Nora Titone | My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy | The Free Press | October 2010 | 41 minutes (11,244 words)
“This is the story of the celebrated Booth family in the final year before John Wilkes made a mad leap into historical memory that outdid in magnitude every accomplishment of his father and brothers. When the curtain rises on this chapter of Nora Titone’s book, both Edwin and John Wilkes have already staged performances for President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater; by the time it comes down, one of them will be readying to assassinate him there.”
* * *
O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.
Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., arrived by steamship in Boston on May 26, 1864, the night before his brother John Wilkes acted Ugolino in that city. These two brothers had last met in 1854, when John was fifteen years old and still grieving over their father’s death.
Now the eastward steamship journey from San Francisco to the Atlantic states was swift and easy, comparatively free of danger. A new railroad spanned the Isthmus of Panama. From Panama City on the Pacific coast to the port of Aspinwall on the Atlantic side, June Booth sped through the jungle in the comfort of a glassed-in train carriage. The weeklong trek on foot and by mule through the rain forest’s fever-ridden undergrowth was a thing of the past.
Junius must have felt like Rip Van Winkle, returning to discover that in his ten years of absence in California, the American cities he once knew had grown and changed almost beyond recognition. From Boston, Junius made his way to New York City by June 2, 1864, to take part in a family gathering at his brother Edwin’s home. The returning traveler found all the Booths transformed, but Edwin, perhaps, was the most changed. What a contrast the thirty-one-year-old star made, in the summer of 1864, to the bedraggled youth Junius once rescued in 1852. Half crazed by the news of their father’s death, Edwin had crashed through the door of his older brother’s shanty on Telegraph Hill, ill and starving after his march across the Sierra Nevada. Junius had carefully restored his younger brother to health, found him a job at a San Francisco theater, and helped the teenager start his career onstage.
Now Edwin was a renowned artist with an air of command. He was richly dressed, conscious of his standing in society, the proprietor of two great theaters, owner of a valuable town house. All his enterprises were thriving, while Junius, aged forty-two, was yet an itinerant player forced to watch every penny he spent. The cost of shipping his trunks of costumes from San Francisco alone had been almost beyond his means. Junius’s diary from this year makes a painful record of how he spent his dwindling funds on new “street clothes,” shoes, and other small items. This was an uneasy reunion, as Junius took the measure of his younger brother’s wealth and saw how far he himself now fell short.
The tension among all three brothers—Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes—was apparent to William Stuart, longtime manager of the Winter Garden Theatre. Observing the siblings interact, Stuart concluded that Edwin’s success had poisoned his brothers against him. John Wilkes “had—indeed the two brothers had—considerable jealousy and suspicion, both, it seemed to me unwarranted, of Edwin,” Stuart later told an interviewer. He first made these observations on June 4, 1864, the day the entire Booth family made a formal tour of Edwin’s playhouse on Broadway.
Approaching the Winter Garden, visitors that summer saw advertisements for Edwin Booth everywhere. Stuart, charged with promoting the star and his new theater, papered fences and the sides of buildings along Broadway with huge posters—many of them “big enough for a circus,” one New Yorker remembered—all carrying Edwin’s name. Manhattan photography studios displaying the star’s portrait in their windows did a brisk business selling prints of his face, “shaded by dark flowing locks,” to a female clientele. “Public excitement about the actor was then at fever heat,” one journalist observed.
During the tour, Edwin showed Junius and John Wilkes the progress his teams of carpenters, set designers, and artists had made in beautifying the building for the start of the 1864 fall dramatic season. Hoping to realize his dream of staging a perfect production of Hamlet, Edwin hired the best scenic painter and the most skilled wardrobe mistress in the city to supervise preparations. The backstage area was filled with “rich stuffs,” visitors to the Winter Garden then remembered. Antique furniture, exquisite rugs, silver goblets, and candelabra packed the property rooms. In Edwin’s private dressing chamber, there were chairs, a couch, a makeup table, and a small cookstove for brewing coffee. A servant perpetually stood on hand to assist the star. Edwin’s enormous wardrobe—satin robes tailored in Paris, bejeweled crowns, dresses trimmed with “Venetian and Spanish lace”—contained several of their father’s prized possessions, including the elder Booth’s stage sword.
Stuart remembered watching that day as Junius and John Wilkes picked up some swords and began sparring on the empty stage of the Winter Garden. He approached the pair with a proposition: would they like to act with Edwin in a one-night performance of Julius Caesar? The Booth brothers could divide the principal roles, Stuart suggested, Junius playing Cassius, Edwin playing Brutus, and John Wilkes playing the part of Mark Antony. Junius agreed at once. He was planning to tour East Coast theaters that fall; early publicity generated by a Winter Garden performance could only help him. John Wilkes’s reaction to the idea, however, was initially hostile. Stuart remembered the young man showing a marked distrust of his older brother’s motives.
“Is this some trick of Edwin’s?” John Wilkes demanded, ordering Stuart to show him the script so he could read Mark Antony’s scenes.
“I brought it to him,” Stuart later testified, “and after looking it over for some ten minutes, he said grudgingly, ‘I will play that fellow.’ ”
John’s surly reaction made an impression on Stuart. The manager also was surprised at how ignorant John Wilkes was of this classic dramatic work. He later told an interviewer it was evident that “John’s early education had been entirely neglected, and he really had no conception of the character.”
In the end, the brothers agreed to bring Julius Caesar to the Winter Garden’s stage in late July or early August, after John Wilkes returned from a planned trip to Petrolia. As of June 17, 1864, Edwin wrote a friend, “My brother W[ilkes] is here for the summer, and we intend taking advantage of our thus being brought together, with nothing to do, and will, in the course of a week or two, give a performance of Julius Caesar . . . for the benefit of the statue we wish to erect in Central Park.” To commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a fund was started to place a statue in his honor in the heart of New York City.
In a sense, John Wilkes Booth’s instincts were correct: the Julius Caesar plan was indeed a “trick of Edwin’s.” The star knew his brothers wanted money: neither of their earnings came close to matching his own income. Yet they would not be paid for their work in Julius Caesar. Rather, all money from the joint appearance would go to the Shakespeare fund. After taking over one of the most popular theaters on Broadway, Edwin Booth would not share the opportunity with his less fortunate brothers. Going forward, they were invited to join him onstage only for the benefit of a charity. The Winter Garden and the Walnut Street Theatre would remain the exclusive domains of Edwin and his partner, Clarke. Junius and John Wilkes would have to earn their own way.
Edwin’s brothers were treated to one last proof of his high place in Manhattan society that first week of June 1864. The star took them both on a visit to the Tenth Street studio of sculptor Launt Thompson, where the artist’s workroom was decorated for a party. Vases of flowers stood on tables by pots of coffee and bowls of punch. A collection of writers, painters, journalists, and Union officers filled the space, admiring Thompson’s latest works: the bronze bust of Edwin Booth, life-size, in character as Hamlet, and a towering sculpture of General Winfield Scott in full military dress. The talk at this party, one guest remembered, concerned the war and art: soldiers and literary men discussed “the latest news from the front” while considering the merits of Thompson’s new creations.
