The Family Assassin

My sister asked me to send this to her, and I figured, well, as long as I am sending this to her, I might as well repost it here. It’s another from the long-lost Scalzi Archives.

“OTHER THAN THAT, MRS. LINCOLN…”

Thoughts on the Family Assassin

Every family should have an interesting skeleton in the family closet. In my family, it’s John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who, of course, was the President of the United States during the American Civil War. Booth assassinated Lincoln not long after the cessation of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, by sneaking into the President’s box at Ford’s Theater (the show: Our American Cousin) and shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol. Booth then leaped from the box to the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus it is with tyrants”) and “The South is avenged.” He broke his leg but managed to escape nevertheless. However, eleven days later, he was discovered in a barn, burned out, and then shot (by himself or by a soldier, it’s unclear). He died shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Booth’s body was never positively identified, so it’s possible he actually escaped. Either way, he’s dead now.

For the record, I’m not a direct descendant — my line goes through one of his nine other siblings, making him something along the lines of a great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle. Whenever I mention my relationship to him, though, people’s eyes get wide, their jaws go momentarily slack, and some people actually back up a step, as if a long dormant assassination gene might suddenly fire up, and they’d be the unlucky recipient. I get a kick out of that. Then I go for the extra point my mentioning that John Wilkes and I have the same birthday: May 10, 131 years apart. By the time I mention I get edgy handling pennies and five dollar bills, people begin to wend their way to the nearest door.

You might infer from this page that John Wilkes Booth is my favorite ancestor, but in fact, that’s not the case. There are several other ancestors who I hold in far higher esteem, or that I at least find more interesting. To begin, there’s John Wilkes, the rather infamous British radical, journalist and politician who was famous for continually being expelled from the British parliament, and for being a member of notorious Hellfire Club (motto: “We were into orgies before orgies were cool”). John Wilkes Booth was named for him, which probably was an early strike against the boy.

In Booth’s own time, his brother Edwin was far more notable: the first great American Shakespearean actor. Edwin did the definitive Hamlet of the mid-19th Century, playing him for 100 days straight during 1864 and 1865, stopping not long before his baby brother John put a cap in Lincoln. Lincoln’s assassination wreaked havoc on Edwin’s career, as you might imagine. And yet Edwin kept hitting the boards until he died in 1893. In the long run, Edwin is more interesting than his brother because he was famous for what he achieved rather than for who he killed (as I was writing up this page, I happened across an 1890 recording of Edwin Booth reading from Othello — it’s scratchy and muffled, and you can barely make out the words. But there it is, across the span of 108 years — the voice of a stage god. Hi there, Uncle. Nice to know you).

Somewhat closer to my own time is my own great-grandfather, William Booth, who may or may not have died before I was born; In any event, I certainly have no memory of him being alive. William didn’t do anything that would have gotten him noticed by humanity at large — he wasn’t a politician, an actor, or an assassin. What I find interesting about him is that the man left a paper trail of poems and writings, which — being that I am a writer by profession — have made me feel a strong connection to him. Here was the sort of guy who would write poems castigating FDR in his annual Christmas cards to the family, but who would also pen delicate, romantic poems to his wife, my great-grandmother. We have copies of those poems, spanning decades. I admire that — that he stayed in love for so long, and that he realized that it was important to keep telling his wife that we loved her (you’d be surprised how many people forget about that part).

John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, I don’t especially admire. The best you could say about him, was that he wasn’t a bad actor — no Edwin Booth, mind you, but not bad (he was especially well regarded in the deep South, and did several tours as a headliner in those parts). Other than that, though, there’s not much there. On a personal level, he was something of a lout — when he died, they pulled the pictures of five different women off his body (one was of his fiancee, Lucy Hale, daughter of — ironically — an abolitionist senator). Booth was also big on slavery, which bugs me. It’s embarrassing to have someone in your family tree who thought it was all right to own other people. And let’s not forget that, when it comes right down to it, Booth was just plain nuts. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been taking shots at Lincoln in the first place. It’s just as well he’s been dead over a century — he’s not someone I’d’ve wanted to meet. Sure, he might be fun at parties, but I’d worry about him trying to hit on my wife, and I couldn’t introduce him to any of my black friends.

There’s another thing that bothers me about John Wilkes Booth, which is that he did such a poor job of the assassination. Now, let me just say this, before we go any further: Killing the President of the United States is bad, and no one should do it, ever. So, kids, if you’ve been thinking of gunning down a President, stop now, before the Secret Service has to come and hurt you. Listen to your Uncle John, here. Having said that, if you are going to whack a President (and remember, you shouldn’t), you really ought to have thought out your escape plan better than John Wilkes did. I mean, come on: Shoot the President, then leap out of the box, onto a stage — 30 feet below? What sort of plan is that? He’s damned lucky he only broke his leg.

