Posts Tagged With: Acting

The Novice and John Wilkes Booth

On June 15, 1863, John Wilkes Booth began an acting engagement in St. Louis, Missouri. While Booth visited many different cities as a touring star, the audiences of St. Louis were very supportive of his efforts. This particular engagement was his fourth time playing in the city in only a year and a half. In addition to the audiences, Booth was also aided by the fact that he had a pretty decent connection in the St. Louis theater scene. During each of Booth’s engagements in the city, he performed at Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre.

Ben DeBar

Ben DeBar was essentially family to Booth. In 1840, Booth’s eldest brother, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. married Ben DeBar’s sister, Clementina. June and Clementina’s union did not last however because, in 1851, June took a page out of his father’s book and ran off with another woman. Despite this unpleasantness, Ben DeBar maintained a good relationship with John Wilkes Booth and the rest of the Booth family. Ben DeBar hired John Wilkes Booth for five different engagements in St. Louis, and when he opened another theater in New Orleans, Louisiana, John Wilkes was hired there as well.

The June 1863 engagement in St. Louis was like any other for the 25 year-old actor. The newspapers noted that Booth was, “nightly greeted by full and fashionable houses; his performance[s] eliciting the most enthusiastic applause.” Booth’s engagement was scheduled to last from the 15th to the 27th, a normal two week engagement.

After a few days in St. Louis, Booth was presented with an offer from an unusual source. A Missouri resident by the name of R. J. Morgan approached Booth asking him if he could take Booth’s place on the final night of his engagement. It was not unheard of for actors to make such requests of their peers though it was more common for actors to request the services of their peers for benefit performances or during emergencies. Being asked to surrender a performance was less common. This request was even more strange, however, because the solicitor was not even a fellow actor, at least not yet.

We know very little about the life of R. J. Morgan. His foray into theater begins and ends over the course of about a year. Four months prior to his proposition to John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was a relatively unknown man. He was born in England and at the beginning of the Civil War he resided in Missouri. In early 1863, he was briefly living in Davenport, Iowa. What his business was and why he was in Iowa is a mystery. Apparently, he was able to make somewhat of a name for himself as one who knew a little bit about European and American poetry. On February 17th, a group of citizens in Davenport wrote a letter to Morgan which was published in the newspaper. The men appealed to Morgan to honor them with a public reading of various poems known to him. One would expect that Morgan must have previously given private readings of poetry which motivated his friends and neighbors to ask for a public showing. Morgan accepted the invitation of the men stating, “I shall avail myself of the flattering invitation extended to me…” and “the entertainment proposed to be given, I trust you will look upon as an amateur affair, with little professional pretensions.” Morgan secured the use of Davenport’s Metropolitan Hall free of charge after insisting that the proceeds of the readings would not go to him, but would instead be donated to the needy families of absent Union soldiers. It might be a bit cynical but, given his later actions with Booth, it is not out of the realm of possibility that R. J. Morgan desired to start a career as an dramatic orator and organized the invitation and philanthropic gesture to work in his advantage.

On the night of February 24, 1863, R. J. Morgan presented his “Evening with the Poets”. He presented readings of 12 poems including Beautiful Snow, a piece also rendered by John Wilkes Booth from time to time. While the audience enjoyed Morgan’s readings, the turnout was a bit lackluster for his first time out. “The audience was not large,” the newspaper said, “but those who had the pleasure of listening to the reading of the selections on that occasion may count themselves fortunate…It is certain that the public greatly underestimated Mr. Morgan’s ability, else the Hall would have been filled…” Morgan stayed true to his word, however, and donated the night’s entire proceeds of $18 to the Adjutant General of Iowa. “Your request, that I will apply the amount to the relief of needy families of our absent soldiers shall be faithfully complied with,” the General wrote to Morgan (who subsequently had the note published in the newspaper).

This initial, charitable reading, kick-started Morgan’s new career as a dramatic reader. Four days after his debut, Morgan gave another evening of readings in Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Davenport. For his second reading he duplicated his first program entirely, but this time he took home the proceeds. After that, Morgan spent the next two months travelling around the Midwest giving readings in different cities. We have records of him performing in Iowa City, Muscatine, and Davenport, Iowa; Springfield and Jacksonville, Illinois; and in St. Louis, Missouri. He was apparently still in St. Louis when John Wilkes Booth came to town.

As Morgan’s readings went on, he began expanding his repertoire. He incorporated more and more Shakespeare, doing readings from Hamlet, Othello, and Henry IV. Coincidentally, while he was on the road, Morgan’s talents as a reader drew comparisons with a family of actors, a member of which would be shortly known to him. After a performance in Muscatine, Iowa the newspapers wrote, “The rendering and acting of Hamlet in his deathless soliloquies, was of that high and brilliant order that few attain who reach for it. The true life, energy and expression was breathed into it so faithfully that even a Booth or a Forrest might listen profitably.” After four months, Morgan apparently believed he was ready to move beyond being merely a reader and elocutionist. He wanted to be an actor and so he approached John Wilkes Booth in order to make that happen.

While Morgan’s correspondence to Booth doesn’t appear to survive, the two brief notes Booth wrote back to Morgan are housed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield as part of the Taper Collection. It’s clear that Morgan appealed to Booth to surrender the final day of his engagement so that Morgan could take his place and make his own theatrical debut. On June 22nd, Booth wrote to Morgan setting his terms for such a deal.

“Dear Sir,

I will agree to give up Saturday night 27th on condition you pay me fifty dollars $50 to be paid on or before Friday morning 26th

But it is understood I do not play myself these I consider very reasonable terms

Your respects

J. Wilkes Booth”

John Wilkes Booth was perfectly willing to surrender the last night of his engagement – for a price. The 1862/1863 theatrical season had been a good one for Booth and he did very well financially in Chicago earlier in the season. In December of 1862 he wrote to a colleague that he had made $900 his first week in Chicago and, as such, had averaged about $650 per week so far that season. If his success had held out for the rest of the season, $50 was somewhat generous on Booth’s part since he was making around $100 per performance on average. With only two engagements left in the season Booth may have been fine with taking an extra day off, and making $50 not to go to work wasn’t a bad plan.

