Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

The Romantic South

"There is a tide in the affairs of men..."

 Julius Caesar

John Wilkes Booth (Library of Congress)
John Wilkes Booth
(Library of Congress)

The turning point in his life was one step away. John Wilkes Booth was about to discover, and fall in love with, the South.

His brother Edwin had come forward with a proposition to give Wilkes sagging career a boost. Peopling a theatre troupe for an upcoming tour, he invited Wilkes to join him. The troupe would perform in several major cities in the geographic South and, because Edwin headlined it, the press promised generous column space. Wilkes could recite Shakespeare backwards and Edwin figured he might come off more splendidly under the tutelage of a caring brother. Edwin offered one condition: that Wilkes no longer hide behind an illegitimate name, but come out fighting and give the world all he had. After all, Edwin told him, the Booth name could open many new doors. It was a powerful name, Booth.

He instilled Wilkes with confidence and Wilkes accepted the challenge. On the tour, no one laughed at this "J. Wilkes Booth" this time. Rather, he displayed a figure and an aire that glowed Stage Presence.

Edwin, writing to older brother, Junius, who was a theater entrepreneur in the West, told him, "I dont think (our brother) will startle the world...but he is improving fast, and looks beautiful on the platform."

His sudden onstage elegance, nurtured no doubt by Edwin, fit well with the romantic-minded Southern society that saw in him one of their own. Backstage, he became the darling of many Southern actresses.

Wilkes developed, almost overnight, a kinship with the South because of the laurels expended on him there. He soon began to let its very nature enfold him like a newborn babe caressed in the tender loving arms of its mother. He became a devotee of their own devotions of preserved traditions and states rights and soon became a political bedfellow. He linked to them, and they to him. He became their Adonis, the epitome of the Southern gentry in silk stock tie and with gifted swordhand. Secreted political parleys supporting slavery, games of whist dealt in posh riverboat salons, masqued balls, moonlight kisses under magnolias, and ruffled petticoats...he hadnt trouble getting involved in any of them.

Fate was playing overtime. Beyond the proscenium stage a script, a tragedy greater than that of a King Lear or a Hamlet, was being written that would involve Wilkes as a central character. Political views on state sovereignty and, especially, slavery had reached boiling point between North and South. Advocates of total democracy in the North feared that, as the west opened beyond the Mississippi River, Southern plantation owners would carry their tradition of slavery into the new territories. Southerners, in turn, saw no reason why they shouldnt. Many people on both sides foresaw a great turbulence festering and attempted peaceful solutions. A popular Illinois legislator named Abraham Lincoln stood up in the Sangamon County Courthouse to advise, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

That foundation of the house continued to crack, nevertheless. Abolitionist John Brown had come from Kansas to incite slave rebellion in the South. The government, in hopes of diluting growing controversy, arrested Brown and tried him for insurrection. He was sentenced to hang in what is now Charles Town, West Virginia.

While riding the crest professionally, Wilkes straddled the political fence for a direction and, weighing the balance, came to the conclusion that the North was the bully. He often made his opinions public, much to the embarrassment of Edwin, a staunch Unionist. He argued how Southern voice was muffled in Congress; how tradition should be maintained despite modernitys pressures; how Northern abolitionists like Brown had no right to interfere with the way others lived below Mason and Dixons Line. And when the acting troupe came to Richmond, Va., he quickly joined a local militia called the Richmond Greys, a political party founded on the preservation of the Old Tradition. When the Greys were summoned to serve as Honor Guard at Browns execution, Wilkes donned his uniform of gold and gray and marched alongside his brethren to the Charlestown train, fifes and drums blaring and a mob cheering them onward.

But, he later reported, he found the experience of watching Brown hang to be an auspicious moment. The "old man up there" spoke of a forthcoming torch that would spark the gunpowder of war. For the first time, Wilkes felt himself being enmeshed in something much bigger than the death of one mad abolitionist. The Gypsys prophesy haunted him once again.

 

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