The Booth Brothers and Other Lincoln Lore

 

After snagging American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family–Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth as a Kindle deal, I avoided reading it during my evening routine. I figured it was one of those well-written, suspenseful historical narratives that would keep me awake at night, heart beating too hard to fall asleep as I continued reading to find out what happened next.  Lincoln’s assassinator and the events surrounding the president’s shooting would surely be a topic for daylight hours.

I was almost right. The story’s pacing ranges from confusing to engrossing to weird to riveting.  And I highly recommend the experience.

The preface utterly lost me. I realized that the author must have been taking readers to the sites where significant events in American Gothic occurred.  This section should have been an epilogue–would have made (nearly) complete sense as a conclusion. But the writer not only plunged me into different scenes, he yanked me around in time also. Perhaps there was a last-minute decision to include a preface, and the book was rushed to print before the editor could review the meaningless section.

The story begins with the ancestors of John Wilkes Booth, Abe Lincoln’s murderer, then moves to Booth’s father, a well-known actor on both sides of the Atlantic, and finally lights on John and his two actor brothers, Edwin and Junius. As Junius fades from the book’s spotlight, the narrative switches between the two remaining siblings as it relates the details leading up to the assassination, the nightmarish evening at Ford’s Theater, and then the fallout from the shooting of Lincoln. Booth’s sister and Abe himself are illuminated as key characters.

I managed to press on through the author’s tic of elaborating on the brothers’ acting, going into what seemed to be thinly supported raptures over it. And although the writer’s insistence on the bewildering practice of switching characters without warning the reader (was “he” referring to Edwin, or to John?) as with many vivid historical narratives, my perseverance was rewarded by a rich education in the era and in the actual circumstances surrounding a well-known historical event. Here, with possible spoilers, if you’re interested in reading American Gothic, are some of the most interesting lessons:

