Who Was John Wilkes Booth Before He Became Lincoln's Assassin?

Apr 15, 2015
Originally published on April 15, 2015 12:33 pm

John Wilkes Booth was the man who pulled the trigger, capping off a coordinated plot to murder President Abraham Lincoln.

But historian Terry Alford, an expert on all things Booth, says that there's much more to Booth's life. His new biography, Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, delves deep into his life — before Booth went down in history as the man who assassinated a president.

Booth was born into a prominent family of actors. According to Alford, he had good looks and an exceptional acting range, playing both dark roles as bad guys and softer roles such as Romeo. By 1865, the 26-year-old was a headliner on the American stage. As Alford tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, Booth was the first actor known to have "had his clothes torn by fans."

"When he was coming out of a theater in Boston, the manager had to come back and tell people, 'Back up, let him out, just let him walk to his hotel.' "

Alford says it's interesting that, "over the years, as people felt free to talk about Booth, and while they shrank away from what he did, they didn't really shrink from him. They remembered things about him like courtesies and acts of heroism."

Like this example:

"One time onstage, he saved a young woman whose dress caught on fire," he says, "a young actress who had wandered too close to the gas footlights."

Booth was not a madman, according to Alford. In fact, he was politically motivated to assassinate Lincoln.

"John Wilkes Booth was one of those people who thought the best country in the history of the world was the United States as it existed before the Civil War," Alford says. "And then when Lincoln came along, he was changing that in fundamental ways."

Those ideological differences include increasing the power of the federal government and emancipating the slaves, both things Booth was vehemently against. He was angered that the government instituted an income tax and the military draft, and that the government occasionally suspended habeas corpus, a legal protection against unlawful imprisonment. All these things, Alford says, agitated Booth.

"But Booth brought to that agitation an extremism, the passion almost of a fanatic," Alford says. "And it was very dangerous, as we find out."

Booth's opposition to Lincoln's policies persuaded him to fight with the Confederate army during the Civil War. But, according to Alford, his mother was a widow and had already lost four of her children. So she pleaded for him to stay clear of the war. Booth agreed.

"But he felt like a slacker," Alford says. "He even uses the word 'coward' to describe himself because, as an actor, he played a hero onstage but really wasn't one."

One of the people closest to Booth was his older sister, Asia Booth Clarke. After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Asia and her family went into exile in England. There she wrote a secret memoir about her brother, but it wasn't published until 1938. Alford wrote the forward in the latest edition. In her memoir, Clarke recalls a time where a psychic predicted John Wilkes' Booth's untimely death.

"The old gypsy said [to him], 'You've got a bad hand; it's full of sorrow. Trouble plenty everywhere I look. I see you'll break hearts. You'll die young, and you will leave many to mourn you. You'll be rich, you'll be free but you're born under an unlucky star,' " Alford says. "And his sister said, 'Oh, don't let that worry you. These gypsies will just say anything for money.' And he laughed and said, 'That's right.' "

Alford adds that Booth would refer to the gypsy's predictions years later in conversations.

"The little fortune he wrote down grew tattered from folding and unfolding, as he would get it out and look at it and put it back," he says. "So thoughts like that preyed on his mind."

Alford says the assassination of President Lincoln – one of the most heinous acts in American history - shattered the Booth family.

"The brothers were actors," he says. "In other words, you've got to get out in front of thousands of strangers and dozens of towns and be public again. And this was exceptionally hard, because a lot of people did feel you are your brother's keeper. 'Why didn't you do something about this? What did you know? Why didn't you take care of it?' And, so it was extremely hard to be a Booth for a long, long time."

