John Wilkes Booth is perhaps the most famous assassin in history, certainly the most theatrical. His killing of Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865, not only marked the downfall of one of the most important and well-known men since, say, Julius Caesar, but changed the course of a nation.
As author Karen Joy Fowler asserts in her afterword, so much has been written about the event and its perpetrator that there is no need to add to his individual legend or further lionize the murderer by focusing on his story alone. She has chosen instead to zero in on the Booth family and to tell the tale of Wilkes’ (A stage name he gave himself for a time) people. it was a tough challenge. “How to write a book about john Wilkes a book without centering on John Wilkes. It was a is something I grappled with on nearly every page.” To my mind she succeeds superbly.
In the pages of we get Booth get tales of those who knew him, nurtured him, reviled him from his 1838 birth to the day he committed one of history’s most notorious crimes. And beyond. She tells the tale vividly and powerfully. There are plenty of stories connected with the wild personalities of the Booth family without putting John in the foreground. In fact, she puts him largely in the wings, which creates a wonderful suspense for the reader. When will the main character in this drama appear to perform his horrible deed? He steps out for an episode or two, then disappears for a while, then he repeats the process.
Booth’s family was large, complex, and chaotic. He was considered illegitimate because his father was a bigamist, having married in England, then again in America, without bothering with a divorce. Despite his unsavory past, father Junius was a renowned Shakespearean actor. He was so revered that Walt Whitman wrote “there are no more actors” as part of a post-mortem tribute. In addition to his on-stage fame, Junius was a dominating personality who held sway over his family even considering his many and extended touring/performing absences. His fame was such that his sons all aspired to match his accomplishments. Only one, Edwin, managed to make a theatrical name for himself. The others, including John Wilkes, attained mainly the pater’s reputation for carousing and whoring and drinking (This last was common to the whole lot of them.) Still, lacking though he might have been as an actor, John was handsome and magnetic. Attach those qualities to his father’s famous name, he managed to garner many stage engagements and make a bit of a name for himself. It was that notoriety that contributed to his ability to walk into Ford Theater and past the (rather lackluster) security precautions and fire a bullet straight into the president’s brain.
Fowler tells the story with wit and great narrative skill, delivering telling descriptions that reveal both character and condition with eloquence and economy. Of a relative’s family’s unwelcome appearance at the Booth doorway, she writes:
Mother opens the door and lets them all into the house. The seven strange children have runny noses and blistered feet. Drops of rain are beaded on their greasy hair and streaking their cheeks. They smell awful.
Or take this description of one of John Wilkes sister’s reaction to the news of their father’s bigamy:
The way Rosalie sees it, pretty much everyone in London was abandoning their wives to run away with their sweethearts around the time that father met Mother. It seems to have been quite the fad. Sodom and Gomorrah with tea.
The Booth family was bred primarily, though not exclusively, in Maryland, close to those who were fierce advocates of slavery. Even though Maryland never officially joined the confederacy, there was no lack of enthusiasm for secession among the populace. John Wilkes was among the those who saw slavery as a benign institution which benefited both Negroes and whites and was very nearly the most important institution on which American was founded. Given those beliefs and his attraction toward dramatic and extremist notions, it was in hindsight nearly inevitable that he would enter into the kind of conspiracy that he joined on that April night. The rest of the Booths were loyal to their brother and son, but none of them held the fervent attachment to what became known as the “Lost Cause.” They were much more devoted to art and family than to politics.
It is that nearly apolitical tendency among the Booths that makes Fowler’s account of what led to John Wilkes’ great crime special. He became a radical not by any single political or social conviction, but by virtue of the political environment that surrounded him and of his his volatile personality. He never could stand to be ignored or bested and he always considered himself destined to do something great for which he would always be remembered.
He succeeded, of course. And Fowler succeeded as well in her aim “to write a book about john Wilkes a book without centering on John Wilkes.”