My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Led to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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Overview

The scene of John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre is among the most vivid and indelible images in American history. The literal story of what happened on April 14, 1865, is familiar: Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth, a lunatic enraged by the Union victory and the prospect of black citizenship. Yet who Booth really was—besides a killer—is less well known. The magnitude of his crime has obscured for generations a startling personal story that was ...

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My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy

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Overview

The scene of John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre is among the most vivid and indelible images in American history. The literal story of what happened on April 14, 1865, is familiar: Lincoln was killed by John Wilkes Booth, a lunatic enraged by the Union victory and the prospect of black citizenship. Yet who Booth really was—besides a killer—is less well known. The magnitude of his crime has obscured for generations a startling personal story that was integral to his motivation.

My Thoughts Be Bloody, a sweeping family saga, revives an extraordinary figure whose name has been missing, until now, from the story of President Lincoln’s death. Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’s older brother by four years, was in his day the biggest star of the American stage. He won his celebrity at the precocious age of nineteen, before the Civil War began, when John Wilkes was a schoolboy. Without an account of Edwin Booth, author Nora Titone argues, the real story of Lincoln’s assassin has never been told. Using an array of private letters, diaries, and reminiscences of the Booth family, Titone has uncovered a hidden history that reveals the reasons why John Wilkes Booth became this country’s most notorious assassin.

These ambitious brothers, born to theatrical parents, enacted a tale of mutual jealousy and resentment worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. From childhood, the stage-struck brothers were rivals for the approval of their father, legendary British actor Junius Brutus Booth. After his death, Edwin and John Wilkes were locked in a fierce contest to claim his legacy of fame. This strange family history and powerful sibling rivalry were the crucibles of John Wilkes’s character, exacerbating his political passions and driving him into a life of conspiracy.

To re-create the lost world of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, this book takes readers on a panoramic tour of nineteenth-century America, from the streets of 1840s Baltimore to the gold fields of California, from the jungles of the Isthmus of Panama to the glittering mansions of Gilded Age New York. Edwin, ruthlessly competitive and gifted, did everything he could to lock his younger brother out of the theatrical game. As he came of age, John Wilkes found his plans for stardom thwarted by his older sibling’s meteoric rise. Their divergent paths—Edwin’s an upward race to riches and social prominence, and John’s a downward spiral into failure and obscurity—kept pace with the hardening of their opposite political views and their mutual dislike.

The details of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln have been well documented elsewhere. My Thoughts Be Bloody tells a new story, one that explains for the first time why Lincoln’s assassin decided to conspire against the president in the first place, and sets that decision in the context of a bitterly divided family—and nation. By the end of this riveting journey, readers will see Abraham Lincoln’s death less as the result of the war between the North and South and more as the climax of a dark struggle between two brothers who never wore the uniform of soldiers, except on stage.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In some ways, Abraham Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre was John Wilkes Booth's most stunning theatrical performance. The assassin waited offstage until his cue (gunshot-muffling audience laughter); then burst into the president's theatre; shot him and leaped onto the stage. According to historian Nora Titone, this play-stopping dramatic scene marked not just the end of Booth's bombastic acting career; it was the climax of his bitter lifelong rivalry with his older brother Edwin. With persuasive force, Titone argues that John Wilkes' jealousy of his sibling's much more successful acting career fueled the hatred that culminated in a single violent act that changed history. Buyer's choice.

From the Publisher
"Filled with ambition, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy, this story of the celebrated Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and the two sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, who competed to wear his crown, is as gripping as a fine work of fiction. Yet, given the role that the younger son played in murdering President Abraham Lincoln, My Thoughts Be Bloody is simultaneously an important work of history—the best account I have ever read of the complex forces that led John Wilkes Booth to carry a gun into Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865." —Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

Provocative and revealing, Titone's first book provides another dimension to an iconic national calamity by alleging that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in part to establish his own importance within a family of theatrical rivals… Titone’s theory adds to the narrative without dismissing the political and cultural reasons for Wilkes Booth’s plot—his Confederate and proslavery sympathies have often been noted. She is most impressive in her use of primary sources and in her literary style.”—Library Journal

Why did John Wilkes Booth do it? In My Thoughts Be Bloody young historian Nora Titone is one of the few to have genuinely explored this question. In doing so, she has crafted a fascinating psychological drama about one of the central events of the Civil War: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This book promises to stimulate lively historical debate, and will be a treat for every Civil War buff who always pondered that haunting question, “what made him pull that trigger?” Bravo on a marvelous achievement.

— Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

“The Booth family, like most involved with creative endeavors, produced brilliant eccentrics. What began as sibling rivalry transformed into something darker and deadly as national divisions became mirrored in family squabbles. How ironic that the greatest family of the American theatre produced the assassin of the greatest President who supported American theatre. For anyone wanting to know how this could happen, My Thoughts Be Bloody is the book to read.”

—Tom Schwartz, Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

"Nora Titone's energetic narrative persuades a reader that history must add to its indictment of Booth the crime of fratricide."

—Thomas Mallon, author of Henry and Clara

"This is narrative history at its most engaging and edifying: the forgotten story of a sibling rivalry, shot through with Shakespearean overtones, that played itself out tragically on the national stage. With the authority of a historian, and the dramatic talents of a novelist, Nora Titone has written a book full of surprises that will fundamentally change the way Americans think about John Wilkes Booth."

—Toby Lester, author of The Fourth Part of the World

"The new light [Titone] shines on the Booth family provides some compelling context for the Lincoln assassination."— The Dallas Morning News

"Titone's riveting book - written with the authority of a historian and the twists and turns of a novelist - leads us to see Lincoln's killing, for the first time, through the crucible of bitter sibling rivalry...A great read." —Philadelphia Inquirer

"Titone uncovers a narrative as old as Cain and Abel. She also casts the nineteenth century’s greatest True Crime story in a new light." —New England Quarterly Review

Publishers Weekly
Family dysfunction brings down a president in this lively if feckless historical melodrama. In her debut, Titone, a historical researcher, says almost nothing about John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, focusing instead on his backstory and (speculative) psychological motivation. The tale has vibrant leads, including Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, a famous tragedian and raging alcoholic, and his domineering brother Edwin, the biggest stage star of the Civil War era. Then there’s John Wilkes himself, a narcissist and hilariously bad actor--Titone regales readers with scathing reviews--whose good looks and hammy onstage swordplay drew crowds. The author’s sketchy theory of Lincoln’s assassination puts it at the confluence of John’s self-dramatizing vanity, romantic identification with the underdog South, and sibling rivalry; she presents the murder as a coup de théâtre that finally lets John upstage Edwin. Although overstuffed with digressions, Titone’s account paints a colorful panorama of 19th-century theatrical life, with its endless drunken touring through frontier backwaters and showbiz pratfalls. Neither deep nor tragic, her John Wilkes is oddly convincing: the first of the grandiose hollow men in America’s cast of assassins. (Oct. 19)
Library Journal
Provocative and revealing, Titone's first book provides another dimension to an iconic national calamity by alleging that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in part to establish his own importance within a family of theatrical rivals. Titone contends that the feared, idolized, alcoholic but legendary father Junius Brutus Booth favored elder brother Edwin, who bore Junius's talents and faults, over John by taking him on tour, setting the stage for the latter's treacherous act. While most readers will agree that correlation is not causation, Titone's theory (largely based on Booth sister Asia's writings) adds to the narrative while not dismissing the political and cultural reasons for Wilkes Booth's plot—his Confederate and proslavery sympathies have often been noted. Titone portrays wide-ranging milieus from Baltimore to the California gold fields to Panama to New York as important contexts for the Booth family saga. She is most impressive in her use of primary sources and in her literary style, less strong in her use of secondary works, citing general histories in her bibliography but omitting specific studies of Booth. Meticulous readers will want to compare this book with Michael Kaufmann's American Brutus and Edward Steers's Blood on the Moon, among others. VERDICT Titone challenges her readers to view Lincoln's assassination as the result of a dispute between brothers just as the Civil War was at the national level. Her book should attract both scholars and general readers.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
Kirkus Reviews

A collective biography of the celebrated—and reviled—Booth family of actors.

