February 20, 1817 — Two leading English actors went head to head at London’s Drury Lane theatre on this day in a thespian battle to decide which of the two was the nation’s finest actor. It was a contest that led indirectly to the death of one of America’s most famous presidents.
Junius Brutus Booth and Edmund Kean were outstanding Shakespearean actors, each with their own band of supporters known as Boothites and Keanites. In this clash, Kean played Othello while Booth performed as Iago.
It seems that Kean took the acting laurels in the production, but the rivalry between the two continued until 1821 when Booth finally called it a day and emigrated to the United States. There, the ninth of his ten children – John Wilkes Booth – was to become the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
JW Booth himself became an actor, making his debut at the age of 17 with a part in Richard III at Baltimore. He then toured the country with a Shakespearean acting company.
In 1862, he made his New York debut, this time as the lead in Richard III and the New York Herald described him as a "veritable sensation."
The following year, Booth was struck down by a respiratory illness and had to give up the stage – for a while at least.
It was at a time when the American Civil War was raging and the young actor – said to suffer from emotional instability – was not only a vigorous supporter of the Southern cause but a critic of Lincoln with a vehemence that bordered on hatred.
In March 1865, he became involved in a plot to kidnap the President. Booth and six Southern sympathisers, with Lincoln held hostage, would demand either peace or the release of Confederate soldiers as a ransom.
But the President failed to appear at the location where the kidnap was to take place and the plot had to be abandoned.
Frustrated, Booth looked for new ways to get at the President. And on the morning of April 14, 1865, he learned that Lincoln was to attend an evening performance of the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s theatre in Washington.
As a famous and popular actor Booth had free access to the theatre and took a seat for the performance. Then, during the play’s third act he went to the outer door of the presidential box and found Lincoln and his guests essentially unguarded.
Entering the box, he drew a gun and shot Lincoln through the back of the head.
Booth then swung himself over the balustrade and leapt to the stage, shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”). He broke his leg when he landed but was able to make his escape to an alley where he had a horse waiting.
He was tracked down to a farm 12 days later and shot dead when he refused to give himself up.
Although Junius Brutus Booth was the father of a notorious assassin, another of his sons – Edwin Thomas Booth – became a great Shakespearean actor who toured throughout America and the major capitals of Europe.
Some theatrical historians consider him the finest American actor of the 19th century, and certainly the greatest Hamlet.
Published: January 2, 2017
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