NORMAN MAILER NOTED in Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery that when it comes to presidential assassins, Americans prefer tragedy to absurdity. “[W]e feel better,” he wrote, “inexplicably better, if his killer is also not without size. Then, to some degree, we can also mourn the loss of possibility in the man who did the deed.” This is not the case with his own hapless and frustratingly banal subject, who was, of course, the smallest of men. However, the famous tragedian that Terry Alford portrays in Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth comes as close as any assassin ever has to tragic proportions, fallen from great heights.

Booth was the actor who murdered Abraham Lincoln in his State Box at Ford’s Theater — but for me it has always been what he did after firing the fatal shot that marked the killing as historical performance. His swashbuckling, leg-breaking leap to the stage, punctuated by his gaslit, pseudoclassical declaration, “Sic semper tyrannis,” was a brilliant flourish, one that permanently imbues our memory of his crime with an air of lurid 19th century melodrama. Had Booth murdered an actual tyrant it might have elevated him to the status of an American Brutus.

When I recently visited Ford’s, I couldn’t help but notice that the box from which Booth jumped is set just high enough above the stage — eleven and a half feet, Alford tells us — to make the stunt seem an obviously stupid yet survivable choice. A fully “rational” assassin, one wanting to escape the scene unnoticed, would never have made it; neither would a deranged murderer hoping to fall to his death. Only someone just mad enough to believe either that his legs would withstand the fall or that an audience was worth breaking a leg for would choose to jump. Someone, perhaps, who was used to leaping from such heights as a matter of course. Someone, in other words, like Booth.

Alford’s masterful biography charts the psychological space in which Booth seems to have zigzagged for most of his life, between artistic sensitivity and delusional self-inflation. The book depicts Booth as roiling with internal conflict and contradiction from early childhood, capable of both impressive daring and paralyzing cowardice, genuine tenderness and sickening cruelty, profound artistry and blinding rage. A childhood friend remembers him tending to stray cats; another recalls him torturing them.

Booth’s own confused recollection of an incident from his early adulthood perfectly illustrates his radically divided nature and could almost stand in for the whole of Alford’s book. Fiercely racist, Booth, at 19, eagerly tagged along with a group of soldiers he’d spotted on their way to witness the execution of John Brown. In his telling of the event years later, he would falsely boast that he “helped to hang” the leader of the raid on Harpers Ferry, yet also declare great admiration for the fanatical abolitionist, “a man inspired,” who fought the good fight against a tenacious adversary.

If contradictions like this sometimes make it seem as if Booth contained an incoherent multitude, it is likely due to the astonishingly wide range of sources Alford draws upon, including recollections from schoolmates, neighbors, siblings, rival actors, distant relatives, casual acquaintances, creditors, lovers, and conspirators. The book is as deeply as it is broadly researched, giving us both the daily textures of Booth’s life and the arcing currents of his time, not only a story about the assassin, but also about the culture from which his infamy sprung. That culture remains all too alive, of course, with wounds real and imagined, and Alford’s story of an exotic outsider from a long-ago time can often feel depressingly familiar.

Booth’s early years read like a manual on how to nurture resentments. Born the ninth of ten children to renowned actor Julius Booth, an aloof, eccentric, and violent father, and a fish-out-of-water, aristocratic English mother, Booth quickly learned to get attention and mask his feelings with an exuberant, mischievous personality. “Wilkes was immensely popular,” remembers a childhood friend. “All the boys liked him.”

Booth attended a military academy in rural Maryland, where he established himself as a social star (“Stories about John Wilkes were jolly ones with a laugh at the end,” a school chum remarks) but a poor student. He was very intelligent but pained by the great difficulty he had reading and writing, and would for the rest of his life make excuses for late, misspelled, and slapdash correspondence. His classmates thought of him as charismatic (also kind and sensitive) yet wildly boastful, given to telling tales and making grand predictions about his future.

However, that future looked less than promising when Booth had the mantle of “man of the house” thrust upon him at age 14. His brothers had left home to begin their stage careers, and his father had drunk himself to death. The young John Wilkes, with his mother and sisters, was forced to carve out an improvised and brutally precarious living as a farmer for several years afterwards.

