Civil War Profiles: Who was John Wilkes Booth?

Date Published: 
January 3, 2014

On April 27, 1865, George Alfred Townsend, serving as the Washington-based correspondent of the New York World, wrote the third of his “letters” to the public about the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Having previously reported on the assassination and the funeral of the president, Townsend turned his attention to the background of the person he labeled “The Murderer.”

The subject of the journalist’s investigation was an actor of considerable prominence, named John Wilkes Booth. Born in Baltimore on May 10, 1838, Booth followed in the footsteps of his thespian father, Junius Brutus Booth, as well as his two older brothers, Junius Booth Jr. and Edwin Booth, in pursuing a career on the stage. At first, “such was his nervousness that he blundered continually,” but young John persisted until he perfected his art, especially as a Shakespearean actor.

Booth spent time performing in the South, including at a theater in Richmond. He was present as a member of the Virginia militia on Dec. 2, 1859, at the execution of John Brown in Charles Town for attempting to incite insurrection among slaves.

As noted in “American Brutus” by Michael W. Kaufman, “the blood ran out of Booth’s face” as he witnessed Brown’s body hanging at the end of a rope. Booth may have been squeamish, but nonetheless, Townsend conjectured, “Possibly at that gallows began some such terrible purpose as he afterward consummated.”

The future assassin, Townsend said, “was so youthful, yet so manly, and his movements so graceful … women of all ages and degrees pressed in crowds … to see him.” People were naturally attracted to him, and he often received invitations to the homes of society’s elite. So, on the “impossible supposition that Booth’s crime could have been considered heroic,” why would one so fortunate dare “to die for fame”?

Townsend had had an opportunity to speak with Booth three weeks before the assassination and was impressed with the actor’s “magnetic” manner. He “spoke to me; with as easy familiarity as I ever observed.” When they parted, “I left … with the feeling that [he was] a most agreeable fellow ….”

What turned this congenial young man into an assassin was yet to be determined.

Townsend compared the night spent by the King Richard on Bosworth Field in Shakespeare’s play “Richard III” and “Booth’s sleep in the barn at Port Royal,” where he was eventually captured following the assassination. They were both “tortured by ghosts of victims, all repeating [that they were] … punched full of deadly holes.”

The reporter thought lines from this play, in which Booth often gave his best performances, to be apt: “What do I fear? Myself! Is there a murderer here? No! — Yes! — I am!”

Over time, in pursuit of wealth, John Wilkes Booth would earn considerable sums of money as a “star” performer. His investments in oil fields paid dividends, as well.

“Yet what availed so sudden reformation, and of what use was the gaining of wealth, to throw one’s life so soon away, and leap from competence to hunted infamy”?

For answers, Townsend turned to the actor’s written statement left behind to be read after the assassination and his anticipated escape into the South:

“I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this … but God is my judge. … For four years have I waited, hoped and prayed for the dark clouds to break. … To wait longer would be a crime. … God’s will be done.”

As cited in “American Brutus,” Booth addressed his motives in a letter to his mother, Mary Ann. He said his actions were being taken on behalf of “liberty and justice” for the South. He had been agonizing for some time that the institution of slavery was under attack by Northern abolitionists.

Townsend closed his letter by commenting that, after the “horrible crime” was committed, Booth “passed the nights in perilous route or broken sleep, and in the end went down like a bravo … [but] commanding no respect for his valor, charity for his motive or sympathy for his sin.”

In relating this story, the young journalist from Georgetown, Del., employed the descriptive prose that had purportedly prompted Lincoln, when asked if he had been to a particular place during the Civil War, to respond, “No, it is not necessary for me to go there; George Alfred Townsend has been there.”

In his next letter, titled “The Assassin’s Death,” the New York World writer — who had cut his journalistic teeth with the Union army on Civil War battlefields — would describe the capture and demise of Lincoln’s assailant.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.