Junius Booth and his sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, were nineteenth-century America’s most famous theatrical family. Yet the Booth name is forever etched in the history books for one terrible reason: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
In American Gothic, bestselling historian Gene Smith vividly chronicles the triumphs, scandals, and tragedies of this infamous family. The preeminent English tragedian of his day, Junius Booth was a madman and an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and young son to move to America and start a new family. His son Edwin became the most renowned Shakespearean actor in America, famously playing Hamlet for one hundred consecutive nights, but he suffered from depression and a crippling fear of inheriting his father’s insanity.
Blessed with extraordinary good looks and a gregarious nature, John Wilkes Booth seemed destined for spectacular fame and fortune. However, his sympathy for the Confederate cause unleashed a dangerous instability that brought permanent disgrace to his family and forever changed the course of American history.
Richly detailed and emotionally insightful, American Gothic is a “ripping good tale” that brings to life the true story behind a family tragedy of Shakespearean proportions (The New York Times).
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The Story of America's Legendary Theatrical Family â" Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth
By Gene Smith
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Gene Smith
All rights reserved.
He was, of course, quite mad, and well known for being so. THE MAD TRAGEDIAN HAS COME TO OUR CITY, newspaper headlines said. Once an old friend saw him ordering a barrel of flour in Baltimore. "How do you do, Mr. Booth?" asked Gabriel Harrison.
"Who the hell are you, sir? Don't you know who I am? I am Junius Brutus Booth, sir!" The barrel was hoisted into the wagon. "Get in there, sir!" Harrison did so, commanded by that thrilling voice and those flaming eyes that had commanded a thousand audiences in England, on the Continent, across the United States. The reins were handed to Harrison, and he got the wagon in motion.
"Faster!" The wagon's owner was waving a hatchet picked up from the floorboard. With it he smashed open the flour barrel. The tailgate was down. "Faster — faster!" Harrison laid on the whip. They shot down the street, a great plume of flour rising behind them. The hatchet swung and slashed through the air, sometimes coming, Harrison said later, within an inch of his nose. He crouched in terror, clutching the reins as howls resounded above him and clouds of flour streamed behind. Once the Mad Tragedian was on a ship heading south to Charleston and a theatrical engagement. They came to where an actor friend, William Augustus Conway, had committed suicide by leaping into the sea. He had a message for Conway, he said. He flung himself overboard. A lifeboat was hurriedly lowered and a traveling companion, the actor Thomas Flynn, joined the crew members rowing toward what could easily become the scene of a second suicide. They got there before that could occur, and hauled the potential victim into the boat. "I say, Tom, look out," were the rescued man's first words. "You're a heavy man — be steady. If the boat upsets we'll all be drowned." "Ah, Junius, Junius," his father used to say, "will you never have done with these mad freaks?"
The father, Richard Booth, had been born in London, the son of a silversmith said to be descended from a Spanish Jew named Botha who had been expelled from his homeland in the seventeenth century for speaking against the royalist government. Richard Booth continued in the family tradition, and when the American colonists revolted against George III, Richard and a cousin decided to join their cause. On October 28, 1777, the two young men wrote the king's perennial thorn in the side and leading parliamentary opponent of the war to ask aid for a journey to America so they could fulfill their duty to oppose tyranny. A stormy libertine, the author of pornographic works that at one time brought him banishment from England, but withal a genuine devotee of liberty and liberal reform, John Wilkes was a distant relative of the Booths. He turned the letter over to Richard's silversmith father, who had his son arrested and then arranged such restrictions as would make it improbable that Richard would be able to attempt the journey again. (The cousin made it out and became a captain in the Continental Army.)
With a silver presentation sent to John Wilkes by way of thanks for not encouraging the wayward son, the father put Richard to becoming a lawyer. In time he became a mildly prosperous one, with his home in Queen Street, Bloomsbury. Whatever his thoughts about what the hoped-for sponsor of his trip had done, they did not prevent him from marrying John Wilkes's niece. He never lost his regard for the colonies become the United States, and kept a portrait of George Washington in his parlor, requesting all who came before it to offer a bow.
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Booth had three children, the wife dying in childbirth when the last one, a girl, arrived. The would-be revolutionist kept his antimonarchial principles, with his first son named Algernon Sidney in honor of the antiroyalist sent to the scaffold for opposing the rule of Charles II, and the second, born in London's St. Pancras Parish on May 1, 1796, named for Junius Brutus, a remote ancestor of Caesar's assassin; hundreds of years before that event Junius Brutus had opposed the Roman monarchy and was a founder of the Republic. (The girl was unideologically named Jane.)
Richard Booth had been a trial to his father; now his younger son became no less — indeed, far more — of a trial to his father. Junius Brutus was very bright and very difficult. He early showed an embarrassing multiplicity of talents, said the American Council of Learned Societies' Dictionary of American Biography later, when he had become the most famous actor in the United States. The talents included "painting, poetry, sculpture and female seduction." It was this last quality, perhaps not previously itemized by Learned Societies among the fine arts, that caused the trouble. He was, said an 1817 book, "charged by a frail nymph with a deed of which she could no longer conceal the evidence."
The frail nymph was one of the Booth family's serving girls. Junius Brutus was defended in court by his lawyer father, whose contention that his son was too young for such an achievement was not entirely consistent with the father's earlier paying off of a similarly complaining young woman. Indicating his son's slight stature (for Junius Brutus was always short) and his youthful look (for he always looked young), Richard Booth charged the plaintiff with having entertained male callers at night in her room. One of them was responsible for the problem. His son was just a child. But the court did not agree. Damages were assessed. When officers came to collect, Junius Brutus went over a high brick wall and kept out of sight for months. Eventually he was caught. His father had to make good the money.
Richard Booth was understandably unhappy. He had tried to make of his son an artist, a printer. He had put him in his office to learn the law. He had secured for him an appointment as midshipman in the Royal Navy, and indeed the serving girl's bastardy charge had caused Junius Brutus to be yanked off the brig Boxer for his court appearance. (But as has been said, it is an ill wind that does not blow well for somebody: Boxer sank with all hands.) Now there was the making good for the court officers collecting on behalf of the frail nymph. Things were unpleasant at home. The wayward youth took his leave from the familial hearth.
He went to become an actor. Who can say why. In later years it was said of Junius Brutus Booth that if the stage had not existed, he would have created it; that he necessitated the stage. That his nature lay in Shakespeare's mind, and that when centuries after Shakespeare's death this interpreter of his words appeared it was as the destined and completed representative of the playwright's grandest creations. A great actor reflects his own self married to the portrait imagined by his character's creator, and makes us see inside the man we see behind the footlights. Junius Brutus Booth was sublime, supernatural, grand, reptilian and terrifying when such was called for — actresses playing opposite shrank away in fear and horror — devilish, hilariously funny, the purveyor of a dynamic and tortured power that left audiences deeply shaken. He filled up the stage with his personality. His blue eyes shone with a terrible light. Overwhelming power and splendor, said the critic William Winter, the portrayal of darker passions and fiercer moods superlative. The tones of his voice were immense. He had the look of an uncaged tiger and seemed to snap with fire, said the great comedian Joseph Jefferson; his cheeks seemed to quiver and his lips pressed against his teeth. It was fearful.
Sinister, heartbreaking, horrific, stunning — the actor James E. Murdoch playing The Secretary to Booth's Sir Edward Mortimer in The Iron Chest felt a pistol held to his head: "Then for the first time I comprehended the reality of acting." Murdoch saw the "fury of that passion-flamed face" and felt a rigid clutch on his arm and looked again and saw the "scintillating gleam of the terrible eyes, like the green and red flashes of an enraged serpent" and was filled with dread and fell on the stage. Sir Edward Mortimer did not release his clasp on The Secretary's arm, and so also tripped and fell. He arose with his fingers still maintaining their grip. Murdoch lay prone, paralyzed, "stunned and helpless" as Booth carried on. When he fought onstage his fellow actors and actresses were terrified for what might happen.
It was quite amazing. An undersized youth who rehearsed in the most desultory fashion, running through his lines in mumbled or underdone fashion, whose physical presence offstage was, when he was sober, mild, modest, unpretentious, undemonstrative, and shy, and whose bowed legs made him, people said, a poor prospect to stop a running-away pig, seized the theater and made it his.
Those who saw him never forgot. "I can see again," the aged Walt Whitman wrote, "Booth's quiet entrance from the side, as with head bent he slowly walks down the stage to the footlights with peculiar and abstracted gesture, musingly kicking his sword, which he holds off from him by its sash. Though fifty years have passed since then, I can still hear the clank and feel the perfect hush of perhaps three thousand people waiting. A shudder went through every nervous system in the audience. It certainly did through mine.
"His genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression. The words, fire, energy, abandon found in him unprecedented meanings."
He began his career on December 13, 1813, as Campillo in The Honeymoon, and trouped the provinces playing in tents on Market Day, from booths in fields where fairs were held. He competed with trained dogs, strongmen, jugglers, stilt-walkers, singers, prizefighters. The footlights were tallow candles set on plates floating in a trough of water. The crudely painted backdrops scarcely differentiated between Bosworth Field and a drawing room. He was indifferent to his stage costumes, as he always would be.
He joined a troupe going out to Belgium, where the British were massing men to meet Napoleon at Waterloo, and saw three men guillotined in Brussels and five men and two women chained by their necks to a stake, pilloried. He noted that people kissed in the street, admired the needlework and churches, saw Wellington at the theater. He made alliances with girls and went to an Ostend costume ball as a bear. He acted. He was considerate of his fellow players, as he always would be, not worrying whether they came in from stage right or left — just appear, he said; "I'll find you."
