May 10, 1838—John Wilkes Booth, better known to posterity as a Presidential assassin than as a member of a major American theatrical family, was born in a log house on a farm near Bel Air, Md. The ninth of 10 children, he was a joyous, much-loved child who exhibited little of the hatred that led him to murder Abraham Lincoln.
In a post from nine years ago, I used the occasion of a benefit performance by John and brothers Edwin and Junius Booth Jr.—the only time the brothers appeared together onstage—to touch briefly on the dynamics of this family. But a greater more can be explored on this subject.
Inevitably and endlessly, as with other assassins, Booth’s motives and psychology have invited questioning and speculation. In Stephen Sondheim’s musical on the cavalcade of figures who attempted to take the lives of Presidents, Assassins, the character called “Balladeer” voices this incredulity:
Why did you do it, Johnny?
You who had everything,
What made you bring
A nation to its knees?
At first glance, Booth’s relationship with his father, Junius Brutus Booth—who, in 1835, wrote to Andrew Jackson, threatening to cut his throat while he slept—offers particular fodder for psycho-biography.
Indeed, before that night at Ford’s Theater, if any member of the Booth family could be said to exhibit consistent, long-standing trouble signs that he might murder an American President, it would have been John’s father. In fact, John’s brother, Junius Jr., lamented that “a crack runs thro’ the male part of our family, myself included.”
John could, as his poet friend Thomas Bailey Aldrich observed, empty a barroom when he had become drunken and belligerent enough. But Junius Sr.’s drinking was far more advanced than John’s, and he engaged in constant alarming incidents—including shooting a man in the face, assaulting others, and attempting suicide several times—that John did not match.
Booth biographer Terry Alford takes issue with the notion that the Lincoln assassination was the pathetic last act of a lost, lone gunman. His Fortune's Fool sees the assassin as athletic, sexy (female fans tried to tear at his clothes when he passed by), well-liked not just by fellow actors but lowly stagehands, and intelligent enough to direct a conspiracy that might have not only killed Lincoln, but also Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Instead of bizarre personal behavior, Alford suggests, the pre-assassination Booth evinced political extremism—a hatred of abolitionism so extreme that the actor changed his plans from merely kidnapping Lincoln to killing him after the President suggested in a speech that, for the first time in Presidential history, he would consider supporting the right to vote for some freedmen.
In contrast, Nora Titone describes John as being locked in a contest for recognition with his father and brother Edwin that he could not win. In My Thoughts Be Bloody, she relates how John’s over-the-top acting style did not win the level of critical or popular recognition achieved by Edwin’s more naturalistic one.
Even the brothers’ agreement to stake out their own sphere of influence—Edwin in the North, John in the South—proved unintentionally disastrous, as war and privation thinned out audiences in the Confederacy after Fort Sumter. This only fed Johns’s growing alienation not only from his family, but also from the America emerging from the ashes of the Civil War—one that no longer permitted even the small number of slaves on the Booth farm in Maryland in John’s childhood.
An actor himself, Booth might have been chagrined at the thought that he would inspire other thespians to play him on stage and screen as a wide-eyed fanatic. Notable examples include director Raoul Walsh (uncredited) in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation; John Derek in the 1955 biopic about brother Edwin, Prince of Players; Toby Kebbell in the Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator; and Victor Garber, in Sondheim’s Assassins.