Jesus Arrested! San Francisco, April 17, 1879

Historical Essay

by Greg Williamson

Perfarts$james-o neil-as-jesus.jpg

James O'Neil as Jesus

The notorious Obergammerau-style play, "The Passion," suffered a setback this evening with the arrest of James O'Neil. Officer Bradford of the San Francisco Police Department, after watching a performance in the Grand Opera Theater on Mission Street, charged Mr. O'Neil with impersonating Jesus Christ, a violation of city ordinances, and escorted him to the waiting police wagon.

The play, written by Salmi Morse, left the audience, in the words of veteran actor David Bellamy, "hushed and reverent." The play nevertheless violated a recently enacted law protecting the Christian religion.

The arrest caps weeks of intense speculation about the performance, which was delayed by legal wrangling and cast scheduling conflicts.

--Greg Williamson

The play was never allowed to be performed in New York City (apparently the right of free speech applied to books and papers but not to the stage), but years after the author's suicide in New York City, the play was filmed on a series of rooftop sets in New York and was one of the earliest movies ever circulated. It was widely acclaimed by preachers as an excellent depiction of the final days of Jesus.

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