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Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth

 By Terry Alford Oxford University Press 2015, $29.95

The name John Wilkes Booth is synonymous with infamy. In the popular view, he has remained frozen in the same gruesome tableau for 150 years, lurking in the shadows of President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre. In one hand he clutches a horn-handled dagger; in the other a .44-caliber Deringer. Such is the conventional image of the actor-turned-assassin, one that historian Terry Alford reconsiders in Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth.

The first full-length biography on  the subject, Alford’s work definitely  measures up in quality. His appraisal of Booth is neither judgmental nor quixotic, while his portrayal of him is rich in intimate details that add dimension to the man long known simply as a crazed killer. From his youth, life seemed an uphill battle for Booth. His father, Junius, was a living theatrical legend, yet he was also manic and temperamentally unpredictable—traits that John inherited in abundance. Like his father, he was wild and impetuous, a restive boy who struggled with academics and excelled in sports.

In adulthood, Booth enjoyed a fair amount of professional success. Distinguished for his mesmerizing good looks, he was a celebrated actor and possessed what many believed was a bright future. Still, his sanity was often in question among friends and family. As a contemporary once observed, “I don’t think J.W. is all o.k. in his nut.”

According to Alford, Booth really started to unravel midway through the Civil War. Surprisingly, he was against secession early in the conflict, but as  the war progressed, his outlook and demeanor changed. He grew dark and withdrawn. He was disillusioned with the theater and bitterly resentful of the North or, more precisely, with its president.

The gravity of Booth’s actions is beyond dispute. He killed arguably the greatest leader in American history. But Alford reveals another facet in this story, making the critical distinction between a fiendish monster and a troubled man guilty of a monstrous deed. Like so many assassins, John Wilkes Booth was more tragic than he was evil, a deeply disturbed fanatic driven by a warped sense of heroism.


Originally published in the May 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.