Home with the Booths

The Baltimore Sun

Growing up on a Kansas farm, Dinah Faber fell in love with history - specifically, the history of Western rogues such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James. So when Faber, a freelance writer and historian, moved with her husband to Maryland in 1995, it was only natural that she would fall for one of the most famous - and infamous - families Harford County has produced.

Known these days as "the Booth Lady," Faber has spent the past 13 years researching the clan of Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852), the larger-than-life actor often called America's first Shakespearean star. His 10 children included a son who became "the Johnny Depp of his day," who traveled as far as Hawaii performing Hamlet and other classics. Another grew up to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Faber, 59, is unofficial historian at Tudor Hall, the farmhouse the Booths built near Bel Air in the 1800s. John Wilkes Booth was born and raised there; the county bought it in 2006. It's now where Faber argues that even if John Wilkes had never pulled the trigger that night in 1865, the home and its eight acres would be well worth owning.

"Most people are surprised to find out how prominent the Booths were nationally before the assassination," says Faber, who lives in Bel Air. "You know how proud Harford County is of the Ripkens? Back then, it would've been the same for the Booths. They're the most nationally known family ever to come from the area."

Faber is less interested in America's first presidential assassin than in the family's theatrical legacy and the role of its women, but she knows lots about him. He went to a boarding school in Sparks that is now the Milton Inn, loved riding horses at the Rocks of Deer Creek and talked politics with the county's many Confederate sympathizers.

Faber is webmistress for Spirits of Tudor Hall, a history group she founded (spiritsoftudorhall.org) that documents all things Booth. The public, she says, can resume taking guided tours this spring.

Who was the most interesting Booth?

Well, Junius, the patriarch, was such a character. He ... eloped here with Mary Ann Holmes in 1822. He'd been successful in England, but he became one of the most popular actors in America.

In those days, most theaters had their own companies, and everybody knew all the same plays. A star like Junius could come in, do Richard III for a while, then move on. He performed up and down the East Coast, even making it to New Orleans and points west.

Which other Booths do you study?

Edwin [the seventh son] became, like his father, a very prominent actor. These men were the superstars of their time. Everyone knew who they were and flocked to see them.

Edwin was ... sensitive, intelligent and introspective. Many people who learn about him find him admirable. After the assassination, he didn't expect he'd ever [be accepted] onstage again. Thanks to the encouragement of friends and the public, he was acting in less than a year. He got a standing ovation at his first performance, in January 1866, returned to a lengthy career, and acted into his later years.

Edwin always said he voted only once in his life - for Abraham Lincoln. He and John argued so much they became alienated from each other.

How about the Booth women?

For someone who supposedly had a scandalous past - Mary Ann and Junius didn't marry until [29 years after arriving in Maryland], when he got an official divorce - historians see Mary Ann as a motherly figure. She and John were close; some scholars say he was her favorite. John had an upbeat, charming personality - unlike the villainous person he was later described as - and she doted on him.

Asia Booth, two years older than John, was the family historian. ... A book she secretly wrote after his death - The Unlocked Book - portrays her close relationship with him when they were teens. ... She recalls John, who was a successful young actor, rehearsing lines from Shakespeare.

For years, there was fierce resistance to any positive view of John Wilkes Booth. Asia's own husband wouldn't have heard of that. He had been devastated by the assassination; he and [another brother] were arrested and detained in Washington. But she got the book to people who would publish it after her death. [It came out in 1939.]

How did John become who he became?

Junius was a loving, gentle, devoted father, but he died in 1852 when John was 13. Maybe if he'd lived, things would have been different. John came under the influence of the Know-Nothing party in his late teens and got involved in politics.

He also had a temper. After the family hired a man to oversee the workers and animals at the farm, and the man insulted the Booth women, John got into an argument with him and assaulted him with a stick. The [Harford County] Historical Society ladies recently discovered a court document related to that.

When did the family live at Tudor Hall?

Junius ... bought the [137-acre] farm in 1822, and he had one-story additions built on over the years. Tudor Hall itself wasn't completed until a year after his death [in 1853], so he never got to live in it. From then until 1857, Mary Ann raised four children there, including John.

Is it in good shape?

When the previous owners, Robert and Beth Baker, bought it [in 1999], it was in pretty run-down condition. They did a good job renovating it, especially the kitchen, and addressed some serious cosmetic problems. Right now it's in good shape, though it's still not decorated in the period style. The casement windows are original, but it's still pretty modern. The county will replace the roof this year [for about $220,000].

What do visitors experience?

The Center for the Arts [an organization planning an arts center for Harford County] has offices upstairs, so tours are limited to the first floor. David Fried, a local painter, has done a large portrait of Junius [Sr.], which hangs over the fireplace, and portraits of Edwin, John and Asia. They make great illustrations during our guided tours.

There's so much to tell people about the family and the house that our biggest dilemma is editing our presentation. We try to tell the story chronologically, from Junius' days in England to Edwin's death [in 1893].

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