The Booth Family

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The family that produced John Wilkes and Edwin Booth was a strange one. Everyone knows who John Wilkes Booth was, though probably few know much about him. Not everyone knows that his brother, Edwin Booth, was the greatest actor of his time, as their father, Junius Brutus Booth had been. Nora Titone, in My Thoughts be Bloody. tells the story that few people have known.

Junius Brutus Booth was a romantic, who took Lord Byron for an idol, which may not have been wise. He was also an actor and became a star in his native England and much of Europe as well (he spoke a number of European languages), married and had a child. Then he met a young woman with whom he fell in love. His way of dealing with the situation was to run with her to America and become a star there, supporting both families without his legal wife becoming aware of his second family.

He and his wife duly arrived in the USA, he put her in an isolated cabin, and began touring the country, making a great success. One drawback of this way of life was that he had to tour 9 months a year to earn enough money, leaving his wife isolated. They were able to adjust to that, and began having children together–they would eventually produce 10. But cholera reached the cabin, and one of the children died. When Booth heard about it he hurried home and went mad, digging the child’s body up and trying to make it live again. Within the next couple of weeks two of his other children died, but he didn’t over-react to that. The experience had taken a toll on him, though.

When he began touring again he also began drinking, and his behavior got erratic. Sometimes he would be drunk on stage, sometimes he wouldn’t make a show, sometimes he’d drink his money up, or give it away. His wife traveled with him some, and was able to get him to behave better, but she became pregnant again, and had to stop. The solution to the problem turned out to be having his son Edwin drop out of school at age 12 and tour with him. Edwin found ways to keep his father away from alcohol at least some of the time, he watched his father perform, and eventually began performing with him, so it was a good apprenticeship for him, but overall a mixed blessing. He wanted to return to school and obtain an education, and another problem was that John Wilkes, only a few years younger, was his father’s favorite, and resented Edwin being so close to him.

John Wilkes Booth was handsomer than Edwin, looking more like his father, but also resented authority and was violent. At one point he attacked his younger brother Joseph, and beat him so badly that their mother sent Joseph away to school to protect him from John Wilkes. John Wilkes also rebelled in the schools he was sent to, and eventually got sent home, where he largely did what he pleased.

Then the thing happened that Junius Brutus Booth had feared: his legal wife found out about his other family. She and their son came to America and pursued Booth legally. He had to pay a lot of money to them, and the affair didn’t finish until the woman died in the 1850s. Booth still had some assets, including a 150 acre farm, but wanted more so he could retire securely.

By this time Edwin Booth was 18 and was tired of touring whith his father. His oldest brother, June, had left the family much earlier, and had moved to California, arrriving there after the Gold Rush had started. He suggested to his father that this would be a good place to make a lot of money quickly. At first the plan was to leave Edwin at home, but at the last minute Junius Brutus decided Edwin had to come along, and told him if he didn’t the trip wouldn’t happen. So Edwin went.

They traveled by way of Panama, which of course didn’t yet have the canal. They therefore had to travel for a week through the jungle, not a healthy thing to do, before catching a ship on the western side. They made it that far and took ship to San Francisco. By the time they got there, though, Edwin was rebellious, wanting little to do with the operation. He started drinking himself, in fact. HIs father proceeded, and made good money, then planned to return. Edwin decided he wanted to stay in California. He went out on his own to act in various places, though bad weather didn’t help, and he got stranded. Meanwhile, his father returned to Panama, where he became sick and had all his money stolen. He managed to return to the USA, give a last performance in New Orleans, but then died. His remains were shipped to Cincinnati, where his wife found them, after expecting to see her husband. Of course this was a terrible shock to the family, and suddenly they had no income.

They moved to the farm, and tried putting John Wilkes in charge of it, but that didn’t work. John Wilkes managed to alienate both black and white workers, so that the family became poorer than ever. But since they couldn’t find anything productive for him to do, he was allowed to do as he pleased, and his mother even gave him money. So he rode horses, drank, flirted with the girls, and dreamed of becoming an actor like his father. After the cholera epidemic his father had tried to keep a barrier between his profession and his children, but with only mixed success. June, the oldest, had become an actor, but didn’t have a great talent, though he was a nice person. Edwin DID have the talent, and served his apprenticeship with his father, so that he knew a great many plays and the business to go with them. John Wilkes was handsome, but undisciplined and ignorant of show business.

