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A lost piece of Theater History


One of the most satisfying aspects of working in a digital library is the opportunity to expose people to a life or a story they may not have realized existed. A week ago I was presented with an archival box full of pieces of a puzzle. The pieces belonged to a man named Howard Merrill Shelley and the puzzle I am working on is how to put together the events that make up the life of this man. I have begun scanning in images and other assorted items from the box, and his story is slowly coming to light, possibly for the first time in fifty years.

Howard Shelley (1879-1956) was known primarily as a Philadelphia theater and opera personality. However, before I go into that, I would like to delve into his ancestors, an interesting topic of its own. Howard Merrill’s lineage plays like a who’s who of American history. Howard’s mother, Sophia Rittenhouse Shelley, is directly descended from the famous scientist and astronomer, David Rittenhouse. Howard’s grandmother, Amanda McClellan is related by marriage to none other than Benjamin Franklin and is directly related to the Civil War general, George B. McClellan.



George himself was the grandson of General Samuel McClellan of the Revolutionary War. Samuel married Rachel Abbe, a direct descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth, Massachusetts.



Howard also had a famous second cousin named Kate Shelley. While not a household name today, in her own time she was a famous poet and folk hero. As a young girl she risked her own life to save hundreds of lives by averting a potential train accident.

Not surprisingly, Howard Shelley thought his own family history quite interesting and wrote a successful play about it in 1914 called The Family Tree. At the time in Philadelphia, as well as other major cities, there was a craze to document and brag about one’s own family history in order to secure social prestige and Howard took advantage of this subject to write his satirical comedy. Prior to The Family Tree Howard co-wrote a popular musical called The Beauty Doctor in 1904. An article in the Geneva Daily Times described this production as a piece “based on the beauty culture craze, which is handled in a broadly humorous way and is said to afford ample opportunity for hearty fun”.

After writing two successful satires for the stage, Howard went on to become a theatrical press agent. He wrote an early form of gossip column about society under the name Barclay Beekman for the New York Daily Mirror and was also employed by stars of the stage, including Lillian Russell, an actress and singer, and Luisa Tetrazzini, an Italian opera soprano.


Digitizing the Howard Shelley Collection has been like working on a miniature time capsule of Philadelphia genealogy and theater history. I have only completed about a third of the collection and am eager to discover how the other pieces of the puzzle come together. What I find remarkable is that despite having two hit shows and an active life in theater and opera, Howard Shelley and his productions have managed to escape history’s grasp. It causes one to realize that the majority of popular culture today may not survive a hundred years, for better or worse. For my part, I am glad to have the opportunity to once again put Howard Shelley in the spotlight.

Posted for Karla Irwin, Fall 2011 Digital Library Intern.



  1. Comment by lhutelmy — September 29, 2011 @ 12:18 PM

    This is a very interesting post! Can you tell me what year(s) Howard wrote his gossip column?

  2. Comment by Misty — June 6, 2013 @ 4:55 PM

    I am writing the biography of Kate Shelley, and I can find no evidence that Howard Shelley was related in any way. Her ancestors were from County Offaly/County Tipperary, Ireland, and his do back in Pennsylvania several generations; Kate Shelley’s relatives emigrated to Brooklyn, Freeport (Illinois) and Iowa. I am interested in to know if there is any evidence in HM Shelley’s files that would suggest otherwise. Otherwise, it seems convenient that he might have embellished his ancestry or merely assumed a relationship.

  3. Comment by Pem Rocap — June 17, 2014 @ 2:33 PM

    On the long shot that you may still be working on the Shelley papers, I write to fill in an important detail of his life and request for any info you might have in my own writing of the biography of my grandfather, William H Rocap. At midnight, 22 August, 1914, the Pen and Pencil Club of Philadelphia gave a reception for Howard right before his departure for New York. My grandfather was among the many theater, press
    and sports figures who attended and paid tribute to him. What information have you found that links Shelley to the sports world?
    Hoping to hear from you, Pem

  4. Comment by Diane M Young — January 25, 2020 @ 1:32 PM

    I recently obtained a photo album produced in 1860’s from New Adams, Mass.
    Inside are family photo’s of what appears to belong to George Brinton McClellan 1826-1885.
    family members.
    If your interested in additional information, I too would like to find out more about these photographs.

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Last Modified: September 27, 2011

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