John Wilkes Booth acted out the tragic downfall of a brilliant, afflicted family







Gene Smith.

Simon & Schuster.

320 pages. $23. As the Civil War wound down, an actor boasted that he was about to astonish the world. "What are you going to do?" inquired his listener. "Kill Jeff Davis, take Richmond, or play Hamlet a hundred nights?"

There was no reply. The performer would hardly want to murder his hero Davis, and taking Richmond was out of the question. After all, he was only one disgruntled Southerner, with a few like-minded colleagues. As for playing Hamlet a hundred nights, his brother had already done that. No, John Wilkes Booth quietly resolved to take another path to the history books: He would shoot Abraham Lincoln.

That act was to be the most tragic expression of a most afflicted line: the Booths of Maryland. John's father was Junius Brutus Booth, son of a British lawyer and grandson of a silversmith, the first of his family to go on stage. "The actor was, of course, quite mad," observes Gene Smith in his absorbing family album. Junius was also quite brilliant, especially as King Lear. Walt Whitman remembered him from the distance of 50 years:

"I can still hear the clank and feel the perfect hush of perhaps three thousand people waiting. A shudder went through every nervous system in the audience. It certainly did through mine. His genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression."

Mr. Smith, historian and biographer of Lee, Grant, Herbert Hoover and Woodrow Wilson, is a master of the revealing anecdote. He notes that Junius gave new meaning to the word "abandon" -- particularly where alcohol was concerned: "He was capable of pawning himself for a drink, standing patiently in the pawnbroker's window until a friend redeemed him." He could also fuse his onstage and offstage personalities. One evening, long after the curtain had run down, he took an andiron and began an unprovoked attack on Thomas Flynn, the man who was playing Iago to his Othello. Flynn's life was in danger until he took a pewter pot and smashed it in Booth's face, permanently disfiguring the star's nose.

Characteristically, Booth later charmed his way back into Flynn's company; in much the same way he also befriended Edgar Allan Poe, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson. En route, he married, separated, seduced women by the score, and then took a second wife -- sans benefit of clergy -- to produce 10 children. Six survived to maturity, and several showed periodic signs of insanity.

Junius may have been proudest of his second-oldest son, Edwin, but his favorite was the second-youngest, John. If anyone in the family seemed destined to go wrong it was Edwin. Early on, he displayed his father's melancholic and alcoholic streaks, as well as his insatiable need to womanize. A journalist watched Edwin's technique when a young admirer stopped by the dressing room. " 'Go home,' he said, 'and beware of actors. They are to be seen, not to be known.' The girl, yet more infatuated, persisted."

Yet Edwin eventually settled into a happy marriage and a luminous acting career. "A veritable sensation," said the New York Herald. In Louisville, the Democrat went further: "The hackneyed word talent cannot be used. It is genius." Edwin had only one true rival: his brother John, who had also chosen a stage career. Both men were strikingly handsome and skilled; the Boston Post compared them: "Edwin has more poetry, John Wilkes more passion; Edwin is more Shakespearean, John Wilkes is more dramatic; and in a word, Edwin is a better Hamlet, John Wilkes a better Richard III."

"American Gothic" covers the entire family, but it most closely follows the parabola of John Wilkes, outstripping his brother to become the highest paid, and most gaudily dressed, actor in America. The triumph tastes of ashes. For John identifies with Dixie and loathes Lincoln for prosecuting the war. He feels restless and impotent. What purpose is there in waving a sword on stage? There are brave Rebels fighting and dying only a couple of hours' ride from the theater. Instead of enlisting, however, he plots with co-conspirators and argues about the issues with the apolitical Edwin. Frustrated, John speaks of actors as mere "mummers, of the quality of skimmed milk. They know little, less and understand next to nothing."

He thinks of abandoning the boards and speculating in oil or real estate. Nothing comes of it, and he edges toward fanaticism, possessed by the idea of eliminating the chief executive. Mr. Smith observes him attending Lincoln's second inauguration and telling an intimate, "What a splendid chance I had to kill the president!" The friend demands, "What good would it do to commit an act like that?" His name would endure forever, John replies.

Such rants increase in frequency; few pay attention. And then comes Lee's surrender. John goes over the edge in April 1865, when the victorious Abraham Lincoln attends a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater:

"But we have been here before: the traumatic shot; the leap on stage and the cry of 'Sic Semper Tyrannis!'; the broken-legged retreat; the last minutes in a burning Virginia barn; Edwin's forbidding of John Wilkes' name to be spoken aloud until once on a Christmas night when he was talking of the days of his childhood, it slipped out. People stared at one another. He lowered his head and began to cry."

As the recent PBS series proved, the Civil War has the half-life of plutonium. But there has been a recent glut of material on the Blues and the Grays, and "American Gothic" has little to add to the period. Its most revealing moments occur in the rich antebellum years, when the Booth boys are young and everything seems possible. Here Mr. Smith is scrupulous and moving. It is only in the later part that the speculator replaces the historian. The Booths idolized the Bard, but it seems a bit too convenient to state that John, on the run, "might have thought" of a passage from Richard III:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain!

Quotesmanship is a game that many can play. Since no one was with the fugitive at the time, it seems as likely that John thought of Dryden's poem, aptly summing up not only his own situation but his father's and brother's:

He sought the storms, but for a calm unfit,

Would steer too nigh the sands to boast his wit.

Great wits are sure to madness near allied,

And thin partitions do their bounds divide.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad