History

The Eerie Similarities Between Depp v. Heard and the Biggest Celebrity Trial of the 1850s

Actors with terrible marriages get everyone talking.

Torn photos of Edwin Forrest and Catherine Sinclair with a gold wedding ring between them
Edwin Forrest and Catherine Norton Sinclair. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Devashish Rawat/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Matthew Brady via the Library of Congress, and Meade Brothers via the Harvard Theatre Collection.

In the midst of a tumultuous spring marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, inflationary woes, and a stock market downturn, the actor Johnny Depp’s defamation case against his former wife, actress Amber Heard, has been the media sensation of the season. The lurid details—intoxication, violence, a severed finger, even feces in the marital bed—have captured the nation’s attention.

Although many of these details had been revealed during the couple’s 2016 divorce filing and in a 2020 U.K. libel case (which Depp lost), the defamation case has been on TV daily and covered exhaustively in the news. It is, most distinctively, a social media phenomenon, where posts, memes, tweets, and YouTube and TikTok videos about Depp-Heard have racked up literally billions of comments, likes, and shares. As has been repeatedly observed, the intense public fascination with the case seems to be less about the revelation of its details than an opportunity to negotiate contemporary conflicts in gender and cultural politics that have coalesced around the Me Too movement and so-called cancel culture. And then, of course, there’s the celebrity of it all.

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And yet in some ways the Depp-Heard case is not so distinctive. We can find uncanny parallels in it to a sensational legal case about a failed marriage involving actors that unfolded 172 years ago. Like the Depp-Heard case, the 1850 Forrest divorce case was a media sensation that focused on a volatile marriage between a brooding star prone to bouts of violent jealousy and a wife chafing against the confines of traditional marital expectations. The Forrest divorce also became a flashpoint for a societal reconsideration of gender politics. Revisiting the Forrest divorce can offer us insight into how our negotiation of gender dynamics has changed since the 19th century, but also, perhaps, suggest what we can expect to unfold in the aftermath of the Depp-Heard defamation trial, due to conclude on Friday.

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In an era when theater was the dominant form of popular culture, Edwin Forrest was the most famous American actor of his generation, and an icon of 19th century American masculinity. Like a modern-day action hero, Forrest was known for his formidable size and physical strength. His performance style emphasized this physicality, as he favored dramatic death scenes and had a voice that shook the rafters. Forrest was drawn to heroic underdog roles such as Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt against Rome, signaling his affiliation with President Andrew Jackson’s populist wing of the Democratic Party. Although he was generally acclaimed by the broad public as the most talented American actor of the mid-19th century, his core fans were Democratic working-class men. These supporters famously came to his defense when Forrest developed a feud with the famous English actor William Charles Macready, shouting down Macready’s attempt to perform at the Astor Place Opera House in 1849. When they were shut out of the theater on a subsequent night, Forrest’s fans protested outside, and the state militia was called in. The conflict escalated, and the militia opened fire, killing over 20 people. The Astor Place Riot has been hailed as a significant moment in the formalization of boundaries between “high” and “low” culture in the U.S.

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Forrest married English-born Catherine Sinclair in 1837, and the couple lived in New York City, where the more educated and refined Catherine joined the “uptown” elite, socializing with the city’s literati, while Forrest continued with his “downtown” coterie. The marriage became strained in the late 1840s by the loss of four children in childbirth, Edwin’s constant touring, and Catherine’s hosting of mixed company (groups of women and men) in Edwin’s absence. Edwin began to doubt Catherine’s fidelity, and found a letter in her possession written by a fellow actor, William Jamieson, that he felt confirmed his suspicions. This highly stylized love letter, addressing its recipient as “Consuelo,” was written in the style of the novel Consuelo by George Sand, the French writer, feminist, socialist, and freethinker. Forrest took the letter as proof of Catherine’s infidelity; she claimed, instead, that she had challenged Jamieson to write in the style of Sand, and the letter was the result. From Forrest’s perspective, Catherine’s behavior was that of an unfaithful wife; from hers, it was that of a woman involved in the passionate reformist movements sweeping literate circles in the mid-19th century.

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Violent fights ensued, and, unable to reconcile, the Forrests separated in 1849 and agreed to divorce. They hoped to divorce quickly and quietly, planning to take advantage of laws in Pennsylvania that allowed divorce to be granted under seal, by legislative action rather than in public court. When that avenue failed, public interest in the Forrest conflict began to grow and reports of reasons for their split began to circulate in local, in-person gossip, and then in newspapers and magazines.

