Edwin Booth, actor, famed tragedian, theater manager, and Union supporter was in Boston when he heard the news from Washington. He’d living been in Dorchester with his daughter after the recent death of his wife, setting up for a show at the Boston Theatre in between performances in New York. People in Boston liked Edwin—he was talented, a rising star. I haven’t read the right biographies to tell you that much about his personality, but I know he was an actor who came up in a wildly eccentric, often financially insolvent, over-the-top family, whose patriarch was a adulterous, wife-abandoning, self-aggrandizing, immigrant spotlight hog. And given what I know of wildly eccentric, self-aggrandizing, spotlight hogging families, I suspect Edwin Booth would have probably been no stranger to a therapist’s sofa, if therapist’s sofas were a thing in 1864.
And that was before he found out his little brother shot the president.
I think a lot about that moment, by the by. Edwin Booth hearing about John Wilkes—the would-be, the not as good, the matinee idol, the confederate, the assassin. That’s a thing to process. An actor, famed for his ability to play Shakespearean tragedy, suddenly finding himself a supporting character in a national travesty. It’s one of history’s heartbreaking b-sides, a devastating real life performance, and, was, for many years one of the saddest, most furious things I could imagine. 100% the kind of scene you write a whole play to highlight, and indeed, there are a lot of plays about Edwin Booth.
I hadn’t really thought about Edwin Booth in a while. The last year, the last few years, have tended to push my historical interests to other places, other people, and into other weird little grimy courtyards in the backalleys of the past. It is my great fortune that I am not immediately related to any would-be traitors and assassins (at least not in this generation) and that my immediate biological family is blessedly free of the conspiracy theorists, bigots, religious zealots, and grandstanding, willfully ignorant blowhards that so many people I love have had to manage over the last four years (and sometimes their whole lives). About the most frustrating thing I’ve had to deal with is occasionally Snopes-ing some antiscientific garbage someone reposts (with the best of intentions but zero secondary sources) or explaining (again) that Antifa is an adjective and not some vast, organized radical leftist organization (and once again, and to be clear, there is no vast, organized radical leftist organization of any kind concomitant with the bloody-minded union of white supremacists, authoritarian theocrats, opportunists, bored, delusional suburbanites, actual fascists and freelance shit stirrers that comprises the Current Activated Far Right in the US. You’re really going to have to trust me on this one, people).
But then came Wednesday. Wednesday. I sat at my computer in the middle of a workday watching hordes of weapons-grade Freedom-huffers subsume the US Capitol geared up like a collage of all the worst ideas in white people history, abetted by willfully oblivious law enforcement and the DC Proud Boys fan club chapter that evidently moonlights as Capitol Police. It was both unimaginable and completely unsurprising. Like, they’ve been saying they were going to do it. The President. The President—the actual President of the United States—has been telling them to do it. And they knew (they know?) they could get away with it.
I didn’t think about Edwin Booth when an internet acquaintance recognized one of his cousins posing for selfies in the Congressional rotunda, or when a friend admitted that she was afraid of talking to her parents about it—“They’ll either call it a Great Day in American History or an Antifa False Flag operation and I’m not sure what’s worse.” It wasn’t even when I saw that the newly elected, absurdly-named, actual Nazi congressman from my (criminally gerrymandered) hometown district helped to incite the riot at the preceding rally whilst wearing a jacket he evidently purchased from the Brooks Brothers Hermann Goering collection.
For me, it was my mother on the phone recounting a story from the local news in my hometown much later that night about a nice white middle-aged lady, with nice white middle-aged lady hair and a nice white lady MAGA hat, who’d taken a trip to the rally from one town down the road from my parents’ house. She recounted her day’s adventure with a giggle and grin as “so much fun and I met so many nice people!” as if she’s just returned from a book club as opposed to storming the capitol in an act of overt insurrection bent on tearing down the government and disenfranchising thousands of voters and . . . and then what exactly? Installing an authoritarian dictatorship? Bringing about the new fascist world order? Uncovering the cells full of children stolen by lizard people, Hilary Clinton and George Soros in some secret prison under the Senate chamber and then getting swept off her feet by a dashing Q as they save the world together and ride off into the sunset on a white horse under a confederate battle flag? All of the above?
