Thursday, May 10, 2018

Hunted like a dog

‘After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every mans hand against me, I am here in despair.’ This is from a diary entry by John Wilkes Booth written a week after he had assassinated US President Abraham Lincoln and less than a week before he himself would be shot dead. Booth, born 180 years ago, left behind but a few fragments of a diary written while on the run, but they can be found in almost every account ever written about Lincoln’s assassination.

Booth was born on 10 May 1838 to a noted British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and his mistress Mary Ann Holmes who had emigrated in 1821 to Bel Air, Maryland (roughly half way between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia). He went to various schools, including a Quaker boarding school and a military academy, but he left after his father’s death in 1852. Intent on following his father and older brothers into the theatre, he took up elocution lessons. He made his stage debut at a Baltimore theatre in 1855, and by 1857 had joined the stock company of the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. He soon became popular, something of a celebrity actor, characterised by acrobatic and intensely physical performances. The following year, he joined the Richmond Theatre in Virginia and is said to have performed in over 80 plays that year alone.

The early 1860s, saw Booth a leading actor touring all the major cities, wowing audiences and most critics. He began to invest his growing wealth in land and oil production enterprises. However, he was highly political and a strong supporter of the South, thus he gravitated towards touring in the Deep South where his views (as well as his acting) were most warmly welcomed. He was a strong advocate of slavery, and developed a deep hatred for President Lincoln. During the Civil War, he acted as a secret agent for the Confederate cause, and by 1864 was beginning to plan, with other conspirators, a sensational abduction of Lincoln. However, those plans never came to anything. Increasingly, he found himself at odds with his pro-Union actor brother, Edwin. In 1865, Booth became secretly engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of a US senator, though she remained unaware of his antipathy towards Lincoln.

After Lincoln’s re-election as president on a platform to abolish slavery, Booth redoubled his efforts against him, though his aim had changed to one of murder. On the morning of 14 April 1865, Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending Ford’s theatre in Washington that evening. He quickly assembled his gang and assigned them tasks, including the murder of Secretary of State William Seward. Booth, who was well known in Ford’s theatre and enjoyed unhindered access, managed to enter the president’s box, during the third act of the play that night, and shoot him, fatally. Seward survived the attempt on his life (see also Lincoln and Fanny Seward). Booth may have broken a leg bone while fleeing, but managed to escape the city on his horse. Twelve days later, federal troops tracked him down to a farm in Virginia, where he was shot, either by himself or a soldier, and died a few hours later. Eight others implicated in the plot were found guilty by a military tribunal in Washington, D.C. and sentenced to prison sentences of varying lengths - though pardons were granted in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson. There’s a wealth of information about Booth online, at Wikipedia,, Encyclopaedia Britannica,, Visit Maryland, R. J. Norton’s Lincoln Assassination website, much of it focusing on the last few weeks of his life.

Lincoln’s assassination and, therefore, Booth’s life and death have been written about and analysed in numerous publications. Most, if not all, mention a small red book found on Booth’s body which, although an appointment book, had been used as a diary. The diary has always been considered something of a mystery. According to Norton’s website, it was taken off Booth’s body and given to Lafayette C. Baker, chief of the War Department’s National Detective Police in Washington. Baker in turn gave it to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton but the book was not produced as evidence in the 1865 conspiracy trial. A couple of years later, the diary was re-discovered with pages missing. Although most sources indicate 18 pages were missing, Norton says, the FBI’s forensic laboratory has since examined the diary and stated that 43 separate sheets (86 pages) are missing. And these missing pages have led to all kinds of speculation. Today, the diary is held by Ford’s Theatre, and much about it can be read on the theatre’s website (there is also a photograph of the diary - as above). Many books/websites reproduce the text of Booth’s diary, sometimes editing/correcting the language/spelling. I have taken the following from The American Civil War: An Anthology of Essential Writings by Ian Frederick Finseth (available to preview at Googlebooks).

17 April 1865
‘14 Friday the Ides
Until to day [sic] nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done. But its failure is owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A Col - was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night, with the bones of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill: Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to out-live my country. This night (before the deed), I wrote a long article and left it for one of the Editors of the National Inteligencer, [sic] in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings. He or the Govmt’

22 April 1865
‘Friday 21
After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every mans hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a Hero. And yet 1 for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One, hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his countrys but his own wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country groaned beneath this tyranny and prayed for this end. Yet now behold the cold hand they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see any wrong except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little I left behind to clear my name, the Govrnt will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and Holy, brought misery on my family, and am sure there is no pardon in Heaven for me since man condemns me so. I have only heard what has been done (except what I did myself) and it fills me with horror. God try and forgive me and bless my mother. To night 1 will once more try the river with the intent to cross, though I have a greater desire to return to Washington and in a measure clear my name which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before God but not to man.

I think I have done well, though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me. When if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness.

To night I try to escape these blood hounds once more. Who can read his fate. Gods will be done.

I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh may he, may he spare me that and let me die bravely.

I bless the entire world. Have never hated or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so. And its with him, to damn or bless me. And for this brave boy with me who often prays (yes before and since) with a true and sincere heart, was it a crime in him, if so why can he pray the same I do not wish to shed a drop of blood, but “I must fight the course” Tis all thats left me.’

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