Feb. 3, 2023

An Assassin’s Brother Opens Booth’s Theatre

An Assassin’s Brother Opens Booth’s Theatre


Cold Open

It’s November 25th, 1864, at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City, four years into America’s Civil War.

Edwin Booth, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, steps onto the stage to begin the second act of Julius Caesar. He can see the house is packed with enthralled theatergoers, all waiting for him to begin…

But before he can deliver his line as Caesar’s famous assassin, Brutus, he is interrupted by the sound of fire bells outside the theater.

Anxious whispers spread through the crowd. Just last year, a compulsory draft for the Union army sparked riots that set the whole city ablaze. This memory sends a chill down Edwin’s spine. He hopes tonight’s alarm is just an accident and not arson.

But Edwin’s panic grows as the fire brigade bursts into the theater. He makes eye contact with his two brothers, John Wilkes and Junius Junior, who are waiting offstage and looking at him for direction. Edwin quickly scans the theater for signs of smoke or fire and finds none. The venue seems safe. But Edwin and his audience are on edge.

The crowd grows silent as the firefighters fill the aisles, announcing they have just extinguished a fire at the theater next door. Edwin breathes a sigh of relief, before rushing to get tonight’s performance back on track. Without further hesitation, he steps to the front of the stage and assures both the crowd and the firefighters there is no danger here; fire has not spread to the Winter Garden.

After a brief inspection, the firefighters are convinced of the venue’s safety too. As the brigade exits, Edwin coaxes the crowd to return their attention back to the play. Again, he promises that the theater is safe. No smoke or fire has been detected. And he welcomes them to take their seats… and the play resumes to exuberant applause.

In the 1860s, Edwin Booth is the most famous actor in the United States. At the height of his fame, he puts on a special performance of Julius Caesar to raise money for a statue of William Shakespeare to be erected in the newly opened Central Park. To ensure a full house, Edwin puts on the play with his two brothers - Junius Jr. and John Wilkes. It’s the only night these three famous brothers will share a stage.

But the night almost ends in disaster when Confederate spies set fires throughout New York City. Their plot fails though, and the fires are quickly extinguished. The Booth brothers go on to have a successful night on the stage. Neither Edwin nor the audience learn the motive behind the fires until the play is over.

But, while the Booth brothers and the audience will avoid the Confederates’ flames, the national discord underpinning the arson will soon leave an indelible mark on the brothers. Their fame as actors will ultimately be overshadowed just days after the war’s end. John Wilkes Booth will carry out a sinister assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. After the tragedy, Edwin will spend the rest of his life trying to reclaim his honor, a goal that will lead him to open the extravagant Booth’s Theatre on February 3rd, 1869.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 3rd, 1869: An Assassin’s Brother Opens Booth’s Theatre.

Act One: The Rival Booth Brothers

It’s 1848 in Baltimore, Maryland, almost twenty years before the Booth brothers will perform Julius Caesar in New York City.

Inside a hotel basement, 14-year-old Edwin Booth cackles villainously before a crowd of youngsters, basking in their attention.

Recently, Edwin and his friends started a small theater troupe called the Tripple Alley Players. Tonight, they are putting on Shakespeare’s Richard III and Edwin is in the title role and he is relishing it. Edwin has spent his life in the shadow of his famous actor father, Junius Brutus Booth. But, tonight, all eyes are on him.

As Shakespeare’s evil King Richard, Edwin delivers his lines with gusto. But his performance is cut short when an intruder bursts into the back of the makeshift theater. Edwin has no trouble identifying the surprise arrival. It’s his father looking furious. Edwin can already guess why: he stole parts of his King Richard costume from his father’s valuable wardrobe.

Junius eyes Edwin’s attire, Edwin bolts for a window, but he only makes it halfway out before his father grabs him. Junius begins thrashing his son in punishment in front of the assembled crowd.

Later at home, Edwin learns that it was his younger brother, John Wilkes, who ratted him out. When Edwin confronts him, John insists he had no choice. Their father threatened him with a terrible beating if he did not confess. But Edwin is not convinced. His brother also loves to act, and he knows John resents him for taking the limelight and leaving him out of the troupe’s performances. Edwin believes that John purposely sabotaged the play to get back at him.