What kind of person do you have to be to try and literally try and destroy the government, to end democracy, to create widespread havoc and chaos, to rattle the foundations of the nation to call up REVOLUTION because because a heavily indebted, second-rate real estate developer from Queens with delusions of near-godlike grandeur doesn’t like losing, and then describe it like a lark.
I mean, if you want to topple a government, if you want to destroy a nation, at least own it. At least know your history. At least, have the decency to treat it more seriously than a bus trip to Branson with the girls from your bridge club.
“I grieve for this country,” I said, because I’m not a flag waver. I complain about the US all the time. I insult it to its face. I serve up plenty of tea on the Founding Fathers. I talk about Civil Wars in other countries. I am no one’s idea of a patriot. But what I thought in that moment was I grieve for my country.
And, you know, I thought about Edwin Booth.
After the assassination, Boston police came to Edwin Booth’s house to investigate. He allowed them access to his rooms, his papers, whatever they needed. They found nothing incriminating, just a grieving man and his daughter.Booth wrote to the owner of the theater, asking to be released from his performance contract. How could anyone decent justify a Booth in the spotlight? A good performer knows when it’s time to leave the stage. A great performer actually does it.
“The news of the morning has made me wretched, indeed, not only because I have received the unhappy tidings of the suspicions of a brother’s crime, but because a good man and a most justly honored and patriotic ruler has fallen in an hour of national joy by the hand of an assassin.”
He worried for the future, that his brother’s reckless act might undermine all progress made through the anguish of civil war.
“But,” he wrote, “whatever calamity may befall me or mine, my country, one and indivisible, has been my warmest devotion.”
He left town with his daughter. He moved back to New York. He wrote an apology letter, a pale shadow of the one he wrote the day of to an audience of one. It was published in a bunch of newspapers. He planned to retire from acting. Some months later, at a train station in Jersey City, Edwin Booth quietly, and without fanfare, helped a young Robert Todd Lincoln mind the gap between platform train car crowded with soldiers, and, in the most low key way possible, saved his life.
Within the year, Booth started acting again. He played Hamlet, the great tragic Shakespearean hero, and played him so well that he played him to packed houses for much of his decades-long acting career He became a philanthropist. He lived a long and successful life.
Which is to say, Edwin Booth healed. He was a celebrity, a white man.
I am not a celebrity. I am, however, nice, middle-aged, middle class white lady. Odds are: I will do okay, too.
But that doesn’t feel like the right end to this story.
Because while Edwin Booth was dazzling audiences and endowing salons in Gramercy Park, Reconstruction went sideways. Jim Crow flourished for nearly another century ( and continues, in some form, to this day). The post Civil War world, with its promises of freedom and liberty, its hard won victories and attempts at justice and reparation, soon fell away, victim to the whims of government and the confidence of white men who knew they would get away with it. Because they were white men. Because it’s easier to claim beg forgiveness than demand change. Because we’d rather let the status quo off the hook for the most grievous of offenses than allow anyone else the opportunity to so much as speak their mind without interruption.
Edwin Booth has ended up the footnote, the anecdote, the answer to the trivia question. But on Wednesday, I saw Sic Semper Tyrannis in human form. I watched hours of pathetic, would-be John Wilkeses, so astonishingly brainwashed, so insulated by privilege, so high on Trump’s (and their own) supply that didn’t even realize that’s what they were. And it scared the holy living shit out of me.
They could be the future. They will be our future. Unless we hold them accountable. Unless we disown so broadly their false reality that they can no longer accept it as true.
And I know how hard that will be. And I hope you have some ideas because honestly? I don’t think anyone’s “Hamlet” is going to cut it.
Picture today is of Edwin Booth and his daughter, Edwina, in about 1864.
As of this writing, 64,009,190 people have recovered from Covid-19.