John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was one of the most compelling personalities in American history. Born into the country’s most famous acting family, he was a celebrity in his own time, renowned for his athletic and romantic performances on stage. But despite his passionate following, he still came up short in popularity and critical ranking when measured against his brother Edwin, the most famous and respected American actor of the 19th century. The brothers disagreed strongly over politics—John was an outspoken supporter of slavery and the Southern cause, known to launch into frequent public and private tirades against Lincoln, once arrested and heavily fined for treasonous remarks. The brothers’ disagreement eventually led to Edwin closing his home to his brother.

As the war progressed and the South’s fortunes fell, Booth grew more obsessed with the cause, using his frequent performances in the South to smuggle quinine through the lines and involving himself in various conspiracies that included a plot to kidnap the president. Evidence points to his working directly with the Confederate secret service in at least one of these plots. He also became obsessive in his hatred for Lincoln, who saw him perform and admired him enough to send a request backstage to meet the actor. Booth refused the card, sending it back with what were, for him, the most insulting terms imaginable: “I would rather have the applause of a Negro.”

Lincoln’s re-election and conciliatory tone toward the soon-to-be-defeated Confederacy seem to have helped push Booth over the edge. Though he had a well-earned reputation as a ladies’ man, he was engaged to the daughter of a New Hampshire senator. Thanks to this connection, he was in the audience in front of the Capitol when Lincoln delivered his famous Second Inaugural speech, with its plea for “malice toward none, with charity for all.” Two weeks later, Booth gave his final performance on stage, playing the evil Pescara in The Apostate at Ford’s Theatre before giving himself completely to the plot to kill the President.

The conspiracy culminated in Lincoln’s assassination on Good Friday and the most famous manhunt in American history. Because Booth was so well-known and a good friend of the theatre’s owner, his presence at Ford’s Theatre that day seemed routine. This goes a long way toward explaining how such a sloppily planned undertaking that involved so many unremarkable and unreliable co-conspirators ended with a martyred president.

John Wilkes Booth wanted poster

War Department reward poster for Booth and the conspirators

Booth made his escape after leaping onto the stage from the president’s box, terrifying actor Harry Hawk, who was alone on stage after delivering the play’s biggest laugh line. He could not have known that Booth had carefully planned to use the audience laughter to muffle the shot of his Derringer pistol. Fleeing through the stage door where a local boy had a horse waiting for him, he crossed the Long Bridge into Maryland before the news of Lincoln’s shooting could reach the sentries guarding it. Eventually cornered by his pursuers in a flaming Virginia barn, Booth was fatally shot in the neck by Union sergeant Boston Corbett, disregarding the orders to capture him alive and opening the way to a century and a half of speculation about who else might have been involved in the plot. He died three hours later, paralyzed, and the secrets of the conspiracy went with him to his grave.

Curious Facts About Booth

Booth enlisted in the Virginia militia before the war. As a result, he stood in the ranks to see abolitionist John Brown hang for his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, an act that many point to as the inciting incident for the war. So this actor with a flair for the dramatic had a role in the opening and closing scenes of America’s greatest tragedy.

When Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert was knocked off a train platform in New Jersey not long before his father’s assassination, it was John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin who pulled him up from the tracks, saving his life. Young Lincoln recognized the famous Booth brother, but it was not until months later that Edwin learned whose life he saved.

 

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