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John Wilkes Booth

1838-1865

Actor & Assassin

 

Text and Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

A History of John Wilkes Booth 

John Wilkes BoothThe name of John Wilkes Booth conjures up a picture of America's most infamous assassin, the killer of perhaps the greatest president of the United States. However, J. Wilkes Booth (as he was known professionally) led a very prominent life as an actor in the years preceding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This period of his life is often forgotten or overlooked. (see a list of Booth's appearances at Ford's Theatre)

The Booth family name in the nineteenth century was strongly identified with the American theater scene; there was no greater name among American actors at this time. Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. came to the United States from England in 1821 and established the Booth name upon the American stage. He left his legacy to be carried by his sons Edwin, John Wilkes, and Junius Brutus, Jr.

All of the Booth children but one, were born out of wedlock. John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in a log house. The family home was on property near Bel Air, Maryland, twenty-five miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Elder brother Edwin supervised his younger brother's upbringing. Later Edwin and older sister Asia would write about their eccentric brother's behavior.

Francis Wilson, who wrote a biography of Booth in 1929, stated that Booth opened his stage career in 1855 at the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore and began performing on a regular basis two years later. Once Booth embarked upon his acting career, he wanted the comparisons between himself and his late father to cease.

It was a common practice of theater companies to retain actors who would complement a touring, star figure. Booth eventually became one the these star figures, with stock companies for one and two week engagements. Often a different play was performed each night, requiring Booth to stay up studying his new role until dawn, when he would rise and make his way to the theater for rehearsal.

Booth began his stock theater appearances in 1857 in Weatley's Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia (the center for theater in this country at the time). According to one biographer, Booth studied intently in Philadelphia, but author Gordon Samples writes that Booth's lack of confidence did not help his theatrical career.

William S. Fredericks, the acting and stage manager at the Arch Street Theatre, said the new actor did not show promise as a great actor. This negative opinion was also held by other Philadelphia company actors. They said Booth, who was 19, had no future as an actor. In September of 1858, Booth moved to Richmond, Virginia for a season of stock at the old Marshall Theatre. He became more confident as an actor and was popular with his audiences. At the same time Booth became more enamored with the southern way of life, which helped to refine his southern political views. Booth also attended many important social functions in Richmond .

Booth briefly left the Richmond Theatre Company in 1859. He joined the Richmond Grays, gaining his only official military experience. He enlisted on November 20, 1859 with the sole intention of witnessing the December hanging of the fiery abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia. Soon after witnessing Brown's hanging, Booth left for Richmond where he was discharged.

During the Civil War, Booth said he promised his mother that he would not join the Confederate army. Booth did however, undertake some action to support the Confederacy. According to some reports, Booth was actively engaged in smuggling medical supplies to Confederate forces in 1864.

Many people who came in contact with Booth mentioned the magnetism and power of his eyes. Sir Charles Wyndham, a fine comedian who witnessed the acting exploits of both Booth and his brother Edwin, wrote that Booth's "... eyes were striking features, but when his emotions were aroused they were like living jewels. Flames shot from them."

Booth was frequently seen in the company of many women, and in one passage author Samples wrote that Booth often "lounged" in the arms of Ellen Starr, who was in Washington at the time of the Lincoln assassination. Miss Starr was but one of many. In 1861, actress Henrietta Irving slashed Booth in the face with a knife; Irving had erupted into a jealous rage when she learned that Booth had no intentions of marrying her.

After Booth was killed, five photographs of female friends were found on his person. One of these pictures was of his betrothed Lucy Hale, the daughter of Senator John P. Hale. Ironically, Senator Hale was a prominent Republican abolitionist.

After leaving the stage in May of 1864, Booth went to western Pennsylvania to concentrate entirely upon oil investments. Booth had formed an oil company in 1863 with his acting friends John Ellsler, Thomas Y. Mears and George Pauncell. It was appropriately called the Dramatic Oil Company.

Impatient with his lack of immediate financial success, Booth gave up his oil interests in the autumn of 1864. He turned most of his investment over to his brother Junius and friend, Joseph H. Simonds.

In October of 1864 Booth traveled to Montreal. He conducted a number of meetings with men associated with the Confederacy. The record is unclear as to what exactly transpired. By mid-November Booth checked into the National Hotel in Washington. Booth carried with him a letter of introduction from the Confederates, with whom he had conferred, addressed to Dr. William Queen of Charles County, Maryland. This letter led Booth to meet with Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in November of 1864.

Booth began putting together an operation, purportedly with Dr. Mudd and others, to capture the President and transport him to Richmond. By capturing Lincoln they expected to force the federal government to return Confederate prisoners of war who were confined in Union prisons and then return them to fight Union forces.

After nearly five months of intense planning, the attempt to capture the president took place on March 17, 1865. Mr. Lincoln, however, disappointed the would-be captors by changing his plans. Instead of visiting a hospital outside of Washington, President Lincoln attended a luncheon at the National Hotel. This was the hotel Booth used as his temporary home while in Washington, DC.

