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.