A casual observer of United States history may be familiar with the name John Wilkes Booth. They may know he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln shortly after the official end of the Civil War, and that the ensuing manhunt was one of the largest of all time. Many contemporary writers have written about the details of these events, but few have thoroughly explained his backstory.
Burgeoning historian Nora Titone has examined just that in her first publication, “My Thoughts Be Bloody.” Also, for those expecting a dry family saga, never fear. Details such as STDs, séances, affairs, accidental gunshot wounds, freeloading relatives, and vicious confrontations are featured prominently through the work.
The initial detail to know about Booth is that he was famous prior to his notorious deed. In fact, Booth was a household name at that time. They were a group of highly respected actors, particularly of William Shakespeare’s plays, which were widely appreciated by the public during the nineteenth century.
John Wilkes’ father, Junius, began this acting tradition in his native country of England, where he became one of the two most popular actors. However, unlike the modern stereotype that performing Shakespeare makes one sophisticated, Junius morally fit the subpar position of actors in those times. Junius left his wife and young son behind in England, and eloped with the young Mary Ann Holmes to rural Maryland. They eventually had ten children together, including the reserved Edwin, and his younger brother, the vivacious John Wilkes.
While keeping his unlawful family secret, Junius furthered his career in the New World via the usual method of touring shows. Though he constantly gathered full audiences, he steadily grew more irresponsible, particularly with alcohol. Family members, desiring financial stability, had to accompany him in order to make sure he actually continued on his tours.
At the tender age of twelve, Edwin was granted this task. Through the years spent dealing with his father’s bouts, he also became very familiar with the inner workings of the trade. Although his father desired more stable positions outside of the arts for his children, it became obvious that the boy was going to follow in his footsteps.
Meanwhile, John Wilkes remained in Maryland. While he attended various schools, he felt no commitment to education, and began to aimlessly spend his days at home. When he was sixteen, he became fervently interested in the idea of politics. However, in time, he too felt drawn to the family calling, but did not have the expertise Edwin had gained while touring with their father.
Titone essentially argues that this difference in experience, as well as the belief that Edwin occasionally intentionally sabotaged him, led to the President’s assassination. In the end, because John Wilkes could not gain the public’s eye through his unrefined acting, he sought another venue for the attention he craved. With the act of assassinating Lincoln, he believed the South would rally behind him.
Titone accomplishes much more than just detailing this basic relationship between Edwin and John Wilkes. She has thoroughly researched the fascinating Booth family, as well as many of those close to them. One last fact: Edwin actually supported the Union, and had voted for Lincoln.
“My Thoughts Be Bloody” is available at bookstores everywhere, as well as through PASCAL.