In the age before home computers and the internet, John Calder Brennan was the first search engine. His passion for investigation and gift for correspondence allowed him to find the answer to any question posed to him. And, like a search engine, John C. Brennan was a selfless sharer. When he found a new piece of information about the Lincoln assassination, Mr. Brennan immediately took out his typewriter and carbon paper and sent out a dozen copies to the people on his Boothie mailing list. For the more personal touch, “John C. Brennan in Laurel, Maryland” would often narrate the information using a system of 10 or more tape recorders connected together. Though he never published his own book, Mr. Brennan’s name can be found in the acknowledgements of many. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 87.
In going through some of the files given to me by the late Art Loux, I stumbled across an extremely well researched and well written article composed by Mr. Brennan in 1990. It appears that sometime in 1988 a gentleman wrote a letter to Mr. Brennan asking about the Booth family monument in Green Mount Cemetery. He wanted to know whether the obelisk on the grave today was the original that had been changed over the years or was a new one. As usual, Mr. Brennan went to work. He wrote letters to dozens of people and organizations gathering information. He scoured books and newspapers. After two years, he had detailed the unique saga of the Booth family monument. He wrote up his research in an article which he intended to submit to the Maryland Historical Society for inclusion in their monthly publication. From what I can tell, either Mr. Brennan did not submit his article or the Society decided not to publish it.
Below I present a transcription of Mr. Brennan’s article, knowing that he would approve of it being shared. In this way the search engines that followed him can make it available to the entire world, and not limited to carbon paper.
The Mystery of the Booth Epitaphs in Green Mount Cemetery
by John C. Brennan
Junius Brutus Booth, the great Shakespearean actor, died in 1852 while en route from the West Coast to his home in Baltimore1. His widow undoubtedly chose to bury him in Baltimore Cemetery at the eastern end of North Avenue for the reason that he had had his father, Richard Booth, reburied there the preceding year2.
Edwin Booth, the nineteen-year-old second eldest son, who invariably took on all the family’s problems, was also a notable Shakespearean actor, ultimately rivaling if not surpassing his father in celebrity. Edwin was on tour when his father died, and did not return from Australia via the West Coast until 1855, evidently well-heeled from his stage appearances3. He soon commissioned a distinguished Boston sculptor, Joseph Carew, to carve the dignified and stately (and expensive) monument that, shipped down to Baltimore by water, was erected on his father’s grave4 on May 1, 1858, the parent’s 62nd birthday. Because the elder Booth had attained such eminence incident to his stage successes (as well as notoriety because of his eccentricities and escapades), details of the monument, including its precise measurements were thought newsworthy enough to be carried by an 1858 theatrical magazine5, all measurements proving to be the same today as they were originally.
Another not quite so detailed description of the Booth monument was published in an article appearing in the New York Times of August 7, 1858, about two months after its erection in Baltimore Cemetery, the writer being one Adam Badeau, a close friend of Edwin’s who later became a member of General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff6. Badeau wrote that:
“On our way to town [from Tudor Hall, the Booth home near Bel Air, Maryland] we stopped at the cemetery where the worthy son of such a father had erected a beautiful and costly monument to the memory of the great actor whom he resembles. ‘Tis an obelisk of polished Italian marble, on a pedestal of undressed granite, some twenty feet high, and the work of Carew, the eminent Boston sculptor. On one side are the dates of the birth and death of the tragedian, with his name in full; on another, simply the word Booth; on the third is a medallion head, full of character and beauty, both as a work of art, and as the representation of a noble, soulful face – ’tis extremely like the profile of the son. The third side also bears this inscription [and hereinafter the inscription will be referred to as Epitaph No. 1]:
“His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world — This was a man.”
It is not anywhere stated that this first epitaph was applied in bas relief form, which it probably was inasmuch as Edwin seemed to prefer raised lettering and likenesses — as witness the present-day outsized word BOOTH, the writings on all three sides of the obelisk, the graceful frame enclosing the epitaph, and the embossed portrait of Junius Brutus.
How long it took Edwin to wake up to the fact that the Shakespearean quotation constituting Epitaph No. 1 was a thoroughly stereotyped vague one that could be used for any male decedent, and did not begin to reflect his father’s universally recognized status, is not known but, as will be seen below, he “came to” early in 1869 and used an original and eminently appropriate one (on a new, freshly carved obelisk) incident to the disassembly of the monument and its re-erection in Green Mount Cemetery7.
