to her. At the time I was surprised that while scouring contemporary newspapers, I wasn’t able to find any in-depth features on her in spite of how obviously well known and loved she was. Perhaps this has to do with journalistic trends of the time, with LIFE magazine style features not being feasible in the 1880s.

The author describes Katie as “A Ray of Sunshine” to frontier audiences, and certainly almost every review and mention in contemporary newspapers is glowing in its praise.

1891 glowing putnam article

It’s a shame her active years came just before the era of film. Although she did continue to act intermittently later in her life, I don’t believe she was ever committed to celluloid. That would have been interesting!

Katie Obituary picture

Katie Putnam caricature

Katie was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group founded in 1890 for patriotic American women to trace their roots back to America’s founding settlers.  Her connection here was via her father, S.P. Putnam.

This article claims that Katie Putnam was catholic, but as I’ll explain, she was of protestant stock on her mother’s side at least.

1886 irish article says Putnam is a catholic

Katie’s mother, Mary McWilliams, was born in Bethnal Green, London in 1829 to mother Catherine Knight and father John McWilliams.  While I’ve long known McWilliams to be a family name, I discovered my connection to this family by chance. It turns out that Katie Putnam was my 2nd cousin 3 times removed.

Progress on my Irish side had been so glacial that I thought I’d take a new tack. A few months ago I thought about any names in my tree that could potentially be unique or close to unique to my family.  If I could find some of these, then it might provide a refreshing antidote to the forlorn searches I’d been making for McBrides, Marshalls, Johnstons and Hills.

One day I had the idea of trying to identify all the ‘Rebecca Rea XXXXX’ people in the familysearch.org database.  My mother’s grandmother was Rebecca Rea Marshall (b. 1866), and I knew of half a dozen or so other ‘Rebecca Rea’ daughters in the family.  Using the familysearch.org interface, I was able to search for people with exactly these first names, leaving the last name field blank.

One record immediately jumped out at me: a Rebecca Rea McWilliams was born in Bethnal Green, London (not far from where I am now!) on 23rd February 1831.  This seemed likely to be relevant to me, but what were my people doing in London?

Rebecca Rea Bethnal birth

My 3G Grandmother Rebecca Rea McWilliams (b. 1800 in Glencull, Tyrone) was the daughter of John McWilliams and Mary Wilson. Mary had inherited money from her brother (more on him another time), and her will was processed by the prerogative court of Canterbury, and I was therefore able to get a copy of this invaluable source.

Returning to the will (from 1845), I realized that the John McWilliams in Bethnal Green was likely to have been the person referred to in the will as ‘My late son John McWilliams deceased of London’ and that the Rebecca Rea McWilliams I’d found was therefore the niece of my 3G grandmother Rebecca Rea McWilliams.

1845 John McWilliams in will

Now with the relative luxury of well-preserved English records to consult, I was able to put together the story of this new Rebecca Rea’s family:

John married Catherine Knight at St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch (which I frequently walk past!) on 13th January 1816.  John was a weaver in the Globe town area of Bethnal Green/Whitechapel, but interestingly later became a police officer.  Catherine bore him no fewer than 10 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

Sadly John died at the age of 45 in 1837 (since civil registrations had just started, I will be able to order his death certificate) and was buried at Globe Fields Burial Ground (Wesleyan) on 1st Jan 1838 (a tiny patch of this is still there, but with no legible graves)

His children were as follows:

  • John McWilliams (b. 1816; d. 1818)
  • James McWilliams (b. 1818; d. 1893)
  • Mary McWilliams (b. 1819; d. 1822)
  • Sarah McWilliams (b. 1821; d. 1822)
  • Catherine McWilliams (b. 1822; d. 1866)
  • John McWilliams (b. 1825; d. c. 1870s)
  • Jane Wilson McWilliams (b. 1827; d. 1912)
  • Mary McWilliams (b. 1829; d. 1907)
  • Rebecca Rea McWilliams (b. 1831; d. ????)
  • George Isaac McWilliams (b. 1836; d. 1879)

A few things to note here. The middle names ‘Isaac’ and ‘Wilson’ further cement the connection to my McWilliams family in Tyrone – John’s uncle was Sir Isaac Wilson, a renowned doctor and friend of the royal family.  And ironically, in spite of many hours of research, Rebecca Rea McWilliams is the only one of the siblings that I was unable to track! It’s possible that she married a John Shepherd in Washington, OH on July 25th 1847, but I have not so far been able to prove or disprove this.

Putting together the lives of Catherine (John’s widow) and the other siblings was a lot more fun than I expected.

In 1841, Catherine and family are still in the east end (Stepney).  Her profession is given as ‘Chandler’, and conveniently we also learn that James is a Cabinet Maker, Catherine is a Silk Weaver and John is a blacksmith. The only puzzle here is that Jane is missing (there’s another 65-year old Jane McWilliams here, but definitely doesn’t look like a mistake so this may be another sibling of John). Also Rebecca is missing, but seems to turn up as a servant in another house just south of the river.

