16. Edwin Booth was by far the more famous sibling – until his brother John Wilkes Booth went down in history as the assassin who killed President Abraham Lincoln
Today, almost every student of history knows the name, John Wilkes Booth. After all, he was the assassin who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865. Prior to the shooting in Ford’s Theater, however, John was relatively unknown, especially when compared to his brother Edwin. Indeed, in 1860s America, Edwin Booth was something of a superstar. He was a titan of the stage, known in particular for his performances in Shakespeare’s plays. Could it be that jealousy of his brother set John Wilkes Booth – an actor himself – on a course of conspiracy that eventually led to the assassination of the President? Some scholars believe so.
Both men were the illegitimate sons of Junius Brutus Booth, an Englishman who settled in Maryland and enjoyed a notable career as an actor. Along with their other brother Junius Jr., the boys were pitted against one another from a young age. They were pushed to follow in their father’s footsteps make names for themselves in the theater, even if this meant succeeding at the expense of their siblings. Edwin, the eldest of the three boys, enjoyed the greatest success. Above all, he made a name for himself playing lead roles in Shakespearean histories and tragedies. While John sometimes appeared alongside him, it was Edwin who became the real celebrity of his day – and even today is often named as one of the greatest stage actors America has ever produced.
It wasn’t just on the stage where the two brothers were rivals. The Booth family was also divided politically. While John Wilkes pledged allegiance to the Confederacy during the Civil War, the rest of his family sided with the Union. After the Union won the bloody war, John became even more committed to the South and increasingly turned to thoughts of conspiracy. In 1864, while Edwin was performing at the White House to celebrate Lincoln’s inauguration, his younger brother was busy plotting the President’s demise. One year later, he put his plan into action. Whether or not he chose a theater to carry out his infamous act in order to spite his actor brother, the events of April 14 meant that John Wilkes was to become the most famous of the Wilkes brothers for good.