In the short time they spent together at Edwin’s house, a friendship kindled between John Wilkes and Junius, who previously had been strangers. “June,” as his family called him, was privately dismayed at how Edwin neglected John Wilkes. The young man was obviously unhappy, Junius later would recall, and it troubled him to see his own brother “so strongly sympathizing with the Southern cause.” Knowing Edwin had forbidden John Wilkes to vent his rebel opinions in the house, Junius now made it his project to take the younger man aside and quietly, patiently, reason with him about the war.
“I felt it my duty as an elder brother,” Junius later explained, “to do all I could & prove to John that the government was doing its duty . . . I told him the Civil War was but a large family quarrel & would in a few years be made up and peace restored.” Junius begged John to stay away from the conflict for the sake of the family. He later said he received on many occasions John’s earnest “promise” that he would do so.
John Wilkes did not change his opinions after talks with Junius, but he was moved by the protective, almost fatherly concern this long-absent older brother showed for him. June Booth, a onetime speculator in California gold, was curious to learn more about John’s oil venture; the two even considered traveling together to Pennsylvania. Every time they shared such conversations, Junius later remembered, John would “express much gratitude for the interest I took in his welfare.” In the young man’s appreciative response, Junius read a record of Edwin’s coldness and lack of care. Ostensibly the head of the family, Edwin had abandoned the idea of making this younger sibling his responsibility. Having genial, even-tempered Junius pay attention to him was a new experience for John. This older brother was the mentor, perhaps,John had needed since their father’s death. No personal animosity troubled their relationship; they were not competitors.
* * *
The morning of June 8, 1864, found John Wilkes Booth and his friend Joseph Simonds en route by train from New York City to Franklin, Pennsylvania, erstwhile capital of Petrolia. The sea of mud that greeted the young men as they descended from their railway car, other travelers attested, was “deep and indescribably disgusting.” This sticky ooze was unique to Oil Dorado. It was a combination of rain, eroded soil, and glistening rivulets of petroleum, and would “ever be fresh,” one prospector wrote, “in the memory of those who saw and were compelled to wade through it.”
The town of Franklin was an eyesore. Its various hotels, banks, bars, houses of prostitution, and prospectors’ shanties had been built hastily and haphazardly on streets that in early summer, residents said, were “liquid lakes or lanes” of evil-smelling muck. Garbage was everywhere—food leavings, broken barrels, discarded clothing and equipment. A thin film of oil burnished the surface of the river flowing past the town; grease-coated barges and ferries crowded the wharves. Groups of men in overalls and knee-high boots could be seen puffing away at pipes and cigarillos, ignoring the “No Smoking” warnings posted near every working oil derrick. Petroleum fumes were combustible, but as locals allowed, “men will smoke, regardless of its too probable consequences.” A newspaper article describing this unlovely place acknowledged that there were more attractive corners of the United States in which to start a career, but none besides Franklin offered “a better chance to make one’s first million in, and thus start favorably on the road to comfortable affluence.”
John Wilkes had a rough start in Franklin. According to Albert Smiley, who met Booth when they were forced to share a room at the overbooked United States Hotel, the actor was “very stylish in his dress” and “cold in manner toward strangers,” qualities that did not win favor in the eyes of longtime residents. One night soon after his arrival, John donned his typically exquisite clothing to attend a dance at a local hall. Booth’s “dudish appearance” and lofty behavior, Smiley recalled, offended the rougher guests at the gathering. A sizable gang of “deckhands from the steamboats and freshwater sailors from the lumber fleets,” Smiley wrote, fell on Booth and bloodied his nose. The dandy was tossed out the door “with orders not to return.” As a parting insult, Booth’s attackers made sure his finely dressed body was smeared with some of the ubiquitous local sludge. Smiley did not escape, either, sharing Booth’s fate in the mud. Humiliated, John wanted to keep the story of the episode from spreading through the town, but he failed. “It leaked out,” Smiley recalled, “and we were often nagged by our friends.”
John would not make the same mistake again. He quickly traded his gentleman’s garments for the local uniform of “slouched hat, flannel shirt, overalls and boots,” one friend recalled, and abandoned his superior attitude. When Thomas Mears, one of Booth’s partners in the Dramatic Oil Company, took him to meet the mechanic chosen to operate their drill, the actor shook hands with the laborer energetically. Seeing his palm come away streaked with oil from the other man’s skin, John smiled and said, “Never mind, that’s what we’re after.”
Smiley remembered that just as Booth made an effort to avoid offending Petrolia’s working men, the actor concealed his passionate feelings about the war. “During the short time I knew Booth,” the young clerk later testified, “I never heard him talk a word of politics . . . or make any reference whatever to either the North or the South.” John’s partner Mears was an abolitionist. Many other oil seekers in the Allegheny River valley were vocal supporters of the Union cause. The profit-minded young actor was not going to let his pro-Southern sentiments complicate, or risk ruining, his opportunity to earn a fortune.
By June 11, 1864, Booth and Mears had settled on a piece of land and were busy acquiring the last bits of equipment necessary to raise a derrick and begin drilling. The start-up expenses were steep. After buying the land, Booth and his friends planned to sink three separate wells, each costing over a thousand dollars to build. On average, drillers expected to tunnel five hundred feet down through alternating layers of soil and rock before hitting any kind of deposit. Filled with optimism, Booth watched work begin on his site.
The site seemed promising. Part of an old farm, the property was a half mile from Franklin, a place where many wells already had struck oil. The land was bordered on one side by the Allegheny River, giving the Dramatic Oil Company easy access to water transportation—an important consideration once petroleum started spouting out of the ground. On June 11, Booth wrote a frantic letter to his third partner, John Ellsler, in Cleveland, begging him to contribute extra cash to their project. “I have as little money and as much use for that little as any man can have,” John Wilkes wrote. “We can do nothing without [your] money,” Booth urged Ellsler. “So meet it, John, it will be the last big PULL. . . . I am sure we will be pumping oil in less than a month.”
By June 17, 1864, the actor’s mood was completely changed. On June 15, he had left his oil claim and spent two days traveling the mountains around Franklin on foot, asking questions of the oil prospectors who were working on sites at higher elevations. As John Wilkes walked for nearly fifty miles across the region, the stories of failure he encountered were alarming. His tour of the mountains revealed that hundreds of abandoned derricks littered the forest, proof of how many people, in the grip of “oil fever,” had been made to look like fools. In truth, the majority of oil prospectors who made a bid for riches ended the experiment in acute embarrassment and, often, poverty. One prospector wrote an article on the scores of men “who had taken leases and opened oil wells,” only to “retire from the trade disgusted with their enterprise” a few weeks later. These disappointed gamblers returned home to be greeted with ridicule by family and friends who demanded to know why so many thousands of dollars had been thrown away, and who blamed the hapless speculator for not realizing that his “undertaking would prove a failure.” The unlikely odds of the oil game dawned on John Wilkes during his two-day hike, leaving him with a sense of foreboding just at the moment he was making his own roll of the dice.
