The Other Booth: The Cult Following of John Wilkes’s Brother

By Nicole Hindley ’18

Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1864. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Edwin Booth as Hamlet in 1864. Via Wikimedia Commons.

On an April night in 1865, John Wilkes Booth became the most notorious actor of the nineteenth century. However, he is not remembered in history because of his ability to capture the hearts of an audience. In fact, rumors have spread throughout the years that he was not even that great of an actor. He is remembered only as the villain who shot and killed President Lincoln, on the night of April 15, 1865. It is because of the crime he committed that Booth acquired his infamous reputation of the 19th century. Many actors of the Civil War era, including Booth’s own brother, have been overshadowed by the memory of John Wilkes Booth.

Edwin Booth is the less famous Booth in modern memory, but back in the nineteenth century Edwin was a superstar. He tackled the hardest Shakespeare roles, playing Macbeth in Macbeth and Hamlet in Hamlet.  In fact, his production of Hamlet was so popular that it played for one hundred performances at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. According theatre scholar Richard Sautter, this was highly unusual for its time. A majority of the time shows played for a night, a couple of days, or even a week, but so many performances was rare at the time. Julia Ward Howe, wrote in her diary how she was impressed with Booth’s performance of Hamlet, “Saw Booth in ‘Hamlet’ — still first-rate, I think, although he has played it one hundred nights in New York.”

Being a famous actor of his day, Edwin had ‘fan girls’ who confided their admiration for him in their diaries. One woman, by the name of Annie L. Van Ness was probably one of Edwin’s biggest ‘fan girls’:  she mentions him numerous times in both letters and diary entries. It is easy to tell that Annie, probably like many other woman of her time, greatly admired Booth. On June 10, 1869, she wrote: “Oh I must tell you my favorite actor Edwin Booth was married to Mary McVicker June 7th at Long Branch. Well I wish them all happiness I’m sure, and hope their lives won’t turn out as tragically as their plays do”. Much like how we today enjoy learning about the personal lives of the Kardashians, Johnny Depp, or Beyoncé, people of the 19th century took an interest in the lives of famous stage actors.

Annie swooned over Edwin. In 1869, she wrote that “We met Edwin Booth and I feel dead in love with him immediately. He has such magnificent eyes.” Annie’s infatuation with Booth must not have been the only one. When we look at Annie’s diary and letters we are able to realize just how important Edwin and actors like him must have been in the popular culture of the nineteenth century, even though he is overshadowed by his brother today.


Sources:

Howe, Julia Ward. Diary of Julia Ward Howe, October, 1906. In Julia Ward Howe. Vol. 1. Edited by Laura E. Richards, Elliott, Maud Howe and Hall, Florence Howe. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1915.

Sautter, Richard. Interviewed by Nicole Hindley. Personal interview. Gettysburg College, October, 2015.  

Van Ness, Annie L. Diary of Annie L. Van Ness, 1864-1881. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2004.

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