The next clue is in 1842 when James McWilliams and his sister Catherine leave for America, arriving in Philadelphia on April 18th, 1842.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 23.14.59

The rest of the family travelled to New York, arriving on 16th October 1845, the only mystery at this point was brother John (b. 1825), who is not on the list.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 23.21.29

This was the first time I’d actually been able to use a shipping manifest to discover an instance of emigration. So I had a family arriving on the east coast in the early 1840s.  The obvious source of information was then the census. This proved harder than it should have done for a few reasons:

  • Early US censuses sometimes omitted the first name (e.g. ‘Mrs McWilliams’), or were sufficiently illegible that accurate transciption has not been possible, making it hard to find people in searches.
  • Many of the female McWilliams children married quite early on and acquired different names
  • The youngest son, George, liked to have fun. One of his census returns says he was born in France; another Illinois. He also seems to have gone by George W. McWilliams (Wilson?) rather than George Isaac McWilliams.

But overall, as someone researching family history, the USA is an amazing place! Although there’s no central index for civil registrations of births, marriages and deaths, in instances where they are recorded, there’s often a superb amount of detail, including the full names of both the mother and father of the deceased person. This was the first record I found that started to tie things together:

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 23.32.36

This not only helped me to find census records (Mary lived with her mother in 1850), but also definitively confirmed for the first time that the marriage between John McWilliams and Catherine Knight was the correct one.

Another helpful source is city directories, which tended to give the names of the deceased husbands of widows, as well as listing street addresses.

1864 mcwilliams in chicago

Making sure I had the correct people was difficult but ultimately possible, thanks to census records and the phenomenon of ‘local gossip’ in newspapers. It also helped that they all had a famous niece in Katie Putnam.

James McWilliams (b. 1818; d. 1893) worked as a printer and news dealer in Chicago and Oak Park, IL, and definitely liked to let people know what he was doing!

1888 Mary Mcwilliams putname visiting James.1889 James McWilliams is visited by Genevra Ross and Will S Felton


Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 00.19.08

Catherine the daughter married Enos Flanders and had several children, but sadly died quite early in 1866 at the age of 44.

I hadn’t been sure whether or not John (b. 1825) had ever made it to the USA until I saw this article showing he lived in Kansas. I was then able to find some census records tying this Jack McWilliams with Mary’s brother John.

1877 Jack McWilliams Katie Putnam mention - burlington, ks

Jane McWilliams married Timothy Stubbs (they were living with the Putnams and her mother in 1870), was widowed quite early and lived in Lincoln, Michigan.

Katie’s mother Mary was also an actress, as well as a promoter and theatre manager. Early on, she was in a troupe that also included her younger brother George.  It doesn’t seem that she remained with S. P. Putnam for long; he appears alongside her on the census only once, in 1850 one year after their  marriage.

We have quite a detailed biography of George McWilliams, who it turns out ran for congress as a Democrat.  His wife Sue Ingersoll Scott (she was married before and widowed) was a composer whose songs were sung by her niece Katie Putnam. Amazingly some of these songs are available – here’s Pass Under the Rod [PDF file of the sheet music].

George McWilliams Lafayette Sunday Leader September 7, 1879 - could be him
1879 Indianapolis News, 30 August 1879 George Mcwilliams

Terre Haute Daily Gazette, Volume 2, Number 122,Terre Haute, Vigo County, 21 October 1871

The only ongoing mystery in the family is then Rebecca Rea, where I started. I hope she made it to New York and made a life for herself.

To recap on the family connection:

  • My grandmother’s mother was Rebecca Rea Marshall (b. 1866 in Mullaghmore, Dyan, County Tyrone, Ireland)
  • Rebecca’s mother was Mary Jane Johnston (b. circa 1834 in Mulintor, Dyan, Caledon, County Tyrone)
  • Mary Jane’s mother was Rebecca Rea McWilliams (b. circa 1800 in Glencull near Aughnacloy, County Tyrone)
  • Rebecca Rea’s brother John (b. circa 1792 in Glencull, County Tyrone) married Catherine Knight in London. After John died, his surviving family emigrated and made their way in the USA.
  • Mary then married S.P.Putnam and had Katie Putnam
  • Katie was married twice (latterly to Harry B. Emery) but had no children.


3 thoughts on “A famous actress from the 1880s”

  1. Interested in your article. Would like to put together a better family tree. I know that Sir Isaac Wilson is a descendent on his male siblings line so interested to get any information.

  2. The home of Katie Putnam is for sale MLS # 19006648. I saw it and thought I would share with you since you have done so much research. I love antiques and learning about the way of life in the 17 and 1800’s.
    The address of her old home is 1297 Colfax Ave
    Benton Harbor, MI 49022

    Feel free to contact me if you need help finding the listing.

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