The final point against John Wilkes Booth is that he shot Lincoln. Not that he shot the President of the United States, but that he shot Lincoln, a man who by any measurement stands as one of the Great Men of world history, a man who is richly admirable in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start (yes, he has flaws. So what). Compared to Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth is a gnat. It’s a rather morbid measure of Lincoln’s greatness that anyone remembers John Wilkes Booth at all. The vast majority of Americans, after all, would be hard pressed to name the guy who drilled William McKinley, if indeed they remembered who McKinley was in the first place (by the way, it was Leon Czolgosz. Got that one? All right, smarty pants: Who shot James Garfield? Hmmm?).

Be that as it may, he’s still more interesting to have swinging in the family tree than most ancestors. He and Lincoln have both been dead long enough that it’s not actually unsettling for people to contemplate the fact that I’m related to a murderer. It’s not like I’m related to Jeffrey Dahmer or Charlie Manson. I can make jokes about it all without having to worry about upsetting anyone. Should I ever meet up with someone who is related to Abe Lincoln, it’s more likely that we’ll consider the encounter as amusing, rather than a revival of an age-old family feud. Someone once idly mentioned to me that being related to John Wilkes Booth would keep me from ever become President of the United States myself. Fact is, so many other things disqualify me from that position that my tangential relation to Booth would be the least of my worries. Though I suppose if I were ever elected, and were then subsequently assassinated, people would figure that I had it coming.

You would think that not that many people would admit to being related to John Wilkes Booth, but in fact, I know of two other folks (obviously, I’m excepting my own family members): my pal Marty (who, despite the name, is a woman) in Chicago, and another pal, Helen, who is in Los Angeles. Interestingly, we all have jobs in the creative sector: I am a writer, Helen is a screenwriter (she wrote Reality Bites, one of the big moments in Gen-X cinema), and Marty is an actress. This is in keeping with the Booth theatrical and creative genes, we figure — better that than a gene that causes us to leap from theater boxes and stalk heads of state. Helen and I, both of whom have a penchant for black humor, has formed a little club called the Booth Society; our motto (besides Sic Semper Tyrannis, and complementing it) is “Let’s Hope It Doesn’t Come to That.”

You can probably figure out what “that” might be. So far, it hasn’t.

69 thoughts on “The Family Assassin

  1. John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10th.

    As was Mark David Chapman.

    As were you and I.

    But you probably already knew that.

    Jackie

  2. Have you ever read, seen, or heard the musical Assassins? (this guy shot James A Garfield)

    “Everybody’s
    Got the right
    To be happy.
    Say, “Enough!”
    It’s not as tough
    As it seems.

    Don’t be scared
    You won’t prevail,
    Everybody’s
    Free to fail,
    No one can be put in jail
    For their dreams.”

    -James Wilkes Booth in Assassins

  3. A better translation for ‘sic semper tyrranis’:
    “Thus it ALWAYS is with tyrants.”

    And a bit of math:
    Your genetic heritage shared with your great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle is one gene in 256, although I might be off by a factor of two. (Not quite sure what a grand-uncle is in the first place.)

    You have the same chance of carrying the “assassin gene” yeah, right) as you do of throwing eight coins in the air and having them all come up heads.

    Thus it always is with pedants.

  4. Is “Chester A. Garfield” a joke? ‘Cause…James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur. And Garfield was the assassinated one.

  5. Is “Chester A. Garfield” a joke? ‘Cause…James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur. And Garfield was the assassinated one.

  6. You may enjoy Sarah Vowell’s new(ish) book Assassination Vacation, where she travels all ’round the East Coast, checking out the extant connections to the assassins of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. (JFK must’ve been overplayed.) I’m pretty sure she mentioned the same wax cylinder recording of Edwin, but she totally dismissed your great-grandfather.

  7. Charlie Giteau… oh but two people beat me to it.

    Sad how much of what I know comes from Johnny Cash songs.

  8. Thanks John… your nephew tripped when he read this. He is going to print it up at school.

    Peace

  9. He is going to print it up at school.

    Be careful with that. In this day and age they may suspend him for plotting to kill teachers or someother such nonsense.

  10. Allow me to second the recommendation of Assassination Vacation. Interestingly enough, I got that book from the library right after I got Old Man’s War from the library. How bout that?