Update at 12:00 p.m. ET: We have changed the headline of this post, which originally said "John Wilkes Booth Was Not A Deranged Longer, Historian Says," and clarified in the text that Booth was not a lone gunman, but rather, a part of a group of conspirators."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Yesterday, we took you to Ford's Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was shot. He died hours later on this morning 150 years ago. Everyone knows his assassin. It was an actor - John Wilkes Booth. But little else about him is generally known. In fact, Booth was quite famous when he conspired to kill the president. He was born into a prominent family of actors - the Barrymores or Fondas of their day. By 1865, he was a headliner on the American stage who, at the age of 26, was already attracting theatergoers like the first family. Terry Alford is out with the first real biography of John Wilkes Booth, who he describes as something of a matinee idol.

TERRY ALFORD: He's the first actor, in fact, whom we know had their clothes torn by fans. When he was coming out of a theater in Boston, the manager had to come back and tell people, back up, let him out, just let him walk to his hotel. So he had good looks. You know, he had tremendous range as an actor. I mean, he could play the bad guys, but he could play soft, tender roles. He was a superb Romeo - things like that. So it's interesting that, over the years, as people felt free to talk about him - although they always shrank from what he did, they didn't really shrink from him. They remembered things about him, you know, courtesies, acts of heroism. One time on stage he saved a young woman whose dress caught on fire.

MONTAGNE: Young actress?

ALFORD: A young actress, right, who had wandered too close to the gas footlights. So there were things they remembered fondly about him.

MONTAGNE: He was not a lone madman. He had a basis for wanting to assassinate President Lincoln. What motivated him politically?

ALFORD: John Wilkes Booth was one of those people who thought that the best country in the history of the world was the United States as it existed before the Civil War. And then when Lincoln came along, he was changing that in fundamental ways - increasing the power of the federal government, emancipating the slaves. And then the government, to carry out Lincoln's policies, did exceptional things. They imposed the income tax. They drafted people, occasionally suspended habeas corpus. These were mind blowing things that had never been done before the war. And so Booth was very agitated over these things. But Booth brought to that agitation and extremism, you know, the passion almost of a fanatic. And it was very dangerous, as we find out.

MONTAGNE: Did he have an allegiance to the Confederacy?

ALFORD: Well, when the war began, someone of his views and sympathies should probably have gone into the Confederate Army. And he totally intended to do that. But his mother, who was a widow at this point - she had already lost four children. And she begged. She prayed. She wept. She pleaded for him to stay clear of the war. And in the end, she won that battle. But he felt like a slacker. He even uses the word coward to describe himself because, see, as an actor, he played a hero on stage, but he really wasn't one.

MONTAGNE: And no one was closer to John Wilkes Booth than his sister, Asia Booth Clarke. After her brother assassinated the president, Asia and her family fled to England, never to return. There, she wrote a secret memoir about her brother, which was finally published in 1938. Terry Alford edited the latest edition. Read for us, if you will, a short passage where John Wilkes Booth's sister, Asia, describes him.

ALFORD: Well, there was an interesting story. When he was about 12, she went to visit him at a school. And he told her that I've had my fortune read by Gypsies. And he showed her the paper. It was written - kind of scribbled in pencil. And the old gypsy said that you've got a bad hand. It's full of sorrow, trouble plenty. Everywhere I look, I see you'll break hearts. You'll die young, and you will leave many to mourn you. You'll be rich. You'll be free. But you're born under an unlucky star. And his sister said, oh, don't let that worry you, right? These gypsies, they just say anything for money. And he laughed. He said that's right. But she noticed that he kept it. And he would refer to it in years later in conversations. And the little fortune he wrote down grew tattered from folding and unfolding as he would get it out and look at it and then put it back. So thoughts like that preyed on his mind.

MONTAGNE: John Wilkes Booth's dastardly and unforgivable act and his own fiery demise days later shattered his family. His brothers tried to continue their acting careers, which, of course, meant appearing in public.

ALFORD: And this was exceptionally hard because a lot of people did feel these - you are your brother's keeper, you know? Why didn't you do something about this? What did you know? Why didn't you take care of it? And so it was extremely hard to be a Booth for a long, long time.

MONTAGNE: That's Terry Alford. His new biography, "Fortune's Fool: The Life Of John Wilkes Booth," is out this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.