Posts Tagged With: Asia Booth

John Wilkes Booth and the real Billy Bowlegs

As I have mentioned before, I am currently in a graduate program working on a Master’s degree in American history. This is why updates here on BoothieBarn have been few and far between for the last year and will likely continue to be for a year or two more. This summer semester I took a class on American Indian History with Dr. Ned Blackhawk from Yale University. It was a very illuminating class and helped me develop a greater understanding of what American history truly is. For the final paper, each student was allowed to pick a subject of their choice. As always, I wanted to make a connection, even a small one, to John Wilkes Booth or the Lincoln assassination story. With the help of a Native friend on Twitter, we assembled a short list of some of the minor connections John Wilkes Booth had to Native Americans:

  • As a young child growing up at Tudor Hall, John Wilkes Booth and his siblings often invoked the imagery of Indians in their play. Asia Booth recalled her brother digging a large hole, the size of a trench, in the wooded area around Tudor Hall in search of Indian bones. Also, when riding his horse Cola di Rienzi around, Booth was known to spur him on with shouts of, “The Choctaws are after you, ride for your life!”

  • Located not far from Tudor Hall is The Rocks at Deer Creek. This natural rock formation was a common picnic and riding destination for the Booth children including John Wilkes Booth. Local legends stated that, in earlier years, the Susquehannock Indians occupied the area and performed ceremonies on the King and Queen Seat. In 1854, John Wilkes Booth wrote to his friend Samuel Williams O’Laughlen that, “the Indian’s where up here the other day with their great Bear.” A modern archeological study, however, was unable to find any significant evidence of Native American residency in the area.

  • While learning the acting profession in Richmond, John Wilkes Booth performed the role of Uncas, a Native American, in the play The Wept of the Wish-Ton-Wish which starred Maggie Mitchell. Researcher Angela Smythe has done a compelling amount of research into the story that a photograph of Booth in his Uncas costume once existed..

While interesting pieces of trivia, none of these connections really lent themselves to a research paper where Native Americans were the primary subject. However, there was one additional connection that had always piqued my curiosity. According to Asia Booth’s book on her brother,

“There was a celebrated Indian Chief named Billy Bowlegs, and Wilkes went by this name among his companions at [St. Timothy’s Hall in] Catonsville.”

John Wilkes Booth was even known to have used this boyish nickname in a letter he wrote to Samuel Williams O’Laughlen on April 30, 1854. In closing the letter signed it as “J.W.B alias. Billy. Bow. Legs”

Several books, including Art Loux’s John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, provide the brief context that Billy Bowlegs was a leader of the Seminole tribe in Florida. The assumption is that John Wilkes Booth was given this nickname because he was bow legged himself. But I wanted to know more about the real Billy Bowlegs even if only to understand how a group of teenage boys in Maryland had heard of a Seminole chief way down in Florida. So, in the end, I decided to wrote my final paper on the real Billy Bowlegs who I discovered was actually called Holata Micco by his people. I looked at his life before and during the time when John Wilkes Booth became his namesake. What follows is that final paper.

I must warn you that the paper is a bit long, there are no pictures, and there is no mention about John Wilkes Booth in the text. While the nickname inspired the research, the paper itself is an analysis of Holata Micco’s actions between the Second and Third Seminole Wars, the latter of which would ultimately come to bear his name. I am not an expert on the Seminole and had never even read about the Seminole Wars before starting this class. However, I did a great deal of research on Holata Micco for this paper and am proud of the finished product. While I’m sure there are inevitable errors in what is written below, they are unintentional. I present my final paper on Holata Micco, the real Billy Bowlegs, for anyone interested in learning more about a fascinating figure in American history whose name happened to become the childhood nickname of a Presidential assassin.


Holata Micco: Peacemaker for his People

By Dave Taylor

The Third Seminole War during the 1850s was the final major conflict between the United States and Native tribes in Florida. At the time, the conflict was often referred to as The Billy Bowlegs War, named for a leader of the Seminole who was known colloquially as Billy Bowlegs. Billy Bowlegs’ true name was Holata Micco, and he was a well-known leader of the Seminole people in the years prior to the conflict. When the war – largely characterized by hit and run guerilla warfare – broke out in 1855, Holata was seen as the main aggressor and tactician behind the Seminole’s last stand. The bloody events of 1855 through 1858, impressed upon the name of Holata Micco a legacy of conflict and warfare. However, a close examination of the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in the Third Seminole War demonstrates that Holata’s reputation for violence is not supported by his documented actions. Rather than playing the aggressor, Holata Micco was committed to the peaceful coexistence of the Seminole and the United States and made many sacrifices in his attempt to protect his people.

The Third Seminole War, like the one that preceded it, was a natural extension of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, ordering the relocation of Native tribes to areas west of the Mississippi. The act opened up vast quantities of previously held Indian land in areas of the eastern United States to white settlers. President Andrew Jackson, a strong proponent of the Act, knew that not all tribes would willingly move from their native lands and therefore backed up the act with the use of military force. Jackson viewed the act as one of compassion combined with an ultimatum. “I was satisfied that the Indians could not possibly live under the laws of the States,” Jackson wrote shortly after the passage of the act. “If now they shall refuse to accept the liberal terms offered, they only must be liable for whatever evils and dificulties [sic] may arise.”[1] The difficulties that stemmed from the Indian Removal Act were numerous and many tribes refused to leave the lands they had occupied for generations. In the territory of Florida, the Seminole fought a war against then General Jackson who had allied the United States Army with the Seminole’s rival tribe, the Lower Creek. That war, known later as the First Seminole war, stripped the Seminole of much of their land holdings in the panhandle and northern parts of Florida. The Seminole retreated to a reservation created by the United States government in the central part of the Florida peninsula despite the fact that the signatory Indian chiefs believed that the allocated land, “did not contain a sufficient quantity of good land to subsist them.”[2] A subsequent war, stemming from the Seminole’s resistance to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, decreased the tribe’s numbers and forced them to seek refuge in the Everglades and Big Cypress swamps, areas even less hospitable than the reservation they had been assigned years before.

It was at the end of the Second Seminole War that Holata Micco rose to prominence. As noted by the research of Kenneth Porter, a historian who specialized in African American frontiersman and the relationship between African Americans and the Seminole people, the age and lineage of Holata Micco are unknown for certainty. He was likely born between the years of 1808 and 1812 and was of some close relation, possible a nephew, to Micanopy, the leader of the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.[3] Holata’s ascension from warrior to a leadership position in the Seminole tribe came about due to Micanopy’s capture (under a flag of truce) in 1838 and the leader’s subsequent removal to the West. The Second Seminole War was a war of attrition that, through death, capture, and surrender, decimated the remaining population of Seminoles in Florida. General William Worth, the final U.S. commander during the Second Seminole War believed that 5,000 Seminole had been removed over the course of the seven years conflict.[4] Holata negotiated with General Worth at the end of the Second Seminole War, but he was not the sole leader of the around 400 remaining Seminoles. The war had broken the Seminole into different bands and different leaders had emerged within those groups. The idea that Holata Micco was the sole chief of the Seminoles and that he was responsible for all of the Seminole’s activities from this point forward was an erroneous assumption that was regularly repeated in the press in the years, and conflict, to follow. The lack of understanding regarding the complex interplay of powerful leaders among the remaining Seminole and the biased nature of the white press against the Native occupants of Florida caused Holata Micco to emerge in the eyes of the general populace as the main aggressor of the Third Seminole War.

The Second Seminole War did not end with the complete surrender of the Seminole. Despite the heavy losses in population, the bulk of the Seminole still in Florida were just as committed to staying there as they had been in the beginning of the conflict. What Holata Micco negotiated with General Worth in 1842 was more of a truce than a surrender and this was only possible because the United States government had grown tired of the financial and human expense of attempting to hunt down the remaining scattered Seminoles in the Everglades. In an initial peace meeting with one of Holata’s representatives, General Worth made it clear that he wished to end hostilities with the Seminole and that would mean his army would no longer force the removal of Indians in the region. Worth told Holata’s representative that the President, “is willing his red children should remain in Florida or go to Arkansas as they may prefer,”[5] showing President Tyler’s willingness to ignore the Indian Removal Act in order to bring about a modicum of peace. While the negotiations were filled with inducements to motivate the Seminole to depart Florida, the ending agreement established that the Seminole and the few other scattered tribes were, “permitted for a while to plant and hunt on the lands” and, more importantly, that any white settlers who encroached on the, “Indians and their places of residence” would be, “subjected to removal.”[6] From the perspective of Holata Micco and his group, the Second Seminole War ended much in the same way as the first, with the Seminole being allocated a piece of land and being told they were allowed to remain despite outside desires for them to relocate. These terms were largely agreed to by the other remaining scattered groups of Indians. With hostilities ended, Holata Micco set to work on creating a home for his people among the swamps of the Everglades and the Big Cypress.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to the study of Holata Micco and the Third Seminole War is the lack of perspective from the Seminole themselves. Like too much of Native history, the material is overwhelmingly one sided. We lack any writings on the day to day life of the Seminoles after the Second Seminole War. However the conclusion that Holata sought to uphold the peace for as long as possible is supported as much by his non-actions as by his confirmed actions. Almost a year after the final peace negotiations were agreed to, General Worth wrote, “For eleven months, indeed since my announcement of August 14th, 1842, became known to the straggling bands, not an outrage or offensive act has been committed by Indians.”[7] After such heavy losses in the prior wars, the commitment to maintain peace was strongly held by the Seminole and, in peace, the organization of the tribe had coalesced around Holata Micco. General Worth wrote in November of 1843 that Micco was, “the acknowledged chief,” among the Seminole and that, “these people have observed perfect good faith, and strictly fulfilled their engagements.”[8] The peace between the Indians and the whites continued to hold which caused newspapers across the nation to announce that, “We hesitate not to say, that ‘the Florida war’ is not only ended, but that it will ‘stay ended.’ Emigrants may now seek a residence here with as much safety as in any part of the country.”[9] Peace brought an influx a new settlers to Florida and also caused older settlers to make their way into the sparsely inhabited interior of the state. As settlers encroached closer and closer to Indian land, federal authorities took steps to prevent further conflict from arising. Capt. John T. Sprague, the Indian Agent assigned to the region, aptly noted that any conflicts that might occur were likely to be the fault of white settlers failing to heed the boundary of the Seminole’s reservation. Sprague wrote in 1845 that, “there is a class of men destitute of property and employment, who for excitement and gain, would recklessly provoke the Indians to aggression,” and that, “the advice and example of the chiefs and subchiefs…has been salutatory, and will continue so, if unprovoked.”[10] It was Sprague’s belief that the influence of Holata Micco helped to keep the more aggressive Seminole warriors in line and committed to peace.

