Booth Family Drama

Nora Titone’s My Thoughts Be Bloody (2010) provides an interesting new perspective on the Lincoln assassination.  Unlike most books on the topic, Nora begins with the colorful exodus of the Booth family patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, from England in 1821.  Fleeing his first wife and a three-year old son back in London, Junius Brutus Booth sought to begin a new life in the United States with his mistress Mary Anne Holmes.  He would eventually sire ten children with Mary Anne, including Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.

The first portion of the book is largely devoted to the life of Junius Brutus Booth who was not only a Romantic in every sense of the word, he considered himself a pantheist and was fiercely vegetarian, but also a drunkard.  By doing so, Nora strives to illustrate the environment from which the president’s assassin emerged.

John Wilkes Booth was forced to live as a boy with great economic privation and shame as his father’s first wife found out about Mary Anne and moved to Baltimore expressly to taunt and expose her through the courts as an adulteress.  The first Mrs. Booth would follow the family around the city’s streets screaming “whore” at the family as they went about their daily chores.

Nora also exposes a Oedipal struggle of sorts between the father and his two most famous sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, which later metamorphosizes into a struggle between the two brothers.  Edwin was by all accounts the son who inherited his father’s theatrical talents while John Wilkes merely obtained his old clothing and stage props.  Yet John Wilkes refused to concede that he would forever be outshone by his older sibling.

By the time that Nora reaches the last chapter of the book and the fateful night of Lincoln’s death at Ford’s Theater, we are already prepared to see this horrendous tragedy as in fact another dramatic play in the struggle for ownership of the Booth name.  Through killing the president, she implies, John Wilkes did not so much seek to influence the southern cause as he did to win the struggle that began between him and his father and then continued with his older brother Edwin.

Hindsight suggests that John Wilkes won the contest that Nora outlines as his name remains far better known than that of his brother Edwin or his father.  The great tragedy, however, that becomes apparent in this book is that John Wilkes could no longer distinguish between life and life on stage.  The two had merged towards the end of his days into one tragicomic stream.

My only complaint with the work is how long it takes the narrative to begin.  In her quest for proper contextualization, Nora runs the risk of losing the reader in the early sections of the book.  Nonetheless it is refreshing to see that “well-researched” popular history is alive and well as a genre.  Here is a work that is both authoritative as well as fun to read once you get past the first 30 pages.  Who would have imagined that in killing the president John Wilkes was actually killing the image of his brother?

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