At intervals in his abbreviated life, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) apparently pictured himself as a man of destiny—although when, on one occasion, he exclaimed, “I must have fame,” he was presumably thinking of the family craft (acting) and not murder. But like so many of the memories that crowd this “comprehensive” biography, Booth’s sense of fate is unverifiable. He had once been told by a fortune-teller that he had a “bad hand” and would die early; but such predictions are routine stock-in-trade for charlatans.
Booth grew up in rural Maryland, near Baltimore, the son and brother of distinguished Shakespearean actors. During the Civil War, he pursued acting jobs in the north and west, eluding service in the cause about which he claimed to be passionate. He had earlier attached himself to a Virginia militia, the Richmond Grays, for the chase, arrest, and execution of John Brown. In 1864, after quitting his brief professional career on the stage, he assembled his first band of conspirators. Their aim was to kidnap Abraham Lincoln as he rode, sometimes alone, between the White House and the Soldiers’ Home, and spirit him to Richmond as a hostage for the release of thousands of Confederate prisoners of war whose exchange had fallen afoul of North-South differences over the classification of Union troopers. Booth was then in his mid-20s.
Just when he abandoned the kidnapping plot and yielded to darker personal impulses, it is difficult to say—although he had begun stalking Lincoln around the time of his Second Inaugural, increasingly obsessed with the president’s racial policies and his “tyrannical” direction of the war. For his final act, Booth recruited two co-conspirators, who were simultaneously to attack Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. The latter assailant got cold feet and ran away, while the first succeeded in wounding (but not killing) the bedridden Seward, who was recovering from a carriage accident.
In many personal aspects, this dark story is necessarily speculative, recollections jarred from fading or fallacious memories by Booth’s stunning crime. That, in fact, is the major historiographical handicap of this otherwise interesting and well-documented book, a substantial portion of which would have to be classed as hearsay. And of course, when Sergeant “Boston” Corbett’s impulsive shot into a burning barn on the Garrett farm in Virginia killed Booth, it removed the prime witness from interrogation.
Nonetheless, Booth’s stage career, in particular, offers tempting matter for speculation. He enjoyed the advantages of a family tradition, along with celebrated good looks and voice, although some dyslexia (as it would now be called) handicapped his handwriting and powers of memorization. His most suggestive theatrical experiences were in Shakespearean roles, as Richard III (a specialty), Hamlet (he stole the show as the prince of Denmark in St. Louis), and, most crucially, as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. These roles raise intriguing questions: Both Hamlet and Julius Caesar hinge on assassination, and Shakespeare’s Richard III is a byword for cynical viciousness.
Terry Alford is aware of these collateral but, finally, unanswerable questions. Who, indeed, has ever persuasively explored the mind of an assassin? Perhaps the issue boils down to this: Might an impressionable young actor of turbulent temperament, with madness and alcoholism in the family background, set stage identities aside for a “real” identity when the footlights fade? There is, notes Alford, a phenomenon in stagecraft known as the “empty vessel” syndrome; maybe Booth had more than his share of filling.
Unquestionably, the manner and staging of Lincoln’s murder were, in notable particulars, theatrical. It took place on Good Friday, the mythic day of crucifixion. After firing the fatal shot, Booth leapt from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre—where, at least once, he had played before Lincoln—brandishing a knife and shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”) to color his act with imagined patriotic purpose. One also wonders, though the author overlooks, what subliminal suggestion the fiery lyrics of the Maryland state anthem (Avenge the patriotic gore / that flecked the streets of Baltimore. . . . The tyrant’s heel is on thy shore) might have had on the assassin’s state of mind. As usual in the face of an atrocious act, associates, family, and friends professed themselves stunned that such a nice young man would do such a cruel thing—a cliché that lives on whenever television reporters speculate on motive after some mad act of mass murder.