Soon after, the 10-year-old John gives Edwin another reason to distrust him when he launches his own theater company with several of the younger boys from Edwin’s troupe. To give their company a boost, John decides to steal Edwin’s stage scenery. And when Edwin finds out, he vows revenge on his younger brother. He leads the loyal members of the Tripple Alley players to retrieve the set piece. A fight breaks out between the brothers’ crews, but Edwin and his friends are able to leave with the scenery.

The rivalry between the two Booth actors continues into their adulthood. Edwin is obsessed with becoming his father's heir as America's greatest actor. And as adult, he earns far more money and accolades than either of his brothers, and he is intensely protective of his fame. So, as the other Booth brothers begin to establish their acting careers, Edwin puts forward a controlling plan.

He divides the country into three regions that the Booth brothers will share as actors. Junius Jr. is given the West, and John Wilkes the South. Edwin keeps the most profitable and prestigious North for himself. And while each brother earns respect as an actor in his own right, Edwin will remain the most wealthy and famous, leaving his brothers to often bend to his will.

So when Edwin suggests they put on a show of Julius Caesar together to raise money for a statue of William Shakespeare in New York's brand-new Central Park, Junius and John agree. It is the first and only time the three brothers will share a stage. And on the night of the performance, every seat in the theater is filled. Aside from the fire alarm, the show goes on without a hitch.

But in the days after their success, the brothers’ relationship begins to fracture even more, divided by something far deeper than their acting ambitions. As they read about the Confederate plot in New York City, and the fires that almost put an end to the performance, the men’s separate loyalties are clear. Junius Junior and Edwin are infuriated by the rebel arson plot. But John feels differently. He defends the fires as a valid act of war. Edwin is incensed.

This is not the first time John has taken the side of the South. Since the Civil War broke out, Edwin and John have found themselves routinely butting heads over the conflict. But now, Edwin has had enough. He demands John Wilkes to stop his treasonous talk. But John refuses to back down. Instead, he describes how the Union army recently burned down civilian property in the South, and argues that the rebel attack on New York City was an honorable retaliation.

At this, Edwin grabs John Wilkes by his lapels and shoves him toward the door. Eventually, John leaves under his own power but enraged and insulted. In the past, John and Edwin managed to overcome their differences. They tried to get along for the sake of their family and their careers. But this is different.

Angry and isolated, John will soon commit himself fully to the rebel cause. Five months later, he will write himself into history when he assassinates President Abraham Lincoln during a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. With this act, John will finally overshadow his famous older brother. The Booth name will become infamous. Edwin, saddened and ashamed, will vow to retire from acting. But, desperate to reclaim his family’s name from his treasonous brother, he will not be able to resist the allure of the stage for long.

Act Two: Edwin’s Second Act

It’s July 10th, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C, three months after John Wilkes Booth killed President Abraham Lincoln.

Backstage, a young actor rehearses his lines, eager to impress tonight’s crowd in the venue’s first show in months.

Ford’s Theater has been closed ever since President Lincoln was assassinated there. The tragedy has cast a long shadow over both the theater and the entire acting profession. While some in the theater world want to return to business as usual, there are many who oppose them, now associating the craft with John Wilkes’ evil deeds. But tonight, this young actor and his fellow troupe members hope to do their part in reviving the reputation of Ford’s Theater and their profession.

The actor keeps rehearsing, trying to get his performance perfect. But his preparation is interrupted when the doors to the theater burst open, revealing three dozen heavily-armed soldiers. By the order of the United States Secretary of War, the troops explain that Ford’s Theater will not reopen as planned tonight. The Secretary of War feels John T. Ford, the theater’s owner, is trying to profit from tragedy. The theater troupe has no choice but to comply with the soldiers' orders and cancel their performance.

For months after the shutdown, the American public continues to debate whether, and how, to move forward from the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination. But the question plagues few as deeply as the assassin's brother, Edwin Booth.

In the spring of 1865, Edwin was at the peak of his career. He had just finished a historic run of 100 critically acclaimed nights performing Hamlet. But all of that evaporated just a few weeks later when his brother shot President Lincoln in the head.

In the wake of the killing, Edwin promises to leave the stage and retreat from public life. But in the months to come, he changes his mind. Acting is all Edwin knows, and he refuses to let his brother erase his life’s work.