Gripped with panic after returning from this excursion, Booth dashed off a letter to Ellsler in Cleveland. “I want to see you here bad,” the actor wrote from Franklin on June 17, 1864. “This may be a big thing for us, or it may be nothing. . . . I must see you. I have seen all the oil regions. I got back the other day from a two days walk of 48 miles. And I know more about these things than anyone can tell me. Make it your business to come at once.” Ellsler answered the summons, arriving in Franklin to find a highly nervous Booth dressed like a mechanic and living in a shanty room bare of all furnishings except for a bed, a rifle, and “photographs of [the actor’s] family decorat[ing] the wall.”
As the days elapsed and Booth waited anxiously for news from the drilling site, he became increasingly somber. With Ellsler, he joined a circle of men who formed a club to pass the summer nights in lighthearted amusement. The members, Ellsler remembered, all “had come to Franklin to have a tussle with this new way of making fortunes.” To enliven the tedium of the oil town, they gathered nightly in a private room over a saloon, drinking, singing comic songs, telling jokes, and acting, in an amateurish way, scenes from popular plays. Though he went to the club’s meetings, Booth did not share the freewheeling, raucous mood of the rest of party. Indeed, his withdrawn, taciturn demeanor made him conspicuous at the gatherings. “[John Wilkes Booth] never indulged in a hearty laugh,” Ellsler remembered. Those belonging to the Franklin fraternity later marveled at how “nothing more than a smile could be brought to [Booth’s] face by the most amusing of actions or utterances.”
Booth had reason to be dour. Using an engine to drive an iron bit down through solid rock, the driller hired by the Dramatic Oil Company had bored to a depth of five hundred feet in two locations on the riverfront property. These wells apparently did not yield a drop of petroleum, and were pronounced dry. A third well, sunk to the unusual depth of eight hundred feet, did not gush oil, but gave forth a meager amount, around a dozen barrels per day. At ten dollars per barrel, split three ways among the partners, the profit was not worth the price of pumping such a thin stream from the ground.
John’s great speculation—the ambitious scheme to which he had devoted $5,000 of his own cash—approximately $200,000 in today’s currency—as well as six months of work, planning, and anticipation—came to nothing. The venture, freighted with so many hopes, turned out a fiasco. In a last bid for success, John Wilkes put down an additional thousand dollars on a share in a new oil claim being started by a different company outside of Franklin. This, too, proved worthless.
* * *
On July 6, 1864, his plans dashed, John Wilkes returned to Edwin’s town house at 28 East Nineteenth Street in New York City. Edwin and Junius were there, the former absorbed in supervising renovations at the Winter Garden Theatre, the latter, as he recorded in his diary, “doing nothing but loafing, reading and smoking.” John told his family not a word of his disappointments in Petrolia, giving them instead the impression that his oil investments were thriving. When Edwin wrote a letter to his friend Adam Badeau later that year, he announced what he supposed was his younger brother’s newfound career. “J. Wilkes is up to his knees in an ile well,” the actor joked. The Booths’ joint performance of Julius Caesar did not occur in July as originally planned. The renovation of the Winter Garden was not yet complete, and John Wilkes was ill. The play would be postponed until the fall season.
“I am tired and sick,” John complained in a letter to a friend on July 14, 1864. As usual when in Edwin’s house, he had to keep his political sentiments muzzled. Now he saddled himself with the extra burden of lying about his Petrolia venture. The failure of these business schemes meant the twenty-five-year-old actor now was thrown back into the life that had become hateful to him. Booth’s harrowing winter trek through Kansas and Missouri in January 1864 had drained his finances and injured his health. Future seasons of similarly hard traveling on the western theatrical circuit for little reward now loomed before him. Perhaps even more oppressive was the thought of continuing to be a petitioner for shelter and largesse from his famous older brother, the one who banished him to a career in the provinces in the first place.
On July 26, 1864, John Wilkes’s prospects for the future changed. On that day, representatives from the Confederate Secret Service summoned him to a meeting at a hotel in Boston, the Parker House. According to Louisiana resident Ed Curtis, John Wilkes Booth had “kept up a correspondence with [George W.] Miller”—his Confederate landlord in New Orleans—“for some time” after leaving that city. It may be the case that either Miller or Booth’s other New Orleans connection, the blockade-runner Hiram Martin, brought John Wilkes to the attention of Richmond authorities, identifying him as a promising recruit for conspiracy. However he found his way to the meeting, John discovered that an entirely new kind of speculation was open to him. A job—not that of actor or oilman, but of conspirator against the Lincoln administration—appears to have been offered to Booth on this occasion, and he accepted it.
Years before, at Richmond, Virginia, in November 1859, John had run out of the Marshall Theatre and talked his way onto a train bearing volunteer militiamen to Charlestown, the site of John Brown’s hanging. For two weeks he wore the uniform of the Richmond Grays, reveled in his temporary association with that respected group, and performed guard and sentry duties mandated by the governor of Virginia. The Grays conferred on John Wilkes, so long an outsider, the gratifying feeling of belonging, and—perhaps for the first time in his life—the sense of fulfilling an important duty. Now, on July 26, 1864, John Wilkes Booth appears to have been given the chance to trade his membership in the brotherhood of actors and the world of the theater—sources to him of so little comparative success and so much frustration—for a vital mission on behalf of the Southern cause he loved. He joined a new brotherhood: the network of active conspirators against the Lincoln administration.
On August 1, less than a week after meeting with Confederate agents, John Wilkes met Edwin, June, and other members of his family at a summer cottage on Long Island Sound, acting as if nothing had changed. “Fine time sunning and rowing,” Junius observed in his diary. John would have no trouble concealing his new employment from the Booth family. Whatever traveling this work entailed, or whatever income it accrued, John would ascribe to “my coal and oil lands [that] I have bought near Cleveland.” The failed Petrolia enterprise provided a helpful cover for the novice agent. Yet there was one thing John Wilkes could not hide. Contact with rebel authorities and involvement in their cause seem to have freed him from feeling a need to acknowledge Edwin Booth’s authority. After his July 26 meeting in Boston, John Wilkes began making gestures of defiance toward his Union-sympathizing family, his hostility bursting out forcefully. August 1864 opened a volatile chapter in the record of the brothers’ relationships.
On the surface, life in the Booth family had never been better. “Dear mother is happy with her children about her, thank God!” Edwin wrote at this time. Though Mary Ann Booth yearned for her youngest son, Joe, who now was living in San Francisco, it was a joy for her to have her oldest son, Junius, with her for the first time in a decade. The Booth matriarch had all her grandchildren with her as well: besides Edwin’s daughter little Edwina and Asia Booth Clarke’s two young children in Philadelphia, Junius had brought his ten-year-old daughter, Molly, with him from California, a girl whom Asia described as “the wildest hoyden that ever skipped.” The family finances were booming. The Winter Garden and Walnut Street theaters poured record profits into John Sleeper Clarke’s and Edwin Booth’s bank accounts. Private carriages, vacations by the seaside, sumptuous clothes, and elegantly furnished homes now were regular features of Mary Ann and Asia’s everyday lives. The privations this mother and daughter had endured during their hungry years in the 1850s were a long way away.
