‘He thought he was destined for something greater’: meet America’s most dramatic assassin

Hot shot: once considered ‘the most beautiful man in America’, John Wilkes Booth shot dead Abraham Lincoln at the theatre on Good Friday, 1865 -
Hot shot: once considered ‘the most beautiful man in America’, John Wilkes Booth shot dead Abraham Lincoln at the theatre on Good Friday, 1865 -

In the mid 1800s, the Booths were an American theatrical dynasty. The two middle sons were so handsome and charismatic, it was sometimes necessary to send the stage manager out to beg the ladies to behave like ladies. Passionate fans made passionate offers, grabbed the boys by their clothing or hair in hope of ripping away souvenirs. The younger was said to be the most beautiful man in America. On Good Friday, 1865, the most beautiful man in America walked into Ford’s Theatre and murdered President Lincoln.

In John Wilkes Booth’s mind, the whole event was clearly a performance. He had his lines prepared. He had his timing, his blocking, his motivation. “Sic semper tyrannis,” he shouted. “The South is avenged.”

I came to the Booths, as most do, through this one despicable act. Some years back, I wrote a time-travel story in which the Lincoln assassination had become a destination vacation. While researching that, I found Edwin, the family’s other matinee idol. I wrote another story about Edwin’s return to the stage in the wake of brother John’s infamy. While researching that, I found an account left by the Rev James Freeman Clarke of the time the boys’ father asked him to officiate at a funeral for passenger pigeons. I wrote a third story. By then, I had been reading about the Booths for around 10 years.

Another day in America, another mass shooting.

For the families of the victims, unimaginable sorrow. And the ­families of the shooters? How would you handle all the “what ifs” if it were your son, your brother? How often would you ask yourself what you could have done to prevent it? These are the thoughts that brought me once again to the Booths. What did the assassination mean to the rest of the family? What was their culpability?

Junius Brutus Booth, the patriarch, was the first Booth to go on stage. He was born in England and his career began on Drury Lane, where his Iago was good enough to score a fan letter from the philosopher William Godwin. At least the third act. The rest, Godwin said, was not excellent.

Pater familias: Junius Brutus Booth as Sir Edward Mortimer by John Neagle, 1823 - Heritage Images
Pater familias: Junius Brutus Booth as Sir Edward Mortimer by John Neagle, 1823 - Heritage Images

Young Junius was good enough to pose a threat to theatre’s reigning genius, Edmund Kean. Kean’s ­followers, known as the Wolf Club, disrupted Junius’s ­performances with missiles and fis­ti­cuffs, stopped the plays entirely with riots in the dress circle and the boxes. Chairs, and noses, were broken.

Then Junius met a pretty girl named Mary Ann Holmes. In short order, he persuaded her to run off with him. They leased a farm near Baltimore, a great distance away from Kean and his wolves. A great distance also from Adelaide Booth, Junius’s wife, with whom he had a son. Whether Mary Ann knew of Adelaide’s existence is unclear. But an astonishing 25 years would pass before Adelaide got suspicious enough to come looking for him.

Junius’s father, Richard, joined them in Maryland. Richard had been a British lawyer, treasonably enthusiastic for all things American. As a young man, he’d idolised George Washington. He’d left home to enlist with the American revolutionaries, but made the mistake of asking for help from the radical politician and scandalous libertine John Wilkes. Wilkes promptly turned him in to his own parents and received a lovely silver service in gratitude. When Richard finally got to America all those years later, he didn’t like it. Copious quantities of liquor were required to get through the day.

Junius and Mary Ann had 10 children. They were, in order of birth, Junius Jr (June), Rosalie, Henry, Mary Ann, Frederick, Elizabeth, Edwin, Asia, John and Joe. The ­middle four all died in childhood, leaving a 10-year gap between Rosalie and Edwin. Neither parent ever recovered from the grief.

Big Brother: Edwin Booth on stage as Hamlet in New York in 1872 - Napoleon Sarony
Big Brother: Edwin Booth on stage as Hamlet in New York in 1872 - Napoleon Sarony

The younger four were born later and less touched by tragedy. Growing up, they were a close, insular group. The ninth child was his mother’s darling and his father’s favourite. His grandfather got to name him and he chose John Wilkes, obviously carrying no grudge over that earlier betrayal.

In time, Junius was recognised as the greatest Shakespearean actor in the country. He toured most of the year, coming home only in summer when the theatres were too hot. But his fame did not rest on his acting alone. He was also famously un­stable. Like his father, he drank spectacularly. He was rumoured to perform Hamlet with a murderer’s skull. He once climbed a tree naked and crowed like a cock. He attacked his closest friend with a fire poker as the friend slept. He tried to raise his pony from the dead. He tried to raise his daughter from the dead.