Two weeks later, the long Union siege of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia ended. The Union Army marched in and Confederate forces under General Lee moved west. One week later, on April 9, 1865 General Lee was forced by General Grant to surrender. These Confederate failures, along with the failure of Booth's capture plot, apparently gave Booth the incentive to carry out his final fatal plan.

Five days after General Lee's surrender, Booth assassinated Mr. Lincoln inside Ford's Theatre.

 

John Wilkes Booth's Escape Route
Click for a map of the escape route

After exiting Ford's Theatre, John Wilkes Booth mounted a horse that was being held by Joseph "Peanuts" Buroughs, an innocent theater employee. Booth rode down the alley, turned left up another alley, turned onto "F" Street, and headed toward the Navy Yard Bridge. Although the bridge was guarded by Sergeant Cobb and his detail, no passes had been required for crossing since the first of April. Thus, as the guards were there as a matter of routine rather than of necessity, Booth and fellow conspirator David Herold, who arrived separately, were allowed to pass without hindrance. The two men rendezvoused later and then headed to the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD) where they arrived shortly after midnight. At the tavern, they picked up supplies (including two Spencer carbines, ammunition, and field glasses) before continuing south.

Booth's Diary (used as a notebook)

At 4:00 a.m. on April 15, they arrived at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth received medical treatment for his injured leg and both men were extended hospitality by the Mudds. Early in the afternoon, April 15, Booth and Herold headed into the nearby Zekiah swamp and were guided by Oswell Swann, a free black. About midnight, Swann brought the two men to their next destination, the home of southern sympathizer, Colonel Samuel Cox, who provided them with food for the next four days. On April 20, Thomas A. Jones, Cox's adopted son, led them to the Potomac River. Instead of crossing the river to Virginia, they headed north on the Potomac and landed on the Maryland side at the home of southern sympathizer Peregrin Davis. The next night, they successfully crossed the river to Virginia, where they stayed at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Quesenberry, a woman who was well connected to the Confederate spy network. Thomas Harbin, an acquaintance of Booth and originally part of the plan to capture President Lincoln, took them to William Bryant and then to Dr. Richard Stuart's home. Stuart, however, did not allow the two men to remain at his home. Booth and Herold went to the cabin of William Lucas, another free black man, forcibly removing Lucas and his wife from the cabin for the night.
Garret's Farmhouse

On the morning of April 24, Booth and Herold left the cabin of William Lucas in a wagon driven by Lucas' son Charles. He drove the men about 10 miles to the ferry at Port Conway, in King George County, Virginia.

As Booth and Herold were crossing the Rappahannock River, they were greeted by three former Confederate soldiers. 1st Lt. Mortimer B. Ruggles, his cousin Pvt. Absalom R. Bainbridge along with Pvt. William S. Jett. Later Herold boasted to the soldiers that they had killed President Lincoln. Jett aided Booth and Herold by eventually finding shelter for the pair at the Garrett farm. Herold then left Booth at the Garrett farm with the three soldiers and headed for Bowling Green, Virginia. The men stopped at a tavern, described by some as "...house of entertainment," and continued chatting and drinking for several hours. Herold spent the night of April 23 at a nearby family farm. The next morning two ex-Confederate soldiers brought Herold back to the Garrett farm.

Meanwhile, twenty-five members of the 16th New York Cavalry unit, under the command of Lt. Edward Doherty, were following Booth's trail. Lt. Doherty had found out from a shad fisherman, Dick Wilson, that Pvt. Jett had been on the ferry with Booth on the morning of April 24. Doherty was also told that Jett had a girl friend in nearby Bowling Green and Jett could be found there.

Several hours after arriving at the Star Hotel, Detective Everton Conger, one of Doherty's men, forced Jett to reveal Booth's location. In the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, the column of soldiers entered the Garrett farm and were told by the Garrett's about two men sleeping in the farm's tobacco shed.

At first Booth refused to surrender, and about 4 a.m., the tobacco shed was set afire. The blaze allowed the soldiers to see Booth moving in the wooden building with a pistol and a rifle. It was at this point that Boston Corbett fired his own pistol, claiming later that it was to prevent Booth from killing more people. Several soldiers dragged Booth, still alive, from the burning structure.

Booth had been shot in the neck. As he was laid on a wooden porch, he was found to be paralyzed from the neck down and whispered his final words, "tell my mother I did it for my country...useless, useless [while looking at his hands being held up to his face]."1

1.Edward Steers, Jr., The Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, 1983.

 

These records contain correspondence dated 1922-23 of William J. Burns, former Director of the Bureau of Investigation, concerning a theory that Booth lived many years after the assassination of President Lincoln. Also included are the results of a 1948 examination by the FBI Laboratory of a boot said to be worn by Booth on the night of the assassination and a 1977 examination of a diary belonging to Booth. -- Text Courtesy of the FBI - Freedom of Information Act

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