Friday, October 24, 2008

The Ghost of John WIlkes Booth

A few months after his capture and death, John Wilkes Booth was sited in McVicker's Theatre, the Madison St. theatre where he had performed a couple of stints in Chicago. No one said it was a ghost, though - they simply said that it was evidence that he hadn't really died at all. Conspiracy theories of this nature are still going around; for years, a mummified version of the REAL Booth was a big hit at carnivals.

In 1866, a seance to contact Booth's spirit was held in a house on the West side. His ghost came when called (or, anyway, the medium made it SEEM as though he did - these things were pretty generally bogus) and his voice was heard, but he did not appear visually, since "the devil would not permit it."

In any case, the "ghost" gave a whole new version of the assassination story, stating that he fired at Lincoln from the front, but that the President turned his head, which is why the bullet entered from the back. He also stated that he broke his leg not in the jump to the stage but by falling from his horse later (this, in fact, happens to be correct).

He went on to say that he had also planned to kill Vice President Johnson (which, in fact, was someone else's job). He was most emphatically glad that he had killed Lincoln, but equally glad that he hadn't killed Johnson, who he liked very much (which makes sense, since Johnson was probably the most racist president ever; Booth's ghost was sure he would re-establish slavery). He wouldn't support his re-election, though - he argued for McClellan (a Union general who spent most of the early days of the war sitting on his butt, then ran against Lincoln in 1864) or Robert E. Lee as the next President and even mused about a McClellan / Lee "dream ticket."

He was then asked:
Q: "Are you in heaven?"
A: No.
Q: Are you in the other place?
A: Yes.
Q: Is there a devil there?
A: YES!
Q: Does he treat you rough?
A: YES! (the tabble jiggered violently here).
Q: Do you think you deserve it?
A: NNNNOOO!!!

He went on to admit that he was a pretty bad actor (he was fairly eccentric in his portrayals of well known Shakespeare rolls, but the Trib called him a genius), but was just as good as his brother, Edwin (who was widely thought of as the greatest Shakespearean actor of the day), and went on at great length about President Johnson and the type of people who supported him in the form of "automatic writing" before disappearing abruptly.

Seances like these - with knocks on tables, etc - were all the rage around the time of the Civil War. Mediums found all sorts of fascinating ways to fake them, up to and including pulling cheese cloth out of their more nefarious orifices and calling them "ectoplasm." Even the most die-hard believers knew that most of the "mediums" were frauds.

4 comments:

lhamilton said...

I have a wooden playbill for John Wilkes Booth at the McVicers Theater in Chicago. The playbill was hung very high in our old family store in Eden, Az. When we sold the store of course everything was taken home. My mother wanted to throw out the playbill, because she said it was just junk. I convinced her that it was neat, so that she would keep it. Not that I was pro what he did, it was just cool old history. It now hangs in my home today. I saw some wooden playbills years ago on the internet, but since then, I have not. I liked your story about Weird Chicago. I thought that I would share mine with you.
lham

Anonymous said...

What evidence do you have that Booth broke his leg falling from his horse and not jumping from Lincoln's box?

Adam Selzer said...

Good question, anon! It's one of those things no one can really know for sure, but, though reports differ widely on exactly what happened onstage (some say Booth said Sic Semper Tyranis, others say she said something else or nothing at all, etc), everyone seems to have agreed that he he moved rather athletically, and he was certainly able to mount a horse and ride off without any trouble. Not everyone agrees on this, but most people believe that if he'd busted his leg on the stage, it would have held him up enough to give people time to jump him. Booth wrote in his diary that he broke his leg in the jump, but it's widely thought that he was just making the story more dramatic. I think Dr. Mudd also said it was a horse injury.

KAC said...

What were the exact dates of Booth's performances in Chicago? Does anyone know?

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