Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Stage Struck

"...Time and the hour runs through the roughest day."


Edwin Booth
Edwin Booth

Brother Edwin, now a full-blown matinee idol, was fast inheriting his fathers thespian mantle, for the spotlights were now shining bright onstage wherever he appeared. Billed as the son of the great Junius Brutus Booth, people flocked to see this new genius. Letters sent home from Edwin described the mining camps and cow towns he played, then the great theatres in goliaths like Denver and San Francisco. He wrote of great rivers and snow-capped mountains, of a vast desert and the Pacific Ocean, of wealthy and exciting patrons of the arts.

Wilkes, at home, grew dizzy with jealousy. "Fame, I must have fame!" he would rave to anyone who listened.

Since her husband had passed, Mrs. Booth spent less time at Tudor Hall and more time in convenient Baltimore, where they lived on Exeter Street. Asia had by this time acquainted the citys top theatrical comedian, J. Sleeper Clarke, and Wilkes began pestering Asia to have Clarke procure for him a role in one of his productions.

Persistence paying off, Clarke talked the citys Charles Street Theatre into offering Wilkes, then 17, the hefty role of Lord Richmond in Richard III.

The much-awaited performance of the latest Booth was a shambles. Wilkes moaned and droned his lines like an amateur. Critics were kind, but audiences brutalized him with insulting laughter and catcalls. The farce reached even Edwin, playing the Sierra Nevadas in California.

Wilkes hid his face in shame. He swore he would never return to the platform. But, Sleeper Clarke, on Asias persistence, tutored him to refine the rough edges. After Clarke and Asia married and moved to Philadelphia in 1859, Clarke convinced the management of the Arch Street Theatre to cast Wilkes in a potpourri of supporting roles where he could sharpen his craft hands on. Of his own volition, the boy chose to use the moniker John Wilkes so as not to dishonor the Booth name further.

The venture nearly ruined Clarkes credibility, for if audiences didnt laugh his pupil offstage they hissed him off. One time, in The Gamester, fellow actors had to carry Wilkes off after he froze with stage fright. Then there was the time he was played an Italian courtier named Petruchio Pandolfe in the play, Lucretia Borgia. During the previous months, he had begun to show an emerging talent; as well, women theatre goers alarmed at his dark good looks and would tarry near the stage entrance after performances to steal a closer peek as he exited. Maybe the country had a new star after all! But...then came opening night of Lucretia Borgia and Wilkes entered to the roll of drums: "Allow me to offer my services, Countess of the House of Borgia, for I will fight the enemy battering your borders! I am yours! I am Petru...." and he blanked. Mumbling incoherences, he finally lost composure, turned to a fellow actor and blurted, "Drat it! Who the hell am I?"

A tumult of guffaws sent him racing for the wings. His star seemed to have crashed before it had a chance to shine.



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