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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: ‘Booth' by Karen Joy Fowler

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by David McKenzie, Head of Exhibitions at the Folger, about Folger collection items related to the novel Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.

By April 14, 1865, two generations of the Booth family had made the family’s name one of the foremost on the stage in the United States. The actions of a 26-year-old member of that family both immortalized the name and forever altered associations with that name. Today, mention of Edwin Booth inevitably yields the question, “He was John Wilkes Booth’s brother, wasn’t he?”

In her novel Booth, Karen Joy Fowler threads the line between focusing on the other members of the family—especially John’s siblings—and grappling with John’s murder of President Abraham Lincoln. Fowler deftly weaves a tale of the Booths in their times and places. 

Readers travel with the Booths from their home base in the border state of Maryland to the numerous locations around the United States and world where their theatrical careers took them.

Tudor Hall, the Booths’ home close to the Mason-Dixon Line, the theoretical boundary between slavery and freedom in the United States, provides both sanctuary and trouble for the family. 

Illustration The Elder Booth's Cottage at Bel Air
fol. 10 recto "...The Elder Booth's Cottage at Bel Air" from Scrapbook of material relating to Junius Brutus Booth [manuscript], 1815-1876. Folger Shakespeare Library: W.a.67.

There, Mary Ann Holmes Booth (and eventually daughters Rosalie and Asia) raised ten children while her husband, actor Junius Brutus Booth Sr., roamed the country. There, four children succumbed. There, John tried his hand at farming before making his break for the stage. There, Junius’s hitherto-unknown first wife confronted the family.

Illustration of Booth's House, Exeter Street, Baltimore
fol. 17 recto "Booth's House, Exeter Street, Baltimore" from Scrapbook of material relating to Junius Brutus Booth [manuscript], 1815-1876. Folger Shakespeare Library: W.a.67.

For a time, the family also lived in Baltimore, then one of the largest cities in the United States and, as Fowler points out, one of the few that boasted a larger free Black population than enslaved. 

Through depicting their home base and their travels, Fowler takes readers through the three decades where the original sin of the United States, slavery, came to a head. She smartly reminds readers that slavery was never far from the sight of white Americans, especially (but not exclusively) south of the Mason-Dixon line, in this era. Although opposed to slavery, Junius and Mary Booth rent the services of enslaved people from their enslavers. The Hall family, enslaved and eventually free, is a presence through the novel. While John attends an academy with young boys from the plantation elite and absorbs their white supremacist ideology, Edwin inherits his father’s antislavery views.

As the men of the family travel, they also see slavery firsthand. Fowler suggests that Junius Sr. writes home from Charleston, South Carolina:

There is a greater suavity of manners than can be found in the Northern States–and were it not for the unnecessary and wicked treatment of the colored people the Carolinians would have few blemishes.(p. 37)

Of all the states, a higher percentage of South Carolina’s population was enslaved than in any other state for much of the period before the U.S. Civil War. Charleston boasted a robust theater scene, one that catered to its white population, as this 1805 playbill shows.

For a time, the family also lived in Baltimore, then one of the largest cities in the United States and, as Fowler points out, one of the few that boasted a larger free Black population than enslaved. 

Through depicting their home base and their travels, Fowler takes readers through the three decades where the original sin of the United States, slavery, came to a head. She smartly reminds readers that slavery was never far from the sight of white Americans, especially (but not exclusively) south of the Mason-Dixon line, in this era. Although opposed to slavery, Junius and Mary Booth rent the services of enslaved people from their enslavers. The Hall family, enslaved and eventually free, is a presence through the novel. While John attends an academy with young boys from the plantation elite and absorbs their white supremacist ideology, Edwin inherits his father’s antislavery views.

As the men of the family travel, they also see slavery firsthand. Fowler suggests that Junius Sr. writes home from Charleston, South Carolina:

There is a greater suavity of manners than can be found in the Northern States–and were it not for the unnecessary and wicked treatment of the colored people the Carolinians would have few blemishes.(p. 37)

Of all the states, a higher percentage of South Carolina’s population was enslaved than in any other state for much of the period before the U.S. Civil War. Charleston boasted a robust theater scene, one that catered to its white population, as this 1805 playbill shows.

Charleston Theatre Playbill, 1805. Folger Shakespeare Library: U7s1 C38 ct. Includes the warning "People of Colour cannot be admitted to any part of the House."
Two pictures of Edwin Booth, mounted together in the roles of Shakespeare's Othello and Iago, 19th century, Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File B725.4 no.81 (size S).

