John Wilkes Booth more than 'cartoon bad guy,' speaker at Bel Air symposium says

Author Jim Garrett speaks about Tudor Hall, the Bel Air house of John Wilkes Booth's family, at a symposium on Saturday, May 11 about the infamous assassinator of President Lincoln. (David Anderson/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)

John Wilkes Booth, native son of Harford County, has been remembered for 150 years for one terrible act – the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.

Five nationally-known authors and historical researchers spent Saturday giving members of the public a much fuller picture of Booth as a Shakespearean actor and the son and brother of Shakespearean actors, his potential ties to a pro-slavery secret society with tens of thousands of members throughout the country and about his family's home in the countryside east of Bel Air.


Thomas Bogar, who talked about the assassin's friends working backstage at Ford's Theatre where Booth fatally shot Lincoln, said during a panel discussion that Booth has often been portrayed as a "one-dimensional cartoon bad guy." Bogar is the author of "Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination," published in 2013.

Bogar and the other speakers delved into how they believe Booth was shaped by his complex relationships with others including his siblings and parents, a father who struggled with depression and alcoholism and a doting mother; his pro-slavery, anti-Lincoln associates in the Knights of the Golden Circle; and his close relationships with fellow actors, stage hands and the owners of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., the site of the assassination.


Because of their professional relationships with Booth, many of those same theater workers and actors became instant suspects in the conspiracy Booth hatched that led to the shooting of Lincoln and the wounding of Secretary of State William Seward by another of the conspirators.

None of those working at the theater on the night of April 14, 1865 when Booth shot Lincoln was ever directly implicated by federal authorities, however, though several had interacted with the assassin throughout the evening, right up to his escape on a horse that a prop boy had held for Booth in the alley outside the theater.

The day-long, 150th Year Commemorative Symposium, The Booths of Maryland and the Civil War, was held at the Bel Air Reckord Armory and included opportunities to purchase copies of the speakers' books and take a tour of the Booth family home, Tudor Hall.

The Historical Society of Harford County and the Junius B. Booth Society sponsored the event as a fundraiser for both organizations. The nonprofit Junius B. Booth Society, which is named for John Wilkes' father, Junius Brutus Booth, compiles the history of the Booth family and curates Tudor Hall, which is owned by Harford County government.


Tickets were $65 per person, and about 70 tickets were sold, according to Maryanna Skowronski, director of the historical society, who said people attending traveled from Indiana, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and even California.

Carolyn Mitchell-Voss, who lives in San Diego, has been a volunteer with the Booth Society since 2009. She promotes Tudor Hall on social media and she puts together online calendars.

"That was pretty exciting," she said of a visit she made to Tudor Hall before the symposium. "[I have been] promoting Tudor Hall for many years, and to finally come here and personally see it was very rewarding for me."

Mitchell-Voss said she has been conducting research on John Wilkes Booth and his family and has collected Booth memorabilia, such as photos of John Wilkes and his older brother Edwin and playbills from productions in which John Wilkes appeared.

She connected with the former president of the Booth Society, Dinah Faber, through Facebook. Ms. Faber died in 2011, and the society president, Tom Fink, invited Mitchell-Voss to Saturday's symposium.

Mitchell-Voss said the symposium allowed her to "just step away from the assassination itself and delve into" the Booths' lives.

"It was pretty exciting," she said. "It's been a long time coming."

Wide range of topics

The lineup of speakers included Terry Alford, biographer of John Wilkes and author of the recently published "Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth;" author Daniel J. Watermeier, who spoke about the life of Edwin Booth, John Wilkes' older brother and a Shakespearean actor known throughout the U.S. during the 1800s; author Jim Garrett, who spoke about Tudor Hall; author and educator Bogar, who spoke about the 46 people associated with Ford's Theatre at the time of the assassination and their connection to John Wilkes; and author and attorney David Keehn, who talked about the evidence linking Booth to the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society formed before the Civil War during the late 1850s, had at least 50,000 members in Northern and Southern states. The society's aim was to take over Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean islands and expand slavery in those countries, according to Keehn.

Each symposium speaker talked for about 30 to 40 minutes, and they took multiple questions from audience members.

John Wilkes Booth was born in a cabin on the Booth family's farm near Bel Air on May 10, 1838, the second youngest of 10 children born to Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes Booth.