At a Brussels lodging house he took up with the landlady's daughter. Adelaide Delannoy was four years older than he. She left home to troupe about with him. On May 8, 1815, they were married. He wrote pleasant letters to her mother in Brussels; the new Mrs. Booth wrote home that "I am as well as I can be and I am getting as fat as a great beast."
They went to London, where his playing was such as to make Edmund Kean, of whom Samuel Taylor Coleridge had said that to see him play was "as to read Shakespeare by lightning," fear for his laurels. Booth appeared at the Worthington Theatre for thirty shillings a week and then moved on to Covent Garden at five pounds. He made a sensation there. Edmund Kean came in a carriage to say that Booth should join him at Drury Lane. Here was a contract. They would play together. Booth signed as they drove in the carriage, forgetting he was signed for Covent Garden. When he read the fine print of his Drury Lane undertaking he learned he would be playing roles uniformly secondary to those of Kean. He would be supporting him. He threw up the contract and went back to Covent Garden.
The bouncing about of his allegiance upset the London theatergoing public. Egged on by Kean, who perhaps hired some of the demonstrators, an unruly crowd erupted when Booth came onstage at Covent Garden. Shouts and booing resounded. Nothing he said could be heard. A placard was raised onstage: Grant silence to explain. No silence resulted. A second appeal went up: Can Englishmen condemn unheard? Apparently they could. Men yelled, "No Booth!" It was not a riot of the magnitude of New York's Astor Place disturbance centering on the question of whether Edwin Forrest was a better actor than William Macready, for that cost the lives of more than twenty people, but it was sufficient to demand police intervention. Constables invaded Covent Garden and began heaving the more obstreperous members of the audience into the street, where they continued to make known their views while pounding on the doors.
Finally a semblance of quiet was brought into being and Booth offered an apology and begged the pardon of all. (Ever after, he showed great distaste for addressing audiences in his own persona, and disdained curtain calls.) In succeeding days he took out newspaper advertisements to repeat his apologies in print. His career went on as it had begun. He played London and the provinces, showing enormous energy, sometimes performing three times in a day. In 1820 George III died. During his lifetime King Lear was forbidden in Great Britain, for Shakespeare's mad monarch was too uncomfortably remindful of the reigning royalty. With George's passing, Booth played Lear. Always at his best in tumultuous, frenzied roles, he was magnificent. Kean was said to be his only rival, and perhaps that was wrong, and that on his level there was no rival save himself, that he competed only with what he had done before and would do in the future.
His marriage seemed happy enough. The couple went out in society a great deal, or at least the part of society that would socially accept an actor. In 1819 Adelaide Booth presented her husband with a son, who was named Richard, for his grandfather. One day in a Bow Street Market flower shop near Covent Garden, Booth took note of a girl selling blooms. Mary Ann Holmes was six years younger than the twenty-five-year-old actor, who had been married for more than half a decade. Mary Ann Holmes was beautiful — one need only study the pictures of the children she would have to see it was so. Booth took up with her. As had his wife before their marriage, Mary Ann trouped about with him when he played the provinces. In 1821 he managed a trip with her to Madeira, taking with him also a piebald pony, Peacock, bought in Deal. It was at Madeira that she learned she was pregnant.
His wife, his father, and his child awaited him in London. But he loved Mary Ann, and indeed in the decades of life remaining never looked at another woman. Flight with her seemed the answer to his problem. America beckoned. For all of his youth, Junius Brutus had lived in a home whose owner — his father, Richard — asked that all visitors bow to a picture of George Washington. And the clipper Two Brothers had put in at Madeira. Its next port of call was Norfolk, Virginia. They loaded Peacock on board and set sail.
The voyage lasted forty-four days. They landed in June of 1821. He wrote to Adelaide that he had run into some trouble with British stage people and so would play in America for a time; he would faithfully send money for her and Richard. The last was true.
He was at once engaged to play Richard III in Richmond, and then signed to repeat the role in Petersburg, where the theater manager placarded the city with notices heralding "the great tragedian J. B. Booth, from the London theaters Covent Garden and Drury Lane." Rehearsal was set for 10:00 A.M. He did not appear. The manager told the other cast members they would start without the star. They were into the fourth act when what looked to the actor Noah Miller Ludlow like a sixteen-year-old boy came running in. His jacket and cheap straw hat were covered with dust. He had missed the stagecoach from Richmond and had come the twenty-five miles on foot.
"Is it possible this can be," Ludlow asked himself, "the great Mr. Booth, 'undoubtedly the best actor living'?" He decided some sort of joke was on. The small man raced carelessly through the rehearsal, said a few things about the stage business he desired, ran through the swordplay of the last act twice, and said, "That will do." That night he came on and began saying his lines with what Ludlow thought was the indifference of a schoolboy reciting his lessons. The actors offstage and on looked at each other, and one of them said to Ludlow, "What do you think of him?"
Excerpted from American Gothic by Gene Smith. Copyright © 1992 Gene Smith. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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