Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Aftermath: The Booth Family & Lincoln's Assassination

John Wilkes Booth
In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, police officials swarmed the immediate family of John Wilkes Booth. Although he had no children or wife of his own, Booth was from a large family of famous theater actors in Maryland. After the murder, the War Department believed the assassination was a part of a national conspiracy and they were determined to uncover everyone involved.

According to the book “Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer,” Booth's sister Asia had a manifesto written by John Wilkes Booth describing his early plan to kidnap the president. Asia claimed she never read the manifesto, which was written on a letter and enclosed in an envelope, until after the assassination. When her husband, John Sleeper Clarke, tried to protect himself from being implicated in the crime by showing the manifesto to a U.S. Marshall and allowing it to be published in the newspaper, it caught the attention of the police. Asia later described how detectives ransacked her home: “This unfortunate publication, so useless now when the scheme had failed - and it led to no fresh discoveries - brought a host of miseries, for it not only served food to newsmonger and enemies, but it directed a free band of male and female detectives to our house...My house, which was an extensive (mysteriously built, it was now called) old mansion, was searched; then, without warning, surprised by a full body of police, surrounded, and searched again. We were under hourly surveillance from outside...our letters were few, but they were opened, and no trouble taken to conceal that they had been read first.”

Detectives confiscated any personal belongings connected to John Wilkes, including photographs and family albums, Asia explained: “Everything that bore his name was given up, even the little picture of himself, hung over my babies' beds in the nursery. He had placed it there himself saying, “Remember me, babies, in your prayers.”

Edwin Booth
Police arrested Asia and her husband, believing that the possession of the manifesto implicated them in the crime. When police then discovered numerous letters between John Wilkes and his eldest brother Junius Booth Jr., he was also arrested. Clarke and Junius Booth Jr. were imprisoned for months, along with John Wilkes friend John T. Ford and his agent Matthew Canning, in Washington's Old Capital Prison. The other family members, including his brother Edwin Booth and Asia, who was pregnant at the time, were placed under house arrest, where they received piles of hate mail and death threats, according to the book “My Thoughts Be Bloody.”

Edwin responded to the hate mail by placing an ad that summer in newspapers throughout New York, Philadelphia and Boston that read: “It has pleased God to lay at the door of my afflicted family the lifeblood of our great, good, and martyred President. Prostrated to the very earth by this dreadful event, I am yet but too sensible that other mourners fill the land. To them, to you, one and all, go forth our deep, unutterable sympathy; our abhorrence and detestation for this most foul and atrocious of crimes. For my mother and sisters, for my remaining brothers and my own poor self, there is nothing to be said except that we are thus placed without any power of our own. For our present position we are not responsible. For the future – alas, I shall struggle on in my retirement bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory; and a wounded name.

Asia Booth Clarke
After Clarke was released from prison, he was embarrassed by his connection the Booth family and demanded a divorce, but Asia refused. In an attempt to redeem the family name and rebuke the many rumors and lies surrounding them, Asia wrote many biographies about her family, including her brother John Wilkes. Asia and her husband later moved to England, never to return to the United States.

Even after the house arrest order was lifted, most of the family were ashamed and remained in seclusion. Edwin eventually returned to the stage and resumed his acting career, receiving rave reviews for his performances, although he never mentioned Abraham Lincoln's name again and avoided Washington D.C. for the rest of his life.


Good Brother, Bad Brother: the Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth”; James Giblin

Right Or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth”; John Wilkes Booth

My Thoughts Be Bloody: the Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes”;Nora Titone, Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer”; James L. Swanson; 2007

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