The tragic disruption in the lives of all the Booths was of course caused by John Wilkes Booth’s murderous act of April 14, 1865. Retribution was exacted of the assassin at the Garrett farm near Port Royal, Virginia, on April 26, and his body, held captive by the Federal government, was originally rumored to have been buried in the ocean or in the Potomac River8. Eventually the family learned that Wilkes’ remains had been secretly interred under the floor of a building at the Old Arsenal Prison (Now Fort Lesley J. McNair) in southwest Washington, D.C.9
The unbelievable coincidence that Edwin Booth had once saved the life of the Lincolns’ son, Robert Todd, by pulling him out of the path of an oncoming train10, had undoubtedly been made known to General Grant by his aide, the previously mentioned Adam Badeau, and Grant, probably at Badeau’s insistence, had written Edwin to say that, if at any time he could be of service, he would.
Relying on this commitment, Edwin wrote Grant in September 1867, asking his intercession for the release of his brother’s body — which request Grant ignored. A second request of February 15, 186911, made by Edwin direct to President Andrew Johnson, received prompt and favorable consideration, whereupon Edwin immediately began planning to establish a family lot in Green Mount in which Wilkes would be one of the first occupants. He purchased two adjoining lots for $250 in the name of his mother, Mrs. Mary Ann Booth, and a few years later made another payment of $100 for perpetual care12.
At the time of Junius Brutus Booth’s death in 1852, a man named William Thompson, editor of the Washington News newspaper, wrote Edwin’s beautiful and highly literate sister, Asia, a very kind letter enclosing an epitaph “which he hoped would be thought worthy to be placed upon his [Junius’] monument.” “My brother, Edwin,” Asia revealed, “at a much later period13 was pleased to have it carved on the the monument he erected to his father’s memory.” (The outstandingly apt lines, which follow, will hereinafter be referred to as Epitaph No. 2.)
“Behold the spot where Genius lies,
O, drop a tear when talent dies;
Of Tragedy the mighty chief,
The power to please surpass’d belief,
Hic jacet, matchless Booth.”
The 1869 re-erection of the monument in Green Mount, using an identically carved nine-foot obelisk to bear the beautiful poem just quoted, constitutes the first of Edwin’s two successful attempts to preserve unaltered the majestic original lines and appearance of the 1858 Carew sculpturing. Fortunately for the sake of pictorial evidence a long search for a likeness of the monument before the third and final legend was applied yielded an 1875 woodcut of a distant but clean-cut view that is reproduced herewith14, and there is firm documentation that the shaft still bore Epitaph No 2 (Behold the spot, etc.) up to late 188515.
As flattering and biographically accurate as the poetic Epitaph No. 2 was, Edwin felt forced, for a compelling reason, to discard it and arrange to have Epitaph No. 3, the final one, embossed on another sculptured obelisk after his mother’s death.
Here it becomes necessary to interrupt the continuity of this recital to state that there is still to be seen in Baltimore’s New Cathedral (Catholic) Cemetery a legible upright stone marking the grave of a woman whose maiden name was Mary Christine Adelaide Delannoy16, whom Junius Brutus Booth at age nineteen married in England in 1815, proclaiming that at the time of her death in 1858 she was the “wife of Junius Brutus Booth, tragedian.”
This Belgian wife had previously cast a blight on the name of Edwin’s mother and on the legitimacy of her offspring during the time that she, Adelaide, was establishing residence in Baltimore preparatory to suing Junius for divorce in 1851 shortly before his death. Adelaide alleged that her husband, Junius, had lived for many years past with a woman (Mary Ann Holmes) by whom he had a large family of children17. The divorce was duly granted, and Junius and Mary Ann then became husband and wife on John Wilkes’ thirteenth birthday, May 10, 1851. So, upon the death of his beloved mother in late 1885 Edwin felt constrained to place in marble on the third obelisk (in bas relief) an inconspicuous five-line assertion (replacing the five-line poem) that he mother was in fact his father’s “wife”:
“In the same grave with
Junius Brutus Booth,
Is buried the body of
Mary Ann, his wife, who
Survived him 33 years.”18
The Baltimore American’s account of Mrs. Booth’s funeral (she died in New York on October 22, 188519) quoted in full the soon to be replaced, captivating Epitaph No. 2 beginning “Behold the spot where Genius lies.”
