Nora Titone, author of My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy (Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2010), was recently interviewed on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast about the Booth brothers and their family story. To accompany a fall 2010 Folger Magazine article excerpting the book, Titone talked about her experience researching the Booths at the Folger and shared highlights from the Folger collection.
My visit to the Folger was a turning point in the writing of My Thoughts Be Bloody. Head of Reference Georgianna Ziegler led me through mountains of Booth material from the library’s vaults. The unique characters in this family of famous theatrical eccentrics and outcasts, the astonishing trajectories of their careers, the tragic incidents both public and private in which they were engaged, all sprang to life in sources as rich and varied as their love letters, diaries, poems, portraits, photographs, playbills, oral histories, acting contracts, bank statements, costume inventories, testimonies by fellow actors and friends, and a century’s worth of sensational stage reviews and celebrity press coverage.
Confronting this heap of evidence, I wondered if no other 19th-century American family had ever been at once more reviled and beloved than the Booths. Only John Wilkes, the villain of the group, is widely remembered now; but one hundred years ago, the name of his great father, Junius Brutus Booth, and that of his even greater brother, Edwin Booth, loomed as large.
Junius Brutus Booth Remembered
From a scrapbook carefully maintained by a Booth family friend, comes a newspaper article rhapsodizing about the genius—and tiny stature—of Edwin and John Wilkes’s father.
Junius Brutus Booth was a brilliant actor who struggled with suicidal episodes and a crippling addiction to alcohol, casting a shadow over his sons’ lives. He was the first to make the Booth name both famous and infamous: in the course of his meteoric career, Junius embraced adultery, fathered ten illegitimate children, subscribed to Hinduism, preached animal rights and practiced vegetarianism. In antebellum America, these were heretical acts. Yet the wreck that drinking made of Booth’s stage reputation, as this article tactfully mentions, was one of the hardest burdens his family bore.
“…As an Actor, Mr. Booth stands at the head of his profession, and is universally acknowledged to be the best performer at the present day in either Europe or America…it has often been remarked by Members of the profession that his very littleness is lost sight of in the natural and splendid exhibition of his performances…It is said that Mr. Booth’s performances are not, at the present day, imbued with the soul-stirring spirit and energy which they formerly partook of, and that both his physical and mental powers have greatly failed him. It is to be hoped that the infirmities of his genius have not yet deprived the stage of [his] transcendent talents.”
Junius Brutus Booth & Sam Houston
Junius Brutus Booth’s liquor-soaked friendship with Texas hero Sam Houston was a surprising discovery. Houston, perhaps, may be blamed for introducing the youthful British actor to the hard-drinking culture of the American West, as this reminiscence, found in another Booth scrapbook, indicates:
“When in Washington Junius Brutus Booth and Gen. Sam Houston of Texas were great cronies. It was a picture worthy of Punch to see this eccentric pair take their afternoon promenade along Pennsylvania Avenue. Houston stood six feet four inches, and Booth about 5 feet 5 inches. As it was winter Houston’s ample shoulders were covered with a large gray blanket that reached to his heels; his grizzled head was mounted by a huge Mexican sombrero. Booth was fashionably attired in a brown, long-skirted overcoat with buttons high up in the small of his back, and his classic head held up a high-crowned silk hat; and thus they marched, little Booth clinging to the arm and with difficulty keeping pace with the sturdy strides of the hero of San Jacinto. They were on pleasure bent, and were soon lost to view of the amused pedestrians…”
—Charles Pope, “The Eccentric Booths”
New York Sun
March 27, 1897
Edwin Pledges His Support to President Lincoln
Of his six sons, Junius Brutus Booth chose only one to be his apprentice: Edwin.
Having shown early signs of talent, Edwin left school at eleven to train and travel from theater to theater with his father. Whole books have been dedicated to the career of Edwin Booth, who, launched on stage so young, was dubbed in maturity America’s “Actor King,” and mourned as a national icon on his death in 1893. His immense success as a star at the height of the Civil War was only a prelude to later achievements.
In the Folger Reading Room, I learned that in March 1864, Edwin had played command performances of Shakespeare for President Lincoln in the Capital, and that in March 1865, he became the first actor to perform Hamlet for 100 consecutive nights.
Throughout the war, as Folger sources prove, Edwin’s charity performances of Shakespeare in Boston and New York raised thousands of dollars for the widows and orphans of Union war dead, as well as for the US Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the American Red Cross.
Edwin wrote this letter to his best friend, Colonel Adam Badeau, aide-de-camp to General Ulysses S. Grant, in October 1864, pledging his support for Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election. John Wilkes had spent the summer fighting over politics with his pro-Union brother, but as Edwin now informs Colonel Badeau, the Southern sympathizer seemed preoccupied with a new career drilling for oil in western Pennsylvania. He also describes his preparations for the 100-night run of Hamlet at the Winter Garden, a Broadway theater Edwin had recently purchased. The actor had no idea his younger brother already had begun plotting against the President.
“Dear Ad… if things politic go right I guess all will go glorious. Lincoln, I suppose, is what is called right—you know how ignorant I am of all things outside the footlights. I only know I go in for cursing every damned rebel out, and waving the old “stars and stripes” all over…The Tragedy of Hamlet, by Wm Shakespeare, is being done in the paint rooms, the wardrobe and the property rooms of the Winter Garden for me—I shall be called upon to be genteel and gentle about the 27th of November. I shall rest till then and try to get rid of this infernal headache…And now—say something, tell me of the “carnage and the roar of battle”—shake up my lethargic spirits a bit before another draft is called that I may not shirk…J. Wilkes is up to his knees in an ile well in the West, albeit he is on the sofa at this juncture in t’other room… tell me as much of Badeau & battles as I you of Booth and bosh, & I’ll be grateful. Write soon and often, Thine ever, Edwin.”
—Edwin Booth to Adam Badeau, October 14, 1864
Edwin Booth Plays Hamlet with a Surprising Co-Star
The most haunting artifact I came across in the Folger’s Reading Room was a commemorative program received by all playgoers who attended Edwin’s March 22, 1865 show of Hamlet at the Winter Garden. This was the gala 100th night performance of his record-breaking run. The cast list, included on the ornate program, proclaimed that Samuel Knapp Chester, a character actor, had portrayed King Claudius, Hamlet’s step-father and uncle, for the duration.
Chester’s name would have been otherwise unremarkable, except that scant months later, he was called to give testimony in the trial of the conspirators accused of plotting to assassinate Lincoln. Chester stated that during the 100-night run of Edwin Booth’s Hamlet, John Wilkes Booth had repeatedly pestered him to join his conspiracy against the president, describing to Chester the details of his scheme to kidnap Lincoln from Ford’s Theatre.
Terrified and alarmed, Chester refused to help, and begged to be left alone. Booth at last relented, but threatened to have Chester killed if he told anyone about the scheme.
Night after night, throughout the historic run, the supporting actor stood on stage with Edwin Booth, playing Claudius to Edwin’s Hamlet, in fear of his own life. Chester, of course, did not tell the star a single word of his brother’s plans.