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Manuscript by John Wilkes Booth opens window into a disordered mind

April 26, 1992|By Herbert Mitgang | Herbert Mitgang,New York Times News Service HC

Edwin Booth called his family "afflicted" by the death of "our great, good and martyred president." To his fellow citizens, he offered "our deep, unutterable sympathy" and "abhorrence and detestation for this most foul and atrocious of crimes." He hoped that the public would remember his family's name, personally and professionally, based on "the record of the past." He signed the letter, "Your afflicted friend."

John Wilkes Booth's manuscript is not mentioned in the latest historical study, "Assassin on Stage: Brutus, Hamlet and the Death of Lincoln," by Albert Furtwangler (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

But Mr. Furtwangler, a professor of English at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, theorizes that Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet" -- plays in which John Wilkes Booth often starred -- influenced his thoughts and actions on the fateful night.

The manuscript shows that Booth in part patterned his speech after Marc Antony's funeral oration in "Julius Caesar." When Booth leaped on the stage after firing his derringer, he reportedly faced the audience for a moment and said, in a clear allusion to Brutus, Caesar's assassin, "Sic semper tyrannis!" -- thus be it ever to tyrants.

The speech clearly lends new credence to the idea that the theatricalism of Shakespeare's characters, and their acts of tyrannicide on stage, infected John Wilkes Booth's mind and led to his final performance.

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