Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford. Oxford University Press, 2015. Cloth, ISBN: 978-0195054125. $29.95.
As Terry Alford notes in the introduction to Fortune’s Fool, the last full-length study of John Wilkes Booth by Francis Wilson was published in 1929 and is outmoded. Unfortunately, historians have shied away from a modern biography of the assassin. Despite some excellent books about Lincoln’s murder, no one has produced a complete overview of Booth’s life and career.
Prior to the 1980’s, academically trained historians exhibited a similar reticence in writing about Lincoln’s death. The field was so littered with conspiracy theories that it seemed easier to avoid the minefields and to abandon assassination studies to the sensationalists and popularizers. Studying assassinations was not viewed as a worthy enough topic for professionals to research and write about, and historians may have approached a Booth biography with similar trepidation.
On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, Alford sets out to remedy this gap by challenging some older interpretations and providing new insights along the way. Although Booth’s childhood in Bel Air is often portrayed as idyllic, Alford uncovers evidence that at the age of twelve, Booth enjoyed torturing and killing cats. Psychiatrists believe that there is a correlation between such behavior and future adult violence, although Booth liked horses, dogs, and other animals.
While his presence at the execution of John Brown is not new, Alfred uncovered evidence that the actor did a lot more than simply talk his way onto the train carrying the Richmond Grays from Richmond to Charles Town. A pay slip survives indicating that he was paid as a Quartermaster Sergeant and that he actually stood guard in front of the jail where Brown was held. The day before Brown was hanged, Booth apparently met with Brown, although no account of the specifics of that encounter survives.
The story that Booth felt faint at the sight of Brown’s hanging is true, although it may have had something to do with the fact that Booth suffered from hemophobia, a fear of blood. This may partially account for his failure to enlist in the Confederate forces (in addition to his promise to his mother that he would stay out of the army). There was no tradition of military service in the Booth family, and his aversion to the sight of blood would probably have made him a poor soldier on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.
The Booth who emerges here was strongly influenced in all that he did by his hatred of abolitionists, although at the beginning of the conflict he did not support secession, decrying hotheads on both sides. His outspoken criticism of secession caused him problems when he played in Montgomery after Lincoln’s election. While he acted in northern cities that he enjoyed like Philadelphia and Boston, he particularly loved Richmond, where he mingled easily with its citizens. The actor felt a kinship with those who supported the southern way of life—including slavery.
John Wilkes Booth was also an actor who exhibited great future promise. Not wanting to trade upon the fame of his father Junius or his brother Edwin, he was often billed as John Wilkes. Although during his early career he was sometimes described as lazy and an obsessive seeker of fame, he continued to mature with experience. While there were some roles such as Hamlet or Macbeth that did not fit his talents so well, he played three parts that made him a star. These were Raphael in “The Marble Heart,” (a play Lincoln saw), Pescara in “The Apostate,” and the title role in “Richard the Third.” He was still a young man mastering his trade when he was shot in Garrett’s barn, and despite the enormity of his crime, even some contemporaries mentioned the tragedy of such a promising acting career cut short by the assassination. However, as Lloyd Lewis noted in Myths After Lincoln (1941), by killing Lincoln, Booth actually gained even more fame than he ever could have earned on the stage.
Since its publication in 1988, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Death of Lincoln by William Tidwell, James Hall, and David Gaddy has often dominated discussion about Lincoln’s assassination. The authors argue that Booth’s kidnapping plan (which was one of several designed to capture Lincoln in order to trade him for Confederate POWs) had the direct backing of Confederate authorities in Richmond. After the Dahlgren Raid on Richmond, in which Dahlgren was killed and incriminating documents were found calling for the killing of Davis and his cabinet and the burning of the city, the war took an even harsher turn. In the spring of 1865, with victory slipping away, the Confederates sent Thomas Harney to blow up Lincoln and his cabinet. When Harney was captured, Booth who knew what was going on attempted to duplicate the plot on his own.
Alford can find little evidence to support these connections and thus provides an excellent corrective to Tidwell. He does this indirectly (which might be a mild criticism, given the influence that Come Retribution had), but that quibble aside, he makes it clear that he accepts statements by Samuel Arnold and John Surratt, who warned Booth that he needed to check with Richmond to ascertain how the Confederate government might react to a captive Lincoln arriving in the Confederate capital. In his “To Whom it My Concern” letter, Booth described himself as “doing duty on his own responsibility.” Alford asks, “Could anything be plainer?” (243) It would be naïve to assume that Tidwell’s supporters, given the ferocity of the prior debate, will eagerly accept Alford’s conclusion, but it suggests that Tidwell’s book, while illuminating about the Confederate Secret Service, was too much of a stretch.
Professor Alford has often joked that it took him longer to research and write about Booth’s life than it took Booth to live it. If true, the wait has been worthwhile. Fortune’s Fool takes its place as the essential Booth biography, which is indispensable reading for anyone wanting to fully understand the assassination and the actor who committed it.
Thomas R. Turner is Professor Emeritus of History at Bridgewater State University and the author of Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1982).