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Klein is the author of four books and is a frequent contributor to the History Channel. 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth was killed just 12 days after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Here's Christopher Klein with the story of how the city of Boston embraced the Booth brothers.
Let's take a listen. On April 15, 1865, a shroud of grief descended upon Boston as the city awoke to learn of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Flags that had been waving proudly since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox just days before now droop sorrowfully at half-mast. The bells of Boston's churches tolled for an hour at the news of the president's murder and the assassin's older brother heard every anguished peal as he stared at his cold breakfast. For as John Wilkes Booth was taking center stage in an American drama at Ford's Theatre the night before, Edwin Booth stepped before the footlights of the packed Boston Theatre to star in The Iron Chest. Little did the country's most famous thespian know, however, that the lines he had exclaimed as a villain draped in black velvet, where is my honor now?
Mountains of shame are piled upon me. Just three columns to the left of the breathless page one report on the assassination in that morning's Boston Daily Advertiser blared an advertisement trumpeting Edwin Booth's scheduled matinee performance as Hamlet to conclude his successful three-week Boston engagement. The show, of course, would not go on. A fearful calamity is upon us, Boston Theatre manager Henry Jarrett wrote to his star informing him of the performance's case.
The show was a performing him of the performance's cancellation. The president of the United States has fallen by the hand of an assassin and I am shocked to say suspicion points to one nearly related to you as the perpetrator of this horrid deed. Suspicions of complicity also enveloped the Booth family. In Cincinnati, hands that had the night before applauded the performance of Junius Brutus Booth Jr. as Shylock and the Merchant of Venice now tore down Playbills branded with his name. A vengeful mob stormed his hotel only to be turned away by a quick-thinking clerk who falsely claimed that the eldest Booth brother had already skipped town. Not until two days later could friends safely smuggle Junius out of the hotel and onto a train bound for Philadelphia where his sister Asia Booth Clark had been placed under virtual house arrest. With John Wilkes still on the run and news spreading that the assassin himself had visited Boston just days earlier, Edwin increasingly feared for his safety. If the Booths found themselves under siege elsewhere, what would happen to him in the abolitionist hotbed of Boston?
Well, the answer turned out to be quite unexpected. John Wilkes Booth had been a familiar and even popular figure in Boston's theater scene. Although lacking Edwin's talent, he regularly appeared on the city stages during the Civil War and even purchased an undeveloped plot on Commonwealth Avenue in the newly created Back Bay neighborhood. The last starring engagement of his life, a five-week run, came at the Boston Museum on Tremont Street in the spring of 1864. In the wake of the assassination, there were reports that Booths had been spotted in the city just days before Lincoln's murder.
An eyewitness told the Boston Evening Transcript the day after the shooting that he spotted the assassin at the Floyd and Edwards shooting gallery where he practiced pistol firing in various difficult ways such as between his legs, over his shoulder, and under his arm. Whether John Wilkes met with Edwin on the trip is unknown, but by this point the Booths, like the country itself, were a house divided. Not only did John Wilkes sympathize with the rebels, but he had met with Confederate Secret Service agents at Boston's Parker House Hotel on July 26, 1864 to discuss a plot to kidnap Lincoln. Edwin's roots in Boston ran even deeper than his brothers. At age 15, he made his professional stage debut at the Boston Museum and his lead performance in A New Way to Pay Old Debts eight years later at the Boston Theatre cemented his stardom.
On the same stage in 1858, he fell in love with his Romeo and Juliet co-star and future wife Mary Devlin, and he mourned over her dead body five years later in a rented home in Boston. Edwin befriended leading statesmen, religious leaders, journalists, and abolitionists such as Julia Ward Howe. Those powerful friends rallied to his side on April 15, 1865. There is not a more devoted friend to the Union than Edwin Booth, the Boston Post assured its readers. Even Massachusetts Governor John Andrew vouched for the actor's patriotism.