Edwin and Clarke were busy throughout August readying their two theaters for grand openings in the fall. “I’ve been in the scene-room and wardrobe night and day lately,” Edwin said to a friend. “Everything looks fair and prosperous for the coming season.” The star was planning another revival of Hamlet, this time with backdrops, costumes, and furniture perfectly reproducing the interior of a tenth-century castle in Denmark. “Every scene, every dress, every chair and table and nearly all the actors will be new,” Edwin said. His promoter, William Stuart, hoping to build public excitement, invited reporters to daily lunches at the Winter Garden to watch scene painters at work and see actors in rehearsals. Junius was occupied as well. “Busy getting my phys[ique] ready,” the forty-two-year-old actor announced in his diary, referring to the fencing and stage-fighting techniques he must practice prior to barnstorming theaters in Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., in the fall.
John Wilkes Booth’s anger intruded on this hum of theatrical preparation, reminding his family of the war still being fought beyond the footlights. One memorable episode most likely occurred August 7, 1864, when their brother-in-law John Sleeper Clarke, Edwin, and John Wilkes rode the cars together from New York City to Philadelphia. On this train ride, Clarke apparently referred to Jefferson Davis in an insulting manner. The instant Clarke spoke, John dove for him, seizing him by the neck and choking him. “He swung [me] from side to side with maniac strength while his grip tightened,” Clarke later remembered. John’s face, he said, appeared “twisted with rage.” Witnesses shouted and made attempts to stop the attack, but John Wilkes ended it himself, shoving Clarke back into his seat with the words, “Never, if you value your life . . . speak in that way to me again of a man and a cause I hold sacred.”
Stunned by this display of aggression, the Booth family seems to have construed John’s behavior as a temporary derangement brought on by high fever. The twenty-six-year-old returned to Edwin’s house in New York, where he collapsed. For the next three weeks, John was confined to a sickroom, his right arm inflamed with erysipelas, a streptococcal infection of the skin. In the days before penicillin, the condition could be fatal. Sufferers were racked with nausea, chills, headaches, exhaustion, and pain as their bodies battled the disease. A doctor visited John Wilkes, who remained bedridden through the final days of August.
President Lincoln’s standing in the North, and Republican morale in general, had never been lower than at the end of this month in 1864. Union forces appeared to be at a standstill. General Grant was halted outside Richmond; Sherman’s divisions were massed around Atlanta, their progress, for the moment, obstructed. Feeding off Northern frustration, a resurgent Democratic Party castigated Lincoln for his emancipation policy and called for an immediate end to the war and the restoration of the Union with slavery intact. When Democrats convened in Chicago that summer, they nominated former general George B. McClellan to challenge Lincoln in the November presidential elections. Campaign posters for the Democratic candidate warned voters that reelecting Lincoln would not only bring on the horrors of “Universal Anarchy and Ultimate RUIN!” but also the threats of “Negro Equality, More Debt, Harder Times and another Draft.” A McClellan victory, on the other hand, promised to “defeat Negro equality, restore prosperity, and re-establish the Union in an honorable, permanent and happy peace.” Abraham Lincoln gauged the mood of his war-weary countrymen and predicted a grim electoral future. “I am going to be beaten,” the president said, “and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.”
Sick as he was, John Wilkes could not resist arguing politics with his brother Edwin. On August 29, a shouting match broke out between them that even Junius, always eager to smooth over family quarrels, called “severe.” The specific words the two brothers traded are unknown, but Adam Badeau later testified that Edwin, in a terrible voice, at the end of a “long and violent” exchange with his brother, threatened to expel John Wilkes from the Booth home. After John had ranted and stormed, “wish[ing],” Badeau reported, “for the success of the Rebellion,” Edwin shot back that “he should go elsewhere to make such sentiments known; that he was not at liberty to express them in the house of a Union man.”
This was not an insignificant warning. Whatever differences divided the clan, their commitment to protecting Mary Ann Booth’s happiness had always been paramount. These sons “were greatly attached to their mother,” a Booth family friend observed. Keeping the family united was a goal to which all the Booth children dedicated themselves. The point was not only to spare their long-suffering mother any further sadness, but to guard their privacy, to advance their professional reputation, and to raise their social standing. A split in this family’s famously united front would be noticed by the press. The suggestion that politics had broken the Booth brothers apart would be news indeed.
Asia Booth Clarke later credited Edwin and John’s argument to the dangerous topic of Abraham Lincoln. She notes in her memoir that John Wilkes was obsessed with the president’s reelection, spouting dire predictions that the Republican was planning on “making himself a king” come November. “His success, I tell you—will be a reign!” John thundered at Asia. He said Lincoln was trying “to crush out slavery” with foul play, resorting to “robbery, rapine, slaughter and bought armies” to achieve his ends. With somewhat confused logic, Wilkes held that Lincoln’s tactics were shameful compared to the liberating crusade “of old John Brown . . . that rugged old hero.” “Great God!” John Wilkes cried, “John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of the century.” Next to Brown, the young actor said, Lincoln was “coarse,” “vulgar,” and “a disgrace.” Listening to her brother’s words, Asia worried his mind had been strained by his recent illness and too much hard work.
Edwin Booth afterward referred to his fight with John Wilkes as “a disgusting quarrel.” The argument gave him “the blues,” he said. When it was over, Edwin composed a letter to Adam Badeau, then stationed outside Richmond with General Grant. Edwin asked his friend to “send me Jeff Davis’s head” as a present, and talked about his plans to support President Lincoln in the fall elections. “I go in for cursing every damned rebel out and waving the old ‘stars and stripes’ all over,” he told Badeau. Lincoln “is what is called right.” A second term in office for the Republican leader would be “glorious.” Edwin had marked the celebrations of the third anniversary of Lincoln’s inaugural with a command performance for the president. Badeau was at Grant’s side as that general besieged the Confederate capital, Richmond. Edwin counted Secretary of State William H. Seward among his friends. Thus Edwin Booth’s loyalty to the Lincoln administration was more than abstract patriotism—it was personal.
Fortunately for the sake of family peace—and particularly for the feelings of Mary Ann Booth, who was distressed by any strife among her children—Edwin, Edwina, and Junius packed their bags for Philadelphia on September 1, where Edwin was due to perform at the Walnut Street Theatre. A day after his departure, Atlanta fell to General Sherman’s army. This long-sought victory turned the fortunes of war in Lincoln’s favor at last. The public mood in Northern cities was jubilant. Patriotic demonstrations celebrated Sherman’s advance through Georgia. From September 2 onward, Lincoln’s reelection seemed assured.