With Booth’s note in hand, Morgan approached Ben DeBar seeking permission to perform at his theater. Since Booth had given his blessing, DeBar consented. Morgan wanted his debut to be a benefit performance for himself, where he would be entitled to a share of the box office. On the back of the same note Booth had written, DeBar gave his terms.

“Mr. RJ Morgan

You can have the one half of the receipts of the theatre on Saturday night next over and above the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. You paying Mr. J W Booth fifty dollars for relinquishing the night to you.

B. DeBar”

With these agreements in hand, R. J. Morgan began preparations for his debut. He chose A New Way to Pay Old Debts as his play, where he would perform the role of Sir Giles Overreach, the main character and villain. Coincidentally, Sir Giles Overreach was a favorite character of John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. The elder Booth had performed the role over 320 times during his career.

On Friday, June 26th, Morgan paid John Wilkes Booth the $50 he was owed. Booth then jotted down a note for Morgan, which acted as a receipt.

“Reced. St. Louis June 26th / 63 of Mr Morgan fifty doll in consideration of giving up Saturday night as per agreement $50 –

J. Wilkes Booth”

The following evening, Saturday, June 27th, with tickets and playbills in hand, R. J. Morgan made his on stage debut as an actor. Whether John Wilkes Booth attended the performance of the man who took his place is unknown. By Monday Booth was already on route to Cleveland, Ohio for his next engagement.

A few days after the performance, a review in the St. Louis Democrat newspaper hailed R. J. Morgan’s outing a complete success:

“The debut of R. J. Morgan at the St. Louis Theatre last Saturday evening, in the arduous character of Sir Giles Overreach, was, in point of execution, a brilliant success. This was Mr. Morgan’s first appearance upon any stage, and his success more than excelled the high expectations of those who were familiar with him as a dramatic reader. From his first entrance upon the stage, the bold, bad man, the scheming, heartless villain, stood out so prominently that the individuality of the actor was forgotten…His style and acting are of that electric and startling character that carries an audience with him. Mr. Morgan has a good stage presence, a clear and distinct enunciation, a perfect command of himself, and walks the stage with ease and abandon of a veteran stager. We predict for him a brilliant career in the arduous profession which he has chosen.”

Another reviewer from a different paper, however, was a bit more critical of Morgan’s performance:

“Last night, a Mr. R. J. Morgan, who has gained somewhat of a reputation as a reader, attempted the very difficult part of Sir Giles Overreach, in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”; and, as might be expected, he made a failure, so far as making any favorable impression went. He knew the part, and had a good knowledge of the business; but there are very few old actors who can play the part with effect, and it is utterly impossible for a novice to do it, let his natural talent be what it may.”

Brilliant or failure, Morgan’s on stage debut worked in his favor. Though the 1862/63 theatrical season was wrapping up when he took the stage, the 1863/1864 season was just a couple months away. Somehow, perhaps through a good word from Ben DeBar or possibly even John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was hired by John T. Ford to become a member of the stock company at his Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. Morgan left the Midwest behind to follow his dreams on the east coast. The Holliday Street Theatre opened for the season on August 17th but Morgan didn’t grace the stage until September 1st. Despite being a stock actor, Morgan still found his name on the Holliday Street playbills from time to time. John T. Ford had a practice of publicizing his stock company and some took starring roles when the theater was in between star engagements.

But, while Morgan’s name could be found on several playbills during his time with Ford, he always played second fiddle to the star actors or veteran members of the company. Morgan acted in both Shakespearean tragedies and comedic farces. On November 28th the Holliday Street Theatre put on the comedy Our American Cousin which would gain infamy a year and a half later. Morgan played the more serious role of Sir Edward Trenchard.

For some reason or other, after December of 1863, R. J. Morgan left the Holliday Street Theatre. What caused Morgan to abandon his career as an actor is unknown. Perhaps he was unhappy with working as a subordinate stock actor. Maybe the fairly poor salary in that job wasn’t enough. Or perhaps he just missed his home. Whatever the reasons, by April of 1864, he had made his way back to St. Louis. On April 23rd, during a celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, R. J. Morgan returned to his roots and gave dramatic readings from Shakespearean plays. Five days later, on April 28, he gave an evening of dramatic readings as a benefit for the St. Louis Sanitary Fair. In October of 1864, he received a pass to leave and re-enter the military district of St. Louis.

From that point on, the life and dramatic career of R. J. Morgan returns to the anonymity from which he came. Even basic biographical data, like what the R & J stand for, is still a mystery. While there are possibilities as to his identity (there was an auctioneer named Rees J. Morgan who lived in St. Louis in 1865 and 1866), I have been unable to find definitive evidence of his life outside of 1863 – 1864. The bulk of what was presented here comes from some newspaper articles about his dramatic readings and a small collection of tickets and playbills from his career housed in the special collections department of Louisiana State University. How a collector in Louisiana acquired these few papers on R. J. Morgan’s life, I have no idea. The few items about Morgan and John Wilkes Booth that are now a part of the ALPLM’s Taper collection were almost assuredly once a part of the same collection that was later donated to LSU. Hopefully more information about R. J. Morgan will be found in the future.

