Filled with ambition, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy, this story of the celebrated Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and the two sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, who competed to wear his crown, is as gripping as a fine work of fiction. Yet, given the role that the younger son played in murdering President Abraham Lincoln, My Thoughts Be Bloody is simultaneously an important work of history—the best account I have ever read of the complex forces that led John Wilkes Booth to carry a gun into Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
Spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, the book carries us back to early nineteenth-century London, where Junius Booth, handsome, tormented, and brilliant, is the toast of the town. Married with a small child, he falls in love with nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Holmes. Abandoning his family, he flees with his mistress to America, where he begins a new family and becomes a towering star, traveling from one city to the next, delivering passionate performances of Richard III, Hamlet, and King Lear.
Early on, Nora Titone convincingly argues, two of Junius’s four surviving sons give promise of following in their father’s footsteps. But which of the two would succeed—the more intelligent, sensitive Edwin or the handsomer, more aggressive John Wilkes—is unclear. When Junius chooses the older son, Edwin, to accompany him on the road, a fierce jealousy begins to fester in John Wilkes. Though Edwin finds traveling with his hard-drinking father difficult, he begins to experience the magic of the theater. On his own, he memorizes long passages from Shakespeare; he absorbs his father’s gestures, accents, and facial expressions. He hungers for the fame his father has achieved.
Edwin’s chance comes when Junius suddenly dies. As throngs of mourners gather for the funeral procession, the nineteen-year-old Edwin assumes his father’s mantle and soon becomes a greater star than Junius ever was. In contrast to his father’s bombastic style, he mesmerizes audiences with the naturalness of his performances and his conversational tone. Critics rate his first performance as Richard III “a blaze of genius.” Moving from one triumph to another, he becomes a wealthy man when still in his early twenties.
When John Wilkes comes of age, he too becomes an actor. His handsome features and well-proportioned body hold promise, but he possesses neither the talent nor the discipline to become a star. Edwin fears that his brother will dilute the family name and that two Booths on the same circuit will cut into his profits, even though he is, by far, the better known. He has power to wield, however, so he divides the United States into two regions. Each brother would perform in his own region, never crossing into the other’s territory. Edwin takes the populous North, including New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, while John Wilkes is relegated to the less populous South, where audiences and profits are much smaller. John Wilkes begins his first Southern tour in 1860, as the country itself is dividing along the same lines as his brother’s map.
Toiling in the South, John Wilkes begins to sympathize with the Confederate cause, increasing tensions with his Union-loving family. After performing in New Orleans, where he meets up with members of the Confederate Secret Service, John Wilkes finally finds his chance for stardom by joining the conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln. His decision, Titone persuasively argues, is forged as much by his failed career, his squandered earnings, and his jealousy of his brother’s success, as by his politics or his hatred for Lincoln.
In short, this book forces us to look at the familiar story of Lincoln’s assassin in a new way—through the lens of his tangled family history. Moreover, by placing Edwin Booth at center stage, it brings back to vivid life a fascinating figure whose achievements have been obscured by his brother’s murderous deed. We see Edwin performing before President Lincoln, dining with Secretary of State William Seward, befriending Julia Ward Howe and Adam Badeau, General Grant’s aide-de-camp. We learn that no other actor in the golden age of nineteenth-century theater was ever held in higher esteem. Still, as Titone appreciates, through a final desperate performance, John Wilkes Booth accomplished by death what he had never been able to achieve in life—he finally upstaged his brother.
—Doris Kearns Goodwin
April 29, 2010
© 2010 Nora Titone