The Aftermath: The Booth Family & Lincoln’s Assassination

In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination, federal officials swarmed the immediate family of John Wilkes Booth.

The War Department believed the assassination was a part of a national conspiracy and they were determined to uncover everyone involved. John Wilkes Booth, who had no children or wife of his own, was from a large family of famous theater actors in Maryland and law enforcement wasted no time rounding them up.

According to the book Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, Booth’s sister Asia caught the attention of the police after it was revealed that she had a manifesto that was written by John Wilkes Booth describing his early plan to kidnap the president. Asia claimed she never read the manifesto, which was written on a letter and enclosed in an envelope, until after the assassination.

Asia Booth Clarke

Asia Booth Clarke

When her husband, John Sleeper Clarke, tried to protect himself from being implicated in the crime by allowing the manifesto to be published in the newspaper, the police took notice. Asia later described how detectives ransacked her home:

“This unfortunate publication, so useless now when the scheme had failed – and it led to no fresh discoveries – brought a host of miseries, for it not only served food to newsmonger and enemies, but it directed a free band of male and female detectives to our house…My house, which was an extensive (mysteriously built, it was now called) old mansion, was searched; then, without warning, surprised by a full body of police, surrounded, and searched again. We were under hourly surveillance from outside…our letters were few, but they were opened, and no trouble taken to conceal that they had been read first.”

Detectives confiscated any personal belongings connected to John Wilkes, including photographs and family albums, Asia explained:

“Everything that bore his name was given up, even the little picture of himself, hung over my babies’ beds in the nursery. He had placed it there himself saying, “Remember me, babies, in your prayers.”

Police arrested Asia and her husband, believing that the possession of the manifesto implicated them in the crime. When police then discovered numerous letters between John Wilkes and his eldest brother Junius Booth Jr., he was also arrested and, on April 25, was sent to Washington’s Old Capital Prison to be held with the other Lincoln conspirators.

Junius Booth Jr circa 1865-1885

Junius Booth Jr circa 1865-1885

Clarke and Junius Booth Jr. were imprisoned for months, along with John Wilkes friend John T. Ford and his agent Matthew Canning, in Washington. The other family members, including Asia, who was pregnant at the time, were placed under house arrest in Philadelphia.

John’s brother, Edwin Booth, had been performing Hamlet in Boston but was suddenly informed by a letter from the Boston Theater’s manager, Henry Jarrett, that his remaining performances had been cancelled:

“A fearful calamity is upon us. 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.”

U.S. Marshals searched Edwin and his belongings but when they found nothing incriminating they gave him permission to leave Boston and return to his home in New York City on April 17. Once in New York, Edwin found himself swamped by piles of hate mail and death threats, according to the book My Thoughts Be Bloody.

Edwin responded to the hate mail by placing an ad that summer in newspapers throughout New York, Philadelphia and Boston that read:

“It has pleased God to lay at the door of my afflicted family the lifeblood of our great, good, and martyred President. Prostrated to the very earth by this dreadful event, I am yet but too sensible that other mourners fill the land. To them, to you, one and all, go forth our deep, unutterable sympathy; our abhorrence and detestation for this most foul and atrocious of crimes. For my mother and sisters, for my remaining brothers and my own poor self, there is nothing to be said except that we are thus placed without any power of our own. For our present position we are not responsible. For the future – alas, I shall struggle on in my retirement bearing a heavy heart, an oppressed memory; and a wounded name.”

After Clarke was released from prison, he was embarrassed by his connection the Booth family and demanded a divorce, but Asia refused. In an attempt to redeem the family name and rebuke the many rumors and lies surrounding them, Asia wrote many biographies about her family, including her brother John Wilkes.

Asia and her husband later moved to England, never to return to the United States. Even after the house arrest order was lifted, most of the family were ashamed and remained in seclusion.

In January of 1866, Edwin purchased the Boston Theater’s lease and made the decision to return to the stage and resume his acting career. On opening night in September of that year, audiences gave Edwin a two-minute standing ovation when he appeared on the stage. With Edwin’s success and positive reception, Junius was persuaded to follow Edwin to Boston to serve as his stage manager.

Edwin continued acting for the remainder of his life, although he never mentioned Abraham Lincoln’s name again and avoided Washington D.C. for the rest of his life, living primarily in Boston and New York City.

Sources:
Good Brother, Bad Brother: the Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth; James Giblin
Right Or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth; John Wilkes Booth
My Thoughts Be Bloody: the Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes;Nora Titone, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer; James L. Swanson; 2007
Boston Globe; How Boston Embraced the Booth Brothers; Christopher Klien; April 12 2015: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/04/11/how-boston-embraced-john-wilkes-booth-brothers/ncAHdTNC7BCHlJXMKvHGnJ/story.html

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