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John Wilkes Booth with the devil whispering in his ear, 1865

Was sibling rivalry responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? So you would conclude if you took seriously the phrase “The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy,” which is blazoned across the dust jacket and the title page of My Thoughts Be Bloody, a new book by Nora Titone, with a hyperbolic foreword by her “teacher and mentor,” Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Titone (this is her first book) has done her homework and digested it. If she had restrained herself from attempting to fit the Booth story into a soap-opera construct “filled with ambition, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy…as gripping as a fine work of fiction,” as Goodwin puts it, she would have performed an even more valuable service than she has. Although there have been many books about John Wilkes Booth and the assassination, few have focused to this extent on his place in the theater dynasty of which he was a less distinguished member than his biographers—and he himself—would have liked us to believe. He started acting late, he was untrained, and his superb looks and natural charm and athleticism could carry him only so far.

He certainly, however, had his share of the family ambition. The father, Junius Brutus Booth, was the grandson of a Jewish silversmith whose origins lay in Portugal. Having failed to unseat Edmund Kean as London’s leading tragedian, Junius emigrated to America in 1821 and quickly established himself as one of the nation’s most famous actors, despite his chronic alcoholism and his periodic bouts of insanity. The oldest of his ten children born here, Junius Brutus Booth II, was only modestly talented as an actor, knew it, and wisely established himself as a theatrical manager. (He had an even temperament, but the Booth streak of madness emerged much later on in one of his children, who in middle age shot and killed himself and his wife.)

The second son, Edwin, born in 1833, grew up in the theater and began acting in his late teens, determined to rise to the very top, and by the time he was in his mid-twenties, this ambition, combined with his great talent and relentless work ethic, had propelled him there. The third son—variously known as Wilkes, John, Johnny, and Jack—was driven by fantasies of stardom, but circumstances, together with his lack of discipline and judgment, stood in his way.

There was no rivalry between the two older brothers. Junius II opened up his San Francisco company to Edwin, and kept him busy learning stagecraft from the ground up, playing, as Titone puts it, “every part handed to him. He obediently donned blackface, thumped his banjo, sang minstrel tunes, and hoofed it in clogs. He acted comedies, melodramas, burlesques, variety shows, and farces.” (Later he would grasp how important this broad experience had been for his art, even if it had been humiliating at the time. He called it “a lesson for crushed tragedians.”) In time, he graduated to more significant parts, then to sudden and sustained success in his father’s most famous role, Richard III, and Hamlet, which would become his own most famous role.

Edwin was also leading a wild life in the highly permissive atmosphere of the San Francisco of the 1850s. His drinking was out of control—perhaps even more serious than his father’s. (His grandfather and great-grandfather had been alcoholics too.) His womanizing was notorious. “At twenty I was a libertine…. All the vices seemed to have full sway over me and I yielded to their bestializing voices.” (He paid the usual price—venereal disease.) But although he was seen as a happy-go-lucky, friendly young man, already the deep melancholy that was to characterize his life was upon him. At the age of twelve, he had been chosen to accompany Junius on his endless tours—to endure the horrific travel conditions of the day; to dog his father’s footsteps after every performance in order to keep him from drinking the night’s earnings away, sometimes shadowing him through the dark streets until morning; to act as Junius’s dresser and general dogsbody; to trick him into getting to the theater on time for performances; to tend him through his outbursts of lunacy. “I had no childhood,” he was to say.

There are endless examples of Junius’s erratic behavior. Once, playing in Boston, he burst into tears and “turning to the audience…screamed, ‘take me to the Lunatic Hospital!’ and ran sobbing toward the exit.” (“The stage manager stepped forward to announce, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Booth cannot appear this evening. His reason has left him.’”) Even more serious, one morning in a hotel lobby he announced, “I must cut somebody’s throat today, and whom shall I take?” then whipped out a dagger and attempted to stab a prominent member of the company.

As Junius deteriorated, the theater world grew wary of him—of “Crazy Booth, the mad tragedian”—but audiences still responded to his thrilling performances. We can imagine how his behavior affected the boy Edwin, who, apart from everything else, loved his father. These painful years, however, were the foundation of Edwin’s knowledge of the theater, of acting, and of the repertory. They lasted until he was nineteen—seven years.