Even when occasional clashes did break out between usually young Seminoles and white settlers, Holata and his subchiefs took great pains to cool things down. In late 1846, news came to Capt. Sprague about an Indian raid on a farm. Sprague requested, and received, a meeting with the Seminole leadership including Holata Micco. In his report back to Washington, Sprague recounted that,

“these chiefs and their followers express the strongest friendship and have adopted vigorous laws to punish those who violate the relation existing between the whites and red men…They came into my camp prepared to receive kindness and extend it, evidently determined to avenge on the spot any manifestation of a contrary feeling.”[11]

Preserving the peace, which in turn meant continued freedom for his people, was of the utmost importance to Holata. In his report, Sprague also gave his personal impressions of Holata Micco and his influence over his people:

“This chief has been since the commencement of the Florida War a bold, resolute and unyielding leader. [He is] ambitious, and cunning, remarkably intelligent, speaking English with facility… With these peculiar qualifications and undisputed authority exercised in Florida with an auxiliary force or alone, this Indian would be a most formidable foe.”[12]

Despite Sprague’s assertions that Holata possessed “undisputed authority” over the Seminole, there were interior conflicts and politics within the remaining bands of Indians residing in Florida. When discussing the assembled chiefs, Sprague makes note of the absence of the Seminole leader Abiaka, known to non-Natives as Sam Jones. Abiaka had been elected “Grand War Chief” among the Seminoles in 1837 during the Second Seminole War. Sprague was disappointed that Abiaka, who was perpetually portrayed as a truly ancient leader of the Seminole, was unable to attend the meeting due to the weather. Sprague reported that his, “insisting upon seeing [Abiaka] tended to disparage the position and power of Holatter Micco, who in all respects, is qualified for supreme command which he exercises with skill and judgement.”[13] While Sprague goes on to express that Abiaka was, “without warriors, authority or influence,”[14] subsequent historians believe that Abiaka still held a degree of control over the Seminoles despite Holata having become the public face of tribe. James W. Covington, a historian who focused on the Seminoles, wrote that, “Persons like Sprague did not understand that though Billy Bowlegs had the largest band of warriors (fifty-four), and considerable political power, he lacked the religious influence of Sam Jones who had a following of only thirty-two warriors.”[15] In fact, much of the political power that Holata Micco was able to attain largely came from his continued interactions with the U.S. government and its representatives. Men like Gen. Worth and Capt. Sprague appreciated the ease in which they could communicate with Holata and sought to foster their relationship with him. It was Holata, not Abiaka, who had negotiated the end of the Second Seminole War and it was Holata who regularly met with federal authorities when asked. Though Holata had fought in the Second Seminole War he did not have quite the same “savage” reputation as the Grand War Chief Abiaka. Holata Micco became the desired point of contact between the U.S. and the Indians, and so they did all in their power to improve his standing. At the end of his 1847 report, Sprague recommended continued inducements to Holata not only out of hope that he would convince the rest of his tribe to emigrate, but because a relationship with Holata could prove useful to the U.S. in case of attack from without: “As a friend cherished by that which would contribute to his vanity, power, and independence, he could be relied upon to expel the intruders of whatever nation and become a faithful ally to those who secure his confidence and regard.”[16] For a time, at least, the government saw that it was better to have Holata Micco as a friend rather than an enemy.

Despite the machinations of settlers in attempting to bring about the forceful removal of the Seminole, the peace between the two groups held for almost seven years with any major conflicts. Then in July of 1849, three subsequent acts of bloodshed against white settlers shook the region. On July 12, 17, and 19th a rogue band of five Indians looted and burned three different groups of isolated homes, killing three men in the process. In two of the events, the band of Indians had first visited and traded in stores in the community before coming back with weapons. This tactic of scouting the scene before committing the crime put all settlers who came into contact with the Seminoles on guard and added to the hysteria of the times. While the loss of life deservedly escalated the response on the part of the U.S. government who sent extra troops down into Florida, it was far from the all-out war that the press of the day portrayed it to be. The newspapers seized on any and all news they could get about the “Indian depredations” even when such news was little more than hysterical gossip. On August 7th, the Springfield Republican erroneously reported that, “the Indians are preparing for a general war, and that during the past year they have provided themselves with large quantities of powder and lead…Billy Bowlegs is the master spirit and Chief of the hostile red-skins.”[17] This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that Holata Micco’s name would be used in conjunction with fears of a mass Seminole uprising in Florida.

Rather than preparing his people for war, Holata Micco’s response to the rogue raids of July, 1849 was perfectly in character with his behavior over the last seven years. Holata sought to cool tensions despite the hysteria. He was joined in this quest by Capt. John Casey, a veteran of the Second Seminole War and a man who had become the United States’ unofficial ambassador to the Indians in Florida. As increased troops mounted in Florida, Casey reached out to Holata hoping to make contact. It had been a month since the attacks and so Casey was fairly certain that these events had not been a prelude to all-out war. After some diplomatic arrangements Casey and Holata met, each flanked by their men, on September 18. Major General David Twiggs, who joined Capt. Casey at the meeting, wrote in his later report that:

“Bowlegs came on board my vessel, with a party of four or five warriors, repeated the statement made some time previous by his runner, that the outrages were perpetrated by a few outlaws, who would be given up to justice; that the nation had nothing to complain of on the part of the whites – were desirous of peace, and determined not to allow peaceable relations to be disturbed by the acts of individuals.”[18]

Twiggs’ assertion that Holata expressed the Seminole had “nothing to complain” about in terms of their treatment by the white settlers demonstrates Holata diplomatic sense. In truth, the Seminole had a lot to complain about, including the fact that the government had not upheld their end of the 1842 truce which called for the U.S. to enforce the Seminoles’ territory rights. Despite the U.S. creating a 20 mile buffer zone between the Seminole territory and the rest of Florida where no people could reside, white settlers had still moved into the area. One of the homes that was attacked during the July raids had been built within that zone.[19] In addition, even before the recent troubles, local laws and regulations had been passed restricting the Indians movements and access to trading centers. Holata had many grievances he could have aired with the Capt. Casey and Maj. Gen. Twiggs but he chose not to, placing the priority on quelling their apprehensions and fears.

The proposed surrender of the five rogue warriors who carried out these attacks was also a political move on the part of Holata Micco. Those responsible for the attacks were a band of warriors who were, ostensibly, under the control of Kapiktsootsee, a sub-chief of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief and Holata’s rival. Kapiktsootsee sought to replace Abiaka after the elder’s death but Abiaka favored another warrior causing Kapiktsootsee and a small band to leave Abiaka’s camp. Kapiktsootsee gave his men permission to hunt outside of the assigned territory and it was a small group of these rogue Indians that subsequently attacked the farms.[20] In agreeing to surrender those responsible, Holata was putting himself at odds with Abiaka. To ease repercussions from any internal conflicts, Holata brought Kapiktsootsee into the meetings with Capt. Casey and it was in this way that Holata got Kapiktsootsee to also agree to turn over his men. The date for the transfer of the prisoners was set for a month later, giving Holata and Kapiktsootsee time to capture and transport the rogue band.

