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Our Brutus - Part 1 - The Family and the Plays
(Published in The Railsplitter, Volume 13, #1/2, 2007/2008)
By Kevin Lynch

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1. The Family and the Plays

“Hopity Kickety – High and Low” or “A Regular Cure”; this was the piece of sheet music that opened the portal to John Wilkes Booth, Laura Keene and Abraham Lincoln. This started me following a thread of American musical lore that led to what noted Lincoln historian David Rankin Barbee called “the greatest incident in American history”. My search culminated with an extraordinary musical publication, one of the many significant rarities in American popular music, and one of the more shocking and perplexing stories in the annals of American publication. 

“Hopity-Kickity”. It was an odd piece of sheet music I had collected, something found and purchased, perused and wondered at over the years. Published in 1856, the sheet music had a colored lithographic illustration on the front of Frank Drew, who apparently sang the song in a show presented at both the Philadelphia Academy of Music and the city’s Arch Street Theatre. The actor was costumed in a red striped clown outfit with a dunce hat. It mystified me for several years and one day I simply stopped wondering and began searching.

Frank Drew, an actor who specialized in cross-dressing roles, was an uncle to John Drew Jr. and a member of one of the most famous of 19th century American theatre families, the Drews. Matriarch Louisa Drew was an excellent actress and artistic overseer at the Arch St. Theatre in Philadelphia and was a fine manager as well, keeping the theatre’s doors opened until 1892. It was John Drew who introduced Maurice Barrymore to his sister and thus began the linking of the Drews and the Barrymores, with the Barrymore line alive today with film actress Drew Barrymore, who takes the name of both great acting families, “a stem from that victorious stock” (Shakespeare).

What arrested me in my search and drew me deeper into the great drama of April, 1865, Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., was a note I discovered about a production of Macbeth in Philadelphia in 1863. It was a cast list from the Arch St. Theatre with Frank Drew featured as Second Witch and Louisa taking the part of Lady Macbeth. Her casting of the king was significant – John Wilkes Booth. It was the final year of performing for this well known and beloved actor known for his great passion and phosphorescent performances. He was also the brother of Edwin Booth, who was to become the most famous Hamlet of the age. There were members of two great acting families coiled on a stage, 100 years in advance of President Kennedy’s assassination, grappling with one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, a play about a man who killed a king. It is said that John Wilkes had a 12 or 14-foot vertical drop as Macbeth at the beginning of the play. This would have been a difficult jump for an actor but one that may have given him the idea for escaping Ford’s Theatre after shooting Lincoln. The ironies are striking.

The Booth acting family holds a place in theatre lore both famed and infamous. To begin with, the father, Junius Brutus, was named after the Roman senator who was the founder of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus. Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the senators who killed Caesar, was also named after this man. Junius’ father Richard Booth, aware of Roman history, was a lawyer who believed in ‘Wilkes and Liberty’, referring to John Wilkes, a strong activist and leading advocate of free speech in England. In fact, Elizabeth Wilkes, Richard’s mother, was a relative of the demagogue who was also known as “Wilkes the Agitator”. Junius Booth named his son John Wilkes after this famous English orator. The father Junius and his sons were placed in history first by their names and associations, later by their fates.

Junius was British born and cut his theatrical teeth in the shadow of a lion of the English stage, the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. Indeed, he quickly became Kean’s rival, fashioning a career on two continents that was ten years longer than that of Kean and four years beyond the length of famed thespian David Garrick’s. Junius was an actor of great voice and stature, known in both England and America for his phosphorescent performances.

Junius named the elder son, Edwin, after the great Edwin Forrest, one of the most famous of Shakespearean actors in America during the first half of the 19th century, a man Junius had acted with and revered. The youngest son, Junius Jr., who also acted and took the father’s name, was typically called June.

There was one night, and one only, when all three sons took the stage together. It was the year following the Philadelphia production of Macbeth when the three brothers joined up for a memorable production of Julius Caesar, a benefit to help with the financing of the Shakespeare statue in Central Park (New York). A single evening’s performance on November 25, 1864, it was held at the famed Winter Garden Theatre and was a complete success, all 2,000 tickets being sold rapidly. Edwin played Brutus and John Wilkes took the role of Marc Antony. The only disturbance came when firemen rushed into the lobby shouting, “Fire! Fire!”. The blaze, which was quickly extinguished, erupted at the hotel next door to the theatre, one of a dozen blazes at hotels and public gathering places that night that were thought to be set by Confederate agents who wanted to turn citizens against the government’s policies in conduct of the war. The alarm was a forerunner to the fire that did burn down the Winter Garden three years later. Among the valuables destroyed then were $40,000 of Edwin Booth’s costumes and personal affects. Booth was part owner of the theatre at the time.

