John Wilkes Booth: The Arrows of Fate, part I

Byron King begins a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

“There is no armor against the arrows of fate.” ~ Old Chinese Proverb

A SON WAS BORN in a log house on May 10, 1838, near Bel Air, Maryland, about 25 miles south of the state line with Pennsylvania. His family name was quite well known in that era, and was identified closely with the world of American theater. Of all the stage actors of that time in the United States, there was no one with a name brighter, or reputation more prominent than that of the father of the clan, one Junius Brutus Booth, Sr.

John Wilkes Booth: “The Grandest Historian of Modern Times”

Junius Brutus was named after the legendary Roman statesman Marcus Junius Brutus who was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. He had come to the United States from England in 1821, a Roman Catholic seeking more tolerance than he found in a society dominated by an ardent, hard-edged Anglicanism. Mr. Booth, Sr. rapidly established his name upon the American stage. He traveled extensively and performed his roles across the country, as far to the west as California in the days of its eponymous Gold Rush. Booth, Sr. was also known widely as an essayist and commentator upon life in the relatively young nation. No less a name than Walt Whitman described Junius Brutus as “the grandest historian of modern times.”

In 1852 Junius Brutus performed in New Orleans, where his work was highly praised in the local newspapers. But in those rough and dangerous days, and in what was then still a frontier region of the nation, Booth, Sr. contracted what we would call today a “tropical disease.” He died on a Mississippi River steamboat while returning home to Maryland.

John Wilkes Booth: John Wilkes, Stage Prodigy

Junius Brutus, Sr. left his legacy to be carried by his three sons, named Edwin, Junius Brutus, Jr., and the young boy born in 1838, a certain John Wilkes Booth who was, we now know, destined for his own measure of fame. This latter son was named after the famous British revolutionary and Parliamentarian champion of personal freedom John Wilkes, whom the Booth family claimed as a distant relative.

In August 1855, when he was only 17 years old, John Wilkes Booth made his stage debut as the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s dramas that is both historical and tragic. The play begins with Richard eulogizing his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Duke of York, speaking these words, that of Booth would be prophetic: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Not long afterwards, in that same year of 1855, Booth appeared on stage at the Charles Street Theater in Baltimore, whose site is located not far from the present-day offices of your editors, and their employer Agora Financial.

Two years passed before Booth made another appearance on stage, but it was the beginning of a long run of performances on a regular basis. Booth began his theater appearances in 1857, as a minor member of the cast and stage crew in Weatley’s Arch Street Theater, located in Philadelphia. This locale was the center for theater in the U.S. at the time. According to one biographer, Booth studied intently in Philadelphia. But the consensus of historians is that Booth’s lack of confidence, perhaps due to being in the long shadow of the fame of his late father, did not at first help his theatrical career. For this reason, apparently, Booth went out of his way to let people know that he wanted comparisons between himself and his late father to cease.

William S. Fredericks, the director of acting and stage manager at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theater, said that Booth did not show promise as a great actor. Booth frequently missed cues and forgot his lines. This negative opinion of Fredericks was also held by other actors in the Philadelphia company. The prevailing view was that Booth, who was all of 19 years old, had no future on the stage. How wrong these critics would be, in more ways than just one.

It was a common practice of theater companies in that time to retain actors who would complement a star figure. The star would tour from city to city. The actors on retainer would remain in one town, supporting the traveling stars. Booth was one such individual on retainer in Richmond, literally laboring in the shadows, upstage if not behind the scenery and curtains. Eventually, however, Booth worked his way from the back of the stage to the limelight. He landed a few breaks, and came to play more serious roles. In his own way, Booth was becoming one of the stars of the contemporary stage.

Booth began to travel. He moved between different stock companies, working in different cities, typically for one and two week engagements. Often these stock companies would perform a different play each night, which required Booth to stay up after the previous show ended, studying until dawn for his new role of tomorrow. Then, bleary-eyed, Booth would rise and make his way to the theater for rehearsal.

John Wilkes Booth: Fame, Fortune and Southern Sympathies

People who followed Booth’s progress remarked that he had become more confident as an actor. Booth, in turn, demonstrated quite a flair, and was becoming popular with his audiences. His name became well known, and his presence in a production tended to be good for ticket sales. In September of 1858, Booth moved to Richmond, Virginia for a season of stock at the old Marshall Theater.