In winding down this article it may be worthwhile to give the gist of what utilizing logic and common sense, it seeks to prove — that there was no way in the world in which Edwin Booth could have effected the described change in epitaphs without having commissioned experienced and artistic marblemen, of which there was certainly no shortage in Baltimore in the Victorian period, to produce identical reproductions of the Carew shaft.
An informal poll taken in writing among a half dozen knowledgeable and seasoned graveyard buffs, all frequent visitors to Green Mount and the Booth lot, confirms the certainty that the original obelisk could not possibly have been sandblasted or shaved or chiseled and still maintain, as it does, its 1858 measurements. The base of the present shaft still fits precisely on what seems to be the original badly eroded and weatherized marble seat20.
If there was anything that the Booths sought to avoid after the Lincoln assassination it was publicity about their personal lives and activities, and in his changing the obelisk inscriptions Edwin must have gone to great pains to preserve secrecy and avoid arousing the curiosity of the press21. The way he went about doing what he did was much, too much, for the author of the most detailed and authoritative book on Wilkes’ death and burials, George S. Bryan’s The Great American Myth22 , which volume carries a full photograph of the monument but otherwise omits all mention of it in the text. The late Stanley Kimmel, who spent six years in research before writing his classic The Mad Booths of Maryland23 revealed himself to be completely baffled by the changes in inscriptions — touching only gingerly on one of them and in doing so perpetrating a first-class non sequitur24. A third intriguing and highly readable account of practically every aspect of the Lincoln assassination is Theodore Roscoe’s The Web of Conspiracy, whose 560 pages fail even to mention Green Mount Cemetery25.
The canvass made of graveyard buffs seeking agreement or disagreement with this hard-to-believe solution to the epitaphs mystery also asked for guesstimates as to which are the most-visited graves of famous/infamous people in the United States. John Wilkes Booth came out fifth in this survey of opinions, with those topping him being the Unknown Soldier and President Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. Along with the magnificent assortment of sunlit photographs illustrating Green Mount’s centennial hardback of 1938 (Wilkes would also have been 100 in 1938), the noted Baltimore historian Gerald W. Johnson wrote on page 33 that Green Mount began to take on national and international note when the elder Booth was buried there. Certainly Mr. Johnson knew, and well knew, that it was not (and is not) Junius Brutus Booth who attracts constant visitors to Green Mount, but the elder Booth’s beloved and errant son, the ill-starred assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Addendum by Dave:
As stated in the article the current obelisk is the third one commissioned by Edwin Booth. Each time Edwin had the epitaph changed he required the construction of a new, but nearly identical stone. All the lettering on the monument is in bas relief except for the back, which lists some of the children of Junius and Mary who were buried there.
The fact that this lettering is not in bas relief like the rest of the monument makes it seem like this side was carved in later. Additional clues makes it likely that additional carving was done a second time after Joseph Booth died. Here’s the likely scenario:
At some point after the final obelisk was erected around 1885/86 some member of the Booth family thought it would be wise to put the names of the four Booth children who died in childhood onto it. Three of these children, Frederick, Mary Ann, and Elizabeth had been interred here in 1869, while the fourth, Henry Byron, had been buried in England. Though some say his body was also brought back at a later date I have yet to find conclusive evidence for this. Regardless, since carving the stone could be done without moving it, this was chosen instead of creating a fourth obelisk in order to have the names in bas relief. Looking at the spacing it seems clear that the stone was likely carved:
This order makes sense since this was the order in which the children died. If you pretend John Wilkes’ name is not there you can see that there was supposed to be a nice space between the parents’ and the children’s names. It does not appear that either Joe’s name or John Wilkes’ name were on the stone at first. Joe was the longest living of the Booth children and died in 1902. Upon his death he was buried in the family plot and has his own stone just like Asia and Rosalie. Someone, however, thought his name should be added to the list on the obelisk even though none of the other Booth children who had grown to adulthood were on there. The person who most likely did this was Cora Mitchell Booth, Joe’s second wife and cousin. Not only did she add Joe’s name to the bottom of the list but also, for some inexplicable reason, she also took pity on the long dead John Wilkes and had his name squeezed in near the top. Cora Mitchell Booth was the last person to be buried in the Booth lot when she died in 1936 and she has a stone beside her husband, Joseph, and infant son.