Edwin, by far the most famous of the three, played Brutus, the show’s lead. Junius Jr., the oldest, played Cassius. And the hot-tempered John Wilkes played the Roman general Mark Antony, the man who wins the war and gives the show’s final speech. Elsewhere in the audience, their mother watched alongside sisters Asia and Rosalie. Despite a fire breaking out at the hotel next door, which briefly paused the onstage drama, critics hailed the performance as a triumph — a fitting tribute to both the Bard and the Booths’ late father, Junius Brutus Booth, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the 19th century.
Less than five months later, a few days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, John Wilkes would sneak into the balcony of Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, and fire a bullet into the back of President Abraham Lincoln’s skull. With smoke still flowing from his gun and after stabbing Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone, in the arm, he leapt from the balcony and landed at center stage, his boot spur ripping an American flag as he fell. He is said to have yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”) before fleeing the theater, a late evening escape that launched what was then the largest manhunt in American history. Little did anyone know that he had been planning his conspiracy as he donned his robes and performed Julius Caesar in New York alongside his brothers, though anyone that knew him then knew that his sympathies belonged to the South. Days later, while dying in a burning barn after federal agents finally found him and shot him through the neck, all he could say as he struggled to breathe was that he died for his country.
The nation — grief-stricken and scared — suffered in those uncertain days after the assassination. The prevailing message of Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel, Booth, is that the family did too. Her story is of Edwin, Junius Jr. (known as June), Rosalie, Asia, and, to a lesser degree, Joe, the baby of the Booth family, and of how their lives mirrored the Shakespearean tragedies that made their family famous. They — not John, the one who pulled the trigger — are the story’s main characters. As Fowler puts it in a stirring author’s note — stirring because of the recent events in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park — she began the book during a wave of mass shootings and wrote not with the shooters but with their loved ones in mind. Are there warning signs or red flags? How do families cope, rebuild, and move on? These are some of the questions that drive the narrative and keep Booth, his opinions, and his politics brewing off in the background. “This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it,” Fowler writes. “I didn’t think he deserved mine.”
That’s one way of looking at it. Another, perhaps more uncomfortable view is that we’ve never needed to know John Wilkes Booth more than we do right now. His politics — white supremacy, grievance, conspiracy, revanchism — have suddenly broken open and become our politics. His contemporaries aren’t the United States’ mass shooters so much as the right-wing extremists who stormed the capital on January 6 and who now have apologists in the highest rungs of American government. Booth may be remembered as an egomaniacal lone wolf — this despite him working with a group of conspirators, most of whom would later hang for their crimes — but the truth is that he embodied a political tradition as American as the man he shot dead. Indeed, to know Booth, to fully reckon with who he was and to grapple with why he did what he did, is to have a window on the modern United States.
Booth shared more than a little in common with those who attacked the capitol. As Fowler put it at the end of her author’s note, she began her final edits while watching Confederate flag–waving vigilantes rifle through the Capitol rotunda. Had she begun the book a year or two later, would her version of Booth be any different? Probably. The focus, instead, is on his upbringing and especially his famous father, an eccentric, who wouldn’t let his family eat the meat of any slain animal (even those raised on his farm) and who recited Shakespeare as if it were a common tongue. For many, this is the chief explanation behind who Booth was and what drove him to act: he was a born actor, the son of a famous tragedian, and someone who saw the world — and increasingly, the Civil War — as a stage in need of a star.
Indeed, the question Booth asks is: what exactly is in a name? The answer is, well, nearly everything. For the fact is that Booth was never all that comfortable being a famous actor. Not only was he a bit of a black sheep, but unlike his two older brothers, who got into acting as soon as they could, John also ran hot and cold, sometimes leaning into the profession and sometimes leaving it entirely. Moreover, he seemed to resent his brothers for, as he believed, trading on their father’s success. This is why, when he first started acting, he went by J. B. Wilkes instead of John Wilkes Booth and why he perfected swordplay instead of elocution, the signature feather in the Booth family cap. It is also partly why the benefit performance of Julius Caesar was such a must-see event: despite sharing a last name, it was the first time the three Booth brothers had ever shared a stage. It was also the last.
John Wilkes, though, wasn’t the only Booth to bear the burden of the family name. The most Shakespearean may well have been Edwin. Much of Booth centers, in fact, on Edwin’s troubled relationship with his father. At a young age, Edwin went on the theater circuit, where he had the herculean task of keeping June Sr. out of the barroom and onstage so the family could pay their bills. For his troubles, his father often resented him. At times, so did his siblings. And on top of it all, he developed his own problems with alcohol, which tortured him for the rest of his life. Edwin would also bear the unspeakable burden of blaming himself for his father’s death. Almost as soon as he joined a separate acting troupe, his father fell sick on his way home and died alone.
