Having made these notes the other day, it seemed only fitting that they should be shared here as an extra bit of Shakespearean performance history related to American history and the grim subject of President Lincoln’s assassination. A curious historical twist here offers a small bit of information in addition to what appears in previous blog posts.
The famous 19th century English actor, Junius Brutus Booth (1796 – 1852), moved to the United States and fathered twelve children. Among them were three Booth brothers, Junius Brutus, Jr., and the well known Edwin, and John Wilkes. Both Edwin and John Wilkes were celebrities with successful acting careers, but Junius Jr., never achieved the same level of success as his brothers. As noted in previous posts, the three brothers only appeared once onstage together, in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York on November 25, 1864.
Staged as a benefit performance, the brothers performed to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park which still stands today.
Tragically, the most well remembered Booth brother was infamous. John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, assassinated United States President Abraham Lincoln during a performance of the English playwright, Tom Taylor’s farce, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14th 1865. Seeing himself as a kind of modern American Brutus, John Wilkes Booth saw parallels between his own actions and that of the Julius Caesar protagonist, assuming what he saw as a noble responsibility to assassinate a would be tyrant. Although brother Edwin may be remembered as the best known American Shakespearean actor of his time, his brother’s infamy still overshadows his accomplishments by far, and the Booth family, if they are remembered at all, are mostly remembered in the context of the assassin to whom they were related.
Yet, true history really is almost always stranger than fiction. A year before John Wilkes shot Abraham Lincoln, in the same year the three Booth brothers’ performed in Julius Caesar together, Edwin Booth actually rescued Lincoln’s son, Robert, from almost certain injury or death:
The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name. (From a letter Robert Lincoln wrote to the editor of Century Magazine in 1909.)*
Edwin actually didn’t know whose life he had saved until months later, albeit that wouldn’t have made a difference. His act of heroism was apparently an instinctive reaction to seeing fellow human being in trouble rather than by political concerns. Edwin would have had no way of knowing that Robert Todd Lincoln would be the only one of the Lincolns’ four children to survive to adulthood.**
A Unionist, Edwin had been feuding with his brother for some time before the assassination took place. After the event, Edwin disowned his brother completely, refusing to have John Wilkes’ name spoken in his house. Forced to abandon the stage for many months after his brother assassinated Lincoln in April of 1865, Edwin was only able to make a successful return to the stage after the initial public shock and outrage over his brother’s actions receded. However, in January of 1866, he took up what became his signature role, Hamlet. He played Hamlet for 100 nights, setting a record that was only broken by John Barrymore, who did 101 performances in 1922.
Twice a widower, Edwin continued to perform successfully until 1891. He died in 1893. A statue of him as Hamlet was erected in Gramercy Park in Manhattan in 1916. Like the statue of Shakespeare in Central Park for which he was partly responsible, Edwin Booth’s statue still stands.
It seems all the more ironic that, of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it should be Julius Caesar in which the acting careers of the Booth brothers should intersect. Not only did John Wilkes identify with the character Brutus, but it is also in Julius Caesar that the character Mark Antony incites rebellion against Caesar’s assassins (including Brutus) in a speech which contains the remark that “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (3.2.84-5). Although John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is still widely remembered, his brother Edwin’s rescue of Lincoln’s son has been almost completely forgotten, remaining only a curious footnote in the pages of history.
For those who are interested, much more complete histories of the Booths exist, of course, including a memoirs about John Wilkes and Edwin by their sister, Asia Booth Clarke. Her memoir about John Wilkes was first published in 1938, and it was reprinted by the University of Mississippi Press in 1996. James Shapiro’s book, Shakespeare in a Divided America contains a chapter detailing the assassination and the Shakespeare related interests of both Abraham Lincoln and his assassin.*** Ewan Fernie’s book, Shakespeare and Freedom touches on the Booths briefly as well, albeit more briefly, and in the context of its broader subject.****
Edwin Booth’s rescue of Abraham Lincoln’s son is described in Goff’s biography of Robert Todd Lincoln.
*Goff, John S. Robert Todd Lincoln: a Man in His Own Right. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, pp.70-1.
**Robert Todd Lincoln graduated from Harvard and served as a captain in the Union army under Ulysees S. Grant before going on to become a successful lawyer. He served as the United States Secretary of War from 1881 to 1885, and as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1889 to 1893.
***Shapiro, James. Shakespeare in a Divided America. London: Faber & Faber, 2020.
****Fernie, Ewan. Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.