The mad Booths of Maryland

Monday Review

October 05, 1992|By Neil A. Grauer

AMERICAN GOTHIC: THE STORY OF AMERICA'S LEGENDARY THEATRICAL FAMILY - JUNIUS, EDWIN AND JOHN WILKES BOOTH. By Gene Smith. Simon & Schuster. 286 pp. $23.

More than half a century ago Stanley Kimmel published a book entitled "The Mad Booths of Maryland," and nothing in Gene Smith's new account of that gifted but tragic theatrical family suggests the title of Kimmel's volume was in any way exaggerated.

That a tinge of mental illness afflicted more than one of the Booths, who had homes on Exeter Street in Baltimore and near Bel Air, was readily acknowledged by the family itself. A "crack that way . . . runs more or less through the male portion of our family myself included," Junius Brutus Booth Jr. wrote to his brother Edwin in 1862, three years before their younger brother John Wilkes Booth indelibly stained the clan's name by assassinating President Abraham Lincoln.

Curiously, until he fired a derringer bullet into Lincoln's brain, John Wilkes Booth seemed among the least dysfunctional of the six American offspring of Junius Brutus Booth Sr., the British-born "Mad Tragedian" whose loony off-stage behavior earned him that moniker in the newspapers.

If Junius Brutus Booth was wacky, his son Edwin, a greater tragedian, was positively weird, and several of Edwin's siblings were melancholic and peculiar.

In detailing the family's mental instabilities, Mr. Smith raises one of those historical questions for which there can be no answer: Was John Wilkes Booth - described by colleagues as gentle, charming and friendly - mentally deranged when he shot Lincoln, or was he merely a fanatical supporter of the Confederate cause?

John Wilkes' family could never explain nor understand why their "Johnny" killed Lincoln - for whom Edwin, ironically, had cast the only vote of his life. History has been equally unable to unravel the riddle.

"American Gothic" is an often artful, occasionally awkward retelling of events that have been exhaustively documented before. In describing Edwin Booth's performances, however, Mr. Smith, a veteran author of popular biographies, probably succeeds as well as anyone in capturing the evanescent art of an actor whose efforts were never recorded by motion pictures and whose voice survives only on a scratchy, century-old wax cylinder that sounds a bit like Boris Karloff without the lisp.

It is impossible to tell if modern audiences would be mesmerized by this "Prince of Players," as contemporaries called Edwin, or would laugh him off the stage. Mr. Smith writes that Edwin was "the least extravagant actor imaginable," suggesting he might appeal to today's play-goers, while John was "fiery," like his father.

Indeed, John Wilkes was praised by The Baltimore Sun in 1862 as a "coming man, an actor with the suddenness of a meteor [that] now illuminates the dramatic horizon." Lincoln himself saw John Wilkes Booth perform Richard III on April 11, 1863, precisely two years and three days before the actor shot him.

Lincoln even expressed an interest in meeting the performer who would become his murderer. It is one of the many ironies with which the Lincoln assassination story abounds, and that Mr. Smith details with melodramatic flourish.

Edwin eventually managed to overcome the disgrace his brother's crime brought upon the family and was acclaimed upon his death in 1893 as "the finest actor and greatest gentleman the American theater has ever known."

The shock felt by the nation when Lincoln was slain is readily comprehensible to a generation today for whom the assassination of John F. Kennedy remains an emotional touchstone, as do all the bizarre events and rumors that followed in its wake.

Although John Wilkes Booth was killed while fleeing and his corpse was positively identified by family members who saw it laid out in a mortuary at Fayette and Gay Streets four years later, when the federal government finally returned it to them, the story that he somehow survived and escaped persisted for decades, fueled by purported sightings as frequent as those of Elvis today.

The truth is that Lincoln's murderer lies in the Booth family plot in Greenmount Cemetery. Alone among those buried in the family plot, John Wilkes Booth's grave is unmarked, as per Edwin's instructions.

Smith writes that the other Booths dealt with Lincoln's assassination "as they could . . . Edwin never." He kept a photograph of "Johnny" beside his bed, yet could not bear to utter his name for nearly 30 years.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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