I’m in the midst of reading the book, Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen M. Archer. Though I’m only about 40 pages into it, I already have the book brimming with Post-It notes marking items of interest requiring further investigation. The most fascinating things I’ve come across thus far, is the drama that occurred when Junius Brutus Booth made his star debut in the theaters of London. In preparation for a post about the matter, I found myself with a wealth of material on the early theatrical life of Junius Brutus Booth. Instead of summarizing key points of Junius’ initial acting career, I decided to write a series of posts examining the humble acting beginnings of the man who would later father a theatrical dynasty, including the assassin of President Lincoln. What follows is the first part of a series of posts entitled, “When Junius Took the Stage”. Click here for Part 1 of the series.
Part 2 – When Junius Took to the Sea
When we left Junius Brutus Booth, it was March of 1814 and he was back at home with his father, Richard. Malnutrition and illness had befallen Junius while he was engaged in his introductory acting tour as a glorified supernumerary. His pay was so low he could not afford adequate subsistence and was forced back home. Richard, relieved at the return of his son, hoped that this foolishness with acting was at an end. This was not to be, however. The allure of the stage proved too strong for Junius, and just days after this 18th birthday, he left his father’s house to rejoin his acting troupe of Jonas-Penley. For this leg of the tour however, the company would not be traveling to the fishing villages and dock towns of England’s coast. Rather, they had a more adventurous destination awaiting for them, and it is likely that Junius, having been thwarted at his attempt to escape seaward at a younger age, was up for the journey. The Jonas-Penley Company set sail for continental Europe.
The journey was the first of its kind for Junius, who proceeded to keep a diary of his trek. Using the details Junius provided and a map, we can follow his route almost exactly.
Junius and the other members of the Jonas-Penley troupe, began their journey on Friday May 6th ultimately bound for Amsterdam, Holland.
Forgiving my now unalterable errors in writing, what follows is an animated map showing the path Junius’ ship took in departing England:
When passing by the Nore, a sandbank in the Thames estuary, Junius wrote the following:
“We dropped down and reached the Nore, where the fleet were at anchor. About eight o’clock I observed, for the first time, the setting sun, which went down in all its splendor, leaving the world to the influence of Luna till the morn. At the same time the admiral’s ship fired the evening-gun, on which all the rest followed the example, and the music on board played ‘God save the king!’
After contemplating the beauties of the evening and reflecting on my situation till dark, we betook ourselves to the hold, which was our bedchamber (the cabin being for the accommodation of the ladies), and slept upon a box all night.”
When the ship finally left the English shores near Orfordness and went out to sea, Junius went on to write:
“Saw several porpoises; wind against us, but very fine weather. In the afternoon I, among the rest, was taken sick, went into the hold and lay till next morning. We were now almost out of sight of land, which, as we gradually lost, I felt a kind of regret within me at leaving my native shore.”
At first, Junius attempted to make the most out of their journey, as one of Booths fellow actors later recounted:
“On going down to the hold, our ears were saluted with the exclamation, ‘By Holy Paul, I will not dine before his head be brought to me,’ – from Jane Shore; wondering whence the voice proceeded, we presently saw a figure seated astride a barrel, having the fragments of a meat pie before him, and surrounded by such towering heaps of boxes as almost buried him from observation; but on nearer approach, his look betrayed no ordinary degree of intelligence, and there was something altogether as interesting as grotesque in the scene—his plate was raised by the box which contained his whole wardrobe, and which was about the size of a lady’s dressing case—but not of such bright materials. The impending packages enveloped all the treasure of the histrionic adventurers; and wretched as his situation might appear to the uninitiated, he had it in its power to make a pillow of the cestus of Venus, and a footstool of the thunderbolts of Jove!”
However, as the journey went on the sea started to take its toll on the 18 year-old land lubber. His accommodations were not in the least bit comfortable:
“We came in sight of land on Monday evening, but soon lost it. The night was very cold, and three of us, Platt, Jones, and myself, slept on a tub, covered by a coat which we borrowed from a sailor, near a poor, sick Prussian, who infested the ship with garlic. We slept, for the first time since our departure, for about two hours, but were soon awakened by the roaring of the sea and the jargon of the Prussian and a sailor quarrelling about the bed.”
