Old paper trail leads to an assassin

Document offers a glimpse of the life of John Wilkes Booth

February 18, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Alice Williams sat in the Historical Society of Harford County, leafing through old court records. As she read the legal documents, she discovered an arrest warrant with John Wilkes Booth's name on it.

"Is this our John Booth?" asked Williams, 85, of Havre de Grace.

Dinah Faber, a Booth historian, looked at the document and then left the room. She returned with a document that chronicled the incident.

"This warrant confirms the story that Booth hit a man with a stick," said Faber. "Until now, all we had was a letter written by Booth and a story in his sister's book to document the incident. This is the most important document we've found."

Dated July 31, 1854, the warrant was issued in the case of the State v. John Booth that was filed against the assassin for assault and battery.

It reads:

Whereas complaint has been made before me the subscriber one of the justices of the peace in & for said state and county upon the information & oath of G.B. Hagan who charges John Booth with assaulting him by striking him with a club on the evening of the 30th day of July 1854, you are therefore hereby commanded immediately to apprehend the said John Booth and bring him before me the subscriber or some other justice of the peace of the said state & county to be dealt with according to laws. hereof fail not and have you there this warrant.

The document was found during the weekly meeting of the historical society's court records committee. Comprising about 10 volunteers, the group is charged with the task of cataloging court records that date to the early 18th century.

"We're organizing the documents for people to use when they research their ancestors or county history," said volunteer Marijane Weeks.

The records were slated to be discarded, but were saved by local historians. In addition to the Booth document, the records include other items that tell the story of early Harford County.

The records include two petitions for freedom filed Sept. 16, 1817, by slaves named Harry and Michael. The men claimed lack of clothing and improper treatment as reasons for asking for freedom.

The petitions are a piece of early history, said Claire Blackmer, the committee's chairwoman.

"These may be the only records remaining that document the lives of these slaves," said Blackmer, 80, of Churchville. "It's fascinating to go back through history. It engages the intellect."

Weeks agreed.

"Some of the documents tell us what life was like 200 years ago," said Weeks, 75, of Aberdeen. "The things we find are so interesting. One time I found a breach of promise. A man was suing his wife for a tryst she had in the early 1800s."

The Booth document pertains to a larger piece of history. It gives specific details on an event between the man who later assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, and a man farming the Booth land in Bel Air.

Booth's mother confronted the man about his overworking the farmhands and the animals. That's when the man reportedly insulted his mother and sisters, according to a story in The Unlocked Book by Asia Booth Clarke.

In the book, Clarke wrote that her brother cut a stick off a tree and went to see the man, demanding an apology.

"Will you go to my house this moment with me and apologize to my mother and sisters for the abusive names you called them?" John Wilkes Booth asked.

When the man refused, Booth said, "Then I'll whip you like the scoundrel that you are."

And he hit the man on the head and the shoulder.

Later, Booth wrote a letter that is included in the book Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth.

Dated Aug. 8, 1854, the letter to T. William O'Laughlen said:

In these last few weeks, I have had more excitement than I have had for a good while. First and Foremost. I whent to a Champaign drinking, and you had better believe that the road [home] seemed longer that night than it ever did before. 2nd. we has a client on the place whom we could not agree with. we had several sprees with him in one he called my sister a Liar. I knocked him down, which made him bleed like a [butcher] we got the Sherrf to put him off the place. he then Warranted me. And in a coupple of weeks. I have to stand trial. For assault. and battery. as you call it.

The warrant offers insight into a time in Booth's life that historians don't know a lot about, said Terry Alford, a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College.

"We have known about the incident because Asia wrote about it in a memoir of her brother's life," said Alford, who has spent the past 15 years working on a biography of John Wilkes Booth. "But this document not only confirms the incident but also identifies the man Booth attacked."

Using the new information, Alford will be spending a semester researching the incident with one of his students.

"We want to identify Hagan and try to find out how the stick incident was resolved," said Alford. He also plans to research Booth's possible violent tendencies.

"I want to know if Booth was a violent person," said Alford. "The incident with Hagan occurred because Hagan insulted Booth's mother. The stupidest thing you could do was insult Booth's mother. His dying thoughts and words were: "Tell my mother I died for my country."

But the question remains: Was Booth being a gentleman defending his mother, or did he have violent tendencies before the assassination of Lincoln?

"Most assassins are born losers, but Booth was very popular and successful," said Alford. "Accounts of John Booth depict him as a loving, gentle man who was fond of children. So how did he go from being kind to killing a President?"

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