John Wilkes Booth: Born Under an Unlucky Star

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Since the fall of 1864 John Wilkes Booth along with others had been plotting against Lincoln.  A supporter of the Confederacy, Booth was also a popular actor, a son of the great actor Junius Brutus Booth who had written  a letter, perhaps tongue in cheek, to Andrew Jackson, threatening to assassinate him.  His brother Edwin Booth, perhaps the foremost American actor of his day and who had saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, was a firm supporter of Lincoln and the Union, and had banned his brother from his house in New York.  Booth had an unexplained trip to Montreal in 1864.  It is tempting to suspect that he got in contact with Confederate intelligence operatives active in Canada, but no evidence has been found linking Booth to Confederate intelligence then or later.

Initially Booth and his co-conspirators had planned to kidnap Lincoln and smuggle him South and trade him for Confederate prisoners of war.  They gathered on March 17, 1865 to do so when Lincoln was en route to a play but Lincoln unknowingly foiled the plot by changing his plans.  Booth and his band awaited another opportunity.

In 1874 Asia Booth in a memoir of her brother, that remained unpublished until 1938, recounts a strange event that occurred to Booth while he was a schoolboy and that summed up his life:

One day a gypsy living in the woods near Cockeysville read John’s palm. She said, “Ah, you’ve a bad hand; the lines all cris-cras! It’s full enough of sorrow. Full of trouble. Trouble in plenty, everywhere I look. You’ll break hearts, they’ll be nothing to you. You’ll die young, and leave many to mourn you, many to love you too, but you’ll be rich, generous, and free with your money. You’re born under an unlucky star. You’ve got in your hand a thundering crowd of enemies – not one friend – you’ll make a bad end, and have plenty to love you afterwards. You’ll have a fast life – short, but a grand one. Now, young sir, I’ve never seen a worse hand, and I wish I hadn’t seen it, but every word I’ve told is true by the signs. You’d best turn a missionary or a priest and try to escape it.”

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4 Comments

  1. His act was a final, tragic punctuation mark on the grand operatic tragedy of the War Between the States. How bizzarely fitting that it took place… in a theater. The senselessness of killing Lincoln when the war was over, when the act could not advance any war aim, and was thus simply a senseless, utterly indefensible act of vengeance…
    And of course, killing not just Lincoln but whatever hope the South had for a merciful and just reconstruction, thus perpetuating for generations the very sectional strife and resentment that Lincoln likely would have, if not prevented, perhaps ameliorated.

  2. When Confederate Joe Johnston was told of the assassination by Sherman he told Sherman how sorry he was and that people in the South had just begun to understand that Lincoln was the best friend they had in Washington.

  3. I have no doubt things would have been much better in many ways after the Civil War if Lincoln had lived. He understood that people had to live together.

  4. Jefferson Davis, who I hold-up as a true southern gentleman, though I think him wrong in most of his political and social ideas, wrote of Lincoln’s murder, “Next to the unconditional surrender, the death of Lincoln is the worst misfortune that could befall the South”.

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