Ok so I might be being dramatic. But if melancholy be the food of dramatics, read on.
If you recognize his surname, it’s thanks to his brother. You know, the man who shot President Lincoln? Yeah, Edwin was the big brother to John Wilkes Booth. Both were actors, both were incredibly wealthy, and both were incredibly famous in their day. But thanks to the events of April 14, 1865 the Booth name is no longer synonymous with an acting dynasty but with tragedy.
Edwin Booth was more famous than his brother, but his life was far more depressing. What reads like something out of a lonely Lifetime movie actually happened to a real man who really existed (and most of it, far before John Wilkes ever knew Lincoln’s name).
1. Edwin left home at age 12– to babysit his alcoholic father.
Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin’s father, was the most famous actor in America. He also had a drinking problem and was known to down an impressive number of drinks, streaking through public streets, or pass out immediately before curtain, rendering him incapacitated. While Edwin’s siblings stayed home on the family farm in Bel Air, Maryland, hismother sent him to tour with his father to “keep his eye on him.” That’s right, a tiny, adolescent boy was expected to keep tabs on a burly 50 year old man.
For seven years, Edwin was his father’s keeper and even once stepped into his shoes when Junius was too drunk to perform. In 1852, Junius struck ill and was sent on a steamboat back to Baltimore. He died of cholera on the voyage. When Edwin’s mother found out her husband was alone when he died, she blamed Edwin and forbade him from returning home.
Edwin returned to Baltimore in 1856 with his pockets full of gold to repay the family’s debts. Forgiven, his mother was overjoyed to have him return and his sisters fawned over his stories from California and Australia, where he had most recently toured with famed actress Laura Keene.
In later life, Edwin noted that his childhood died the day he left to tour with his father.
2. He married the love of his life–only to have her die three years later.
In the late 1850s, Edwin met Mary Devlin, a gorgeous, talented actress, and the two soon fell in love. The two married in 1860 and their daughter, Edwina, was born in 1861.
The two were passionately in love. In 1863, when Mary was only 22, she became incredibly ill. Edwin was in New York, and was sent urgent telegrams regarding her condition. However, like his father, Edwin was an alcoholic and was too inebriated to even read the telegrams. By the time he was sober enough to reach Mary in Boston, she had already passed. The death of his young wife sent Edwin into a tailspin. He swore off drinking and threw himself into his work.
In 1869, he married his acting partner, Mary McVicker. She was far less talented than his first wife, and her poor performances combined with a failing economy drove Booth’s company into bankruptcy. The two had incredibly clashing personalities and the marriage was not a happy one.
3. He was the target of an assassination.
Though Edwin was a known Union-supporter (he only voted once in his life, and that vote was for Abraham Lincoln), he took the brunt of hatred directed towards his brother. On April 23, 1879, Edwin was performing the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II. During his final soliloquy, a man in the balcony was holding a pistol and a copy of the script, following along with Edwin. The man fired three times, and Edwin calmly rose and pointed in the direction of the shots. Audience members restrained the man and Edwin silently left the stage. The man was found to be Mark Gray, a traveling salesman from Iowa. A letter was found in Gray’s hand stating he intended to murder Booth.
4. He had to live in his brother’s shadow.
Edwin was far more talented than his younger brother, but after 1865 he was forever living with his ghost. He withdrew from the stage for eight months after Lincoln’s assassination, fearing for his own life. Even though he never spoke his infamous brother’s name in public, he repeatedly wrote to President Johnson for his body so he could be interred in the family plot in Baltimore. Shortly after his brother’s death, Edwin wrote to their sister, Asia; “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world.”
Though the two frequently fought over political views, one instance even involved Edwin picking John up by his shirt collar and literally throwing him out on the street, Edwin was forced to repeatedly take the blame for him after John’s death, as if being the elder brother, he could have done something to prevent it.
5. Pretty much everything he did was dripping with melancholy.
Sometime after the assassination, Edwin attended a New York party, when he noticed a bronze cast of someone’s hands on the mantel. He picked them up, and asked the host who they belonged to. When the host said “Abraham Lincoln,” Edwin silently placed them back on the shelf.
Even his onstage persona was full of sadness. His Hamlet was so revered because of his new acting style. While his father was loud and dramatic, Edwin was more subtle, quiet, and softer–popularizing realism.
There are numerous accounts of John Wilkes’ womanizing ways and his charm. Edwin appeared to be the exact opposite, quiet, withdrawn, and dedicated to his work, especially after the death of Mary Devlin. Though I suppose a lifetime of heartache and the fast road to adulthood won’t make you the life of the party.
Though the Booth name is thought to be traitorous today, in New York City, Edwin is remembered and respected within the theater community. The city that Edwin called home for much of his life holds numerous monuments to the famed Shakespearean actor. The Booth Theater on West 45th street was named after him in 1913 and remains to be the first and oldest theater named after an actor. (Though one of their first productions, however, was Our American Cousin- the comedy Lincoln was attending when assassinated). Near Union Square is Gramercy Park, a small private 2-acre park that is only accessible by residents who pay an annual fee or Player’s Club members, which holds a statue of Edwin at the center. Booth founded The Player’s Club in 1888 to promote “social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts . . .” His apartment, which lays upstairs from the actual club, remains the same as it did when he died on June 7, 1893.
Prince of Players: Edwin Booth by Eleanor Ruggles
My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Lead to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone
Genius, and other essays: Edwin Booth by Edmund Clarence Stedman
The Player’s Club website