John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir

By David Bruce Smith

John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir By Asia Booth Clarke Edited by Terry Alford 151 pp. University Press of Mississippi $18.63
John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir
By Asia Booth Clarke
Edited by Terry Alford
151 pp. University Press of Mississippi $18.63

A gypsy read John Wilkes Booth’s palm and predicted tragedy. “Ah, you’ve a bad hand; the lines all cris-cras [sic]. It’s full enough of sorrow. Full of trouble. Trouble in plenty, everywhere I look. You’ll break hearts . . .  You’ll die young, and leave many to mourn you . . . but you’ll be rich, generous and free with your money. You’re born under an unlucky star . . . you’ll make a bad end . . .  You’ll have a fast life—short, but a grand one. Now, young sir, I’ve never seen a worse hand, and I wish I hadn’t seen it, but every word I’ve told is true by the signs. You’d best turn a missionary or a priest and try to escape it.”

Afterwards, when the prophecy fulfilled, the Booth family was denounced for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and never forgiven by the country. They were hunted, hounded, and harassed for the rest of their lives. Asia Booth Clarke immigrated to England to dodge the deluge, because she was “personally unknown…” there, and never returned–permanently.

Clarke completed John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir in 1874, but she feared a belligerent reaction from her husband. He had been wrongfully incarcerated in Washington for turning some of Booth’s materials over to the authorities. The thirty-day ordeal proved to be so traumatic, he annulled his spousal relationship—psychologically–despite their eight children. The book was placed with a friend for safekeeping, but it remained locked away until 1938, coincidentally the fiftieth anniversary of the author’s death. At that time G. P. Putnam’s Sons decided to publish it, despite anxiety about the public’s reaction.

The Booths were pro-Union Lincoln advocates, and a clan of acclaimed actors. Junius, Sr., had successfully starred in high profile theatre productions, and his three sons, Junius, Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes, mimicked their father’s triumphs. But Wilkes was the most renowned and revered of the coterie and according to some critics the handsomest man in America. By 1865 the 26-year-old performer was earning more than $20,000 per year—the equivalent of $525,000 in 2014 currency.

Despite his Union pedigree, Wilkes was an “innate” Southern sympathizer; as he swept through on acting gigs, his proclivities for the slaveholders combusted:

“I have ever held the South were right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln four years ago, spoke plainly, war—war upon Southern rights and institutions. . .”

Wilkes loathed the abolitionists for befouling the Confederate lifestyle of misleading gentility, was conflicted by his mother’s request that he not hitch to a Rebel regiment–but sublimated it—and mutated into a quinine bootlegger.

As the volume of his Lincoln-venom ramped up, Booth’s politics turned vicious, Edwin barred him from his home, and the actor complained to his sister that Lincoln’s “. . .appearance, his pedigree, his coarse low jokes and anecdotes, his vulgar similes, and his policy are a disgrace to the seat he holds. He is made the tool of the North, to crush out slavery.”

After the 1864 landslide election, the by-now-bristling Booth attributed all of the South’s difficulties to the President:

“I [Clarke] said, ‘Do not go South again, my poor brother, do not go.’
‘Why, where should I go then?’ he said, opening his eyes wide in astonishment, as if the South held his heartstrings. Then he sang low and distinctly a wild parody, each verse ending with a rhyme to a year, then, ‘In 1865 when Lincoln shall be king.’
I said, ‘oh, not that. That will never come to pass!’
‘No, by God’s mercy,’ he said, springing to his feet. ‘Never that!’”

Clarke had seen her brother’s tirades, but when the news of Lincoln’s murder came to them, “. . .the blow fell on us, a loving, united and devoted family. And in time an enraged and furious Government did us much bitter wrong, and some justice. . . It was like the days of the Bastille in France. Arrests were made suddenly and in dead of night. No reason or warning given. . .”

Because of Booth’s bullet, the possibility of peace has boomeranged through seven and a half generations—but without resolution. Had Lincoln survived, his words might have soothed the country. Instead, The Assassination detonated retroactive antipathies that confounded conflict with cooperation. A century and a half later, the North and South may be somewhat reconciled, but America is still vulnerable to rupture.

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