Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FOUR

TUESDAY, APRIL 4, 1865 

NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

As blood flows in Virginia, wine flows in Rhode Island, far removed from the horrors of the Civil War. It is here that John Wilkes Booth has traveled by train for a romantic getaway with his fiancée. Since the Revolutionary War, Newport has been a retreat for high society, known for yachting and mansions and gaiety.

John Wilkes Booth is one of eight children born to his flamboyant actor father, Junius Brutus Booth, a rogue if there ever was one. Booth’s father abandoned his first wife and two children in England and fled to America with an eighteen-year-old London girl, who became Booth’s mother. Booth was often lost in the confusion of the chaotic household. His father and brother eclipsed him as actors, and his upbringing was hectic, to say the least. Now anger has become a way of life for him. Throughout his journey to Rhode Island he has been barraged by news of the southern demise. Northern newspapers are reporting that Richmond has fallen and that Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his entire cabinet fled the city just hours before Union troops entered. In cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, people are dancing in the streets as the rebel collapse appears to be imminent. It is becoming clear to Booth that he is a man with a destiny—the only man in America who can end the North’s oppression. Something drastic must be done to preserve slavery, the southern way of life, and the Confederacy itself. If Robert E. Lee can’t get the job done, then Booth will have to do it for him.

Booth’s hatred for Lincoln, and his deep belief in the institution of slavery, coalesced into a silent rage after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was only in August 1864, when a bacterial infection known as erysipelas sidelined him from the stage, that Booth began using his downtime to recruit a gang that would help him kidnap Lincoln. First he contacted his old friends Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold. They met at Barnum’s City Hotel in Baltimore, and after several drinks Booth asked them if they would join his conspiracy. Both men agreed. From there, Booth began adding others, selecting them based on expertise with weapons, physical fitness, and knowledge of southern Maryland’s back roads and waterways.

In October, Booth traveled to Montreal, where he met with agents of Jefferson Davis’s. The Confederate president had set aside more than $1 million in gold to pay for acts of espionage and intrigue against the Union and housed a portion of the money in Canada. Booth’s meeting with Davis’s men not only provided funding for his conspiracy, it forged a direct bond between himself and the Confederacy. He returned with a check for $1,500, along with a letter of introduction that would allow him to meet the more prominent southern sympathizers in Maryland, such as Samuel Mudd and John Surratt, who would become key players in his evil plan. Without their help, Booth’s chances of successfully smuggling Lincoln out of Washington and into the Deep South would have been nonexistent.

After recovering from his illness, Booth immersed himself deeper into the Confederate movement, traveling with a new circle of friends that considered the kidnapping of Lincoln to be of vital national importance. He met with secret agents and sympathizers in taverns, churches, and hotels throughout the Northeast and down through Maryland, always expanding his web of contacts, making his plans more concise and his chances of success that much greater. What started as an almost abstract hatred of Lincoln has now transformed itself into the actor’s life’s work.

Yet Booth is such a skilled actor and charismatic liar that no one outside the secessionist movement—not even his fiancée—has known the depth of his rage.

Until today.

Booth’s betrothed, Lucy Lambert Hale, is the daughter of John Parker Hale, a staunchly pro-war senator from New Hampshire. She is dark-haired and full-figured, with blue eyes that have ignited a spark in the heart of many a man. Like Booth, she is used to having her way with the opposite sex, attracting beaus with a methodical mix of flattery and teasing. But Lucy is no soft touch. She can quickly turn indifferent and even cruel toward her suitors if the mood strikes her.

Among those enraptured with Miss Hale is a future Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., now a twenty-four-year-old Union officer. Also John Hay, one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries. And, finally, none other than Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s twenty-one-year-old son, also a Union officer. Despite her engagement to Booth, Lucy still keeps in touch with both Hay and young Lincoln, among many others.

Strikingly pretty, Lucy appeals to Booth’s vanity. When they are together, heads turn. The couple’s initial passion was enough to overcome societal obstacles—at least in their minds. By March 1865 their engagement isn’t much of a secret anymore, and they are even seen together at the second inaugural.

But in the past month, with Lucy possibly accompanying her father to Spain, and Booth secretly plotting against the president, their relationship has become strained. They have begun to quarrel. It doesn’t help that Booth flies into a jealous rage whenever Lucy so much as looks at another man. One night, in particular, he went mad at the sight of her dancing with Robert Lincoln. Whether or not this has anything to do with his pathological hatred for the president will never be determined.

Booth has told her nothing about the conspiracy or his part in it. She doesn’t know that his hiatus from the stage was extended by his maniacal commitment to kidnapping Lincoln. She doesn’t know about the secret trips to Montreal and New York to meet with other conspirators, nor about the hidden caches of guns or the buggy that Booth purchased specifically to ferry the kidnapped president out of Washington, nor about the money transfers that fund his entire operation. She doesn’t know that his head is filled with countless crazy scenarios concerning the Lincoln kidnapping. And she surely doesn’t realize that her beloved has a passion for New York City prostitutes and a sizzling young Boston teenager named Isabel Sumner, just seventeen years old. Lucy knows none of that. All she knows is that the man she loves is mysterious and passionate and fearless in the bedroom.

Perhaps, with all of Booth’s subterfuge, it is not surprising that their lovers’ getaway to Newport is turning into a fiasco.

Booth checked them into the Aquidneck House hotel, simply signing the register as “J. W. Booth and Lady.” He made no attempt whatsoever to pretend they are already married. It’s as if the couple is daring the innkeeper to question their propriety. There is no question that Booth is spoiling for a fight. He is sick of what he sees as the gross imbalance between the poverty of the war-torn South and the prosperity of the North. Other than the uniformed soldiers milling about the railway platforms, he saw no evidence, during the train ride from Washington to Newport, via Boston, that the war had touched the North in any way.

After checking into the hotel, he and Lucy walk the waterfront all morning. He wants to tell her about his plans, but the conspiracy is so vast and so deep that he would be a fool to sabotage it with a careless outburst. Instead, he rambles on about the fate of the Confederacy and about Lincoln, the despot. He’s shared his pro-southern leanings with Lucy in the past, but never to this extent. He rants endlessly about the fall of Richmond and the injustice of Lincoln having his way. Lucy knows her politics well, and she argues right back, until at some point in their walk along the picturesque harbor, with its sailboats and magnificent seaside homes, it becomes clear that they will never reach a common ground.

Toward evening, they stop their fighting and walk back to the Aquidneck House. Despite John Wilkes Booth’s many infidelities, Lucy Hale is the love of his life. She is the only anchor that might keep him from committing a heinous crime, effectively throwing his life away in the process. In her eyes he sees a happy future replete with marriage, children, and increased prosperity as he refocuses on his career. They can travel the world together, mingling with high society wherever they go, thanks to her father’s considerable connections. All he has to do is to choose that love over his insane desire to harm the president.

Booth tells the desk clerk that Lucy isn’t feeling well and that they will take their evening meal in the bedroom. Upstairs, there is ample time for lovemaking before their food is delivered. But the acts of intimacy that made this trip such an exotic idea have been undone by the news about Richmond. They will never make love again after tonight, and both of them sense it. Rather than spend the night together, Booth and Lucy pack their bags and catch the evening train back to Boston, where she leaves him to be with friends.

Booth is actually relieved. He has made his choice. Now no one stands in his way.

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