Junius was a vegetarian. Once, in a restaurant, he spied a man eating oysters. “Murderer! Murderer!” he said, pointing an accusing finger. No animal, wild or domestic, could be harmed on his farm. He even objected to the picking of flowers. He opposed slavery and the wicked cruelty shown to black people, though not with the fervour of his father, who helped a handful escape. Junius was also a man of violent rages. He was adored by his children. His wife, or rather the woman everyone thought was his wife, was afraid of him.

Junius was determined that none of his children follow him on to the stage. It was an exhausting life, a false life. But at the first opportunity, the oldest boy, June, left to join a company in Philadelphia. Even without his father’s approval, his father’s name was enough to secure a position. Meanwhile, like the girls in Little Women, the younger Booths entertained themselves by staging amateur theatricals.

Without June, it fell to Edwin to take charge of Father. Junius was just as likely to get drunk and go missing as to show up for his performances. At 13, it was Edwin’s job to tour with his father, keep him on track, a job no one could do with complete success. This unhappy interval in Edwin’s life was also his apprenticeship. One day, Junius refused to go on as Richard III. He was too tired, he told Edwin. “You do it.” So, Edwin did.

American idol: John Wilkes Booth, 1865 - Hulton Archive
American idol: John Wilkes Booth, 1865 - Hulton Archive

Junius died in 1852, just as Edwin’s career was beginning. In 1855, John made his debut. Over time, he established himself

as a fiery, physical performer. He did well. But, unlike Edwin, he never felt the stage was his calling. He thought he was destined for ­something greater.

And what of the girls? Rosalie was awkward and infirm, but Asia could probably have made a go of it. She had a flair for the dramatic.

In their childhood productions, she’d been Juliet to Edwin’s Romeo. She performed a scene at school, playing both Richard III and Lady Anne. But she despised actresses; said they were women who made love in public for money. She managed somehow to idolise her father and brothers while simultaneously despising the women they worked with. She married an actor. But when Edwin married an actress, she accused him of sullying the family name. Her furious antipathy towards his wife caused a rift that was long in healing.

Asia was a writer. She wrote a book about her father and another about Edwin. Her final book was about John. It was written nine years after John was captured and killed. Her love for him is made so evident, 50 years passed before anyone dared publish it.

This book makes clear that Asia knew, as others in the family did not, of the work John was doing for the South, meeting in secret with Confederate sympathisers, and smuggling them into Virginia. She can’t have suspected what was to come, but she did see that plots and conspiracies surrounded him. She does her best to condemn her brother’s terrible crime. But she slips in some blame for Lincoln, too. With the war so recently over, the suffering so extreme, he had no business going to the theatre, she writes. He should have gone to church. If Lincoln hadn’t demeaned himself with low entertainments, he wouldn’t have died.

The Booths witnessed many of the era’s great (and dreadful) events. John visited John Brown as he sat in his cell awaiting his hanging. Rosalie, Edwin and John were all in New York during the draft riots. While mobs close by murdered Union sympathisers and black residents, the Booths had a black man hiding in their basement, a Union soldier convalescing upstairs.

By then, John was becoming a concern to his family. The others were not political. They supported the Union. Most of them opposed slavery. But their muted opinions were no match for John’s increasing fanaticism. When Edwin boasted that he’d voted for Lincoln, John lost his mind. There was a terrible fight. Edwin threw John out of the house and John swore he would never return.

He did come back, though only once, to appear with his brothers in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar. Never before had the three shared the same stage. The year was 1864; the assassination a mere five months away. June was Cassius. John wanted to be Brutus, but Edwin took that part, relegating John to Mark Antony. Few in the audience noticed an added line to Antony’s famous speech. “Sic semper tyrannis.” John was rehearsing.

'Sic Semper Tyrannis': a contemporary illustration of the assassination at Ford's Theatre, 14 April, 1865 - Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo
'Sic Semper Tyrannis': a contemporary illustration of the assassination at Ford's Theatre, 14 April, 1865 - Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

I never did warm to John, even with all Asia’s advocacy, and I liked him less the older he grew, though he never did grow very old. I don’t claim to understand why he killed Lincoln. I know the obvious – his virulent white supremacy, his Southern sympathies – but there were many who shared those feelings, matched him passion for passion, and didn’t become assassins.

And that’s OK; I didn’t write my new novel, Booth, with the goal of understanding John. I was trying to understand Mary Ann and Junius. Rosalie, Edwin and Asia. I wanted to write a book about some people who didn’t kill a president.

I think they’re just as interesting as the man who did.

Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel, Booth (Serpent’s Tail, £18.99), is out on March 17