  11. I’ll have to check it out. Sarah Vowell was on my “annoying writer” list for a while back in the late 90s and early 00s thanks to her music writing in Salon, but I liked her quite a bit in The Incredibles and I’d be interested in what she has to write as long a it’s not related to music.

  12. She was also very annoying to listen to in The Incredibles, for the most part. There was an extra on the dvd with her talking about Lincoln that was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me…

  13. …Charlie Guiteau drew a crowd to his trial–led them in prayer.
    He said “I killed Garfield, I’ll make no denial. I was just acting for Someone Up There
    “The Lord’s my employer, and now he’s my lawyer, so do what you dare.”

    Charlie said, “Hell! If I am guilty then God is as well.”
    But God was acquitted and Charlie committed until he should hang…

    Ah, American history via Broadway musicals… :)

  14. On sic semper tyrannis: it seems more sensible to me to translate “tyrannis” as “to tyrants” than as “with tyrants”. “Thus always to tyrants.” Is there some compelling reason to use “with” that I’m unaware of?

  15. I live in a small city in Ohio, and guess what? We have a descendant of Abraham Lincoln living here. He’s written about it over the years, and actually taught commercial art for a few years, and kept himself an online presence. You can check him out here, if so inclined. http://oldmanlincoln.modblog.org/

  16. Not only do I also highly recommend Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, but it may be relevant to your post on the future of writing and publishing that I found out about it not through normal book channels, but through watching the author talk about the then-unfinished book in one of the appendix clips to the DVD of The Incredibles, a film for which she did one of the voices.

    By the way, the guy referred to by Steve Thom is a distant cousin of President Lincoln’s, not a descendant (no direct descendants of the President still survive).

  17. May 10th is also the birthday of Sid Vicious… and me. We’re in excellent company, I think.

    And WRT Sarah Vowell… I’m not a big fan of her earlier music-related writing either, but her later essays are generally a treat to read. Also to listen to; with all due respect to John H., her “Shooting Dad” is one of the classics of This American Life, and that and her other readings of her essays probably led to her getting the part in The Incredibles. Her Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Vowell) has links to TAL episodes that she’s been in; listen and judge for yourself.

  18. How did you find out that you were related to him. Like is there any web addresses that you went to? Because i think im related to him but i keep looking for family trees and cant find anything.

  19. My son is kin to John Wilts Booth. His name is Ethan Booth. His family told me John Wilts didn’t die when history recorded it. He escaped and hid, and he lived at a old age.

  20. I am also in the Booth family. My Grandfather is Byrd William Booth. He was a coal miner who lived in West Virgina. He died December 1949. I would love to have info on this family.

  21. I believe I am distantly related to John Wilkes Booth but have yet to prove it yet….Do you happen to have a family tree etc. that you could send to me? It’s very hard to find one on the internet, I suppose people aren’t clamoring to admit they’re related to him (go figure)… Anyway I’d greatly appreciate any info you have.

  22. I believe I am distantly related to John Wilkes Booth but have yet to prove it… Do you happen to have a family tree etc. that you could send to me? It’s very hard to find one on the internet, I suppose people aren’t clamoring to admit they’re related to him (go figure)… Anyway I’d greatly appreciate any info you have.

  23. It seems you have a sense of humor so let me add this to the comments. My ancestor is Abraham Lincoln, Guess who is the ancestor of my boyfriend. Yes non other than John Wilkes Booth. So I guess eventually we all can be friends. lol(When I met my boyfriend I cracked up over the fact that his ancestor shot my ancestor)

  24. actually lincoln has no decendants from his blood line . he had a rare disease and the last known one died 1o yrs ago or something.

  25. I am also related to Booth, I’m not sure whether directly or not. I also am a writer and creative. Strange… ^_^

  26. What?? John Wilkes Booth didnt when history recorded it? Where did he hide? Id love to hear the story!

  27. I was reading the transcript of a 1965 interview with my great-grandfather, Marcus Lafayette Thompson. He is in his mid 80′s at this time.

    He states that his sister Lily, told him that one of his grandfathers was a distant relative of John W. Booth. I don’t think this is likely due to the fact most of my maternal line was in the US from 1734 to 1769. Since the Booth family immigrated in 1821, it seems impossible to have a connection.

    However, if I were ever bored enough, I might look into it.

    For now, my interest is tweaked by the possibility that one of M. Lafayette Thompson’s sons (my gf Robert) might actually have worked with U. A. Sanabria, the inventor of mechanical TV in Chicago in the late 1920′S.

