Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Civil War

"...Seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannons mouth"

As You Like It

By April of 1861, the South had seceded and the Confederate States of America were officially born. Confederate troops under General Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter in Carolina Bay. The infant wailed. Time had come to douse talk and replace it with action. The last straw had been the election of Abraham Lincoln as 16th President of the United States; he was a confirmed and vocal enemy of slavery. The South, in retaliation, let it be known that they would no longer tolerate the blue uniform of the Northern Army within any of the states that had adopted the Confederate doctrine. Major Robert Anderson, defending Sumter, was forced to surrender.

Civil war in America had started. Less than 90 years old, the nation faced a crucial test of survival.

President Lincoln called his country to war. What would turn into a four-year conflagration and take more American lives than two subsequent world wars together was expected by many at first to be no more than a "show of power" exhibited by both factions that would end in quick compromise. But, it soon became apparent that the South would not bargain. It didnt matter that the industrial North was considered unbeatable with its larger population and its iron factories able to churn out artillery by the carloads. The pride of the South was wounded, and the scars were enough to inspire its men to victory in the first several engagements, including the First Battle of Manassas, 30 miles from Washington City.

Wilkes did not enlist to fight, and that fact rankled his conscience. There were two reasons he did not. First, he had promised his mother to avoid the battlefield; she still grieved over the death of Junius and could not face the possibility of losing her sons. Also, he had become a major theatrical star who, as he himself recognized, owed much of his popularity to his looks. A scarred face would ruin that.

But, because he was a star, he also realized he could use his influence to benefit his beloved Confederacy. Theatres on the circuit included The Holliday in Baltimore, The Academy in Cleveland, Woods in Cincinnati, McVickers in Chicago, and other playhouses throughout the North. He moved in and around high society with grace and at any time of day or night, in any neighborhood, he could travel unquestioned. The name Booth, as Edwin suggested, opened doors. Who better than he could relay messages back and forth to and from Confederate agents planted throughout the North?

He joined a network of spies and smugglers known as the Knights of the Golden Circle, operating between Richmond and Montreal, Canada. Relentlessly, the group implemented many underground activities, including blockade-smashing efforts along the East Coast and the disbursement of medicines (largely quinine and laudanum) down from Canada, through Union lines, thence to Virginia. The Knights also managed a secret mail route throughout the North and were largely responsible for inciting the New York Draft Riots that burned down blocks of Manhattan.

That Wilkes was a Southern sympathizer was common knowledge. He made his opinions known vocally throughout especially Washington City and wore his sentiments like a gaudy cloak. For this reason, fewer and fewer theatre managers refused to put him on their bill. At a production of The Apostate at Fords Theatre, Wilkes learned that Lincoln was in the private box stage left; whenever his character Pescara spoke of oppression or revenge, Wilkes intentionally threw those lines in Lincolns direction. Mary Todd, Lincolns wife, was reported to have commented that the experience left her uncomfortable.

When in Washington, he resided at the elite National Hotel on 6th Street, not far from the Capitol Building. Its saloon was a hangout for "Secesh" or Secessionist gentlemen of leisure. Day and night it rumbled with war talk. It was here that, under iridescent glow of oil lamp, many an intrigue was hatched by members of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

 

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