“Whenever I would mention any success of the federal arms,” Junius later recalled, John Wilkes “would say that he had not heard it—or that it was a false report & and soon would be corrected.” There was no denying, however, that bluecoats had captured Atlanta, the city the New York Times referred to as a “rebel stronghold.” This news compounded John Wilkes’s already powerful feelings of anger and alienation. He was ready to drop all association with his clan; it was only his attachment to his mother and sister that kept him within the family’s orbit. John declared to Asia, “if it were not for mother I would not enter Edwin’s house.” The young man added, “I would never darken [Clarke’s] door, but for you.”
Edwin Booth put all thoughts of John Wilkes behind. Family troubles were easily forgotten in the adulation greeting the star at the start of his new season. “My trade,” Edwin announced to Colonel Badeau in September 1864, “has been great in every sense.” Money poured into the ticket office of the Walnut Street Theatre: “If no crashes come, I shall make out to have a snug little home to leave behind me,” the actor crowed.
The people of Philadelphia even presented the star “with a fine portrait of my father,” Edwin noted, as a token of their admiration. “The face is beautiful,” he informed Badeau, “it was taken when he was 30. I think more of it than of the fame and money I have made during this engagement.” Yet Booth had a further ambition in view. The anticipation for his Julius Caesar, scheduled for November 25, was surpassed only by the news that the actor, on the night following his joint performance with his brothers, would debut a new production of Hamlet and proceed to play the part for one hundred nights running, a feat never before attempted by any actor, even in Shakespeare’s time.
John Wilkes Booth left New York City after the infection in his arm had cleared. In the last week of September, he made a final visit to Franklin, Pennsylvania, where he filed documents officially ending his stake in the failed claim of the Dramatic Oil Company. With the help of his friend Joe Simonds, John transferred ownership of the nonproductive oil wells to his brother Junius. Though the property itself was virtually worthless, John’s gesture acknowledged the one male member of the Booth family he held to be his friend.
Franklin’s streets were alive with talk of the approaching elections. People were animated as well by reports of General Philip Sheridan’s string of victories in northern Virginia. The Army of the Shenandoah was sweeping the gray-coats southward. As they crossed the landscape, United States soldiers either burned or commandeered the rich produce of Virginia’s autumn harvest: crops, the contents of storehouses, and livestock fell alike into their hands. On orders from Ulysses S. Grant, Sheridan had vowed to render “the Shenandoah Valley a barren waste.”
Whether it was because of the news of the rebel defeats in Virginia, or the sting of contemplating his own losses in Petrolia, John Wilkes spent most of his time in Franklin drinking, witnesses said, the “strongest brandy.” On more than one occasion he was seen weaving his way through town, “as drunk as he could possibly get,” once even stopping on the sidewalk in a half stupor, roaring out a monologue from Richard III while slashing the air before him with a tree branch instead of with a sword.
It is likely John Wilkes was drunk for most of his stay in Franklin, for on at least two occasions the actor threatened unarmed men in the town with a loaded gun. Only the quick action of bystanders prevented bloodshed. James Lawson, a local barber, reported that Booth almost shot a man while waiting his turn for a haircut. The trouble started when Caleb Marshall, a black resident of Franklin, entered the shop and “began to rejoice loudly over the news of a great victory for the Union army.” Booth challenged Marshall to be silent, “pointing his finger” and saying in a threatening voice, “Is that the way you talk among gentlemen, and with your hat on, too?”
Marshall stood his ground, calmly replying that he only removed his hat when entering a parlor where ladies were present. “When I go into a barroom or a barber shop or any other public place,” Marshall said, “I keep my hat on.”
At this juncture, Lawson recalled, “Booth’s face turned white” and his hand gripped the butt of the pistol he carried in his coat pocket. Men sitting next to Booth grabbed him by the arms and shoulders, immobilizing his upper body and dragging him out the door and down the street before the situation turned violent.
Another episode—one that mirrored John Wilkes’s earlier attempt to choke his brother-in-law Clarke on a train car—occurred while Booth was riding the ferryboat from Franklin. He took offense when a man on board disparaged Southerners and spoke admiringly of Abraham Lincoln. John disagreed vehemently, brandishing his pistol. The Lincoln supporter—a carpenter—countered by thrusting a steel-tipped barge pike at John’s face and threatening to “run him through.” Fellow passengers restrained the men, and peace was restored.
Booth left Franklin at the end of September, planning never to return. He spent the early part of October in New York City, once again staying in Edwin’s house. The two managed to get along this time without an explosion. On October 14, Edwin penned a peaceful letter to Adam Badeau, remarking that as he wrote John Wilkes “is on the sofa at this juncture in t’other room.”
During this visit, John told Edwin and their friends in the theater world that he had grown wealthy by his investment in oil. Fellow actors later reported that John said he had no intention of returning to work onstage, “petroleum,” he bragged, “being more profitable than the profession.” Booth claimed his oil wells “netted within six months between $50,000 and $75,000,” a sum resembling Edwin and Clarke’s profits from their New York and Philadelphia theaters. As this description of his oil riches spread through acting circles, John’s longtime friend Joe Simonds sounded a note of warning. “I hardly know what to make of you,” Simonds wrote. “Don’t get offended with me John but . . . you must not tell such extravagant stories.” Simonds knew better than anyone how much cash Booth had lost on his risky Petrolia speculation. He admonished the actor for telling lies. “We have not got rich yet, John,” he said. Simonds probably believed John spread the falsehoods to escape being teased as a failure. He had no knowledge of the actor’s real reason for using Petrolia as a smoke screen.
John Wilkes traveled to Montreal, in the third week of October 1864. Here he attended a meeting of high-ranking Confederate spies who outlined in greater detail their plans for the abduction of President Lincoln. Booth apparently received a large sum of money from these agents—in excess of $1,500—with which to launch the conspiracy.
In the clearest sign yet that John had committed himself fully to this fateful course of action, he carried with him into Canada the trunk of costumes that once had belonged to his father. An actor’s wardrobe was his passport. Without the requisite garments in which to play Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet, or Romeo, a traveling actor could not work. In Montreal, Booth entrusted these precious tools of his profession to a man named Martin. John Wilkes later told a friend that Martin would bring the trunk on board his vessel when he ran the Union blockade of Southern ports. This was a drastic measure. By shipping his best means of earning a living across Southern lines, John was turning his back on any future as an actor he might have had in the North and West. John’s action indicated he was preparing to leave his home and his family permanently behind.
Booth stayed in Montreal through October 27, when he left for Washington, D.C. In that city, one week after President Abraham Lincoln won reelection to a second term by a landslide of four hundred thousand votes over George B. McClellan, John Wilkes Booth deposited the operating funds paid him by Confederate authorities in a local bank.
* * *
“I wish you [would] send me stirring news of what’s going on in the world,” Edwin pleaded in a letter to Colonel Badeau during that election season. “I never read the papers,” he confessed. The star felt like a prisoner of the stage. “I live in a world bounded by a few painted tents and trees, outside of which I know nothing,” he explained. “Isn’t my life a strange one? I only just begin to realize its unreality.”