Despite the hardship, Booth resisted going into the family business of acting and only finally relented under an assumed name, so as to avoid any comparisons with his famous brothers and legendary father. For many years, he would struggle as a talented yet inconsistent journeyman actor, a victim, according to his colleagues, of his own laziness, thin skin, and sense of entitlement, until finally finding his niche as an athletic swordsman in the vivid, doomed secondary roles of the great tragedies.

Like many of history’s assassins, Booth was an autodidact and collector of fashionable affectations, a person who wanted badly to be welcomed by the urban elite, but who was not patient enough to earn his sophistication honestly. He cut a dashing figure as a suddenly rising star, drawing large crowds and admiring reviews but making few lasting connections or relationships. His regal air was off-putting, and his actor’s sensitivity smacked of self-pity.

Moreover, the same fiery passion that brought him success on the boards got Booth into endless trouble offstage. He had a hair-trigger temper and erupted often in fits of ideological rage. He was observed on dozens of occasions throughout his life, in settings as varied as schoolyards, barbershops, his mother’s kitchen, and the White House lawn, sputtering with contempt at the mere mention of Lincoln’s name or the presence of an insufficiently deferential black man.

Booth would habitually bait even the most apolitical of his friends into arguments over the war, then nurse grudges for years over the slights he suffered as a result. One source of a lifelong and stinging resentment was an argument about the president between Booth and his brother Edwin (who was both more accomplished and staunchly pro-Union), which ended with Edwin’s ordering his hotheaded sibling out of the house.

His outsized hatred of Lincoln, never far from his thoughts or less than white-hot, had taken hold, as for most of the South, the moment the president was elected. His friends referred to it as his “hobby,” and, indeed, Booth would rant about the “tyrant” Lincoln wherever he went. In his wallet, he carried a newspaper clipping with the lyrics of an anti-Lincoln song called “Then and Now” and would produce it eagerly in bar rooms and parlors, singing out with gusto:

But Ab’rm wants to free the nigger,

And we let him have his way;

                                    Our chance for Liberty

                                    Is hardly worth a d — n,

But there’s a nigger kingdom coming,

And the king is Abraham!

For years he talked openly about kidnapping or killing the President, but his otherwise congenial personality made his passionate claims seem eccentric and blustering.

Yet there were some who understood that he meant what he said: Alford details, to revealing and suspenseful effect, Booth’s increasingly serious attempts to assemble a band of conspirators, first to kidnap and later to kill the president. The effort, meticulously and wrenchingly described in the book, coincides with Booth’s failure as an investor in oil properties and with his diminishing interest in his acting career. While Booth’s skilled deployment of his intelligence, charisma, and political acumen during this period is hugely impressive — almost bringing to mind a young Lyndon Johnson or Bobby Kennedy — the knowledge that it is all in the service of an insane and despicable project exerts an undertow that makes the reader mourn not only for the country and its president, but also for the vibrant potential wasted by his deluded murderer.

It is in this section of the book that Alford’s subject nearly attains the dimensions of the great tragic figure he perceived himself to be. Then, in the closing passages, the author maps his swift and pitiful decline. As the hobbled, desperate Booth flees his pursuers through rural Virginia after the assassination, he reads newspaper dispatches from the capital and is stunned to discover that his crime has been met with heartbreak and contempt, and that even supporters of the Confederacy had described him as a dastardly coward. “Our country owed all of her troubles to him,” he writes in his journal, “and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. I can never regret it.”

As with Othello and Macbeth (more than Romeo or Lear), Booth winds up “fortune’s fool”: a slave to his own weaknesses and passions — except ultimately absent the redemptive qualities of Shakespeare’s self-conscious, misbegotten strivers. Without even a dawning self-awareness to keep him company in the end, or horror at his crime to enlarge him, Booth dies in the wings, deluded, defiant, and alone in an old dairy barn, far beyond the outskirts of town.

¤

Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Washington, DC. His memoir Gonville was published in 2010.