Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth

Ford's Theater, April 1865, Library of Congress, in the public domain.

On this day, April 14, 1865, Good Friday, Edwin Booth, who came to be one of the most famous and important American actors of the 19th century, was in his dressing room at the Boston Theatre putting on his makeup for that evening’s sold out performance.

Edwin Booth, Libarary of Congress, public domain.

He was 31 years old, rising in his profession, heir to his famous actor father, Junius Brutus Booth, in the family trade. Only the previous Sunday Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse and the horrific Civil War was close to an end. It seemed that week as if the nation, both bloody, torn halves, were taking a much needed deep breath, and relishing a moment of peace. The North was celebratory, and in Washington, D.C., like the fans of Edwin Booth in Boston, President Abraham Lincoln was going to take a diversion from his troubles at the theatre.

Playbill for "Our American Cousin", original in the collection of the Libarary of Congress, reprinted National Park Service.

Laura Keene’s troupe staged the popular comedy, “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. She was a notable stage actress of her day, had toured in previous years with Edwin Booth, and managed her own theater, one of the first American women to do so.

A former member of her acting company, Edwin’s younger brother John Wilkes Booth, showed up at the theater that night as well, entered the President’s box, and shot him in the head.

Much has been written about the tragedy, but for the moment let’s turn our attention to Edwin Booth in his Boston dressing room, focusing himself on his upcoming performance, completely unaware that his life had changed forever because of his brother’s crime.

An interesting account of this event, and the rivalry of both brothers, is discussed in the book “Good Brother, Bad Brother - The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth” by James Cross Giblin (Clarion Books, NY, 2005).

The morning after the show, Edwin was woken by his valet with the heart-stopping newspaper headline.

The manager closed the theater, partly out of respect for the deceased President, and partly for the safety of Edwin Booth and the cast. Actors, always considered on the fringes of respectable society, were now suddenly suspect as anarchists. Edwin was chief suspect of them all, for being the brother of an assassin.

The New York Herald front page, April 15, 1865.

Edwin had intended to return to his home in New York, but federal marshals detained him in Boston for questioning about his brother’s activities. They continued to forbid him to leave the city until several prominent people, including the Governor of Massachusetts, vouched for him. On Easter Sunday afternoon, he was allowed to leave, and took the five and a half hour train trip to New York City.

Edwin, who as a boy accompanied his father on tour and spent a fair amount of time dragging him out of saloons as his nursemaid, made his own debut just before turning 16 years old in 1849, in Boston, when his father was playing at the Boston Museum. Have a look at this earlier post about the Boston Museum.

Junius Brutus Booth, Library of Congress, public domain.

His father Junius encouraged Edwin to take small roles, and in a couple of weeks that September Edwin graduated to a larger role in “Othello” opposite his father in Providence, Rhode Island. A couple of years later, he took over his ailing father’s role in “Richard III”.

It was a long, arduous apprenticeship in small theaters, saloons, and open air performances in mining camps out west. When Edwin returned to Boston, the city of his debut, in April of 1857 playing the villain Sir Giles Overreach in the melodrama “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”, he was again, just as in his Shakespearean roles, treading on a path his father had already made famous. Junius Brutus Booth cast a long shadow.

But Edwin, through diligence, and a new way of performing that was more natural and less dramatic and showy than men of his father’s generation, won over dubious audiences and critics.

The Boston Transcript noted that the play was “Quite a triumph for young Booth…It brought back the most vivid recollections of the fire, the vigor…which characterized the acting of his late, lamented father.”

Louisa May Alcott, future famous author of “Little Women” went one better when she wrote in her journal, “Saw young Booth in Brutus…and liked him better than his father.”

Boston audiences were enthusiastic. They were less so when Edwin’s younger brother John Wilkes Booth arrived in town in 1862. Author Mr. Giblin quotes a Boston drama critic:

We have been greatly pleased, and greatly displeased…In what does he fail? Principally, in knowledge of himself -- of his resources, how to husband and how to use them…He ignores the fundamental principle of all vocal study and exercise: that the chest, and not the throat or mouth, should supply the sound necessary for singing or speaking.

John Wilkes Booth played the Boston Museum as Romeo on May 3, 1864, with Kate Reignolds as Juliet. Orchestra seats went for 50 cents. John Wilkes Booth was apparently not the accomplished actor that his brother Edwin was, but he cut a dashing figure. Both brothers were likely uncomfortable with comparisons, but comparisons were always made, against their father and against each other.