Surrendering the men was not merely an act of justice for the Seminole but was considered an act of sacrifice. Gen Twiggs and Capt. Casey had made it clear that the warriors would be executed for their crimes, and it took all of Holata’s influence to convince Abiaka and the others that this was an acceptable cost to pay for continuing the peace. On the agreed upon day of transfer, Holata and some sixty warriors met with Gen. Twiggs and Capt. Casey. According to Gen. Twiggs’ report, Holata, “delivered the prisoners; said he had made severe laws to prevent the whites from being molested, and had now brought his young men that they might see how sternly he executed them.”[21] Holata was proving to his warriors that peace was of the utmost importance to the tribe’s well-being and that, in order to maintain it, he would willingly sacrifice anyone who would threaten that peace. This act of sacrifice was shown in the fact that three of the five murderers were turned over. The fourth had managed to escape during his capture. Holata presented the bloodstained rifle that the escaped warrior had been holding and dropped after being shot in the hand as he fled as evidence of the attempt. The fifth warrior had been outright killed during the attempt at his capture. As evidence of this, Holata presented Gen. Twiggs with a grisly reminder of his devotion to their continued peace: the dead warrior’s severed hand.[22]

The usually elusive Abiaka made the journey with Holata on the day of the prisoner transfer, but he refused to go aboard the army ship for the final exchange. Abiaka stayed on shore with Capt. Casey while Holata dealt with the General. Like Holata, Abiaka had seen many of his friends captured under flags of peace and he was not going to fall victim to the same fate. His presence was no doubt a message to Holata that while the younger man held favor with the whites, there was still power behind the elder. Such important decisions like sacrificing their own to the whites was not a move Abiaka would let Holata make unilaterally. In fact, according to historians Joe Knetsch, John and Mary Lou Missall, Abiaka had influence over who was given over to their deaths. In their book on the Third Seminole War, Knetsch et al. state that the third, “surrendered man hadn’t even been mentioned in the attacks. Instead of Panukee, one of the accused killers, the army was being handed a substitute, Pahay Hajo. Abiaki and other hard-liners had helped choose who would be turned over, and Panukee was probably someone’s favorite. Pahay Hajo, unfortunately, was not.”[23] Abaika’s presence and influence over the surrender of the prisoners again demonstrates that despite press reports citing that Holata Micco, “heretofore has exercised complete control,”[24] over the Seminole, the internal workings of the tribe were far more complex. Yet the desire on the part of the United States to make Holata Micco the face of the Seminole and subsequently their ally in emigration, caused Abaika’s influence to be commented on less in the ensuing years.

For a time after the surrender of the prisoners, relative peace returned to Florida. The government was impressed by Holata’s commitment to remain peaceful but the events increased the calls for the Seminole’s emigration to Indian Territory. Even during the surrender meeting, Gen. Twiggs’ pressed upon Holata and his men to emigrate, portraying it as the only long-term solution. Holata, always the diplomat, expressed his desire to remain but said that he would consider the proposal. Over the next two years, various offers would be presented to Holata, many of which contained generous financial inducements if he could convince his people to emigrate. At times, Holata would make it seem like he was willing to emigrate but that he did not believe others in his tribe would. How much of this was Holata’s true feelings or merely a way to stall for time is uncertain. This strategy of publicly contemplating emigration was effective. From 1849 – 1852, newspapers regularly contained articles about the Seminoles’ imminent departure from Florida. Throughout this period, however, very few Indians made the choice to emigrate. Holata was aided in the year after the July 1849 raids by the presidency of Zachary Taylor. Taylor had actually fought against Holata and Abiaka in 1837 during the Second Seminole War and had an affinity for their bravery. In June of 1850, President Taylor met with Gen. Twiggs saying, “tell Bowlegs whenever you see him, from me, that if his people remain within their limits – & behave themselves, they shall never be disturbed while I remain in office.”[25] Sadly, President Taylor died less than three weeks after making that remark and his successor, Millard Fillmore, was less accommodating. The bulk of the Seminoles were content to stay in their Florida homes, much to the increased dismay of white settlers who feared them or coveted their land. New technology had been developed that could drain parts of the Everglades in order to create more farmland. Even the previously undesirable land held by the Seminole was now of value to settlers. As a result, the state legislature of Florida, unhappy that the federal government had failed in its duty to remove the Indians, passed laws to resupply and repopulate previously abandoned forts from the Second Seminole War. Florida was trying to force the hand of the federal government to fulfill its 1832 promise to remove all Indians from the region. In light of this, Holata Micco finally agreed to a proposal that Capt. Casey and the newly appointed Indian Agent for the region, Luther Blake, had presented to him repeatedly. Holata agreed to travel to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with the President.

Bringing Native American delegations to urban areas of the United States like New York City or Washington, D.C. was not a new phenomenon. It was practice used to intimidate native peoples and demonstrate the sheer power and resources of the United States. In his 1847 report regarding how to secure Holata’s friendship, Capt. Sprague had recommended such a journey stating, “he should see our numbers and the power of the country.”[26] As the cherry picked leader of the Seminoles, if the government could impress or intimidate Holata into motivating his people to emigrate, the expense would be far less than a return to warfare. At the end of August, 1852, Holata and his delegation of subchiefs, interpreters, and federal officials departed Florida, making their way by ship to D.C. Notably absent from the journey was Abiaka. When meeting with Luke Lea, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in D.C., Holata was asked about Abiaka’s absence. The following interchange was documented in the The Republic newspaper the day after the meeting:

The Commissioner. I should have been glad if you had brought Sam [Abiaka] along with you.
Abraham [an interpreter]. He wouldn’t come.
Billy Bowlegs interposed, saying he could not expect Sam Jones to come with them unless he had killed him and brought a piece of his flesh. [Laughter.]”[27]

While, as Holata jokingly points out, it would have been unlikely for Abiaka to have made the trip into enemy territory given his established fear of forced capture and emigration, it unlikely that Commissioner Lea was too upset at Abiaka’s absence. Holata was the key to solving the “Seminole problem” and Abiaka would only make their goal harder to attain.

While the government’s goal was to convince Holata to emigrate, Holata had a different purpose for making the journey. To the Seminole, the treaty they had arranged with General Worth in 1842, allowing them to continue to reside and hunt on their lands, was binding. It was this treaty that Holata had agreed to and it was the one that had brought them the subsequent years of peace. Holata told Lea that, “the old people who made the treaty in Florida [i.e. General Worth] are dead,”[28] and that he wanted to learn the truth about it. For years, Holata had been told by many officials, Captains Sprague and Casey included, that he and his people had no rights to their land, despite the treaty with Worth. To Holata, this trip to Washington was a fact finding mission and a test to see if the white men would uphold this prior agreement. All the inducements to emigrate west meant little if the government could not be trusted to keep its word to leave them alone once they got there.

On the next day, September 17, Holata and his delegation were granted an audience with President Fillmore, Commissioner Lea, Gen. Blake, and the Secretaries of War and Navy. Holata told the President that, “he came not to pay a mere visit of compliment, but to seek for justice.”[29] Holata reiterated the circumstances of his negotiations with General Worth in 1842 and of how Worth had told him that he had, “the authority of the President,” to make, “a treaty of peace with the Seminoles.”[30] This treaty, Holata pressed, told the Seminole to, “gather together, draw a line, and live within it… raise their children and keep hold of the country.”[31] President Fillmore listened to Holata respectfully, but when it was his turn to reply, Fillmore echoed the words Holata had been told before. What General Worth had arranged with the Seminole was a truce, not a treaty. Worth allowed the Seminole to return to the land temporarily but an earlier treaty, one signed in 1832, was still in effect. That earlier treaty stated that all Seminole were to be removed from Florida and that they no longer had any claim on the lands of Florida. In the paternalistic tone regularly used with Native groups, Fillmore stated that he was, “anxious only to do what is for the Indian’s good,” and that, “the inhabitants of Florida are increasing and will crowd on the settlements where the Indians live.”[32] According to Fillmore, the white settlers of Florida had a right to ask him to see the 1832 treaty upheld and that he would do so. The meeting was brief and allotted to little more than a polite ultimatum on the part of the President. After shaking hands with the President and withdrawing, it was observed that, judging by their expressions, two or three in the delegation took, “the remarks of the President rather hard.”[33]

At this point, it became clear to Holata Micco that any diplomatic solution for ending the U.S. government’s insistence on his people’s removal was not possible, at least not under the current President. Perhaps it was with the knowledge that Fillmore had been passed over for his own party’s nomination and that an election was scheduled in a two months that gave Holata hope that his successor might be more reasonable. If he continued to bide his time and not make trouble, perhaps he could make the peace last. So, Holata played the part the government desired of him. On September 20th, three days after his meeting with Fillmore, Holata signed an agreement made up by Commissioner Lea. The agreement stated that the delegation acknowledged that, “all the Seminoles in Florida are under obligations to remove,” and that the undersigned, “faithfully promise to give the said agent all the assistance in their power, so that the removal of all the Indians in Florida may be effected with the least possible delay.”[34] With no affixed deadline, the “least possible delay” must have seemed as meaningless to Holata as General Worth’s agreement now seemed to the Unitied States government. After signing the agreement Holata’s delegation was taken to New York City where they were welcomed as honored guests. They met the mayor of New York City and enjoyed the city’s celebrated theaters before returning home to Florida. According to Knetsch et al., after Holata’s visit to D.C. and New York, “Billy Bowlegs was the most famous Indian in America.”[35]