Whenever possible, father and son repaired to the large family farm in Bel Air, Maryland, where Junius was always happy being with his adored “wife,” Mary Ann. (He had married very young and very badly in England, fathered a son, and then, abandoning wife and child, eloped to America with Mary Ann, a beautiful teenaged flower seller. It was only well after she and Junius had produced their ten children that they were able to regularize their union.)

Of the children, four were to die of dysentery or cholera—Booth’s grief was inconsolable. Still living at home with Mary Ann were their reclusive daughter, Rosalie, who would spend her entire life with her mother; their younger daughter, Asia, handsome, intelligent, and strong-willed; John Wilkes; and a final son, Joseph, who would lead a bewilderingly feckless life until at the age of forty-nine he became a doctor. When the family was together, usually during the summers, Junius enjoyed running the farm, steadfastly refusing to own slaves while hiring the help he needed, both black and white, from around the neighborhood.

But if for Junius Bel Air was an idyll, for Johnny Wilkes it was a cage. To him, Edwin’s harrowing years with his father represented freedom, excitement, glamour; why was he trapped on a Maryland farm with his mother and siblings while Edwin was living a great adventure? Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us that “when Junius chooses the older son, Edwin, to accompany him on the road, a fierce jealousy begins to fester in John Wilkes.” Yes, young children can be violently jealous, but even in a family as far from conventional as the Booths, no one would seriously have considered sending an eight-year-old on such a mission.

In 1852 Junius suddenly died of cholera while returning alone from a tour in California, Edwin having decided to stay behind to chart his own course. It was now that he took his first steps toward ascendancy in his profession. And he needed only four years—after rough early times in California and an unfortunate detour to Australia and Hawaii, followed by his successes in San Francisco—before he was back in the East, with a purse filled with gold and a copy of a proclamation from the California state legislature referring to him as “a treasure, a gift of great value that the people of California were bestowing on the rest of the United States.”

In 1856, when Edwin arrived home, John Wilkes was eighteen and on fire with energy and zeal. He was building, Asia would write, “fantastic temples of fame…. For my brother, no visions or dreams were too extravagantly great.” His mother had sent him to a series of reputable boarding schools, in which he failed to shine. (At school he was thought of as a pugnacious bully who appeared to enjoy treating “the smaller boys cruelly.”) On the farm, though, with the older Booths on the road and young Joseph off at school, the teenage John “became the only male in his mother’s home, sole recipient of all female attentions…. His older sisters…tiptoed past his bedroom as if it were a shrine.”

Indeed, throughout his brief life John’s effect on women was electrifying. Taller than his (short) father and brother, with his jet-black hair and piercing eyes, his superb mustache and magnificent marble-white neck and shoulders and arms, he was often referred to as the handsomest man in America. And when things were going well for him, he had extraordinary charm and a real kindness. “There was something so strong and sweet in his nature,” a fellow actor wrote, “that it won the love of those who knew him.”

Early on he had decided that his way to glory lay in outshining both his father and brother in the family trade, but since there was no one to teach him, no available apprenticeship, he would go out into the woods of Bel Air and spout Shakespeare under the eye of his sister Asia. “How shall I ever have a chance on stage?” he burst out one day, Asia reported. “Buried here, what chance have I of ever studying elocution or declamation?” When he was just seventeen, he sneaked away to make his stage debut in a small role in Richard III at an insignificant theater in Baltimore. (His looks and the Booth name would always guarantee him a job.) But at his debut his acting was so poor that he was hissed, and it would be two years before he acted again.

By 1ate 1859 he was playing minor roles, often as an extra, at the Marshall Theatre in Richmond. By this time his pronounced sympathies for the South in the charged atmosphere leading up to secession were well known—in fact, he broadcast them everywhere. The romance of the Southern “cause” appealed to him, not least because of its defense of slavery, which he regarded as “one of the greatest blessings…that God ever bestowed on a favored nation”—a position one is tempted to ascribe to some kind of Oedipal reaction to his father’s.

