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

Letter III: The Murderer

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About this time a manager named Kunkle gave Booth a salary of twenty dollars a week to go to the Richmond Theater. There he played a higher order of parts, and played them better, Winning applauses from the easy provincial cities, and taking, as everywhere the ladies by storm. I have never wondered why many actors were strongly predisposed toward the South. There, their social status is nine times as big as with us. The hospitable, lounging, buzzing character of the southerner is entirely consonant with the cosmopolitanism of the stage, and that easy "hang-up-your-hatativeness," which is the rule and the demand in Thespianship. We place actors outside of society, and execrate them because they are there. The South took them into affable fellowship, and was not ruined by it, but beloved by the fraternity. Booth played two seasons in Richmond, and left in some esteem.

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When the John Brown raid occured, Booth left the Richmond Theater for the scene of strife in a picked company with which he had affiliated for some time. From his connection with the militia on this occasion he was wont to trace his fealty to Virginia. He was a non-commissioned officer, and remained at Charleston till after the execution, visiting the old pike man in jail, and his company was selected to form guard around the scaffold when John Brown went, white-haired, to his account. There may be in this a consolation for the canonizers of the first arm-bearer between the sections, that one whose unit swelled the host to crush out that brave old life, took from the scene inspiration enough to slay a merciful President in his unsuspecting leisure. Booth never referred to John Brown's death in bravado; possibly at that gallows began some such terrible purpose as he afterward consummated.

It was close upon the beginning of the war when Booth resolved to transform himself from a stock actor to a "star." As many will read this who do not understand such distinctions, let me preface it by explaining that a "star" is an actor who belongs to no one theater, but travels from each to all, playing a few weeks at a time, and sustained in his chief character by the regular or stock actors. A stock actor is a good actor, and a poor fool. A star is an advertisement in tights, who grows rich and corrupts the public taste. Booth was a star, and being so, had an agent. The agent is a trumpeter who goes on before, writing the impartial notices which you see in the editorial columns of country papers and counting noses at the theater doors. Booth's agent was one Matthew Canning, an exploded Philadelphia lawyer, who took to managing by passing the bar, and J. Wilkes no longer, but our country's rising tragedian. J. Wilkes Booth, opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in his father's consecrated part of Richard III. It was very different work between receiving eight dollars a week and getting half the gross proceeds of every performance. Booth kept northward when his engagement was done, playing in many cities such parts as Romeo, the Corsican Brothers, and Raphael in the "Marble Heart;" in all of these he gained applause, and his journey eastward, ending in eastern cities like Providence, Portland, and Boston was a long success, in part deserved. In Boston he received especial commendation for his enactment of Richard.

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

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