"... the great tragedian, whose name has become illustrious with the American people... His praise is on every tongue, and he richly deserves it."
The Louisville, Ky., Journal, Jan. 21,1864
So said the reviewer witnessing one of the greatest actors of the time, the scion of an acting dynasty performing Shakespeare's masterpieces during a two-week engagement at Wood's Theater in Louisville.
With coal black hair and black eyes that flashed like jewels, according to one actress, JohnWilkes Booth was darkly and dashingly handsome and possessed the talent to become the country's premiere actor.
He was dubbed "The Handsomest Man in America."
So attractive was he, his sometime co-star Clara Morris recalled Booth's hold over women with a metaphor,"... as sunflowers turn upon their stalks to follow the beloved sun, so old and young, our faces turned smiling to him," according to a text devoted to Booth.
But history remembers Booth as a murderer, a monster.
Surely, the killer of Abraham Lincoln was insane.
Who else but a madman would kill the man who freed slaves and waged a war that would unite a country?
"JohnWilkes Booth wasn't an insane man," said Leslie King, a photographer who created a visual diary of Booth's life.
"He believed Lincoln was the problem, the root of all evil in society.
"He thought of Lincoln as a dictator."
Booth was not alone in his theories, many Southerners and even Northerners shared his opinions of Lincoln but none would act as heinously as Booth on that hatred.
King cautions she is not an authority on the subject of the Lincoln assassination. but an armchair historian interested in Booth and the band of conspirators.
Some of her photos chronicling Booth's life are on display at the Tony
Hungerford Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Theater on the La Plata campus of the
College of Southern Maryland through March 3.
King will give a free talk about her work at noon Feb. 19 at the gallery.
King took the show's title, "Sic Semper Tyrannis," from the words Booth allegedly roared after fatally wounding Lincoln on April 14,1865.
The state ofVirginia's motto, "Sic Semper lyrannis," means "Thus always to tyrants."
A horse stands in a sepia-colored field of the Prince George's County farm His
Lordship's Kindness. The farm is the birthplace of alleged Booth conspirator Mary
Surratt. The horse looks out from a frame, one of King's photos.
In April 2000, King, who takes a camera wherever she goes, tagged along with a friend on a Surratt Society-sponsored tour.
She was hooked not on Lincoln, of whom much is known, but on the mysterious and dark Booth.
"So much has been done on Lincoln," King said. "I didn't have much to add. Booth is so much darker, he was more interesting to me."
She devoured a book of Booth's writings, "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me"and found the man intriguing.
"You grow up thinking Booth was a monster, but his writing shows otherwise. He had his political views and he was an intelligent man, a charismatic man. He knew a lot of people; military people and he was well respected. His writings show reasons behind his actions, right or wrong. He looked on Lincoln as a bully."
King found, through her readings, that the Booth's family politics differed from those of the son and brother that would change history.
Baltimore-bom Booth prided himself on being a Southerner; he was a racist who witnessed abolitionist John Brown's execution and smuggled quinine to Confederate troops. His occupation as anactor, a star, allowed him carte blanche while traveling.
Booth's brothers, Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and Edwin Booth, both extraordinary actors in their own right, would not talk politics with their younger brother. If the brothers got into a political discussion it almost surely erupted in an argument, according to the notes in "Right orWrong, God Judge Me."
The youngest brother, Joseph Adrian Booth, was not an actor; his sister, Rosalie Booth, was a recluse; and sister, Asia Booth Clarke, a writer.
"His family was on the other side," King said. "They were for the North. Edwin voted for Lincoln's [second term as president of the United States]."
Booth thought Lincoln would become a king, a thought Booth could not bear.
The photos of Booth's life will not hang in chronological order at the
"This is not a travelogue," King said. "This is just my touch on the history. I'm not here to debate it. JohnWilkes Booth, to me, is a romantic character. He is no more real to me than a fairytale."
King traveled to NewYork City, taking photos of the famous Players Club, the club Booth's brother, Edwin, helped found. Some of Booth's speeches were found years later in the club. She also visited Philadelphia where Booth's sister and family biographer, Asia Booth Clarke lived. Wilkes, as most of his family called
Booth, lived with and visited his siblings when not on the road.
