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Faces From The Past—IV

July 2024
3min read

The crowd began collecting early at the Winter Garden. All over the city billboards proclaimed the evening’s benefit as one of the great performances of the age, and lower Broadway had a holiday air of excitement. Men were dying in the trenches in Petersburg, Virginia; Sherman’s men, in the capital of Georgia, were lighting their campfires with Confederate money; but in New York the three sons of the great Booth were treading the boards together for the first time.

None of his young sons, it was felt, quite equaled Junius Brutus Booth, the magnetic, stumpy-legged tragedian whose name was enough to fill any theater in America even when he was a hopeless drunk, his mind almost gone. When he died in 1852, Rufus Choate, the Boston orator, had exclaimed: “What, Booth dead? Then there are no more actors!” Yet in the twelve ensuing years the tragedian’s sons had proved that there was hope for the American theater. Edwin was now the rage of the East; Junius Brutus, Jr., of the West; and John Wilkes the darling of the South; but the performance of Julius Caesar on November 25, 1864, at the Winter Garden was the first to join them all on the same stage.

A long roll of applause greeted their entrance with the procession in the first act: in a short toga, curly-haired John Wilkes, his mustache shaved for the part, was a darkly handsome Mark Antony; Edwin, slight in body compared to his two brothers, played Brutus; the stocky Junius, looking for all the world like his father, appeared as Cassius. The audience had just settled down to Act II when noises were heard outside the theater—the sound of fire engines and a crowd—and there was a fleeting moment of panic until Edwin stepped forward and reassured them that there was no cause for alarm. The play went on, and at its conclusion came a thunderous ovation, a succession of curtain calls.

Drifting out of the theater, the crowd learned that the fire had been one of many in the city that night, all part of a plot by Confederate agents and sympathizers to burn New York. And at breakfast next morning the headlines set off a violent political fight among the Booth brothers—Edwin and Junius strong in their support of the President and the Union, John Wilkes arguing hotly that they would live to see Lincoln king.

The performance of Julius Caesar had been their first joint appearance, and it was their last. Less than five months later John Wilkes Booth—driven by a demented desire for fame and a perverted loyalty to the lost Confederate cause—slipped into Ford’s Theater in Washington, entered the President’s box, and fired a bullet into his brain. He leapt to the stage, breaking a leg as he fell, hobbled out through a stage door, and was swallowed up by the night. Abraham Lincoln was carried across Tenth Street, to die in the back room of a boardinghouse in the same bed which John Wilkes Booth had occupied two weeks earlier, and after a twelve-day manhunt the assassin was trapped in a barn and shot. Now the skeins of tragedy, as dark and twisted as any Shakespeare contrived, enveloped the entire Booth family.

Edwin swore that he would never appear on the stage again, but in 1866 debts forced him to do so, and the announcement of his return prompted the New York Herald to ask if he would play the assassination of Caesar. An ugly mob turned out for his opening in Hamlet , but the sight of the humble actor, his head bowed to his chest as if in penance, did something to them, and they cheered him. In March of 1867 the Winter Garden burned, and with it went Edwin’s entire professional wardrobe, the most priceless possession an actor had in those days. Soon he was working to build his own theater, a project that consumed every penny he made or could borrow, and in 1869 it opened. His triumph was short-lived; the following year his wife lost a son at birth, and in the panic of 1873 Booth’s Theater failed. On the heels of bankruptcy, his wife began to lose her mind.

Tangible memories of the family disaster were forced upon him. For the sake of his aged mother, Edwin tried to reclaim the body of John Wilkes, which had been dumped beneath the stone floor of the arsenal in Washington, and one of Andrew Johnson’s last acts as President was to permit the family to exhume and identify the remains and reinter them in the family plot. Edwin felt obliged to reimburse the Virginia farmer for the barn which had been burned at his brother’s capture, and once he even had a request for free tickets to a performance from Sergeant Boston Corbett, the man credited with shooting John Wilkes.

The house of his sister Asia became a house of hate; she and her husband were exiles in England, each despising the other for his relationship to the crime, and Asia, like another sister Rosalie, finally died of melancholia. Junius fell on hard times in the theater and retired to the hotel business; his son, Junius III, lost his mind and committed suicide after killing his wife. The fiancé of Edwin’s daughter Edwina went insane just before they were to be married, and the actor’s wife died a raving maniac.

At the end only Edwin and a brother, Joseph, remained of Junius Brutus Booth’s ten children. Edwin was not yet sixty when he died, but his face and figure were those of an old, old man, weary of “this hell of misery to which we have been doomed,” looking forward to death as “the greatest boon the Almighty has granted us.” It came, at last, in 1893, but there was one final scene to be played out.

Ford’s Theater in Washington, confiscated after Lincoln’s assassination, had been converted into a government office building. On the same day, by a nearly incredible coincidence, at almost the same hour that Edwin Booth’s coffin was being carried from the church in New York to the “Dead March” from Saul, three floors of Ford’s Theater collapsed, killing more than twenty people.

Richard M. Ketchum

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