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John Wilkes Booth Essay, Research Paper

The name of John Wilkes Booth conjures up a picture of America’s most infamous assassin,the killer of perhapsthe greatest president of the United States. However, J. Wilkes Booth led a very prominent life as an actor in the years preceding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This period of his life is often forgotten or overlooked.

The booth family name in the nineteenth century was strongly identified with the American theater scene; there was no greater name among American actors at this time. Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. came to the United States from England in 1821 and established the Booth name upon the American stage. He left his legacy to be carried by his sons Edwin,John Wilkes,and Junius Brutus, Jr.

All of the Booth children but one, were born out of wedlock. John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in a log house. The family home was on property near Bel Air, Maryland, twenty-five miles south of the Mason- Dixon line. Elder brother Edwin supervised his younger brother’s upbringing. Later Edwin and older sister Asia would write about their eccentric brother’s behavior.

Francis Wilson, who wrote a biography of Booth in 1929, stated that Booth opened his stage career in 1855 at the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore and began performing on a regular basis two years later. Once Booth embarked upon his acting career, he wanted the comparisons between himself and his late father to cease.

It was a common practice of theater companies to retain actors who would complement a touring, star figure. Booth eventually became one of these star figures, with stock companies for one and two week engagements. Often a different play was performed each night, requiring Booth to stay up studying his new role until dawn, when he would rise and make his way to the theater for rehearsal.

Booth began his stock theater appearances in 1857 in Weatley’s Arch Street Theater in Philidelphia. According to one biographer, Booth studied intently in Philidelphia, but author Gordon Samples writes that Booth’s lack of confidence did not help his theatrical career.

William S. Fredericks, the acting and stage manager at the Arch Street Theater, said the new actor did not show promise as a great actor. This negative opinion was also held by other Philadelphia company actors. They said Booth, who was 19, had no future as an actor. In September of 1858, Booth moved to Richmond, Virginia for a season of stock at the old Marshall Theatre. He became more confident as an actor and was popular with his audiences. At the same time Booth became more enamored with the southern way of life, which helped to refine his southern political views. Booth also attended many important social functions in Richmond.

Booth briefly left the Richmond Theatre Company in 1859. He joined the Richmond Grays, gaining his only official military experience. He enlisted on November 20, 1859 with the sole intention of witnessing the December hanging of the fiery abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia. Soon after witnessing Brown’s hanging, Booth left for Richmond where he was discharged.

During the Civil War , Booth said he promised his mother that he would not join the Confederate army. Booth did however, undertake some action to support the Confederacy. According to some reports, Booth was actively engaged in smuggling medical supplies to support the Confederate forces in 1864.

Many people who came in contact with Booth mentioned the magnetism and power of his eyes. Sir Charles Wyndham, a fine comedian who witnessed the acting exploits of both Booth and his brother Edwin, wrote that Booth’s”…eyes were striking features , but when his emotions were aroused they were like living jewels. Flames shot from them.”

Booth was frequently seen in the company of many women, and in one passage author Samples wrote that Booth often “lounged” in the arms of Ellen Starr, who was in Washington at the time of the Lincoln assassination . Miss Starr was but one of many. In 1861, actress Henrietti Irving slashed Booth in the face with a knife; Irving had erupted into a jealousrage when she learned that Booth had no intentions of marrying her.

After Booth was killed, five photographs of female freinds were found on his person. One of these pictures was of his betrothed Lucy Hale, the daughter of Senator John P. Hale. Ironically , Senator Hale was a prominent Republican abolitionist.

After leaving the stage in May of 1864, Booth went to western Pennsylvania to concentrate entirely upon oil investments. Booth had formed an oil company in 1863 with his acting freinds John Ellsler,Thomas Y. Mears and George Pauncell. It was appropriately called the Dramatic Oil Company.

Impatient with his lack of immediate financial success, Booth gave up his oil interests in the autumn of 1864. He turned turned most of his investments over to his brother Junius and freind, Joseph H. Simonds.

In October of 1864 Booth travelled to Montreal. He conducted a number of meetings with men associated with the Confederacy. The record is unclear as to what transpired. By mid-November Booth checked into the National Hotel in Washington. Booth carried with him a letter of introduction from the Confederates he had conferred with addressed to Dr. William Queen of Charles County, Maryland. This letter led Booth to meet with Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in December of 1864.

Booth now set up a organizing an operation, proportedly with Dr. Mudd and others, to capture the president and transport him to Richmond. The capture of Lincoln was designed to force the Federal government to return Confederate prisoners of war who were confined in Union prisons and return them to fight Union forces.

After nearly five months of intense planning, the attempt to capture the president took place on March 17, 1865. Mr. Lincoln, however disappointed the would-be captors by changing his plans. Instead of visiting a hospital outside of Washington, President Lincoln attended a luncheon at the National Hotel. This was the hotel Booth used as his temporary home while in Washington, D.C.

Two weeks later, the long Union siege of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia ended. The Union forces marched in and Confederate forces under General Lee moved west. One week later, on April 9,1865 General Lee was forced my General Grant to surrender. These Confederate failures, along with the failure of Booth’s capture plot, apparently gave Booth the incentive to carry out his final fatal plan.

Five days after General Lee’s surrender, Booth assassinated Mr. Lincoln inside Ford’s theatre.

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