The Other Booths

jb_civil_lincoln_1_eOn the evening of April 14, 1865 during a performance of the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head, a wound from which the president would die early the next morning. In the initial confusion after the shooting, Booth managed to jump from the presidential box onto the stage, crying “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus Always To Tyrants), beginning a flight from justice that ended twelve days later with his death in a Virginia barn. It is as Lincoln’s assassin that Booth is remembered. What is sometimes forgotten is that John Wilkes Booth was well known long before his act of treachery.

Junius Brutus Booth, sr., father of John Wilkes and Edwin

Junius Brutus Booth, sr.

L-R: John, Edwin, & Junius, jr. in Julis Caeser

L-R: John, Edwin, & Junius, jr. in Julis Caesar

Like his father, Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852),and his brother Edwin, John Wilkes Booth was one of the most respected actors of his day. In 1862, the New York Herald called John a “veritable sensation” for his performance as the lead in Richard III. [1] The eldest Booth brother, Junius, jr., was also an actor, although neither as gifted nor famous as John, Edwin, and their father. A sister, Asia, was married to John Sleeper Clarke, a well-known actor and comedian. Theirs was a family accustomed to public acclaim. One can only wonder, then, what it must have been like to overnight become the sibling of the most infamous man in America.

Of the ten children born to Junius Brutus Booth, sr. and Mary Ann Holmes, only six survived to adulthood. Of those six, John Wilkes, Edwin Thomas, and Asia Frigga are the most recognizable today. Junius Brutus, jr. never really made his mark in the theater. Rosalie Ann and Joseph Adrian are hardly more than footnotes in the family history. The three actor brothers only appeared together once in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar to raise funds for a statue of William Shakespeare. That statue now stands in New York’s Central Park near the Promenade.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, 1870

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, 1870

Edwin Booth was John Wilkes’s senior by five years and his equal, perhaps superior, as a Shakespearean actor. In 1864, he played Hamlet in what became the “100 nights Hamlet”, a record not surpassed until John Barrymore played the role for 101 performances. Although John and Edwin shared a passion for the Shakespearean stage, they disagreed about other important issues. They feuded before the assassination, and afterward, Edwin disowned John, not even allowing his name to be spoken in his home. Edwin had been a stanch supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the union, while John Wilkes believed firmly in the justice of secession and the Confederate cause. They were living examples of the war dividing brothers. From 1863 to 1867, Edwin managed the Winter Garden Theater in New York. The assassination forced Edwin to leave the stage for months, only returning in 1866 to play Hamlet. Edwin’s career survived his brother’s infamy one must believe due in large part to his reportedly immense talent. His last performance was in 1891 when he returned to his signature role, Hamlet. Despite the shame brought by John’s actions, there was enough family feeling for Edwin to petition President Andrew Johnson for his brother’s body. After repeated pleas, Johnson finally signed an order of release in 1869 and Edwin buried John in an unmarked grave in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Asia Frigga Booth Clarke

Asia Frigga Booth Clarke

 

Asia Frigga Booth Clarke was heavily pregnant with twins when she learned of her younger brother’s role in the president’s death. It is reported that she screamed at the sight of the April 15 newspaper headlines. She and her husband lived in a large house in Philadelphia, a home which her brother John had visited often and where he had left documents for safekeeping. From the family safe, Asia withdrew a sealed envelope. Among other things, it contained $4000 in federal and municipal bonds, a letter to their mother explaining why he became involved in the war, and a written statement of his reasons for planning to abduct Lincoln as a Confederate prisoner before the war ended. In 1874, Asia wrote about her brother in The Unlocked Door: John Wilkes Booth, a Sister’s Memoir. She tried to shed light on her brother’s personality and childhood. One can certainly wonder if she wrote as much to exorcise her own demons as anything because the book was not published until 1938, long after her death. Of course, her husband and brother Junius might have been upset by its publication during their lifetimes. Junius was arrested, taken to Washington for interrogation, and imprisoned for a while after the assassination. John Clarke, her husband, was taken to Washington for questioning as well. Both men were ultimately released, but their time in Washington could not have been a pleasant experience for either of them. Asia escaped transport to the capitol due to her condition, but a detective was assigned to guard her and try to get her to give information. Her home was searched twice. In her book, Asia tried very hard to explain her brother John. As a loving sister, she made excuses, tried to explain his choices, and in the end called him America’s first martyr. [2]

Junius Brutus Booth, jr., the eldest of the Booth children, made a career in the theater, first as an actor but without the fame and success of his younger brothers, and later as a theater manager. Junius was arrested and briefly held on suspicion after the assassination.

Rosalie Ann Booth as a young woman

Possibly a picture of Rosalie Ann Booth as a young woman

Rosalie Ann Booth, the eldest sister, never married. Although she had been a normal, lively young woman, she was described by her sister Asia in later years as being somewhat of an invalid. Rose, as she was called by the family, lived with and cared for her mother until the latter’s death. At the time of the assassination, the women were living with Edwin. A friend who arrived at Edwin’s home the morning of April 15 had this to say. “We came to the somber household within whose walls a mother and sister sat grief stricken and stunned with grief, like Rachel of old refusing to be comforted.” After 1865, descriptions of her paint a picture of a sad and isolated woman. [3]

Joseph Adrian Booth as a young man

Joseph Adrian Booth as a young man

 

Joseph, the youngest, wanted to become a doctor. In 1860, he was a student at the Medical College of South Carolina. When hostilities erupted at Fort Sumpter, he briefly assisted with the care of wounded Confederates. When the medical school closed due to impending war, Joseph went north and he may have lived with his brother John for a while, but then disappeared without a word of goodbye or indication of where he was going. Months later, he turned up in England where Edwin was on tour. In July, 1862, Joseph took off on a lark to Australia seeking his fortune in mining and cattle. It was not a success. From Australia, Joe traveled to California where his brother Junius was living. On April 13, 1865, Joe began the long trip back to New York by boat to Panama and across the isthmus via train.  During the train journey, he learned that his brother had killed the president. A fellow passenger reported,“He said to me oh it is awful to think that my brother should be guilty of such a horrid crime, [sic] he said also that his brother must have been crazy to have committed such a deed, and said it would drive him mad.” [4] When Joe reached New York, he was arrested, questioned, and released. Years later at the age of 49, Joseph finally realized his dream of becoming a doctor.

John Wilkes Booth, beloved son and brother, actor, and assassin

John Wilkes Booth:  beloved son and brother, renowned actor, and assassin.

 

It is evident that John Wilkes Booth was loved by the family upon whom he inflicted so much pain, grief, and shame. None of us can be held accountable for the unilateral decisions of a close relative, but that knowledge does not ease the feelings guilt and shame often brought about by a relative’s heinous deed. In conspiring against and assassinating Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth marked his innocent family’s lives forever.

 

 

 

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1. http://www.biography.com/people/john-wilkes-booth-9219681#early-life, accessed April 5, 2015.

2.Williams, Paige. “Sisterly Love.” Smithsonian, March, 2015, 46-49, 84.

3. http://boothiebarn.com/2013/11/25/the-forgotten-daughter-rosalie-ann-booth/, accessed April 5, 2015.

4. http://boothiebarn.com/2015/02/15/new-gallery-joseph-adrian-booth/, accessed April 5, 2015.

 

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