In closing, while researching there were two interesting bits of trivia that I stumbled across. The first is that it is quite possible that R. J. Morgan, during his limited career with John T. Ford, may have actually performed at Ford’s Theatre. John Ford reopened his Washington theatre in August of 1863, after rebuilding it from a December 1862 fire. After its reopening, Ford would often pull from his Baltimore stock company when he needed extra performers in Washington. It’s very possible that R. J. Morgan was brought to Washington by Ford to supplement his new theater. R. J. Morgan was definitely in Washington, D.C. in January of 1864 because he received a military pass to visit Alexandria, Virginia during that time. What’s even more interesting to think about is the fact that John Wilkes Booth had an engagement at Ford’s Theatre in November of 1863, when Morgan was still employed by John T. Ford. Did Morgan have a chance to act beside the man who allowed him to get his start? Maybe.

Lastly, while R. J. Morgan’s connection to John Wilkes Booth, the first presidential assassin, and Ben BeBar, a member of the Booth family, has been established, amazingly Morgan also has a slight connection to the second presidential assassin. Remember that the event that put Morgan on the path to being an actor was that very first dramatic reading he was asked to do in Davenport in February of 1863. A group of the Davenport citizenry wrote to Morgan, with each man signing their name to the letter.

A total of 22 men affixed their names to the request, the last of which was a man named “J. W. Guiteau”. This man’s full name was John Wilson Guiteau. He was a Davenport lawyer and the older brother of Charles J. Guiteau, the future assassin of President James Garfield. It’s so strange that R. J. Morgan made both his dramatic reading and acting debuts because of the support of assassins and their families.

References:
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
The Albert Louis Lieutaud Collection – Louisiana State University Special Collections
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux
Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen Archer

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Mapping John Wilkes Booth’s Career

Prior to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was known as one of the preeminent actors of his day. Having come from a theatrical dynasty that included his father and brothers, Booth found great success as a touring star. His engagements in different cities were always well attended and, even in his early attempts, his talent in his chosen roles was commented on in the press.

The best works that delve into Booth’s theatrical career are John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux (2014)Rough Magic: The Theatrical Life of John Wilkes Booth by Deirdre Kincaid (2000), and Lust for Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth by Gordon Samples (1982). These texts establish an accounting of Booth’s travels as a touring star while also providing specific details about his engagements in the different cities of the nation.

Over the past week, I have completed an update to the Maps section of BoothieBarn. Utilizing the above named sources (specifically Art Loux‘s book), I have been able to mark the location of every theater John Wilkes Booth performed in during his career. Booth acted in a total of 42 different theater venues over his ten-year career, often returning to the same ones for repeat engagements. Of the 42 theaters Booth performed in, only one is still in operation as a theater with at least part of the structure the same as when Booth performed there. That single remaining venue is Ford’s Theatre.

The Montgomery Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama was the only other extant theater building John Wilkes Booth performed in besides Ford’s Theatre. It was demolished in 2017.

Not only are the vast majority of theaters that once dotted the major cities of the United States during the Victorian era gone, but, for most of them, there is not even a sign to mark where these historic centers of culture and entertainment once stood. Of the 42 venues John Wilkes Booth performed in, for example, only eight have some sort of historic marker or plaque near the site. Still, by using historic maps, city directories, and newspaper records, I have managed to pinpoint the exact location of each of these 42 theaters and provide GPS coordinates for them.

The different venues can be found by clicking on or zooming in on any of the Lincoln Assassination Maps that can be found on the Maps page. For ease of use, however, I have created the following table below that gives an outline of Booth’s theatrical career. Clicking on the hyperlinked name of any one of the theaters in the table will open its corresponding map and center it above the theater site. You can then click the pin to get more information about the theater and Booth’s time there. NOTE: After publishing this post, I’ve found that the theater hyperlinks will work without issue on actual computers and on mobile devices / tablets that DO NOT have the Google Maps app installed. If you have the Google Maps app installed, the hyperlinks may not open the maps as described. For IOS (Apple) users with the Google Maps app installed you can still open the maps by pressing and holding one of the hyperlinks lightly for a bit. Then press the “Open in New Tab” option that comes up. After doing this once, all subsequent clicks by you should load the maps in the browser rather than in the Google Maps app (thought you may have to zoom out/in to get the background map to load properly). My apologies for the inconvenience. The table works without issue on a desktop computer.

I have divided John Wilkes Booth’s acting career into four parts; his debut, his time as a stock actor, his time as a touring star, and his retirement / conspiracy period. After the table is a brief overview of these parts of John Wilkes Booth’s career.

John Wilkes Booth’s Acting Career

(1855 – 1865)

Assembled from John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux

 Click the theater name to open its location in Google Maps

Not included: Childhood theatricals or impromptu dramatic readings

Engagement

Start – End

City, State

Theater

Debut (1855)

August 14, 1855

Baltimore, Maryland

Charles Street Theatre

Stock Actor (1857 – 1860)

August 11, 1857 –

June 19, 1858

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Arch Street Theatre

September 4, 1858 –

October 30, 1858

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

November 1, 1858 –

November 13, 1858

Lynchburg, Virginia

Dudley Hall

November 15, 1858 –

February 12, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

February 14, 1859 –

February 24, 1859

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

February 25, 1859 –

May 16, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

May 17, 1859 –

June 15, 1859

Lynchburg, Virginia

Dudley Hall

June 17, 1859 –

June 25, 1859

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

June 27, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

September 3, 1859 –

October 15, 1859

October 17, 1859 –

October 22, 1859

Lynchburg, Virginia

Dudley Hall

October 24, 1859 –

November 9, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

November 14 1859 –

November 18, 1859

December 5, 1859 –

December 10, 1859

December 12, 1859 –

December 22, 1859

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

December 23, 1859 –

April 21, 1860

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

April 23, 1860 –

April 28, 1860

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

April 30, 1860 –

May 12, 1860

Norfolk, Virginia

Unknown

May 14, 1860 –

May 31, 1860

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

Touring Star (1860 – 1864)