And then one day, during a rehearsal, he rushed from the theater and bluffed and bribed his way into an elite militia known as the Richmond Grays who were grouping in Washington on their way to help guard John Brown, on his way to his execution, from possible rescue attempts. On December 2, 1859, dressed up in a gray military uniform, he was within easy viewing distance of the hanging. (It shook him badly.) Later, he would boast to Asia that he had been “one of the party going to search for and capture John Brown,” and that he had been “exposed to dangers and hardships.” His need to dramatize himself, to appear a hero, was already fully developed. This unauthorized two-week absence from the theater branded him with a reputation for unreliability. “The stunt seemed [to the family] the height of immaturity,” writes Titone, “a sign that John Wilkes Booth was unfit for stage work.”

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Edwin Booth as Hamlet, his most famous role

In the summer of 1860 the family was living in Philadelphia, supported by Edwin—who was already, still short of twenty-seven, the most highly acclaimed, and perhaps the most highly paid, actor in America. John, dependent on his brother, mortified that at twenty-three he had accomplished nothing, frantic to shine, was determined to carve out his own career as a star by touring nationally in the roles in which Junius and then Edwin had triumphed. But to Edwin it seemed preposterous—and potentially bad for business—that his less talented, less experienced, and less reliable younger brother might be competing with him in the major Eastern cities, which he more or less ruled. Laying down the law, he divided the country in half—he would perform in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington; John Wilkes would be free to make his way in New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Charleston, and the many other cities of the South and West.

Edwin felt he was being generous; John Wilkes—not surprisingly, given his sense of himself as being undervalued and patronized—was enraged by what he saw as a heavy-handed move to suppress him. It is this incident upon which Titone most heavily depends to support her theory that the “rivalry” between the brothers was central to John’s later actions—

The one thing Edwin was determined to prevent was his brother’s acting in New York; that city was Edwin’s domain, and no other Booth would be allowed to knock him from his pedestal there. The star wanted no competition from a younger, handsomer copy

—all this while acknowledging that Edwin “knew he could beat John in the realm of talent—his brother lacked a natural gift.” She doesn’t see that Edwin’s precautions made sense, and not only for himself: John badly needed more stage experience before facing East Coast audiences and critics.

Despite what Titone sees as this ingenious plot to stifle his brother, Edwin—starring in the Marshall Theatre where John was still performing as an extra—invited him to play Horatio to his own Hamlet and Othello to his Iago. Assuming as usual that Edwin’s motives were questionable, Titone suggests that “it was almost a cruel trick on Edwin’s part, to force a comparison between his own ability and his brother’s inexperience.” (Edwin can do nothing right.) But Edwin didn’t need to resort to trickery to underline John’s lack of ability.

Occasionally critics would recognize in the younger man sparks of Junius’s genius—like his father, he would explode into thrilling melodramatic moments, particularly in scenes involving swordplay. “He would have flashes, passages, I thought of real genius,” wrote Walt Whitman. And the supposedly unsympathetic Edwin, seeing John in a popular melodrama, would exclaim to a friend, “He is full of true grit. I am delighted with him.” And “when time and study rounded his rough edges, he’ll bid them all ‘stand apart.’” But John’s overwrought and limited approach, as opposed to Edwin’s revolutionary realism and profound response to poetry, doomed his future as an actor. The theater was evolving rapidly away from the old-fashioned declamation of his father’s day.

When in 1862 John defied Edwin’s proscription and, taking advantage of his brother’s absence in England, presented himself as a star in Boston and New York, the results were predictable: the critics were almost universally severe. “We have no place,” the Boston Daily Advertiser pronounced, “for a professed vocalist who should be false in intonation, wrong in accent and in rhythm, inaccurate in phrasing, imperfect in vocal method and deficient in quality of tone, though his person and action might be pleasing to the eye.” By December, he was back in Chicago, where he “was catering less to critics than to the boot-stomping hordes who enjoyed [his] swordplay.” For two years or so he was able at times to command enthusiastic audiences and large fees.

