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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,546

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This is the grave of Edwin Booth.

Born in 1833 in Bel Air, Maryland, Booth grew up in the United States’ most prominent acting family. His father was Junius Booth and his brother, well, was John Wilkes Booth. Well, we can’t judge people by their loser younger brothers. It was a family business and from the time he was a child, Edwin Booth was on the stage, working with his father. Much of the Booth family theater was interpreting Shakespeare for American audiences and that’s how Edwin got going too. He appeared in Richard III in 1849. Then, in 1851, when Junius was sickening and starting to move toward death, Edwin replaced him as Richard III. A bit young to play Richard, but then Junius was way too old to play him. Not that anyone cares about age and Shakespeare, not really.

In any case, when Junius died in 1852, Edwin became the family patriarch and leader and he immediately went on a huge tour to promote himself and his family’s continued legacy as the kings of the American theater. This was a world tour, getting all the way to Australia. He didn’t come back to the U.S. until 1856, when he returned to a big performance in Sacramento and then worked his way back east.

Now, Edwin Booth was a big supporter of the Union in the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s politics. John Wilkes was problematic in any number of ways and among other things, seems to have had the little brother syndrome of opposing what big brother believed in. But they did work together. In 1864, Edwin, John, and Junius Jr., all appeared together in a production of Julius Caesar, the only time that they all appeared together on the stage. The idea behind it was to raise money to build a Shakespeare statue in New York City, which was successful.

Booth was horrified by his brother. I mean, I don’t think they were close at all. John Wilkes was always trouble. But my God, being the brother of the man who assassinated Lincoln? Especially when Edwin was a Republican. Edwin just completely disowned his brother, to the point that he banned anyone speaking his name in the house. He made it very clear to the public where he stood and it didn’t really hurt his career. There’s an additional side to this, which is that Booth had saved Robert Lincoln’s life. Much later, in 1909, Lincoln recalled it, saying that in late 1864 or early 1865, Lincoln had slipped trying to board a train and was heading down onto the tracks when Booth grabbed his jacket and helped him get up. In fact, while Lincoln knew who Booth was, Booth did not know the face of Robert Lincoln, but the story spread pretty quickly. Lincoln was working on Grant’s staff (which Abraham Lincoln had set up so his last son would not be killed in the war) and another of Grant’s top staffers, Adam Badeau, went up and thanked Booth. It was only then that Booth figured out he had saved Robert Lincoln’s son. Evidently, after John Wilkes assassinated Lincoln, this fact helped him move on a bit. But still. Ugh.

In the mid-1860s, Booth was working exclusively in New York and pretty exclusively doing Hamlet. After the brothers did their Shakespeare statue fundraiser, Booth stayed in town and played Hamlet 100 nights in a row on the same stage. In 1922, John Barrymore decided he wanted to match and beat Booth here, so he did Hamlet 101 straight nights. Booth was also managing the Winter Garden Theatre in New York at this time, mostly doing the various Shakespeare tragedies. Naturally, he took a bit of a break from the stage after his asshole brother killed the president. But came back in January 1866 for more Hamlet. He also would play in Othello from time to time. This amuses me slightly but in his production, when he wasn’t working the role, he would have James O’Neill do it, who was Black Irish and he just figured, well, what’s really the difference between them and the African anyway.

Booth did feel he had some family obligations to his awful brother. He wanted him buried properly. But the remains were with the federal government. Booth lobbied Andrew Johnson to give him the body. Johnson, not surprisingly, was a complete dick about this and refused for a long time, finally only giving them back after many letters of pleading in early 1869. This was typical of Johnson–make the elites kneel before him and then do what they want after they so fealty, though usually that was to support white supremacy. But the president was nothing if not petty. Speaking of assassinations, once, in 1879, someone tried to kill Edwin Booth. It doesn’t seem to have had much to do with his brother, but rather because he was so famous, the guy was crazy, and believed that Booth had slighted one of his friends. He was playing Richard II in Chicago and the guy took two shots at him, luckily missing. America is one violent society and really always has been.

Now, like any good Republican, Booth liked to invest his money in the new economy of the Gilded Age. He built himself a super fancy theater in Manhattan in 1869 and promoted it, doing lots of his big performances there. But it was so expensive to maintain. It never made much money. Then the Panic of 1873 hit and of course Booth was totally exposed, both in his investments and his theater. He pretty much lost everything. He had to start a new world tour in 1874 to regain his financial footing, which was in fact quite successful. He actually became quite rich again. He spent part of his later years at his mansion he had Calvert Vaux build him in Middletown, Rhode Island. Boothden still exists today. Can’t say I love the style but whatever.

Booth had a stroke in 1891. He mostly recovered, but then died unexpectedly in 1893, perhaps of a second stroke. He was 59 years old.

Booth’s daughter Edwina became the keeper of the family legacy and spent much of her life writing about the glories of her father to keep up the family reputation in the aftermath of John Wilkes being the only Booth anyone really remembered anymore. But Edwin Booth has remained famous enough that he’s been played many times in biopics or other semi-biographical pieces, including by Richard Burton, Martin Landau, and Jose Ferrer. Not bad company there. And Will Forte played him in a Drunk History episode, one of the greatest concepts in the entire history of television right there I should add.

Edwin Booth is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Booth naturally enough was an inaugural member of the American Theater of Hall of Fame, which was created in 1972, and which is now in the Gershwin Theater in New York. If you would like this series to visit other inaugural members of that august museum, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lillian Gish is in Manhattan and Alfred Lunt is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And don’t forget to support the upcoming grave trips to the South if you have a dime! Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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