  28. Hello from the UK!

    I believe my family are decendents, directly or indirectly, of John Wilkes Booth but I haven’t been able to find a family tree that would help to find the missing links. I’ve also discovered there may be a link in the Booth family to William Booth, the Founder of the Salvation Army. Interestingly, John Wilkes Booth’s uncle is the great great great great grandfather of Cherie Blair, Tony Blair’s wife.

    If it is possible, would you be able to send me any information you have that may help my inquiries?

  29. My grandmother’s maiden name is Booth. I am a creative writer living in NYC. Would be interested in researching my family tree. Any suggestions…? Many thanks!

  30. Interesting website! I think I am related to JWB. My greatgrand father was from chicago, his name was Milton Lyman Booth. His father’s name was Charles, I think. Do you have any info on the geneology of JWB. Contact me if you do cause I am looking for info on my grandfather. thanks, Emmy.

  31. This sounds like all the other postings, but my Grandma’s Maiden name was Booth and we have been told by her that we are within the same family tree and JWB. Now that i am an adult, i am very interested in finding out more. If you have any information on how you get started with researching family history like this I would love to hear from you !!!!

  32. thats funny. people get the same way with me. im in the direct line on which side i never remember but i actually had someone ask me once whether assassinations could be passed along in your blood lol

  33. I read your comments. They are very interesting. Like many of the posts before this, John Wilkes Booth may be an ancestor of mine (or related to an ancestor of mine). I am sure I am a descendant of John Wilkes (the mayor), because of things passed down by my family. I was hoping you could give me any information you have on the family tree of John Wilkes Booth (maybe how he is related to John Wilkes.)

    Thank you!

  34. AS far as people thinking I’m an asasin…I got some strange looks in American History when we were discussing the assasanation of Lincoln. ^_~

  35. My great Grand Mother Grace Mae Booth was the Great, Great, Great Grand Daughter to Edwin Booth
    and Mary Vickers. I know Edwin had a daughter from his first marriage, then of course a son from his second. I would like to know the gaps in between if you have any info. Thanks

  36. Hello My name is Holly Booth im the great great great Grandaughter of William Booth of the Salvation Army I have proof

  37. Does anyone know if there is a connection between Edwin Booth & Charles Booth an lesser known actor who I am related to?

  38. I’m just gonna get to the point,I’ve heard from my grandma that I’m related to John. I was told by her that one of my recent cousins, name unknown, took a letter mailed to our ancestors from John to school. She took it to class, and her teacher sent her to the principal, of course he said that she was a liar. Then the principal took the letter and burnt it..Thanks alot! …anyways The letter was from Ireland,and it stated that He had escaped and that he was alive in Ireland. Also something very interesting, it said that the president that took over after the assasination of Abe, was the one who paid him to kill Abe. He said he was also the one that helped cover up the truth…!

  39. I’m related to John Wilkes booth too. A direct blood relation, actually, which is always a fun conversation starter.

  40. Sarah,
    I enjoy reading all about you. I am a Vowell from
    the tree. Enjoyed your Trail of Tears. Some how
    I lost track of my great-great grand father who
    was battling Red Sticks.

  41. Well where do I begin. I have been told my whole life that I too am related to John Wilkes Booth. From My fathers side of the family he comes from the Booth Family. I also have been given the same great great great uncle story. The question is are you and I related and do you have a copy of his family tree. My seven year old is doing a report on our favorite PRESIDENT Abraham Lincoln as such the question arises again. Are we related to that scoundrel of a man JWB ? Thanks for any leads. Martha Helms maiden name Lanning
    daughter of Dennis Lanning
    son of Jack and Gladys Welch

  42. I am related to Edwin booth on my fathers side. I’ve tried to find a family tree but haven’t been succseeful. if you know of any if u could please tell me. when i tell people that i am related they get freaked out and think that im going to kill them, or i am goin to kill a president wich is ridiculous because Abe is my favorite president. I would like to learn more!

  43. Very much enjoyed your article, and your sane outlook on having a connection to an infamous assassin.

    JWB was my great great grandfather, on my mom’s side. I, too, share his birthday. (Family members claim that explains a lot about me.) Have had some of the same experiences of people getting curious or nervous if I mention the connection.

    I see many requests in the posts for info on family tree. My grandmother wrote “This One Mad Act”, a history of the Booth Family, JWB, the assassination, and what happened afterward, in particular. She was able to intervew many of the people who were alive and at the barn where Booth was killed, and also had family information, which led to the conclusion that it wasn’t Booth who died.

    More information available in the excellent book, “The Mad Booths of Maryland”, on all subjects relating to JWB and the rest of the family.

    Grandma’s book is hard to find now, but the other is still available. Hope it helps some people find answers to their questions.

