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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth George Alfred Townsend

Letter III: The Murderer

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I have heard it said as the only evidence of Booth's ferocity in those early times that he was always shooting cats, and killed off almost the entire breed in his neighbourhood. But on more than one occasion he ran away from both school and home, and once made the trip of the Chesapeake to the oyster fisheries without advising anybody of his family.

While yet very young, Wilkes Booth became an habitue at the theater. His traditions and tastes were all in that direction. His blood was of the stage, like that of the Keans, the Kembles, and the Wallacks. He would not commence at the bottom of the ladder and climb from round to round, nor take part in more than a few Thespian efforts. One night, however, a young actor, who was to have a benefit and wished to fill the house, resolved for the better purpose to give Wilkes a chance. He announced that a son of the great Booth of tradition, would enact the part of Richmond, and the announcement was enough. Before a crowded place, Booth played so badly that he was hissed. Still holding to his gossamer hopes and high conceit, Wilkes induced John S. Clarke, who was then addressing his sister, to obtain him a position in the company of the Arch Street Theater at Philadelphia.

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For eight dollars a week, Wilkes Booth, at the age of twenty-two, contracted with William Wheatley to play in any piece or part for which he might be cast, and to appear every day at rehearsal. He had to play the Courier in Sheridan Knowles's "Wife" on his first night, with five or ten little speeches to make; but such was his nervousness that he blundered continually, and quite balked the piece. Soon afterward he undertook the part of one of the Venetian comrades in Hugo's "Lucretia Borgia," and was to have said in his turn--

"Madame, I am Petruchio Pandolfo;" instead of which he exclaimed:

"Madame, I am Pondolfio Pet--, Pedolfio Pat--, Pantuchio Ped--; damn it? what am I?"

The audience roared, and Booth, though full of chagrin, was compelled to laugh with them.

The very next night he was to play Dawson, an important part in Moore's tragedy of "The Gamester." He had bought a new dress to wear on this night, and made abundant preparation to do himself honor. He therefore invited a lady whom he knew to visit the theater, and witness his triumph. But at the instant of his appearance on the stage, the audience, remembering the Petruchio Pandolfo of the previous night, burst into laughter, hisses, and mock applause, so that he was struck dumb, and stood rigid, with nothing whatever to say. Mr. John Dolman, to whose Stukely has played, was compelled, therefore, to strike Dawson entirely out of the piece.

These occurrences nettled Booth, who protested that he studied faithfully but that his want of confidence ruined him. Mr. Fredericks the stage manager made constant complaints of Booth, who by the way, did not play under his full name, but as Mr. J. Wilkes--and he bore the general reputation of having no promise, and being a careless fellow. He associated freely with such of the subordinate actors as he liked; but being, through Clarke, then a rising favourite, of better connections, might, had he chosen, advanced himself socially, if not artistically. Clarke was to have a benefit one evening, and to enact, among other things, a mock Richard III., to which he allowed Wilkes Booth to play a real Richmond. On this occasion, for the first time, Booth showed some energy, and obtain some applause. But, in general, he was stumbling and worthless I myself remember, on three consecutive nights, hearing him trip up and receive suppressed hisses. He lacked enterprise; other young actors, instead of waiting to be given better parts, committed them to memory, in the hope that their real interpreter might not come to hand. Among these I recall John McCullough, who afterwards became quite a celebrated actor. He was getting, if I correctly remember, only six dollars a week, while Booth obtained eight. Yet Wilkes Booth seemed too slow or indifferent to get on the weather side of such chances. He still held the part of third walking gentleman, and the third is always the first to be walked off in case of strait, as was Wilkes Booth. He did not survive forty weeks engagement, nor make above three hundred dollars in all that time. The Kellers arrived; they cut down the company, and they dispensed with Wilkes Booth. He is remembered in Philadelphia by his failure as in the world by his crime.

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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth
George Alfred Townsend

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