Catonsville's connection to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Did you know? John Wilkes Booth attended school in Catonsville

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, President Abraham Lincoln was officially pronounced dead after being shot the night before at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

In the days that followed, an intense manhunt was launched for a Maryland man named John Wilkes Booth.

What many people might not know is that Booth spent a crucial part of his life in Catonsville.

Before he became the infamous assassin of a U.S. president and long before he was an actor traveling the country, Booth was a boarding school student at St. Timothy's Hall preparatory school in Catonsville.

Booth and his younger brother, Joseph, attended the school from 1852 to 1853, during which time they lived in the dorm on the school's campus, said Terry Alford, a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College.

Their mother enrolled them at the strict military school for boys soon after their father died in an effort to provide them with some structure in their lives, but Alford says the time spent there may have been some of the most transformative in Booth's life.

"John didn't hear anything at the school that didn't confirm his thoughts about slavery," he said. "That was a thoroughly Southern school."

A large, imposing structure, the school was known for its austere environment and the thoroughly Southern attitudes of its students, according to Alford, who recently finished a book about Booth. The vast majority of the students came either from Maryland or states farther south, and though the faculty consisted mainly or northerners, the school became a breeding ground of Confederacy support, he said. Some of the Confederacy's most notable figures, including a few generals, were educated at St. Timothy's Hall, said Alford, who visited Catonsville as part of his research for the book.

"He was just in the middle of a cauldron of adolescent energy," said Alford. A lot of that energy, he added, was spent promoting the southern cause.

In 1985, when longtime Catonsville historian H. Ralph Heildelbach comprised his booklet, "Catonsville Churches and Schools Before 1950," he devoted 10 pages to St. Timothy's Hall. In it, he quotes liberally from the 1977 work by Enick Davis that provided a history of the school for the Historical Society of Baltimore County's History Trails publication.

"By 1850, St. Timothy's Hall was prospering," wrote Davis. "In that year there were one hundred and thirty-two students enrolled at the school, with a staff of fourteen professors."

Students at the school, most of whom hailed from middle and upper middle class families, studied art, history, philosophy and other subjects, in addition to military tactics, Davis wrote.

Under the rules of headmaster Rev. Libertus Van Bokkelen, the boys were required to wear military uniforms while they attended classes and were forbidden from receiving food from home, singing, dancing or studying in groups, said Alford.

"Throughout the 1850's the school flourished and by 1860 was at the height of its prosperity," Davis wrote. "During the following months the nation plunged headlong into the impending civil war. In November, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected president, much to the disappointment of the students of St. Timothy's Hall, who had almost unanimously supported the Southern Democratic ticket of Breckinridge and Lane."

"The thing about Maryland was that it was very divided," said Anne Rubin, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who teaches classes on the Civil War and the American South.

Throughout his adolescence, Rubin said, Booth was far from alone in his support for the Confederacy. There was a large contingent of people living in Maryland at the time Booth was growing up who sympathized with the Southern cause and who, during the war, operated various underground networks to smuggle supplies to the southern states.

With each Southern state's secession, the student body at St. Timothy's paid homage with a sunrise artillery salute, not authorized by the school's faculty, according to the written account by Davis.

In fact, Alford said, there was some fear during the war that the boys might steal the school's training weapons and join the Confederate army.

In 1853, Booth, a young teen at the time, participated in an uprising at the school led by the upperclassmen in protest of the school's strict rules, Alford said. About half of the student body left the school and set up camp in the woods nearby to protest Van Bokkelen's policies. After a three-day standoff, he said, parents were called in to mediate an end to the boycott.

According to Alford, though Booth struggled at times in class, he excelled socially at St. Timothy's Hall, meeting a number of boys who would eventually become his comrades in his effort to upend the Union government.

"He was unbelievably popular," Alford said.

He easily made friends with his classmates, some of whom included Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of Confederate forces, and a future Confederate general himself, and Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Loughlin, both future co-conspirators in Booth's initial plot to kidnap the president.

The Catonsville Library's Catonsville Room houses a number of official records pertaining to the school and its history.

Located adjacent to the current site of St. Timothy's church on Ingleside Avenue, the school building was destroyed by fire in 1872, after the school had closed and the building was being rented out to boarders.

Sometimes, said Lisa Vicari, a volunteer at the Catonsville Room, it's interesting to think about what the town was like in the mid-19th century. With vocal support of the Confederacy among some prominent families and a free black community, "that makes for a very interesting mix," she said.

For information from the library's Catonsville Room, go to bcpl.info.

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