Tuesday, June 5, 2012

John Wilkes Booth's One Mad Act

Local columnist
Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 8:46 a.m.

"This One Mad Act." Izola Forrester. Copyright 1937. Colonial Press

John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was not killed, his body dismembered at Garret Farm, but lived on many years in disguise and isolation outside of Napa Valley, Calif., and in Paris, according to his granddaughter's book, "This One Mad Act."

A small basement bookstore in the French Quarter of New Orleans, used bookstores and discarded stacks have been my haunts for rare, old books for as long as I can remember. Therefore, when my cousin walked in this week with a well-preserved hardback cover of "the true and confirmed" facts about John Wilkes Booth as told by his granddaughter, I felt like it was Christmas all over again. A patient of my cousin has left "his pick" of his library to him, and this was one of the treasures.

Now what makes it even more interesting is that this account of the assassination of Lincoln comes on the heels of Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln." Seventy-five years later, we are again hearing the account from a family member who saw her grandmother, mother, uncles and aunts hide in anonymity fearing for their lives because of the connection with Booth.

This is a fascinating story about a man who could have been one of the greatest actors of the time. But instead, he became an infamous assassin, and not because he harbored hate for Lincoln, nor did he plan to kill him. It was to be only a kidnapping.

This one act of madness was the real tragedy of the Civil War.

Was there a single emotion that inflamed Booth? Or had the hatred brought on by the war set his theatrical personality on fire to get Lincoln with his many members of the Knights of the Golden Circle?

The killing of Lincoln at the Ford Theatre was April 14, 1865. Fifteen minutes after the murder, the wires were severed entirely around the city, beginning the greatest manhunt in history. It was stated in the newspapers that more than 12,000 men searched through southern Maryland alone. The New York Times gave spur to the hunt by offering a reward of $20,000 for the capture of Booth. The government followed with a reward of $100,000 for the assassins of President Lincoln.

Every moment of Booth's time during the preceding hours when he went alone to the theater have been chronicled many times and especially by the author of this book.

There are the words of E.A. Emerson, a fellow actor: "I knew John Wilkes Booth well, having played with him in dozens of cities throughout the East and Middle West. He was kind-hearted and no cleverer gentleman ever lived. Everybody loved him on the stage ※ although he was excitable and eccentric."

Readers, remember, the war was over. The members of the Knights of the Golden Circle who were to aid Booth in the kidnapping had vanished, deciding there was no use in getting Lincoln now. It was over.

Emerson continues: "The day before President Lincoln was shot, I was standing in front of Ford's Theatre, when John Wilkes Booth walked up to me, in an agitated state of mind. He grabbed the cane out of my hands, and said, 'Ned, did you hear what that old scoundrel (Lincoln) did the other day?' I asked what in the world he was talking about. 'Why the scoundrel, Lincoln, went into Jefferson Davis' home and threw his long legs over the arm of a chair, and squirted tobacco juice all over the place. Somebody ought to kill him.'"

Emerson, realizing he was over-the-top angry, replied, "'I'm going to quit you.' With that he pulled my cane down and broke it in four places. I still have the pieces."

That very night, Booth's vision of the annihilation of Lincoln came to reality. He became possessed that he would become a hero by killing Lincoln for what he symbolized to the South.

Booth's frenzied, misguided patriotism led him to this act of madness. Was the story of Lincoln going to Davis' house a gossipy rumor?

Booth, a man with a mad plan, a misguided path, who could have been one of the nation's greatest actors, chose to become hated by all men for his horrific act. Booth was a young, handsome man with twisted mind. His granddaughter spent her life following up clues, substantiating facts in the case, running down rumors.

It's a book that should go into re-print for the reader to decide. Facts remain, Southerners grew bitter in defeat, Northerners grew revengeful. The word from General Sherman to President Lincoln on Dec. 21 that read "General Sherman makes the American people a Christmas present of the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and 25,000 bales of cotton," only added to the hatred brewing by both sides.

John Wilkes Booth, a man with a brilliant future, a family of young children, a devoted wife, gave it all away for one sick, mad moment.

Velma Daniels is a Winter Haven author and book reviewer. Her "BookWorm" column appears occasionally on Sundays in the Accent section of the News Chief.


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