October 1, 1860 –

October 12, 1860

Columbus, Georgia

Temperance Hall

October 20, 1860

October 29, 1860 –

November 3, 1860

Montgomery, Alabama

Montgomery Theatre

November 16, 1860

December 1, 1860

January 21, 1861 –

February 2, 1861

Rochester, New York

Metropolitan Theatre

February 11, 1861 –

February 12, 1861

Albany, New York

Gayety Theatre

February 18, 1861 –

February 23, 1861

March 4, 1861 –

March 16, 1861

March 18, 1861 –

April 13, 1861

Portland, Maine

Portland Theatre

April 22, 1861 –

April 25, 1861

Albany, New York

Gayety Theatre

October 21, 1861 –

October 25, 1861

Providence, Rhode Island

Providence Theatre

October 28, 1861 –

November 9, 1861

Buffalo, New York

Metropolitan Theatre

November 11, 1861 –

November 18, 1861

Detroit, Michigan

H. A. Perry’s Metropolitan Theatre

November 25, 1861 –

December 7, 1861

Cincinnati, Ohio

Wood’s Theatre

December 9, 1861 –

December 23, 1861

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville Theatre

December 25, 1861 –

December 31, 1861

Indianapolis, Indiana

Metropolitan Hall

January 6, 1862 –

January 18, 1862

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

January 20, 1862 –

February 1, 1862

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

February 17, 1862 –

March 3, 1862

Baltimore, Maryland

Holliday Street Theatre

March 11, 1862

Baltimore, Maryland

Front Street Theatre

March 17, 1862 –

April 5, 1862

New York City, New York

Mary Provost’s Theatre

April 21, 1862 –

May 3, 1862

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

May 12, 1862 –

May 24, 1862

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Museum

June 2, 1862 –

June 21, 1862

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

June 25, 1862 –

June 30, 1862

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville Theatre

October 23, 1862 –

October 24, 1862

Lexington, Kentucky

Opera House

October 27, 1862 –

November 8, 1862

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville Theatre

November 10, 1862 –

November 22, 1862

Cincinnati, Ohio

National Theatre

November 24, 1862 –

November 29, 1862

Indianapolis, Indiana

Metropolitan Hall

December 1, 1862 –

December 20, 1862

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

December 22, 1862 –

January 3, 1863

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

January 5, 1863 –

January 10, 1863

Indianapolis, Indiana

Metropolitan Hall

January 19, 1863 –

February 14, 1863

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Museum

March 2, 1863 –

March 14, 1863

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Arch Street Theatre

March 16, 1863 –

March 21, 1863

Baltimore, Maryland

Holliday Street Theatre

April 11, 1863 –

April 18, 1863

Washington, D.C.

Grover’s National Theatre

April 27, 1863 –

May 9, 1863

Washington, D.C.

Washington Theatre

May 18, 1863 –

June 6, 1863

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

June 15, 1863 –

June 26, 1863

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

June 30, 1863 –

July 3, 1863

Cleveland, Ohio

Academy of Music

July 6, 1863 –

July 11, 1863

Buffalo, New York

Metropolitan Theatre

September 28, 1863 –

October 10, 1863

Boston, Massachusetts

Howard Athenaeum

October 12, 1863 –

October 13, 1863

Worcester, Massachusetts

Worcester Theatre

October 14, 1863 –

October 15, 1863

Springfield, Massachusetts

Music Hall

October 16, 1863 –

October 19, 1863

Providence, Rhode Island

Academy of Music

October 20, 1863 –

October 22, 1863

Hartford, Connecticut

Allyn Hall

October 23, 1863

Springfield, Massachusetts

Music Hall

October 24, 1863 –

October 26, 1863

Brooklyn, New York

Academy of Music

October 27, 1863 –

October 29, 1863

New Haven, Connecticut

Music Hall

November 2, 1863 –

November 14, 1863

Washington, D.C.

Ford’s Theatre

November 26, 1863 –

December 5, 1863

Cleveland, Ohio

Academy of Music

December 22, 1863 –

December 31, 1863

Leavenworth, Kansas

Union Theatre

January 5, 1864

St. Joseph, Missouri

Corby’s Hall

January 12, 1864 –

January 16, 1864

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

January 18, 1864 –

January 30, 1864

Louisville, Kentucky

Wood’s Theatre

February 1, 1864 –

February 13, 1864

Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville Theatre

February 15, 1864 –

February 26, 1864

Cincinnati, Ohio

Wood’s Theatre

March 14, 1864 –

March 25, 1864

New Orleans, Louisiana

St. Charles Theatre

March 29, 1864 –

April 3, 1864

April 25, 1864 –

May 28, 1864

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Museum

Retirement / Conspiracy Period (1864 – 1865)

November 25, 1864

New York City, New York

Winter Garden Theatre

March 18, 1865

Washington, D.C.

Ford’s Theatre

Debut (1855)

As a child, John Wilkes Booth acted in kiddie theatrical productions put on by his brother Edwin and their Baltimore neighbors. He also took part in productions put on at the various schools he attended. However, Booth’s professional debut occurred on August 14, 1855, when he played Richmond in the battle scene of Richard III at Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre. Booth was 17 years-old and the production was a benefit performance for his former childhood playmate turned actor, John Sleeper Clarke. Clarke would go on to marry Booth’s sister Asia in 1859. Booth did not tell his family about this performance ahead of time and, upon returning home to the family farm of Tudor Hall , he said to Asia, “Guess what I’ve done! I’ve made my first appearance on any stage, for this night only, and in big capitals.”

