Book Review: Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth

(C) 2015
By Terry Alford
Oxford University Press

John Wilkes Booth was human. He had friends, he had hopes, he had love, fears, ambitions, dreams. 

He also had flaws and his share of struggles, from family issues to establishing a career, to finding the perfect love to, money problems.

That might be a surprise to those who know him only through the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, but this book, by Terry Alford, rescues Booth’s humanity from the shadows of infamy and demonstrates that Booth was a man, a mere mortal whose short life was more than one night in April of 1865. That is the heart and the strength of this biography - the life, career and evolution of John Wilkes Booth in the eyes of people who knew him and in history.

Alford’s book is a fine addition to a Civil War or even Abraham Lincoln library. He obviously researched Booth’s life deeply, using a wide selection of letters, diaries, books, and newspapers to uncover aspects of the young actor’s life, career, and the memories that his friends, colleagues, and associates held of him. It includes endnotes and a wonderful section of photographs and illustrations. The writing is very readable, a fine style that makes this book a quick read and that lacks typographical or editing errors.

This book explores Booth’s entire life, including his family history. It describes his father’s successful career, which three of his sons followed, but also addresses flaws that Junius Booth displayed, and how those imperfections affected his reputation and his family, particularly John. The discussion of how John wanted to make his own name and succeed on his own ability, not his father’s reputation, was enlightening, especially as the author showed how John frequently used stage names like J.B. Wilkes to show he was his own man, though some theater goers still knew he was Junius’ son. This is not something often associated with Booth, and definitely adds a sense of the reality of Booth’s life. He was not simply born a monstrous killer; he grew up as people do, and had challenges to face, obstacles to overcome, again just like people generally do.

Booth was physically gifted, quite fit, strong and athletic, good at riding horses and using guns and swords, which came in handy in his chosen career. He was ambitious, competitive, handsome, a ladies’ man, and, according to the author “loved being in love.”  He made friends with his  personality, displaying a good sense of humor, enjoying playing jokes and pranks on colleagues. Many people considered him a gentleman.

He was also well-liked by many fellow actors and was willing to offer advice to younger thespians once he had started to establish himself as a star.

In other words, in his early adulthood, John Wilkes Booth was quite a people person and comes across as even likeable in this work, though every now and then small examples of erratic behavior - reminders of his father’s troubles and, in hindsight, possible foreshadowing of his own future - made themselves evident.

One flaw he did possess was explained in a line from page 151: “Booth never had a new thought after his core opinions were formed in his teenage years.” It contrasts his close-mindedness and tendency to hold grudges to the abilities to grow and forgive of his nemesis, Abraham Lincoln. 

The exploration of Booth’s career, from being one of many players in a stock company, to his days as a star and his decision to end his stage work is another helpful theme of this work. He was born with great physical gifts and was not a person naturally inclined to study, but he loved his profession and as he matured, he did work harder at his craft, though he never quite arrived at the point where he strived to be the very best technician. The brief section about whether he was truly great and what defines acting greatness was enjoyable, and the mention of Booth’s ambition and love of applause, showed another human sign of this man.

Real life, of course, could not avoid interfering even with the make-believe life of the world of acting. As sectional tensions began to bubble across the country, Booth’s political preferences started becoming evident as well, specifically his support of the Southern cause, though he hated extremists on both sides, both those favoring secession, and, especially, abolitionists. His love of the union as one whole nation was a surprising revelation of this book.

As much as this book reveals the normal challenges Booth faced, it also describes his evolution into the bitter, angry man who committed the assassination. Booth favored the South, supported slavery, and felt the North was badly mistreating his beloved region. He usually tried to avoid having political discussions and hearing news about the war, but that was impossible in such times and his anger grew and became more well-known. A bitterly heated argument with his brother Edwin was one example of his political beliefs affecting his life.

Booth began drinking more frequently as life and the war continued, though alcohol apparently energized him more than it made him drunk. It almost was like his version of Red Bull. His behavior became more erratic, as he sometimes surprisingly ignored or rudely treated old friends.

The book’s description of this slow change in Booth is a real strong point of this work, but it also shows that Booth still retained his full mind until near the end. His planning of the plot to kidnap Lincoln and recruitment of the associates whose assistance he wanted shows that he was not completely mad, and that he still maintained the capacity of logical thinking, at least in planning the kidnapping plot, even if focusing on such a deed was not logical to most people.

This changed, however, when the kidnapping plan failed and Northern victory in the war became a reality. Booth then became significantly more angry and bitter, almost a Mr. Hyde-type monster in terms of his red-hot hatred towards Lincoln. While the early parts of this book showed a gentlemen and a likeable person, perhaps a Dr. Jekyl, the later pages describe the Booth that most people think of when recalling the assassination. 

