When the New York actors John McCullough and Edwin Forrest heard that John Wilkes Booth had assassinated Lincoln, McCullough said he didn’t believe it.
"Well I do," Forrest growled. "All those goddamned Booths are crazy."
Forrest was fiercely envious of the Booth brothers, especially Edwin, who had usurped him as New York’s star Shakespearean. But he wasn’t far off the mark. John Wilkes wasn’t the only unstable one in the family.
It started with his father, Junius Brutus Booth. Born in England of Jewish and Welsh heritage, he was a rising young star on London’s stages, specializing in a florid and highly physical portrayal of Richard III, when he suddenly decamped for America in 1821, leaving behind a wife and bringing a lover, a flower girl from the streets. He made up for his stumpy, bow-legged physique with his giant acting style and an off-stage reputation as a prodigious drinker and satyr. He sired ten children in America, bastards all — he wouldn’t marry their mother until the 1850s — and raised them in an expanded log cabin, which he named Tudor Hall, on a hundred and fifty acres of farmland and woods north of Baltimore. It was a strictly vegetarian household, as Booth forbade the harming of any living creatures on his land. He had black servants but no slaves, though the practice was common in Maryland at the time.
From Tudor Hall he toured up and down the east coast. He was the star Shakespearean actor in America, but gradually the alcoholism and a festering disturbance of the mind made him one of the most unpredictable as well. In the middle of a performance he might break into a bizarre rant or a bawdy song, upbraid the audience, or decide to do the part on tiptoe or in a whisper. Theater managers tore their beards out trying to handle “the Mad Tragedian,” but he packed their houses with audiences drawn as much by his antics as by his acting. To a young Walt Whitman, who saw him many times at the Old Bowery Theatre, “his genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression. The words fire, energy, abandon, found in him unprecedented meanings.”
Junius Brutus Jr., the firstborn, came along in 1821. Edwin, the seventh, was born in 1833 during a meteor shower, and with a caul. The servants predicted he’d have the second sight, and he would later claim to experience accurate premonitions. Booth Sr. named him for his friend Edwin Forrest, which later proved mordantly ironic. John Wilkes came ninth in 1838. He was his parents’ favorite. His father named him after an eighteenth-century English radical who was charged with sedition for railing against tyrannical kings and princes. It was a legacy John would take all too seriously.
All three followed their father onto the stage. As a boy Edwin toured with his dad, tried to keep the bottle hidden before performances, took his father’s elbow on the way home from a night of carousing afterward. Both Edwin and John inherited their father’s weakness for strong drink; only Edwin would conquer it. Edwin was still a boy when he began to share the stage with his father. He first appeared as Richard III, at New York’s National Theatre on Chatham Square in 1851, as a stand-in in for his father, who, having one of his frequent fits of eccentricity, refused to go on. The following year, at eighteen, Edwin sailed with his father from New York by way of Panama to San Francisco, where Junius Jr. had moved. Edwin stayed and toured the rough stages of the West when Junius Sr. headed home. Mr. Booth took sick in New Orleans and died on a Mississippi riverboat at the age of fifty-six. “What, Booth dead?” a contemporary cried. “Then there are no more actors!”
Of his sons, Edwin was the first to take up the mantle of greatness. Slight, pale, melancholic, his romantic dark curls hanging to his shoulders, he seemed born to pay Hamlet. The older Junius Jr. was solid but never electrifying onstage, and was always outshone by his younger brothers. John was Edwin’s opposite, noted for his dark good looks and his athleticism, given to leaping onto the stage from the box seats, dangerously violent swordplay and “boisterous declamations.” After a performance he would bathe in oysters to soothe the bruises. He first became popular in the South, where the gentlemen admired his manliness and the belles swooned in bevies. Ravenous for fame, John would compete with Edwin always.
In 1857, Edwin arrived on Broadway. The Broadway theater district was then still strung on either side of Houston Street. Booth’s venue was Tripler Hall, also called the Metropolitan Theatre, on the west side of Broadway between Bleecker and West Third Streets. For his Broadway debut Booth was billed, to his chagrin, as “Son of the Great Tragedian.” To get out from his father’s shadow he developed a less bombastic, more naturalistic style. New York audiences and critics loved it, while older, old-school hams like Edwin Forrest ground their teeth. Forrest and Booth became the city’s dueling Shakespeareans, each with his own loyal fans. Booth would eventually triumph by starring in an unprecedented one hundred consecutive performances of Hamlet, eclipsing the aging Forrest for good.
As the nation lurched toward civil war, relations between John Wilkes and his older brothers were strained. Junius Jr. and Edwin were for the Union, while John was rabidly pro-Southern. Performing in Albany in April 1861 when Confederates took Fort Sumter, he nearly got himself lynched for cheering. As the war progressed he nurtured his deep, seething hatred for Lincoln.