Upon his return to Florida, Holata and his people retreated further into the Everglades, rarely agreeing to talks with government authorities. It was Holata’s fame and prestige that allowed him to continually push back against inducements to leave. When he did agree to meet with Indian agents like Capt. Casey, he would reiterate his peoples’ desire to stay in their homes and his own refusal to leave without them. The presidency of Franklin Pierce did not bring any desired change of opinion in regards to the Seminole. Intermittent contact with Indian agents and a strict adherence to staying on their proscribed lands allowed Holata to slow the efforts of the government towards his people’s removal, but he could not stem the tide completely. By May of 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote the Capt. Casey informing him that, “the time for negotiating with the Florida Indians is past, and that coercive measures only will induce them to emigrate.”[36] Davis ordered the end of all trade with the Indians and began the surveying and sale of the Seminole territory to white settlers. The U.S. government instituted a strangle hold on the Seminole, increasing troops to the region, reactivating old forts near their lands, cutting new roads, and patrolling for Indians outside of their territory. Despite the increased numbers of soldiers, Holata and his people tried their best to prevent any situation that would lead to open hostilities. When surveyors came into Holata’s village, effectively to determine how the land would later be parceled out to white settlers, Holata greeted them in friendly terms. Lt. John T. Greble, a soldier who encountered Holata during this period of time, wrote to his parents that, “the Indians are perfectly peaceable, and are the best inhabitants of the State, according to my way of thinking…A group of politicians have represented that the country occupied by the Indians is the most fruitful in the world…and the Indians, accordingly, have to vacate, unless they change their minds in Washington when they learn the true nature of the country.”[37] Greble was not the only solider sent to Florida who felt that the forced removal of the Seminole was not worth the effort. Lieutenant Alexander Webb wrote in his journal of the terrible conditions in the Florida Everglades and his mystification at the government’s insistence the Seminole be removed, “Mosquitos awful! Fleas! Indescribable! Heat!! Don’t speak of it. This country should be preserved for the Indians of all the territories, and if the fleas and other vermin do not destroy them they might be left to live. I could not wish them all in a worst place.”[38] Yet, to the Seminole, the vermin infested place that Lt. Webb complained of was home. Holata Micco had spent the majority of the last thirteen years working to preserve this place for his people. Despite having retreated even further into the swamps of Big Cypress and the Everglades, the Seminole found that the United States still would not leave them alone. As was warned by one of Holata’s subchiefs in 1855, “if you pull a little dog by the tail back & forth – to & fro – he will finally get mad & bite you.”[39]

In the end, the Seminole finally bit back at the United States on December 20, 1855. After years of mounting pressure and encroachments into their territory a detachment of federal soldiers was attached by a band of Seminoles armed with rifles. Four army privates were killed in the skirmish that started what was to become known as the Billy Bowlegs War. For the next three years the public was transfixed as the vastly outnumbered Seminole enacted raids on detachments of soldiers in Florida. Yet, as much as Holata Micco’s name was spoken and written during that three year period, there is little evidence to support that he even took part in any of the raids committed by the Seminoles. Even the planning of attacks, if they were truly products of a centralized chain of command, would likely have come from the advice of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief. In truth, we don’t really know how the Billy Bowlegs War was enacted on the part of the Seminoles nor how much influence Holata Micco had in the carrying out of attacks. The name of the war is attributed to the fact that Holata was the publicly recognized leader of the Seminoles and that the first conflict of the war occurred just outside of Holata’s abandoned camp. As Knetsch et. al, point out, “Most whites assumed that because the attack took place near ‘Billy Bowlegs’s Camp’ that Holata must have led the attack, but it may be an erroneous assumption. Seminole bands had more than one camp, this one was deserted, and there is no record that Holata led the attack or was even in the immediate area.”[40]

In many ways, the name of the Billy Bowlegs War does not accurately represent the course of actions that resulted in the outbreak of hostilities. For over a decade, Holata Micco worked and sacrificed to maintain peace between his small group of Seminoles and the vast power of the United States. He curtailed his warriors’ freedom to keep them within an assigned territory. He surrendered, and even executed, his own people who were guilty of crimes against white settlers in the region. He appealed to the highest power of the United States personally, seeking justice and recognition of the rights of his group. And when all temptations were given him to betray his people, Holata held fast to the needs of his tribe. Even when the war drums were sounding in everyone else’s ears, Holata retreated his band further away from the conflict, hoping to wait out the true aggressors in inhospitable terrain. The conflict that Holata Micco’s people finally enacted was not the product of aggression, but reaction. Fighting back was the Seminole’s last resort in an attempt to thwart an invading force determined to remove them from their homes. Holata Micco had been a peacemaker for his people. He had been determined to maintain peaceful relations between the Seminole and the United States and it was the U.S. that betrayed that effort. The United States was the aggressor of the Billy Bowlegs War, yet, in the end, it was Holata Micco who sacrificed his name and reputation to the conflict.


[1] Andrew Jackson, Andrew Jackson to John Pitchlynn, August 5, 1830 (Letter: Library of Congress, Andrew Jackson papers, 1775-1874).
[2] “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians, 1823” in Indian Treaties, 1778 – 1883, ed. Charles Joseph Kappler (New York: Interland Publishers, 1972), 204.
[3] Kenneth Porter, “Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) in the Seminole Wars (Part 1),” Florida Historical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1967): 220 – 221.
[4] Weekly Globe (Washington, D.C.), April 9, 1842, 25.
[5] “Minutes of a Talk Held at Fort Brooke, July 22, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 517.
[6] “Order No. 27, August 11, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 519.
[7] “William J. Worth to the Adjutant General, June 19, 1843” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 666.
[8] John Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1847), 507.
[9] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), August 8, 1843, 3.
[10] Sprague, Florida War, 509 – 510.
[11] James W. Covington, ed., “The Florida Seminoles in 1847,” Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 24, no. 1 (1964): 51.
[12] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56.
[13] Ibid., 51.
[14] Ibid.
[15] James W. Covington, “Billy Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and the Crisis of 1849,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1990): 301.
[16] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56 – 57.
[17] Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), August 7, 1849, 2.
[18] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 31st Cong., 1st sess., (1849), “Message from the President of the United States,” 125.
[19] Joe Knetsch, John Missall, Mary Lou Missall, History of the Third Seminole War 1849 – 1858 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018), 34.
[20] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 39.
[21] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 134.
[22] Covington, “Crisis”, 307.
[23] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 44.
[24] Florida Republican (Jacksonville, FL), August 30, 1849, 1.
[25]Canter Brown, Jr., Florida’s Peace River Frontier (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991), 90.
[26] Covington, “Seminoles”, 57.
[27] The Republic (Washington, D.C.), September 17, 1852, 3.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), September 18, 1852, 3.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] United States House of Representatives, Executive Document No. 19, 32nd Cong., 2nd sess., (1853), “Message from the President of the United States,” 5 – 6.
[35] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 67.
[36] Lynda L Crist, ed., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 5, 1853 – 1855 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 66.
[37] Benson J. Lossing, Memoir of Lieut.-Col. John T. Greble of the United States Army (Philadelphia: G. T. Stockdale, 1870), 38 – 39.
[38] Alexander S. Webb, “Campaigning in Florida in 1855” Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States 45, no. 160 (1909): 423.
[39] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 82.
[40] Ibid., 100.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” Cipher

From the prosecution’s point of view, the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators had essentially two main goals. The first goal was to prove the guilt of the 7 men and 1 woman put on trial for complicity in the death of the President. The second goal of the trial was to put forth evidence to show that the assassination was sanctioned and supported by the leaders of the Confederate States of America. Establishing the Confederacy’s involvement proved a far harder task than the trying of the conspirators. In the end, the prosecution was hampered by unreliable and perjured testimony ultimately leaving the question of Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death to be a much debated topic even 150 years later.

The prosecution’s method of connecting the Confederacy to Lincoln’s assassination can be best described as “quantity over quality”. They brought out a multitude of witnesses and evidence to make damning claims about John Wilkes Booth’s Confederate involvement but very little of it holds up under scrutiny. For example, the very first witness called the stand was a former Confederate soldier named Henry Von Steinaecker. He testified about having met John Wilkes Booth in Virginia in 1863 and that, at that time, Booth was in communication with high ranking Confederate officials plotting the assassination of Lincoln. As the first witness on the first day of the trial, the prosecution was setting the tone for the entire proceeding. At the time of Steinaecker’s testimony, not all of the conspirators had defense attorneys and the lawyers that were present did not believe such testimony had much to do with their clients. There was no cross examination done on Steinaecker.

When, later in the trial, the defense tried to recall Steinaecker, they were told by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt that Steinaecker could not be located. In the end the defense called Steinaecker’s superiors in the Confederacy and both men testified that very little of what Steinaecker had testified to was true. Steinaecker had actually been a deserter from both the Union and Confederate armies and was serving a three year prison sentence in Fort Delaware when Lincoln was assassinated. Despite having written letters to both Lincoln and the Judge Advocate General asking to be released and offering his services, it was only after Lincoln’s death that Steinaecker wrote to the Judge Advocate General with his vital information about Booth and Confederate officials. After testifying Steinaecker was released from prison and disappeared. Steinaecker was the first of many prosecution witnesses who made grandiose claims about John Wilkes Booth and the Confederacy only to have his testimony questioned or disproven later.

In addition to using unreliable witnesses, the prosecution also presented material evidence in hopes of proving Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood pieces of material evidence the prosecution brought forth to tie Booth to the Confederacy was the assassin’s so-called “Confederate” cipher.

After the assassination of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth’s rented room at the National Hotel was searched. Among his papers, most of which were mundane letters and memorandum, was this cipher which was written in Booth’s own hand. At the trial of the conspirators, this cipher was entered into evidence as Exhibit 7 and was portrayed as a physical link between John Wilkes Booth and the Confederate secret service. In addition to this paper cipher, the prosecution also entered into evidence a large cipher cylinder seized from the office of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond.