Perhaps John, who enthusiastically supported the idea of the brothers performing in Julius Caesar, cottoned to the thought of performing in a play about the assassination of a ruler who had assumed tyrannical authority. Wilkes Booth, an ardent southern sympathizer from the beginning of the war, held that opinion about Lincoln. Like Hamlet, who, in a play within the play, has the Player King and his troupe act out a murder to arouse Claudius, who is in the audience, perhaps Booth wanted to plant a seed of insurrection in the minds of some that night at the Winter Garden. It is ironic that when Edwin Booth returned to the stage in January of 1866, following his seclusion after his brother’s heinous act, the New York Herald asked, “Is the assassination of Caesar to be performed? Will Booth appear as the assassin of Caesar? That would be, perhaps, the most suitable character”. Bad blood lingered in the North with the name of Booth, though Edwin had been an advocate of the Union all along.   

Edwin achieved a rank unsurpassed during the century by those laurelled for their performances in the bard’s plays. Edwin Booth played Hamlet on numerous occasions in many towns and was not only considered by many the greatest Hamlet of the age but impressed to such a great extent in the greatest of all roles in the English language that some who saw his work said simply, “he WAS Hamlet for us. You could not imagine or place another in the role”. A Manhattan statue of the man, in Gramercy Park, serves as a lasting tribute.

Edwin’s talent was clear at an early age. Joining father Junius in a tour of California in 1852, partially to just be present and keep the father from drink, Edwin slowly made his mark with Sacramento and San Francisco audiences, finally touring to Australia in 1854 with actress Laura Keene. The Booths had crossed the country 13 years before John Wilkes crossed the street from the Washington pub that April night in 1865, liquor in his head and a derringer in his pocket. Intoxication, in fact, connects the killing all the way back to he Arabic origin of the word assassination, which is ‘hashshashin’. The original assassins were eaters of hashish and emissaries of a famous sheikh during the Crusades, who intoxicated themselves before attempting murder (E.Weekley).

British born Laura Keene, whose fate was significant in this drama, was a memorable persona of the American stage. She made a lasting mark for women and most specifically women in the theatre. Laura was the first woman to own and operate a Broadway theatre and have her name on the marquee, the Laura Keene Theatre, opening in 1856. At a time in middle 19th century when women were rising, Laura had ascended to a rare pinnacle in the theatrical world. She was playing the lead in Our American Cousin, a role she was famous for, in the play Lincoln had come to watch, and was downstairs in her dressing room at Ford’s Theatre when the shot rang out. Keene had opened the astonishingly successful play in New York in 1858 and that production, with its multiple extensions, became the first long run in modern theatre history.

Laura Keene had her own famous liaisons. She had early on worked with Madame Vestris, famed British actress, who had been the first woman lessee of a theatre in 1831 at the Olympic Theatre in London. Vestris is credited for developing the first box set with ceiling and was noted for a natural artistic style as singer and actress and a realistic eye in costuming and set design.

One more individual needs mentioning, the orchestra leader at Ford’s Theatre that night, Mr. William Withers. The worlds of music and theatre were distinctly to be joined in the performance that evening in the presence of the President. William Withers had written a song, ‘Honor to our Soldiers’, in honor of the event and Ms. Keane was to sing it. Apparently, due to the anxiety of singing in front of the president, she refused to sing at the end of the play’s first act, when it was scheduled, and communicated through the stage managers to the bothered and bewildered Withers that she would tackle the job at the conclusion of the evening’s performance. Perhaps she could have invoked Euterpe, muse of music, to steel her nerves. Needless to say, that moment never arrived.

The distraught Mr. Withers, who had run into John Wilkes Booth at the pub across the street earlier in the evening, was perhaps heading Keane’s way in the cramped and narrow corridor backstage when he was passed by Booth a moment after the bloody deed was done. Booth, wild with rage and reeling with pain from an ankle shattered by the jump from Lincoln’s box, slashed William with his knife. The scar it produced would later be shown to friends and acquaintances and would literally “mark his time upon the stage” (Macbeth). His song, in honor of the event, is not known to have been published. (continue reading)