Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Wilkes Booth: The Story of Abraham Lincoln's Murderer

Skeletons in the Closet

"Whats in a name?"

 Romeo and Juliet

Junius Booth, Sr.
Junius Booth, Sr.

John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in a large log cabin set in a clearing among the lilac-strewn primeval forests of northern Maryland, not far below the Pennsylvania border. He was the ninth child of pretty, raven-haired Mary Ann Holmes and Junius Brutus Booth, a barrel-chested stage actor who had made a name for himself as a fine interpreter of Shakespeare. It was said he ruled his family with a presence "as constant as the Northern star," a line taken from Julius Caesar. As a child, Wilkes (as he preferred to be called) would tag along with his family on occasional carriage trips to the nearest villages of Bel Air and Hickory. In town, he would listen wide-eyed to the stories of old men who had taken part in the American Revolution; he found their courage in the face of British bayonets fascinating.

His parents promoted this sort of inspiration, his father being related to Englands agitator-statesman John Wilkes (for whom Wilkes was named) and his mother a hopeless romantic. In fact, the latter had told him that, on the night he was born, she had asked God to give her a hint of what her sons future held in store for him. In answer, she saw the flames in the open hearth form the image of letters that, as she studied them, spelled the word "country." This, she believed, meant that he was to endure the fires of persecution, but emerge as patriot in the final act.

In her memoirs of her brother, Asia Booth recalls this episode in verse:

"...I implore to know on this ghostly night

Whether twill labor for wrong, or right,

For or against Thee?

The flame up-leapt

Like a wave of blood, an avenging arm crept

Into shape; and COUNTRY shone out in the flame..."

Mary Ann Holmes
Mary Ann Holmes

Indeed, his life began on a discordant note, despite this romantic nurturing. He learned as a boy the necessity of having to defend his familial name against scandal. Although his father had earned the respect of his profession as he was a recognized headliner in his native Britain who successfully carried his craft to the States their Maryland neighbors (as did many in the early 1800s) regarded actors as nomads and voyeurs. One simply did not hang with stage people lest he or she suffered the same social indentations.

Fueling the fire, the American public had learned that Junius had deserted a wife in England and fled to the new country with this Mary Ann Holmes, a flower peddler he had met outside Londons Covent Street Theatre. More so, Junius and Mary Ann, even after conceiving 10 children in total, had never exchanged marriage vows! Eventually the couple married probably more out of social pressure than desire but outrage lives on. Many of their neighbors in town continued to forbid their children association with the Booth brood. For Wilkes and his striplings, life was often lonely.

 

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