In 1863 Edwin and two partners took over the Winter Garden, the renovated version of Tripler Hall where he’d made his Broadway debut six years earlier. Producing, directing and starring, he brought New Yorkers the most lavish and, he thought, aesthetically correct Shakespeare they’d ever seen. At the Winter Garden on the evening of November 25, 1864, he staged a one-night-only gala performance of Julius Caesar. It was a benefit to help pay for a statue of Shakespeare to go in the still incomplete Central Park. Although the ticket prices were hiked for the event — a good seat went for five dollars, more than one hundred dollars today — the whole of New York high society was packed into the auditorium, because for the first time ever the three Booth brothers would be on stage together. Junius was Cassius, Edwin played Brutus and John was Mark Antony. When they marched onto the stage together behind Caesar in Act I Scene Two, the packed house exploded with wild applause. For Edwin it was another duel of Shakespeareans, but this time his rival was the ambitious John Wilkes. John was determined to grab this one opportunity to upstage his older brother, and by all reports he did, with a volcanic, almost demented performance.
Act Two had just begun, with Brutus pacing his orchard and murmuring before a rapt and hushed audience, “O conspiracy,/ Shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,/ When evils are most free? O, then by day/ Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough/ To mask thy monstrous visage?” On cue, there was a clangor of fire engines out on the street, and volunteer firemen rushed into the theater’s lobby. They were responding to a fire in a room of the adjacent hotel, the Lafarge House. A group of Confederate terrorists had infiltrated New York and set fires in hotel rooms all around the city, as well as at Barnum’s American Museum. Because they were using “Greek fire,” a poor nineteenth-century version of napalm, the flames were quickly extinguished and did little damage, and New Yorkers responded to all the commotion as much with idle curiosity as with the intended terror.
The Times reported that inside the Winter Garden “the panic was such for a few moments that it seemed as if all the audience believed the entire building in flames, and just ready to fall upon their devoted heads.” Edwin stepped up to the footlights and quietly, firmly enforced calm. After determining that the theater was in no danger, the brothers resumed the play, and only a handful of audience members missed the thunderous ovations at the end.
When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9 1865, John Wilkes’ hatred boiled over. On the night of Good Friday, April 14, he sauntered into Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln had previously enjoyed watching him perform, and shot the president. Then he executed one of his famous leaps from the boxes, supposedly crying Brutus’ line, “Sic semper tyrannis!” The reason he hurt himself this time is that one of his spurs caught in the American flag draped from Lincoln’s box.
As the news flashed around the country, Junius, performing in Cincinnati, was almost hanged by an angry mob. Edwin was in Boston that night, starring as the black-caped villain in a potboiler called The Iron Chest. He was in his dressing room after taking multiple curtain calls when he heard the news. He later said he felt like he’d been hit on the head with a hammer; he’d had no premonition about this. The manager of the theater cancelled the rest of the show’s run. Federal marshals questioned Edwin and inspected his luggage, then allowed him to board a midnight train for New York Sunday night. It arrived in New York before dawn and he went straight to Nineteenth Street, where he hid with family for the next few weeks as hundreds of letters of hate mail poured in. “Revolvers are loaded with which to shoot you down.” “Your house will be burnt.” “Your life will be the penalty if you tarry heare (sic) 48 hours longer.”
Edwin stayed out of the public eye for the balance of 1865, but he had to work to support his family. In January 1866 he returned to the Winter Garden as Hamlet. The theater was packed to the gaslights on opening night, and when the moody Dane first appeared in Act One Scene Two the entire audience stood and applauded. Tears in his eyes, Booth bowed deeply.
When the Winter Garden was gutted by fire in 1867, Booth decided to build his own theater. The opulent Booth’s Theatre opened at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street in 1869. It was a great artistic and popular triumph at first, but Booth outspent his box office receipts on lavish productions and lost the space to bankruptcy in 1874. A few years later the building was converted into a dry goods store.
Booth continued to act for other producers. He shared the stage with a young man named Maurice Barrymore, patriarch of the acting family. In 1876, needing the cash, he toured the South, where people mostly seemed interested in him as John Wilkes’ brother. In Mobile, Sergeant Boston Corbett, the soldier who had shot and killed John, asked for free tickets. Edwin groaned and complied. Performing Richard II in Chicago on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1879, Booth gave in to a sudden urge to stand while delivering a soliloquy he usually recited sitting down. As he rose, a bullet ripped by him, right where he’d been seated. Another missed him as well. A dry goods clerk from St. Louis had fired two pistol shots at him from the balcony. Booth claimed his second sight had saved him. The shooter turned out to be a mad celebrity stalker a la the next century’s Mark David Chapman.
In 1888, Booth moved from Nineteenth Street to the capacious brownstone at 16 Gramercy Park South. He dedicated the lower floors to the Players Club, a gathering place for men of artistic and literary bent. Women weren’t admitted as members until a hundred years later. Early members included Mark Twain, William Tecumseh Sherman and Maurice Barrymore. Booth lived quietly upstairs and died there in 1893.
by John Strausbaugh