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The Ghost of John Wilkes Booth

Photo of Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth.

For Halloween, I have an unusual sort of ghost story to share. Appropriately enough for the season, it deals with costumes – the theatrical costumes of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

Booth, remember, was one of the leading actors of his day. He was particularly renowned for his performances of Shakespeare. Even for an actor, he was inordinately vain. He expected that murdering President Lincoln would make him a national hero. So, with posterity in mind, he secretly shipped all his stage belongings to Canada before committing his infamous deed.

Booth’s trunk was rediscovered in 1873, and returned to his older brother, Edwin. Edwin Booth was also an actor. Indeed, the Booths were a famous theatrical family. John, Edwin and their older brother, Junius Jr., all followed in the footsteps of their father, the great English-born actor Junius Brutus Booth. Unlike John, however, Edwin had been a loyal Union supporter during the Civil War, and was horrified when his brother killed Lincoln.

Initially, public outrage over the assassination extended to the entire Booth clan. Edwin was forced to retire temporarily from the stage. Edwin’s father had been destroyed by alcoholism and insanity and, for a time, the family feared that Edwin would suffer the same fate. But he emerged in 1866 to become the “Prince of Players” – America’s leading actor and the era’s most renowned interpreter of Hamlet.

Imagine Edwin’s feelings in 1873, on receiving the trunk that contained his brother’s costumes!

Actually, we don’t have to imagine. A call boy at Booth’s theatre named Garrie Davidson witnessed what happened to the trunk and its contents, and later told the story to the actor Otis Skinner, the father of actress and author Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Garrie said that one night, after a performance, Edwin Booth told him that he needed a few hours’ sleep, but asked the boy to wake him at three o’clock in the morning. On being roused at that hour, Edwin got up and had Garrie follow him to the basement of the theatre. There, he ordered Garrie to stoke the fire in the furnace and to break open an old trunk lying in the corner. Inside, dusty and reeking of camphor, were John Wilkes Booth’s costumes, wigs and swords from all his great classical and romantic roles. Edwin took them out one by one, regarded each item tenderly, and then resolutely passed them to the boy, who stuffed them into the furnace.

“It was awful,” Davidson told Skinner, “to watch him sit there without a word, inspecting each article, touching it as if it were his own flesh and blood …”

Finally, at the bottom of the trunk, Edwin unearthed a long purple tunic and fur-trimmed cloak. The discovery nearly undid him. He sat down on the lid of the empty trunk and said in a choked voice, “My father’s! Garrie, this was Junius Brutus Booth’s costume for Richard III. He wore it in Boston on the first night I went on the stage as Tressell.”

Garrie wanted to spare this particular relic, but Edwin said, “No, put it with the others.” As Garrie consigned this last costume to the flames, Edwin broke down and sobbed like a child.

The funeral pyre burned for several hours. At last, the costumes were reduced to ashes and even the swords had melted. Edwin turned to Garrie and said, “That’s all; we’ll go now.”

Happy Halloween.

Hal GordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.

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  • robert plunket

    How is Cherie Booth Blair related to John Wilkes Booth? I understand there's some sort of connection.