Stock Actor (1857 – 1860)

Despite making his debut in 1855, Booth did not immediately go into the acting profession. It wasn’t until two years later that John Wilkes Booth’s career of an actor truly began. Like practically all actors, Booth had to start at the bottom and learn the trade. He signed up as a stock actor in Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre. He worked a whole season at the Arch Street getting paid $8 a week. His roles were extremely small with little lines, and he rarely was important enough to be mentioned in playbills or reviews. Still, during this time he was learning the plays and gaining valuable experience from the star actors that would come to the Arch Street for their engagements. When the 1858 acting season began, Booth signed up to be a part of George Kunkel’s stock company of actors which paid him $11 per week. Kunkel’s group was based at the Marshall Theatre in Richmond but would occasionally travel to Petersburg and Lynchburg for engagements. Booth spent two seasons with Kunkel’s group, building his craft and experience. By the fall of 1860, John Wilkes Booth was about ready to strike out on his own starring tour.

Touring Star (1860 – 1864)

Though Booth suffered a few mishaps during his first season as a touring star, it was during this period that he reclaimed the name of Booth and started garnering the attention of the theater world. As time went on, Booth’s technique improved and soon he found himself booking engagements in theaters across the nation. Even as a Civil War fractured the nation in two, John Wilkes Booth had no difficulty in finding theaters eager to have him appear. While generally celebrated everywhere he went, Booth found his greatest success in Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago, often returning to those cities for engagements. During the 1863-64 season Booth attempted a schedule of shorter engagements in some smaller cities and, while financially successful, the rapid pace exhausted him. When the acting season ended in May of 1864, Booth set his sights on an easier way to make money: the oil business. His attempt to make money in oil ventures occupied him during the summer of 1864, but he was not successful. It was also during this time that Booth’s mind turned to a devious plot against President Lincoln.

Retirement / Conspiracy Period (1864 – 1865)

John Wilkes Booth did not resume his touring career when the acting season began in the fall of 1864. To his questioning friends and family, Booth said he had become rich in the oil fields of Pennsylvania and no longer needed to act. This was a lie used to cover up his preoccupation on his abduction (later assassination) plot against Lincoln. Booth would perform on stage only two times during the last 11 months of his life. On November 11, 1864, John Wilkes Booth took part in a single performance with his brothers Junius, Jr. and Edwin. Known as the Booth Benefit performance of Julius Caesar, the proceeds of the performance went to the erection of a statue of Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park.

Then, on March 18, 1865, John Wilkes Booth made his final stage performance in a production of The Apostate at Ford’s Theatre. The performance was a benefit for his friend, actor John McCullough. Less than a month later, John Wilkes Booth returned to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, this time with a bloodied knife in his hand and a fatally wounded President slumped over in his theater box.

For more information about the stage career of John Wilkes Booth, please check out John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 20 Comments

Booth’s Richard III on Stage

Two years ago, Eric Colleary, Curator of Theater and Performing Arts at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, collaborated with Beth Burns of the Austin based theater company, Hidden Room Theatre, to conduct a staged reading of Richard III based on a promptbook in the collection of the Ransom Center that was once owned and annotated by John Wilkes Booth. The staged reading (which can be viewed by clicking this link) was a great success. Since that time Eric, Beth, and the Hidden Room Theatre company have continued their collaboration and have managed to turn Booth’s promptbook into a full production that will soon take the stage.

For those of you who live in the Austin, Texas area, this is a wonderful opportunity to essentially go back in time and experience live theater as it was in the 1860s.  Over the past few months, the entire creative team behind the production has conducted in-depth research on theater history and dramatic techniques in order to make this show as accurate to the period as possible. A few days ago, Eric and Beth took part in a fascinating discussion / question and answer session regarding how their collaboration came about and the impressive work being done to bring it to fruition.

As you can see, despite its title, the upcoming production of Booth’s Richard III is far more than just a re-enactment of John Wilkes Booth’s edits to Shakespeare’s (really Cibber’s) work. Instead, it is a rare look into the type of acting and production that was commonplace in the 1800s but is almost completely lost today. John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook is a time capsule of theater history and it is a rare event to see such a piece of history brought back to life. The Hidden Room Theatre in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center will be performing Richard III at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater for only eight performances starting on Friday, June 15 and running through Saturday, June 30. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please click this link or the image below:

For those of you who, like me, are no where near Austin, Beth Burns mentioned in the question and answer session that she is hoping one of the shows will be recorded and later made available online. While I am grateful for that, I know a recorded show will not be able to replace the total immersive effect of witnessing it firsthand. Beth also mentioned her hope that this show may live on in the future as an educational tool for college and university theater companies that wish to re-enact theater history. So there is chance Booth’s Richard III could be do a bit of touring if interest is high. Though I know it is a bit of a pipe dream, I, for one, would love to see this show produced by the Ford’s Theatre Society on their historic stage.

In closing, I would ask that any of you who are able to get to Austin during the show’s run and see Booth’s Richard III to please report back to those of us who were not so fortunate. The comment section will definitely be open. I’d love to hear your thoughts on experiencing 1860s theater just as people like Mr. Lincoln would have.

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John Wilkes Booth’s Acting Debut

On August 14, 1855, John Wilkes Booth, the seventeen-year-old son of the late, great Junius Brutus Booth, made his professional debut upon the stage. For one performance only, John Wilkes Booth performed the role of Richmond in the third act of Shakespeare’s Richard III at Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre.

As shown by the above newspaper advertisements, the performance was part of a benefit for Booth’s friend and fellow actor, John Sleeper Clarke. Clarke had known John Wilkes and Edwin Booth from their shared boyhood in Baltimore. The three boys and a few other friends used to perform together in self produced children’s shows for their neighbors, dubbing themselves The Tripple Alley Players. Using makeshift costumes and borrowed props the boys would stage shows in back rooms, stables, or cellars charging their friends a penny for a ticket. These performances definitely made an impact on the boys as four of The Tripple Alley Players would grow up to become professional actors. Clarke’s real name was John Sleeper and he had been nicknamed “Sleepy” by his peers. Seeing how such a name would make him a subject of ridicule on the stage, he wisely chose the stage name of John Sleeper Clarke for the rest of his life.