In November 1862, Edwin played a month-long engagement in Boston, and the Boston Post offered this comparison of the acting style of the brothers:

Edwin has more poetry; John Wilkes more passion; Edwin has more melody of movement and utterance, John Wilkes more energy and animation; Edwin is more correct, John Wilkes more spontaneous; Edwin is more Shakespearean, John Wilkes more melodramatic; and in a word, Edwin is a better Hamlet, John Wilkes a better Richard III.

From the end of September 1863 to the end of November, John Wilkes Booth toured in Boston for two weeks, then to Providence, Rhode Island, then to Hartford, Connecticut, briefly to New York, and then back to New Haven, Connecticut. At this point he was plotting against the Union and smuggling drugs like quinine to the South.

In April of 1864 he returned for a four-week run in Boston in 34 performances in 18 different plays, the lead in them all. He began to have vocal strain, which would contribute to a downslide in his acting career, but was more interested in revenge at this point in his life.

In March, 1865, John Wilkes Booth played Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. for the last time in the melodrama “The Apostate.” He played the villain, Pescara, and received an enthusiastic reception from the audience. According to author Giblin, “Apparently the warm welcome did not make much of an impression on John. At the end of the play, he ignored the crowd’s applause and declined to make a curtain call.”

That same night, Edwin performed Hamlet in New York City, then headed for Boston. The brothers were on the outs with each other at this time, not over their acting rivalry, but over politics. Edwin supported the North, and John Wilkes, supporting the Confederacy, avoided his brother.

Laura Keene, Library of Congress, public domain.

There is a famous quote by film actor Spencer Tracy to the effect that actors should stay out of politics and pointing to John Wilkes Booth and the assassination of Lincoln as an example. Remembered less is the fact that it was an actress who provided the first comfort to the dying President, when Laura Keene, star of “Our American Cousin”, still in her costume and stage makeup, brought a pitcher of water up to the box where Lincoln was being attended, and held Lincoln’s head so the doctor could give him a sip of brandy.

Her act of compassion did nothing to rehabilitate the almost poisonous hatred for the acting profession in the wake of the Lincoln assassination. After the funeral, Edwin was back in New York City, kept under house arrest in his home by the police.

John Wilkes Booth was killed when captured resisting arrest on April 26th. Edwin continued to receive death threats and hate mail, with the same unreasonable hatred that spurred his brother to murder the President.

Then as now, political convictions seem to be the only excuse some people need to reveal their inner thug.

Edwin took ads out in newspapers in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia denouncing the assassination and proclaiming his own innocence, “bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory, and a wounded name.”

Front page Harper's Weekly, April 29, 1865.

Edwin was subpoenaed as a potential witness in the government investigation of the crime after an initial interview, but was later dismissed. His older brother, actor Junius Booth was held for questioning at the Old Capitol prison, and the entire Booth family came under suspicion, but nobody really knew much about John Wilkes Booth’s political activities, and nothing about the conspiracy to murder.

Edwin finally returned to the stage the following year, in January 1866 at New York’s Winter Garden as Hamlet. Police were stationed outside in case of an expected riot.

Edwin got a standing ovation on his entrance, but as gratifying as this must have been, he took no curtain calls, to avoid the possibility of becoming a target for someone with a gun. He took this play to Boston, and all performances were sold out. He refused ever again to play in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1880s, long after this sad period ended for the country, if not for him personally, Edwin Booth maintained homes in Boston and in Rhode Island. He died in 1893, and is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts beside his first wife, actress Mary Devlin.

In a coincidental twist of fate, Edwin had rescued Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, from injury or possible death when he pulled him from harm’s way on a train platform in Jersey City at least a year before the assassination. Edwin Booth in later years felt a little consoled that if his brother had murdered the father, at least he himself had saved the son.

For more on Edwin Booth, have a look at Monday’s “Another Old Movie Blog” for a discussion of Richard Burton’s portrayal of him in “Prince of Players” (1955).


  1. Wow, great post. It's really cool to hear about the lives of the Booth family before the assassination. They were quite an interesting family.

  2. Welcome, and thank you. They certainly were a fascinating, and talented, family.