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The Forrests’ conflict played out against the backdrop of a newspaper revolution in the mid-19th century U.S. In 1830, there were 900 newspapers in the nation, but by 1850, that number had leapt to over 2,500, with an annual circulation of half a billion. By 1850, there were over 250 daily newspapers, many in New York City and other Northeastern cities. Mid-19th century newspapers reflected a host of specialized interests, most notably political parties and religious denominations, but also different socioeconomic and cultural concerns. The daily newspaper helped create and feed a demand for constant updates, new gossip, and coverage of events like trials, in which new information was generated each day. It is unlikely that the Forrest divorce would have been as significant a cultural event without this proliferation of print news media; the Forrests’ personal connections to editors, writers, political parties, and cultural institutions helped keep the flow of information going. News of the Forrest divorce was also spread through print lithographs that illustrated or caricatured some of the participants in the case, and in books that were published after the trial itself, containing reportage on the case, transcripts of testimony, and documents submitted to the court. The Forrest divorce both was a product of and helped to foster the U.S. newspaper industry.

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Cover of a pamphlet containing the Consuelo and Forney letters from the trial
“The Report of the Forrest Divorce Case.” New York: De Witt, 1851. Public domain

The Forrests used newspapers as proxies to present their sides of the conflict. Nathaniel Parker Willis, the famous writer, editor of the weekly newspaper the Home Journal, and man about town, had taken Catherine into his home when she first separated from Forrest. As the gossip mounted, Willis published a card (a practice in which one bought out space in the newspaper to respond publicly to newsworthy issues) in the New York Herald, a daily newspaper politically affiliated with Forrest’s favored Democratic Party, in which he accused Forrest of not meeting “the American standard of what is gentlemanlike, and the American estimate of the treatment due a lady.” Willis’ criticism highlighted the supposed lack of taste and refinement that distinguished Forrest, despite his wealth, from his more cultured wife. Willis warned that if the public accepted the false rumors that Forrest was circulating about Catherine’s behavior, no lady in New York would be “safe from destruction by the easy conspiracy of vile men.”

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In response, the Herald published documents from the failed Pennsylvania case (almost certainly supplied by Forrest), including what came to be known as the “Consuelo” letter. The Herald blamed Catherine’s behavior and the end of the marriage on her connections to the sophisticated literary culture embodied by figures like Willis: “Alas! Alas! We pity Mr. Forrest—we pity as fervently Mrs. Forrest. They have both been made dupes of these new doctrines in philosophy, manners, morals, and classic socialism of the latest pattern.” Goaded by these pronouncements, and gossip about Catherine’s liberated behavior while living with the Willises, Forrest attacked Willis in Washington Square Park in March of 1850, shouting, “This man is the seducer of my wife!” and repeatedly striking him with a whip. A satirical lithograph captured images of Willis “before” and “after” Forrest’s attack, mocking the destruction of Willis’ careful attire.

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Side by side illustrations of Willis strutting before the attack and Willis waving with clothes in tatters after the attack
Willis, before and after Forrest whipped him in Washington Square Park. From “A Scene From the Laughable Comedy of the Divorce Suit,” P.E. Abel, bookseller, Philadelphia, circa 1851. Public domain
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At this point, the parallels between the stories of the Forrest and Depp-Heard marriages should be clear. Although Johnny Depp is no Forrest—his status in the profession is not nearly so singular as Forrest’s was—connections can be made between their successful acting careers and the wealth, power, and prestige they accrued. And though there were no florid love letters found in their case, Amber Heard has testified to Depp’s jealousy and violent outbursts as the cause of their divorce. Like the Forrests, Heard and Depp initially sought to divorce quietly, but as public attention grew, the parties and their proxies leaked information to the media in efforts to sway public opinion.

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Heading into the Forrest divorce trial, Americans were asked, as historian Thomas N. Baker has argued, whether the law would “sustain the authority of manly honor against the blandishing seductions of foreign fashion intent on dishonoring a husband’s home? Or, would it stand against rampaging manhood bent on tyrannizing refined womanhood?” In short, the divorce asked nothing less than what form American gender relations and cultural values would take.

The Forrest divorce trial began in New York City, in December 1850, and would last six weeks. The daily newspapers capitalized on each new twist in the case, exhaustively covering all the proceedings. In addition to the scandalous content already revealed, the trial brought new charges of immoral behavior against Catherine that included smoking cigars and wearing men’s clothes (just like George Sand), public drunkenness, and, according to former servants of the Forrest and Willis homes, even extramarital sex with Willis and others. The servants’ privileged perspective on the private life of elites was given much credence, until it was revealed under questioning that Forrest’s lawyers had paid them for their testimony, and many of the particulars of their assertions were proved false or simply ambiguous. Meanwhile, Catherine’s lawyers uncovered Edwin’s possible infidelity with a female co-star and his habit of consorting with sex workers: One female “rooming-house” owner was forced to acknowledge that Forrest had often used her establishment for morally questionable hourslong visits. This would be the most consequential testimony of the trial. During the jury’s three-hour deliberation at the trial’s conclusion, their only disagreement, framed as a question to the judge, was whether frequent visits to brothels constituted proof of adultery. The judge encouraged them to look to their own conscience. The answer was damning for Edwin, as the jury found in favor of Catherine, awarding her $3,000 in annual alimony.

