Being very interested in 19th Century American theatre and the Civil War period, I likely have read most of the books published on the Booth family – patriarch Junius Brutus Booth and sons Edwin and John Wilkes being the best known. My Thoughts Be Bloody – new in 2012 and what a provocative title! – caught my eye in the Library audiobooks section and was a huge treat to listen to. I liked it so much that I bought a print copy for my library at home.
Titone’s well researched multi-biography covering all the Booths, their intertwined lives and careers, and the highly charged times they lived in reads like a suspense novel. Her primary focus is on Edwin, the greatest American actor of the day, and the turbulent, competitive relationship with his youngest brother John Wilkes. With a number of years between them, John, indulged as the apple of his mother’s eye, grows up as a Maryland farm boy while his older brother grows up through a difficult theatrical apprenticeship crisscrossing the country on tour as guardian to their acclaimed tragedian/drunkard father (the son making sure the actor’s pay gets sent home, not spent in the nearest bar). Edwin learns the actor’s craft through experience and hardship on tour, and later far surpasses his father’s fame and wealth as the country’s leading actor. John Wilkes, with great dreams of joining the family business, has the good looks of a matinee idol, but Edwin is too busy touring and determined to remain “The Booth” in the public’s eye to support his brother’s aspirations or need for training in the craft. So John Wilkes struggles as an actor, at best a handsome but second rate one pale in comparison to his brother. Edwin even forbids him to tour in the lucrative Northeast, keeping that territory firmly in his own grasp, and relegating John to fewer and third-rate tour dates in the south. (Small wonder perhaps that Wilkes falls in with Southern sympathizers as the War cranks up.)
Titone brings in a lot of new research to the story, and paints a vivid portrait of this unusual family and their colorful profession, so different from the theatre of today. Her main thesis, that John Wilkes’ most notorious moment – assassinating the War’s beloved and victorious President in a theatre, no less – was driven more by the unbalanced need to outshine his famous brother than a passion for revenge and the Confederate cause, is a well argued case. In the end, she is right – for all the public prominence, wealth and acclaim for the one of the greatest actors of the 19th Century, Edwin is not the Booth that everyone remembers. But everybody knows who John Wilkes Booth is.
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