At this point Edwin returned to the east and bailed the family out of financial trouble. He had spent enough time in San Francisco to make good money, and he had good prospects in the east. This didn’t make him more popular with John Wilkes, who had had all the attention previously. But he and the family had little choice: they needed money and Edwin had it.

And was about to get more. He started working in the east and had great success there too. Meanwhile, John Wilkes tried acting himself, but didn’t do very well at it. He hadn’t served the apprenticeship that Edwin had, so tried to use his good lucks and athletic ability to compensate. They weren’t enough. He didn’t want to start at the bottom and work his way up, and the acting companies he worked with didn’t care for his attitude. He knew he needed a mentor, but Edwin wasn’t willing to act as one. At one point their brother June came back east, and spent a fair amount of time with John, who appreciated the attention, but that didn’t last long.

Then John tried to work as a leading man, but that didn’t work out either. He kept having accidents, the first (and most ludicrous) was his manager accidentally shooting him in the buttock. Even when he could work, he didn’t make a positive impression. It was obvious that he didn’t really know the craft of acting, and hadn’t learned to speak well. He spoke his lines in the dialect he’d grown up with, which also didn’t make a good impression.

His resentment of Edwin grew, as Edwin said they could only work in separate parts of the country, and gave John Wilkes the South, while Edwin took the North. Edwin didn’t want any competition in New York City, even though John Wilkes couldn’t have offered him much.

Around this time Edwin’s wife died, and he withdrew from acting.

By this time the Civil War was beginning. Edwin, and most of the rest of the family were partisans of the North, at least in part because some of Edwin’s prominent friends (at least one of whom had collaborated with John Brown) were. One of the curious things in the book happened about this time when John Wilkes was in Alabama, and dared to speak in favor of the Union. People in the area didn’t like that at all, and let him know in no uncertain terms. You’d think this might have influenced his subsequent views, but it didn’t. He eventually decided that the South was the victim in the war, and declared solidarity with them.

John Wilkes happened to be visiting Edwin in New York City at the time the draft was initiated, which caused a huge riot, lasting at least a week, in which many were killed, and buildings burned. One of the provisions of the draft was that anyone who could find someone else to take his place and pay the government $300 could get out of it. Irish immigrants were incensed at this, since they couldn’t get out of the draft themselves, and felt victimized by it. They were the main rioters, and looked for blacks and Union soldiers to kill. Edwin had a black servant and  a friend who was a Union soldier recovering from a wound, so his household was in danger. John Wilkes was the one who went out to see what was happening and get food and other supplies. He felt Edwin owed him for that, but Edwin shortly after put together an investment in a string of theaters, and left John Wilkes out.

That may have been the final straw for John Wilkes Booth. His killing of Abraham Lincoln may have been true to his political beliefs, but these were conditioned by his family history and his own inadequacy. He identified with rebellion, including both the South and the Irish rioters, whom he considered victims of the Union government. Vaulting onto the stage after shooting Lincoln also suggests that he saw what he was doing in theatrical terms more than anything else. He had certainly managed to get a whole nation’s attention, so one could say he’d succeeded in his enterprise.

We can only speculate what might have happened if he hadn’t killed Lincoln. The president wanted to conciliate the South after the war, and that didn’t happen after his death. Too many northerners wanted to punish the South, and did so. Whether Lincoln, if he’d lived, could have worked things out differently we’ll never know. What we do know is that this country has never gotten over the trauma of the Civil War, as we see in present and past politics. It would be nice to think that Lincoln might have changed that, but it’s probably unlikely. The country sowed the wind with its adoption of slavery, and the way it developed, then reaped the whirlwind. It seems quite possible that we’ll reap another whirlwind which may be at least partially attributable to the Civil War.

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