Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Squire Booth

"Though this be madness...:

Hamlet

The Booth children were, figuratively and literally, born under a crooked star. Their father was branded "mad" by many, even in his own profession. Indeed, he was peculiar. While on the theatre circuit, the great Shakespearean often had fits of melancholia that lasted for days, sometimes brought on by the rum he consumed like water. It wasnt uncommon for the star to waddle onstage inebriated, yet in full control of character.

His moods swung like an unhinged fence gate in a gale. Content one minute, he would suddenly take to locking himself in an armoire in his dressing room moments before opening curtain and refuse to perform, for no comprehensible reason. He could charm his audiences or, when in the cup, make them feel like he was doing them a favor by performing for them. Once, when sensing an inattentive audience, he broke character, stormed to the apron of the stage and crowed, "Pay attention, you low-lived bastards!" and slid back into character as if nothing had happened to break it. Another time, he found himself playing to a lukewarm house; to stir up the audience, he beat a fellow actor into bloody pulp during what was supposed to be mere choreographed fisticuffs.

A production of Richard III was canceled after its star, Mr. Booth, vanished. Later that evening, stagehands found him in a local gin mill, the bar counter his stage, reciting the entire play his and everyone elses lines for the amusement of the clientele.

A confirmed vegetarian, Junius believed animals had souls. To kill them would mean damnation, as if killing a human being. He would switch religions as constantly as he did his moods, espousing the doctrines of the Jewish faith one week, the Koran the next, then preaching Catholicism before the month was ended.

In all due credit, however, he was his most stable when home on "The Farm," as he called his property in Maryland. There he was a hard-working husband, excellent farmer and doting father.

While Wilkes was still young, Junius built another magnificent two-story home adjacent to the original cabin homestead. He called it, in all its elegance, Tudor Hall. Designed by one James Gifford after the mode of the country manor houses in Booths native England, it was resplendent with cross-pane windows and a Romeo and Juliet-style balcony facing the rising sun. A neighbor, Edmund Spangler, provided most of the labor. Oddly enough, both Gifford and Spangler were later to serve as carpenter and scene shifter at Fords Theatre in Washington City (D.C.), where Wilkes would receive his ultimate notoriety.

The private grounds around Tudor Hall resembled a pastel illustration in a Sir Walter Scott novel. A half-mile in from the carriage road, they were surrounded by dense yews and brooding willows, babbling brooks, caves, wandering silver fox and turkeys. The children would hunt for and frequently uncover arrow heads on the property, reminders of its history as an Iriqouisian habitation. A small graveyard edged the property; here lay several of the Booth children (Henry, Mary Ann, Frederick and Elizabeth) who died when yellow fever swept the East. An ethereal fog seemed to always hang over The Farm and the desolate quiet thundered imaginations of all kinds.

After the farming work was done for the day, Squire Junius brought his family together before Tudor Halls roaring parlor fire to pour over dramas and sagas from the Booth bookshelves. He demanded that his brood be well-versed in the arts and social graces. He would make his surviving children Junius, Rosalie, Edwin, Asia, Wilkes and Joseph memorize sonnets and soliloquies from Shakespeare and other masters, then recite them evenings for the rest of the family. Son Edwin, who was five years older than Wilkes and who often "chaperoned" his father on the road, had no trouble learning them. Neither did Wilkes, who it was said memorized entire dramas as most children his age learned nursery rhymes.

That Wilkes was his fathers pet was no secret, not even to Edwin. He showered the boy with compliments and gifts, calling him a beautiful boy, and fostering what he saw as a high spirit, reminiscent of the patriot John Wilkes he was christened after. The other children did not complain, for they too saw in their brother the same dramatic fire and energy that moved their own beloved "Papa June."

Junius Brutus Booth died in 1858, prompting poet Walt Whitman to write, "there went the greatest and by far the most noble Roman of them all." The liquor he consumed had finally poisoned his system. But, after the family buried him in Baltimore Cemetery his charismatic presence remained. The legacy he left to preserve the Booth name into immortality remained "as constant as the Northern star."

Tudor Hall (AP)
Tudor Hall (AP)

 

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