It was in Richmond where Booth truly became enamored with the Southern people and way of life. He was invited to socialize, and attended many important functions in Richmond. He was rubbing elbows with the political, business and intellectual elite of Southern society. The company that Booth kept most certainly contributed to crystallizing his previously raw political views. In a nation that was embarked on a voyage to civil war, Booth began to side with the Southern political view.

As no less a social philosopher than Agora Financial’s Bill Bonner has noted, “what you see depends upon where you stand.” Here was a relatively young John Wilkes Booth, named after a British Parliamentarian who made a reputation in opposition to monarchical tyranny, adopting a political philosophy that was based upon preserving a social scheme founded upon and rooted in the peculiar institution of slavery. Yet Booth, like the vast majority of Southerners, did not own slaves.

To its adherents, it was accepted wisdom that slavery and the slave economy was necessary for the large-scale cultivation of cotton. Hence slavery was directly tied to the foundation of the Southern economy. And it was fairly well understood, even in those ante-bellum days, that cultivating cotton tended to ruin the fertility of the soil in about a decade. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the widespread availability and commercial use of liquid petroleum was about to negate both of these fundamental agricultural and economic assumptions. At least, it would negate these assumptions for a century or two.

But people only knew what they knew. They knew not of the future. People believed, and the accepted wisdom of the future of Southern culture was, that the cultivation of cotton, and its associated use of slaves to do so, could not persist another generation without the South expanding its territory. Part and parcel of the Southern political view was the expectation of expansion through settlement to the west, if not expansion to the south, and the creation of what would be a vast slave empire in Latin America. This was part of the social and intellectual milieu in which Booth was immersed.

The career of John Wilkes Booth was gaining momentum. A large number of people who came in contact with Booth remarked upon the magnetism and power of his eyes. Sir Charles Wyndham, a fine comedian who witnessed the acting exploits of both John Wilkes Booth and his brother Edwin, wrote that the former Booth’s eyes “were striking features, but when his emotions were aroused they were like living jewels. Flames shot from them.”

John Wilkes Booth stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with jet-black hair and ivory skin. He was lean and athletic. One commentator called him “the handsomest man in America.” He was “gifted,” some said. And there was also an easy charm about him that attracted women. Many women.

John Wilkes Booth: Witness to a Hanging, and a Nation on the Brink of War

Having arrived at an early pinnacle of success, Booth briefly left the Richmond Theater Company for a reason that in hindsight is self-evident. On November 20, 1859, with no prior warning to family or friends, Booth enlisted in a local militia regiment known as the “Richmond Grays.” His sole intent was to witness the hanging, on December 2nd of that year, of the fiery abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia.

In the mid-1850s, John Brown had terrorized Southern settlers in the Kansas region. Brown and his band of anti-slavery followers were responsible for the murder of many people — some of them slave-owners, most of them not — who had moved west from Southern states. Brown played an active role in fomenting and perpetuating the hostilities that had plunged Kansas into bloody turmoil during the year of 1856, a period known as “Bleeding Kansas.”

John Brown’s name would eventually be celebrated in a soldiers’ marching song, “John Brown’s Body.” The melody of that song would become the basis for another, even greater song, named “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And although John Brown’s legend would become elevated to that of national myth, it is not overstatement to say that he was, in his own way, a psychotic mass murderer. Brown engaged in what we would today label as “domestic terrorism.” His bloody efforts contributed in no small measure to the breakdown of American society and politics in the late 1850s that led the nation directly along the path to its Civil War.

In the fall of 1859, after terrorizing the distant western regions of Kansas and Missouri, John Brown came east to make more trouble. On October 16 of that year, he led a 21-man group that raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of the State of West Virginia), and seized a federal arsenal. Brown hoped to foment a slave uprising in the South, and distribute the captured weapons to anyone who would fight for his cause, particularly to any freed slaves. Within days of Brown’s seizure of the arsenal, a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel named Robert E. Lee led a force of U.S. soldiers to Harpers Ferry, took back the arsenal and captured Brown and his band of insurrectionists.

Today we have oil-powered machinery to grow our food and fiber. We have natural gas-based fertilizers to maintain soil fertility. So looking back from today’s relatively comfortable perspective, it is difficult to envision the passions that were in play in 1859. One must think hard, in order to be able to perceive the stakes as others perceived them at that time.

