The Booth Family
Laying claim to the most-beloved actor of the American stage and the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, the Booth family forever altered the landscape of culture and politics in 19th-century America.
Born in London, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. (1796-1852) decided on a career in the theater by his late teens. After touring in the provinces, he made his London debut in 1817 at Covent Garden in the title role of Richard III. Edmund Kean, at that time the foremost tragedian in England, played the same role at Drury Lane that same year, prompting critics and playgoers to argue the merits of each actor. This anonymous satirical print depicts the rivalry; with the two actors almost equally balanced on a scale, it seems to suggest that the real winners are the shareholders of the two theaters, represented by the “Box Office” in the foreground of the print. Although Kean was widely regarded as the more talented of the two actors, he saw Booth as a threat and often tried to perform in competing productions. Similar rivalries occurred throughout the century, most notably between Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, which resulted in the deadly Astor Place Riot in 1849.
Partly because of his rivalry with Kean, in 1821 Booth emigrated to the United States, settling in Maryland. In less than a year, he became the most prominent actor in the United States. With his second wife, Booth had 10 children, including 3 sons who were also actors: Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. (1821-1883), Edwin Booth (1833-1893), and John Wilkes Booth (1839-1865).
Many consider Edwin Booth to be the greatest American actor of the 19th century. Edwin made his stage debut at age 13, alongside his father (whom he accompanied on tour in an effort to stop him from drinking) in Richard III. In 1851, when his father was too ill to appear on stage, Edwin took his place in the title role. Immediately afterward, he began a production of Hamlet, which came to be known as the “hundred nights Hamlet,” setting a record for consecutive performances of the play that lasted until John Barrymore broke it in 1922. After his brother’s assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865, Edwin Booth abandoned the stage for over a year, but returned in Hamlet in New York in January 1866.
From 1863 to 1867, Edwin Booth managed the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, staging mostly Shakespearean tragedies. After a fire there, Booth built his own theater in Manhattan, which opened on February 3, 1869, with Romeo and Juliet. The production starred Booth as Romeo, and his second wife, Mary McVicker (daughter of Chicago theater manager James McVicker), as Juliet. Elaborate productions followed, but the theater never became profitable. Booth returned to touring and his final performance was, fittingly, as Hamlet, in 1891 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In 1864, before he assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth appeared with his two brothers, Edwin and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., in Julius Caesar in 1864 (John Wilkes played Marc Antony, Edwin played Brutus, and Junius played Cassius). This performance was the only time that the three brothers appeared together on the same stage. The production was a benefit, organized to raise funds for a statue of William Shakespeare, which still stands in Central Park just south of the Promenade.