‘My Thoughts Be Bloody’: Some Serious Sibling Rivalry

On the last day of 1892, the celebrated actor Edwin Booth was being honored at the exclusive Players club in New York. Over his long career, the club founder had received every possible laurel as the biggest star of the American stage.

But he remained haunted by a senseless violent act 27 years earlier — the night of April 14, 1865, when his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Edwin wrestled with his thoughts and stayed up through the night in his room at the Players. “Nothing of fame or fortune can compensate for spiritual suffering,” he wrote his daughter on the 25th anniversary of the assassination.

The club tribute — with no less than President-elect Grover Cleveland praising him — offered some solace. Booth had waited nearly three decades, since the fateful shooting, for such a gesture. “We rejoice that the opportunity is here and now afforded us to express our love and admiration for our founder, whose name is a sacred word within these walls, and of whose fame, we, as his brothers, are doubly proud,” Cleveland said.

While historians have largely focused on Lincoln’s killing as the demented act of a man enraged by the Union’s victory and hatred for the president, author Nora Titone, in My Thoughts Be Bloody, looked for other motivations. She found them in the dark sibling rivalry that molded John Wilkes’ personality and ultimately helped lead to the assassination. In private letters, diaries, and reminiscences of the Booths, she uncovered a hidden psychological drama that will change the way historians look at Lincoln’s killer.

Titone’s detailed research gives an intimate look at the dysfunctional family and two very different brothers who ruthlessly competed for the mantle of their famous father, Junius Brutus Booth, the erratic, tormented Shakespearean actor known for his brilliant portrayals of Hamlet, King Lear and Richard III. Who would succeed such a talent? The sensitive, gifted and intelligent Edwin, or the younger, handsomer, more combative John Wilkes?

Four years older than John, Edwin spent years on the road with his father, learning the art of acting from the master while trying to keep him away from alcohol and other troubles. A less-gifted and often-frustrated John Wilkes was left to pick up the craft on his own.

Eventually, Edwin, the more established and better-known actor, divided up the territory where each of the brothers would perform. He took the more populous and profitable North while John Wilkes had the South and began sympathizing with the Confederate cause. Those Southern sympathies sparked tensions in the pro-Union family.

His sister Asia, who lived in Philadelphia, called John Wilkes Absalom, after the Biblical King David’s favorite son. Absalom was the boy warrior who brought trouble upon the family and disaster to his father’s kingdom when he conspired to destroy his older brother.

In November 1864, though, Edwin, John Wilkes, and their brother Junius came together to play Julius Caesar, with Edwin as Brutus, John as Mark Antony, and Junius as Cassius. At one point during their performance, firefighters rushed in to check for fire after a blaze was set by Confederate agents at the hotel next door.

John Wilkes defended the arsonists, saying the work was a legitimate “act of war”. Edwin lost control, called John Wilkes “a rank secessionist”, and ordered him to cease his treasonable language or leave his New York home. John Wilkes wouldn’t back down and was ordered out.

Rejected by Edwin and finding his stardom thwarted by his brother’s rising popularity, John Wilkes sought notoriety in other ways. He met with members of the Confederate Secret Service and joined a conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln.

In January 1865, the 26-year-old John Wilkes was in Washington when his brother Junius sent him a letter demanding to know what he was doing and why he refused to write. “My bus(iness) at present calls me here,” John Wilkes wrote. “I thought I would here make my stand.”

The kidnapping attempt never materialized. But John Wilkes made his stand this time in a new plot to assassinate Lincoln. It would be executed in the most theatrical manner during the performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre.

He shot Lincoln as the president sat in his box, then leaped to the stage, where he uttered something incomprehensible. Some audience members thought he was part of the play. They recognized the fiendish look and crouching walk, well-known tricks of the theatrical villain. John Wilkes had finally upstaged his brother.

Upon hearing the news, Edwin said, “(My) mind accepted the fact at once. (I) thought to (myself) that (my) brother was capable of just such a wild and foolish action. It was just as if I was struck on the forehead by a hammer.”

After Edwin’s death in 1893, popular interest in John Wilkes began to flourish. The assassin’s admirers spoke of his great acting abilities, the genius inherited from his father.

John Wilkes’ infamy received top billing in the national memory while Edwin’s fame seemed to fade by comparison. “Nature cast me for the part she found me best fitted for, and I have to play it, and must play it, till the curtain falls,” Edwin said on 14 April 1890, the 25th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

Titone’s riveting book — written with the authority of a historian and the twists and turns of a novelist — leads us to see Lincoln’s killing, for the first time, through the crucible of bitter sibling rivalry. A great read, it re-creates the 19th-century world of the Booth family while providing a rich, revealing look at the influences that ultimately led to John Wilkes Booth’s final performance — as the nation’s most notorious assassin.

Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Edward Colimore is the author of Eyewitness Reports: The Inquirer’s Live Coverage of the American Civil War and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Walking Tours of Historic Philadelphia

RATING 8 / 10