Thomas Eckert, the assistant Secretary of War under Edwin Stanton, was called to testify about these two ciphers. He stated that both the paper cipher found in Booth’s belongings and the cylinder found in Richmond were the same. Eckert then presented copies of Confederate letters that the War Department had intercepted during the war that had been written using the same cipher.

Taken at face value, this cipher found among John Wilkes Booth’s papers seems like a very damning piece of evidence. Eckert, the Union’s chief codemaker, testified that Booth’s cipher was the very same as the one used by the Confederacy, which seems to definitely prove that John Wilkes Booth must have had a strong connection to the Confederate States. In the years since the trial, John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” cipher has been used by different authors in their arguments that the Confederacy sanctioned Lincoln’s murder.

However, just like the testimony of Henry Von Steinaecker, the conclusiveness of Booth’s cipher connecting him to the Confederacy doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.

First off, the handwritten, alphabetic note found in John Wilkes Booth’s room is called a Vigenère table. The table is a tool used in order to encrypt and decrypt a message using a Vigenère cipher. It is true that the Confederacy did use a Vigenère cipher to encrypt secret messages during the war and that, fundamentally, Booth’s table is the same as the cylinder found in Richmond. But before making any conclusions it is important to understand how a Vigenère cipher works.

If you were to receive an encrypted note that had been written with a Vigenère cipher, you would be faced with something like this:

ISATFIOJXSFOFGLEOQBWISDUBUXCAUXWZDLTPCHAIKOLUPXOFLTPCGK

To anyone who intercepted your note, this message would appear to be lines of complete gibberish. Even if the person intercepting your note realized it was written in a code of some kind, they would almost certainly fail at decoding it.

In order to decrypt the note a person needs two things. The first thing would be a Vigenère table, much like the one found in Booth’s room. A Vigenère table is little more than the alphabet, written on 26 lines, with each new line being offset by one letter from the previous line. The Vigenère table is a tool used to help decrypt the message. The second requirement for decrypting a Vigenère cipher is knowing the keyword or phrase that was used to create the message. Let’s look at an example of how a message written in a Vigenère cipher could be decrypted using a table and keyword.

Let’s say that I wrote this coded message to you:

O W A V U Z G Z N B T R D G S M N V F P N M M

In order to decrypt this message you would already need to be aware of the keyword or phrase that was used in making it. This was generally a word or phrase that had been agreed upon ahead of time or had been sent separately. It wouldn’t be very secure for the writer of the message to include the keyword with the encrypted message. For this message let’s say that our previously agreed upon keyword is: LINCOLN

Your first step towards decrypting this message would be to write the keyword LINCOLN, one letter at a time, above the ciphered text. When done, it would look like this:

Notice that you might run out of message before the whole keyword is completely used again, this is not a problem.

Each letter of the encrypted message now has two corresponding letters: the keyword letter and the original letter. Now all you need in order to decipher the message is your Vigenère table. Here is a more legible version of a Vigenère table, identical to the one Booth wrote.

For deciphering, you first use the keyword letter to find the right column on your Vigenère table. Then you move down the column until you find the corresponding message letter. This will give you the correct row. You move across that row to its beginning to find the first letter of the decrypted message.

So, in the example above, you would find the column that starts with L since our keyword, LINCOLN, starts with L. Then you move down the L column until you get to the letter O, which is the first letter in the message. Once you find O in the L column, you follow that row back to the beginning which shows you that it is in the D row. This tells you that the first letter in our message should be D.

To find the second letter in our message you would need to start in the I column since the second letter in LINCOLN is I. Then you would travel down the I column until you reach W, the letter in the original message. From there you follow the row back and discover the second letter in our message should be O.

This process of finding the keyword letter column, locating the encrypted letter in the column, then tracing the row back to learn the correct decrypted letter, is repeated for the remaining characters in the message. If you want to, grab a piece of paper and try to decipher the rest of the message yourself. When you’re ready to check your work, highlight the black text box below to reveal the decrypted message or scroll down to the first comment of this post.

DONT GO TO FORDS THEATRE ABE

Creating a message using a Vigenère cipher is very much the same as decrypting one. First you would write out the text you want to encrypt and place the keyword or phrase above it, letter by letter. Then, using the Vigenère table, you would located the correct column based on the keyword letter and the correct row based on the message letter. Where the corresponding column and row intersect gives you the encrypted letter for your coded message.

As far as creating secret messages go, a Vigenère cipher is a strong method of encoding as it really requires knowledge of the keyword in order to decode the message. In our example only the word LINCOLN as the keyword would result in the correct decryption. Deciphering a message without the keyword is technically possible, but very difficult to do. Ciphers with shorter keywords are more prone to codebreaking techniques that look for patterns and use math. But longer keywords or phrases strengthen the already strong encryption. The Confederacy utilized several key phrases for their Vigenère ciphers including OUR DESTINY IS ONE and COMPLETE VICTORY. COME RETRIBUTION was the key phrase used in Confederate ciphers in the final months of the war. It is important to point out that Vigenère ciphers were not a Confederate invention. This method of cryptography dates back to the 1500s and had long been prized as a code immune to being broken. This is why the Confederates used Vigenère ciphers in their secretive correspondences.

Going back to John Wilkes Booth, we find that it is accurate to say that the Vigenère table found among Booth’s papers matches the Vigenère cylinder found in Richmond. However the reason they are the same is because both the table and the cylinder utilize the same method of encryption. While every Vigenère cipher uses the Vigenère table to encrypt and decrypt a message, it is nothing more than a translation table. You can use the Vigenère table to encrypt a message using an infinite number of keywords. Claiming that Booth’s possession of a Vigenère table is iron clad evidence of his complicity with the Confederacy is akin to claiming that a specified individual is in cahoots with members of the Mafia because they both have the same numbers to choose from when they enter their PIN numbers at the ATM. They are using the same tool to encrypt information, but that alone does not prove anything.

“Still,” you might be thinking to yourself, “how does John Wilkes Booth even have knowledge of this secret agent stuff if he’s not working with Confederacy?” As pointed out above, the Confederacy did not invent the Vigenère cipher. Nor was knowledge of this cipher in any way a state secret. In fact, as the Civil War went on, the general public became more and more interested in the topic of codes and cryptography. In the same way that schoolchildren enjoy writing secret messages to their friends, writing in code became a fun activity with the Vigenère cipher described openly in this regard. Below is the beginning of 1864 article from the Newark Daily Advertiser explaining the exact process of creating a table and how to go about composing a message using the Vigenère cipher. Click the sample below for the full article.

As this article demonstrates, the Vigenère cipher was not an obscure method of cryptography known only to the Confederacy. It was an old but still relatively well-known method of composing encrypted messages.

We don’t know how John Wilkes Booth learned about the Vigenère cipher but it is clear that it appealed to his delusions of grandeur. After learning the Vigenère cipher, Booth reacted not like a trusted Confederate agent, but like an excited schoolboy. In Asia Booth’s book about her brother, she described how, in November of 1864, John Wilkes wanted to teach her the cipher but she did not like the propriety of it:

“He sat late with me on one of these nights – the last – and said to me, ‘Let me show you the cipher.’

When I understood what he meant, I said, ‘No, I shall not consent to any knowledge of that kind.’

But he added, ‘I might possibly need to communicate with you about my money affairs, and there is no need to let everyone know what I am worth.'”

Asia still did not consent to learning the cipher and the subject was dropped. This interchange, in which Booth is trying to brag to his sister about something that appears clandestine, seems to fit the self-aggrandizing that John Wilkes Booth demonstrated. It seems perfectly appropriate to his character for him to have learned something in the realm of cryptography in order to brag about it and show it off later. How could Booth have been trusted by Confederate officials with genuine Confederate keywords and phrases if he was so willing to teach the process to his own sister? In my opinion, Booth’s Vigenère table was just another prop he used to help him play the part of a secret agent because he had no such role in real life.

There is no evidence that John Wilkes Booth used his Vigenère table to encrypt or decrypt messages from the Confederacy or its leaders. There is no evidence that Booth was ever in possession of official Confederate keywords or phrases.  The government did not find anything in Booth’s papers that was written in any code that would have used the Vigenère table. Nor have any historians, to my knowledge, ever found anything in the papers of the Confederacy that could be considered an encrypted message from Booth.

Like a lot of the evidence dealing with the Confederacy at the trial of the conspirators, John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” cipher is far less definitive than what was testified to. Rather than proving a direct, physical link between Booth and high ranking Confederate officials in Richmond, Booth’s Vigenère table only proves that the assassin at one point dabbled in a fairly common method of encryption. The prosecution failed to address that Booth did not possess any official Confederate keywords or messages and sought, instead, to incriminate the Confederacy by pointing out that Booth had the same ability to write in cipher as they did. However, possessing the same tool does not prove conspiracy. Unlike the prosecutors of the trial of the conspirators, we have the benefit of time and objectivity to thoroughly investigate pieces of evidence. John Wilkes Booth’s Vigenère table is an interesting document, but it is conclusive of nothing other than the assassin’s own enigmatic nature.


