Junius Brutus Booth
|Junius Brutus Booth|
1 May 1796|
St. Pancras, London, England
|Died||30 November 1852
near Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
|Resting place||Green Mount Cemetery|
|Spouse(s)||Marie Christine Adelaide Delannoy (m. 1815-51)
Mary Ann Holmes (1851-52)
|Children||Junius Brutus Booth, Jr.
John Wilkes Booth
Junius Brutus Booth (1 May 1796 - 30 November 1852) was an English stage actor. He was the father of John Wilkes Booth (actor and the assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln), Edwin Booth (the foremost tragedian of the mid-to-late 19th century), and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., an actor and theatre manager. Booth was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in William Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar.
Junius was born in St. Pancras, London, England, the son of Richard Booth, a lawyer and avid supporter of the American cause, and Jane Elizabeth Game, and grandson of John Booth, a silversmith, and Elizabeth Wilkes, a relative of the English radical and politician John Wilkes. While he was growing up, Booth's father tried to settle his son in a lengthy succession of professions. Booth recalls of his childhood, "I was destined by my Controllers first for the Printing office, then to be an architect, then to be a sculptor and modeler, then a lawyer, then a sailor, of all of these I preferred those of sculptor and modeler. Booth’s interests in theatre came after he attended a production of Othello at the Covent Garden Theatre. The prospects of fame, fortune and freedom were very appealing to young Booth. He displayed remarkable talent from an early age, deciding on a career in the theatre by the age of seventeen. He performed roles in several small theatres throughout England, and joined a tour of the Low Countries in 1814, returning the following year to make his London debut.
Booth gained national renown in England with his performance in the title role of Richard III in 1817 at the Covent Garden Theatre. Critics compared his performances favorably with those of Edmund Kean, who was at the time the foremost tragedian in Britain. Partisans of the two actors, literally called Boothites and Keanites, would occasionally start rows at venues where the two were playing together. This did not stop the two from performing in the same plays; Kean and Booth acted in several Shakespearean productions at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1817 to 1821. Kean then saw Booth as a threat and orchestrated a way for the two of them to perform those roles yet again, planning to out-perform his opponent. Kean’s long-standing presence contributed to Booth’s never ending comparisons to his rival.
Booth went to the United States in 1821, abandoning his wife and young son for another woman. Booth quickly got hired to play Richard III. Upon his late arrival to rehearsals, his employers were skeptical due to his appearance, wondering, “Is it possible this can be ‘the great Mr. Booth, ‘undoubtedly the best actor living?’” In under a year, Booth became the most prominent actor in America. Critic William Winter said, “He was followed as a marvel. Mention of his name stirred an enthusiasm no other could awaken” (Smith 23). They settled in Bel Air, Maryland. He embarked upon a thirty-year acting career that made him famous throughout the country. Booth traveled to such cities as Baltimore, Boston and New York.
A persistent story, but apocryphal according to some sources, is that Junius Brutus Booth was acclaimed for performing Orestes in the French language in New Orleans. Theatrical Manager Noah Ludlow, who was performing with Booth at the time at the American theatre in New Orleans, recounts the actual events starting on page 230 of his memoir Dramatic Life As I Found It and concludes: "Therefore I consider the story of Mr. Booth having performed Orestes in the French language, on the French stage, altogether a mistake arising from his having acted that character in the French theatre of New Orleans in 1822, but in the English language." However, Stephen M. Archer notes that Ludlow was in Mobile, Alabama in 1828 and was therefore not present for this performance. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. has two playbills from the production and both are in French. Booth's daughter Asia wrote that her father spoke fluent French and cited a review on the subject. The review was not oblivious to the fact that Booth's French pronunciation was less than perfect however. In 1823, Booth did the role in New York in the English adaptation by Ambrose Philips with Mary Ann Duff as Hermione.
In 1825-1826 and 1836-1837 Booth made tours of his native England. He took his whole family with him for the second of these. During their stay in England, one of his children, Henry Byron, succumbed to small pox. By 1831 he had become the manager of the Adelphi Theatre in Baltimore. His acclaim continued to grow throughout the rest of his life; Walt Whitman described him as "the grandest histrion [sic] of modern times." Although his relationship with Mary Ann, his supposed wife, was relatively happy, four of their children died, three in the same year (1833), when there were epidemics of cholera. In addition, he suffered from alcoholism, which had an effect on the entire family and would never escape him.
Booth’s increasing alcoholism also caused him to become increasingly unpredictable and reckless. He would drop lines, miss scenes, and cause chaos onstage. During a performance of Hamlet, Booth suddenly left the scene he was playing with Ophelia, scurried up a ladder, and perched up in the backdrops crowing like a rooster until his manager retrieved him. He was once booked for a sold-out performance in Richmond, then disappeared from town for several days. Eventually he was found with “ragged, besotted wretches, the greatest actor on the American stage.” He soon became so unreliable that he had to be locked into his hotel rooms with a guard standing watch. Often he would still find ways of escaping to drown himself at a nearby tavern.
Some historians and critics have claimed that reality could become overwhelming for Booth, so he would flee into alcoholism and the roles he played. One critic said of Booth that the “personality of the actor was forgotten, and all the details seemed spontaneous workings and unconscious illustrations of the character he represented. He seemed to be possessed by the characters, losing his own identity." Such subjective judgments are perhaps too facile, as Edwin Booth's later comment about his father certainly was: “Great minds to madness closely are allied.” In any case, from February 1817 onward, Junius Booth played almost three thousand performances. Booth brought a romantic, natural acting style to America, which he pioneered in the hearts of American audiences.