The book ends with a discussion of Booth’s attempt to avoid capture, including discussions of how several people  assisted him, especially David Herold. Booth was surprised that the nation, or at least the South, did not regard him as a hero, expressing frustrstion and disappointment over how people perceived his deed.

The author also includes an overview of the myths involving Booth’s rumored escape from capture, the supposed misidentification of his body by Federal authorities, and his continued life in many cities around the world. Arnold debunks these stories, sometimes with harsh and/or sarcastic language, and shows how authorities identified the corpse and secured it in the days after Booth’s death.

I have tried to highlight the main points of this terrific book, but others also populate the pages, describing how John Wilkes Booth was all-too-human, how he evolved into the man who committed a nearly unspeakable action that has come to define him. As I think about it more, a comparison to Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, over a period of years, seems appropriate. 

This is a wonderful biography and exploration of a subject who somehow remains both infamous, yet not well-known. I gladly and highly recommend this book.

I thank Oxford University Press for a review copy of this book. I have given my completely honest thoughts on it.

Pardon the Dust...

Soon after I first started this blog in 2009, I made frequent updates to the theme, changing colors and other details of the layout and features, but in 2011, I found one combination I really liked and ended up sticking with it until now.

Over the past few months, I thought about trying to redesign this site. I mainly wanted to change the background picture, but could not do it  on the same theme. Yesterday, I finally decided to change the theme and see what happened.

My first attempt was very different and I did not completely like it, so I kept working on it and, soon enough, ended up with the current configuration.

Of course, this looks very similar to the previous theme, with the same background picture and similar colors. I just like the color blue, so it is not surprising that I kept it, but I am a little surprised that I did not make any more major changes, though a late addition of a photo behind the blog title seems pretty nice right now.

I may keep playing around with different themes, settings, layouts and background pictures to see if I like something else better, so please forgive me if you look at this on different days and see what looks like a different blog. I have no definite plans other than to play around and see what I like.

A Bit of New Information for my Civil War Genealogy

While working on another project, I just discovered this article about some activity of Company D of  the 7th West Virginia Cavalry. I had seen the website before, but overlooked this story until now. When I did see it, however, it caught my eye immediately as my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Davis, pictured below, was a member of this company.

Here is an excerpt from the article concerning this company’s assignment. It is gratifying to see such a specific report of where my ancestor probably was and the kind of duties he performed. That is more than I knew before, so I am thankful for the people who run that site and did that research and writing.  the presence of the internet and the ability to share information like this is remarkable, a fact I like to remind myself of occasionally. Twenty years ago or so, I may never have been able to find information like this. I appreciate my luck compared to researchers and historians of the past. 

The link I added above includes more details, including a description of the fighting. 

Company D of the 7th West Virginia Cavalry had been ordered to Winfield primarily to protect steamboat traffic on the Kanawha River, which flows past the town...

A secondary role for the Union troops at Winfield was to guard the Putnam County Courthouse and the town of Winfield from Confederate attack, not an unpopular task since many of the men in the company came from Putnam and surrounding counties. The men of Company D dug rifle pits and entrenchments adjacent to a mill, around their campsite, and in the vicinity of the brick courthouse, situated on a small rise overlooking the small town and the river behind it.

Putnam County was Benjamin's birth county, so I can only imagine how it felt to be so close to home when so many soldiers travelled so many miles during the war. Benjamin, born in in 1844, survived the war and lived until 1917. 

New Appreciation of Biographies

I have reviewed a couple of biographies of Civil War-era people this year and the book I’m currently reading is another biography. This is not new - I’ve read many biographies over the years, but reading these so closely together has somehow made me appreciate this genre better.

This is all an accident, certainly unplanned on my part, but if it is good fortune.  Perhaps I am lucky just to have picked 3 especially good books to read, but reading these - one on Basil Duke, one on Mary Lincoln, and the third I just started a couple of days ago - has been a great experience, helping renew my enthusiasm for reading, which I had not recently done as frequently as in the past. Reading so much about these individual lives helps me see the war as more than just military strategy and tactics, and even helps me as I also work on my own family history, a narrative I am attempting to create. History is about events and dates, but also about people, including non-famous happenings in their lives. I see that more clearly now.

I always have a few books set aside as “to be read,” as I suspect  many Cavil War enthusiasts do, but do I now change what books I might conquer next? I was thinking about reading a military title next, but should I find another biography instead? I did receive a biography a couple of weeks ago. It is of someone who died years before the Civil War, but whose life and influence helped shaped the nation in the decades before secession and fort Sumter. Maybe I should pick it as my next read. 

It is an interesting question for me to ponder. I have really enjoyed these biographies, but should I focus on the actual war and the politics surrounding it? The Duke book did involve some military matters of course, and other biographies can too, but the writing in a biography is different than in a military study. 

I am glad to have such choices and the ability to express and explore my thoughts in a platform like this. Maybe reading about the lives of other people can help me view my life, or my ancestor’s lives, differently.

Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton

By Catherine Clinton
  (c) 2009

Before reading this book, one I have wanted to read for quite a while, I expected to feel much pity for Mary Lincoln after reading it, like I did after watching the movie Lincoln, and while I do feel some of the sentiment, I am in a quandary, as I also feel a different, unsympathetic feeling, perhaps as harsh as derision, or at least frustration, towards her.  This book describes a complicated, confusing, sad, tragic, ambitious, successful woman and life. She was strong, yet weak, intelligent, yet na├»ve, independent, yet self-identified with her husband and his career.  I realize that some of those descriptions are redundant or contrasting, but I find that an appropriate way to describe the subject of this book.  She was simply human, but not a simple hunan, and this book does a terrific job of exploring the many competing facets of her life.

These various aspects of Mary Lincoln form a main topic of this book, which serves as a biography of both the former Mary Todd and of her marriage. Though her life certainly takes priority, telling the story of Mary Lincoln simply requires a discussion of her husband and marriage. It is inescapable, even after the assassination, as Clinton notes: Her identity was wholly bound up with remaining Mrs. Lincoln (page 287).

That line is an accurate summary of Mary’s post-1865 life, but this book starts much earlier, thoroughly discussing her early life, including the tragic loss of her mother, the coming of her step-mother and the ever increasing size of her nuclear family, with so many siblings and half-siblings.

I must admit that when I think of the tragedies in Mary’s life, the loss of her mother often escapes my mind, but this book illustrates how great a loss this was for her, as well as the difficulty of having a step-mother and so many half-siblings. The tension in this large family is evident in this book and the author shows that this situation hurt Mary, the first major loss of her life, but certainly not the last. 

Mary grew up in a well-to-do Southern household, a lifestyle that influenced her expectations of life going forward. To paraphrase a popular saying, you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl. This was largely true of Mary, who constantly expected the same type of life and socializing she witnessed in her youth. She did, to her credit, grow to disapprove of slavery, an institution with which she grew up, but otherwise saw herself as a Southern belle, with the expectations of being treated as such. Clinton describes this dominant part of Mary’s personality throughout the book. 

One word used more than once in this work was “entitled,” a fair description of Mary’s attitude. She liked being the center of attention and expected to receive attention, respect, and even admiration due to her position of First Lady and, later, in a term she coined, “First Widow.”  She did make some attempts to help herself, one time resulting in the embarrassing “Old Clothes” scandal, but also expected gratitude from the government and from people who she believed benefited greatly from her husband’s Presidency. This is another theme explored throughout the book, but especially in the discussion of the post-1865 years.

Page 329 offered up another memorable line describing Mary’s attitude, this time in reference to the assassination of James Garfield: when she discovered there was a movement afoot to offer government funds to provide for Gardield’s widow and five fatherless children, Mary, not uncharacteristically, thought of herself (my emphasis added.). She had adored her husband and children and spent much time and energy visiting wounded troops in the hospitals, but  could often be much less unselfish.

Clinton discusses many aspects and incidents of Mary’s life including her love of youngest son Tad and the devastation his death caused her. Of course, her commitment to an insane asylum by eldest son Robert receives much attention, including discussion of the unfairness of the trial and the grudge Mary understandably held against Robert for years. Her behavior during these years, especially concerning issues of money is examined and the author points out possible legitimate mental health issues Mary may have suffered, while also giving examples of times when Mary’s faculties were working very well. The complexity of the questions of her mental health apply to the complexity of her whole life as well. 

This is a riveting book about a complex woman who led a fascinating, sad, complicated life. To keep this review to a reasonable length, I will not attempt to mention all the specific incidents it covers, but the author does an outstanding job of presenting evidence and then analyzing it. An especially noteworthy example of this is the description of Mary’s temper, jealousy, and behavior towards Julia Grant and other women during a late war trip to Virginia. 

At the end of the work, Clinton adds a few paragraphs about Mary’s reputation both in her time and in the modern era, including how scholars and writers have treated her. This was a wonderfully unexpected and interesting section and I wish it had been expanded to include more details, such as some found in the end notes. 

Biographies frequently develop into near hagiographical works for their subjects, as authors who spend so much time and effort studying people can start to like them and let this positive feeling seep into their work.  That did not happen in this book - Clinton certainly offers praise for Mary at times and defends her behavior more than once, but also provides frequent criticism and points out bad decisions Mary made and flaws she possessed. It is a balanced examination of Mary Lincoln, and the author deserves much credit for that fairness, perhaps the strength of this book. 

The book does include helpful end notes and a few photographs as well. I wish the pictures had been of higher quality (maybe that’s a function of the type of paper used in the book)  but that is picking nits. The text is well-written and makes for an easy, quick read. This is a fine book, a virtual must-have for any Lincoln scholar or those interested in women’s history, and a “should-have” for general Civil War libraries. I am happy to recommend it strongly.

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