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John Wilkes Booth Loomis Has a Nice Ring to It

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Naming your kids after John Wilkes Booth. Now that takes some hate.

Dozens of Lincoln’s enemies honoured his assassin in the same manner as the Devrees family. A quick search via the Federal census records on the Ancestry website reveals roughly a hundred American families who appear to have named children after Booth in the post-war years. Unsurprisingly, about 90% heralded from the southern states, but a small handful, like the Illinoisans, were northerners – probably ‘Copperhead’ opponents of the Union cause seeking solace in small acts of defiance. Most of the northern Booths came from counties close to slaveholding areas – places where sympathies for the Confederate cause ran deep – and I haven’t found a single instance of a postwar New Englander (citizens of the old antislavery heartland) sharing a name with Lincoln’s killer. Notably, in borderlands like Missouri – where neighbour clashed with neighbour and the Federal government fought to contain dissent – the practice was particularly common. Some of the records leave little to the imagination when it comes to the parents’ political loyalties (John Wilkes Booth Sharp, born in Georgia, circa 1871), but others (Washington Booth Stamton, born in Baltimore, circa 1871) hint at an attempt to induct Booth into a pantheon of American heroes. The true heir to the father of the republic, the latter implied, was the actor-assassin, and not the martyred president.

These families, in preserving the memory of Lincoln’s killer, were writing a history of the Civil War in which liberty was the victim rather than the victor. As late as the 1890s the odd new-born in the South was given Booth’s name, though the practice seems to have become less common after the restoration of white supremacy in the 1870s. This may be a result of changing enumeration practices, but it might owe something also to the late nineteenth-century “reconciliationist” remembering of the Civil War as a noble struggle between two valiant adversaries, and not as an ideological conflict over slavery, race, and citizenship. The first professional historians writing around the turn of the century cast Lincoln as a magnanimous commander-in-chief whose slaying served as an excuse for the imposition of a supposedly Carthaginian peace on the Confederacy. Booth here was no longer the defender of liberty but a man whose rash crime ushered in the phantom horrors of Reconstruction. It might have been unwise to use his name.

I’d love to know how many–if any–went by their names in adulthood. One has trouble imagining being named after John Wilkes Booth being good for one’s employment prospects or social connections.

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