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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 52…

Episode 52

 

Woohoo! The TBR is down 1 to 141! I might throw a party to celebrate!!

Here are some of the ones that are teetering on the edge of the cliff…

Factual

 

fortune's foolCourtesy of NetGalley. I was expecting there to be a rash of biographies of Abraham Lincoln this year given it’s the 150th anniversary of his death, but so far I haven’t spotted any major ones. So this looked like an interesting alternative…

The Blurb says “With a single shot from a pistol small enough to conceal in his hand, John Wilkes Booth catapulted into history on the night of April 14, 1865. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln stunned a nation that was just emerging from the chaos and calamity of the Civil War, and the president’s untimely death altered the trajectory of postwar history. But to those who knew Booth, the event was even more shocking-for no one could have imagined that this fantastically gifted actor and well-liked man could commit such an atrocity.

In Fortune’s Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth’s story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. Despite the fame and success that attended Booth’s career–he was billed at one point as “the youngest star in the world”–he found himself consumed by the Confederate cause and the desire to help the South win its independence. Alford reveals the tormented path that led Booth to conclude, as the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, that the only way to revive the South and punish the North for the war would be to murder Lincoln–whatever the cost to himself or others. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford’s Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth’s capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago.”

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Fiction

 

the settling earthCourtesy of the author via NetGalley. I very seldom accept review requests direct from authors, but this one appealed – the title, the cover, the blurb and it’s short! It’s also getting very good reviews…

The Blurb says Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.

Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.”

* * * * *

Crime

 

the defenceCourtesy of NetGalley. I’ve seen so many great reviews of this one around the blogosphere so I’m hoping I’ll love it just as much…

The Blurb says Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist. Then he became a lawyer. Turned out the two weren’t that different. It’s been over a year since Eddie vowed never to set foot in a courtroom again. But now he doesn’t have a choice. Olek Volchek, the infamous head of the Russian mafia in New York, has strapped a bomb to Eddie’s back and kidnapped his ten-year-old daughter Amy. Eddie only has forty-eight hours to defend Volchek in an impossible murder trial – and win – if wants to save his daughter.

Under the scrutiny of the media and the FBI, Eddie must use his razor-sharp wit and every con-artist trick in the book to defend his ‘client’ and ensure Amy’s safety. With the timer on his back ticking away, can Eddie convince the jury of the impossible? Lose this case and he loses everything.”

* * * * *

the strangerCourtesy of NetGalley. Coben’s plots can be a bit cheesy sometimes, but his thrillers are usually fast-paced rollercoaster rides with likeable protagonists. Here’s hoping…

The Blurb says The Stranger appears out of nowhere, perhaps in a bar, or a parking lot, or at the grocery store. His identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world.

Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream – a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life. Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corrine, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corrine’s deception, and realises that if he doesn’t make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he’s stumbled into will not only ruin lives – it will end them.

 * * * * *

 

Sci-Fi

 

the martian chroniclesNext up in my bid to read more sci-fi, a classic I’ve never read. I’ve been very impressed by the few short stories of Bradbury’s that I’ve read recently, so I have high hopes for this…

The Blurb saysThe Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.

But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.”

* * * * *

 

NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?