He was also indulging more and more publicly in his anti-Lincoln, anti-Union rhetoric. “What a glorious opportunity there is for a man to immortalize himself by killing Lincoln!” he was overheard saying, suggesting that his strongest impulse was less political than a desire to gain the fame and glory that by this time he must have realized would not come to him through his art.

His moods, Titone writes, “became darker and more intense,” as did his displays of belligerence. On a train in August 1864, John Sleeper Clarke, Asia’s husband and a close associate of Edwin’s, made a disparaging remark about Jefferson Davis, and John instantly grabbed him by the neck and began choking him, his face “twisted with rage,” and then cried, “Never, if you value your life…speak in that way to me again of a man and a cause I hold sacred.” It does not come as a surprise that John T. Ford, proprietor of the theater where Lincoln would be shot, remarked of John that he “was animated by a pride that contained elements of insanity.”

It was at this time, when he was allowing his acting career to peter out, that John was approached and co-opted by Confederate agents plotting against Lincoln and his administration. Fervently flinging himself into their plans, he took charge of their idea of kidnapping the President and holding him hostage. Gathering a small cadre of conspirators around himself, and clearly enjoying the cloak-and-dagger aspects of what he was planning, he came close to pulling it off, but by the time Lee surrendered at Appomattox and Richmond was captured by the Union army, kidnapping would have come too late. Swiftly, John determined on assassination, his justification being that Lincoln was planning to install himself as an American monarch, not only destroying the South but destroying American democracy itself. On April 14, 1865, he acted.

After the fatal shooting in Ford’s theater, the dramatic leap to the stage clutching a dagger to the cry of “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Ever thus to tyrants”), and throughout the agonizing twelve-day manhunt that culminated in his being shot to death by soldiers in a flaming barn on a farm in northern Virginia, John clung to the belief that he had committed a magnificent act of heroism and self-sacrifice. Almost his final words as he lay gasping his life out were “Tell my mother I die for my country.”

The world’s verdict, however, even in the defeated Confederacy, was that he was neither a hero nor a patriot but a madman and a villain. Colonel Adam Badeau, General Grant’s aide-de-camp and for decades Edwin’s closest friend, saw things from a different perspective. John, he felt, was first and foremost an actor, and this murder was first and foremost a piece of acting. “It was all so theatrical in plan and performance,” he was to write. “The conspiracy, the dagger, the selection of a theater, the cry ‘Sic semper tyrannis‘—all was exactly what a madman brought up in a theater might have been expected to conceive.”

John Wilkes Booth’s most thorough and persuasive biographer, Michael W. Kauffman, in his American Brutus (2004), summed him up succinctly:

By April 14, all he could do was sacrifice himself for the Cause, or accept the fact that his Unionist friends had been right about him all along—that he was a hotheaded loser who only talked while others gave their lives. Booth could not bear the thought of life as a former actor…or a pale shadow of his brother Edwin. His choice was made.

The Booth family was shattered by John’s act. Edwin was in Boston when he was awakened with the news and, disguising himself to avoid the rage of the populace, he rushed to New York in order to comfort his mother, who was in an anguish of grief—Johnny had always been her favorite. Now she could only pray that he would be killed on the run, to avoid the horror and disgrace of being hanged. Junius Jr. only barely escaped being lynched by a mob in Cincinnati, and was soon imprisoned for two months on suspicion of conspiring to kill the President. Asia Clarke, in the late stages of a dangerous pregnancy, was under house arrest, with a soldier assigned to follow her from room to room. Her husband, too, was held for months in prison.

These indignities were minor compared to the way scores, perhaps hundreds, of suspects were treated in the immediate wake of the assassination. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge of the pursuit of the murderer and determined the methods used to obtain convictions of the conspirators; to begin with, the trial was to proceed as a court-martial, not under civil law. Kauffman describes conditions aboard the warships in which many prisoners were secured, most of them held without specific charges:

The Sec’y of War requests that the prisoners on board the iron clads…shall have for better security against conversation a canvas bag put over the head of each and tied around the neck with a hole for proper breathing and eating but not seeing.