According to a brief biography posted in Tudor Hall, which was completed on the property around 1852, John Wilkes Booth began his acting career around 1855 and later traveled between New Orleans and Montreal, Canada, for various stage productions between 1858 and 1863. His last performance was March 18, 1865, at Ford's Theatre, about a month before the assassination.

Tudor Hall remained in the Booth family until the late 1870s, when Ella Harward Kyle Mahoney and her first husband, Samuel Kyle, purchased it from Mary Ann Booth.

Jim Wollon, who lives in the Havre de Grace area and is a member of the Historical Society, is Mahoney's great-grandson, and he attended the symposium.

He said Tudor Hall remained in his family's possession up through his mother, Carolyn Cooley Wollon.

Harford County purchased the house in 2006, and the Booth Society is working to turn it into a museum and raise money for capital improvements such as an access drive, according to Fink.

Local families such as the Kings and Foxes have also lived there, according to Garrett.

"Think about what it has meant to so many people, not only people who have lived there, but for the one person who never did live there, Junius Brutus Booth," Garrett said of the elder Booth, who commissioned the home's construction but died before its completion during a cross-country journey returning from San Francisco.

"That was his ideal that he never got to enjoy," Garrett said.

That 'other' Booth

Edwin followed in Junius' footsteps as an actor and became a major stage star in the latter half of the 19th century.


"In his day, I guess you'd have to think of [Edwin] Booth as a major movie actor, a rock star," Watermeier said.


Following the death of Booth Senior, Edwin Booth's rising popularity as an actor allowed him to take care of his mother and his several siblings financially during a lean period in the mid-1850s.

In response to a question from the audience, Watermeier said it is difficult to determine a contemporary Hollywood actor who has the same stature Edwin Booth enjoyed in his day, since Booth was strictly a Shakespearean actor.

"We no longer have actors who are classical Shakespearean actors, who spend their whole lives doing Shakespeare on the stage," Watermeier said.

He said the most likely modern-day comparison would be the Oscar-winning, Canadian-born actor Christopher Plummer who, in addition to his many and varied screen roles over the past 50 years, is also known for his stage work performing Shakespeare. Plummer won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2012 for his role in the film "Beginners" and has acted in a variety of films from playing the lead in "The Sound of Music" in 1965 to more recent supporting roles in "National Treasure" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Secret societies

Keehn said the Knights of the Golden Circle "were dedicated to establishing a slave empire equal to the grandeur of ancient Rome."

The organization was formed in the late 1850s, and the members were dedicated to preserving slavery, and they promoted Southern secession.

"The Knights touted themselves as the nucleus of the Southern army in case of war," Keehn said.

Keehn said John Wilkes Booth met members of the Knights during his travels, and he even had a few as his neighbors when he lived in Baltimore.

A prominent Bel Air resident and Confederate military officer, Robert Harris Archer, was a confirmed member of the Knights.

Decentralized Knights chapters could be found in Northern and Southern states, including Keehn's home state of Pennsylvania.

Keehn said John Wilkes Booth would have been attracted to the Knights because of his love of "military show and trappings" and he "reveled in secret imagery and rituals."

"He was exactly the type of headstrong young man, looking for adventure, looking for riches," that the Knights would have looked for, Keehn said.

Keehn also noted abductions and assassinations of Lincoln were discussed and acted out in Knights camps that Booth visited.

"He went around from camp to camp, kibitzed with the different militia units, perfect opportunity to tie in with the Knights of the Golden Circle," Keehn said.

Alford, John Wilkes' biographer, disagreed with Keehn's thesis during the panel discussion.

Alford said Keehn has "enough evidence to get an indictment, but not a conviction."

Keehn noted his book on the Knights has generated more leads for researchers.

A member of the audience also asked Keehn why there were so many Southern sympathizers in the North.

He said many conservative Democrats, who believed in "liberty, they believed in limited government, they believed in decentralized government," were shocked by the measures Lincoln and the Republican party took during the Civil War, including martial law, blockades of Southern ports, military conscription, emancipating slaves and suspending the Constitutional right of habeas corpus, which they considered the actions of a federal government with too much power.

Experts gather

Carolyn Blocker, who came from Anne Arundel County, said she enjoyed the symposium.

"They really provided different aspects of John Wilkes Booth, and really the whole family," she said.

Blocker said she learned about the Bel Air symposium when she attended a similar function at Ford's Theatre in March, where Alford also spoke.

"Symposiums like this are good when they can get the top experts in their subject area," she said.

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