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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 -
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