John Wilkes Booth: Secret Ricardian

As those who have studied Lincoln’s assassin well know, John Wilkes Booth’s signature role was that of Shakespeare’s scheming, evil Richard III—the antithesis, of course, of the real Richard. Here, I propose that Booth found this role so distasteful that it eventually drove him mad—and drove him to commit the crime of the century.

John Wilkes Booth. An assassin--and yet a man ahead of his time.
John Wilkes Booth. An assassin–and yet a man ahead of his time.

We first find a clue to the conflict that would sear Booth’s soul when we consider the name his father, Junius Booth, gave to the family’s country home in Maryland—Tudor Hall.  The name, clearly a product of his hard-drinking father’s  deranged mind, must have become so distasteful to the young man as the years passed that he could not bear to set foot inside the house. What other reason could Booth have had for not returning to the property when he came of age?

Tudor Hall, with a group of people clearly jeering at Richard
Tudor Hall, with a group of people clearly jeering at Richard

Once Booth entered the acting profession, he spent much of his time travelling around the country. Naturally, this forced him to spend hours on trains and coaches, and it is then, I believe, that he began to read Ricardian material. Granted, during the nineteenth century, Ricardianism was still in its infancy, but a few brave souls, such as Horace Walpole in the previous century, had dared to question the Tudor Myth, and it is likely that Booth picked up one of their books. Perhaps he simply did so at first as a diversion, to while away the dull hours on the train–just as so many of us picked up The Sunne in Splendour or The Daughter of Time on a rainy afternoon. But then he saw the light, just as we did.

Lonely as being a Ricardian is now, it must have been even more so in the Victorian age, where the Shakespearean version of Richard still held sway. Imagine how much worse it must have been for a man whose very livelihood depended upon performing the plays of the man who did more than anyone else to perpetuate the falsehood that Richard murdered his nephews.  Every time he set foot upon the stage, he knew he was giving voice to a lie.

How torn he must have been!

Enter now another man: President Lincoln. While the President had many sterling qualities, the sad truth is: he was not a Ricardian. Indeed, he revelled in Shakespeare’s creation and could repeat Richard’s soliloquy from memory.  As Booth’s admiration for Richard grew more fervent, he could scarcely bear the thought of living in a country headed by a man who thought so little of the king he loved. Probably the civil war raging in America irritated him as well.

Abraham Lincoln. His death would be even more tragic if he had thought more highly of Richard.
Abraham Lincoln. His death would be even more tragic if he had thought more highly of Richard.

At last, in 1864, Booth vowed to play Richard no more. But audiences of the day were so steeped in Tudor falsehoods, any actor worthy to bear that title was expected to play the role. Booth knew that the only way he could avoid being lured back into assuming the prosthetic hump he hated so much was to give up acting altogether. Gradually, he began to do so, instead investing in  oil.

But still, President Lincoln, the chief Richard-hater of all Richard-haters, remained in the White House. Worse, Booth’s brother Edwin also played the role of Richard, and rumour had it that the President preferred Edwin’s Richard to John’s. To have his brother pandering to the President’s tastes was nearly as odious as doing it himself.

If only Booth had had a branch of the Richard III Society to turn to! But sadly, the foundation of that  organization was decades away. Instead, isolated in his love for Richard, dismayed at Lincoln’s reelection, hearing from his brother Edwin that he planned to come to Washington in the summer to play the role of Richard, and somewhat miffed by the surrender of Lee’s troops at Appomattox, Booth finally went mad. The sad result of his madness became apparent on April 14, 1865. Although some playgoers distinctly heard Booth shout, ‘Richard is avenged!’ after he shot the President, they were too timid to say so.

Following the assassination, of course, Booth went on the run until finally being shot to death in a barn in Virginia. On his body was found a pocket diary, with a number of missing pages. What was written on these pages has long been a matter of conjecture, but surely the most reasonable explanation is that Booth, while hiding out from the authorities, devised a solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower that was so brilliant, so persuasive, and so completely exculpatory of Richard that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did not dare let it come to light, lest the world realize what a genius Booth had been.

Booth's pocket diary. The missing pages almost certainly prove Richard innocent of the murders of his nephews,
Booth’s pocket diary. The missing pages almost certainly prove Richard innocent of the murders of his nephews,

So, sadly, Booth is remembered today only as Lincoln’s assassin. Yet this is unfair. Instead, I propose that Booth should be remembered—as should his target, President Lincoln—as a  misguided but fundamentally decent man, and as a tragic casualty of Tudor propaganda.


Otto Eisenschiml, Why Was Lincoln Murdered?

Theodore Roscoe, The Web of Conspiracy

My fortune cookie at the Wok & Roll Restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Borden finds it highly significant that Richard will be given a decent funeral in March 2015, just weeks before the 150th anniversary of the deaths of Lincoln and Booth. He just wishes the funeral was at York. 


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