On stage at the King Opera House are (from left) Loren Tolson Lamer, Valerie Tolson Hartwig, Benjamin and Austin Holt and Haven Hartwig Smith.
Descendants of the “ghost” of the King Opera House recently visited Van Buren to get a better understanding of the legend many believe haunts the historic building in downtown Van Buren.
Great-granddaughters Lorena Tolson Lamer of Salina, Kan., and Valerie Tolson Harwig of Warrensburg, Ohio, great-great-granddaughter Haven Hartwig Smith of Oklahoma City and great-great-great-grandsons Benjamin and Austin Holt, both of Windsor, Mo., were in Van Buren in late August to fill gaps in their knowledge of Charles and Lorena Tolson.
Charles Tolson, the actor and manager of the Tolson Comedy Co., was fatally shot about 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, 1903, by Dr. W. L. Parchman, a prominent resident of the city.
Many believe Tolson’s ghost is responsible for mysterious phenomena at the King Opera House, including lights coming on after being turned off, cold spots on the stage and a strong feeling of an unseen presence late at night.
The Tolson descendants were met Aug. 31 at the King Opera House by Maryl Keoth, director of the Van Buren Advertising and Promotion Commission, and Janice Ross, manager of the opera house.
“We introduced them to all the characters involved,” Ross said. “We also gave them the basics of the story as we have it from research.”
Ross said she wanted the family to know, that according to newsprint, their ancestors were popular and well-liked in the area and were not strangers as Charles and Lorena Tolson had performed in Alma, Mulberry, Van Buren and the Grand Opera House in Fort Smith.
The family also was then taken to the depot where Koeth walked them through the shooting as the newspapers reported.
“It was a moving experience, I think, for all of us,” Ross said. “The family was hearing facts about their ancestors instead of rumors and misinformation passed through the family. Meeting the family made Tolson more real. He’s like one of ours now.”
The family also felt the visit was a great experience, Ross said.
“They had lots of gaps in their knowledge of their great-grandparents filled in from the visit,” she said. “They had heard different accounts of Charles’ death and circumstances surrounding it. The truth has so much honor compared to what they had heard over the years.”
Ross said the family now has a connection to Van Buren and looks forward to future visits with more of the family. She said they also were thankful for genealogy information shared by Mary Arnold and Marjorie Armstrong.
Haven Smith said it was wonderful to finally have a real history behind what happened to Charles Tolson.
“The Tolson history has always been the missing piece in our family’s history and now we have that missing piece,” Smith said.
After the family finished the history lesson in Van Buren, they went to Oak Cemetery in Fort Smith to leave pebbles on the headstone of Charles Tolson “to show someone had visited.”