  1. John Wilkes Booth wasn’t just some two-bit, low-down theater actor as I had always thought. Booth, along with his father and brother Edwin, were actually highly regarded and distinguished career actors in their time. Our memory of them has faded, bringing only John to the fore with his dark deed.
  2. The standards for good looks were different in the 1860s. John Wilkes Booth was thought to be the most divinely handsome man observers ever laid eyes on, and this opinion was widely held by both men and women who met him. But his photo does not do these observations justice.  Brought to life, he appears somewhat above average, but his looks were nowhere near all the fuss.
  3. Shakespeare was a big deal in Lincoln’s time, and Lincoln, along with the masses, loved the Bard’s plays. The Booth family often acted in Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and others.
  4. As I thought, the story increased in intensity when it came to the night Lincoln was killed. And Lincoln was not the only victim that night. Booth’s co-conspirators were active on the fateful evening, and an unfortunate official of Lincoln’s administration was stabbed in his bed while recovering from an injury. Booth also stabbed a friend of the president who had been invited to share the theater box with him and Mrs. Lincoln.  This friend survived, but possibly due to the trauma of that night, committed harrowing crimes of his own later in life.
  5. Without modern transportation, communication, and other amenities, the community in Washington, D.C. seemed to have a different feel than our cities today, and the author was skilled enough to convey this sense of connectivity and let us experience the strangeness of living in a culture a hundred and sixty years ago. If Lincoln needed to commute to D.C., he’d use his legs, and passersby would presumably recognize the president strolling down the sidewalk with a companion.  Other “celebrities” walked or rode carriages openly in the streets. There seemed to be fewer degrees of separation; Mrs. Grant noticed John Wilkes Booth riding near their carriage and staring them down. She didn’t recognize the actor, but commented on it and thought it was creepy.
  6. With this connectivity and lack of medical technology, people were not cushioned from the gruesome aspects of life. Just as their devastating Civil War ended, Americans had to cope with the news of their president’s death. There were no wailing ambulance sirens to rush him to the hospital, no padded stretcher as a gentle conveyance. Instead, some men lifted the dying president and hefted him over to the building across the street, depositing him in the very room where Booth had recently relaxed with a friend. Blood was everywhere (although it probably came from the stabbing victim in the theater box, and not from Lincoln).  For some reason, the young doctor who had attended Lincoln in the theater, and had seemingly right instincts in performing a kind of CPR on him to get him breathing again, kept pulling away the blood clots from his head wound. To me, that was precisely the wrong thing to do. For the doctor, clearing them away seemed to get Lincoln breathing again. Lincoln was, I’m sure, beyond even the reach of modern medicine with the bullet that had entered his brain at short range, but at least in our day, we could have helped him die more comfortably.
  7. Mrs. Lincoln went into hysterics at the scene of her husband’s death, and would not stop with her outbursts or allow herself to be comforted as he died. Always mentally delicate, she was finally undone, pushed over the brink for the rest of her life by the events in Ford’s Theater.
  8.  The book explores the lives of many others who had been at the theater on the night of the shooting. They had all been deeply affected by the incident, perhaps made worse by its suddenness along with the confusion and chaos that followed. Booth’s siblings, who supported the Union, were devastated by their brother’s crime. Mrs. Lincoln was not the only victim of mental illness–these conditions seemed to be prevalent in those days, assuming the author of American Gothic is not relying too much on speculation about individuals. Perhaps our sheltering from life’s brutal realities and our medical interventions that prevent premature death provide some protection for our minds.
  9. Speaking of brutal realities, a crowd gathered to watch the hanging of Booth’s co-conspirators. The book describes the hot day and the dark mood. This was tough and determined yet ugly justice, the first instance in the US where a woman was to be executed this way, and the decision to string her up with three of the other plotters challenged the consciences of officials involved.
  10. The whole country mourned Lincoln’s death. Even the Southerners were far from rejoicing over the loss. How would Lincoln have led the country had he survived? He clearly did not want retribution for the South, but reconciliation.
  11. The tracing of Booth’s path after he jumped from the theater box, broke his leg, and fled on horseback is a whole drama in itself. The reader can almost empathize with Booth in his worsening pain, loneliness, and determination to survive. He often threw himself at the mercy of strangers, sometimes relying on his persuasive charm and acting abilities to get by.  Maybe he knew as well as we did that this was not going to end well. What would kill him first–his excruciating leg injury, or his pursuers?  The innocent family sheltering him at their farmhouse had no idea what he had just done, and when they found out, they mercifully allowed him and his companion to stay in their barn. The leader of the small contingent of troops who tracked him down was inexcusably harsh to the family. Fortunately, they finally received compensation for the burning down of their barn.  ***SPOILER: The bleak conclusion to Booth’s story–he was determined to die in some way other than hanging, and got his wish when he was shot while ostensibly surrendering in the barn–and the treatment of civilians by the military in a time of slow news, convey a dark time for the country, in a dark book.  The description of Booth’s suffering as he died a slow death from his bullet wound was especially macabre.
  12. How did the military track Booth down in a vast countryside where travel was limited to horses and ferries?  One factor was that Booth and his simple-minded companion had big mouths. They could not help but tell strangers they met that they had just shot the president. Booth was under the impression that he would be regarded as a hero, so perhaps he thought that some individuals would embrace his act and welcome him. He and his friend did change their names, but oddly, their new monikers were similar to their real ones.
  13. Lincoln was partly responsible for his vulnerability to individuals’ festering hatred for him. Despite death threats from the beginning of his presidency, he refused guard detail, laughing off the concerns of his head of security and going about the city as he pleased. The guard that accompanied him to the theater on the night of the shooting had left the first couple in their box to settle into a seat for a good view of the play. Both the president and his wife had strong premonitions of the president’s death. Lincoln had a strange vision that seemed to indicate that he would not finish out his second term.
  14. The shooting caused immediate disruption, trauma, and confusion, starting in the theater. Events happened quickly, and the play’s audience didn’t know why there was suddenly a knife-wielding man on the stage shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”  They thought perhaps it was part of the play. The players themselves recognized Booth and had no idea what he was doing there. When it finally became clear that Booth had shot the president, the audience began boiling into a mob-like mental state, believing all the actors were complicit in the shooting. Uncertainty, fear, and rumor spread through the streets of Washington, D.C.  It was thought that nine days after the end of the war, the South was rising again and would soon be invading the city.  Men and women who lived through these events were never the same afterward.
  15. Although the author contemplates Booth’s mental state, Booth’s writings and justifications for his act don’t indicate insanity. Booth, who seemed to be a reasonable and even kind man in other aspects of his life, just had a bee in his bonnet about killing the president. His passionate support for the defeated South and perhaps, as my theory goes, his failure to officially participate in the war effort–his own impotence–drove him to assassination.  He rationally pulled together a rag-tag gang of sympathizers, at first intent on only kidnapping Lincoln as a favor to the South. When kidnapping was out of the question, he decided on murder. As a fugitive in the countryside, he recorded a rationale in a small notebook. His fleeing and his words to others were logical but wrong-headed. In a way, his act seems more like an act of war–the last shooting of the Civil War, as American Gothic said, instead of that of a deranged man. Like our mass shooters today, Booth did want “notoriety,” but he also was under the impression that he was doing a favor to the country. He got his wish–he is still well remembered today.
  16. Lincoln was the main character in this book about the Booths. The author couldn’t help following our 16th president, giving us a portrait of a Shakespeare-quoting, homely, eloquent man with a clingy wife, whose only diversion from his toil on behalf of our country was a lively night at the theater.
Published in History
This post was promoted to the Main Feed at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 11 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    Thanks for your detailed review on this grim topic.