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was widely regarded, correctly as it turned out, as a symptom that the federal union under the Constitution of the United States of America was beginning to unravel. This was no Whiskey Rebellion, in which a few dozen irate farmers burned down the house of the federal tax collector, just outside of Pittsburgh. Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry transcended argument over what kind of money the nation would use, or what would be the tax system, or even whether or not the U.S. would have a national bank.

John Brown’s raid was a strike upon a federal arsenal, one of the centers of gravity of national power. Brown’s goal was to foment a national rebellion, always and in every society a true crime against the nation-state. Thus, after his capture John Brown was speedily tried and promptly sentenced to hang for treason. While awaiting his end, John Brown penned his motivating sentiments, the spine-tingling words that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.”

On December 2, 1859 Virginia militiaman John Wilkes Booth, wearing a crisp, if not dapper uniform, stood near a scaffold with other armed men. The job of Booth and the other attending soldiers was to guard against any attempt to rescue John Brown before the hanging. At the appointed time, the trap door opened, the rope went tight, and Brown’s neck snapped with a crack that was clearly audible to the crowd in attendance. The troubles were over for John Brown. But true to his famous prophesy, the troubles had scarcely commenced for the United States of America.

Soon after witnessing the hanging, and certain that John Brown’s body was a-mouldering in his well-deserved grave, Booth left for Richmond. There, he was discharged. Over the course of his life, Booth’s only organized military experience was his stint in the militia, attending to the hanging of John Brown.

John Wilkes Booth: “The Youngest Tragedian in the World”

In 1860 Booth’s career as an actor simply took off. He traveled widely and performed to packed houses filled with enthusiastic patrons. Booth earned more than $20,000.00 that year, the equivalent of half a million dollars today. John Wilkes Booth was celebrated far and wide, and hailed as the “youngest tragedian in the world.” Tragedian? How right people were, but without knowing why.

Over the next few years, Booth starred in Romeo and Juliet, The Apostate, The Marble Heart, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, and Macbeth among others. In March 1861, Booth played the role of Duke Pescara in The Apostate, at the Gayety Theater in Albany, New York, as President-elect Abraham Lincoln passed through on his way to Washington. Booth would play a reprise of that same role in Washington, D.C., just a few years later.

When what was called, at that time, the War Between the States broke out in the spring of 1861, Booth is reported to have promised his surviving mother that he would not join the Confederate army. Booth did however, undertake some action to support the Confederacy, such as sending funds to purchase medical supplies and to assist the Southern cause.

Booth wrote several letters and articles that were critical of President Lincoln’s conduct of the “War Against the Southern Rebellion.” Booth believed that Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the war was wrong, and that Lincoln was acting above any body of American law, and like a dictator if not a tyrannical monarch. As a performer and interpreter of Shakespeare, particularly having cut his teeth on Richard III, Booth must have thought that he knew a tyrant when he saw one.

Booth also told friends and associates that he believed the Northern government’s criminal prosecution of its critics for sedition and treason was an abandonment of the foundations of the U.S. Constitution. This is a view that many other historians and commentators have held about Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War, then and since.

In the spring of 1862 Booth was arrested and taken before a federal provost marshal in St. Louis. It was alleged that Booth had been heard making anti-government remarks, critical of President Lincoln and his war. The charge was probably true. At about that time, Booth wrote to his sister, Asia, “So help me holy God! My soul, life, and possessions are for the South.”

Despite his politics, Booth remained employed on the stage. On November 9, 1863, Booth performed in a starring role in a play called The Marble Heart, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. In attendance was none other than President of the United States Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln.

The Lincolns were in the company of several guests, sitting in what was called the “State Box” of Ford’s Theater. The president enjoyed the diversion of theater, to take his mind from the depressing news of casualties and costs from the front lines. Among the Lincolns’ guests that evening were Mary B. Clay, a daughter of Cassius Clay, U.S. minister to Russia. Years later, Mary Clay reminisced about the evening:

“In the theater President and Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and I, Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay, occupied the (State) box. … Wilkes Booth played the part of villain. The box was right on the stage, with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and the other gentlemen farther around. Twice, Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play, came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln’s face. When he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.’ ‘Well,’ replied the president, ‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?'”

When the play was over, Lincoln requested to meet the actor John Wilkes Booth. But Booth coldly refused the invitation. Booth would encounter Lincoln in the State Box another time, and under quite different circumstances.

Ten days later, on November 19, 1863 Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, PA and gave a short speech at the dedication of the national cemetery on that battlefield. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” he said, and that war went on for two more years.

This is the end of Part I.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
December 29, 2005