John Sleeper Clarke

It is interesting to note that this performance was not only the debut of John Wilkes Booth, but also the first time Clarke performed in the play of Toodles. This comedy would later become a staple for Clarke and the role he was best known for. As a benefit performance, Clarke was entitled to all of the box office returns for that night after expenses, so the young actor was eager to draw in as many patrons as possible. Clarke heavily advertised the debut of John Wilkes, the son of the great tragedian Booth, in order to pull in the largest audience he could. Sadly, there do not seem to be any reviews in the days that followed about John Wilkes’ performance. Booth himself, however, was very happy with his performance. He had not told his family of his intentions to act on the stage for Clarke and so they did not witness his debut. Instead he came riding back to Tudor Hall after the fact to inform them. The story of his return is recounted in Asia Booth’s memoir about her brother and follows below. Please note that the following text demonstrates racial language and views which are not acceptable today but were held by John Wilkes, Asia, and most of the Booth family.

“Wilkes went for a brief visit to Baltimore, and on the day of his return I was under the low trees outside our grounds pulling mandrakes, gathering may-apples and dew-berries. Six little darkies, seven dogs, and a couple of cats who always followed the dogs, were my company. Our baskets were partly filled, and the clatter of hoofs sounding clear, I looked out from the bushes to see Wilkes returning on Cola. He came up rapidly then dismounted, while the dogs yelped and the cats rubbed against his legs, and the piping querulous voices of the darkies called out in the uproar, ‘How do, Mars’ Johnnie.’

He had a greeting for all and threw a packet of candies from his saddle-case far beyond where we stood, saying, ‘After it, Nigs! Don’t let the dogs get it!’ The never-forgotten bag of candies was longingly looked for by the blacks, young and old, whenever ‘Mars’ Johnnie’ came from town or village.

Turning to me, he said, ‘Well, Mother Bunch, guess what I’ve done!’ Then answering my silence, he said, ‘I’ve made my first appearance on any stage, for this night only, and in big capitals.’

He had acted ‘Richmond’ at the St. Charles’ Theatre [sic], Baltimore. His face shone with enthusiasm, and by the exultant tone of his voice it was plain that he had passed the test night. He had made his venture in life and would soon follow on the road he had broken. Mother was not so pleased as we to hear of this adventure; she thought it premature, and that he had been influenced by others who wished to gain notoriety and money by the use of his name.”

Mary Ann Booth was right on the money when she expressed her belief that Wilkes had been used for the sake of his name in his first performance. Clarke asked his friend to perform, literally, for his own benefit. Even from early on, Clarke understood the power in the Booth name and sought to gain from it. Later he would go into business with Edwin Booth and then come into the family by marrying Asia. However, even if Clarke’s inclusion of John Wilkes as an actor stemmed from his own self-interest, he did help foster the young man’s growth. When the next theatrical season began, Clarke got John Wilkes a job as a stock actor in Philadelphia. From here Booth would start down the road of learning his craft. Thus, it is from this minor performance in Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre, that John Wilkes Booth’s career as an actor began.

References:
John Wilkes Booth Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux
John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir by Asia Booth Clarke edited by Terry Alford
Newspaper extracts from Genealogybank.com

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Grave Thursday: The Montgomery Theatre

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


The Montgomery Theatre

Burial Location: 39 S Perry St, Montgomery, Alabama

Connection the the Lincoln Assassination:

For this week’s Grave Thursday we are dealing with the death of a place, rather than a person. The place is the old Montgomery Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama which is currently in the final phases of demolition.

In the fall of 1859, Colonel Charles T. Pollard, president of the Montgomery and West Point Railroad, commissioned the construction of a new theater in Montgomery, Alabama. The brick contractor was B. F. Randolph who used his female slaves as the laborers for the theater’s masonry and plastering. By October of 1860, the large and stately Montgomery Theatre was completed. The first lessee and manager of the theater was Matthew Canning, who opened the theater with his troupe of actors on October 22, 1860.

Matthew W. Canning

22 year-old John Wilkes Booth was part of Matthew Canning’s troupe of actors.  Booth’s tour with Canning was his first as a star performer. Prior to this he had been learning his craft in Philadelphia and Richmond. Attempting to succeed on his own talents rather than his prestigious family name, he had been and was continuing to be billed “J. B. Wilkes” or “John Wilkes”.

When the Canning troupe presented the grand opening performance of the show, School for Scandal, at the Montgomery Theatre, John Wilkes Booth was not present. Ten days earlier, when the troupe had been in Columbus, Georgia, Booth had suffered an accidental gunshot wound to his thigh. Though stories differ, the most reliable account holds that Booth and Canning were attempting to clean a pistol when the weapon accidentally discharged. This gunshot wound ended Booth’s performances in Columbus and caused him to sit out most of his starring performances in Montgomery as well.

John Wilkes Booth finally made his debut at the Montgomery Theatre on Monday, October 29, 1860, when he performed as Pescara in The Apostate. He would perform for the rest of the week before closing his engagement to recuperate further. John Wilkes Booth was resting in Montgomery, Alabama when Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860.

On November 16, Booth returned to the stage of the Montgomery Theatre in a benefit performance for his fellow actor, Kate Bateman. Booth played Romeo to Bateman’s Juliet.

The troupe’s final day at the Montgomery Theatre was on December 1, 1860 in a benefit performance for Booth himself. Booth performed in a two act play called Rafaelle, the Reprobate, and then his fellow actor, Maggie Mitchell, performed in Katy O’Sheal. The evening was ended with Booth performing the titular character in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Richard III. This performance marked the end of Booth’s engagement in Montgomery but it also marked a new beginning for the young actor. It was on the stage at the Montgomery Theatre that John Wilkes Booth reclaimed his true name and was billed as J. Wilkes Booth. From this day onward, the actor would always use his true name.

