Fortune’s Fool, Terry Alford’s new biography of John Wilkes Booth, is the first full-length examination of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin in nearly a century.
A professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., Alford depicts a youthful, mercurial Booth—somehow both a high-spirited, handsome animal lover and yet also a cat-killer—and his gradual transformation into a murderer, determined to revenge the defeat of the South.
Was Booth a Southerner?
His family was a mix of rural and urban Maryland, and it was not a classic slave-owning family; in fact it was an immigrant family, so in some ways you would think they wouldn’t have any connection to Southern institutions like slavery or states’ rights. But early on Booth identified with the South, particularly when he was well received as a young actor while living in Richmond in the years just before the war began.
Why did Booth attend John Brown’s execution?
He was in Richmond when the John Brown Raid took place in 1859. He was not a member of a city militia company, but he socialized with them, so he volunteered to go along with them [to the execution]. I was surprised to find that he was not just a hanger-on—he actually had a military rank. He was a corporal in the commissary department, wore a uniform and got paid by the Commonwealth of Virginia. James O. Hall and I discovered his pay document in the state archive, where it had lain for 125 years.
What did he think of Brown?
While he despised Brown’s abolitionist philosophy, he admired anyone as courageous and as indomitable as Brown. A personality who made things spin around on his axis, and focus the country’s attention on his issue. Booth loved heroes in the heroic mold, like the ones he played on stage and occasionally like Brown. They are bookends in a way. They are similar in that Booth was having trouble at the end with his investments, and his voice was giving him problems. The war was going badly for the South, and he had spent thousands of dollars on the abduction plot. A lot of things were going against him, and he was bending under a lot of that. A bold act would vindicate his life, his beliefs, and establish him in the future as somebody Americans would be proud of, like a Brutus or Cassius.
Why didn’t Booth join the Confederacy?
He got almost ill when he saw blood. But his family never mentioned that as a cause for not enlisting. They always came back to the cause as his mother. She was a widow, and they were extremely close. She had always had a feeling he would die prematurely. She prayed, she begged him not to enlist, and she won.
Was Booth out of his mind when he shot Lincoln?
Yes and no. He was sitting on the sidelines during the war, and when the war began going bad for the South, that’s when he became dangerous. At the end, working himself up to this frenzy, he lost the ability to realize how other people would see this and take this, why the thousands of people who really hated Lincoln never attacked him. They knew there was a line there that you don’t cross. Thousands of people could have shot Lincoln throughout the whole war. One of the things that most impressed me about the book is that I’m amazed Lincoln lived as long as he did.
But Booth didn’t start out planning to kill Lincoln.
He pulled together a team of former schoolmates, Confederate operatives and Southern sympathizers from Baltimore and Washington, and they plotted to abduct Lincoln. Twice they got close to him, and our whole understanding of Booth would be different if they had been able to abduct Lincoln. But Lincoln was not as accessible as they imagined. When the war ended, there was no place to take Lincoln—there was no Richmond to take him to. The Confederate government was on the run. Booth decided at that point that something more dramatic would have to happen. There is an irrational element: When he cried “Revenge!” on the stage of Ford’s Theatre. Everyone has heard that he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis”; not too many people pay attention to his “Revenge” shout. Revenge is when you inflict pain on somebody for the pain you think they gave you. It is not a very noble motive, but it is a very human one. He is feeling a lot of pain at the end of the war, and he is determined to shoot.
Did Booth always hunger for fame?
He wanted to be distinguished from other people even as a kid, and especially from his father [the English actor Junius Brutus Booth Sr.]. You can see this in his early teenage habit of putting his initials on things—on himself—a tattoo, JWB on trees, on the school he went to, on the rock in front of the school.
Is there someone today who is like Booth?
I would like readers to realize this guy was a very, very serious actor, and he was making just about as much money as any dramatic actor was making at that time. Top tier. Some said he was the best or had it in his grasp to be the best. He would be like your most familiar and popular male movie star. We know how volatile some of those people can be, idiosyncratic, with strong political opinions.
Your narration of the assassination and escape is remarkably detailed.
I found a few new facts, like the words that Booth said to Major Rathbone as he was struggling to get out of Lincoln’s box in the theater. When Rathbone tries to stop him, Booth says, “Let go of me or I will kill you.” Nobody has used that or found it before. It’s also pretty interesting that Booth was able to stay on the run as long as he did, particularly with a broken leg, and I think his disability was a little more serious than some earlier writers did. He was fortunate to fall into a network of Southern sympathizers who passed him from one person to another. A number of them were willing to help him escape, but they would never have helped him kill Lincoln. He was either a hero or a hot potato. When he got trapped in the barn at Richard Garrett’s Farm, even the soldiers who surrounded the barn—Lincoln’s avengers, who had come to run him to ground—were pretty impressed with him. Staring death in the face, he stared back.
Tell us about Boston Corbett, the sergeant who shot Booth.
Corbett had shaken Lincoln’s hand early in the war when Lincoln had thanked him for coming to Washington with the New York militia and saving the city. Corbett wanted that same hand to be the one that avenged Lincoln. Some may not like that interpretation, but the facts bear it out. He kept saying, “Let me go in there alone and deal with him.”
What happened to Booth’s body?
Booth was brought back to Washington and identified by the government, and they did a proper, creditable job. Then they made a big mistake: They buried him secretly. A lot of people thought: “What’s the rush? Why didn’t you show his body?” Stories began to swirl that it wasn’t Booth and that he had escaped. But it really was Booth, and in 1869 his body was turned over to his family and buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, where his parents are buried. There’s no individual headstone; he is buried on the side of the family monument. They were a little afraid that the grave might be disturbed by people who hated him or even memorialized by people who honored him. In 1995 there was a court case in Baltimore; an effort was made to exhume the grave and make sure he was in there. But that case was defeated. Booth today rests exactly where his mother put him in 1869, Green Mount Cemetery.
Do you have a passage or part of the book that you like the most?
One of the things I really enjoyed was rediscovering Booth’s childhood. Booth’s home is owned by Harford County in Maryland. It’s a historic house. Ella Mahoney, who owned the house for many decades, became kind of a hostess, and she would take people around and tell them about the house. She wrote, with a friend, a manuscript called “The House That Booth Built.” The manuscript had disappeared, but in my research I discovered it. It was a wonderful thing that she and a friend wrote about in 1940-41, and it contained many stories—many factual, some legendary, some tall tales, some local lore. Her parents were contemporaries of JWB, and she wrote it down in this book. It’s critical to understanding the young adult that he became.
What surprised you most in your research?
One of the intriguing things I discovered, which will be the subject of my next book, is that John Wilkes Booth was into spiritualism. Charles J. Colchester was a spiritualist or medium who visited Abraham and Mary Lincoln. The Lincolns had lost a child [Willie] in 1862, and she was very susceptible when they received visits from these spiritual ministers at the White House. Interestingly, this Colchester, an English medium, was not just a friend of Booth but an associate of his who spent time in the National Hotel, which is where the Newseum is today. He and Booth would hang out together and drink. It seems coincidental-to-bizarre that Booth and Lincoln shared knowledge of this person, who was kind of a con artist and had a bad drinking problem and cheated people, though he didn’t have a felonious heart. At one point he warned Lincoln: He said, “I think you need to take care of yourself and make sure that you’re safe.” We don’t know if he got that warning from Booth, but here is one spiritualist who knew what he was talking about. If he was close to Booth, he could have learned that Lincoln was in danger.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.