So as theaters begin to resume their activities, Edwin prepares for his comeback. In January of 1866, eight months after the assassination of President Lincoln, it’s finally time for Edwin to take the stage once again as Hamlet.

As he stands backstage at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City, his heart races. It’s been a long time since his last performance. And in the back of his mind, doubt creeps in. He wonders if he’ll be booed off the stage. Or worse, attacked, as one newspaper suggested might happen.

But, then, Edwin remembers all of the friends who urged him to return to acting. He thinks of the throngs of excited people he saw gathered outside the theater earlier today. And he knows that if he ever wants to recover his honor, this is the only way.

So as the second scene of the play begins, Edwin walks into the lights of the theater. For a moment, the theater is absolutely silent. But then the crowd erupts into applause. Edwin is overwhelmed.

He watches as people rise to their feet. Women wave their handkerchiefs and men swing their hats. Edwin takes in the cheers coming from the front row all the way up to the upper balconies. He tries to deliver his line, but he is interrupted by more applause. Finally, after four minutes, Edwin offers his first line as Hamlet. His voice cracks with emotion, but he is committed to putting on a show worthy of his reputation.

Throughout the play, the audience's reaction is unlike any of Edwin’s previous performances. At the end of each act, admirers throw bouquets and wreaths onto the stage. After the play, Edwin is visited by some of New York City’s most distinguished men. One newspaper writes that, with his performance that night, Edwin “had reached his zenith.” So whatever doubts Edwin had about returning to acting soon vanished.

After his performance in Hamlet, Edwin begins touring the country. He plays to packed houses wherever he goes. But Edwin is still not satisfied. Despite all the praise he’s received, there’s still one terrible, nagging question that Edwin can’t shake: Are audiences there to see the talented actor Edwin Booth? Or are they paying to see the brother of the notorious murderer, John Wilkes Booth?

Edwin will never know for certain what the answer is. But he will dedicate the rest of his life working to ensure that John Wilkes’ actions do not eclipse his own career. In time, Edwin will use the fortune he amasses to build a theater of his own, where he can create a new legacy and truly reclaim the Booth family name.

Act Three: Edwin Opens the Booth Theatre

It’s February 3rd, 1869, on 23rd Street and 6th Avenue in New York City, three years after Edwin Booth’s triumphant return to the stage.

A young woman stands in a crowd, waiting to enter Booth’s New Theatre. Tonight is the opening night of the venue recently financed by the acclaimed actor. Already, the young woman is impressed. She heard that it cost more than one million dollars to build, and she believes it. The venue takes up an entire city block, with towers reaching 120 feet into the air, and a facade made of ornate Roman marble.

The inside is just as extravagant. As the young woman enters the packed lobby, she’s met with Italian marble floors and two large busts: one of William Shakespeare and another of Edwin’s famous father, Junius Booth. She takes a moment to admire the statues before heading into the auditorium.

There, she sits in eager anticipation of the show to come. But before the play begins, Edwin Booth arrives to deliver some remarks. Young woman joins in the applause to welcome Edwin, regarded again as one of the nation’s finest actors. She listens as Edwin thanks the crowd and explains that it has not been an easy journey to get here, but he was determined to build a theater worthy of New York City and the art of drama.

The young woman cheers her approval. She’s confident that Edwin has succeeded in this goal, and the rest of the night only confirms her view. When Edwin returns to the stage as Romeo, the young theatergoer is captivated. Throughout the play, she marvels at the theater’s state-of-the-art technology and beautiful set pieces. By the end, she can’t wait to return to the venue, one of the most opulent theaters of its time.

But despite his brilliance as an actor, Edwin will struggle to manage the finances of his new, large, and expensive theater. He will never recoup the money it cost to build the venue or be able to fully escape his association with his infamous brother. He will try to tour across the country to remake his fortune, but throughout his travels, newspapers will continue to name him as the brother of the man who killed the president.

In 1874, only five years after it opened, Booth’s Theatre will close. But Edwin’s legacy will live on. Today, in the Broadway district of New York City there is another Booth's theater, named in honor of Edwin. But for many, the Booth name will always be linked to the death of a president, an outcome Edwin hoped to change but could not when he opened Booth’s Theatre on February 3rd, 1869.


Next onHistory Daily. February 6th, 1958.Twenty-three people die, including members of Manchester United's championship-winning football team, when an airplane crashes on take-off in Munich.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.