What motivated the actor John Wilkes Booth into committing one of the most infamous crimes in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? For the past nearly 150 years, most people have assumed it was a madman’s attempt to seek revenge for his beloved fallen Confederacy.
Author and historian Nora Titone’s recently published book, My Thoughts Be Bloody, posits a different reason for Booth’s fateful decision to kill Lincoln. According to her, it was the intense rivalry between John Wilkes Booth and his older, more accomplished actor brother, Edwin, which eventually led to the assassination.
The Booths were America’s greatest family of actors, most noted for their Shakespearean roles. The founder of the dynasty was the father of these two men, Junius Brutus Booth, a native of England who came to America in the 1820’s after abandoning his wife to a life of poverty in that country. He arrived with his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, the eventual mother of both Edwin and John Wilkes.
The book takes the reader through the lives of the Booth family as Junius uses his natural talents to achieve fame and fortunes playing to packed theaters across the United States. As alcoholism sets in, his performances become more erratic and his teenage son, Edwin, becomes his travelling companion to help keep him away from the bottle. It was on this years-long journey with his father when Edwin learns the art of acting which eventually makes him one of the finest actors in American history, even by today’s standards.
Meanwhile, John Wilkes Booth, is left behind at the family home in Baltimore, where he attempts to learn the family trade of acting on his own. But without the natural genius of his father and brother Edwin to guide him in his education, he grows into something of a hack, more known for his athletic ability on stage than for his acting talent.
After their father finally succumbs to alcoholism, Edwin is ready to assume the role of Booth patriarch and quickly achieves a fortune of money, while finding fame on the stage in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The younger John, meanwhile, tries to achieve the same level of stardom, but cannot seem to make a go of it.
Edwin then calls a family “meeting of the minds” and with his influence, dictates that he will be the lone Booth brother acting in the prosperous markets of the northeast, while John is given the southern states, much less financially lucrative for actors. Edwin thus has the best chance for making money and his fortune continues to grow, while John in the “hinterlands” of the south, struggles constantly to make enough money to feed himself. It doesn’t help, of course, that his acting is not good, but he never sees it that way. He seethes at his older brother.
All of this of course happens against the backdrop of the growing divide between North and South as the slavery issue (and other issues) threatens to tear the country apart. Although only a few years earlier he supported the Northern cause, John Wilkes gradually comes to take the side of the South. The rest of his family, including Edwin, their mother and other siblings, support the Union.
With John Wilkes’ acting career seeing fewer roles, he attempts to go into the oil exploration business in Pennsylvania, the scene of the first big U.S. oil strike. He invests a great deal of money with friends, but they lose everything. The money losses further erodes his standing within the Booth family, helping to further intensify his rivalry (and hatred) of his brother Edwin.
John Wilkes returns to the family home nearly a broken man and meets with his brother, who is also home for a visit. They get into an argument filled with much rage and Edwin calls his brother “nothing but a rank secessionist” for expressing pro-Southern opinions. The outraged John Wilkes storms out of the home, more set in his support for the Confederacy than ever.
It was sometime in 1864 when John Wilkes began plotting against Lincoln, almost immediately after this huge quarrel with Edwin. The historical facts from this point forward are well known. Booth fell further and further into conspiracy until on the night of April 14, 1865, he murdered Abraham Lincoln.
After the assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s own death on April 26, 1865, the surviving members of the Booth family struggled with what their son and brother had done. They seem to have tried to bury the deed and memories of John Wilkes along with his body. Edwin went on to even greater fame and fortune on the stage, establishing the Players Club for the wealthy and elite in New York City. None of Edwin’s friends and associates mentioned John Wilkes, not even until after Edwin died in 1893.
My Thoughts Be Bloody is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Each chapter title is also a line from a Shakespearean play. Since plays written by the Bard were so intertwined into the careers and lives of the Booth family, it is appropriate that the book’s title should reflect that.
The book is excellent with its in-depth look at the dynamic of a highly dysfunctional family. The genius of Junius Booth is counter-balanced by his eccentricities which were made worse by his alcoholism. The Booth children were deeply affected by finding out that their mother, Mary, was not their father’s wife. It was made even worse when their father’s wife showed up unexpectedly to harass the family, making the children ashamed to be bastards. And of course the rivalry between John Wilkes and Edwin further roiled the family.
Titone has written a fascinating account of the Booths. The book is well-written, thoroughly researched, entertaining, and holds the interest of the reader. But does it make a strong case for the author’s claim that it was the rivalry between the Booth brothers which led to the death of Lincoln?
I am not entirely convinced that it does. Yes, there was a rivalry. Yes, Edwin relegated John Wilkes to the less prosperous regions of the country for the latter’s career. Yes, that led to jealousy and resentment. And yes, that led to John Wilkes advocating the Confederate cause.
But did this rivalry cause Booth to become an assassin? To make such a claim overlooks John Wilkes’ oversized ego, self-absorption, feelings of failure from an acting career going nowhere and huge business losses. And perhaps, a touch of insanity. A lot of families have intense sibling rivalry, but they typically don’t lead to murder. It may have been one motive, but I don’t believe it was the only one.
Ultimately, where My Thoughts Be Bloody most succeeds is in helping us to find another piece of the puzzle in understanding what made John Wilkes Booth commit one of the greatest crimes in our nation’s history. Above all, it is thought-provoking and that is the hallmark of what makes a work of history an achievement.
Well done. I highly recommend this book.