If, like BOOTH, you want to play around a bit more with a Vigenère cipher, feel free to decrypt the first example of ciphered text that I included in this post. The keyword for it isn’t hard to find.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

In the Words of Asia Booth

Asia Booth Clarke was the chronicler of the Booth family. In a few hours from this posting, Kate will be up at at Tudor Hall to give her first of two talks this year about Asia and her writings. The basis of Kate’s speech is the collection of letters Asia wrote to her life long pen pal Mary Jane “Jean” Anderson.

As Kate put the final flourishes on her speech, I decided to put together this animated .gif showing some of Asia’s words from her letters to Jean. Asia’s original letters to Jean are housed in the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

If you are not able to make it to Kate’s speech this time around, she will be at Tudor Hall to give it again on October 8, 2017.

Lastly, if you want to learn a little more about Jean Anderson, here is a short and unfortunately shaky video I recorded at her grave in Green Mount Cemetery:

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

John Wilkes Booth’s Crimson Claw!

Our friend and fellow Lincoln assassination researcher, Scott Schroeder, was a recent guest on a podcast that discusses comic books of the horror genre. The subject of Scott’s appearance on Midnight The Podcasting Hour stems from his own interest in depictions of Abraham Lincoln and his assassination in comic books. On the podcast, Scott shared one of the many unique stories he had found that centers around Lincoln and his assassination. Specifically, Scott highlighted a story from a 1972 issue of the analogy Ghosts entitled The Crimson Claw!

the-crimson-claw-page-1 the-crimson-claw-page-2 the-crimson-claw-page-3 the-crimson-claw-page-4

In the podcast, Scott leads a fascinating discussion with the host regarding the almost unbelievable facts behind this work of artistic fiction. The entire podcast is 51 minutes long but Scott doesn’t really start in until the 5:30 mark and his segment ends at 39:30. You can listen to the podcast by clicking here to stream it, or by clicking here to download it.

Scott Schroeder will be speaking more on the topic of the Lincoln assassination in comic books at this year’s annual Surratt Society Conference on April 1, 2017. The conference is put on by the Surratt House Museum and takes place at the Colony South Hotel and Conference Center in Clinton, Maryland. Scott’s speech topic perfectly fits my description of the event as Boothie Comic-Con. The conference is a wonderful way to learn more about the Lincoln assassination and meet others who share an interest in the history. Please visit the Surratt House Museum website for information on how to register. Both Kate and I will be joining Scott as presenters at this year’s conference, so I hope you’ll be able join us.

I want to thank Scott for his kind references to BoothieBarn and Roger Norton’s Lincoln Discussion Symposium during the podcast.

To tide you all over until Scott’s speech in April, here is a far inferior post I put up a few years ago about some of the other depictions of The Lincoln Assassination in Comic Books.

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

“To Whom it May Concern”

On this date in 1865, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a telling letter written by John Wilkes Booth, the recent assassin of President Lincoln.

To Whom is Published

The letter is known to readers of the Lincoln assassination story as John Wilkes Booth’s, “To Whom it May Concern” letter. Its title is derived from the letter’s greeting which was appropriated by Booth from a letter written by Lincoln in July of 1864. At that time, a small delegation of “peace emissaries” representing the Confederacy had approached the Union government under the guise of facilitating a cessation of hostilities and possible re-unification of the nation under the condition that they be allowed to continue the practice of slavery. It was a difficult period in the war and Lincoln himself knew his chance of winning re-election later that year was slim. Knowing that Lincoln would never agree to their terms, the so-called “Niagara Falls peace conference” was a piece of propaganda for the Confederacy, which was more aimed to further diminish Lincoln’s approval and chance of re-election. Lincoln was likely well aware of conference’s true purpose and wrote to the “peace emissaries” that any discussion of peace must include the “abandonment of slavery”.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Knowing that his position would be viewed and lamented as stubbornness by the Confederacy and by the Democrats running against him, Lincoln decided to add further insult to injury by refusing to address the emissaries by name. Instead, Lincoln wrote his note “To Whom it May Concern,” diminishing the importance and respectability of the so-called “peace emissaries.” John Wilkes Booth subsequently used this somewhat insulting address in his own explanatory letter that follows.

The letter was published due to the efforts of Booth’s brother-in-law, John Sleeper Clarke. Following the assassination of Lincoln, Clarke and his wife, Asia Booth, recalled that John Wilkes had left a package of papers in the safe of their home in Philadelphia. Upon opening the package they found this letter, another addressed to his mother, Mary Ann Booth, and some oil stocks. As more and more Booths arrived at the Clarkes’ home (Mary Ann came from New York very soon after hearing the tragic news in order to comfort Asia, who was pregnant, and Junius Jr. arrived from an acting engagement in Cincinnati to be with the family), John Sleeper thought that the letters would be of help in proving the family’s innocence as to John’s plan. Clarke had copies made of both the To Whom it May Concern letter and the one addressed to Mrs. Booth. Then, accompanied by a member of the Philadelphia press corps, Clarke went to the office of William Millward, the Provost Marshal of Philadelphia.

John Sleeper Clarke

John Sleeper Clarke

Clarke asked the Marshal for permission to publish the letters and the circumstances surrounding their discovery in order to demonstrate that the family had no foreknowledge of John Wilkes’ crime. Millward approved the publication of the To Whom it May Concern letter for the next day but not the letter that John Wilkes wrote to his mother. Millward did not want anything published that might garner sympathy for the assassin. This was a let down to Clarke, as Booth’s letter to his mother more effectively demonstrated how completely unaware the family was as to John Wilkes’ intentions. While the To Whom it May Concern letter was published, it did not assuage the suspicion on the Booth family. Shortly after the letter was published, both John Sleeper Clarke and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. were arrested and taken down to Washington, D.C. The youngest Booth, Joseph, would also be arrested leaving Edwin as the only male Booth not to be locked up. This series of events greatly bothered Clarke, who would complain about his improper treatment and the favored treatment of Edwin for the rest of his days. The assassination and the events that followed it marked the beginning of John Sleeper Clarke rejecting all things Booth, including his wife, Asia, whom he would grow to loathe.

Though not dated besides the year, Booth’s letter was likely written just following Lincoln’s miraculous re-election in November of 1864. The letter lays out John Wilkes Booth’s political and ideological beliefs and provides his reasons for his plan to abduct President Lincoln. Booth had started, sort of halfheartedly at first, to assemble a crew of conspirators in the summer of 1864 with the idea of abducting the President and taking him South. In this manner, Booth hoped to use Lincoln as a hostage to reinstate the prisoner exchange program between the Union and the Confederacy. This idea took on an increased importance in Booth’s mind after Lincoln’s surprise re-election on November 8, 1864. Immediately following this date, John Wilkes Booth began acting more in earnest and less than a week after the election, he was in Southern Maryland scouting the area and looking for others who might help him in his plot.

John Wilkes Booth Gutman 27

John Wilkes Booth

This letter, therefore, was written right at the beginning of Booth’s plot to abduct the President. It contains perhaps the most honest look into the mind and thoughts of John Wilkes Booth. In less than six months after this letter was written, the same motivations that led Booth to consider abduction, led him to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

"To Whom It May Concern" 1864 RG 60 Department of Justice Segregated Documents from Attorney General Letters Received, 1809-1870 Box 4 ReDiscovery Identifier: 6542

My Dear Sir                                                                                                                  1864.

You may use this, as you think best. But as some, may wish to know the when, the who, and the why, and as I know not, how, to direct, I give it (in the words of your master)

“To whom it may concern”

Right, or wrong, God, judge me, not man. For be my motive good or bad, of one thing I am sure, the lasting condemnation of the North.

I love peace more than life. Have loved the Union beyond expression. For four years have I waited, hoped, and prayed, for the dark clouds to break, and for the restoration of our former sunshine. To wait longer, would be a crime. All hope for peace is dead. My prayers have proved as idle as my hopes. ‘God’s’ will be done: I go to see, and share the bitter end.

I have ever held the South were right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln four years ago, spoke plainly – war – war upon Southern rights and institutions, his election proved it. “Await an overt act.” Yes till you are bound and plundered. What folly. The South were wise. Who thinks of argument and patience when the finger of his enemy presses on the trigger. In a foreign war, I too could

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 1 NARA

say, “Country right or wrong”, but in a struggle such as ours (where the brother tries to pierce the brothers heart) for God’s sake choose the right. When a country such as ours like this, spurns justice from her side, she forfeits the allegiance of every honest freeman, and should leave him untrammeled by any fealty soever, to act, as his conscience may approve.

People of the North, to hate tyranny to love liberty and justice, to strike at wrong and oppression, was the teaching of our fathers. The study of our early history will not let me forget it. And may it never.

This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same stand-point, held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us,) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness heretofore our wealth and power, witness their elevation in happiness and enlightenment above their race, elsewhere. I have lived among it most of my life and have seen less harsh treatment from master to man, than I have beheld in the North from father to son. Yet Heaven

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 2 NARA

knows no one would be willing to do, more for the negro race than I. Could I but see a way to still better their condition. But Lincoln’s policy is only preparing the way, for their total annihilation. The South are not, nor have they been, fighting for the continuance of slavery, the first battle of Bull-run did away with that idea. Their causes since for war, have been as noble, and greater far than those that urged our fathers on. Even should we allow, they were wrong at the beginning of this contest, cruelty and injustice, have made the wrong become the right. And they stand now (before the wonder and admiration of the world,) as a noble band of patriotic heroes. Hereafter, reading of their deeds, Thermopylae will be forgotten.

