John Wilkes Booth honed his acting while at Philadelphia's Arch Street Theatre

Joanne Hulme of Kensington with photos of members of the Booth family, of which she is a member. "His siblings spoke wonderfully of him," she said.
Joanne Hulme of Kensington with photos of members of the Booth family, of which she is a member. "His siblings spoke wonderfully of him," she said. (JONATHAN WILSON / File Photograph)
Posted: March 04, 2013

At Philadelphia's old Arch Street Theatre, he was a "great hit," the newspaper said.

His energetic performances in plays such as Richard III and The Marble Heart drew large crowds. And his dashing good looks - some called him "the handsomest man in America" - made him an instant heartthrob, the matinee idol of his day.

"The audience was very enthusiastic, the ladies joining in the applause," The Inquirer wrote of one appearance.

Before John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he was a well-known stage star warmly embraced by a city where he had strong ties to his famous thespian family.

With so much attention focused on the 16th president through Civil War sesquicentennial events, new books, the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, and record viewership for the National Geographic Channel's Killing Lincoln, Booth is again drawing an audience, historians say.

From March 2 to 14, 150 years ago, he appeared in several plays at the Arch, including The Merchant of Venice and The Apostate. It was the last time Booth performed in Philadelphia.

"He's hooked to Lincoln's star, like a bloodsucker on a host," said Terry Alford, a nationally recognized Booth scholar whose book Fortune's Fool: The Biography of John Wilkes Booth will be released next year. "Wherever Lincoln goes, he's not far behind."

Two local Booth family descendants - Joanne Hulme of Philadelphia's Kensington section and her sister Suzanne Flaherty of Bordentown - also have noticed the renewed interest in Booth but see him as more than an assassin.

"People who knew him couldn't understand how he could do such a thing," said Hulme, 63, an event planner and designer. "He was a valuable friend, he was his mother's darling, and his siblings spoke wonderfully of him.

"History wants to portray him as the worst person in the world, but he was more than Lincoln's assassin," she said. "That one thing did not sum up his whole life."

Actors today and in the 19th century became politically involved and "did ludicrous things all the time," Flaherty, 66, said. "It's not surprising.

"What happened was horrible and sad," she said. "Most of our cousins never want to speak of [the assassination], but it happened and the whole family didn't cause it."

Booth was only 17 when he began his stage career, taking on the supporting role of the Earl of Richmond in Richard III in Baltimore and Richmond, Va. He sometimes forgot lines and cues, and a crowd in Baltimore hissed him.

But Booth had his fans, especially among female audience members. He was striking, with wavy, jet-black hair, ivory skin, and a lean, athletic body.

"When I was a teenager, I would hear him described as the Clark Gable of his day," Hulme said. "Later, I'd hear him compared to George Clooney and Brad Pitt."

In 1857 and 1858, Booth was in the stock company of the now-defunct Arch Street Theatre, still learning his craft. He used the stage name J.B. Wilkes to avoid comparisons to other, more established members of his illustrious acting family, including his father, Junius Brutus Booth, and brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr.

By one account, John Wilkes Booth played in Lucrezia Borgia, couldn't pronounce the name of the character he was portraying, and said, "Dammit! Who am I?" The audience roared with laughter.

At the time, his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth, and other family lived in a house on Marshall Street, and his sister, Asia Booth Clarke, had a home at 13th and Callowhill Streets, said Alford, a history professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

John Wilkes Booth sometimes stayed with Asia and her husband, John Sleeper Clarke, a comedian and actor who had helped him get the job at the Arch.

"His reviews were mixed; he appeared nervous and stumbling," Alford said. "It may be hard to believe, since he was so bombastic, but it took him a while to find his legs."

"By the time the country was falling apart in 1861, [Booth] was confident, and when he returned to Philadelphia in 1863, he was a major player," he said.

Booth "would have flashes, passages, I thought, of real genius," Walt Whitman once said of him.

Louisa Lane Drew, an actress and an ancestor of the Barrymore acting family who operated the theater, "didn't think that much of Booth as an actor, but he was popular and she had to sell tickets," Alford said. "Booth was scared to death of her."

"She was the grand old lady of the theater, and he was 24," he said. "They would be in rehearsal, and, with mock sweetness, she'd pretend to ask him advice about where she should stand" in a scene.

Booth played many cities, especially in the South, where he gained a liking for the culture there, while older brother Edwin concentrated on the more profitable North.

By October 1863, Edwin Booth and John Clarke had bought and operated the Walnut Street Theatre.

"There was a good deal of rivalry" between the Booth brothers, said Bernard Havard, president and producing artistic director of the Walnut Street. He said John Wilkes Booth "never performed here."

"I can't imagine he would have been welcome," Havard said. "He was not considered nearly as talented as Edwin."

In November 1863, Booth performed in The Marble Heart at Ford's Theatre, with Lincoln in attendance. He met Lincoln's son Tad backstage and gave him roses, Alford said.

Booth was close to sister Asia and stayed with her when he passed through the city. He also left important papers with her, including two letters that were turned over to the U.S. marshal in Philadelphia by John Clarke after the April 14, 1865, shooting of Lincoln.

The letters led authorities to briefly imprison Clarke, who they believed might have been part of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln and other officials.

One of them was printed by The Inquirer. "I have ever held the South was right," Booth wrote. "The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln, four years ago, spoke plainly, war - war upon Southern rights and institutions."

One hundred and fifty years later, Hulme said she and other Booth family descendants avoid taking sides in political arguments.

"After something like this was brought about by politics, we're low-key when expressing opinions," she said.


Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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