John Wilkes Booth would never return to Montgomery, but the beautiful theater he helped to christen would continue to operate for many years. Edwin Booth would perform on the same stage in 1876, 1882, and 1888 along with countless other luminaries of the stage.

After 47 years of operation, the Montgomery Theatre was closed on November 13, 1907 when a newer, grander theater was opened in the city. The old theater’s interior was remodeled into a department store but the outside retained its original construction. The Webber department store lasted until the 1990’s when it finally closed. After a few years the building was bought by a foundation which paid almost half a million dollars to replace the roof. In 2010, the foundation sold the building to a developer who planned to restore the structure and create retail and housing space within the interior. Unfortunately while work was being done to restore the building in June of 2014, the structure suffered a partial collapse.

Though the hope was that the restoration would continue, the owner of the building didn’t have the funds to continue after the collapse. The ownership of the building reverted to the city of Montgomery in December of 2014. The city valiantly made efforts to find a buyer willing and financially able to restore the structure, offering to sell structure for $1 to any developers who would restore it. In the end, however, the city could not find a buyer with the means to restore the building. The property was sold off and slated for demolition which began in late 2016. Here is how the building looked on March 30th of this year:

Though the Montgomery Theatre building could not be saved, deconstruction of the building has been slow to allow for the salvage of some of the structure’s cast iron, bricks, and masonry pieces. Some of the windows of the theater are also being saved and will be given to the local historical society.

Despite the loss of the Montgomery Theatre building, the history of the site will not be lost. There is a historic marker that will be returned once construction on the site is completed. In addition, the company that is redeveloping the property has vowed to, “include a plaza and information to recognize the building’s history.”

I want to close this post with the words of an old time Montgomery resident by the name of Frank P. O’Brien. O’Brien was present the night the Montgomery Theatre opened in 1860. When the theatre closed in 1907 he gave his reminiscences of the many plays and actors that had graced its stage. At the end of the article, O’Brien stated the following words, which are very fitting today:

“Wednesday night, November thirteenth, the curtain was ‘rung down’ in the old play-house to give way to one of more modern construction. The soft glow of unforgotten scenes alone is left to me, and many whose hearts have throbbed with hope for future years, as nightly we ascended the broad stairs from the street to listen to and witness scenes of comedy, music, and tragedy. Thus is marked the passing of the glory of the old Montgomery theatre…There is not one of us who has not gone up the wide stairs loving, and come down them loving the more. There is not one of us who has not left some weight of the soul there and never returned to claim it.

Vale! old house, the ghostly shadows of scenes long to be remembered will continue to hover within thy hallowed walls ’till the inevitable march of progress hastens thy destruction.”

GPS coordinates for the former site of Montgomery Theatre: 32.378385, -86.307671

Categories: Grave Thursday, History, News | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

A John Wilkes Booth Poem

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day and the many poems being shared today, here is a poem written by John Wilkes Booth in February of 1860.

john-wilkes-booths-poem-to-mary-white-2-18-1860-alplm

This poem by Booth is an acrostic poem and as such the beginning letter in each line spells out the names of the poem’s recipient and author. Here is a transcript of the poem including Booth’s incorrect spelling of the words distressed and despair.

Miss White

May all good angels guard & bless thee.
And from thy heart remove all care.
Remember you should ne’re distrest be.
Youth & hope, can crush dispare.
+
Joy can be found, by all, who seek it.
Only be, right, the path, we move upon
Heaven has marked it; Find & keep it
Ne’re forget the wish of – John.

Richmond Feb 18th 1860

He who will ever be your friend

J. Wilkes Booth

Booth wrote this poem as he was learning the acting trade in Richmond’s Marshall Theatre. The date of this poem places it just a couple of months after Booth had returned from his soldiering. For two weeks in late November and early December Booth had stood guard at the imprisonment and execution of abolitionist John Brown. When he returned to his theatrical company only the pleas of his friends allowed him to rejoin the troupe after his impromptu departure. At this point he was still being billed, when his minor part warranted any sort of billing that is, as Mr. J. B. Wilkes.

j-b-wilkes-in-romeo-juliet-1860

The recipient of this poem was a woman by the name of Mary C. White. Little is known about her. Booth’s poem is located in a “Forget Me Not” autograph album that is inscribed with Ms. White’s name and the words “Richmond, Va. December 10 1859”. In addition to the poem by Booth, there are also other farewell like notes from W. H Caskie (a Richmond native who would later join the Confederacy), George Wren (a fellow actor in Booth’s troupe), two poems signed under the aliases of Fido and Junius (not Booth’s brother), and Samuel Knapp Chester (another troupe member and a man Booth would try to recruit into his abduction plot against Lincoln in the future).

In their book, “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me”: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, editors John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper suggest that Mary C. White might be a fellow actress. They cite an entry in T. Allston Brown’s History of the American Stage, which is essentially an early encyclopedia of actors and actresses, for a Mary Ann White “attached to the Richmond, Va. Theatre for some time” who “died 1860, in that city, June 20”. Rhodehamel and Taper point out that there are no other poems or farewells in the album past June of 1860, which might coincide with the owner’s death. I have been unable to find a record of a Ms. White in the theater troupe, but, if she was young, as many of the poems about her allude to, she may have played only minor roles in which she would receive no mention in the papers. I’m not 100% convinced Ms. White was an actress, but without more information, it’s as good a guess as any.

The album containing Booth’s signature is in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Kate and I were fortunate enough to see it in person after my talk to the ALPLM’s volunteers last summer. The ALPLM has digitized this poem and many other Booth related items they acquired from the collection of Louise Taper. You can see more of their digitized items here.