  44. For what it’s worth my Mother has said Booth was a distant relative. She said a member of her side of the family had a plantation in Florida,Milton I believe. Their name was Journagan or maybe Journigan[something like that]. Said Booth would visit and play with the kids. That’s about all I know and can’t swear if it’s true.

  45. I did’nt know that so many have the same story told to them my Grandmother’s last name was Booth and she claims to be an direct relative which would also make me one too. I have no way to support it, but it always is fun to mention it to people, I would love to see a family tree if any could be offered

  46. Wow. Same story as many others above. From a very young age, I had heard from my grandmother that we were related in some way to the Booth family though perhaps by a marraige.
    Grandma was born in 1892 so she had access to people who had experience and memories of 30 years prior.
    I’ll be looking for the books recommended by Diane T. Many thanks to her. Also, the family names that might be associated with this connection are Charbonneau, Lemarand, Reaume or LaFountaine from the Monroe County area in Michigan.

  47. I am interested in finding out if my Booth family has decended from the John Wilkes Booth line. I have read that all but one of the ten Booth children were born out of wedlock. My great grandmother ‘s name was Booth and the father of her nine children born out of wedlock was Garrad. It has been passed down that Mr. Garrad asked Ms. Booth to marry him but she never married him and she gave her last name to all of her children. Mr. Garrad was a mysterious man and my father and his family did not know anything about him. So, my maiden name should have been Garrad instead of Booth. Since my grandfather’s parents were mysterious we do not know much about our ancestors. I would like to trace JWB’s family from England and on passed the Lincoln times to see where they broke off to. My Booth family was living in Tennessee, Montgomery County.

  48. I’m related to him too! He was, I believe, a cousin of my great grandmother. If Ancestors.com was free, I’d give you the Booth family tree. Haha, maybe were cousins.

  49. Oh, in 1st grade I had a friend to was also related (claimed to be anyway) to Lincoln. She really resented me for that. ^^’

  50. Hey You must be my cousin removed 10 times because my great-grandma told me that I was related to him too. Her last name was Rounette.

  51. Hi,
    my names Joanna,
    My dad is Tony Booth and i think i am related to J.W.B too!!! I think he’s my fifth cousin he was my great great great grandfather’s nephew.
    Small world, don’t you think?

  52. It is so great to meet a person who is related to John WIlkes Booth. I am very interested in John Wilkes Booth’s life, and this was a pleasure to read. :)

  53. I am unsure why anyone who is not related to JWB would claim to be. After reading all of these posts, the one that stands out is #53, Diana, stands out as the most possible, since true Booth relatives know the story of Izola and her grandmother and daughters and granddaughters. Not every Booth is related with this being a not uncommon english name. My great great great grandmother, Jane Booth, was an Aunt to Edwin, JWB, Asia, etc. She married James Mitchell, and one of her son’s, Robert Girard Mitchell was my great great grandfather, and a cousin to JWB,Edwin and the younger brother, Joseph Adrian Booth. Robert Mitchell and his wife had 4 daughters, one was my grandmother, Agnes Mitchell Humbrecht,and her older sister was Cora E. Mitchell, who in an arranged family marriage, became the second wife of Joseph Booth.As a widow, she resided with my grandparents, and my mother and her siblings, in Yardley PA and spoke about many family situations, especially her husband ( Joseph Booth )and Edwin never identifying the body at the funeral home, etc. It is time for these historians to stop telling HISTORY as they want to see it, and open the grave at GreenMount Cemetary and set the record straight. As far as if you are related, the family tree seems very clear, but there are distant relatives that may be traced to Junius Brutus Booth II, as well as to JWB himself since both marriage and birth certificates exist that point in that direction. Any items my family ever had were all engraved, dated, or had documentation, as well as an easy to trace family tree. Good luck! Joanne Hulme

  54. It is always a pleasure to read your posts. As far as I know John Wilkes is still dead.

    Your great-grandfather sounds like an admirable gentleman.

    I also have relatives that are sort of well known in Canadian history for painting and writing. Whether I inherited the so-called “creative” gene is debatable. Thanks for another great article.

  55. It’s a wonder that the hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of descendants of John Wilkes Booth never had thought to do DNA tests. Sure the man killed in the barn was buried in a secret grave, but why not dig up a brother, sister, mother. Their graves are known. If all y’all would pitch in 10 bucks you’d have much more than you need to answer the question and get the truth – oh, wait… the truth; there’s the problem.

    Of course that descendant here of John WILTS Booth shouldn’t have to contribute. She just logged into the wrong family thread by accident.

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