On April 15, 1865, a shroud of grief descended upon Boston as the city awoke to learn of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Flags that had been fluttering proudly since Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox just days before now drooped sorrowfully at half-staff. Miles of black crepe draped from buildings that only hours earlier sported an outburst of patriotic bunting. Merchants placed lithographs of the martyred president in their storefront windows and shuttered their doors — with the exception of those doing a brisk business selling black gloves, black ribbons, and other merchandise for mourning.
The bells of Boston’s churches tolled for an hour at the news of the president’s murder, and the assassin’s older brother heard every peal of anguish as he stared at his cold breakfast. For as John Wilkes Booth was taking center stage in an American drama at Ford’s Theatre the night before, Edwin Booth stepped before the footlights of the packed Boston Theatre to star in “The Iron Chest.” Little did the country’s most famous thespian know that the lines he had exclaimed as a villain draped in black velvet — “Where is my honor now? Mountains of shame are piled upon me!” — would become his searing reality the following morning.
Just three columns to the left of the breathless page-one report on the assassination in that morning’s Boston Daily Advertiser blared an advertisement trumpeting Edwin Booth’s scheduled matinee performance as “Hamlet” to conclude his successful three-week Boston engagement. The show, of course, would not go on. “A fearful calamity is upon us,” Boston Theatre manager Henry Jarrett wrote to his star, informing him of the performance’s cancellation. “The President of the United States has fallen by the hand of an assassin, and I am shocked to say, suspicion points to one nearly related to you as the perpetrator of this horrid deed.”
Suspicions of complicity enveloped the Booth family. In Cincinnati, hands that had the night before applauded the performance of Junius Brutus Booth Jr. as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” now tore down playbills branded with his name. A vengeful mob stormed his hotel only to be turned away by a quick-thinking clerk who falsely claimed that the eldest Booth brother had already skipped town. Not until two days later could friends safely smuggle Junius out of the hotel and onto a train bound for Philadelphia, where his sister, Asia Booth Clarke, had been placed under virtual house arrest.
With John Wilkes still on the run and news spreading that the assassin had visited Boston just days earlier, Edwin increasingly feared for his safety. If the Booths found themselves under siege elsewhere, what would happen to him in the abolitionist hotbed of Boston? The answer turned out to be quite unexpected.
John Wilkes Booth had been a familiar — and even popular — figure in Boston’s theater scene. Although lacking Edwin’s talent, he regularly appeared on the city’s stages during the Civil War and even purchased an undeveloped plot on Commonwealth Avenue in the newly created Back Bay neighborhood. The last starring engagement of his life — a five-week run — came at the Boston Museum on Tremont Street in the spring of 1864.
Susan Wilson, house historian of the Omni Parker House and author of “Heaven By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House,” notes a bellman saw John Wilkes eating breakfast at the iconic hotel on the morning of April 6, 1865, and an eyewitness also told the Boston Evening Transcript that he spotted the assassin at the adjacent Floyd & Edwards shooting gallery where he “practiced pistol firing in various difficult ways such as between his legs, over his shoulder, and under his arm.” Whether John Wilkes met with Edwin on the trip is unknown, but by this point the Booths — like the country itself — were a house divided. Not only did John Wilkes sympathize with the rebels, but he had met with Confederate Secret Service agents at the Parker House on July 26, 1864, to discuss a plot to kidnap Lincoln.
Edwin’s Boston roots ran even deeper than his brother’s. At age 15, he made his professional stage debut at the Boston Museum, and his lead performance in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts” eight years later at the Boston Theatre cemented his stardom. On the same stage in 1858, he fell in love with his “Romeo and Juliet” co-star and future wife, Mary Devlin, and he mourned over her dead body five years later in a rented Washington Street home in then-pastoral Dorchester.