For all his protests of ignorance, Edwin Booth paid enough attention to the world beyond his theater’s walls to make his way to a polling station on November 8 to vote for Abraham Lincoln. “The first vote I ever cast,” he cried. For this son of Junius Brutus Booth, who always had followed his father’s example of staying clear of political affiliations, Edwin’s gesture was significant. “I suppose I am now an American citizen all over,” he mused, “as I have ever been in heart.”
Edwin Booth might only have skimmed the headlines for war news, but he read all theatrical notices avidly. Rave reviews following his brother Junius’s performances at John T. Ford’s theaters in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., filled Edwin with trepidation. After carefully positioning himself as the reigning Booth in New York City, Edwin did not wish to be outshone on his own stage the night Julius Caesar came to the Winter Garden. “According to the papers,” Edwin wrote to a friend, “he [Junius] is the Booth of the family; so I must brush up, or lose my laurels.” For Edwin to feel threatened by Junius seems almost absurd. At this stage in Edwin’s career, Junius was hardly a rival. A competitive edge was ever present in the relationships among the brothers.
* * *
Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes gathered in New York City on November 23, 1864, to rehearse for Julius Caesar. Promoter William Stuart had done his publicity work well. Posters in the streets and advertisements in newspapers invited audiences to see the three sons of the great booth walk the same stage together. Edwin’s team of carpenters and artists had exerted themselves to produce gorgeous backdrops that evoked the interior and exterior scenes of ancient Rome and its stately Forum.
While Edwin and Junius, playing Brutus and Cassius, respectively, would wear togas that swept to their ankles, Mrs. Bohmer, wardrobe mistress at the Winter Garden, fitted John Wilkes in a different costume. He donned a pair of white hose, an embroidered tunic cut above the knee to show his muscular legs, and leather sandals whose straps wound tightly up his calves. She apparently ordered John to shave his face clean before the performance: Mark Antony could not sport a drooping mustache.
The audience that promenaded through the wrought-iron gates of the Winter Garden on Friday, November 25, was spectacular both in size and distinction. Every private box was filled, the balcony level was densely packed, and every seat in the orchestra had been taken. “The theater was crowded to suffocation,” Asia remembered, “people standing in every available place. The greatest excitement prevailed.” Mary Ann Booth, in her handsomest dress, sat beside Asia in a private box. John Sleeper Clarke and eleven-year-old Molly, Junius’s daughter, were with them. The next morning, the New York Herald cataloged those present in the glittering assembly as “Boothites, Shakespeare men, artists, authors, actors, the men of taste in the city generally, and Bohemians, of course, without number.”
The curtain rose, and the audience waited breathlessly for the opening of the play’s second scene, the moment when Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony make their first entrance. The sight of the Booth brothers dashing onstage in a group, one witness remembered, “fairly carried the house by storm.” Applause and roars of approbation greeted the actors—Junius was the tallest and broadest of the three; John Wilkes, the youngest, had the most perfect features; Edwin, the smallest, nonetheless commanded the most attention. As the characters began to speak, the audience saw the unequal distribution of talent and training in the Booth family. Edwin’s superiority was evident. Stuart later recalled that while John Wilkes “was physically the handsomest,” Edwin “was head and shoulders, as an actor, above the other two.” Drama critics taking notes that night agreed. One asserted after the show that “as an actor, J. Wilkes could not compare with either of his brothers, although his resemblance to them in form, feature, voice and manner was remarkable.” The New York Herald was kinder to John. After heaping praise on Edwin and Junius, the Herald reviewer stated that if the audience noticed the youngest Booth brought “less of a real personality to Mark Antony, the fault was rather in the part than in the actor.”
At the moment the second act began, the doors leading into the auditorium burst open and firefighters poured into the theater dragging hoses, and a small fire engine behind them. The audience leaped out of their seats, ready to run for an exit. It had been almost half a century since the Richmond Theatre burned to the ground during a performance, killing nearly a hundred people, but the memory of that death trap lingered in the popular mind. Edwin and William Stuart were able to calm the crowd. As it turned out, no smoke or flames had touched the Winter Garden. A fire at the LaFarge Hotel next door, soon extinguished, was responsible for the interruption. The firefighters departed, the doors closed behind them, and the play continued to its end, when the three brothers were called onstage “side by side, again and again,” Asia remembered, “to receive the lavish applause of the audience, mingled with waving handkerchiefs and every mark of enthusiasm.”
The box office at the Winter Garden sold $3,500 worth of tickets that night—the approximate equivalent of $140,000 in modern currency. As Edwin had decreed, the entire sum would be given to benefit the Shakespeare fund. A repetition of this kind of performance, with profits divided three ways among the Booth brothers, would have made every difference in the cash-strapped lives of Junius and John Wilkes. Edwin never offered to make such an arrangement, however, and his siblings never brought themselves to ask.
No one could doubt who owned the lion’s share of genius in the Booth family. The attention of the city now was trained on the Winter Garden as Edwin prepared to unveil the greatest achievement of his career. On Saturday, November 26, he would walk onstage, this time alone, to begin a record-breaking marathon—acting Hamlet one hundred nights in a row “with a magnificence,” critics would enthuse, “unknown in the history of the American stage.”
* * *
On the morning of November 26, Asia and her husband, Clarke, returned to their home in Philadelphia by train, taking Junius’s daughter, Molly, with them. Edwin hastened to the Winter Garden, where he rehearsed with his stock company for the night’s gala opening of Hamlet. It was not until Sunday, November 27, that Mary Ann, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes were able to gather around the breakfast table to discuss the terrifying report that was sending waves of shock through the residents of the metropolis. At exactly nine o’clock on Friday night, a network of Confederate conspirators, stationed at points across Manhattan, set fire to major buildings. Their goal was to touch off a massive fire, burning the city to the ground. The firefighters who had burst into the Winter Garden as the Booth brothers started the second act of Julius Caesar were responding to a blaze Confederates had lit inside the LaFarge Hotel next door.
Newspapers passed on the intelligence that this “Vast Rebel Conspiracy” was inspired in part by the work of arsonists during the Draft Riots the previous summer, when fires, proliferating across the city, had thrown New York into confusion and chaos. “The original plan of the marauders,” the New York Herald reported, “was to have simultaneously fired the hotels at the lower and upper part of the city, and while the Fire Department and Police had their attention distracted to these remote portions of New York, to fire the hotels and other public buildings in the central points.”
Investigators quickly discovered that dozens of Confederate agents—many of them “importations from Richmond and Canada,” the Herald informed its readers—had descended on the city Friday morning, carrying carpetbags filled with jars of turpentine and phosphorus. These men had checked into rooms at the Metropolitan, the St. James, the Gramercy Park, the LaFarge, and other hotels, where they soaked the beds and blankets with turpentine. At the stroke of nine o’clock, the agents then broke open their jars of phosphorus and hurled the contents around the rooms.
