1. In March 1864, Abraham Lincoln marked the third anniversary of his inauguration by watching Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth’s older brother, perform Shakespeare at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was joined by the First Lady, members of his Cabinet and the Diplomatic Corps for six nights of gala performances by Edwin celebrating the inaugural anniversary.
2. Edwin Booth, the greatest actor of 19th-century America, was an abolitionist, an ardent supporter of Lincoln, and so successful on stage he was the Civil War-equivalent of a millionaire. Not only did Lincoln revere Edwin’s dramatic genius, so did Mark Twain, J. P Morgan, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
3. Junius Brutus Booth, the patriarch of the Booth acting clan, was an international star who acted for European royalty and for U.S. presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Junius was a radical non-conformist like his friend Lord Byron: he practiced Hinduism and vegetarianism, and opposed slavery. All his American children, except for John Wilkes, supported the Union. John’s pro-Southern sympathies were clear to his Northern family as early as 1859, when the young actor bluffed his way into a Virginia militia so he could stand by the gallows when John Brown was hanged in Harper’s Ferry.
4. John Wilkes Booth, unlike his father and brother Edwin, was a player of little talent and no formal training who struggled to make a living in the theater. During his early career in Baltimore and Philadelphia, he was laughed off the stage. He began an ill-fated tour of the South in 1860 by being shot in the buttocks by his manager. In 1864, frustrated after years of comparative commercial and critical failure, John Wilkes quit acting to prospect for oil in western Pennsylvania.
5. The actress Laura Keene, who was starring in “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, had been Edwin Booth’s mistress. Five months after his younger brother shot Lincoln, Edwin Booth audaciously staged “Our American Cousin” at the theater he owned on Broadway, the Winter Garden. Laura Keene’s was the only voice raised in protest of this stunt. Not long afterward, the city of New York awarded the perennially popular Edwin with a gold medal for performing “Hamlet” one hundred nights in a row, a feat no actor had attempted before.
About the author: Nora Titone studied history at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. For the past decade she has worked as a historical researcher specializing in nineteenth-century America for a range of academics, authors, and artists. She lives in Chicago. This is her first book.
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