As part of an illustrious family of stage actors, John Wilkes Booth was already a familiar figure to many Americans before he entered the presidential box of Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The Booth name had been emblazoned on playbills of American theaters for decades before John Wilkes fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln. Only months earlier, the assassin and his two brothers had appeared together on a Broadway stage in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar to raise money to erect a statue of William Shakespeare in Manhattan’s Central Park.
Thwarted by poor reviews in his desire to live up to his family’s theatrical reputation, the volatile John Wilkes, an ardent Confederate supporter, instead took center stage in an American tragedy. His slaying of Lincoln changed American history and the lives and reputations of many of Booth’s relatives—one of whom unknowingly saved the life of a Lincoln, and another of whom wrote a secret memoir of her infamous brother.
Junius Brutus Booth: His Illustrious Actor Father
Not until after the Booth family patriarch’s death did the irony emerge that he shared a name with the most famous of Julius Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus. Born in London in 1796, Junius was among the greatest Shakespearean actors of his age. Blessed with a magnificent memory and fluency in seven languages, the 17-year-old theatrical prodigy joined a Shakespearean troupe that toured the capitals of Europe in 1814 and gained renown three years later playing the title role of Richard III.
In 1821, Booth abandoned his wife and toddler son to flee to the United States with his 19-year-old pregnant mistress, Mary Ann Holmes. Although his popularity transcended the Atlantic Ocean, Junius was also plagued by dark thoughts. In the wake of the death of his 10-year-old son, Henry Byron, he attempted suicide by jumping off a ship at sea. Deepening alcoholism interfered with his performances and forced some theater managers to lock him in their dressing rooms to ensure he’d be present and sober when their curtains were raised.
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Junius required so much caretaking that his son Edwin was forced to leave school at the age of 12 to attend to his father and keep him safe while on tour. Following a set of California performances in 1852, Junius set sail for home in Maryland while Edwin remained out west with an itinerant acting troupe. Junius survived only a matter of weeks without his son’s care. After being robbed of his money in Panama, he drank rancid river water and died of dysentery on his journey back to Baltimore.
Mary Ann Holmes Booth
Born into a poor London family in 1802, Mary Ann Holmes sold flowers outside the city’s theaters. On October 9, 1820, the woman who would become John Wilkes Booth’s mother sat in the audience as Junius played the title role in King Lear at Covent Garden Theatre. That night, a starstruck Mary Ann met the married leading man, commencing a three-decade-long love affair.
Five months pregnant, the teenager later fled to the United States with Junius without even telling her parents. She gave birth to 10 of the actor’s children and buried four of them, including three who died in an 1833 cholera epidemic. Although she referred to herself as Mrs. Booth for decades, Mary Ann did not legally marry Junius until 1851, after he divorced his first wife. News of her son’s role in killing an American president devastated Mary Ann.
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Considered the most accomplished Shakespearean actor of his time, Edwin even eclipsed his father’s fame. Born in 1833, the brother of John Wilkes made his professional stage debut at the age of 15 and stepped into the title role of Richard III in 1851 when his father was too ill to perform. Following his father’s death, Edwin gained his own acclaim during a worldwide tour, and Hamlet became his signature role.
Although plagued by alcoholism like his father, Edwin had his most successful year ever in 1864 while managing and directing the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. He brought his brother-in-law in as a business partner, but didn’t do the same for his brothers, deepening a rift with John Wilkes over money, jealousy and politics. While Edwin supported the Union cause in the Civil War and performed for Lincoln on the third anniversary of his inauguration, his brother’s increasingly strident pro-Confederate views caused a rupture between the pair.
After his brother murdered Lincoln, Edwin stepped away from the stage for nearly a year but found the affection of the theater-going public remained upon his return. In New York City, he built the Booth Theatre, which opened in 1869, and founded a private social club, The Players, whose members included Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla and General William Tecumseh Sherman.
While John Wilkes took the life of a Lincoln, Edwin might have saved one. In late 1864, he grabbed the collar of a 21-year-old man to prevent him from falling into an open space between a platform and a moving train in Jersey City, New Jersey. The young man he pulled to safety turned out to be the president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. In another eerie coincidence, three floors of Ford’s Theatre, which had been converted into war department offices, collapsed and killed 22 people at the precise moment of Edwin’s funeral on June 9, 1893.
Junius Brutus Booth, Jr.
The oldest of the 10 children of Junius and Mary Ann, Junius, Jr. was overshadowed by the fame of one younger brother and the infamy of another. Born in 1821 shortly after his parents immigrated to the United States, “June” never achieved the stage stardom of his father or his brother Edwin. Even his third wife, Agnes Perry, drew more renown as a thespian.
Although he had been on stage in Cincinnati on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, June spent several weeks jailed in Washington’s Old Capitol Prison with suspected conspirators. The eldest Booth brother confessed that he “wished John had been killed before the assassination, for the sake of the family name.” In addition to performing in small theatrical roles after the assassination, June managed Edwin’s theaters. In 1878, June and Agnes built a sprawling hotel north of Boston that became one of the region’s premier summer resorts. After retiring from the stage, June died there in 1883.
Asia Booth Clarke
The eighth child of Junius and Mary Ann, Asia was born in 1835 and considered to be the sibling closest to John Wilkes. In 1859, she married comedian and actor John Sleeper Clarke, who had been a schoolmate of Edwin, and the couple had nine children. Clarke managed Edwin’s theaters in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston.
Following Lincoln’s killing, Clarke was jailed for possessing a pair of letters written by John Wilkes to Asia. While under house arrest herself, Asia gave birth to twins. Clarke’s jailing irreparably strained the couple’s marriage, but Asia refused her husband’s request for a divorce. The family fled to London in 1868 to escape scrutiny.
After the assassination, Asia attempted to restore the family name by penning biographies of her father and Edwin. Although she sought her family’s approval in writing those accounts, she also secretly wrote of her memories of John Wilkes in a locked black leather journal, which she gave to English novelist Benjamin Farjeon upon her deathbed in 1888. Not published until 1938, The Unlocked Book: John Wilkes Booth, a Sister’s Memoir is an attempt to humanize the assassin as Asia shared memories of a young boy who loved butterflies and recited poetry. She revealed that John Wilkes was insecure about his acting career and chronicled his increasing anger toward Lincoln in “wild tirades, which were the very fever of his distracted brain and tortured heart.” Asia also recollected that her brother took it to heart when he received a fortuneteller’s prophesy that he had simply been “born under an unlucky star.”
READ MORE: The Final Days of John Wilkes Booth