Tuesday, November 13, 2007

November 13, 1833:

Edwin Booth's Birthday

Edwin Thomas Booth (pictured), regarded as one of the greatest actors of his day, if not the greatest, also has the historical misfortune of being the elder brother of John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Lincoln. Some years after that terrible event, the elder Booth wrote a letter in response to an inquiry regarding his assassin brother:


July 28, 1881.

Dear Sir:

I can give you very little information regarding my brother John. I seldom saw him since his early boyhood in Baltimore. He was a rattle-pated fellow, filled with quixotic notions.

While at the farm in Maryland he would charge on horseback through the woods, “spouting” heroic speeches with a lance in his hand–a relic of the Mexican war–given to father by some soldier who had served under Taylor. We regarded him as a good-hearted, harmless, though wild-brained, boy, and used to laugh at his patriotic froth whenever secession was discussed. That he was insane on that one point no one who knew him well can doubt. When I told him that I had voted for Lincoln’s reelection he expressed deep regret, and declared his belief that Lincoln would be made king of America; and this I believe, drove him beyond the limits of reason. I asked him once why he did not join the Confederate army. To which he replied, “I promised mother I would keep out of the quarrel, if possible, and I am sorry that I said so." Knowing my sentiments, he avoided me, rarely visiting my house, except to see his mother, when political topics were not touched upon–at least in my presence. He was of a gentle, loving disposition, very boyish and full of fun–his mother’s darling–and his deed and death crushed her spirit. He possessed rare dramatic talent, and would have made a brilliant mark in the theatrical world. This is positively all that I know about him, having left him a mere school-boy, when I went with my father to California in 1852. On my return in 1856 we were separated by professional engagements, which kept him mostly in the South while I was employed in the Eastern and Northern states.

I do not believe any of the wild, romantic stories published in the papers concerning him; but of course he may have been engaged in political matters of which I know nothing. All his theatrical friends speak of him as a poor crazy boy, and such his family think of him. I am sorry I can afford you no further light on the subject. Very truly yours,

Edwin Booth.

Curiously, the bit of lore about the elder Booth saving Robert Todd Lincoln from death or at least serious injury seems to be true. That story is here.

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