When I aided in the capture and the g execution of John Brown, (who was a murderer on our Western Border, and who was fairly tried and convicted, – before an impartial judge & jury – of treason, – and who by the way has since been made a God – I was proud of my little share in the transaction, for I deemed it my duty and that I was helping our common country to perform an act of justice. But what was a crime in poor John Brown, is now considered (by themselves) as the greatest and only virtue, of the whole

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 3 NARA

Republican party. Strange transmigration. Vice to become a virtue. Simply because more indulge in it. I thought then, as now, that the abolitionists, were the only traitors in the land, and that the entire party deserved the fate of poor old Brown. Not because they wish to abolish slavery, but on account of the means they have ever used endeavored to use, to effect that abolition. If Brown were living, I doubt if he himself would set slavery, against the Union. Most, in or many, in the North do, And openly curse the Union, if the South are to return and retain a single right guaranteed them by every tie which we once revered as sacred. The south can make no choice. It is either extermination, or slavery for themselves, (worse than death) to draw from. I would know my choice.

I have, also, studied hard to discover upon what grounds, the rights of a state to secede have been denied, when our very name (United States) and the Declaration of Independence, both provide for secession. But there is no time for words. I write in haste. I know how foolish I shall be deemed, for undertaking such a step, as this, where on the one side, I have many friends, and everything to make me happy. Where my profession alone has gained me an income of more than twenty thousand dollars a year. And where my great personal ambition in my profession has such a great field for labor. On the other hand- the south have

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 4 NARA

never bestowed upon me one kind word. A place now, where I have no friends, except beneath the sod. A place where I must become either become a private soldier, or a beggar. To give up all of the former for the latter, besides my mother and sisters whom I love so dearly, (although they so widely differ with me in opinion) seems insane. But God is my judge. I love justice, more than I do a country, that disowns it. More than fame and wealth. More – (Heaven pardon me if wrong) more than a happy home. I have never been upon a battlefield, but O my countrymen, could you all but see the reality or effects of this horrid war, as I have seen them (in every State, save Virginia) I know you would think like me. And would pray the Almighty to create in the Northern mind a sense of right and justice, (even should it possess no seasoning of mercy), and that he would dry up this sea of blood between us, – which is daily growing wider.

Alas, poor country, is, she to meet her threatened doom. Four years ago I would have given a thousand lives to see her remain, (as I had always known her) powerful and unbroken. And even now I would hold my life as naught, to see her what she was. O my friends if the fearful scenes of the past four years had never been enacted, or if what had been, had been but a frightful dream, from which we could now awake, with what overflowing hearts could we bless our God and pray for his continued favor. How I have loved the old flag can never, now, be known. A few years since and

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 5 NARA

the entire world could boast of none so pure and spotless. But I have of late been seeing and hearing of the bloody deeds of which she has been made, the emblem, and would shudder to think how changed she had grown. O How I have longed to see her break from the mist of blood and death that now circles round her folds, spoiling her beauty and tarnishing her honor. But no, day by day has she been draged deeper and deeper into cruelty and oppression, till now (in my eyes) her once bright-red stripes look like bloody gashes on the face of Heaven. I look now upon my early admiration of her glories as a dream. My love, (as things stand to day,) is for the South alone. Nor, do I deem it a dishonor, in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man, to whom she owes so much of misery. If success attends me, I go penniless to her side. They say she has found that “last ditch” which the North have so long derided, and been endeavoring to force her in, forgetting they are our brothers, and that its impolitic to goad an enemy to madness. Should I reach her in safety and find it true, I will proudly beg permission to triumph or die in that same “ditch” by her side.

A Confederate, at present doing duty upon his own responsibility

J WilkesBooth

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 6 NARA

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

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

Alice Gray: Successful Partnerships

This is the second installment in a series about actress, Alice Gray. Gray’s photograph was one of the five discovered upon the body of John Wilkes Booth when he was cornered and killed on April 26, 1865. Gray’s theatrical career has largely been forgotten with very little biographical material readily available about her. The following post was developed by consulting a variety of sources including digitized newspapers such as the Buffalo Courier, Baltimore Sun, New York Clipper and D.C.’s National Intelligencer. In all, it took several days’ worth of work to find and organize the material. This post is the second in a series about Alice Grey’s life, career, and connection to the Booth family. To read Part One entitled, Alice Gray: An Actress is Born, please click HERE.

Alice Gray

Part Two: Successful Partnerships

Research completed thus far has yet to solve the mystery of how Alice Gray became acquainted with theater owner John T. Ford. Alice had met many prominent actors and actresses during her run at the Metropolitan, Charleston, and Mobile Theatres. During that time she had acted side by side to both Edwin Booth and H. B. Phillips, two men who were very close to John T. Ford. Perhaps one of them told Ford about Gray’s acting abilities and encouraged him to seek her out. Or perhaps Gray reached out to Ford on her own and inquired about working for him. Regardless of how it happened, when the 1860-1861 theatrical season began, Alice Gray found herself employed by John T. Ford to be the leading stock actress at his Holliday Street Theatre.

In the year prior, John T. Ford had lavishly renovated the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. The Holliday Street Theatre was the only theater Ford owned outright at this time, but he had prior experience leasing and managing other theaters. This was Gray’s first time in Baltimore but the public there quickly took a liking to her. The August 29th, the Baltimore Sun newspaper reported that, “Miss Gray sustained the part of Mrs. Haller last night with quite unexpected grace, talent and effect and received in this case no unmeaning tribute of a call before the curtain to receive the congratulations of the audience. She is a brilliant accession.”

While in Baltimore in the fall of 1860, Alice Gray became acquainted with another member of the Booth family, John Sleeper Clarke. Clarke had known the Booth family from childhood when he played with young Edwin and John Wilkes in Baltimore. Clarke had been a member of Edwin’s kiddie acting troupe that put on plays for the neighbor kids. Clarke followed the Booths into the acting profession but became a comedian rather than a tragedian. In 1859, John Sleeper Clarke married Asia Booth, the youngest Booth daughter. Clarke was a popular comedian for John T. Ford and would make frequent appearances in his theaters. These first performances with Clarke in September of 1860 would be the first of many for Gray.

The respect and approval Gray received from Baltimore audiences was no doubt gratifying to Gray, but once again she was called back to New York City’s stages by her friend, Edward Eddy. Eddy was performing an engagement at the New Bowery Theatre and must have requested Alice Gray by name to be his leading lady. Ford gave Gray permission to leave the Holliday Street Theatre to join Eddy for his engagement in New York.

Engraving of Edward Eddy in the role of Posthumus (click to see the full image)

Engraving of Edward Eddy in the role of Posthumus (click to see the full image)

1860 With Eddy in NY Alice Gray

Alice Gray eventually ended her engagement with Eddy early. Whether this was contracted by Ford when he allowed her to leave or whether she returned back to the Holliday Street Theatre before the end of Eddy’s New York engagement on her own is unknown. Regardless, the decision to depart New York early to return to Baltimore was well founded. That eminent star of the stage, Edwin Booth, was starting an engagement at the Holliday Street Theatre. It had been almost three years since Booth and Gray had performed together back in Buffalo and the young actor’s fame had only increased since then. Booth in Baltimore was more of a draw than Eddy in New York and so Gray took her place alongside him.

Edwin Booth circa 1860

1860 Performing with Edwin Alice Gray

Gray played Juliet to Edwin’s Romeo, Katherina to Edwin’s Petruchio and Desdemona to Edwin’s Othello. Ford no doubt witnessed these performances and felt contented that he had chosen his leading stock actress wisely. By the end of October of 1860, Edwin departed for his next engagement in Philadelphia. Gray continued to act at the Holliday Street Theatre for the remainder of the 1860-1861 season, regularly receiving advertised benefits.

It was while Gray was in Baltimore that the Civil War began. The conflict commenced on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces laid siege upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The simmering cauldron of the secession crisis had finally boiled over due to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Working and residing in Baltimore, Alice Gray would have been acutely aware of the anti-Lincoln and anti-war feeling that permeated the city. On April 19, 1861, a deadly riot occurred in Baltimore, causing the first hostile deaths in the Civil War. The Sixth Massachusetts Militia was passing through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C. when they found themselves surrounded by anti-war and pro-Confederacy sympathizers who called themselves the National Volunteers. After some tense moments, members of the National Volunteers attacked some of the members of the Militia with rocks, bricks, and pistols. In response, the Militia fired at the mob. A melee broke out and ended only after the Sixth Massachusetts Militia left behind most of their supplies and made it to Camden Station. In the end, four soldiers with the Militia and 12 civilians with the mob were killed.

Baltimore Riot 1861 Harper's

The pro-Southern residents of Baltimore used this event as propaganda, comparing it to the 1770 Boston Massacre that helped spur the American Revolutionary War. However, the pro-Northern public decried the violence and bloodshed caused by the rebels in Baltimore and demanded swift action against them. The federal government responded quickly and showed Baltimore and the rest of Maryland in no uncertain terms that it would not be allowed to foment insurrection like this again. In May of 1861, General Benjamin Butler entered Baltimore with about 1,000 soldiers, occupied the city and declared martial law.