The prisoners were also constrained by wrist irons, bolted in place, so that they couldn’t use their hands. Not since 1696, Kauffman points out—and not again until 2001—would prisoners in America be treated this way.

Thanks to Edwin’s reputation and his friends in high places—he had succeeded, uniquely among actors, in gaining acceptance by America’s social elite—he was never arrested, but he was certain that he could never appear on a stage again. (The entire acting profession felt itself endangered.) Titone blames Edwin for being concerned about this: “He interpreted Lincoln’s murder as a direct attack on the celebrity he worked so hard to win.” Immediately he issued a public statement:

My detestation and abhorrence of the act in all its attributes, are inexpressible; my grief is unutterable…. I shall struggle on in my retirement, bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory and wounded name—heavy burdens—to my too welcome grave.

In the event, he was back on the stage in well under a year, accorded an idolatrous reception from admirers both inside and outside the Broadway theater in which he was opening as Hamlet, the role in which he had recently enjoyed an unprecedented run of one hundred consecutive performances, a record he retained until John Barrymore pointedly kept his 1922 production going for one hundred and one. Titone quotes a journalist who wrote that the enthusiasm for Booth was “so strange and unique it amounts to a positive psychological phenomenon—the niche in which his country’s heart has enshrined him was never filled before by mortal man.”

What was his quality as an actor? Never rant or fustian, but a calm intensity, a manifest identification with the characters he portrayed. He not only triumphed as Hamlet, whose melancholy temperament somewhat mirrored his own, but as Iago—baleful, conniving—and, grand and commanding, in the title role of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Richelieu. His standard repertory included Macbeth, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice; not only Richard III but Richard II, a play practically unknown in America. And despite his slight physical presence, he frequently played Othello, most famously in London, when he and England’s leading actor, Henry Irving, alternated Othello and Iago, with Ellen Terry as their Desdemona. At a time when theater was the nation’s dominant form of entertainment, he was the star of stars—treated everywhere as royalty.

Yet his life had been a series of terrible blows, beginning with his painful childhood and the death of his father. He married a young woman, Mary Devlin, whom he worshiped—John Wilkes was the only family member at the wedding, and Adam Badeau remembered that “after it was over, Wilkes threw his arms about Edwin’s neck and kissed him”—but Mary died after only a few years of what seems to have been an exceptionally happy marriage. “I was as calm outwardly,” he told a friend, “as though a wedding had taken place instead of a death—but, oh, the hell within me is intense!… My grief eats me.” His second wife, also a Mary, gradually succumbed to a debilitating disease tinged with severe paranoia.

There were other disasters. In 1867, a fire at his theater, the Winter Garden, destroyed all his costumes and effects and $40,000 worth of property. The superb theater he later built, the Booth, he lost through mismanagement and duplicitous colleagues. (Although he had earned fortunes, he was aware that he lacked business skills.) He had many friends devoted to him, and he cherished his daughter, Edwina, but there seems to have been an essential coldness to his nature; he warded off intimacy.

Edwin had often spoken of death as a release, and he didn’t seem to lament his rapidly diminishing forces as he entered into a premature old age—one writer pronounced, “Booth at 58 is older than many a man of 70.” He stopped acting in 1888, five years before he faded out of life, not yet sixty. He had founded the opulent Players club (it cost him $200,000, a vast sum for the day), which numbered among its members Mark Twain, Grover Cleveland, William Tecumseh Sherman, J. Pierpont Morgan, John Singer Sargent, and Frederic Remington, and it was in his apartment there that he spent his final years.

In his bedroom overlooking Gramercy Park and available to viewing today in its close-to-original state, the walls and tables are covered with portraits and photographs, prominent among them his mother and Mary Devlin. To the right of his bed hangs a photograph of John Wilkes Booth, conspicuously displayed, so that all his many visitors would be forced to take note of it. The story of the brothers may be compounded, as Titone and Goodwin would have it, of “ambition, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy.” But in this close-knit family, it was also shaped by love. And by irony. As more than one biographer has observed, John Wilkes had not ruined his brother’s career; he had just made him more famous.

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