All American Tragedy

All American Tragedy

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All American Tragedy

Without a doubt, most Americans can distinctly draw a picture in their minds of John Wilkes Booth… The Civil War had ended five days previously with the surrender of General Lee. President Lincoln and the first lady had decided to take a night off and see a stage play at the Ford’s Theatre. An obviously enraged young actor preceded into the stage box a kills Lincoln, and then exits the theatre by jumping on to the stage and escaping through the back where a horse had been waiting. Booth tried to escape for good, but within two weeks he was killed in a violent ordeal near Bowling Green, VA.

From the moment the shot rang out in that theatre, the American people knew who Booth was. An interesting note was that if Lincoln had seen the men who avenged the South, he would have recognized Booth immediately. This would have not came as a surprise to many, since John Wilkes was one of the most recognizable men in the country, according to the National Preservation Society, or NPS. Lincoln was an avid theatregoer, and on Nov. 9, 1863, after Booth had preformed The Marble Heart, the President asked around back stage if he could meet with the star. Booth, being the outspoken supporter of the South that he was, declined the offer. This was the first major clue of Booth’s strong dislike of Lincoln. Booth was surely not in need of attention. “Thought the Civil War, the Northern newspapers fell over each other as they showered the young actor with praise.” (NPS 2)

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How then is it possible to reconcile the two conflicting impressions of John Wilkes Booth? The best answer would probably be that one must understand the environments in which produced him- the world of theater and the struggle between the North and the South. Booth was raised in a theatrical family, where Shakespearean works were recited as often as the bible. “As the struggle between the States wore on, the battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam must not have seemed very different than the battlefield of Richard III.” (Williams 578) In his career, Booth died a dramatic death hundreds of times. Many scholars have voiced the opinion that the assassination was, perhaps, Booth’s greatest "performance". In 1899, Joel Chandler Harris, a contemporary of Booth's who would become famous for his Uncle Remus folk tales, wrote that Booth "had all the elements of genius but seemed powerless to focus them.

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..He was as mad as Hamlet was: no more or less... There was nothing real to him but that which is most unreal, the theatrical and the romantic. He had a great variety of charming qualities, and his mind would have been brilliant but for the characteristics which warped it."

John Wilkes along with his other nine brothers and sisters were born in a log cabin just outside Bel Air, Maryland, twenty-five miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Their mother and father were not married until 1852, fourteen years after
Wilkes was born. So naturally, the children grew up with the concealed fact that they were all illegitimate. With their father away for extended periods of time on theatre engagements, the Booth children were often left to fend for themselves. And even with the discouragement of their father, Wilkes and his older brother Edwin still pursued a career in theatre.

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Two key events occurred in Wilkes' childhood, which, no doubt, affected his thinking for the rest of his life. According to T. Harry Williams, Wilkes' younger sister Asia’s memoir entitled The Unlocked Book, describes an account were their mother had a nightmare when Wilkes was a baby "in which she imagined that the foreshadowing of his fate had been revealed to her". Asia went on to describe an event took place when she and her mother went to visit the young Wilkes at the end of his school year in June of either 1850 or 1851 at the Milton Boarding School for Boys near Cockeysville, Maryland.

At the conclusion of a picnic for the students and parents, Wilkes took Asia aside and confessed to her that he had met a Gypsy in the woods a few weeks before who read his palm and forecast a gloomy future for him. The gypsy told Wilkes "You'll die young... You've got in your hand a thundering crowd of enemies- not one friend- you'll make a bad end...you'll have a fast life- short, but a grand one." Wilkes had written down the old woman's words on a tattered piece of paper which he gave to Asia who apparently still had it in her possession when she wrote her memoirs in the 1870's. Asia observed that Wilkes tried to laugh off the gypsy's words but it was plain that the episode troubled him and he would frequently refer to the dreary prediction throughout his short life.

After calling himself "J. B. Wilkes" for several years in the hopes of establishing himself without leaning on the family name, Wilkes finally gave up and started calling himself "J. Wilkes Booth" during a tour of the South just before the war. He would call
Chris Mynk 71567 himself this until the end of his career. Having become the darling of the Southern theatrical circuit, Booth traveled to the North and began a tour in January of 1861. Northerners were as impressed with Booth as their Southern counterparts.
Reviewers frequently compared him to his father and brother Edwin. Some went so far as to say that the young Booth showed greater promise than either Junius, Sr. or Edwin. Wilkes impressed Northerners with his fiery performances on stage while his impeccable manners and politeness assured him of his place in social circles off stage. He seldom reframed from expressing his Southern sympathies although his acting colleagues frequently believed this to be more of an act than a genuine conviction. “His increasing hatred of Lincoln was not entirely out of place in the North where many newspapers routinely ridiculed the President both before and during his term.” (New 231)

Booth began investing in a Pennsylvania oil field and plotting to abduct Abraham Lincoln. Although the oil endeavor produced no profits, it was widely believed that he was very successful at it, providing him with a ready explanation of why he wasn't playing many theater dates. In his free time, Booth traveled extensively, wining and dining Confederate agents in Canada and familiarizing himself with the roads through Southern Maryland. Virtually ignored by Union troops for the lack of strategic importance, these roads were the corridor by which Confederate spies shuttled back and forth between Richmond and Washington City. Booth was to follow this route very closely after shooting Lincoln. This concept of abducting Lincoln was a popular one for many Southerners. By this time, the South was critically short of men. By abducting
Chris Mynk 71567 Lincoln and taking him to Richmond, the South could then demand the return of Southern prisoners of war for Lincoln.

Gathering a motley crew of conspirators, Booth formulated plans for Lincoln's capture, none of which came to past. Booth devised a plan which he apparently hoped would throw the North into complete chaos and pave the way for a last stand by the South: kill the President, the Vice-President and the Secretary of State all in one night. Not surprisingly, Booth chose the President as his own target and assigned two of his conspirators to the Vice-President and the Secretary of State, neither one of which accomplished their goal. Lewis Paine succeeded in only wounding Secretary of State Seward with a knife while George Atzerodt backed out of his mission at the last minute and never approached Vice-President Johnson. Booth, however, had planned his mission carefully. He knew he could move freely about Ford's Theatre without arousing suspicion. When he showed up at the theater on the night of the shooting, no one paid any attention as he made his way to the President's Box on the second floor. Many never even heard the shot and thought that Booth's jump to the stage was part of the play.
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