Booth, John Wilkes

Booth, John Wilkes

(wĭlks), 1838–65, American actor, the assassin of Abraham LincolnLincoln, Abraham
, 1809–65, 16th President of the United States (1861–65). Early Life

Born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a log cabin in backwoods Hardin co., Ky. (now Larue co.), he grew up on newly broken pioneer farms of the frontier.
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, b. near Bel Air, Md.; son of Junius Brutus BoothBooth, Junius Brutus,
1796–1852, Anglo-American actor. After experience in the provinces, he appeared at Covent Garden. In 1817, with his portrayal of Richard III, he established himself as a rival of Edmund Kean.
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 and brother of Edwin BoothBooth, Edwin,
1833–93, one of the first great American actors and the most famous of his era, b. "Tudor Hall," near Bel Air, Md. After years of touring with his father, Junius Brutus Booth, serving his theatrical apprenticeship, he appeared in New York City (1857) and
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. He made his stage debut at the age of 17 in Baltimore. He later toured widely, winning acclaim mainly for his swordplay and physical effectiveness in Shakespearean roles, rather than for his weak acting ability. Unlike the rest of his family, Booth was an ardent Confederate sympathizer. He had joined (1859) the Virginia militia company that guarded John BrownBrown, John,
1800–1859, American abolitionist, b. Torrington, Conn. He spent his boyhood in Ohio. Before he became prominent in the 1850s, his life had been a succession of business failures in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.
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 on his way to execution and falsely claimed to have aided in his capture, but Booth did not enter Confederate service in the Civil War. Instead, he continued with his theatrical career in the North. For some six months in 1864–65 Booth laid plans to abduct the president and carry him to Richmond, a scheme that was frustrated when Lincoln failed to appear (Mar. 20, 1865) at the spot where Booth and his six fellow conspirators lay in wait.

On Good Friday, Apr. 14, 1865, Booth, having learned that Lincoln planned to attend Laura Keene's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington on that evening, plotted the simultaneous assassination of the President, Vice President Andrew JohnsonJohnson, Andrew,
1808–75, 17th President of the United States (1865–69), b. Raleigh, N.C. Early Life

His father died when Johnson was 3, and at 14 he was apprenticed to a tailor.
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, and Secretary of State William H. SewardSeward, William Henry,
1801–72, American statesman, b. Florida, Orange co., N.Y. Early Career

A graduate (1820) of Union College, he was admitted to the bar in 1822 and established himself as a lawyer in Auburn, N.Y., which he made his lifelong home.
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. Lewis Thornton Powell, who called himself Payne, guided by David E. Herold, seriously wounded Seward and three others at Seward's house. George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Johnson, lost his nerve. The main act the egomaniacal Booth reserved for himself. His crime was committed shortly after 10 PM, when he entered the presidential box unobserved, shot Lincoln, and vaulted to the stage (breaking his left leg in the process) shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!" [thus always to tyrants] "The South is avenged!" He then went behind the scenes and down the back stairs to a waiting horse upon which he made his escape. Not until Apr. 26, after a hysterical two-week search by the army and secret service forces, was he discovered, hiding in a barn on Garrett's farm near Bowling Green, Caroline co., Va. The barn was set afire and Booth was either shot by his pursuers or shot himself rather than surrender. Although it has been said that no dead body was ever more definitely identified, the myth—completely unsupported by evidence—that Booth escaped has persisted. For the fate of others involved, see Surratt, Mary EugeniaSurratt, Mary Eugenia
, 1820–65, alleged conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, hanged on July 7, 1865. A widow (her maiden name was Jenkins) who had moved from Surrattsville (now Clinton), Md., to Washington, D.C.
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.

Bibliography

See memoir by his sister, Asia Booth Clarke (1930, repr. 1971, 1996); biographies by R. G. and K. O. Gutman (1979) and G. Samples (1982); M. W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004); N. Titone, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth (2010).

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Booth, John Wilkes

(1838–65) actor, assassin; born near Bel Air, Md. A member of the well-known Booth family of Shakespearean actors, he was a somewhat erratic, if popular actor. He had come to support slavery and the South, and as a member of a Virginia militia company, had participated in the arrest and execution of John Brown (1859). In the fall of 1864, he hatched a plot to kidnap Lincoln but the scheme failed. He then concocted the plot to assassinate Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth's co-conspirators failed with the last two, but he himself shot Lincoln in Ford's Theater (April 14, 1865) before jumping to the stage and evidently crying out, "Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!" He was located and killed twelve days later, although it is not certain whether he was killed by his captors or died by his own hand. Rumors inevitably persisted for years that he had escaped.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.