Right or wrong, John Wilkes Booth was a native son of Harford

Though tarnished, John Wilkes Booth is not forgotten in his home county

Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant events in history, with its roots deep in Harford County.

On April 14, 1865 — just days after the conclusion of major hostilities in the Civil War — President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., by Harford County native John Wilkes Booth.

Words credited to the assassin — "I want to do something that will hand my name to posterity, never to be forgotten, even after I've been dead for 1,000 years." — are true. Neither his home county, nor history have forgotten. It's unlikely either ever will.

"He was certainly a rabid individual. Anyone who wants to assassinate a president is pretty bad," Jim Wollon, who lives near Churchville, said. Wollon's great-grandmother, Ella Kyle Harwood Mahoney, knew some of the Booth family and later lived in their former home, Tudor Hall, for 70 years.

"I'm certainly not a subscriber of his thinking," Wollon, a retired architect who specialized in historic building restoration, said. "I think the Civil War was a pretty terrible thing."

Wollon, 76, says he remembers his great-grandmother, who died in 1948, talking about the Booths and, for a time, operating a small museum in Tudor Hall, "for which she charged a quarter admission. I can remember tourists stopping, although I was pretty young."

For many of the early Booth biographers, Mrs. Mahoney became a go-to person for information about John Wilkes and his siblings in their early days in the county, as well as the home they left behind.

"They [the Booths] had a prominent role in our Harford County folklore," Mrs. Mahoney wrote in an unpublished memoir, "The House that Booth Built (The House that Fell with Lincoln.)"

"Boothies" from Harford and all over the world have studied and written about the family.

"Next to requests about their own family histories, calls about the Booths are the most we have gotten over the years," Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County, said.

Prominent, if cursed

Because of its role in the American theater in the 19th century, long before radio, moving pictures, television and the Internet, the Booth family became famous and would likely remain so today, though for obviously different reasons, even if John Wilkes hadn't stained the Booth name.

Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, was the most famous American actor of the first half the century and the assassin's brother, Edwin, was the most famous of the second half, Tom Fink, president of the Junius B. Booth Society, said. The Booth Society was founded in 2006 to educate the public and historians about the Booth family.

Fink said "nobody truly knows" why Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes Booth settled on 159 acres next to what was then known locally as "The Great Woods," off the road from Bel Air to Havre de Grace, within a year of their arrival from England in 1821.

"He [Junius] wrote in his diary that he liked to farm," Fink said, during a recent tour of Tudor Hall. Tudor Hall is the Gothic Revival house the senior Booth commissioned to build, probably as a retirement home, according to Fink, but didn't live to see its completion in 1852.

"And, this was sort of the mid-point for his theater tours. The theaters closed down in the summer," Fink said. "This was a getaway. He liked the area around Baltimore and this was between Baltimore and Philadelphia."

John Wilkes was the ninth of 10 children born to Junius and Mary Ann and the last of eight born in a cabin on the Harford farm that predated the completion of Tudor Hall with its distinctive diamond-shaped window panes. John Wilkes' older sister, Asia, who revered her brother to the day she died, gave the home its name.

In his footsteps

As a boy, John Wilkes and another older sister, Rosalie, frequently walked to the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church at the nearest crossroads, today's intersection of Routes 22 and 543. John received a book for "faithful attendance," according to the recently published "Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth," by Terry Alford.

Booth attended school in downtown Bel Air, the first Bel Air Academy at 24 E. Pennsylvania Ave., a building still standing, and then went to boarding schools in Cockeysville and Catonsville. By his account and others, John Wilkes was an indifferent student who had particular trouble expressing with pen and paper.

"I have been from a school so long that I have forgot how to spell and write," Booth, then 16, wrote in a letter to a teenage friend.

The letter was among four that were the subject of a 1964 article published in The Aegis and written by the newspaper's then advertising director, the late Wayde Chrismer, who was also one of Harford County's foremost Civil War experts.

"An examination of the letters reveals that the vanity which drove the disgruntled, second-rate actor to perform the one, tremendous and never-to-be-forgotten role of his life, was evident even then," Mr. Chrismer wrote. "He was a heavy drinker at 16 and had a cultivated eye for girls as revealed in a sentence from a letter written 'from Harford' on April 30, 1854: 'I have my eye on three girls out here. I hope I'll get enough.'"

Jim Chrismer, Wayde Chrismer's son and a frequent contributor to and editor of the Harford Historical Bulletin, said his father examined the letters in New York before they were put up for public auction.

"Dad likely bid on the JWB letters but probably found himself in the major leagues and had to get out (my mother would have had his head!)," he said. "In any event, he did not buy them. Where they went, I have no idea."

In another of the letters dated Jan. 25, 1855, Booth notes he is "at present seated in a very snug bar room by a comfortable log fire and the popplar wood which is spitting and cracking and sending forth a merry blaze up the chimney puts me very much in mind of home and by the bye it is home, not my home."

