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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 607

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This is the grave of Junius Booth.

Born in 1796 in London, Booth came out of a fairly radical family. His father was a big supporter of the American Revolution and he was related to the English radical John Wilkes on his mother’s side. Well, that name wouldn’t turn out well for the family. Anyway, Booth grew up rich, as his father was a major lawyer, but he was kind of a roustabout, struggling to find anything he wanted to do with his life. The only thing he really cared about was the theatre, hardly a respectable occupation for a rich kid. But this is where he went. And he was very good. He received national renown in 1817 for his portrayal of Richard III and for the next few years, the British public was torn over whether Booth or Edmund Kean was the best actor in the nation.

That debated in 1821 when Booth abandoned his wife and baby son and went to the United States with a flower girl named Mary Ann Holmes. They did not marry until 1851, since he never got around to the divorce of his first wife. They moved to Maryland and by 1823, Booth was widely considered the best actor in the U.S., reprising his role of Richard III. He spent the next three decades traveling the nation as the greatest American actor, doing long stints in cities from Boston to New Orleans. He occasionally worked in Britain too, coming home in 1825-26 and 1836-37. He also managed the Adelphi Theatre in Baltimore, becoming a major patron of American acting as well as a great actor himself.

Still, things weren’t that great. He and Mary Ann lost three of their children to the 1833 cholera epidemic. Also, Booth was a massive drunk. He would go on huge benders that seriously affected his work by the mid-1830s, often screwing up on stage. He’d also just bail on whole runs and disappear into the bars for days until someone found him and sobered him up for awhile. He was also a violent man and once, the actress playing Desdemona in a production of Othello had to be rescued when it was clear Booth was actually trying to suffocate her with the pillow. His voice also changed after being beaten in a fight when he attacked his own friend with a fireplace andiron, leading the man to defend himself. Booth also once threatened to assassinate Andrew Jackson in a letter to the president. This was over his demand that the president pardon two pirates who evidently were friends of Booth’s. Some have speculated that Booth and Jackson knew each other enough to be friendly an that this was a joke, but we know how Booth treated his friends. Nice guy all around.

In 1852, Booth got sick on a steamship, probably from drinking river water contaminated with something. He died soon after, at the age of 56. His son, John Wilkes Booth, would go on to be the nation’s most notorious villain and assassin.

Junius Booth is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. As always, many thanks! If you would like this series to visit more 19th century actors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edwin Forrest is in Philadelphia and Charlotte Cushman is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts are archived here.

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