His parents were Junius Brutus Booth Sr. (an acclaimed actor) and Mary Ann Booth, and JohnWilkes Booth was considered their favorite child. Booth and his mother seemed to have a special bond; he would write to her almost every Sunday while touring. Later, following their father's death, Junius Brutus Booth Jr. wrote to Edwin fearing JohnWilkes may have inherited the darkness, perhaps madness, the elder Booth seemed to possess.
A photo of the building now standing where Baltimore's St. Charles Theater, a
venue played by Booth, hangs in the collection.
"We can see what he saw," King said. "But time didn't stand still. These are most of the places he touched upon, but buildings go down and buildings go up.
There have been big changes since [Boom's time]. The world won't stop."
So the actor, while traveling from theater to theater, performance to performance, was plotting the kidnapping of Lincoln. Recruiting friends, along with like-minded Southerners and sympathizers,
Booth financed the plot on his own.
He was financially comfortable, earning a star's wages as an actor, and investing in business (He would lose money, too, in these investments, as later documented in the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators).
There is no evidence, written or remembered, that suggests when Booth decided to kill Lincoln. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to be Lincoln's guest at the Ford Theater's production of "Our American Cousin" that April night, leading some historians to believe Booth wanted to get two birds with one shot, so to speak. Grant backed out. And Booth, a veteran of Ford Theater, had knowledge of the building and was granted easy access allowing him to creep behind Lincoln and unload a bullet into the president's head.
"I think Booth was so passionate about the South he lost sight of right and wrong," King said.
The 12-foot leap from the president's box to the stage should have been easy for the accomplished stuntman Booth had become through his acting career
(His body was said to be covered in scars from mishaps during theatrical sword fights). Jumping to the stage to make his escape Booth's spur caught in the bunting festooning the Lincoln box leaving the assassin to land on the stage awkwardly and break his leg.
Despite the injury he lit out on horseback for Southern Maryland hoping to cross the Potomac River to Virginia, where he expected to be hailed a hero by
Twelve days passed before authorities caught up with Booth in a Virginia tobacco bam.
King's photo of Loyola's Retreat near Popes Creek depicts the area Booth and his accomplice, slow- witted David Herold, planned to cross the river into Virginia.
During that time, both the North and his beloved South reviled Booth's actions. He went from being an adored actor tobeing one of the most hated men in all of history.
"To put in perspective, from what I've read, this would have been as if someone like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt were to do something like this," King said. "It was that shocking."
And Booth was shocked at the lack of support he received.
While on the run he scrawled in a pocket diary, "I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat."
Booth was eventually killed, only about 12 miles from the Rappahanock
River. He was shot through the neck as the barn burned around him. Soldiers dragged him out of the fire and the body was taken to Washington for positive identification.
The collection of photos, 19 out of the 50 King has developed, are in a sepiatone giving them an old-fashioned, aged quality.
When preparing for the show, King asked the opinion of friends and other artists, some reactions were surprising.
"Some of my more conservative friends stepped back and could understand Booth's arguments but didn't agree with his actions" she said. "It was the people I consider more open-minded that said this was supporting terrorism. People have not let this go. And I think it is because it is in our own back yards, we are tripping over it and bumping into it even now."
King visited and photographed the site of Milton Academy in Cockeysville. Booth went to school at Milton before leaving school at 15. The photo is part of the show.
Born in La Plata to culturally minded parents, King, who used to go by the professional name Leslie Scher Brown, graduated from Shepherd College in West Virginia. She is now a freelance photographer and works at the Calvert Marine
Hooked on creating photographic diaries depicting the lives of historical figures, King is branching out into following the lives of the conspirators implicating in Lincoln's assassination.
"We have a fabulous cultural history in Southern Maryland," she said. "It is this history that make us what we are now."
Despite the sullying the family name and following a blacklisting effort, the
Booth family rebuilt their lives and resurrected careers.
Edwin went on to be successful operating the Player's Club in NewYork City Junius Brutus Booth Jr. rose above his family's name to be called the best
Shakespearean actor of the time, earning critical and public acclaim.