John Wilkes Booth: Heartthrob and Assassin

In April 1865, John Wilkes Booth was 26 years old.

JWB: The Solid Theatrical Pedigree

Edwin Booth, legendary actor

In a day when theatrical personages were still looked on askance, the Booths of Maryland had a fine and well regarded pedigree. Junius Brutus Booth was one of the foremost Shakespearean tragedians of his day. His sons Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr., were established in theatrical hierarchy by the Civil War. All had been headliners all up and down the East Coast, and even points inland. A third up-and-coming son, John Wilkes, was the best looking, most athletic, and flashiest of all them.

John Wilkes, the youngest Booth actor

John Wilkes Booth (1838-65) began his career practically from birth, learning his craft from family members, and blessed with the invaluable ability to learn and remember lines easily. By the time he was out of his teens, he was already performing, and displaying his athletic prowess with daredevil leaps and onstage acrobatics. He had become a fine swordsman (mandatory for an actor), an excellent horseman and crack shot. His solid build, curly black hair and graceful manners stood him well, as did his exceptionally good looks, snappy clothing and suave way with the ladies.

He also made a lot of money. In the year before the assassination, he made nearly $20,000. The President only made $25,000.

In short, he was a rock star.

JWB: Personal Magnetism

Lucy Lambert Hale, said to be Booth’s fiancee.

Booth’s personal charm was becoming legendary. Women were falling in love with him. Several had his photographs or cartes d’visite tucked away with their most private possessions. He carried the photographs of several belles of the ‘60s in his private day-diary. He was said to be engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of a Senator. He also was keeping (unbeknownst to Lucy) a long-time mistress.

Interestingly enough, for such an obvious ladies’ man, JWB was popular with men, too. They liked him. His fellow thespians liked him, finding mild fault only with the failings of his youth: grandstanding and lack of craft-discipline. And a wee bit too much brandy. But there was definite talent, and he was expected to gain wisdom with age. He had friends high and low. John Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theatre, was a close friend. So were stage hands, stable hands, and assorted riffs and raffs. Bartenders loved him both for his regularity at the bar, and his generosity. He bought rounds.

JWB: The Assassin Part

Most assassins or attempted assassins of major political figures are viewed as a) certifiably insane (Charles Guiteau/Garfield) or John Schenk/Theodore Roosevelt); b) loners and “strange birds” (Lee Harvey Oswald/JFK or the Manson followers/Gerald Ford), and occasionally politically motivated anarchists (Leon Czolgosz/McKinley or Gavrilo Princip/Archduke Franz Ferdinand). In modern times, some are for hire.

John Wilkes Booth doesn’t quite fit those molds. True, he was politically motivated, being an ardent Confederate and Lincoln loather, but that could be said of most of the Confederate leadership. But JWB was definitely not insane, nor an anarchist nor a loner. Nobody was paying him. He was already famous – and financially comfortable.

A Fanatical Precipice

One of JWB’s cartes d’visite.

JWB was present at Brown’s hanging.

There is evidence that John Wilkes Booth was present, wearing a militia uniform, at the hanging of John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Brown was a fanatic to some, hero to others, who believed not only in immediately abolition, but by any means possible.

Where, how, and for how long JWB obtained and wore the militia uniform is immaterial (to this discussion), suffice to say he never saw fit to join the Confederate Army. He was known to harbor more surreptitious thoughts. But that came a little later.

The Booth family, long time border-state Marylanders, were all pro-Union and pro-Lincoln. If any had Southern sympathies, they were mild. Many families have political variables.

The object of Booth’s kidnap plan.

Booth’s political rage seems to have become overt in 1864, not long after Ulysses S. Grant became General of the Union Army, and the heavy casualties now became intolerable. Realizing that the Union had at least twice the manpower resources as the Confederacy, as a military measure, Grant refused to exchange prisoners, a centuries old tradition. This meant that the South could not replace its losses, and the perceived war of attrition, was now an absolute.

General U.S. Grant

Booth’s idea was to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom – possibly for all the Confederate prisoners-of-war. This, of course, was a complex plot that entailed many people on many fronts; problems of where, when, how – and who could be trusted.

JWB originally contacted some old childhood friends  but while they were happy listen to his wild proposals, they did not buy-in. But Booth had mastered the importance of networking: one person leads to another ….and another. Finally he assembled a somewhat half-baked group of sycophants, who were happy to bask in the Booth limelight, and drink his brandy. With the exception of strong man Lewis Powell, who frankly admitted to being “mad,” none of them were assassins.

Only Booth.

Change of Plans

On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office for his second term. Despite bad weather, there was a large crowd. With a ticket supplied by his maybe-fiancee Lucy Hale, John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd and admitted how easy it would have been to shoot the President then and there. But he didn’t. He was still fixed on the kidnap plan.

A month later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant, ostensibly ending the four-year-war. Washington, breathing a collective sigh of relief, was jubilant, with bunting and bands and fireworks.

Lincoln was asked to say a few words, which he did, alluding briefly to some plans for reconstructing the Union. Booth was in the crowd, and was said to have muttered, “That will be the last speech he will ever make.”

It was.


Leech, Margaret – Reveille in Washington – NYRB Classics – 2011

Swanson, James L – Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer – William Morrow, 2006

Grant Suspends Prisoner Exchange

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