Friday, October 21, 2011

History: John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was born May 10, 1838 near Bel Air, Maryland. Booth was born into a distinguished family of actors as the 9th child of actor Junius Brutus Booth and his wife Mary Ann.

Although a talented actor from a young age, John was emotional unstable and egotistical. He had trouble sharing the spotlight with his brothers who were also gifted actors.

John became politically active in the 1850s when he joined the Know-Nothing party. This group dedicated themselves to limiting the number of immigrants entering the United States each year.

His first acting debut took place at the Baltimore theater in 1856. He continued acting in Philadelphia until 1859, when he joined a Shakespearean stock company in Virginia.

While rehearsing in Richmond, Booth spontaneously volunteered for a Virginia Militia group, the Richmond Grays, as they marched towards Charleston to assist in the hanging of John Brown. Brown had been tried and convicted of treason after his failed raid of a federal armory at Harper's Ferry, where he hoped to start a slave uprising in the south.

John Brown in 1856
After the hanging, Booth went on a tour of the deep south with the Shakespeare company and was well received by critics and audiences. He was known for being a very passionate, physical and almost acrobatic performer. Booth toured the country throughout the Civil War. He also served as a spy for the Confederate army and helped smuggle medicine and supplies to the army.

Booth's professional success continued and by the early 1860s he was earning around $20,000 a year (the equivalent of about $500,000 today). He ventured into some business deals that included buying a $8,000 plot of land in the newly created Back Bay neighborhood in Boston. He also invested in some oil companies but lost a great deal of money when he withdrew his investment early due to concerns over the financial impact of the Civil War on the company.

As a southerner, John Wilkes Booth was a strong supporter of slavery and held a deep and outspoken hatred for Abraham Lincoln. Booth was arrested and charged with treason in St. Louis in 1863 for publicly stating he wished the President and the whole damned government would go to hell.” He was released after paying a fine and pledging his allegiance to the Union.

John Wilkes Booth (left) performing with his brothers
During the summer of 1864, Booth began a plan to abduct Abraham Lincoln and hold him for ransom. He recruited friends and Southern sympathizers to hatch the plan, which would involve taking Lincoln to Richmond and exchanging him for Confederate prisoners.

Booth met Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of U.S. Senator John P. Hale, in February of 1865 and fell madly in love with her. The two became secretly engaged shortly after. Hale was not aware of Booth's hatred towards Lincoln or his plans.

In March of the following year, Booth and his conspirators heard that Lincoln would be attending a showing of “Still Waters Run Deep” at the Ford's Theater on March 17. Booth laid out a plan to intercept Lincoln's carriage on the way to the theater but his plans fell through when Lincoln decided to skip the theater and speak to a regiment of Indiana soldiers.

The south surrendered the very next month, after a series of military defeats, and Booth and his friend Louis Powell attended Lincoln's speech outside of the White House on April 11. During the speech, Lincoln suggested extending the right to vote to educated black citizens and black veterans. This statement enraged Booth who turned to his friend and declared, That means n**ger citizenship. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

Illustration of Lincoln's assassination
Three days later, Booth discovered that Lincoln would be attending that evening's performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. He gathered his conspirators and assigned them each a task. At 6pm, Booth went to the theater and tampered with the door of the presidential box so he could jam it shut once he got inside that evening.

Around 10pm, Booth returned to the theater and went straight to the presidential box. Entering the box, he pointed his derringer pistol at the back of Lincoln's head and fired. Booth then pulled out a dagger and slashed one of Lincoln's companion, Major Henry Rathbone, before jumping from the balcony. Booth somehow lost his footing as he jumped, although it is not clear if he had been grabbed by Rathbone or if he had caught his spur on the flag draped on the balcony railing. He fell to the stage and landed hard on his left leg, breaking the bone.

John Wilkes Booth wanted poster
After landing on the stage, Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” (The Virginia state motto meaning: Thus always to tyrants) and then shouted “The south is avenged!” before making his escape to the alley where his horse was waiting.

A major manhunt ensued and Booth was found 11 days later on April 26, hiding in a tobacco barn on farm in Virginia. One of Booth's conspirator, David Harold, was in the barn with him. Harold gave himself up before federal officers set the barn on fire in an attempt to get Booth to come out. As Booth moved inside the barn, one of the officers shot him in the neck. The officers then dragged him from the barn where Booth declared “Tell my mother I died for my country.” They then brought him inside the house. Shortly before he died, Booth asked that his hands be raised to his face so he could see them. He then uttered “Useless. Useless” and passed away.

Some of Booth's conspirators, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, were tried in June of that year and hanged at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7. The remaining conspirators Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlen and Edmund Spangler were given prison sentences but were eventually pardoned in 1869.

Hanging of Booth's conspirators
Ford's theater playbill w/ Booth's name
Portrait of John Wilkes Booth

Civil War Days: John Wilkes Booth

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