Defense attorney Joseph H. Bradley, whom we met in the last installment, had this to say to the jury and spectators at John Surratt’s trial: “Who was John Wilkes Booth? … He was a man of polished exterior, pleasing address, highly respectable in every regard, received into the best circles of society; his company sought after; exceedingly bold, courteous, and considered generous to a fault; a warm and liberal-hearted friend, a man who had obtained a reputation upon the stage.”
The woman who once reported him for rape in Philadelphia, and the irate, jealous husband who once severely throttled him in Syracuse, New York, might disagree.
Francis Wilson, one of Booth’s biographers (John Wilkes Booth: Fact and Fiction of Lincoln’s Assassination), posed the following question: “How was it possible for Booth to obtain such power over a fellow human being as to command him to perform an act of murder and to know that that command would be enthusiastically obeyed?” A little over a century after the assassination of Lincoln, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi would ponder the very same question about a guy by the name of Charlie Manson: “I tend to think that there is something more, some missing link that enabled him to so rape and bastardize the minds of his followers that they would go against the most ingrained of all commandments, Thou shalt not kill, and willingly, even eagerly, murder at his command.”
A friend of Booth’s from childhood, John Deery, said that the John Wilkes Booth that he knew “cast a spell over most men with whom he came in contact, and I believe all women without exception.”
Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth
So who was this charismatic enigma known as John Wilkes Booth – the man known to history as possibly the most famous assassin who ever lived? Just about everyone knows that he was an actor, one of the finest and arguably the most popular of his generation. But he was much more than just that, a fact obscured by the century-and-a-half focus on John Wilkes Booth the actor. In reality, John Wilkes Booth, and the Booth family in general, were very deeply tied to the power structures in Washington and London, and had been for a very, very long time. And they still are today.
Booth’s most famous ancestor was undoubtedly his namesake, John Wilkes, who lived from October 17, 1725 until December 26, 1797. Throughout his life, Wilkes served as a Member of Parliament, a judge, a journalist and essayist, and the Lord Mayor of London. A revered statesman, Wilkes was also a member of the Hellfire Club and a noted libertine (other notable libertines throughout history include the Marquis de Sade, Aleister Crowley, and Anton LaVey). That would be the same Hellfire Club that included as a member a ‘Founding Father” by the name of Benjamin Franklin. And that would be the same Benjamin Franklin whose London home from that era yielded the remains of at least ten bodies, six of them children.
Lord Mayor of London John Wilkes
It was the Hellfire Club, by the way, that first coined the phrase “Do what thou wilt,” which was later appropriated by Aleister Crowley. And it was the Hellfire Club that was widely rumored during its heyday to be conducting black masses and other occult/Satanic rituals, along with drunken orgies and various other acts of debauchery.
John Wilkes was also notable for being considered during his lifetime the ugliest man in all of England. He never though suffered from a shortage of beautiful female companions. Aside from a nine-year marriage, Wilkes remained single for his 72 years on this planet and was considered quite the ladies man, fathering an unknown number of children. Like his descendent and namesake, Wilkes apparently had a knack for “cast[ing] a spell” over women.
Two other of John Wilkes Booth’s famous ancestors were Henry Booth, the 1st Earl of Warrington, who lived from 1652 to 1694, and his son George Booth, who lived from 1675 to 1758 and succeeded his father as the 2nd (and last) Earl of Warrington. At various times during his life, Henry Booth served as a Member of Parliament, a member of the Privy Council of England, a noted writer, and a mayor.
John Wilkes Booth was also descended from Barton Booth, who lived from 1681 to 1733 and who was described by one biographer as the “most popular actor with the English royalty known to history.” Many generations later, namesake Sydney Barton Booth, a son of Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., would become an actor and writer of some renown before passing away in 1937.
Henry and George Booth, the 1st and 2nd Earls of Warrington
The alleged assassin’s grandfather was Richard Booth, an eccentric English barrister with a fondness for alcohol – a fondness that would be shared by his son, Junius Brutus Booth, and his grandson, John Wilkes Booth. Junius was born in London in 1796 and was performing on stage by the age of seventeen. At nineteen, he married Marie Christine Adelaide Delannoy. Less than five months later, she bore him his first child, who died in infancy, as would a number of Junius Brutus Booth’s offspring.
In June 1821, at the age of twenty-five, Junius set sail for America with his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, leaving behind his wife and only surviving child, Richard Junius Booth. Junius and Mary Ann would pose as man and wife for the next thirty years, producing no fewer than ten illegitimate offspring, four of whom didn’t make it through childhood. The pair weren’t actually married until 1851, the year Junius finally divorced his actual wife, and were married just one year before Junius passed away in November 1852.
During his lifetime, Junius was considered to be one of the finest actors of his generation. He was also regarded as a playwright, scholar, philosopher and linguist. Named for one of the most notorious assassins of all time, Junius once set a fine example for son John by sending a letter to then-President Andrew Jackson threatening to slit his throat and/or have him burned at the stake. And he thoughtfully signed that letter and included a return address. It was, nevertheless, dismissed as either a hoax or a joke.
Junius and Mary Ann purchased a 150-acre estate in Maryland that would ultimately feature a large pool, stables, and a Gothic home known as Tudor Hall, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Junius began construction on the home shortly before his death and so never lived there, though his offspring, including John Wilkes Booth, did. Ned Spangler, it will be recalled, was involved in the construction of the home.
John Wilkes Booth, the ninth of Junius and Mary Ann’s ten offspring, was born on May 10, 1838. A well educated young man, he was regarded as an excellent horseman and marksman as well as a talented athlete. Like his father, he made his acting debut at seventeen, in an 1855 production of Richard III. By 1861, he was one of the most popular actors in America and there was considerable demand for his services.
Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln’s second inaugural address
On December 2, 1859, John Wilkes Booth was among the soldiers standing guard on the scaffold when probable agent provocateur John Brown was hanged. Booth was not a soldier though – he purportedly either borrowed or stole a militia uniform and posed as a soldier to secure the position. On March 4, 1865, Booth found himself prominently placed among the onlookers at Lincoln’s second inaugural address. He was there as a guest of US Senator John P. Hale.
Unknown at the time was that Booth was secretly engaged to Hale’s daughter, Lucy Hale. Senator Hale had worked closely with fellow Senator William Seward before Seward’s appointment as Secretary of State. Notably, Hale was a northern senator, representing New Hampshire, and he was known for his staunchly abolitionist views. It makes perfect sense then that his daughter would be engaged to an alleged Confederate operative.
Senator John P. Hale
During John Wilkes Booth’s lifetime, there was another member of the Booth/Wilkes clan who achieved a considerable amount of public notoriety. Charles Wilkes was a US naval officer who ultimately attained the rank of rear admiral, as well as a celebrated explorer who led the United States Exploring Expedition from 1838 to 1842. He was also a great-nephew of John Wilkes, making him a blood relative of John Wilkes Booth and his numerous siblings.
Charles Wilkes was raised by his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was a woman of considerable social prominence who later became the first American-born woman to be canonized by the Catholic Church. In the 1820s, Wilkes counted among his associates a genocidal Grand Master Mason by the name of Andrew Jackson – the same Andrew Jackson who was also, by some reports, a friend of Junius Brutus Booth, the guy who ‘jokingly’ threatened to assassinate him.
Many years later, another member of the Booth clan, Theresa Cara Booth, was born on September 23, 1954. Theresa is a direct descendent of Algernon Booth, Junius Brutus Booth’s brother and John Wilkes Booth’s uncle. She became an attorney in 1976 and a member of the Queen’s Counsel in 1995. Two years later, Theresa Booth – better known as Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair – became the First Lady of Downing Street. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose.
In the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, actors were viewed with considerable suspicion across the country. The entire cast of Our American Cousin was arrested and numerous other productions closed for a time due to the lynch-mob mentality that was sweeping the nation. No one was above suspicion and, as previously noted, more than 2,000 people were arrested as possible co-conspirators. Those with only the loosest connections to the accused coup plotters were scooped up and held for varying lengths of time.
Two of John Wilkes Booth’s brothers, Edwin and Junius Brutus, Jr., were fellow actors. Clearly then they had two big strikes against them, which should have put them at the very top of the government’s round-up list. And yet not a single member of the Booth clan was arrested in the frenzy of arrests and accusations. Not one. It always helps to have friends in high places.
The Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times apparently now operates in part as a forum for unpaid advertisements for intelligence agency-approved works of fiction. I say that because just a few days ago that page featured what was essentially a half-page ad for Jeff Bauman’s hopelessly fraudulent account of the Boston Marathon bombings. And yesterday that same page featured a barely disguised advertisement for a book written by a professional liar by the name of Mel Ayton.
Ayton has apparently penned a whole series of disinformational books on various presidential assassinations and attempted assassinations. His latest, Hunting the President: Threats, Plots and Assassination Attempts – From FDR to Obama, carries on in that fine tradition. The following paragraph is from his wildly inaccurate Op-Ed piece:
“Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated. But the motivations that drove his assassin were unfortunately not unique. Understanding the nature of those who want to kill a president goes considerably further toward explaining assassinations than looking to fanciful conspiracy theories.”
Cherie Blair, aka Theresa Cara Booth
Let’s now take a peek at what “fanciful” theory it is that Ayton is pitching: “Booth’s desire for fame and recognition is a common theme among assassins. In researching a book on presidential killers and would-be killers, I found that they tended to share certain personality traits. While some had been treated for mental illness, an even more predominant characteristic is that many of them were disillusioned with and resentful of American society after a lifetime of failure. And most of them also had a burning desire for notoriety. Killing an American president, most would-be assassins believed, would win them a place in history, making a ‘somebody’ out of a ‘nobody.’”
Every single word of the preceding paragraph can only be described as complete and utter bullshit. Booth already had fame and recognition beyond his wildest dreams. He was far from being a “nobody.” To the contrary, he was making upwards of $20,000 a year, a staggering amount in those days, and had the love, respect and admiration of men and women all across the country. He was wealthy, good looking, supremely talented, and had lived a very charmed life. And given that he was only twenty-six at the time of the assassination, it is hardly accurate to say that he had faced a “lifetime” of failure. In truth, he had never known failure at all in his short life.
Compulsive liar Ayton’s body of work is, unfortunately, typical of what has been written about Lincoln and his alleged assassin over the last 149 years. Listed below, in order of the date of release, are some of the more honest books that have been published (some decidedly better than others).
Bates, Finis L. The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, J.L Nichols & Company, 1907
Wilson, Francis John Wilkes Booth: Fact and Fiction of Lincoln’s Assassination, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929
Eisenschiml, Otto Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, Little, Brown and Company, 1937
Eisenschiml, Otto In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death, Wilfred Funk, Inc., 1940
Roscoe, Theodore The Web of Conspiracy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959
Shelton, Vaughan Mask for Treason: The Lincoln Murder Trial, Stackpole Books, 1965
Balsiger, David and Charles Sellier, Jr. The Lincoln Conspiracy, Schick Sunn Classic Books, 1977
Jameson, W.C. Return of Assassin: John Wilkes Booth, Republic of Texas Press, 1999