Considered by many theatrical historians as the greatest American actor, Edwin Booth’s career and contribution to the stage has been largely overshadowed by the actions of his infamous brother, John Wilkes Booth.
There were three Booth brothers, all the illegitimate sons of Junius Brutus Booth, considered to be one of England’s finest actors. It’s worth noting that Junius was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Ironic that his son should become the most notorious assassin in American history. But this is not the most ironic part of this largely unknown piece of history.
Edwin and John Wilkes were constant rivals and after the assassination of Lincoln, of which Edwin had no knowledge, he promptly disowned his brother. The name John Wilkes was never uttered in Edwin’s house again. The Booth name carried a heavy stigma after the President’s death and Edwin removed himself from the stage for many months.
The three Booth brothers in Julius Caesar
After some time, Edwin found favor in the theatrical society again and even founded his own theatre that would later go bankrupt. His talent was unquestionable and his contributions to theater facilitated his later ventures, most notably the inception of the Players Club, a social group for actors and artists.
In 1865, before Lincoln’s assassination, on a train platform in Jersey City, a young man was accidentally pushed, by a crowd of passengers, between the train and platform just as the train was beginning to move. Before the man fell completely onto the tracks and was consequently crushed by the train, he was grabbed by the coat collar and pulled back up to safety. The man who saved him was Edwin Booth. The man who was saved was Robert Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son.
This event was recalled by Robert Lincoln in a letter he wrote in 1909 to Richard Watson Gilder. At the time Robert was not aware of the identity of the man who saved his life, but was later informed by a friend.
Edwin Booth died in 1893 and is buried next to his wife at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.