In her debut, historical researcher Titone adopts the emerging biographical technique of examining a family instead of an individual (e.g., Paul Fisher'sHouse of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, 2008). Although it's difficult to keep the spotlight away from murderous John Wilkes—unsurprisingly, he dominates the final chapters—the author does a remarkably thorough job of illuminating the lives of his parents and siblings, most notably older brother Edwin, a 19th-century stage mega-star who once played Hamlet on 100 consecutive nights and dined with President Lincoln, a fan. Titone begins with a tribute to Edwin on New Year's Eve, 1892, a gala function attended by President Grover Cleveland. The author then moves back to England in the 1820s, where Junius Brutus Booth (Edwin and John's father), a notable London actor, was fleeing to America, abandoning his wife and child, in company with pregnant Mary Ann Holmes. After providing the relevant back stories, the author relates the astonishing American success of Junius Brutus, and notes the fierce secrecy about his marital life (it later crumbled). Three of the sons became actors, but Edwin had the greatest talent and eventually became wealthy and influential. John Wilkes, writes Titone, had great ambition and a matinee idol's looks, but little thespian ability. Though his surname gained him gigs, he rarely impressed either critics or audiences. The three brothers once did a benefit performance ofJulius Caesar together, and had plans forRomeo and Juliet at the time John Wilkes was off interruptingOur American Cousin in Washington, D.C. After the assassination, Edwin never again uttered his brother's name publicly.

Though some historical detail seems more tangential than pertinent, the multiple portraits display hidden facets of all the Booths.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416586067
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 403,373
  • Product dimensions: 8.26 (w) x 5.58 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Nora Titone studied American History and Literature as an undergraduate at Harvard University, and earned an M.A. in History at the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked as a historical researcher for a range of academics, writers and artists involved in projects about nineteenth-century America. She lives in Chicago and this is her first book.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is the author of the runaway bestseller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. She won the Pulitzer Prize in history for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II and is also the author of the bestsellers Wait Till Next Year, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with her husband, Richard N. Goodwin.

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Read an Excerpt

FOREWORD

Filled with ambition, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy, this story of the celebrated Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and the two sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, who competed to wear his crown, is as gripping as a fine work of fiction. Yet, given the role that the younger son played in murdering President Abraham Lincoln, My Thoughts Be Bloody is simultaneously an important work of history—the best account I have ever read of the complex forces that led John Wilkes Booth to carry a gun into Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, the book carries us back to early nineteenth-century London, where Junius Booth, handsome, tormented, and brilliant, is the toast of the town. Married with a small child, he falls in love with nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Holmes. Abandoning his family, he flees with his mistress to America, where he begins a new family and becomes a towering star, traveling from one city to the next, delivering passionate performances of Richard III, Hamlet, and King Lear.

Early on, Nora Titone convincingly argues, two of Junius’s four surviving sons give promise of following in their father’s footsteps. But which of the two would succeed—the more intelligent, sensitive Edwin or the handsomer, more aggressive John Wilkes—is unclear. When Junius chooses the older son, Edwin, to accompany him on the road, a fierce jealousy begins to fester in John Wilkes. Though Edwin finds traveling with his hard-drinking father difficult, he begins to experience the magic of the theater. On his own, he memorizes long passages from Shakespeare; he absorbs his father’s gestures, accents, and facial expressions. He hungers for the fame his father has achieved.

Edwin’s chance comes when Junius suddenly dies. As throngs of mourners gather for the funeral procession, the nineteen-year-old Edwin assumes his father’s mantle and soon becomes a greater star than Junius ever was. In contrast to his father’s bombastic style, he mesmerizes audiences with the naturalness of his performances and his conversational tone. Critics rate his first performance as Richard III “a blaze of genius.” Moving from one triumph to another, he becomes a wealthy man when still in his early twenties.

When John Wilkes comes of age, he too becomes an actor. His handsome features and well-proportioned body hold promise, but he possesses neither the talent nor the discipline to become a star. Edwin fears that his brother will dilute the family name and that two Booths on the same circuit will cut into his profits, even though he is, by far, the better known. He has power to wield, however, so he divides the United States into two regions. Each brother would perform in his own region, never crossing into the other’s territory. Edwin takes the populous North, including New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, while John Wilkes is relegated to the less populous South, where audiences and profits are much smaller. John Wilkes begins his first Southern tour in 1860, as the country itself is dividing along the same lines as his brother’s map.

Toiling in the South, John Wilkes begins to sympathize with the Confederate cause, increasing tensions with his Union-loving family. After performing in New Orleans, where he meets up with members of the Confederate Secret Service, John Wilkes finally finds his chance for stardom by joining the conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln. His decision, Titone persuasively argues, is forged as much by his failed career, his squandered earnings, and his jealousy of his brother’s success, as by his politics or his hatred for Lincoln.