As shown on the map above, the ship was bound for Amsterdam, but long before they reached this destination the cast members already had enough of the North Sea:
“The wind was right in our teeth. They made several tacks, but lost upon all. We were apprehensive of danger. At night we were in sight of land, and many of us insisted upon going ashore in the morning; then betook ourselves to our miserable beds on the casks and boxes. As soon as morning broke, we insisted on the men making signals for a boat to come to our assistance; and, about seven o’clock, some fishermen put off through the raging surf. We entreated the captain to put into Rotterdam; but he refused to do so, being bound for Amsterdam.
At length the boat came alongside. When we saw the rude, savage appearance of the men, cased as they were in leather and wearing large hairy caps and wooden shoes, we made some scruple of trusting ourselves with them; but we had resolved not to remain in the vessel, which had become hateful to us. We asked what money they wanted; and these fellows, true Dutchmen, demanded ten guineas to take us on shore, — a distance of about three miles. This did not tally with our pockets; so, after much grumbling, they agreed to take two guineas.”
Departing from their ship and into the fishermen’s vessel, Junius and the rest of the company were making a desperate dash for land. The turmoil and poor conditions on the ship were too much for this group of actors. Not to give up so easily, old Neptune even challenged their arrival to shore:
“A crowd of women and children had collected on the shore to see us land. The surf beat violently and prevented us landing, on which these fellows jumped into the sea; and, taking a sort of grappling-iron with them, stuck it in among the stones. They then returned; and each taking one of us astride his back, brought us to the shore. This was at Petten, near Camperdown, on Wednesday, 11th of May.”
While finally out of the sea, the troupe was still a distance away from their goal of Amsterdam.
His trials still not over, Junius recounts his difficulty in traveling by land in Holland:
“After satisfying our ravenous appetites we set out. I had not walked far when my feet grew so sore, that I could not put them to the ground. I was obliged to loiter on the way, and with the assistance of Mr. John Penley, I limped along, but was forced to take off my shoes, and hopped over the roads, on banks of canals, composed of shells. I was left behind at a considerable distance without a stiver in my pocket, in a foreign Country, and with symptoms of illness. I could not help cursing my folly at leaving England. About six, I reached Alkemar, where I found my companions smoking their pipes and drinking wine in the Crown Hotel.”
Clearly Junius was no leading star yet, being left behind by his group actors due to his inability to keep up. Those last two sentences seem to shout contempt at his fellow actors.
“The next morning, hurried to the boat which was to convey us to Amsterdam. I was astonished at the vast number of mills I saw on every side, which verifies the remark that Cervantes should not have written ‘ Don Quixote ’ till he had seen Holland. We proceeded to Saardam, a delightful place, and reached the great city of Amsterdam, May 12, 1814.”
Though the trip from London to Amsterdam took only six days, it clearly appears to have been the longest six days of this young man’s life.
While working on this post, I came across an interesting discrepancy between Dr. Archer’s biography on Junius Brutus Booth and Asia Booth Clarke’s book about her father. In recounting the name of the ship that Junius and the rest of the troupe took from London and Amsterdam, Dr. Archer gives the name as the Three Brothers. In Asia’s book, she gives the ship’s name as the Two Brothers. Interestingly the Two Brothers is the name of the ship that would later bring Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes to America. So, while I trust Dr. Archer’s work and assume Asia made a mistake with the ship’s name, I can’t help but wonder “what if Dr. Archer is wrong?”. This could mean that Junius subjected himself to the same ship and conditions more than once and, the latter time, forced his mistress to join him. Perhaps, when looking for a way to abscond to America, Junius stuck with “the devil he knew” and booked passage aboard the same ship that first took him from England. More research is needed.
In the next installment in this series, we will look at Junius’ time in continental Europe during which he meets an individual who will alter his life forever.
Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen Archer
Booth Memorials: Passages and Incidents and Anecdotes in the Life of Junius Brutus Booth by Asia Booth Clark
Memoirs of Junius Brutus Booth from his Birth to the Present Time