John Wilkes Booth

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Sometime after January 2008, an entertainer became obsessed with the President of the United States, determined to prove him invalid and unworthy, to destroy the legacy of someone far grander than himself. Politics was part of the impetus, but the mania seemed to have a far deeper source. A similar scenario played out more than 140 years earlier with far more lethal results when another entertainer, John Wilkes Booth, was overcome by a determination to kidnap or kill Abraham Lincoln, even directing angry dialogue at the President when he happened to attend a play in which his future assassin performed. “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” the President acknowledged. The thespian was a Confederate sympathizer, but his wild rage for Lincoln was driven by something beyond the question of abolition.

In the aftermath of the 1865 balcony tragedy, Booth fled and was slain by the gun of Union soldier Boston Corbett and interred in D.C. after an autopsy and the removal of several vertebrae and the fatal bullet. The body was subsequently relocated to a warehouse at the Washington Arsenal. Four years after he met with justice, the actor’s corpse was emancipated from government oversight and was allowed to be reburied in Baltimore by his family. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter happened to be visiting with President Johnson in the White House when the transfer was made, allowing him to be eyewitness to the grim process and the state of the remains, which he said retained much of the departed’s “manly beauty.” An article in an 1877 edition of the paper recalled the undertaking.

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“Booth gave Lawler a pass to attend Ford’s Theater that night.”

A supporting player in one of the great American tragedies of the 19th century, barber Thomas C. Lawler became an accidental part of history when he crossed paths with a man who acted notoriously. Lawler’s death in 1900 was reported in the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. From the Eagle:

Lynn, Mass.–Thomas C. Lawler, who figured in the identification of J. Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln, died here to-day aged 58 years.

A short time before Booth committed the crime, Lawler, who was proprietor of the National Hotel barber shop, shaved the actor and cut his hair. Booth gave Lawler a pass to attend Ford’s Theater that night, but Lawler was unable to leave the shop, so he did not witness the assassination. Lawler was taken on board the monitor Miantonomoh after Booth had been shot to identify the remains.”

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"Corbett told him that he was homeless, almost penniless, and headed to Kansas to stake a claim." (Image by Mathew Brady.)

The opening of “The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Lincoln,” Ernest B. Furgurson’s American Scholar account of the unusual life of Boston Corbett, the soldier who killed John Wilkes Booth:

“One morning in September 1878, a tired traveler, five feet four inches tall, with a wispy beard, arrived at the office of the daily Pittsburgh Leader. His vest and coat were a faded purple, and his previously black pants were gray with age and wear. As he stepped inside, he lifted a once fashionable silk hat to disclose brown hair parted down the middle like a woman’s. Despite the mileage that showed in his face and clothes, he was well kept, and spoke with clarity. He handed the editor a note from an agent at the Pittsburgh rail depot, which said: ‘This will introduce to you Mr. Boston Corbett, of Camden, N.J., the avenger of Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Corbett is rather bashful, but at my solicitation he concluded to call on the Leader editor as an old soldier.’

The newspaperman realized that this was no joke. He remembered the photographs of this man, spread across the North after he shot the assassin John Wilkes Booth 13 years earlier, in April 1865. He invited him to sit and talk. Corbett told him that he was homeless, almost penniless, and headed to Kansas to stake a claim. The railroad agent had suggested that he come to the newspaper to tell his story, on the chance that someone would help him on his way.” (Thanks Longform.)

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“He owned ‘that which is the grand constituent of all truly great acting, intensity.'”

Accounts from Gene Smith’s 1992 history, American Gothic, about a pair of times when President Lincoln watched performances by the noted actor and his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, on stage in Washington D.C. The first “meeting” took place in 1863.