In order to help him maintain a modicum of stability and also to ensure that he sent his earnings home to the family, Junius and Mary Ann chose their son Edwin to accompany him as his dresser, aid, and guardian. This was an exhausting job because Junius Brutus could go without sleep for very long periods of time and would often disappear.
In 1835, Booth wrote a letter to President Andrew Jackson, demanding he pardon two pirates. In the letter, he threatened to kill the President. Though there would also be an actual attempt of assassination on the President early that year, the letter was believed to be a hoax, until a handwriting analysis of a letter written some days after the threat concluded that the letter was, in fact, written by Booth. Booth apologized to Jackson, though it is likely that since he and Jackson were friends, the "threat" was Booth's clumsy attempt at a joke. Decades later, Booth’s son, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated president Abraham Lincoln.
In 1852, he was involved in a tour of California with his sons Edwin and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., performing in San Francisco and Sacramento, where torrential rains not only closed the theatres but seriously depleted food supplies. Inflation skyrocketed, and the Booths returned to San Francisco without having made a penny. On 1 October he left San Francisco without either of his sons. (Junius Jr.had previously established his home there, and Edwin struck out on his own, acting in various venues in northern California). At least Booth had been paid well (in gold dust) for his time in San Francisco.
Marriages and children
In August 1814, Junius met Marie Christine Adelaide Delannoy while boarding at her mother's home in Brussels. She followed him to London where they eventually married on 17 May 1815, soon after his 19th birthday. Their first child, Amelia, was born 5 October of the same year, but died in infancy. The only child to survive infancy, Richard Junius Booth, was born 21 January 1819.
In 1821, Booth ran off to the United States with Mary Ann Holmes, a flower girl, abandoning his wife and their young son. Booth and Mary Ann claimed to be married that year and settled in 1822 near Bel Air, Maryland. For years they lived in a log cabin Booth bought, moved to his 150 acres, and whitewashed. Just before his death he began building a much grander house which he named "Tudor Hall." It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. While Booth toured frequently in the United States, his family, which grew to ten children, lived in great isolation because he dared not publicize their existence.
Booth had told his wife that he would be touring the United States for several years but would send her money to support her and his young son, Richard. But Booth's sister and brother-in-law arrived with their children from England and demanded to be housed and supported in exchange for keeping quiet about his American "family." After some years, this arrangement became financially untenable, and Booth stopped sending his wife money so regularly. This prompted Adelaide to send their son, now 25, to Baltimore. For three years, Junius somehow fooled him into believing that he lived alone, but eventually Richard discovered the truth. He sent word to his mother who arrived in Baltimore in December 1846 and confronted Junius when he returned home from touring in March. After living the requisite three years in Maryland (during which she tortured Mary Ann and the children with very public vituperation), she was able to divorce him in February 1851.
Returning alone from the California tour in October 1852, Booth had all the bags of gold dust he had received in payment stolen while he was crossing Panama. A rich Texan who recognized him gave him the money to travel to New Orleans, where he performed in the St. Charles Theatre from 14 to 19 November, earning a little over $1,000. With this he continued his journey home.
On the second day of the steamboat trip to Cincinnati, he developed a fever. The theory has always been that drinking impure water from the Mississippi River was the cause. Since it is likely that he had contracted dysentery, the traditional explanation may be accurate despite the short incubation period implied. No physician was on board, and he died at Louisville, Kentucky. On 30 November his wife, Mary Anne, received a telegram from Louisville. The ship's captain informed her that Booth was seriously ill and that she should meet him in Cincinnati. Upon arrival she discovered he had died. Booth's daughter Asia reports that in fact he died on 30 November at 2:00 P.M. and quotes the boat's steward as saying his last words were "Pray, pray, pray." Mary Ann was so angry with Junius, Jr. and Edwin for, in her view, abandoning their father that she informed them not to "come home." It was several years before either in fact did return.
- Ludlow, Noah (1880). Dramatic Life As I Found It. St. Louis: G. I. Jones and Co. pp. 230–232.
- Stephen M. Archer (2010) Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus, SIU Press ISBN 0-8093-8592-9
- KnoxNews.com, "Letter threatening Jackson's life determined to be written by father of man who killed Lincoln", Katie Freeman, 25 January 2009
- Library of Congress (US), "Library Helped Finger Another 'Would-Be Assassin' Named Booth", 7 July 2009, Matt Raymond
- PBS, History Detectives, "Booth Letter", season 7, episode 3
- Michael W. Kauffman (2004). American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth And The Lincoln Conspiracies. Random House. pp. 88–89. ISBN 0-375-50785-X.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15.
- Roy Z. Chamlee (1990). Lincoln's Assassins: A Complete Account of Their Capture, Trial, and Punishment. McFarland & Company. p. 14. ISBN 0-89950-420-5.
- Saunders, Katherine (8 March 1980). "Booth Family Story Rivaled Fiction". The Lewiston Journal. p. 6A. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
- Booth Clarke, Asia (1999). Alford, Terry, ed. John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 9. ISBN 1-578-06225-X.
- Banham, Martin, ed. (1995). The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 116. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
- "26 Elected to the Theater Hall of Fame." The New York Times, March 3, 1981.