Today I am celebrating the birthday of Edwin Thomas Booth, who was one of the most famous Shakespearian actors of the nineteenth century. He was born in Bel Air, Maryland in 1833. Although he was terribly well known at one time, you probably haven’t heard of him. This isn’t just because it was so long ago, it’s because his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, shot President Lincoln.
Edwin’s father Junius Brutus Booth was also an actor, as were his elder brother Junius Brutus Jr. and younger brother John Wilkes. Junius senior was also a famous Shakespearian actor. He was so well known throughout the United States that, some time in the 1850s, a horse thief who was being hanged for his crimes made an unusual last request. He asked that his skull be given to the Booth family so that it could be used to play the part of Yorick in Hamlet. His request was granted.
The elder Junius was, however, something of a wild card in later life. He took to drinking, which would often lead to him forgetting his lines or simply wandering off somewhere. On one occasion, while playing the Danish Prince, he broke off in the middle of a scene with Ophelia, climbed up a ladder and perched among the backdrops crowing like a rooster. His manager had to talk him down. Junius needed a minder and the task fell to fourteen-year-old Edwin. He had to accompany his father around the country, making sure that he made it to the theatre and seeing to it that he didn’t drink. It must have been an onerous task for a young teenager and on top of this, he also performed alongside his father.
Junius became ill in 1850 and Edwin took over his rôle in Richard III. Two years later his father died. Edwin went off on a world tour and afterwards became a much respected and admired Shakespearian actor. From 1863, he also managed the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. In 1864 he appeared in a staging of Julius Caesar alongside his two brothers. It was a benefit performance and the funds raised were used to erect a statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park. You can still see it there.
Then, a year later, his brother shot the President. Edwin was devastated, he had been a supporter of Lincoln and he thought his career was over. He didn’t even want to leave the house and didn’t return to the stage for eighteen months. It was the worst, but not the only disaster that blighted his career. He returned to acting in 1866 but in 1867 the Winter Garden Theatre was destroyed by fire. In 1889 he opened his own theatre in Manhattan, but lost it due to bankruptcy in 1874. But another world tour helped him regain his fortune.
In 1888 he founded a club for actors and associated professions called the Player’s Club. It was similar to the Garrick Club in London. It was a way of bringing actors into contact with businessmen as well as writers and other creative people. Edwin Booth gave over his home to the club, retaining only a small furnished apartment for his own use. The club still exists today and his rooms are kept exactly as he left them when he died in 1893. All his belongings are still there, including the skull of the horse thief.
It’s hard to Google Edwin Booth without happening upon a really weird coincidence in Edwin Booth’s life that occurred a year or two before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by his brother. Edwin was at a busy railway station in New Jersey, there was a crush to get onto a late sleeper train and a man in front of him slipped and fell between the platform and a moving carriage. Edwin managed to grab the man by his collar and pull him to safety. The man recognised him (because he was famous) and thanked him and called him by name. It was months later that he found out the man whose life he had saved was Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert.
Edwin was most famous for playing the part of Hamlet, and perhaps living with such a difficult family was helpful to him in this rôle. He didn’t have it easy, and he isn’t even remembered now for the thing that he was best at. So I am sending out love for Edwin Booth today, not just for him, but for everyone else who has a family member who’s done something weird and upsetting that leaves everyone else feeling tainted by it.