Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

fortune's foolPlaying the villain…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children’s upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents’ marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John’s education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father’s death, before finally accepting that he couldn’t make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it’s interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln’s assassination, so it’s hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.
Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go – where he performed, what roles he played, etc – but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father’s reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers’, choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn’t long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to ‘die’ before he wore them down completely.

John with his actin brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar
John with his acting brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown’s incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions – guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as ‘crazy’ (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn’t totally clear).

lincoln-assassinated-newspaper

Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it’s clear from the plotting that Booth wasn’t quite the ‘lone gunman’ I’d wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth’s flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth’s actions – in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

lincoln memorial

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth’s corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

Terry Alford
Terry Alford

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography – a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth’s story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford’s best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it’s worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we’re still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim – though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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