All of these events were likely troubling to Alice Gray. Gray had lived most of her life in western New York, which was a largely anti-slavery region. Her home of Buffalo, New York was filled with safe houses for the Underground Railroad and was a common meeting place for abolitionist societies. It is unlikely that Gray shared the same pro-slavery sympathies as many of those she was surrounded by in Baltimore. John T. Ford was largely anti-Lincoln, though he would become more pragmatic as the war continued. In March of 1861 however, Ford seized upon the fact that Lincoln had to slip through Baltimore incognito on his way to his own inauguration for fear of physical harm. He included the scene in a patriotic piece called “Uncle Sam’s Magic Lantern” in which the audience was presented with several scenes of America’s gloried past, present, and future. “The Flight of Abraham” was included as a scene along with “Our National Troubles,” demonstrating Ford’s pro-Confederate sympathies. Alice Gray no doubt played her assigned role in these “patriotic scenes.”

It is perhaps for these reasons that, when the 1861-1862 season commenced, Alice Gray did not stay at the Holliday Street Theatre with John Ford. Instead she made her way to Philadelphia where she was employed at the Walnut Street Theatre. The 1861-1862 theatrical season was a lean one for the entertainment industry. Many of the big British stars decided against visiting the United States with the Civil War raging. Even some American actors, like Edwin Booth, left the country for European tours of their own during this year. Audiences were smaller as the news from the war occupied everyone’s thoughts. At the Walnut Street Theatre, Alice Gray once again performed with John Sleeper Clarke when the comedian was engaged there for three weeks straight. She received little press during her time at the Walnut Street Theatre. One quick mention described her as a “handsome young actress, who evidently has not very much stage experience.” Such a review must have hurt the 26 year old actress who had been acting on the stage for almost 10 years at that point. When Gray’s season with the Walnut Street Theatre ended she decided to try her luck somewhere else.

It was during Gray’s time in Philadelphia that John Ford had decided to invest in a new theater. Ford may have disliked Lincoln and the war but he was an astute business man. Washington, D.C. was a growing city during the war with thousands of soldiers and private citizens coming to the nation’s capital. Ford believed he could succeed in establishing a new theater in this growing metropolis. In December of 1861, Ford signed a five year lease on the First Baptist Church of Washington. The parishioners of the First Baptist Church had merged their congregation with another church and were no longer using the edifice on Tenth Street. The church already had a raised platform on which the pulpit and choir would be situated and so Ford realized that the building could be remodeled fairly inexpensively to serve as a theater. At first Ford rented the church to a minstrel group, but then, in February of 1862, he began a $10,000 renovation on the building. The building reopened on March 19, 1862 under the name “Ford’s Atheneum.” Ford’s renovations had been done quickly so as to preempt the reopening of another of Washington’s theater’s, Leonard Grover’s New National Theater, which completed its renovations on April 21st.

Ford's Atheneum 1862

Ford’s Atheneum proved a considerable success from the start. With his connections, Ford was able to attract first rate stars despite the war. The stationed soldiers and citizens of Washington proved devout theater goers. Even President and Mrs. Lincoln attended an operatic performance at Ford’s on May 28, 1862.

When the 1862-1863 theatrical season opened, Ford renamed the building “Ford’s New Theatre” and looked forward to another prosperous year. The theater opened with an engagement by John Sleeper Clarke and it’s possible that Ford missed his former leading actress. When Gray had departed for Philadelphia, Ford had replaced her at the Holliday Street Theatre with actress Annie Graham. Graham was brought down to Ford’s New Theatre for a few performances with John Sleeper Clarke, but it doesn’t seem like they had the same chemistry (or marketability) as Clarke and Gray once had. It appears that Ford reached out to Gray with an offer to be his leading stock actress again. Perhaps this time he promised she would act in his new D.C. theater and therefore not have to relive the unpleasant scenes in Baltimore.

Gray had spent the summer and fall months of 1862 up in Montreal, Canada. The Theatre Royal was famous for “importing” American talent during the summer months. This was also a wise way for American performers to keep a steady paycheck between seasons. Alice Gray played to good crowds but as fall gave way to winter, an engagement down in D.C. likely looked more hospitable to her.

Whether John T. Ford originally intended for Gray to perform at his new D.C. theater or whether he wanted her back at his Baltimore establishment we may never know for sure because on the evening of December 30, 1862, cruel fate made the decision for him. Under the stage of Ford’s New Theatre in D.C. a fire was started by a faulty gas meter. While there was no loss of life from the severe blaze that followed, the fire completely consumed the inside of the theater. Ford lost over $20,000 in the inferno but the outside walls of the theater survived. While other theater owners might have given up and left the capital, Ford decided to rebuild his theater and make it bigger and more grand than had ever been seen in D.C. before. Ford would spend the next eight months raising money for and constructed his new theater. In the mean time, at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore, the show must go on.

Alice Gray made her return to the Holliday Street Theatre in January of 1863 with great fanfare in the press:
1863 Return to Baltimore 1 Alice Gray 1863 Return to Baltimore 2 Alice Gray 1863 Return to Baltimore 3 Alice Gray

Gray acted alongside John Sleeper Clarke again, with Ford highly advertising their partnership. In this way, Gray replaced her own replacement, Annie Graham, who was assigned smaller female roles when Gray came back. Gray and Clarke performed together at the Holliday Street Theatre throughout Clarke’s engagement which ended on February 14th. Clarke himself must have realized that he and Gray had good chemistry together. They had performed several long engagements with each other since 1860 and the results had been paying off in the box office. When Clarke went off to his next engagement in nearby D.C., he brought Alice Gray with him.

Clarke was scheduled to make his debut at the Washington Theatre on February 23, 1863. The Washington Theatre was a slightly rundown edifice that only had intermittent productions when there was a lessee. The building lacked a full time manager/owner and was instead leased out to different individuals who staged their own shows at their own expense. It was essentially a rental theater, and hardly a five star establishment. However, John T. Ford had proven with his Atheneum that theaters were a sound business in war-time Washington. With that establishment burnt, the only other theaters of note were Grover’s New National Theater, the Washington Theatre, and Grover’s Canterbury Hall – a far seedier establishment which only catered to men. Until Ford completed his construction on his new theater, the only real places to act in Washington were the New National Theater or the Washington Theatre.

On the Saturday before Clarke’s engagement began, the managers of the Washington Theatre gave Alice Gray a headlining performance of her own.

1863 Solo in Washington Alice Gray

This was Alice’s first appearance in D.C. and the papers did a nice job of advertising it:
1863 First time in Washington

Aside from her summer engagements in Cleveland and Montreal, this was Alice Gray’s first time being the “sole attraction” for a performance. For once she was not playing second fiddle to a visiting star or receiving the assistance of other stars for her benefit. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Richard III, “She was herself alone.” Gray likely reveled this chance, even if it was only for one night. She had a good reputation in nearby Baltimore and a good solo performance here would help her establish herself as a star quality actor to the Washington public. The next day, Gray’s performance was described as a “decided sensation” but was sadly overshadowed by her anticipated debut with Clarke, who took much of the press. Clarke was scheduled to make his debut alongside Gray in Our American Cousin on February 23rd. However, when the curtain rose, Clarke was markedly absent. An advertisement in the next day’s newspaper announced that Gray would appear alongside a different comedian, C. B. Bishop, with the following note from the management:

“The Managers regret exceedingly the disappointment to their patrons last evening in not being able to present the popular Comedian, Mr. J. S. CLARKE, in his celebrated characters, and beg to assure them that the severe domestic affliction which compelled his absence will only defer his first appearance for a night or two.”

In all, Clarke would be absent from the stage until Thursday, February 26th. The “severe domestic affliction” that prevented Clarke from performing during that time was a death in the family. Mary Devlin Booth, the wife of Edwin Booth, died on the morning of February 21st. Clarke and his wife Asia (who, coincidentally, had never cared for Mary Devlin) rushed to Edwin’s side at his time of need. They were also joined by John Wilkes Booth, who had left his upcoming engagement in Philadelphia to be with his brother. Clarke and the rest of the Booth’s attended Mary’s funeral and burial at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mary Devlin Booth, Edwin Booth's first wife

Mary Devlin Booth, wife of Edwin Booth

Alice Gray had continued to perform at the Washington Theatre without Clarke: “During Mr. Clarke’s temporary absence they have introduced a young and beautiful actress, Miss Alice Gray, who has made a decided sensation in every character she has appeared in.” When Clarke returned to town, he and Gray once again began their successful partnership. Clarke’s absence for a few days increased his appeal and so Clarke and Gray performed to full houses for the rest of his engagement. However, when Clarke left for his next engagement in Philadelphia in mid March, Gray did not join him. Instead, she returned to Ford’s Holliday Street Theatre to act alongside a new member of the Booth family. This young, handsome actor would make an indelible mark on Alice Gray and, in a couple years, would alter the course of American history.


This concludes part two of the series about Alice Gray’s life, career and connection to the Booth family. The third installment, “Alice Gray and John Wilkes Booth,” will be posted soon.

References:
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
Additional research graciously provided by Thomas Bogar
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George J. Olszewski
American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Dr. Daniel Watermeier
Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History by Arthur Bloom
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur Loux
Images of America: Ford’s Theatre by Brian Anderson for the Ford’s Theatre Society
Ford’s Theatre Society
Ancestry.com
Library of Congress
Newspaper extracts from: University of Illinois (free), FultonHistory.com (free), GenealogyBank.com (subscription)

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.