Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review--My Thoughts Be Bloody

Titone, Nora. My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy.  Free Press, New York, NY. 2010. 479 pages, 386 pages text, notes, bibliography, index, b/w photos. ISBN 9781416586050, $30.00.

My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy As an actor John Wilkes Booth was considered a poor excuse when compared to his famous father Junius, or to his brother Edwin. While John had received the good looks of his father, and was the favored child of his mother, Edwin was considered to have received the acting talent. Junius saw this and chose Edwin to accompany him on his travels to stages across the country. While John thought this to have been the glamorous life little did he know the side of Junius Edwin had to deal with. Junius was an alcoholic and many a time Edwin had to rescue him from himself. Edwin also found himself being responsible for the family finances, a role he would continue into adulthood.

The Booth family while being famous and outwardly wealthy was full of strife. Junius was still married to a woman in England who eventually came to America demanding her share of Junius's wealth, nearly destroying the family. As mentioned Junius was an alcoholic and it was common for him to lose entire paychecks to the bottle. Shortly after Junius's death while on a return trip from San Fransisco, the rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes took a larger life. Edwin's acting star was rising while John Wilkes was given niceties due to his family name.

It was around this time where John Wilkes showed an interest in the growing sectionalism in the country. In 1859 John Brown staged his failed raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. John was present on December 2, 1859 for the executions, pretending to be a member of the Richmond Grays. His views were still unsettled first backing the Union but by the time he arrived in Philadelphia for an acting gig he had turned pro slavery. During the New York City draft  riots of 1863 John became even more anti-Union.

As his political views came more into focus the differences between brothers became more evident. After a failed tour of Europe Edwin returned again to the states where he eventually regained his fame and fortune. He even had the honor of performing in front of Abraham Lincoln at the New National Theatre in NYC. John however still performed to poor reviews and failed financial endeavours such as his attempt at oil speculation. While Edwin enjoyed success with his 100 Nights of Hamlet John delved deeper and deeper into making history that culminated with his assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Nora Titone has written an engaging book that was easy to read. While the research is not ground breaking it is thorough and she works to show that there were other factors than those traditionally associated with John Wilkes Booth that led to his becoming the most hated man in America. Despite being the favored son of his mother John longed for the approval of his father. This however went to Edwin and led to a lifetime of jealousy as Edwin won acclaim almost everywhere and John was only granted cursory acceptance. Can we say that this jealousy pushed John to assassinate Lincoln? I think that's a big stretch. Can we say it was a contributing factor. I think we may be on more firm ground there and Titone does a good job backing this idea. In life Edwin had all the fame but for eternity it is John Wilkes Booth we all remember.

Thank you to the good people at The Free Press for sending a complimentary review copy.


  1. Robert - a really good review...your last line about "Edwin had all the fame..." was very thought-provoking...well done. I had heard that after the assassination the theeaters were closed and people considered all actors to be outcasts (or something like that)...did she mention that? Jim

  2. The Booths were, indeed, a fascinating (if crazy) bunch. Thanks for the tip (and the review) of this book about them.