On April 23, 1864, in celebration of Shakespeare’s 300th birthday, a group of prominent New Yorkers wished to commemorate the tricentennial by erecting a statue. As part of the project’s fundraising effort, New York theatregoers joyfully witnessed an historic event. Three members of the famous Booth family appeared on stage together for the first (and only) time. Although Edwin was the most acclaimed, all three brothers were considered among the most prominent Shakespearean interpreters of the day. The benefit was successful, the Booths being toasted and celebrated throughout the city.
But on the 301st anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, it is doubtful that there were any celebrations in America, and certainly not by the three brothers who had been honored so highly only months before. John Wilkes Booth was being hunted down by Union forces in the swamps of Maryland. Edwin Booth was secluded at his home in New York amidst a barrage of hate mail and death threats. Junius Brutus Booth Jr. was about to be arrested by federal agents and incarcerated in a Washington prison. President Lincoln had been assasinated, and a shocked nation sought swift retribution.
On the night of April 14, 1865 John Wilkes Booth made his final appearance on stage after leaping onto it from the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. His farewell speech consisted of only three words: “sic semper tyrannis,” words that would live in infamy since they were not spoken by an actor but by an assassin. That same evening both of his brothers were performing in productions that were warmly received, at least until the newspapers appeared the following morning.
Edwin performed in Boston that evening and was scheduled to perform a matinee of Hamlet the following afternoon. His brother John had visited Boston a week before, and as unbridled grief swept the nation on the morning of April 15th, so did unbridled conspiracy theories. In a staunchly Union and abolitionist stronghold, Edwin began to fear for his life. Needless to say, the matinee was cancelled.
That same evening in Cincinnati, Junius received generous applause as he played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The following morning an angry rabble tore down all playbills bearing his name and stormed his hotel. The hotel clerk lied to the mob and reported that Junius had already checked out, perhaps saving the actor’s life. It was two days before friends were able to smuggle Booth out of the hotel and onto a train bound for Philadelphia, where his sister Asia and her husband, the actor John Clarke, were living under virtual house arrest.
Edwin’s departure from Boston went far more smoothly. The celebrated actor was a favorite of Bostonians and had made the acquaintance of many prominent people over the years. Known as a staunch Unionist, he was defended by abolitionists (including Julia Ward Howe), clergymen, journalists and even the Governor of Massachusetts. All rose to his defense, the Boston Post declaring “There is not a more devoted friend to the Union than Edwin Booth.” After federal marshals searched his trunks and found nothing incriminating, he was allowed to return home to New York on April 17th, where he isolated himself and tried to deal with the overwhelming events, drafting a letter announcing his retirement from the stage.
A few days later in Philadelphia, both Junius and his brother-in-law were arrested and sent to Washington’s Old Capitol Prison. On the train ride on April 25th, Junius is reported to have said that he “wished John had been killed before the assassination, for the sake of the family name.” The following day John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed in Maryland, his brother Edwin calling the event “a blessed relief.”
However, the spectre of the assassin would linger. Both Junius and John Clarke were released after a few weeks of interrogation and testimony, but the ordeal left both men shaken, convinced that the Booth name would forever be poisonous. John Clarke went so far as to demand a divorce from his pregnant wife. She refused and gave birth to twins (both of whom would become actors). But Clarke succeeded in relocating his family to London, where he subsequently established a lucrative acting career. In 1874, Asia wrote a memoir that attempted to shed light on her infamous brother, keeping it secret lest she upset her husband. The memoir was not published until 1938, when her heirs felt the public might finally be receptive.
Nearly 18 months after the assassination, Edwin Booth came out of retirement and once again set foot on the Boston stage where he had appeared on that fateful night. Before he could begin performing the title role in Othello he was interrupted by a two-minute ovation. The warm reception helped Edwin to convince his brother to join him as his stage manager. Although Edwin eventually returned to New York, Junius remained a subdued theatre manager in Boston for the rest of his life. He married a prominent actress, and it appears they found happiness and a comfortable role in the Boston theatre community.
Although Edwin Booth was tortured for the rest of his life by the tragedy, a devoted public did not burden him with the sins of his brother. He remained a box office draw until his final retirement. Although undoubtedly the most acclaimed Hamlet of his own time, he is now considered by many to be the most influential American actor of the 19th century. His farewell performance was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on April 4, 1891, playing the title role in Hamlet, his signature piece. In 1888 he founded The Players, a gentlemen’s social club for actors in New York City, dedicating his house on Gramercy Park to the project. It remains home to The Players to this day, the bedroom where he died maintained as it was on that day in 1893, a tribute from a grateful posterity.