The quick response by teams of volunteer fire companies foiled the scheme. None of the blazes set by Confederate arsonists ever reached the point of raging out of control. New York, however, had been given a reminder of the horrifying days of the Draft Riots. Fire alarms sounding across the city, more than a year later, still had the power to fill residents with special dread.
The Confederate motive for launching this incendiary attack, the New York Herald reported, “was retaliation for General Sheridan’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley.” As Union armies carried the war to Southern civilians, rebel conspirators now sought “to carry destruction into our Northern cities.” A lead editorial suggested the attack was evidence the South had realized it was losing the war. Richmond’s leaders were “steeped to their necks in blood,” the Herald accused; their only wish now was “to inflict vengeance upon us for their disappointments.”
The Booths, like nearly every other newspaper-reading household in the city, could not avoid talking about this startling development. As might be imagined, the discussion among the brothers turned ugly. Junius seems to have touched off the argument. He was furious that the rebel arsonists now in custody would receive due process of law. After a long residence in California, this oldest Booth brother was attracted to frontier-style vigilante justice. Had the same attack been made against the city of San Francisco, June cried, “the whole pack of incendiaries would have been caught and hanged from the window of the Vigilante headquarters on Sacramento Street.”
John Wilkes disagreed. He apparently defended the arsonists, describing their work as a legitimate “act of war,” honorable payback for General Sheridan’s wanton destruction of civilian property in Virginia. Confederate agents had no choice but to wage war on the people of New York, he said.
Listening to John Wilkes’s words, Edwin lost control. He had experienced, as John Wilkes also had, the lawlessness of the Draft Riots. During that bloody week in 1863 both brothers had lived in fear that violent gangs would break into their house, discover the Union officer—Edwin’s friend Badeau—and the black man concealed within it, and burn the place in retaliation. The lives of their mother, their sister Rosalie, and Edwin’s daughter, Edwina, had been in peril. For John Booth now to advocate acts of terror against the city where the Booth family made its home, Edwin decided, was going too far.
In a towering rage, one witness later recalled, Edwin shouted that John was “a rank secessionist.” He ordered his brother “to cease his treasonable language, telling him he could not stay in the house if he persisted.” John refused to back down. At this point, the witness said, Edwin “peremptorily expelled his brother from his residence,” no doubt seizing John and forcing him out the front door and into the street.
John was enraged and humiliated. Once again, as during his last fight with Edwin in August, he was suffering from a physical illness. One side of John’s neck, Junius noted in his diary, had erupted in large, painful “boils,” or “carbuncles.” On November 28, Junius, ever the peacemaker, helped “the rank secessionist” pack his bags. Too sick to stay in a hotel, John Wilkes was compelled to seek shelter under Asia’s roof in Philadelphia. Junius accompanied his brother there on the train, where Asia put John to bed and summoned a doctor to drain the abscesses on his neck.
Scholars of Lincoln’s assassination agree that it was at the home of his sister Asia in the month of November 1864 that John Wilkes Booth composed two important letters. In these rambling, emotional screeds, he attempts to explain first to his mother and then to a national audience his firm resolve to plot against the president of the United States.
The first missive is addressed to “Dearest beloved Mother.” Mary Ann Booth, having borne ten illegitimate children by Junius, Sr., before he finally acquired a divorce from his first wife, had lived with social ostracism for decades. Now, just as she was achieving a measure of peace and security, the deed John Wilkes planned to commit would renew her misery. The son justified his action to the mother by reminding her of the strife troubling their family since the war began. “For four years I have lived (I may say) A slave in the north,” John writes, “not daring to express my thoughts or sentiments, even in my own home. Constantly hearing every principle, dear to my heart, denounced as treasonable . . . For four years I have borne it mostly for your dear sake . . . but it seems that uncontrollable fate, moving me for its ends, takes me from you, dear Mother, to do what work I can.”
In his second letter, addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and no doubt intended for publication in national newspapers, John Wilkes acknowledges “how foolish I shall be deemed, for undertaking such a step as this.” He describes the North as his home, the place, he writes, where “I have many friends, and everything to make me happy.” With some exaggeration, John claims that in the North “my profession alone has gained me an income of more than twenty thousand dollars a year. And where my great personal ambition in my profession has such a great field of labor.”
Booth grants that it “seems insane . . . to give up” this comfortable Northern world in favor of “the South . . . where I have no friends . . . a place, where I must either become a private soldier or a beggar.” Yet, he declares, it is the abject oppression of the Southern people by the armies and government of the North that has won him over to their side. His last lines in the letter: “My love (as things stand today) is for the South alone. They say she has found that ‘last ditch’ which the North have . . . been endeavoring to force her in, forgetting they are our brothers, and that it is impolitic to goad an enemy to madness. Should I reach her in safety and find it true, I will proudly beg permission to triumph or die in that same ‘ditch’ by her side.”
In early December, John Wilkes Booth went to Washington, D.C. His family was relieved to see the troublesome young man depart. John Sleeper Clarke abominated Wilkes and did not care to have him stay long in Philadelphia. Junius, engaged to star in Boston theaters for the entire month, was too busy to devote much attention to him. Edwin had thrown John Wilkes out of his house. The conspirator took his leave without fanfare, speeding onward toward his then inscrutable purpose. As Junius Booth later testified to a federal investigator, John Wilkes told them on his departure that “he was forming an oil co. in Washington & could do better by it than acting & we all believed him.”
* * *
Edwin Booth’s one hundred consecutive performances of Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre between November 26, 1864, and March 22, 1865, was a feat never attempted before that date. In this marathon of artistic endurance, the star gave the people of New York an astonishing display of his virtuosity. Endlessly inventive, ever improvising, the actor managed to make each successive performance seem somehow different from the one before. He dug deep into himself, layering fresh inflections on Shakespeare’s language, finding new interpretations of familiar passages. William Stuart, the Winter Garden’s seasoned showman, knew the stunt was box office gold. When Edwin’s energies flagged, and he felt “heartily sick and wearied of the monotonous work,” he begged his manager to end the run. Stuart always refused, urging the star onward with the words “No, not at all, my dear boy! Keep it up, keep it up! If it goes a year, keep it up!”
The critics of New York were transfixed by Edwin’s feat, and so was the nation as a whole. Decades later, the episode was remembered for how it took up space on the pages of newspapers that otherwise would have been devoted to General Grant as he closed in on Richmond. Part of Edwin’s genius, the New York Sun marveled, was his ability to “challenge attention even in the midst of the trouble, excitements and anxieties of the war.”
On March 27, 1865, Adam Badeau was stationed with General Grant at his headquarters in City Point, Virginia. The president and Mrs. Lincoln were also present, having made a special visit to the front. It was not an easy period for Badeau. Mrs. Lincoln was his special charge, and her easily wounded temper and unrestrained outbursts made her presence at Grant’s headquarters difficult and upsetting for everyone.