Edwin befriended leading statesmen, religious leaders, journalists, and abolitionists, including Julia Ward Howe, who referred to him as “Great B.” Those powerful friends rallied to his side on April 15. “There is not a more devoted friend to the Union than Edwin Booth,” the Boston Post assured its readers. The Rev. George H. Hepworth told the Boston Evening Transcript that Edwin “has always been a firm and unflinching supporter of the administration, casting the only vote of his life, last November, for Mr. Lincoln.” Even the Massachusetts governor, John Andrew, vouched for the actor’s patriotism.
After deputy US marshals found nothing incriminating in a search of Edwin’s trunks, they granted him permission to leave Boston. On April 17 the actor returned to his New York City home, where he holed up under a barrage of hate mail and death threats.
Compared to other family members, though, Edwin got off easy. The youngest Booth brother, Joseph, was briefly jailed. Junius and John Clarke, Asia’s husband, were arrested in Philadelphia and spent weeks incarcerated with other suspected conspirators in Washington’s Old Capitol Prison. On his forced journey to the nation’s capital on April 25, Junius said little except that he “wished John had been killed before the assassination, for the sake of the family name.” The manhunt for his brother ended the next day when a Union soldier named Boston Corbett shot him dead. Edwin admitted the news was “a blessed relief.”
All the Booths were eventually released from jail, but the family name had become so toxic that Asia and her husband eventually fled to Europe in 1868. Edwin and Junius, however, eventually found an unlikely refuge much closer to home.
Shortly after Edwin ended his exile from acting in January 1866, he purchased the Boston Theatre’s lease. On Sept. 3, 1866, the tragedian finally set foot on the floorboards he last prowled on the night of the assassination. Before Edwin could perform the title role in “Othello,” men shouted, applauded, and stamped their feet for nearly two full minutes while ladies waved their handkerchiefs. The sold-out audience’s thunderous reaction confirmed the Boston Evening Transcript’s report that Edwin still “enjoys a popularity greater than any other actor.” Even though Boston had grieved so deeply for Lincoln, it did not hold the sins of John Wilkes against his brother.
Edwin persuaded his older brother to come to Boston to be his stage manager, and Junius — caught between one brother’s fame and another’s infamy — found a comfortable niche in the city’s theatrical community. Junius fell in love with Boston as well as with one of its leading ladies, Agnes Perry. Two years after their 1867 marriage, the pair joined the growing summer colony of thespians and writers in Manchester (now Manchester-by-the-Sea) and built a seaside cottage above the broad crescent of Singing Beach.
In 1878 Junius and Agnes built quite the addition to their cottage — the sprawling 106-room Masconomo House, which became one of the North Shore’s premier summer resorts. With its bathhouses, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard tables, and 300-person dining room overlooking a 12-acre emerald lawn that kissed the sapphire sea, the Masconomo House became a playpen for Boston’s rich and famous. “It is a good facsimile of some of those charming hostelries to be seen around the shores of the Swiss lakes among the Alps,” gushed one 1880 North Shore guidebook.
When Junius died in 1883, his Boston-area ties were cemented for eternity with his burial not in the Booth family plot in Baltimore, but in Manchester’s Rosedale Cemetery. In the same year, Edwin settled among the Brahmins on Beacon Hill after the death of his second wife. The wrought-iron balconies and purple panes of glass in the drawing-room windows of the elegant brick home he purchased at 29 Chestnut St. firmly established him as a proper Bostonian.
Four years later, he sold the home and returned to New York, where he died on June 7, 1893. But Edwin, liked Junius, chose not to rest in peace in Baltimore but in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery next to his first wife and infant son.
In one of history’s eeriest coincidences, just as the organist struck the opening chords of Chopin’s haunting funeral march at Edwin’s service, three floors of Ford’s Theatre — which had been purchased by the federal government in 1866 and converted to War Department offices — collapsed into the basement. Twenty-two federal employees died. Rescue workers continued to pull mangled bodies from the rubble of Ford’s Theatre as gravediggers in Cambridge, bathed in the golden glow of a glorious sunset, shoveled dirt on top of Edwin’s antique oak coffin. Even in death, Edwin was forced to share the stage with memories of his infamous brother.
Christopher Klein is the author of “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.