In the 1850’s and 1860’s Edwin Booth and his younger brother John Wilkes Booth were considered to be two of the finest actors in America. The Civil War divided many families, including the Booths. Edwin Booth was for the Union and an Abraham Lincoln supporter, voting for him in 1864 in the only time in his life he voted for President of the United States. And in one of history’s ironies, Edwin Booth once saved the life of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth on the other hand, was strong supporter of the Confederate cause, so strong that at the end of the war, he could not accept the reality of defeat and committed an act that secured his place as one of the more reviled figures in American history. What were these two bothers like, and why did they follow such different paths?
Edwin Thomas Booth was born November 13, 1833. His brother John Wilkes Booth was born May 10, 1838. Their father was Junius Brutus Booth, a brilliant but mentally unstable actor who’s best known roles were in Shakespearian tragedies. They grew up on the family farm in Maryland and also spent time in Baltimore, where the Booths maintained a second residence. Edwin was an introverted, quiet, and shy youth, while John Wilkes was friendly, good natured, outgoing and athletic.
Edwin Booth’s Early Career
Edwin began his acting career in 1849 when he appeared onstage in Boston with his father in a production of Richard III. In 1852, Edwin and Junius traveled to California . The California Gold Rush was on and entertainers were in demand in San Francisco and the mining towns. The two put on their first performance in July 1852 and continued for four months, until Junius decided he’d had enough and was going back east. He urged Edwin to stay and establish his career on his own, and he did just that.
Junius Booth died on the way home. At the urging of his mother, Edwin remained in California and continued to perform. In his spare time, Edwin drank heavily (as his father had done) and took full advantage of the many available women in San Francisco. In late 1854, Edwin went on tour with an acting company to Hawaii, the South Pacific, and Australia. He finally returned home to Maryland in the fall of 1856, resumed his acting career in eastern cities in 1857 and earned his own accolades as a great actor.
John Wilkes Booth’s Early Career
John Wilkes Booth began his acting career with one appearance on stage in August 1855. He joined a Philadelphia theatre company in 1857 as a supporting actor. Not wanting to appear to be capitalizing on his father’s and brother’s names–and wanting to establish his own reputation as an actor–he listed his name as J. Wilkes or J.B. Wilkes. In 1858, he moved on to a theater company in Richmond, Virginia. As time went on, he began to get noticed on stage, both for his acting ability and his handsome appearance. While growing up in Maryland, he had admired the south and southern culture, but he developed much stronger feelings as he lived and worked in Richmond. Late in 1859, he briefly joined a Virginia militia unit and watched the hanging of abolitionist John Brown, who had led an anti slavery raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) earlier in the year And it was at about this time that he began appearing on stage under his own name and was earning a reputation as a great actor.
The Booth Brothers During the Civil War Years
In late December 1860, John Wilkes Booth wrote the draft of a speech (that was never delivered) where he spelled out his beliefs as the country began to come apart following Lincoln’s election. In it, he claimed that the southern states rights (including the right to own slaves) were being trampled on, and that abolitionists were to blame for the state of affairs. (Edwin Booth had found the manuscript years after John’s death and filed it away in the archives of the Players, a private club in Manhattan that he founded and where he also lived. It was not rediscovered until 1991).
Despite his pro southern feelings, John stayed in the north when the Civil War began, touring and impressing northern theater audiences. He was living large. At his peak, he was earning up to $1000 a week, a huge amount in the 1860’s. There were always lots of women for him to chose from and he downed plenty of brandy, his favorite drink. But as the war continued, his relationships with family members became strained. John was the lone Confederate sympathizer in the family. The other Booths were Union supporters. Arguments became so heated that Edwin banned political or war discussions at family gatherings.
In 1863, Edwin Booth’s wife Mary died. They had only been married three years and had one daughter in that time. Edwin was devastated, but instead of turning to alcohol to cope, he gave up drinking forever. Also in 1863 or 1864, (the exact date is unknown), when Edwin was boarding a train in Jersey City, New Jersey , he noticed a young man fall into the space between the train car and the station platform as the train began to move. Edwin quickly grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to safety. The young man was President Lincoln’s son Robert, who recognized the famous actor and thanked him.
Although they had their differences over politics, Edwin and John did not appear to have a professional rivalry. Both had established themselves as actors in their own right. Theater critics inevitably compared their performances and picked their favorites. In November 1864, Edwin, John, and a third brother, Junius Jr. appeared together in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. The packed house and the critics loved the performances.
The End of the War and the Assassination of Lincoln
In 1864, the tide was turning against the Confederacy, and although John Wilkes Booth continued to act, he cut back his theater career to devote more effort in helping the southern cause. He organized a dubious collection of associates in a failed attempt to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond. Lincoln’s reelection was a serious blow to John. In an 1881 letter, Edwin wrote: “When I told him that I had voted for Lincoln’s reelection he expressed deep regret, and declared his belief that Lincoln would be made king of America; and this , I believe, drove him beyond the limits of reason”.
In April 1865, as the Union Army delivered the final blows to the Confederacy, John Wilkes Booth plunged into despair. He drank heavily, and could not accept the finality of the end of the Confederacy. After General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army, John Wilkes Booth decided to try one last desperate attempt to save the cause. He and his group of associates would kill several high officials of the U.S. government, and Booth himself would kill Abraham Lincoln. On April 14, while Lincoln was watching a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., John Wilkes Booth entered the Presidential Box and fired a single shot into the back of Lincoln’s head. Booth escaped, and Lincoln died the following morning. On April 26th, Union soldiers tracked John Wilkes Booth to a Virginia farm. He was shot in the neck, severing the spinal column. He lingered in great pain for two hours before dying.
The news of the assassination shocked and devastated the Booth family. Many family members were questioned, some were arrested (and released with no charges filed) and all were changed forever. Edwin Booth thought his career was over. He quit acting until friends convinced him to come back. On January 3, 1866, Edwin again took to the stage as Hamlet . As he stepped onto the stage for the first time since the assassination, the crowd rose to its feet and gave him a tremendous ovation. He resumed his career and his place as one of the finest actors in America until he retired from the stage in 1891.
In April of 1893, Edwin Booth suffered a stroke. The effects of the stroke left him bedridden in his room at the Player’s club. He died early in the morning on June 7th. Edwin Booth’s room at the Player’s club has been maintained exactly as it was the day he died ever since.
Article idea from fellow AC Contributor Valerie Ferrari
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