After Deputy U.S. Marshals found nothing incriminating in the search of Edwin's trunks, they granted him permission to leave Boston. On April 17, the actor returned to his New York City home where he holed up under a barrage of hate mail and death threats. Compared to other family members though, Edwin got off easy. The youngest Booth brother, Joseph, was briefly jailed. Junius and Asia's husband John were arrested in Philadelphia and spent weeks incarcerated with other suspected conspirators in Washington's old capitol prison. On his forced journey to the nation's capitol on April 25, Junius said little except that he wished John had been killed before the assassination for the sake of the family's name.
The manhunt for his brother ended the next day when a Union soldier named Boston Corbett shot him dead. Edwin admitted the news was a blessed relief. All the Booths were eventually released from jail, but the family name had become so toxic that Asia and her husband eventually fled to Europe in 1868. Edwin and Junius, however, eventually found an unlikely refuge much closer to home. Shortly after Edwin ended his exile from acting in January 1866, he purchased a lease of the Boston Theater.
Nine months later, the actor finally set foot on the floorboards he last proud on the night of the assassination. Before Edwin could perform the title role in Othello, men shouted, applauded, and stamped their feet for nearly two full minutes while ladies waved their handkerchiefs. The sold-out audience's thunderous reaction confirmed the Boston Evening Transcript's report, Edwin still enjoys a popularity greater than any other actor. Even though Boston had grieved so deeply for Lincoln, it did not hold the sins of John Wilkes against his brother. Edwin convinced his older brother to come to Boston to be his stage manager, and Junius, caught between one brother's fame and another's infamy, found a comfortable niche in the city's theatrical community. Junius fell in love with Boston as well as with one of its leading ladies, Agnes Perry. Two years after their 1867 marriage, the pair joined the growing summer colony of thespians and writers in the suburb of Manchester-by-the-Sea and built a seaside cottage above the broad crescent of Singing Beach. In 1878, Junius and Agnes built quite the addition to their cottage, the sprawling 106-room Masconomo House, which became a premier summer resort.
With its bathhouses, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard tables, and 300-person dining room overlooking a 12-acre emerald lawn that kissed the sapphire sea, the Masconomo House became a playpen for Boston's rich and famous. When Junius died in 1883, his Boston-area ties were cemented for eternity with his burial not in the Booth family plot in Baltimore, but in Manchester-by-the-Sea's Rosedale Cemetery. In the same year, Edwin settled among the Brahmins on Beacon Hill after the death of his second wife.
The wrought iron balconies and purple panes of glass and the drawing room windows of the elegant brick home he purchased on Chestnut Street firmly established him as a proper Bostonian. Four years later, he sold the home and returned to New York City, where he died on June 7, 1893. But Edwin, like Junius, chose not to rest in peace in Baltimore, but in Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston next to his first wife and infant son. In one of history's eeriest coincidences, just as the organist struck the opening cords of Chopin's haunting funeral march at Edwin's funeral service, three floors of Ford's Theatre, which appeared by the federal government in 1866 and converted into War Department offices, collapsed into the basement.
Twenty-two federal employees died. Rescue workers continued to pull mangled bodies from the rubble of Ford's Theatre as gravediggers, bathed in the golden glow of a glorious sunset, shoveled dirt on top of Edwin's antique oak coffin. Even in death, Edwin was forced to share the stage with memories of his infamous brother.
And a terrific job on the editing and production by Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to Christopher Klein. And what a tribute to the people of Boston in the time, embracing Edwin Booth and not holding the sins of his brother against him. This was an abolition city through and through. But again, they didn't hold the sins of John against the brother Edwin or the other brothers.
The story of the Booth brothers and how Boston embraced them here on Our American Stories. Hey, there's a better way to fly. Instead of being stuck in endless lines and packed onto planes, try simplifying your travel with Surf Air. Save an average of two hours on every trip and avoid crowded airports with a new way to fly private. With Surf Air, you'll fly from smaller airports closer to your home. There are no lines, no waiting, and no stress. SurfAir.com, the best alternative to commercial air travel that makes flying easy. Get a free quote on your next flight at SurfAir.com.
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