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.
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.
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.
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.
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