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If the jury decision seems to have been straightforward, however, the cultural consequences of the trial were anything but. For Edwin, visits with sex workers may have lost him the case, but were not particularly scandalous. However, whether because of the negative publicity from the divorce or a cultural shift, his version of pugnacious manhood became less appealing to the broad audience of American theatergoers, and his audience shrank to his core support: the urban working class. When her ex-husband contested his alimony payments, Catherine Sinclair (she took back her maiden name after the divorce) announced that she was forced to go on the stage to support herself. Although Catherine was found innocent of adultery, the revelations of her freethinking behavior that unfolded during the divorce case, and her subsequent decision to turn to the stage, marked her as outside conventional female respectability, and she struggled financially for the rest of her life. Both parties were tainted by the trial, and mid-19th century society seemed uncomfortable embracing either Edwin’s Jacksonian aggressive manhood or Catherine’s more progressive feminism.

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Like Edwin Forrest, Johnny Depp is litigating his public reputation, and hoping to cast himself as the wounded party. In doing so, Depp must negate the findings of his failed 2020 libel suit against the London Sun, in which a U.K. judge found the charges of abuse against him to be “substantially true.” If Forrest sought media proxies in the populist Democratic newspapers, Depp has turned to our moment’s emergent medium, social media, where his “stans” (a reasonable equivalent of Forrest’s avid working-class theater audience) have flooded Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok with supportive content. As of Thursday, the TikTok hashtag “JusticeforAmberHeard” had 54 million views, while “JusticeforJohnnyDepp” had 16.5 billion.

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But if these numbers suggest disproportionate public approval of Depp, there is reason to doubt that this accurately reflects the values of the public at large. Although social media allows for more egalitarian access to media expression than print culture at the time of the Forrest divorce, it privileges hyper-invested individuals and groups, and some research suggests that anti-feminist and men’s rights groups have embraced this case as an opportunity to assert their values and skew public perceptions of the landscape of gender politics. Meanwhile, Depp’s former agent testified in this trial that, even before the public strife between Depp and Heard began, movie executives were unlikely to hire Depp because of his “unprofessional behavior.” Like Forrest, Depp is unlikely to escape the associations with violence and erratic actions that multiple sensational legal cases have only further brought to public attention.

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Similarly, Amber Heard, like Catherine Sinclair, is fighting against conflicted attitudes toward femininity. Heard acknowledges her participation in violence in the marriage, refusing to see herself as simply a victim of Depp. But Depp’s lawyers have turned this admission on her, depicting Depp as the victim of Heard’s violence and abuse, or presenting the couple’s behavior as “mutual abuse,” suggesting that both parties share equal blame for the problematic relationship. Domestic abuse advocates have cautioned against use of this term, because claiming “mutual abuse” denies the power bestowed upon men in our culture. Advocates have cautioned that we need to use nuance in the distinction between self-defense on the part of the abused and “mutual abuse,” but on social media such subtleties have largely been glossed over and Depp’s stans assign equal or all blame for the violence in the marriage upon Heard. In effect, Heard is being punished for not adopting a more traditional and passive feminine role as victim of abuse. Similarly, when Heard speaks about Depp’s controlling behavior and the ways that he limited her acting career during the marriage, social media has largely mocked her, belittling her professional success compared with Depp’s. But since the end of her marriage to Depp, her career has faltered, which she attributes to having publicized her experience of abuse at Depp’s hands. Like Catherine Sinclair, Heard finds herself in an impossible position: neither helpless victim nor empowered fighter against sexism. In a tragic irony, Heard’s movie career is also in limbo, as the industry tries to figure out what it, and the public, thinks about her.

With the impending end of the defamation trial, the millions of people who have followed it on TV, in print, and on social media await the verdict. In all likelihood, neither Johnny Depp nor Amber Heard will find much satisfaction, whatever the result. Like the Forrests’, their personal lives and professional careers have been upended by their implication in the sensational story of the moment. Although there are great differences between the newspaper revolution of the mid-19th century and the social media boom of today, both the Forrest and the Depp-Heard cases indicate that, however empowered a celebrity might feel, media ultimately serves itself.

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