The Atlantic sea breeze was cool. Young John Howard Payne was at his family’s homestead in East Hampton, N.Y., near the eastern end of Long Island. John was born the sixth of nine children at 33 Pearl St., New York, in 1791, but called East Hampton home the first few years of life after his father, William, became an instructor of elocution at the coeducational Clinton Academy, founded by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton in 1785.
These early days of Payne’s life are passed down in two 19th-century biographies, Gabriel Harrison’s “John Howard Payne: Dramatist, Poet, Actor and Author of Home, Sweet Home!” and Charles H. Brainard’s “John Howard Payne: A Biographical Sketch of the Author of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’” and one from the 20th century, “The Early Life of John Howard Payne,” by Willis T. Hanson.
Payne departed East Hampton for Boston with his family in 1796. It was here that the formative days of Payne’s life carried out. Harrison and Brainard both note Payne’s formation at age 12 or 13 of a boys military company. Payne led the boys as they paraded around Boston Common, on one occasion marching with the Boston Militia by invitation of a Major General Elliott. Payne and his friends were cheered for their rigid discipline, and the soon-to-be actor first tasted his future fame.
Brainard attributes John Howard Payne’s interest in the stage to his father’s elocution instruction, writing, “... under his careful training his gifted son soon developed a decided taste for the drama, and such a precocious power in reading and recitation as created in him a strong desire to become an actor.” Payne suffered nervousness that inhibited study, but elocution and acting stuck. He took the lead at school performances, and his ambition, fueled by reports of a teen star from England called Master Betty, was to become as renowned in America.
Sometime in 1804, Payne’s older brother William Osborne Payne, a well-regarded and successful partner in a merchant firm, died. In hopes it would redirect John’s youthful energies away from stagecraft and thespianism, he was sent to New York to apprentice with the firm. Despite this attempt to stifle his interests in the dramatic, however, 13-year-old Payne found an outlet as an anonymous theater critic, writing with such force in his self-published paper “The Thespian Mirror” that his work was republished by Editor William Coleman in the professional newspaper the New York Evening Post.
Coleman, upon discovering Payne was only 13, introduced him to a wealthy benefactor who saw to it that Payne was enrolled at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., in 1806. Payne became the toast of the Big Apple intelligentsia, his champions including early American novelist and historian Charles Brockden Brown. This run of good fortune, however, would soon be interrupted.
In 1807, after Payne was at Union and publishing a popular student newspaper, “The Pastime,” tragedy struck. Payne’s mother, Sarah Issacs Payne, died suddenly and his father quickly thereafter suffered a grave financial misstep that forced John Howard to leave college and begin his career early to help support the family.
Payne returned to Boston and took work as an assistant editor of a musical and literary journal as he simultaneously undertook stage training. Two years later, in 1809, Payne debuted at the Old Park Theatre, New York, in the role of Young Norval in the tragedy “Douglas.” He was an instant smash, soon performing in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond and Charleston in addition to New York.
By 1813, Payne would be headed to England, from whence his illustrious, 20-year European career would launch, albeit under inauspicious circumstances. Payne and his fellow passengers landed at Liverpool at the height of the War of 1812 and were subsequently arrested as prisoners of war and confined for two weeks. Following this ordeal, however, Payne and the others were released and allowed to make the journey from Liverpool to London.
As providence would have it, Payne met some of his friends from New York. Payne thereafter presented a letter of introduction to the abolitionist and historian William Roscoe, who in turn introduced him to the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary Wallstonecraft Shelley, the novelist who wrote “Frankenstein.” Payne debuted soon after at the Drury Lane Theatre, his talents again lauded. Engagements in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Dublin, Ireland, followed.
He returned to London to abide a few weeks before traveling on to Paris, where the city was alive with excitement at the return of Napoleon from exile on Elba. Payne stayed beyond Napoleon’s Hundred Days, during which time he would be introduced to such luminaries as Lord Byron and the famous French actor François-Joseph Talma. Looking for accommodations in the City of Lights, he eventually came to live with “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” author Washington Irving. Payne would enjoy continued success in Europe, both as an actor and a writer of his own material, including the song for which he is most remembered today, “Home, Sweet Home.”
Payne would not return to the United States until nearly 20 years had passed. He departed London for New York in 1832, finding himself broke after riding the crests and troughs of stardom. He got back onto his feet through the kindnesses of those who remembered him from years before. New York’s Park Theatre, where he debuted 23 years before, and the Tremont Theatre in Boston put on renditions of his work for his benefit. One of his three still-living siblings who resided in New York, Thatcher Taylor Payne, allowed John to stay with his family.
In 1835, Payne visited New Orleans to drum up business for his literary periodical and was the beneficiary of a performance of his material at the Camp Street Theater. According to George Magruder Battey’s “A History of Rome and Floyd County,” on Payne’s return northward he passed through Muscogee territory in Alabama before reaching Macon. Payne was gathering material to be published and decided to head towards the Cherokee territory. Here his journey would take a drastic turn.