The “first full-length biography” of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin offers much nuance and complexity to the killer, bordering on the downright sympathetic.
Reams have been written about John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), who was shot in the ensuing manhunt on April 26, 1865, at the age of 26, yet much of the anecdotal claims have been tempered by hysteria over the assassination and don’t hold up to the light. Alford (History/Northern Virginia Community Coll.; Prince Among Slaves, 1976) sifts through the more balanced, credible sources of those who knew Booth before the assassination to flesh out a surprisingly engaging portrait of the brilliant young actor and deeply riven sympathizer to the Southern cause. The product of a British-born actor father (and bigamist) who settled his family in Virginia and grew alcoholic and erratic, young Booth was, by all accounts, a winning personality and a favorite of his mother and his numerous siblings. Agreeing early on not to bring her grief by enlisting in the Army when the war broke out, Booth worked at various stages in Northern cities during the conflict at the behest of his older, more seasoned actor brother, Edwin. He essentially stifled his true anti-abolitionist feelings, which had been radicalized with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. (A clue to Booth’s increasingly obsessive behavior was the fact that he attended Brown’s hanging.) Alford portrays a young man who was delighted by the applause, riches and fame he gained in his brief, meteoric rise as a dramatic actor yet alarmed by the national disintegration and tormented by his uselessness: Did his obsessive plotting about Lincoln grow out of his sense of duty to his beleaguered South, or was it a fantastic “self-conscious performance with himself as star”?
Alford paints some intriguing shades of gray in this elucidating portrait.