John was about to turn twenty-five, and of a theatrical stature to set himself up as a more or less permanent resident star in a leading city. He chose Washington. The wartime capital was bursting with people, and entertainments of any type drew capacity crowds. He opened as Richard III at Grover’s Theatre, on April 11, 1863, billed as “The Pride Of The American People–The Youngest Tragedian In The World–A Star Of The First Magnitude–Son Of The Great Junius Brutus Booth–Brother And Artistic Rival Of Edwin Booth.” President Lincoln attended. The National Republican said he scored a “complete triumph” and “took the hearts of the people by storm.” A day later the paper added that his playing created a sensation. “His youth, originality, and superior genius have not only made him popular but have established him in the hearts of the Washington people as a great favorite.” The National Intelligencer said he owned “that which is the grand constituent of all truly great acting, intensity. We have only to say that this young actor plays not from stage rule, but from his soul, and his soul is inspired with genius. Genius is its own schoolmaster: It can be cultivated but not created.•


Accompanying President Lincoln and his wife to the theater one night were the two daughters of Cassius M. Clay, U.S. Minister to Russia. Their mother was an old friend of Mary Todd Lincoln and when they sent in their cards to her she responded with the invitation. As the party drove, a piece of iron suddenly sprung up and pierced the carriage seat between the President and his wife. For a moment an alarmed Mary Lincoln thought it was an attack. Mary Clay asked the President what measures he took to be guarded–no czar of Russian would go through a St. Petersburg street without cavalry escort and with police, detectives, and plainclothesmen along the route, and for good reason–and the President said, “I believe when my time comes there is nothing that can prevent my going.”

The star performer played a villain and twice “in uttering disagreeable threats came very near” and appeared to point to the President. “When he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.'”

“‘Well,'” he said of John Booth, “‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?'”•

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Edwin Booth in his Hamlet costume five years after his brother assassinated Lincoln. (Image by J. Gurney & Son.)

Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation relates the author’s road trip to those sad places where American political murder has occurred. I think just about everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, came from a famous theatrical family, but Vowell zeroes in on an interesting sidebar: the life and career of the celebrated Shakespearean performer Edwin Booth, the killer’s brother, after the horror of the murder. A passage in which the writer explains to a friend who Edwin was:

“I tell him how Edwin was known as the Hamlet of his day, how his father, Junius Brutus was the greatest Shakespearean actor in England, until 1821, when he emigrated to Maryland, at which point he became the greatest Shakespearean actor in America; how three of Junius’ s children became actors themselves–Edwin, John Wilkes and Junius Brutus Jr.; how the three brothers appeared onstage together only once, in Julius Caesar here in New York in 1864 as a benefit performance for the Shakespeare statue in Central Park;

how their performance was interrupted because that was the night that Confederate terrorists set fires in hotels up and down Broadway and Edwin, who was playing Brutus, interrupted the play to reassure the audience; how the next morning Edwin informed John at breakfast that he had voted for Lincoln’s reelection and they got into one of the arguments they were always having about North versus South; how Edwin retired from acting out of shame when he heard his brother was the president’s assassin, but that nine months later, broke, he returned to the stage here in New York, as Hamlet, to a standing ovation; how he bought the house on Gramercy Park South and turned it into the Players Club, a social club for his fellow thespians and others, including Mark Twain and General Sherman; how he built his own theater, the Booth, on Twenty-third and Sixth, where Sarah Bernhardt made her American debut; and how, in the middle of the Civil War, on a train platform in Jersey City, he rescued a young man who had fallen on to the tracks and that man was Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, so he’s the Booth who saved a Lincoln’s life.”

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America has suffered numerous shocks to the system in its history, but the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 12, 1865 is still probably as calamitous as any. I came across the “Wanted” poster for Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, which was circulated in wake of the shocking crime at Ford’s Theatre, when Booth and his accomplices were still at large. “Wanted For The Murder of our late beloved President, Abraham Lincoln,” the poster declares, offering large sums of money for information leading to capture. An excerpt from the more poetic potions of the poster

“Let the stain of innocent blood be removed from the land by the arrest and punishment of the murderers. All good citizens are exhorted to aid public justice on this occasion. Every man should consider his own conscience charged with this solemn duty, and rest neither night nor day until it is accomplished.”

Booth was fatally wounded two weeks later by U.S. soldiers on a Virginia farm.


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