He then explains the place has a sign on which is written "the Home for Travelers."

"I don't know whether you are acquainted with the house or no, but I think you have past it. It is situated in Church Ville, a very pleasant place, and I may say a bad place, but no wonder. It has an old saying (Nearer the church nearer the devil)."

Jim Chrismer said the place in Churchville appears to have been a hotel operated by Col. William B. Hanna at what would today be the crossroads of Routes 22 and 136, three miles from Tudor Hall and near the site of the Walter G. Coale farm machinery company.

Gone but remembered

Other local Booth haunts, such as the Eagle Hotel on Bel Air's Bond Street, where he sojourned in the summer of 1861, are no longer standing. The Mary Risteau State Office Building's parking lot, also scene of the weekly Bel Air Farmers Market, occupies the former hotel site.

Booth, by then immersed in an acting career, was visiting his home county during the theater's off-season, according Alford's book.

Harford County, its citizens' allegiances torn between North and South in the three-month old Civil War, was considered a rebel hotbed, and a regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers briefly laid siege to Bel Air in a search for weapons and rebel sympathizers who had formed a sort of "home guard," according to a Booth acquaintance, who gave the story to a reporter from the New York Tribune in 1865.

Booth, who appears to have consorted with some longtime friends, who were among the local rebel plotters, was said to have hidden in the woods near his home and, eventually, escaped without detection, according to both the Tribune account and Alford's book.

Alford also writes that Booth spent some of the summer of 1862 at Tudor Hall, which by then was being lived in by one of the family's longtime employees, the onetime slave Ann Hall, and some of her children.

During the fall of 1864, Booth was back in Harford and is known to have frequented Cook's Tavern, in Five Forks, the intersection of today's Routes 24 and 136 and Clermont Mill Road, in far northern Harford, according to Doug Washburn, author of "A History of Pylesville," published last year.

On one occasion, according to Washburn's and Alford's books, that credit the information to multiple sources, Booth talked openly about a plot he was organizing to capture Lincoln and hold him for ransom in a Civil War prisoner exchange.

Alford and others believe Booth was looking to recruit some Harford acquaintances for the plot, but was not successful, although Washburn's book notes he found some locals sympathetic to the idea.

The kidnapping plot fizzled, but it soon morphed into the murder of Lincoln, the attempted killing and wounding of Secretary of State William Seward and the planned killing of Vice President Andrew Johnson that was never carried out by one of Booth's co-conspirators.

Strong bond with past

Despite its strong ties to the Booths, Tudor Hall's rightful place in the pantheon of Harford County history has never quite been secure.

In 2006, at the insistence of then county executive David Craig, a onetime history teacher and history buff, the county government bought the home and surrounding 8.3 acres for $810,000. Most of the remaining former Booth property, which had been at least 180 acres at one time, was sold by prior owners and has mostly been developed for houses.

The house was used by the county's Cultural Advisory Board and the nonprofit Center for the Arts for offices, including John Wilkes' small, second floor bedroom which has a balcony that some Booth lore says he used to practice Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Those tenants are gone and Fink, a volunteer, relies on donations and a lot of sweat equity from him and other like-minded Booth family enthusiasts to turn the house into a museum.

Wollon said he would be "very pleased" if the home could be one day restored to how it was during the Booths time.

Bundle of contradictions

At the entrance to the property, at the end of Tudor Lane about a quarter mile off of Route 22, is the original spring-fed pond constructed by Junius Brutus Booth when his family first settled on the property. Less than 100 paces from the rear of Tudor Hall itself, sits a large storm pond built for one of the neighboring developments, where some back yards are separated from the former Booth property by tall privacy fences.

Those ironies might not have been lost on Booth, a walking bundle of contradictions. Biographers have had a century and a half to sort out the Booth story and few have agreed on even some of the basics. What motivated and drove him to kill Lincoln continues to be debated vigorously.

To some, he was that "second-rate actor," as Wayde Chrismer wrote, living off scraps in the shadow of his more illustrious Edwin, while others have characterized him as a matinee idol, who had no trouble attracting choice acting gigs and making a good living on the stage.

He's been described not only as surly, moody, depressed, mad, deranged, obsessed and self-indulgent, but also as kind, polite, humorous and placing a high value on friendships.

Noting that so much that has been written about all the Booths has been handed down by word of mouth and old newspaper articles, Fink said differentiating fact from fiction or embellishment is difficult.

"I tend to shotgun, put everything out there," he said. "Some of the books written are obviously more accurate than others and some articles that were written in the press at the time did not do in-depth reporting. There are lots of contradictions."

Regardless, Booth appears to have had the last word on himself. "Useless," he said as he took his final breath after being mortally wounded by a soldier inside a burning Virginia barn on April 26, 1865, a dozen days after he shot Lincoln. "Useless."

Though surely not forgotten.

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