Junius Brutus Booth: Founder of a Tainted Dynasty


Today is the birthday of Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. (1796-1852), founder of an acting dynasty. Himself named after the assassin of Julius Caesar, he was also the father of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, a fact that will always darken what ought otherwise to be a distinguished American name.

A Londoner by birth, Booth first gained fame for his Richard III at the Covent Garden in 1817. He moved to the U.S. in 1821, transplanting that great English acting tradition here, although Edwin Forrest would emerge at almost the same time to become America’s first native-born actor of genius. (His son, Edwin Booth, considered the greatest actor of the 19th century American stage, was named after Forrest).

In 1831, Booth assumed management of the Adelphi Theatre in Baltimore, although he was to tour the US and Great Britain many times during his 30 year career, sometimes with his sons. Junius Brutus Jr. (1821-1883), though the oldest, was something of a ne’er-do-well, achieving nothing like the success of his much younger brothers or father. (In this he reminds me something of John Rockefeller III, who was quite a bit overshadowed by his political brothers Nelson and Winthrop, and his financial brothers Laurence and David). Edwin (1833-1893), as we said, was hailed as a genius of his time. And the baby of the family, John Wilkes (1838-1865) was a critically acclaimed and successful actor before committing the crime for which his name will always be reviled.

Fortunately, Junius did not live to experience that infamy, although interestingly he apparently sent a death threat to Andrew Jackson in 1835, although historians think it was a joke. Booth’s last years were marred by severe alcoholism. He died at the age of 56 from drinking tainted water on a Mississippi River steamboat.

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