Who Was John Wilkes Booth?

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John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

Ask the question, “Who is John Wilkes Booth?” today and  you’ll get answers like “villain,” “murderer,” and “assassin,” but if you’d asked the same question prior to the dark day of April 14, 1865, you would have received a very different answer. Born in Bel Air, Maryland, Booth was charming, wickedly handsome, the scion of a famous acting family, and one of the brightest stars of American theater. Booth was the ninth of ten children born to his legendary father, Junius Brutus Booth, who was ironically named for the Roman senator Junius Brutus, the man who assassinated Julius Caesar. The elder Booth is a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame, and is widely considered the greatest tragic actor in the first half of the 19th century. His name and face were known around the world.

Just as Booth’s father is considered the greatest actor of the early 19th century, his older brother Edwin, also a Hall of Fame actor, is considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of the second half of the century. In another bizarre twist of fate, Edwin Booth even saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert. At the time, Robert Lincoln was not only relieved to be saved from an oncoming train, but was also star struck by the encounter, later writing, “Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”

But John Wilkes Booth wasn’t overshadowed by his famous family. He was an A-list actor from an A-list family. The New York Heraldcalled him, “a veritable sensation.” Reviewers considered him the ultimate Richard III, a dark star, and a perfect villain. A contemporary critic for The Spirit of the Times called him, “another Lucifer” and was awed by his, “mephistophelean sneer, his demonic glare, and pity-murdering laugh, fairly curdle the blood and haunt one like spectres of a dream.”

Booth himself agreed, bragging to The New York Herald “I am determined to be a villain.”

Sadly for the nation, Booth could not keep his stage persona separate from the rest of his life. Perhaps driven by boredom between performances, Booth joined the Know-Nothings, a staunchly anti-Catholic political party, vehemently opposed to immigration. The Know-Nothings were prone to violence, rioting, burning churches, and even tarred and feathered a Catholic priest. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Booth’s loyalties lay firmly with the South, and he is believed to have operated as an agent of the Confederate Secret Service.

Whether an agent or not, Booth originally planned to kidnap the president, believing he could ransom Mr. Lincoln back to the Federal Government to free Southern troops. But when his attempt at kidnapping the president failed, serendipity, and perhaps the machinations of some malevolent force, turned Booth’s mind to murder. On the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Booth was picking up his mail at Ford’s Theater and overheard that the president was expected to attend that evening’s performance of “My American Cousin,” a popular comedy of the day.

Driven by his twisted sense of duty and a vain belief that he was a heroic instrument of some divine power, Booth and his cadre of conspirators launched his plan to kill the president and decapitate the American government. Lewis Powell, a handsome, former Confederate soldier was sent to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward. George Atzerodt was tasked with the murder of Vice President Andrew Johnson. The task of murdering The Great Emancipator, Booth kept for himself. Though Powell failed to kill Seward and Atzerodt lost his courage, drinking away the evening instead of carrying out his part in the plot, tragically, Booth would succeed.

On the evening of April 14, John Wilkes Booth lurked in the shadows near President Abraham Lincoln’s private box. The president’s body guard had left his post, drinking the night away in a nearby pub, but even if he had been on hand, he likely would have allowed Booth, a famous actor, to enter. Instead, the assassin forced his way in, shot the president and leapt to the stage and exclaimed “Sic semper tyranus,” or, “Thus always to tyrants,” the Virginia state motto and, perhaps more importantly to Booth, the very words his father’s namesake uttered upon murdering Julius Caesar.

Booth fled Ford’s Theater and escaped into the Maryland countryside where Confederate sympathizers hid him in a pine thicket on the edge of Zekiah Swamp. He had been certain he would be received as a hero, but over the next five days, as he cowered in the swamp reading newspapers, Booth was tormented by the reality of what he had done. The Confederacy did not rise again. Instead, on April 16, Easter Sunday, church bells rang across the nation – North and South -- in remembrance of the fallen president. To this day President Lincoln remains enshrined in history as The Great Emancipator, perhaps our greatest president, and a world hero. John Wilkes Booth is remembered only as a murderer, a small man, and bit player in the story of Abraham Lincoln.

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