By staff June 1, 2006

Like most Americans, I first heard about John Wilkes Booth back in the third grade and haven't given him much thought since. He was on that list of Presidential assassins, those troubled young men who take out their frustrations and psychological problems on the ultimate authority figure and have caused the country so much grief. True, Booth was the first to succeed in killing a President (in 1835, Andrew Jackson had escaped injury from a would-be assassin with a handgun) and certainly the most handsome, but it was his awful distinction in history to be lumped with Charles J. Guiteau (he shot Garfield), Leon F. Czolgosz (he shot McKinley) and Lee Harvey Oswald (he may have shot Kennedy). Then there was that guy (Samuel Byck) who tried to fly a plane into the Nixon White House, and Squeaky Fromme with her malfunctioning gun, which turned the whole thing into macabre farce.

But John Wilkes Booth is finally getting his due. A new book about him--Manhunt by James L. Swanson--is a big best-seller, with plans for a movie. (Harrison Ford will be playing the Army officer in charge of the hunt.) And when you delve into all the material surrounding his life, you see not a lonely nut like all the others but a charismatic idealist. Booth, who was 26 years old when he shot Lincoln, is American history's most romantic villain, and something in the way his mind operated reminds you of the most modern villain of all: a terrorist willing to die for his cause.

John Wilkes Booth's story is well known, largely because of his famous family. The Booths--his father and brothers--were the foremost acting family of their day, and many historians regard the father, Edwin, as America's greatest Shakespearean actor ever. John was the youngest brother, and if he wasn't the most talented, he was certainly the handsomest. Even today, looking at photographs, one is struck by his good looks--the pale skin, the wavy dark hair cut to accentuate the high forehead, and above all, the piercing dark eyes. Most photographs of handsome young men from that era seem dated and quaint. Not those of Booth. He has a spell, sexual yet vulnerable, that spans the ages. You can immediately picture him on stage, and more importantly, picture all the young women in the audience, paying good money to stare at him for several hours. In the early 1860s he was pulling in a yearly income of $20,000, an almost unheard-of sum for those days.

His upbringing was a strange combination of the Bohemian and the upper middle class. As actors, the Booths were socially unacceptable. But their celebrity and glamour opened many doors. People were willing to make exceptions, particularly the people of Baltimore, where Booth lived after his schooling and where much of his character and political beliefs were formed. Though technically in a Northern state, Baltimore had a Southern soul; and part of that soul was the strict domination of the black race by the white. (Today when you read Booth's letters you can forgive almost anything except the ugly white supremacy.)

Booth was devoted to his mother, and when she begged him not to enter the conflict as a soldier, he agreed to her wishes. This did not prevent him from helping the Confederacy in any way he could. He continued a busy acting schedule--including a performance before President and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford's Theater in 1864--but much of his time was devoted to intelligence work and smuggling medicine for Confederate troops. In this he was much like the thousands of Southern operatives who moved from New York to Montreal to Washington, D.C. itself, meeting and plotting. His most grandiose scheme was a plan to kidnap Lincoln and thus force the release of Confederate prisoners so they could return to the South and keep on fighting.

The end of the war changed everything, and a despondent Booth was all but suicidal as he watched the elaborate celebrations in the restored nation's capital. Then, on Good Friday, five days after Richmond fell, Booth discovered that the President would be attending Ford's Theater that night to see Our American Cousin, the era's equivalent of a Neil Simon comedy. Booth had never appeared in the play, but he had seen it so many times he knew it by heart. In particular, he knew that in the third act, right around 10:15 p.m., there was a line bringing an enormous laugh, delivered by an actor who happened to be all alone on stage at that point.

Swanson's book does justice to the dramatic scene that enfolded that night. As he tells it, Booth not so much committed an assassination as he performed one. First of all, it was done before a full house, and he cast himself as the hero. The audience literally got to see him destroy (in his mind) the villain. He even gave himself a star turn--a 12-foot leap to the stage, a dagger raised aloft and a dramatic exit line: "Sic semper tyrannis!"

Unfortunately, things often go wrong in the theater, and they did for Booth that night. His spur got caught on the bunting decorating the Presidential box, and he landed off center, shattering his ankle. This piece of bad luck also sealed his fate. A quick escape to the relative safety of the deep South was impossible, and for the next 12 days he and an accomplice (he had a little group of them, young men dazzled by his presence and willing to do anything for him) were forced to hide out in the countryside of southern Maryland and northern Virginia, while thousands of soldiers were sent to look for him and the country went through an upheaval of the sort that, after the Kennedy assassination and 9/11, we know only too well.

Could Booth have made it to safety? Quite possibly. He was helped along by a host of Southern sympathizers. But he had misjudged the mood of the country. Lincoln's death was not greeted as a great deliverance but rather a terrible tragedy, and his assassination is the reason that even after 140 years he remains the most saintly President of all. Even the Southern sympathizers had their limits. His friends shuddered at the thought of being implicated in the plot. Letters from him, even about the most innocuous things, were understandably destroyed. Today fewer than 300 survive. One of his many girlfriends committed suicide.

Booth killed Lincoln, but what about the man who killed Booth? Here we have yet another incredible character in this cast of actors, politicians, boardinghouse keepers and freed slaves. He was Boston Corbett, a diminutive soldier not quite five feet, four inches tall, who renamed himself after the city where he found Christ. Back in the 1850s, tortured by the temptations of the local prostitutes, he cut off his testicles with a pair of scissors, then went out for a big dinner and a long walk. Finally the bleeding got so bad he went to Massachusetts General, where his case is still recorded in the old medical records.

And John Wilkes Booth? His last words summed it up: "Useless, useless." He died knowing he was a flop, that he'd gotten horrible press, that the audience he so courted now wanted to lynch him. Although I'm sure there is something about the actor in him that would be pleased to learn that after all these years things may be looking up--Johnny Depp may be playing him in the movie.

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