The name of John Wilkes Booth conjures up a picture of America’s most infamous assassin,the killer of perhapsthe greatest president of the United States. However, J. Wilkes Booth led a very prominent life as an actor in the years preceding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This period of his life is often forgotten or overlooked.
The booth family name in the nineteenth century was strongly identified with the American theater scene; there was no greater name among American actors at this time. Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. came to the United States from England in 1821 and established the Booth name upon the American stage. He left his legacy to be carried by his sons Edwin,John Wilkes,and Junius Brutus, Jr.
All of the Booth children but one, were born out of wedlock. John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in a log house. The family home was on property near Bel Air, Maryland, twenty-five miles south of the Mason- Dixon line. Elder brother Edwin supervised his younger brother’s upbringing. Later Edwin and older sister Asia would write about their eccentric brother’s behavior.
Francis Wilson, who wrote a biography of Booth in 1929, stated that Booth opened his stage career in 1855 at the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore and began performing on a regular basis two years later. Once Booth embarked upon his acting career, he wanted the comparisons between himself and his late father to cease.
It was a common practice of theater companies to retain actors who would complement a touring, star figure. Booth eventually became one of these star figures, with stock companies for one and two week engagements. Often a different play was performed each night, requiring Booth to stay up studying his new role until dawn, when he would rise and make his way to the theater for rehearsal.
Booth began his stock theater appearances in 1857 in Weatley’s Arch Street Theater in Philidelphia. According to one biographer, Booth studied intently in Philidelphia, but author Gordon Samples writes that Booth’s lack of confidence did not help his theatrical career.
William S. Fredericks, the acting and stage manager at the Arch Street Theater, said the new actor did not show promise as a great actor. This negative opinion was also held by other Philadelphia company actors. They said Booth, who was 19, had no future as an actor. In September of 1858, Booth moved to Richmond, Virginia for a season of stock at the old Marshall Theatre. He became more confident as an actor and was popular with his audiences. At the same time Booth became more enamored with the southern way of life, which helped to refine his southern political views. Booth also attended many important social functions in Richmond.
Booth briefly left the Richmond Theatre Company in 1859. He joined the Richmond Grays, gaining his only official military experience. He enlisted on November 20, 1859 with the sole intention of witnessing the December hanging of the fiery abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia. Soon after witnessing Brown’s hanging, Booth left for Richmond where he was discharged.
During the Civil War , Booth said he promised his mother that he would not join the Confederate army. Booth did however, undertake some action to support the Confederacy. According to some reports, Booth was actively engaged in smuggling medical supplies to support the Confederate forces in 1864.