In short, this book forces us to look at the familiar story of Lincoln’s assassin in a new way—through the lens of his tangled family history. Moreover, by placing Edwin Booth at center stage, it brings back to vivid life a fascinating figure whose achievements have been obscured by his brother’s murderous deed. We see Edwin performing before President Lincoln, dining with Secretary of State William Seward, befriending Julia Ward Howe and Adam Badeau, General Grant’s aide-de-camp. We learn that no other actor in the golden age of nineteenth-century theater was ever held in higher esteem. Still, as Titone appreciates, through a final desperate performance, John Wilkes Booth accomplished by death what he had never been able to achieve in life—he finally upstaged his brother.

—Doris Kearns Goodwin

April 29, 2010

Concord, Massachusetts

© 2010 Nora Titone

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Table of Contents

Foreword

Prologue: The Players

PART ONE 1821-1852

1 A Famous Rebel 21

2 O Brave New World 35

3 This be Madness 49

4 A Populous City 64

5 Stand up for Bastards 85

PART TWO 1853-1860

6 In the Dust 109

7 Brother, You have done me Wrong 131

8 A Delicate and Tender Prince 155

9 Destruction, Death, and Massacre 184

10 Prepare for your Execution 208

PART THREE 1861-1865

11 My Brother, My Competitor 239

12 The Working of the Heart 264

13 Beat Down these Rebels Here at Home 292

14 My Thoughts be Bloody 321

15 This Play is the Image of a Murder 346

Epilogue: The Curtain Falls 373

Notes 387

Bibliography 445

Acknowledgments 457

Index 463

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 6, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Truth is stranger than fiction-definitely a must read!

    This was a fabulous book that reads like fiction. Ms Titone does an excellent job of giving the reader a feel for the period. You quickly come to understand the tensions between the Booth brothers in this well researched book.Their lives are played out against the richly described backdrops of Shakespeare's plays, the Booth family's interactions with famous people of the era, as well as the major historical events taking place. There are some interesting twists and coincidences that occur in the lives of these men that make this book very easy to read quickly. I can't wait for Ms. Titone's next book!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 7, 2010

    Highly recommend

    Ms Titone should return a/s/a/p to research and scribe another insightful and truly informative book. "Bloody" is superb in all aspects of a history of the Booth family as well as info on the Ford Theatre and the death of Lincoln. Her writing flows throughout the
    entire history and leaves one with the attitude that research and utilization of notes were in abundance. Keep writing and let Ms Goodwin write all of the prefaces.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    Good Read - Buy it!

    Learned lots I didn't know - about the Booth family and social mores of the time. The book spends more time on the father and older brother than on John Wilkes. They were quite the celebrities in their day. Very interesting history, well written and easy to read. I enjoyed it!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2013

    I'm glad this book did not focus on the Lincoln assasination. T

    I'm glad this book did not focus on the Lincoln assasination. That subject has been done. I like learning the facts of John Wilkes Booth's roots. Afterall, you learn more about people when you study their families and where they come from. Loved this!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2011

    History at Its Best

    Knowing the background of John Wilkes Booth and his family along with the way things were then really helps flesh out what happened in Ford's Theater and afterwords. I loved this book. Not only did I learn a great deal, I also enjoyed learning it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Do not miss this one!

    Interesting facts that reads like a novel. Holds one interest from page one to the end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly recommend for those who follow the Lincoln legacy.

    This book helps fill in the "holes of perspectives" on the times of John Wilkes Booth growing up, and gives perspective to the local "feel" of the era. It broadens your perspective and view of the period, and helps in gaining more knowledge of JW, his family, and our history. If you enjoy gaining historical content to specific past events - you will enjoy this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2013

    Great book

    A very throughly researched and fascinating book, I highly recommend this book you wont be able to put it down!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2013

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    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2013

    Not recommended.

    Much extraneous material--only about one third of the book is about John Wilkes Booth and the assassination.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 20, 2013

    I found this book very disappointing. Way too much pop psycholog

    I found this book very disappointing. Way too much pop psychology. If you want to read better books on the Booths read American Brutus, Prince of Players or American Gothic. All of them are far better biographies than this one.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2012

    Unfortunetly I couldn't get passed page 60. I dont know if the

    Unfortunetly I couldn't get passed page 60. I dont know if the material was too dry for my taste but for some reason I wasn't motivated to pick up my nook to read it. I thought it was more about the assissination of Lincoln and not so much about Booths family when in reality its more about his family and what happened between Booth and his brother. The reason I give it two stars is because it wasn't what I expected therefore I stopped reading it! :(

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 21, 2010

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