"Do you think he'll have the impact in his hometown 150 years later compared to when it happened?" author Terry Alford asked in mock seriousness about John Wilkes Booth, the Harford County native who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago this week.
Alford was referring to how the editors of The Aegis, then called The Aegis and Intelligencer, appear to have deliberately avoided making any mention of Booth's Harford County ties in their newspaper's coverage following the assassination and the manhunt for Booth that resulted in his death, even as correspondents from the big national daily papers were traipsing across the local countryside to interview people who had known him.
Alford said that while he found the Booth denial among the local press "unbelievable," he also can see why, then as now, people in Harford County have difficulty coming to grips with the Booth legacy.
"You aren't going to find too much sympathy with the assassination," he said, "but I'm sure there will always be some fascination with the assassin."
Alford, 69, a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College, recently released "Fortune's Fool, The Life of John Wilkes Booth," published by Oxford University Press. He'll be one of the presenters at a symposium on May 9, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Bel Air Reckord Armory at 37 N. Main St. in Bel Air.
"Tudor Hall, the Booths of Maryland and the Civil War" is sponsored by the Junius B. Booth Society and the Historical Society of Harford County and is a joint fundraiser for the two organizations. Admission is $65 per person with early registration, $75 after April 24. To register, visit http://www.harfordhistory.net, call the Historical Society at 410-838-7691 or register by mail through the Historical Society, 139 N. Main St., Bel Air, Md., 20114. Tudor Hall will be open from the conclusion of the symposium to 7 p.m.
In a recent telephone interview, Alford said he didn't want to write a book about a murderer, but he was interested in how forces aligned so a baby boy in his cradle in rural Harford County and an unknown backcountry lawyer in his mid-30s in Illinois became forever entwined in a theater box 26 years later.
"You don't believe that was his destiny," he said of Booth. "I wanted to find out why he did it."
"He seemed to be popular as a kid, a pretty good student, a little reckless maybe, but he seems to have made a lot of friends," Alford said of Booth's early years.
"When he killed Lincoln he lost his reputation; there's no doubt he was an exceptionally fine actor. He had the fame, the ability to make money. I would liken him to somebody today like Brad Pitt," he said. "The idea he assassinated the president because he was a professional failure is not true."
Booth had plenty of demons, however, and Alford thinks his relationships with both parents may have wired him for the fateful deed.
While Alford feels Booth thought his father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a great actor, he found Junius to be "ambivalent as a parent and a husband." He also said people who knew the Booths during their time in Harford County felt Mary Ann Booth doted on her second youngest child and let him do as he pleased during the father's long absences on the theater circuit.
"John Ford thought John Wilkes Booth had an unnatural individualism," Alford said of the owner of Ford's Theater in Washington, where Booth had been a player and where he fatally shot Lincoln. "There seems no question he had a desire to distinguish himself. He was proud of his father as an actor, but he didn't want to be compared to him. He didn't want to be compared to anyone."
Whether distinguishing himself by killing the President of the United States is how Booth planned to leave his mark, Alford says he doesn't know, although he understands how Booth's oft-stated animus toward Lincoln could have festered.
"In his 26 years, no president had been elected to a second term, and there's no question that Lincoln acted vigorously during the war, with the draft, emancipation, suspending habeas corpus.
"Booth really loved the United States before the war. He thought it was the best place in the world. He was not able to adapt to the change. I don't know that he had any new thoughts after those opinions formed in his teen years."
Alford said Booth's inflexibility stands in marked contrast to the man he killed, who was adaptable and no captive to some idyllic vision of the past.
"One of the things that drew my attention is that Booth really had something to lose" in choosing to stalk and kill Lincoln, Alford said. "Unlike the other presidential assassins, he wasn't a born loser. People didn't ask them for their autographs, didn't stop them on the street to talk like they did to Booth."
"How do you imagine such a thing that maybe one person in a million might try to do?" he asked. "How didn't he see this as something you don't do? He lost the ability to see what a million other people could see was wrong."