Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

RTB: Alford/Fortune’s Fool–Read this book! New and classic books for your DC history bookshelf

Note: this is the first in a continuing set of posts on important books (new and old) for those studying Washington DC history.

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, by Terry Alford. OUP, 2015.

While this is not distinctly Washington DC local history, it does thoroughly illuminate the man behind one of the most important events to take place in Washington, the assassination of President Lincoln.

Publisher blurb: “In Fortune’s Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth’s story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. Despite the fame and success that attended Booth’s career–he was billed at one point as “the youngest star in the world”–he found himself consumed by the Confederate cause and the desire to help the South win its independence. Alford reveals the tormented path that led Booth to conclude, as the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, that the only way to revive the South and punish the North for the war would be to murder Lincoln–whatever the cost to himself or others. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford’s Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth’s capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago.
Based on original research into government archives, historical libraries, and family records, Fortune’s Fool offers the definitive portrait of John Wilkes Booth.”

A well-written, engaging book, recounting the life of John Wilkes Booth full of useful (but not overwhelming) detail.  The concluding section including Booth’s death does strays a bit into the novelistic (one “character” feels tears on his cheeks, a bat flies out when Booth opens the door to the barn where he will die). The loving details told of his earlier life do make the conspiracy section seem a little bit rushed. As the North crushes Southern resistance and the war nears its end Booth’s Hamlet-esque struggle to decide what action to take (if any) against Lincoln dominates the rest of the book. The conspiracy itself and Booth’s life during the months up to its conclusion feel sketchy, due in part to lacunae in the historical evidence. The story of Booth’s relationship with his fiancée(?) Lucy Hale is but lightly covered–an intriguing story indeed–the daughter of an abolitionist Senator engaged to a man who bitterly hated Lincoln. But one comes away from the book, if not understanding Booth, with a rich picture of the life he lead and something of the motives and demons which drove him.

The only previous biography of Booth was by George Alfred Townsend in 1865: The life, crime, and capture of John Wilkes Booth, with a full sketch of the conspiracy of which he was the leader, and the pursuit, trail and execution of his accomplices (Google books copy).

For more on the assassination plot itself Edward Steers “Blood on the Moon” is suggested. Reviewed here: https://networks.h-net.org/node/9997/reviews/10642/turner-steers-blood-moon-assassination-abraham-lincoln

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