Badeau, who had read the newspaper accounts of his old friend’s latest success, took time away from his duties playing host to the first lady to write a word of congratulation to Edwin Booth. “Your triumph has realized all I ever hoped you would accomplish,” he exclaimed, “and will certainly be historical in the annals of your art.” Badeau informed Edwin that Grant was preparing to march on Richmond immediately. “We start tomorrow night or early next morning, according to present orders.” Drawing a parallel between the soldier’s life and the actor’s, Badeau joked, “Just as your campaign is over, ours begins. I hope we shall be as successful as you have been.” At the close of this letter, Badeau mentioned “Generals Sherman and Sheridan are both here in person today. Also the President.”
Laurence Olivier, a twentieth-century actor who spent a great deal of his time playing Hamlet, noted that after a certain number of nights the performance of this character becomes a self-portrait of the actor who is playing him. “Hamlet,” Olivier said, “has to be you in all the facets you can muster.” Edwin Booth brought the experiences of his own life to bear on his work that season—his understanding of a son’s relationship to his father and his mother; the uneasy boundary that exists between genius and madness; the lure of fame; when it is best to take bold action, and when it is better simply to “let be.” Audiences thought they perceived a special intensity in the scenes Edwin played with the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Every night, the actor wore a medallion portrait of his own parent, Junius Brutus Booth, on a heavy gold chain around his neck, an integral part of his costume.
While Edwin’s hundred nights were drawing to a close, the Century Club made plans to honor the record-breaking star. A committee of distinguished men, including the governor of New York and the assistant secretary of war, Charles A. Dana, wished to present Booth with a “Hamlet Medal,” an oval, cast in solid gold, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany announced that his creation would bear “in the center, Booth’s head as Hamlet, surrounded by a serpent, the skull of Yorick, two foils crossed and a raven.” The inscription on the opposite side would read, “To Edwin Booth, in commemoration of the unprecedented run of Hamlet as enacted by him in New-York City for one hundred nights.”
In February 1864, the president of the United States and his secretary of state both had honored Edwin Booth with proofs of their sincere regard. After he completed one hundred nights of Hamlet in March 1865, Booth would arrive at yet another pinnacle of his career. Any greater laurel an actor might receive beyond these rewards would be difficult to imagine.
But that did not stop Edwin Booth from trying. Though “the terrible success of ‘Hamlet’ seems to swallow up everything,” Edwin confessed he was preoccupied with thoughts of how to “follow it up with something still better done, if it can be, in the way of costumes and scenery.” One idea was to summon his brothers, John Wilkes and Junius, back to the Winter Garden on the next anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday—April 23, 1865—for another charity performance. This time, Edwin thought, the brothers could share the leading parts in Romeo and Juliet: Edwin taking Mercutio; Junius, Friar Lawrence; and John Wilkes, Romeo. Looking ahead to winning his next accolade, Edwin said, “keeps me far off in fairy-land, day and night, in my dreams and in my days.”
John Wilkes rarely replied to the mail his family sent him that winter. His visits to New York were infrequent: Edwin’s antipathy made brotherly meetings difficult. Finally, on January 17, 1865, in answer to an anxious letter from Junius demanding to know what John was doing in Washington and why he refused to write, the twenty-six-year-old sent this response: “You ask me what I am doing. Well a thousand things. Yet no more, hardly than what I could attend to if I was at home. But dear brother you must not think me childish when I say that the old feeling aroused by our loving brother has not yet died out. I am sure he thinks I live upon him. And its only for dear Mother that I have gone there at all when in New York, and as I cannot live in that city without him at home and as this season I would be home all the time, I thought it best not to be in the City at all, and as I like this place next, and my bus[iness] at present calls me here. I thought I would here make my stand.”
Onstage with Edwin Booth throughout the marathon run of Hamlet was a man who did have an idea of what kind of stand John Wilkes Booth was planning to make. Samuel Knapp Chester was a member of the Winter Garden’s stock company, listed on playbills as S. K. Chester. He acted Claudius to Edwin’s Hamlet during the hundred-night run, and his wife played a supporting role in the production. Beginning in November 1864, Chester had been the recipient of a number of disturbing visits and letters from Edwin Booth’s younger brother.
Chester had known John Wilkes for years, and shared the stage with him on November 25, 1864, during Julius Caesar. It was in rehearsals for this performance that John first intimated he had a scheme afoot in Washington. As Chester later told a federal court, he overheard some Winter Garden actors teasing John Wilkes “about his oil speculations,” questioning whether his profits were as big as he represented them to be. After the men departed, Booth whispered to Chester “he had a better speculation than that on hand, and one they wouldn’t laugh at.”
A month later, Chester claimed, in late December 1864, Booth appeared at his door in Manhattan one cold night and asked Chester to go for a walk. On a deserted stretch of Fourth Street, where there were few other pedestrians, Chester recalled, Booth spilled the entirety of his plot against the Lincoln administration. “He stopped and told me he was in a large conspiracy to capture the heads of the Government, including the President, and take them to Richmond,” Chester reported. Chester was terrified, and his fear increased when Booth demanded he join him in the plan.
“I told him I could not do it; that it was an impossibility; and asked him to think of my family,” Chester remembered, but Booth refused to accept this answer and began badgering him, promising several thousand dollars in payment to Chester’s wife if anything should happen to the actor.
“He told me the affair was to take place at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, and the part he wished me to play in carrying out this conspiracy, was to open the back door of the theater at a signal.”
When the actor still declined to help, Booth became angry, threatening to “ruin” Chester and to send Confederate agents after him, who would “hunt [him] down through life.” Trembling and protesting, Chester begged to be left alone. Finally, Booth relented and took his leave, muttering that if Chester breathed a word of the affair to anyone, Booth would punish him.
For three months, while John Wilkes continued to hound him with letters and demands to join the conspiracy, Samuel Chester acted in Hamlet at the Winter Garden with Edwin Booth, divulging nothing of the secret plot to his employer and co-star. Chester seemed sincerely to believe John Wilkes Booth’s threats to kill him.
* * *
Even at the peak of his fame, Edwin Booth had the pricking feeling that bad luck would soon befall him. This sense of impending disaster often troubled him, Edwin admitted, perhaps a legacy from his early years of traveling with the chaotic and unpredictable Junius Brutus Booth. This anxious tendency was exacerbated by the shock of his wife Mary’s sudden demise.
“All my life has been passed on picket duty, as it were,” the actor wrote. “I have been on guard, on the look-out, for disasters—for which, when they come, I am prepared. Therefore, I have seemed, to those who do not really know me, callous to the many blows that have been dealt me. Why do you not look at this miserable little life, with all its ups and downs, as I do? At the very worst, tis but a scratch, a temporary ill, soon to be cured by that dear old doctor, Death.”
Edwin’s words, as bitter as they seem, were an echo of Hamlet’s austere philosophy. It is a philosophy perfectly expressed in the moment before the play’s bloody denouement. Throughout his life, Edwin Booth would refer to these lines, ones Hamlet delivers in the last act, as his favorite in all of Shakespeare:
There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, tis not to come;
If it be not to come, it will be now;
If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.
* * *
From My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy by Nora Titone. Copyright © 2010 by Nora Titone. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.