My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedyby Nora Titone
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/b>… See more details below
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.
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
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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Read an Excerpt
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
© 2010 Nora Titone
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