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.

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