Massachusetts

John Wilkes Booth Buys Property in Boston’s Back Bay

Though John Wilkes Booth sympathized with the South, he spent much of the Civil War touring Northern cities.

He even bought land in Boston, courted the daughter of a New Hampshire politician and attended a funeral with Julia Ward Howe.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth was born May 10, 1838, in Bel Air, Md., to British actor Junius Brutus Booth and his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes. They were also the parents of his older brother, Edwin.

In 1851, Junius Booth’s wife gave him a divorce and he married Mary Ann Holmes on John Wilkes Booth’s 13th birthday. But the stain of illegitimacy propelled Edwin and John Wilkes into ambitious acting careers as well as rivalry with each other. John Wilkes Booth supported the Confederate cause, while Edwin supported the Union.

A third brother, Junius Brutus Booth Jr., also turned to acting – and managing a theater in Boston. The three brothers appeared on stage together only once, in Julius Caesar. Edwin Booth played the tyrant slayer Brutus, John Wilkes’ favorite role. Proceeds from the performance went to pay for a statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park.

Scene-Stealing

At 17, John Wilkes Booth began his acting career in Baltimore, missing his lines during his debut. But he quickly improved and won acclaim for his scene-stealing performances and his good looks.

He also showed an interest in politics, and went to a rally as a delegate for a Know-Nothing candidate in 1854. He also attended the hanging of abolitionist leader John Brown in 1859.

During the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth appeared on stage mostly in Union and Border states. He made his debut in Boston on May 12, 1862 as Richard III. The Boston Transcript in its review called him the most promising young actor on the American stage.

One of his costars later said, “When he fought, it was no stage fight. If ...he told me that he generally slept smothered in steak or oysters to cure his own bruises after Richard III.”

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Lucy Lambert Hale

Infatuated women began sending him fan mail. He, in turn, sent an anonymous Valentine in 1862 to Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of U.S. Sen. John Parker Hale. Hale represented New Hampshire and barnstormed the country in favor of abolishing slavery. Those views appalled John Wilkes Booth, but that didn’t stop him from courting Lucy Lambert Hale. By the time he killed Lincoln, she had agreed to marry him.

Remarkable Beauty

Booth’s brother and sister-in-law, Mary Devlin Booth, lived in Dorchester (now a Boston neighborhood). In February 1863, Mary got a chill while Edwin Booth performed in New York. She grew steadily worse and asked John Wilkes Booth to take a letter to his brother in New York telling him she had a feverish cold.

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115 Commonwealth Ave. Photo courtesy Google maps.

On Feb. 24, 1863, the Booth brothers and their mother buried Mary in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic, attended. She wrote afterward that that John Wilkes Booth was a young man of remarkable beauty.

He earned good money, which he invested in a Cleveland theatre and in Pennsylvania oil wells. On April 9, 1863, he wrote to his friend, Joe Simonds, asking him for a catalogue of Back Bay lands. The Back Bay tidal flats had just been filled in, and John Wilkes Booth bought land at what is now 115 Commonwealth Ave. The purchase price: $8,192.

In the fall of 1863, John Wilkes Booth played in Boston, Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn. In September he was staying at an actors' boardinghouse in Boston. He spent an evening with a young man named Harrison Huguley, a 20-year-old member of Surgeon Gen. Joseph K. Barnes' staff. He made such intemperate remarks about the government that Huguley felt he ought not listen to such treasonable words. He excused himself and, when he returned to Washington, told Barnes.

1865

Abraham Lincoln’s re-election as president infuriated John Wilkes Booth. He attended Lincoln’s inauguration with a pass that Lucy Lambert Hale gave him. He later commented he’d had an excellent chance to kill him.

He grew so vehement in his denunciations of Lincoln that his brother Edwin banished him from his home and forbade anyone to say his brother’s name in his presence.

John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater, owned by a Booth family friend. He fled to Virginia, where a Union soldier named Boston Corbett shot him to death. Lucy Lambert Hale’s photo was found on his body.

No one ever questioned Lucy Lambert Hale about Lincoln’s assassination, and her father quickly whisked her away to Europe.

With thanks to John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day By Arthur F. Loux.

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