Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Wilkes Booth: The Story of Abraham Lincoln's Murderer

A Gypsy's Prophecy

"The spirit I have seen may be the devil..."


During the winter seasons, the Booth children attended boarding school in Cockeysville, Md., where Wilkes seemed to be more interested in causing mischief than studying. His friends called him "Billy Bowlegs" to tease him; they knew that he wore long coats whenever possible to conceal that trait. But, he was nonetheless their leader and captained many pranks throughout the school halls, much to the chagrin of its Quaker principal, Professor Lamb.

During summers on The Farm, however, he had few friends. Most of his siblings were older than he (Edwin had embarked on a stage career of his own), and Wilkes often turned for entertainment to the many ballades and novels his father had given him. On these glorious pages he discovered Ivanhoe, Hawkeye, William Tell, Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, Don Quixote...heroes of the highest caliber whose colorful lives he wanted to emulate. His closest friend became his sister, Asia, to whom he confided his dreams of adventure. She would often see him midsummer nights, ripping his fathers horse Peacock down Churchville Road, a twig for a lance, shouting oaths to the trees that he fashioned as fire-breathing dragons or Cyclopes.

It was with Asia that he attended a carnival in Harford County one autumn evening. Townsfolk from Bel Air and other neighboring burghs came out to enjoy the festivities. One of the sideshows that attracted the teenage Wilkes was a Gypsy fortune teller; amusedly, he wandered into her wagon. But, once she began reading his palm, his smile faded. Her prophesy was one of bad fortune: "Your lines are all criss-crass," she told him. "You will live a charmed life, but it will be brief and you will die violently."

The old hags words frightened him. Asia laughed off the experience, but to Wilkes, who recalled his mothers vision the night he was born those rhetorical flames the Gypsys words were all too poignant.

But, Asia had been observing something else in her brothers character, even stranger than what any Gypsy could have predicted. While her family had never shown any prejudice toward the few Negroes they hired out seasonally to harvest the fields indeed Junius had always treated them like his sons Wilkes began complaining of having to eat his meals with them after the days work. This sudden haughtiness, she felt, seemed to mirror the "master" and "slave" relationships of the Deep South.

What they both did not understand at the time was that this prejudice was the first visible evidence of a bad root slinking below the surface towards what the Gypsy said would become manifest.



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