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Edwin Booth Plays Hamlet with a Surprising Co-Star

Author Nora Titone's Highlights from the Booth Collection at the Folger


New York, Winter Garden Theatre. Hamlet. Cast list, 22 March 1865

The most haunting artifact I came across in the Folger’s Reading Room was a commemorative program received by all playgoers who attended Edwin’s March 22, 1865 show of Hamlet at the Winter Garden. This was the gala 100th night performance of his record-breaking run. The cast list, included on the ornate program, proclaimed that Samuel Knapp Chester, a character actor, had portrayed King Claudius, Hamlet’s step-father and uncle, for the duration.


Chester’s name would have been otherwise unremarkable, except that scant months later, he was called to give testimony in the trial of the conspirators accused of plotting to assassinate Lincoln. Chester stated that during the 100-night run of Edwin Booth’s Hamlet, John Wilkes Booth had repeatedly pestered him to join his conspiracy against the president, describing to Chester the details of his scheme to kidnap Lincoln from Ford’s Theatre.


Terrified and alarmed, Chester refused to help, and begged to be left alone. Booth at last relented, but threatened to have Chester killed if he told anyone about the scheme.


Night after night, throughout the historic run, the supporting actor stood on stage with Edwin Booth, playing Claudius to Edwin’s Hamlet, in fear of his own life. Chester, of course, did not tell the star a single word of his brother’s plans.


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