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)
"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
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
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.