Thursday, April 26, 2018
April 26, 2018: Assassination Studying: John Wilkes Booth
[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On three stages to the drama of John Wilkes Booth.
I think it’s generally well-known that John Wilkes Booth was a professional actor before he became involved in the Confederate conspiracy that led to him assassinating President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865. Perhaps our collective memories also include the detail that John’s brother Edwin Booth was an even more acclaimed and successful actor, likely the most famous of their generation. But I’m not sure very many Americans know that their father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a prominent English actor who ran away to America with his mistress Mary Ann Holmes to start a family—but was still married to Adelaide Delannoy Booth for the first three decades of his time in America, making both John and Edwin (along with their eight siblings) illegitimate (Junius and Adelaide only finalized their divorce when John was thirteen years old). Illegitimate sons who go into the same profession in which their father achieved fame, competing with each other (and their brother Junius Brutus Booth Jr., another professional actor) as well as that father—I’m not sure exactly what Dr. Freud would have to say, but I’m quite sure he’d have some thoughts.
Perhaps such potential familial and psychological issues go hand-in-hand with his theatrical training to explain the deeply dramatic nature of John’s assassination of Lincoln. It’s not just that he was the conspirator assigned to kill the president, nor that he chose to do so at a theatre where he was a well-known performer and guest (although yes on both counts). It was also and especially his actions after he shot Lincoln: jumping down from the president’s box onto the stage; raising a knife above his head (he had just stabbed Major Henry Rathbone, a Union officer present in the box with the Lincolns); and proclaiming “Sic semper tyrannis [Thus always to tyrants]” before making his escape. Of all the political assassinations about which I’ll write this week, and really all the ones with which I’m familiar at all, it’s only Booth’s of Lincoln that I would call as much performance art as violence, or for that matter at least as much about the assassin as about his intended target. None of that lessens the horror and tragedy of the assassination in the slightest, but it does reflect another layer to the lifelong drama of John Wilkes Booth’s identity and career.
That drama had one more particularly prominent stage, but one that was also much less within Booth’s control: the 12-day manhunt that concluded with Union Army Sergeant Boston Corbett shooting Booth as he hid inside a Virginia barn that soldiers had set on fire. Yet while Booth was more the subject of than the actor in this final drama, I have to believe he would have enjoyed the nationwide headlines and attention, the obsession with finding Lincoln’s assassin that consumed the nation throughout those twelve long days in April. Many late 20th century assassins or would-be assassins have been described as seeking celebrity or fame through their acts of political violence (including the young woman on whom I’ll focus in tomorrow’s post), but I don’t believe that any of them have come close to the notoriety achieved by John Wilkes Booth. The manhunt wasn’t a particularly long-running drama, but I would argue that it took and held center stage in the public consciousness far more fully than any theatrical production with which the Booths (brothers, father, any of them) were involved. A bittersweet final victory for our most dramatic assassin.
Last assassination studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?