Interesting Career of Judge John W. Rea: Famous Minstrel Comedian Spent His Retirement in Building Now Occupied as Knappik’s Hotel

By W. H. Belcher

From the Passaic County Historical Publication, Vol. II, No. 1 – September 1st, 1931


About twenty-five years ago, in the section then known as North Paterson, a country gentleman could have been seen almost any day coming up the Goffle Road and making the round of the stores and railroad station, stopping now and then to chat with a friend, discussing the weather and kindred subjects, and then wending his way back home.  He was such a person as would attract attention anywhere, for he was, what he looked, a gentleman.  Tall, dignified, with a large mustache, rosy cheeks, and hair slightly tinged with gray, he was certainly a distinguished looking person; and with it all, no more democratic man ever lived.  We are writing of one who was a leading citizen of his time, the late John W. Rea.

Looking over an old scrapbook the other day, I came upon a card with this inscription:

  1. W. Raynor
    Christy’s Minstrels, 1847

reamusicWhat a flood of recollections it brought up!  I was a boy again, and with many another waiting anxiously for the appearance of Christy’s Minstrels at Continental Hall in Paterson; for our friend was not only one of the artists of that great aggregation of minstrelsy but its manager and proprietor.  Under the stage name of Raynor, he appeared throughout all his stage life.  Jack (for so his intimates called him) was of Irish birth and came early to this country, a poor, struggling youth.  It was said of Barney Williams, the great Irish comedian, that “When he opened his mouth you could smell the shamrock.”  So it was with Jack Raynor.  When he opened his mouth, music seemed to come forth with all the melody possible in sound.  He possessed a wonderful baritone voice, a voice of such thrilling sweetness that when he sang, “Oh! Let me shed one silent tear!” one could feel it to his very toes.

Earl H. Pierce, a leading comedian, was a friend and associate of  Rea, and after a week’s hard work in New York these two would often run up to Paterson to stay over Sunday with friends and acquaintances.  It was on one of these weekend trips that Rea met the lady who became his wife, and who lived in the neighborhood of Hohokus.  In this experience, he was joined by his friend Pierce, who married Rea’s wife’s sister.  Pierce died a young man and left a widow who, until quite recently (1931), lived near Paterson.

Rea and Pierce both appeared in the early minstrel troupes showing in Castle Garden and kindred places in New York, and both were with the organization of E. P. Christy, who was really the first great manager of minstrelsy.  He married a widow named Harrington, who had a son George who took his stepfather’s surname, and as George Christy became the greatest Negro comedian that ever graced artists in minstrelsy, among then Ton Vaughn, Eph Horn, Sam Sharpley, Lew Benedict, Wayne Buckley, Billy Birch, Charley Backus, Jerry and Dan Bryant, Nelse Seymour, Charley White, George Thatcher and many others; but none of them could equal that prince of blackface artists, George Christy.  He was equally at home in skirts or male attire, and as a dancer, he left no room for comparison.  His wit was natural and bubbled forth like water from a spring, and he became so famous that his audiences would start laughing before he opened his mouth.  Once in New York, he appeared for two months each evening at two houses only fourteen doors apart.

With this comedian as his leading performer, Jack built up a superb company.  Among his other attractions were Gus Howard, Harry Talbot, and Japanese Tommy as comedians, J. H. Surridge and Josh Whitaker as singers, and he himself leading the vocalists.  In addition to his ability as a singer, he was proficient with several musical instruments.  With this company he toured the United States and Canada for several seasons, and finally took them to Europe, where they appeared in all the leading capitals, playing before Emperor Napoleon in Paris; Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, at Convent Garden in London; and before the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in Dublin.  At these places, souvenir programs on satin were printed and distributed to the audiences.  Some of these programs were framed and hung on the walls of Rea’s home later on.  Returning to this country, he again appeared with this troupe in all the leading cities.  During his stay in Europe he bought his farm at the Goffle, and here he would, in of seasons, put in some hard-earned rest before again resuming the road.

Later on, George Christy started a troupe of his own, and Jack played a season or two without his great star, but it was not the same show.  The magnet was gone.  With the loss of his chief attraction, Rea began to feel his advancing years; and having disposed of his interests he retired about 1875 to his country home.