Then there are the two sisters, Rosalie and Asia. Rosalie was the older, spinster-like sister, who remained haunted by the Booth siblings who died either in infancy or as children; Asia was the younger sister, the one with spunk and conviction and the one who imagined a world for herself beyond the prisonlike walls of domestic life. Both adored Edwin and John, and both watched as politics and personal rivalry pitted one brother against the other.
Though Booth tracks the nation’s turn toward war in a series of historical asides, these simmering conflicts actually drive the book’s plot. It’s a story of an American family battling the demons that can afflict any family, and this is the key point that Fowler wants to get across: their famous and eccentric father notwithstanding, the Booths could have been anyone and, in some ways, are all of us.
These and other storylines add new texture to the life of John Wilkes Booth. But to really understand him and what drove him is to get beyond the stage and beyond the shadow of his name. Start, for example, with the setting: the Booths owned a farm in Bel Air, Maryland, but spent most of their time in Baltimore. Maryland, in those days, was the proverbial Old Line State. Its northern boundary — the famous Mason–Dixon Line — divided North from South, which meant that it divided free states from slave states. This helped make Maryland perhaps the prototypical Upper South state: it was home to almost 90,000 enslaved people, most of whom worked on small tobacco farms rather than cotton plantations; it boasted one of the largest populations of free Black families, with most living in and around Baltimore; and though their influence waned as time went on, some of its most prominent families had deep ties to the plantation world of the late 18th- and early 19th-century Chesapeake.
Maryland, in other words, sat right in the crook of the United States’ struggle over slavery. For some, the state tilted North, with frequent trade and travel between Philadelphia and New York. But historically, it tilted South, with genealogical and cultural ties to Washington, DC, and the rest of Virginia. This more southerly Maryland was Booth’s Maryland. He had a particular affection for the state of Virginia, the state he would eventually die in, and he traveled extensively between Baltimore, DC, and Richmond, where he became radicalized by a media ecosystem full of anti-Lincoln propaganda. He heard it all: Lincoln the tyrant; Lincoln the gangly country bumpkin; Lincoln the pawn to more radical forces; and worst of all, Lincoln the so-called “Black Republican,” who would abolish slavery by presidential fiat and force racial mixing down the country’s throat.
Moreover, as a Marylander, Booth had a front row seat to some of the most divisive politics of the war. Bloody riots broke out in Baltimore in April 1861. Earlier, in February, rumors swirled of a secessionist plot to kill Lincoln in the city on his inaugural journey to DC. The threat was credible enough for Lincoln to swap trains and arrive in DC unannounced; malicious news stories asserted, incorrectly, that he did so in disguise, a dig at the president’s courage and readiness for the job. In the meantime, while the state formally rejected secession, it made a feeble play at neutrality by disallowing federal troops from traveling through the state en route to DC. Lincoln responded by placing the entire state under martial law. He later suspended habeas corpus in an effort to root out secessionists; when Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Marylander and one of the state’s favored sons, ruled that this was unconstitutional, Lincoln simply ignored him.
All of this imbued Booth with a politics of paranoid grievance. He felt Lincoln was a dictator in utero and that a state of tyranny had washed over Maryland. He lived it, breathed it, and felt it in his core; when he landed on stage after shooting Lincoln and yelled “Sic semper tyrannis,” he meant what he said. Yet, while most believe the phrase was a subtle nod to avenging Virginia (“Sic semper tyrannis” is the state’s motto), he could just as easily have been referencing Maryland. The state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” features the same phrase while calling on Marylanders to “avenge the patriotic gore” of a looming despotism. The lyrics read, “The despot’s heel is on thy shore […] His torch is at thy temple door […] Thou wilt not cower in the dust […] Thy beaming sword shall never rust […] Maryland! My Maryland!” It also, uncoincidentally, features a call to defend not just Maryland but also Virginia, a sign of the state’s historic ties to the Old Dominion. The song’s author, James Ryder Randall, who also happened to be a Confederate sympathizer, allegedly wrote the song with Lincoln in mind.
At the same time, grievance alone didn’t make John Wilkes Booth a shooter. It didn’t even make him a conspirator. He didn’t begin hatching his infamous plot — originally a plan to kidnap Lincoln — until the presidential election of 1864. Both the process and the outcome of that year’s election made history: not only was this the first democratic election ever held in a state of war, but it was also the first that allowed soldiers to vote from the front — an early iteration of absentee voting, which saw the army’s rank and file vote overwhelmingly for Lincoln and which some, including Booth, saw as entirely illegitimate. It was also an election that concerned only the Northern states and one that ended with Lincoln entrenching power by winning a second term in office, something that hadn’t been done since the days of Andrew Jackson some 30 years earlier. When taken together, these various election-related circumstances suggested to Booth that small d democratic tyranny sat right at the country’s door.