There, Junius Sr. played Othello, wearing blackface as many white actors—including, later, Edwin—did for that role. Othello, depicting a man of African descent committing violence, was the most common play performed in the U.S. South in that era. 

Othello was not the only role that Junius Sr. shared with Edwin, his son whose theatrical inclinations he discouraged. 

Booth, J.B. & Edwin. Mid-19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File B725.6 no.13 PHOTO (size XS).

Both father and son also appeared frequently as Richard III and Hamlet, a role for which Edwin became immortalized in statuary.

Ultimately, the country’s simmering conflict over slavery came to a head. During the conflict, the Booths, like many white U.S. families—especially those in border states like Maryland—divided. Most of the family supported the U.S. cause. Although none enlisted to fight, Edwin vocally supported Lincoln’s reelection campaign in 1864 and kept close contact with Adam Badeau, a theater critic who eventually served on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant.

John, meanwhile, became more full-throated in his support of the decaying Confederate cause. He maintained his belief in the racial hierarchy that his friends from the enslaving elite had inculcated in him. As Fowler discusses, these tensions over a vision for the country’s future led to a falling out within the family—even as brothers John, Junius Jr., and Edwin joined in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar to raise money for a Shakespeare statue in New York City’s Central Park.

Booth, Edwin, 1833-1893, correspondent. Letter in support of President Lincoln. Folger Shakespeare Library: Y.c.215 (16b)
Statue of Shakespeare, Central Park, N.Y. by John Quincy Adams Ward. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File S527.2 no.78 (size M)

Although he had promised his mother that we would not serve in the rebellion, he hatched a scheme to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln at, where else, a theater. Eventually his plans shifted to murder. Finally, five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the main body of the rebel army and three days after he heard Lincoln give tentative public support for Black voting rights, Booth shot Lincoln at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre.

Illustration of John Wilkes Booth standing facing left while a Devil figure seems to whisper in his ear
Satan Tempting Booth to the Murder of the President. Folger Shakespeare Library: Scrp.Bk. B.7.5.
An illustration of John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln in the back of the head in the theatre box of Ford's Theatre
The Martyr of liberty ... [John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln] . Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File B725.5 no.3 (size M).

Although Fowler had hoped to avoid focusing on John, she ultimately couldn’t avoid some emphasis. This, in part, stemmed from how the assassination impacted the family. Many Americans blamed not just John but his siblings. Fowler spends the bulk of the book leading up to the assassination but briefly touches on what happened to the family in the aftermath. Asia’s marriage fell apart; after receiving that initial condemnation, Edwin returned to the stage. Today, he is considered one of the finest actors of the late 1800s, and received many accolades during his lifetime and since.

Bracelet of Edwin Booth’s hair, 1879. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Inv. 1178 (realia) (B7a).

Through the novel, Fowler broadens the usual emphasis from John and Edwin to others in the family—especially the sisters Asia and Rosalie. In her author’s note, Fowler discusses how she had to invent more details about the women in the family. Asia published a memoir, giving more visibility to her perspectives. But Rosalie, in the spirit of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s maxim that “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” almost never appears in records. Even an examination of the Folger collection—the scope of which covers theatrical history for the era in which the Booths lived—for Booth-related material winds up showcasing the men of the family. The women from the novel who appear in a collection like that of the Folger—Mary Devlin Booth and Charlotte Cushman—were famous actresses in their own right.

Miss Charlotte Cushman as Lady Macbeth. New York : Martin & Johnson, 1855. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File C986 no.9 copy 1 (size XS).
Miss Charlotte Cushman as Lady Macbeth. New York : Martin & Johnson, 1855. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File C986 no.9 copy 1 (size XS)

By choosing to write a work of historical fiction, rather than history, Fowler invites us to see perspectives of more “ordinary” members of this extraordinary family.

For the full collection of presentation images, visit us on LUNA. [Click here for the full media group]


For further exploration of the Lincoln assassination and Booth family, see:

(Disclosure: The author of this post worked on the above digital resources during his tenure at Ford’s Theatre Society, 2013-2022.)

Additional reading:

  • Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes
  • Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford
  • Manhunt by James Swanson
  • John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir by Asia Booth Clarke, edited by Terry Alford

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program

Capitol Hill Community Foundation
Junior League of Washington

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