References:
The Taper Collection at the ALPLM
“Right or Wrong, God Judge Me”: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Grave Thursday: Laura Keene

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.

dr-thomas-bogarI’m very pleased to announce that this week’s installment of Grave Thursday is the contribution of author and theatre historian, Dr. Thomas Bogar.

Dr. Bogar’s books include American Presidents Attend the Theatre and his most recent book Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. Dr. Bogar was kind enough to share his own picture of Laura Keene’s grave and write about her for this week’s entry.


Laura Keene

laura-keene

Burial Location: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

laura-keenes-grave-thomas-bogar

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Laura Keene’s performance as Florence Trenchard in Our American Cousin was a major reason why President Lincoln chose to attend Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. He enjoyed the play’s folksy humor and knew that night was to be Keene’s benefit. (He made it a point to attend such events whenever he could, to boost box office revenue for the chosen performer.) He had seen her act the year before and admired her acting. Born in England in 1826, Keene came to America under the aegis of manager James Wallack in 1852 and became an immediate success in witty, polite comedies that showcased her natural elegance and refinement. Her strongest assets were her large, dark, expressive eyes, slender, graceful figure, lustrous auburn hair, and melodious voice. In an era of overwhelmingly male manage­ment, she succeeded for nearly a decade (1854–1863) managing theatres in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, compiling an admirable record of artistic and financial success. Her productions were noteworthy for their taste and attention to detail.

That night, at the moment of the shot, she was donning her gloves offstage right for her next entrance. Her managerial instincts prompted her to stride to the footlights and call out repeatedly, “Order, gentlemen! Order! For God’s sake have presence of mind and keep your places and all will be well.” Then, led by a backstage route up and around and into the presidential box, she knelt at Lincoln’s side and cradled his head in her lap, bathing his face with water. After his death, she left Washington (against orders) with John Dyott and Harry Hawk en route to perform in Cincinnati, only to be arrested in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From then on, her career and health (tuberculosis) entered a slow, irreversible decline. She toured in a lesser orbit to tepid reviews and poor box office. Bookings grew more difficult, and the towns and theatres grew smaller and dingier. Past the peak of her fame, she was unable to draw the crowds she had before and during the war. The constant travel was grueling, and she was sometimes ill for weeks at a time. Performing in tiny Tidioute, Pennsylvania, on the Fourth of July, 1873, she suffered a massive stroke. Few in the theatrical profession even learned of her death on November 4 at age 47 until after her interment, in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Ultimately, the events of one night overshadowed all of her accomplish­ments; when she is remembered today, if at all, it is as “that actress who was performing at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot.”

GPS coordinates for Laura Keene’s grave: 40.647506, -73.992331


For more information about Laura Keene and the others working at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, please purchase your copy of Dr. Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre.

backstage-at-the-lincoln-assassination-by-thomas-bogar

The book is an amazing read and is filled with fascinating stories about the different employees and actors from America’s most (in)famous theater. My sincerest thanks go to Dr. Bogar for writing this post.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 10 Comments

Grave Thursday: C. Dwight Hess

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


C. Dwight Hess

C Dwight Hess

Burial Location: Westville Cemetery (Old Section), Westville, Indiana

c-dwight-hess-grave-6-25-2016

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

C. Dwight Hess was the manager and co-owner of the National Theatre in Washington D.C. The theater, also known as Grover’s Theater after Hess’ co-owner, Leonard Grover, was the main theatrical competitor of Ford’s Theatre in Washington City. As the manager of the National Theatre, Hess was very familiar with the actor turned assassin John Wilkes Booth.

On April 13th, the day before Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the National Theatre where he found Hess running lines with the stage prompter George Wren. Booth barged into the office where Hess and Wren were speaking, sat himself down, and proceeded to converse with the two men. Hess and Wren broke from their rehearsal and entertained the young actor. During the conversation, Booth inquired with Hess whether he was going to participate in the Grand Illumination planned for that evening. Hess replied in the affirmative but that he was saving his best material in order to illuminate the next night, Friday, April 14th, the anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter. After mentioning his plan to illuminate on Friday night, Booth then asked Hess, “Ain’t you going to invite the President out?” Hess replied that, yes, he was hoping to invite the Lincolns and even thanked Booth for reminding him to do so. After a bit more conversation, Booth departed and both Wren and Hess would comment that they thought it odd that Booth would mention the President given his known dissatisfaction with the Union government. Hess was not aware that Booth was laying the groundwork for a possible assassination right inside Hess’ own theater. C. Dwight Hess did send along an invitation to Mrs. Lincoln, inviting her and her husband to his planned illumination on Friday and for the theater’s performance of Aladdin! or the Wonderful Lamp. While Tad Lincoln would take up Hess’ offer, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln would choose Ford’s Theatre for their entertainment on April 14th, and John Wilkes Booth’s plan would change venues because of it.

Hess would be present at his theater when the terrible news came in that the President Lincoln was assassinated over at Ford’s Theatre. His first thought after clearing the house was to send word to Leonard Grover who was not in D.C. at the time. Hess quickly dispatched a telegram to Grover which conveyed both his shock and relief:

hess-telegram-to-grover

Clarence Dwight Hess (who is also often recorded as Charles Dwight Hess) would later be a witness at the trial of the conspirators where he would testify about Booth’s visit to his theater on April 13th. After 1865, he continued in the theatrical business where he managed other theaters and even his own opera group which toured throughout Americas. In his later years, Hess retired to a small farm near Westville, Indiana. When he died on February 15, 1909, he was buried at the Westville Cemetery. Check out the Maps page for more details. For more information about Grover’s National Theatre and its connections to the Lincoln assassination story read the Grover’s Theatre and the Lincoln Assassination post.

GPS coordinates for C. Dwight Hess’ grave: 41.540153, -86.914445

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

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