Still, Booth might have never shot his way into history had the war not challenged his sense of white supremacy. This is what truly radicalized him and shaped his views on the war. We know this in part because, in the early 1990s, a speech written by one J. W. B. was recovered in the former home of his brother Edwin. In it, Booth blamed the secession crisis almost entirely on Northern abolitionists who, he wrote, violated the rights of the South. He also defended slavery, suggesting that, as a system, it actually benefited Black people. In hindsight, the document reads as if it were an early template for the mythology we now know as the Lost Cause. And in an ironic twist, Booth clearly modeled the document on Mark Antony’s final speech in the last act of Julius Caesar, the same speech he performed with his two brothers mere months before ascending the stairs of Ford’s Theater in April 1865.
Yet John Wilkes Booth’s sense of white supremacy went deeper than simply defending slavery as an institution. Quite famously, he relaunched his fledgling plot — this time swapping kidnapping for assassination — after hearing Lincoln’s victory speech, in which the president referenced giving Black men the right to vote. “That means n***** citizenship,” Booth is said to have remarked while standing among the crowd. This line is often cited as the turning point in the conspiracy, the moment he decided he had to act. Yet it’s what he said the next morning that’s most revealing. After hearing Lincoln give what was effectively his last speech, Booth visited Ford’s Theater to pick up his mail. When he walked in, he said to two theater workers, “We are all slaves now,” and complained that nowadays he couldn’t just walk out and insult a Black person without fearing he might get insulted back. In other words, Booth’s primary grievance was that he, as a white man, no longer had the power to act with impunity. Or, said differently, he perceived someone else’s freedom as a loss of his own.
This last point sheds light on why he acted as he did. But it doesn’t quite capture the full shape and purpose behind the conspiracy. To explain that is to know something about his conspirators. The reality was that Booth was a particularly loud and dramatic voice among Washington’s Confederate underground. He ran with DC-based sympathizers and spies, which placed him in a kind of alternative echo chamber that only reinforced his steadfast faith in the Confederate cause. That said, at least a few of his conspirators were either dimwitted patsies or lukewarm supports; others, however, had deep ties to either underground spy networks — Mary Surratt and her son John Surratt — or Southern paramilitary groups, like local militias. Lewis Powell, an accomplice and cold-blooded killer, rode with Mosby’s Rangers, an infamous band of Virginia guerrillas, before being connected to agents in the Confederate underground and then to Booth.
The other thing to know about the conspiracy is that it didn’t just evolve from a kidnapping to an assassination. It evolved from a kidnapping to three assassinations. Lincoln wasn’t the only target that night. As Booth pulled the trigger in the upper balcony of Ford’s Theater, Powell, the former guerrilla, snuck into the home of Secretary of State William Seward and stabbed him five times in the neck. Miraculously, the secretary survived, though scars would mar his face for the rest of his life. Elsewhere that evening, as Powell attacked Seward and Booth leapt from the balcony, George Atzerodt — a German immigrant most known for his slovenly appearance and alcohol problem — was supposed to infiltrate the home of Vice President Andrew Johnson and stab him dead. Instead, he lost his nerve, picked up the bottle, and spent the rest of the night stumbling through the streets of Washington, DC.
The point, though, is not necessarily the number of assassinations but rather the targets and what they represented. By mid-April 1865, the war was over. The Confederate cause was already lost. There was nothing stopping the federal government from enacting the postwar Reconstruction it had planned. The 13th Amendment, which forever abolished slavery, had already passed Congress and was on its way to being ratified in the states. As far as Booth and the conspirators were concerned, who knew what a 14th or 15th Amendment might entail? This fear of Reconstruction and sense of revanchism over the war’s outcome is what morphed a kidnapping into a killing and what widened the list of targets to include Seward and Johnson as well. We may remember Booth’s plot as an assassination, but it was really an insurrection. Its goal was to decapitate the United States government in a final, Hail Mary attempt to roll back the war.
The shooting shattered the Booth family. His brothers and sisters faced down mobs, spent time in jail on assumptions they were involved, and lost jobs and spouses in the aftermath. In Booth, Fowler shows us their pain. But what she really demonstrates is how family tragedies ripple out from the source, causing trauma on an exponential scale. It’s hard to read her story of the Booth family and not think of those whose lives have been upended by senseless acts of personal or political violence.
Edwin, for one, rarely spoke of his brother again. The other Booths remained similarly haunted. In their trauma and grief, he became a ghost, a shapeless outlier and someone not to be mentioned or remembered. We know him as the erratic stage actor who took the war into his own hands. But we don’t know him for what matters most: his politics, his grievances, and the process that radicalized him. If the image of right-wing extremists ransacking the halls of Congress on January 6 has taught us anything, it’s that this tradition is not only alive but also threatening to swallow us whole. This is why we need to know John Wilkes Booth. His ghost still haunts us too.
Bennett Parten is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University.