It was his habit to hitch up his horse and drive down to Paterson on fine days.  Sometimes he would stop at John D. Hogan’s the predecessor of Al Zabriskie on River Street.  Again he would go up to Phil Doremus’s on Hamilton Street where the Franklin Trust Co. is now (1931) located; here he would meet Abe Godwin and crack a joke or two; but oftener he would go up to Hotel Street where he would meet Sheriff Townsend, and leave his horse there until ready to go home.  He was always sure to pay a call on Judge Woodruff, who no matter how busy he happened to be, would talk for an hour or so, bring up old times, and hearing the latest story, for Jack was a raconteur of no mean ability.  He would then make his way home in time for dinner.  He told me once that he always tried to be on hand at meal time, for that once (sic) of the reasons why he always enjoyed Mrs. Rea’s confidence.

Though he was a Democrat, yet, in Republican Manchester Township, they used to elect him justice of the peace; and that is where his title of Judge came from.  He was a good judge.  He would not listen to trivial complaints.  Occasionally, when he had a civil suit before him, he made both sides feel he was their friend.  Once at Bushman’s Hotel in Haledon, Judge Van Hosenborg appeared for the plaintiff in a suit before Judge Rea.  The defendant was represented by some pettifogger, and was getting rather the worst of it when Judge Rea said:  “Now, let us stop this suit for a minute and talk sense.”  Before he finished talking to them he got the two pugnacious litigants to shake hands, settle their differences, and become friends; and when Judge Hosenborg protested, Judge Rea said “Judge there is only one thing for you to do, and that is, pay for the dinners!” and the Judge did.

John W. Rea lived to the good old age of seventy-seven years.

I append here a tribute to this memory, written by the late Harry C. Stone, himself an actor of no mean ability, and published at Rea’s death in a Paterson paper.

In Memoriam

The death of our esteemed friend John W. Rea takes from us the last of the old school of minstrelsy.  No longer will his familiar and stately figure be seen among us; no more the genial and happy face.  The rich, melodious voice we have remembered in the past (the gilded past) is hushed forever.  When the angel called, he answered, “I am here!”

He was professionally known as John W. Raynor, and first saw the light of day in the city of Dublin on March 31, 1823.  Nature gave him one of her choice gifts – a phenomenal voice.

In 1844, he was a member of the celebrated Payne-Harrison Opera Company.  Mr. Rea organized the original Campbell’s Minstrels, and in company with Jerry Bryant, Barry Williams, Charles White, Billy Whitlock, and others gave a series of concerts at Castle Garden, then the fashionable resort of the Metropolis.  In 1847 he joined the E. P. Christy Minstrels, then located at 472 Broadway, New York.  In 1857 he organized the Christy Minstrels to appear in England.  The company sailed from New York on August 11 and opened September 5 at the Princess Theater, London.  Their appearance was an instantaneous success.  They went from the Princess Theater to Polygraphic Hall in the Strand, and then made a tour of the Provinces, returning to London and locating at St. James Hall in Piccadilly.

The company appeared in Paris in June 1860, at the Palace of the Tuileries, at the request of Napoleon III, and gave their performance in the presence of His Majesty, the Empress Eugenie, and Court.

While in England, Mr. Rea purchased the old homestead at North Paterson known as the Goffle.  He sold his interest in the Christy Minstrels to Pony Moore, who is still in harness as manager of Moore and Burgess, Christy Minstrels, London.

Mr. Rea returned with his family to America in the fall of 1860, and after several seasons with George Christy, retired to his home at the Goffle farm, from which house we bore him to his final resting place on Saturday last, the 14th instant.

He sleeps in a little country burial ground (God’s Acre) above Ridgewood in Bergen County.  I plucked a little blade of grass from his grave as a remembrance, thinking the earth is God’s, as the heaven is.  We are all His creatures here and yonder.  He cares for Jack if an honorable and pure life has its reward.  Nature gave him the blessed gift of humor.  Yet his wit was kind and after the feast of serious conversation, he loved the wine of wit, the dessert of a good story that blossomed into mirth.  He loved nature, music, and Shakespeare.  I have never grasped the hand of a truer, stauncher, better, or more unselfish friend than he who has gone.  He had affection for me when living, and I have a love for him when dead.  I am offering up this eulogy to his memory on the bright and beautiful Easter Sunday morning, the festival of our Saviour’s resurrection.

The starts above, cheerful whisperers, confer quietly with each of us, like friends; they give ear to our sorrows, smilingly, like wise old men, rich in tolerance and council, and by their double scale, so small to the eye, so vast to the imagination, they keep before us the double character of man’s nature and end.  Rest, old friend, in peace.
Ryle Park, Apr. 15, 1900

If we could all have such an eulogy said for us, it would be good to live and die.