Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford (review)
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Keywords

John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln assassination, U.S. Civil War

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth. By Terry Alford. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 454. Cloth, $29.95.)

My dissertation advisor told all of his graduate students that “filling a gap” in historical scholarship, in and of itself, neither justified undertaking a research project nor responded adequately to the “so what” question often asked of historical monographs. Rather, he emphasized, historical research should respond to current historiographic issues of interest and importance, provide innovative perspectives on accepted interpretations, or ask entirely new questions that would complement and augment existing scholarship. In this regard, Terry Alford’s superb [End Page 189] biography of John Wilkes Booth succeeds on multiple levels. Certainly, Fortune’s Fool fills a significant lacuna in our knowledge about Booth and his role in Lincoln’s assassination: As Alford points out, no full-length biography has focused exclusively on Booth, despite general recognition that “without a thorough understanding of Booth our knowledge of the murder of Lincoln was lacking” (3). But Alford’s biography does more than merely fill a gap by synthesizing information on Booth from a variety of heretofore underutilized sources, providing a fresh perspective on a puzzling and often misunderstood figure, and integrating seamlessly the story of one life into larger historiographic concerns about race, ideology, and sectionalism in Civil War America.

Telling Booth’s story has posed significant problems for historians. No archive or collection of Booth’s papers exists, and the actor wrote remarkably little for so celebrated a public figure. Moreover, Booth’s family history and chosen profession lend themselves to pigeonholing him as an enigma, shaped by parental madness and theatrical egotism. Booth’s father, the great English actor Junius Brutus Booth, struggled with alcoholism and mental illness all his life. A bigamist who abandoned a family in London when he emigrated to the United States in 1821, the elder Booth exhibited bizarre and sometimes violent behavior throughout his adult life, despite substantial financial success and artistic acclaim. This included stabbing one actor, attacking a sleeping friend with an andiron, shooting another actor in the face, attempting suicide three times, landing in jail in four states, and, in 1835, writing to Andrew Jackson, threatening to cut the president’s throat. Combine that with the egotism and erratic behavior the general public attributes to actors, then and now, and temptation to write Booth off as the maniacal product of both nature and nurture becomes clear.

Alford resists this temptation, portraying a complex, troubled, and often brilliant man, rather than a caricature. He limns Booth as a study in contrasts: an affectionate friend to comrades and fellow actors, but a bitter enemy to abolitionists and political opponents; a charming companion “full of fun and pranks” who also lacked the ability “to let go of his troubles . . . worrisome thoughts lingered, festering away,” eventually expressing themselves in troubling behavior (151–52). Alford’s decision to present Booth’s contradictions as they appeared to his contemporaries, without attempting to reconcile them with a pat, reductive exercise in pop psychology, renders more comprehensible the actor’s erratic behavior and his progression toward presidential assassin. Using Booth’s [End Page 190] surviving writings in conjunction with a wide range of genealogical and census data, theatrical memoirs, government documents, and interviews with family and friends in the decades after Booth’s death, Alford demonstrates convincingly how the assassin’s upbringing, peculiar constellation of personal characteristics, and profession propelled him to conspire against Abraham Lincoln, whom he hated passionately. Booth’s early years in Maryland and Virginia, for example, and his fascination with John Brown—the actor joined the Richmond Grays militia company to suppress any attempts to free the abolitionist after his capture, and witnessed Brown’s execution—“completed his identification with the Old Dominion” (82). Initially disgusted both by northern abolitionists and southern secessionists, all of whom he regarded as fanatics bent on endangering the nation, Booth ultimately blamed the war on “Northern fanaticism,” characterizing what he viewed as abolitionist aggression against the South as “a fire which naught but blood and justice can extinguish...