John Wilkes Booth
Perhaps most famous for shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was a star in his own right even before the tragedy. Who was John Wilkes Booth?
The name John Wilkes Booth is associated most notoriously with the heinous crime of assassinating Abraham Lincoln. However, John had a very successful early life that is often overlooked and forgotten.
John Wilkes Booth was born May 10, 1838 in a log house near Bel Air, Maryland. Like his elder brother and father, J. Wilkes Booth (as friends knew him) led a prominent life as an actor long before he was known as the man who shot the President.
The Booth family name was strongly identified with American Theater in the nineteenth century. John's father, Junius, came to the U.S. from England in 1821 and left a legacy on the American stage, which would be carried years later by his sons Edwin, John Wilkes and Junius Brutus, Jr.
John began his own career in 1855, performing at the Charles Street Theater in Baltimore. Critics loved his dramatic performances and gushed over his physical beauty. Known for his climactic pauses and intense eyes, John began working regularly in stock theater in 1857. He studied his craft intently, determined to make a name for himself and lose his reputation as being "Junius' son." But John was riddled with self-doubt and criticized his own performances. Afraid he would never achieve the notoriety of his brother or father, John set out to do something different.
John left the theater in 1859, enlisting with the Richmond Grays. His sole intention in joining the military, according to historians, was to witness the hanging of the fiery abolitionist John Brown in Virginia. Once that was done, Booth left for Richmond, where he was immediately discharged.
Tired of his mediocre success in the theater and uninterested in the military, John headed for Pennsylvania in 1864 to concentrate on making a living. Booth, along with several acting friends, invested in oil and formed the "Dramatic Oil Company." Financial success eluded John as well though, and he quickly gave up his dream, turning the company over to his brother, Junius.
Booth traveled to Montreal, and conducted a series of meetings with men associated with the Confederacy. It was here that Booth would begin planning an operation to kidnap President Lincoln. Hoping to force the federal government to return Confederate prisoners of war who were being held in Union prisons, John and his coconspirators made lavish plans to kill government officials. After nearly five months of preparation, Booth moved full force ahead to capture the President on March 17, 1865. A change in plans botched Booth's plan, however. Instead of visiting a hospital outside of Washing where Booth and his friends were waiting, the President, instead, attended a luncheon at the National Hotel, where he often stayed while in Washington. Booth and his men regrouped and started over.
One month later, on April 14, 1865, J. Wilkes Booth snuck into the President's box seat at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC and shot him in the head. Booth immediately jumped to the stage, breaking his leg and escaping by horseback. Twelve days later, a search party cornered Booth in a burning barn near Bowling Green, VA. John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed April 26, 1865.