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- Apr 1, 1999
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John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10th, 1838, twenty-five miles outside of Baltimore, Maryland. His father was the well-known British actor Junius Brutus Booth, considered the best dramatic stage actors of the mid 19th century. He was also mentally unstable and an alcoholic.
Three of Junius’ sons followed in their father’s thespian footsteps. The best known was Edwin Booth who earned critical acclaim for his 100 performance Broadway run of Hamlet in 1864. John Wilkes has also received praise for his portrayal of Marc Antony in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar at The Winter Garden in New York. Dashing and handsome, John was as theatrical and dramatic offstage as he was onstage. He worked consistently between 1862 and 1864, earning as much as $20,000 a year – the equivalent of about $350,000 in today’s currency. The only flaw, as it were, was his height – Booth was only 5’8” – but some historians describe him as the Brad Pitt of his day.
The point being, this was not an anonymous struggling actor; John Wilkes Booth was famous, rich, and talented. He was in love with a 16 year-old Boston girl named Isabel Sumner. He dreamt of a life with her. But all that was shoved aside by his despair over the destruction of the south and blamed the country’s political woes on abolitionists. Ironically, the other Booth brothers supported Lincoln and voted for him. John Wilkes stood apart and in his mind, was a loyal southerner who viewed Lincoln as
Booth’s interest in politics has begun as a young man. In the 1850s he joined the Know-Nothing Party which wanted to limit the number of immigrants coming into the United States. He was also deeply supportive of slavery and was a member of a group that helped capture John Brown and attended his execution.
In an 1864 letter, Booth wrote, “To whom it may concern: this country was formed for the white not for the black man…I, for one, have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”
It’s believed that Booth used his celebrity as an actor to work as a Confederate spy during the war, carrying quinine to troops in the south to prevent malaria. He told his sister: “I have only an arm to give. My brains are worth twenty men, my money worth a hundred. I have free pass everywhere, my profession, my name, is my passport.”
As his political dedication grew, his interest in acting waned. He began drinking and plotting with others. One plan was to kidnap Lincoln and hold him as a ransom to free all Confederate prisoners of war. But that plan fell through. After the fall of Richmond, Booth was committed to an even greater act of defiance. On April 9, 1865, the end of the war may have been within sight, but Booth was unwilling to swallow defeat.
According to Booth’s associate Louis Weichmann, both he and Booth attended the President’s speech on April 11 during which he suggested that blacks should be voting citizens. “Upon this,” Weichmann recalled, “Booth turned to the two of us and said, That means n****r citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through!”
On the evening of April 14, Good Friday, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
After a dramatic leap to the stage, breaking his leg, Booth escaped and eluded authorities for 12 days. During that time he kept abreast of the news and was genuinely surprised that Lincoln had become a martyr in death. He had truly believed that by killing Lincoln, somehow the south could be saved. Instead, the assassination cemented the outcome.
In his diary, he wrote: “I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg…Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country.” He didn’t.
Booth was shot and killed after being cornered in a barn on April 26, 1865.