    • #1
  2. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    sawatdeeka: They could not help but tell strangers they met that they had just shot the President. Booth was under the impression that he would be regarded as a hero, so perhaps he thought that some individuals would embrace his act and welcome him. He and his friend did change their names, but oddly, their new monikers were similar to their real ones. 

    It seems moronic killers are not an innovation.

    • #2
  3. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    I have been reading a bit about Lincoln’s presidency.  I enjoyed this book review.  

    • #3
  4. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    I have been reading a bit about Lincoln’s presidency. I enjoyed this book review.

    I am curious how much overlap there is between what you’ve been reading and the details of the book as described here. With such a mountain of literature already written on Lincoln, I was surprised this author undertook to write as much as he did about the man. 

    • #4
  5. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    I have been reading a bit about Lincoln’s presidency. I enjoyed this book review.

    I am curious how much overlap there is between what you’ve been reading and the details of the book as described here. With such a mountain of literature already written on Lincoln, I was surprised this author undertook to write as much as he did about the man.

    You shared details from the book I had not read before.  I have not read any of the major biographies of Lincoln yet.  I am interested in reading Allen Guelzo’s books in Lincoln and the American Civil War.  I have read several articles by him and he seems to be a level-headed, steady-hand, kind of historian.

    https://www.allenguelzo.com/books

    • #5
  6. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    The museum in the basement of Ford’s Theater has large photos of the conspirators and artifacts and sets the times in perspective.  Booth probably caused more Northern retribution and more Southern resentment in response.

    Whenever I go to D.C.’s Chinatown and pass by the old Surrat boarding house I wonder if history would have turned out differently if Booth had preferred Thai or Italian.

    Mary Surrat boarding house. Scene of the Booth conspiracy.

     

    • #6
  7. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    The museum in the basement of Ford’s Theater has large photos of the conspirators and artifacts and sets the times in perspective. Booth probably caused more Northern retribution and more Southern resentment in response.

    Whenever I go to D.C.’s Chinatown and pass by the old Surrat boarding house I wonder if history would have turned out differently if Booth had preferred Thai or Italian.

     

    Mary Surrat boarding house. Scene of the Booth conspiracy.

     

    Thank you for this picture. I posted links to some artifacts in the Member Feed, but did not see a photo of this house. Is there a plaque at the site? 

    • #7
  8. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    The museum in the basement of Ford’s Theater has large photos of the conspirators and artifacts and sets the times in perspective. Booth probably caused more Northern retribution and more Southern resentment in response.

    Whenever I go to D.C.’s Chinatown and pass by the old Surrat boarding house I wonder if history would have turned out differently if Booth had preferred Thai or Italian.

     

     

    Mary Surrat boarding house. Scene of the Booth conspiracy.

     

    Thank you for this picture. I posted links to some artifacts in the Member Feed, but did not see a photo of this house. Is there a plaque at the site?

    Yes.  It is on the historic sites register.  You can see the plaque to the left of the front door.

    • #8
  9. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    The museum in the basement of Ford’s Theater has large photos of the conspirators and artifacts and sets the times in perspective. Booth probably caused more Northern retribution and more Southern resentment in response.

    Whenever I go to D.C.’s Chinatown and pass by the old Surrat boarding house I wonder if history would have turned out differently if Booth had preferred Thai or Italian.

     

     

    Mary Surrat boarding house. Scene of the Booth conspiracy.

     

    Thank you for this picture. I posted links to some artifacts in the Member Feed, but did not see a photo of this house. Is there a plaque at the site?

    Yes. It is on the historic sites register. You can see the plaque to the left of the front door.

    The plaque must be that big white thing I see there.  It’s hard to imagine this as an 1860’s boarding house with that punny restaurant name emblazoned on the building. 

    • #9
  10. Nathanael Ferguson Contributor
    Nathanael Ferguson
    @NathanaelFerguson

    Very interesting! On a related note, check out this video of the last witness to Lincoln’s assassination. 

    • #10
  11. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Thanks for the review. Another fascinating read about the aftermath, is the book  Manhunt , detailing the twelve-day pursuit of the assassin. Booth really expected to be lauded as a hero as he headed into the defeated territory of the Confederacy. One does wonder whether the harshness of Reconstruction under the radical Republicans (many of whom had derided Lincoln as too cordial and accommodating to the South and who wanted to lay down heavy punishment on the formerly rebellious population) would have been less so had Lincoln lived to oversee it.

    • #11
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.