The Acting Career of John Wilkes Booth

“Sic Semper Tyrannis”

With those immortal words, John Wilkes Booth ruined his acting career.

In an exceedingly strange and ironic way, when Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he also assassinated himself. Obsessed with immortality, in a single act he obliterated everything positive and worthy he had ever been, eclipsing it with infamy. Once you became the assassin of a beloved figure, that is the sum of what you are.

Lincoln is my favorite President (I’m hardly original in that), so I won’t spend energy trying to redeem the irredeemable. Booth fully deserved the end he received, which was to be chased and shot like a distempered dog. When we imagine hell, it is precisely to contain men like him. Booth was convinced he was doing God’s work, but we all know it went down more like this:

You may think it doing Booth too much honor to speak of his accomplishments on the stage, but, no. Countless others have done so, and anyway it helps put the unthinkable story in perspective. Booth was a scion of America’s greatest theatrical dynasty; one of the stage’s best known and loved stars. We don’t really have an equivalent today to describe what he was: the analogy would be a scenario in which one of Hollywood’s top young box office stars, who also had enormous critical respect, was mixed with someone outspokenly, rabidly conservative to a daft degree. If you crossed Daniel Day-Lewis and Mel Gibson and made them as young as Daniel Radcliffe, it would be something like that.

The patriarch of the family Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) laid the groundwork. Junius Brutus Booth, Jr (1821-1883) followed his father into the business but was to live in the shadow of the rest of the family. Junior’s younger brother Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was considered the greatest of them all and the greatest in the country. John Wilkes (1838-1865) was the youngest theatrical Booth and was becoming a worthy rival to his brother Edwin prior to his act of madness. Raised on the family farm in Maryland, Booth was fond of manly pursuits like horses and fencing, and a somewhat lazy but popular student. He was only 17 when he began his stage career, with doors opened to him because of his famous name (although he did use pseudonyms at first so he could make his mistakes in private. His progress was extremely rapid. He spent a year at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia (1857). The following year, he joined the stock company at the Richmond Theatre in Virginia where he played 83 roles in 1858. By 1860, he was touring all of the great cities in America, north and south.

John Wilkes Booth was not as given to application and discipline as his more esteemed brother. Much of the contemporary praise of him had to with “charm”, “charisma”, “personality” and “attractiveness”. Still plenty also spoke of his “genius”, although typically that sort of praise generally qualified that his genius came in “flashes”. He played Hamlet, Romeo, Richard III. In late 1864, he co-starred with his two brothers in a production of Julius Caesar, a favorite play of his — and one that clearly screwed up his thinking.

It is interesting to observe that Booth’s career overlaps almost completely with the war years. He began acting a couple of years earlier, but his popularity took off just as the crisis began. These years define him in a way we can scarcely imagine. Like many folks in border states at the time, including his fellow Marylanders, Booth was pro-south from the very beginning. Unlike Edwin, who was pro-Union and refused to play southern cities after secession, John played both sides of the field, touring as far south and west as New Orleans. This was a peculiar state of affairs, that someone would be allowed to that.

He was a religious, superstitious, imaginative and romantic man, given to delusions of grandeur. It must have seemed he was living a charmed life, with all his easy succession and adulation. He was also a ladies man (when he was killed in 1865, there were photos of no less than five girlfriends in his pocket). When he was a kid, he’d visited a fortune teller, who warned that he’d come to a dark end. Certainly all the great tragedies which he spent so much time enacting present a world in which the hand of God is active — at least the characters would have it that way. He believed he was God’s instrument. The war was the defining event of his life, and that was to become truer than he ever imagined. Like Iago and Cassius, he schemed and planted evil ideas in people’s heads. He persuaded others to do terrible things. And then he personally did one of the foulest deeds any man ever did. And in so doing he did indeed write himself into the history books. He himself is actually a character in novels and plays and dramas, and is probably more famous by orders of magnitude than his brother Edwin, the greatest actor of his age, is remembered. But Edwin is a beloved, revered figure to those who remember him. John Wilkes Booth’s name ranks with Hitler’s and Judas Iscariot’s as one of the foulest that was ever spoken.

Some actors should just stay away from politics.


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