Nothing had ever so immediately affected the people of the United States quite like the death of Abraham Lincoln. When his funeral train traveled from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, 7 million people, roughly one-fifth of the country’s population, watched it pass.
It was one of the first of those mass culture moments when everyone gets the news in real time. Grief and anger were instantaneous across the country. In the Library of America’s President Lincoln Assassinated!!, a history of the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath told through documents of the time, you find an outpouring of sermons, speeches, poems, essays, and letters by everyone from Whitman and Emerson to Queen Victoria. Gradually, while plowing through that fulsome 19th-century prose, it dawns on you that this is the nation’s first celebrity murder, where both victim and assailant were known across the country.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Lincoln assassination was how many people were familiar with the president’s murderer.
Even in the rogue’s gallery of people who have tried to kill a president, John Wilkes Booth still gets top billing. A member of the Booth acting clan—the Barrymores of the 19th century—he was a popular actor both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, appearing in theaters as far west as Leavenworth, Kansas.
When news of Lincoln’s assassination spread throughout Washington on Friday night and Saturday morning that April 150 years ago, people speaking of it referred to his killer as “the actor Booth.” No other identification was necessary.
To this day, Booth has fascinated historians and the general public alike, because he, more than any other assassin, wreaked such havoc on the nation’s history.
But there is another reason: Unlike his fellow killers, Booth was not demonstrably insane and he was certainly no marginalized nobody. On the contrary, he was a celebrity—an astonishingly handsome and successful actor.
If anything, our fascination with this strange man has only grown with time. Even Stephen Sondheim gave Booth a memorable musical soliloquy in his eerily unsettling musical Assassins.
In the last few years, there have been at least two bestsellers about the Lincoln assassination, one of them of dubious accuracy (Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, written with Martin Dugard, and the other an example of popular narrative history at its best (James L. Swanson’s Manhunt).
Curiously, though, there has never been a full-length biography of Booth by a reputable historian, until now. Terry Alford’s Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth takes Lincoln’s killer from cradle to grave and along the way charts the life of one of the strangest Americans ever to draw breath.
Reading Alford, you begin to understand why no one has taken up this task before, because Booth, through no fault of Alford’s, never really adds up. There is no doubt that he was a fanatical Southern partisan. So how did he not realize that killing Lincoln would be devastating for the South he claimed to love? Even the most fire-breathing Confederates had no illusions on that score.
Nor was he stupid or crazy. There was nothing in his past, aside from a childhood predilection for slaughtering cats, that so much as hinted at his fate. The dashing actor had far more friends than enemies, was almost too lucky in romance (the photographs of no fewer than five sweethearts were found on his corpse), and was respected and successful as a performer. (Another, smaller problem for Alford: There is no way to know how good an actor Booth may have been, as we have nothing but the reviews and the personal reminiscences of his contemporaries to go by; but he certainly had his share of acclaim, especially for a man whose acting career ended in his mid-20s.)
Alford floats the thesis that Booth’s immersion in the characters he played on stage convinced him that he, like Brutus, was slaying a tyrant (he was a big Charlotte Corday fan, too). But as the author notes in his next paragraph, no other actor followed Booth’s path or operated under a similar delusion.
Perhaps it was because he had given his word to his mother not to fight in the war and then spent its duration fretting that he was a coward stuck on the sidelines of the greatest drama of his time. Perhaps he decided that a rash and foolish action was better than none at all.
All we know is that near the end of the war, Booth decided to kidnap the president and spirit him off to Richmond. To that end he enlisted a motley gang of co-conspirators. The idea was to capture Lincoln as he rode through Washington. But there was no telling when the president would be guarded. It would have been far easier, many have observed, to simply walk into what was then a woefully insecure White House and kill Lincoln in his office.
The kidnapping plot fell through and the war ended, forcing Booth to change his plans. He would murder Lincoln. But the time and place seem to have been chosen on the spur of the moment. Only on the morning of April 14 did Booth learn that Lincoln would be attending Ford’s Theater that night. After assigning the (ultimately unsuccessful) murders of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward to his henchmen, Booth went off to the theater armed only with a single-shot derringer and a Bowie knife. Those arms proved more than sufficient.
After shooting Lincoln and stabbing Major Henry Rathbone, Booth escaped the theater and the city, slowed only by a broken leg, an injury suffered when he jumped from the presidential box to the stage. He spent 12 days on the run before federal troops cornered him in a tobacco barn in Virginia and shot him dead.
If there is a moment in Alford’s book where you might feel a twinge of sympathy for Booth, it is in these last pages, when the rude welcome he received from Southerners finally dispelled his delusion that the South would acclaim him a hero. He spent his final days an outcast, even in the South, and he knew it.
But will we ever know him? Alford gives us a closer look than we have ever had before, but when you put the biography down, Booth is an even greater mystery than he was when you started reading. All that can be said in the end is that he was the wrong man at the wrong time, an infamous, undying riddle. If there are people in our history who we wish had never lived, Booth tops that list.