Junius Brutus Booth
- Category : Actor
- Type : GE
- Profile : 5/1 - Heretical / Investigator
- Definition : Triple Split
- Incarnation Cross : LAX Incarnation 1
Junius Brutus Booth (1 May 1796 - 30 November 1852) was an English stage actor. He was the father of John Wilkes Booth (actor and the assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln), Edwin Booth (the foremost tragedian of the mid-to-late 19th century), and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., an actor and theatre manager. Booth was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in William Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar.
Junius was born in St. Pancras, London, England, the son of Richard Booth, a lawyer and avid supporter of the American cause, and Jane Elizabeth Game, and grandson of John Booth, a silversmith, and Elizabeth Wilkes, a relative of the English radical and politician John Wilkes. Booth's father pressed Booth to do a multitude of professions. Booth recalls of his childhood, "I was destined by my Controllers first for the Printing office, then to be an architect, then to be a sculptor and modeler, then a lawyer, then a sailor, of all of these I preferred those of sculptor and modeler.”
Booth’s interests in theatre came after he attended a production of Othello at the Covent Garden Theatre. The prospects of fame, fortune and freedom were very appealing to young Booth. He displayed remarkable talent from an early age, deciding on a career in the theatre by the age of seventeen. He performed roles in several small theatres throughout England, and joined a tour of the Low Countries in 1814, returning the following year to make his London debut.
Booth gained national renown in England with his performance in the title role of Richard III in 1817 at the Covent Garden Theatre. Critics compared his performances favorably with those of Edmund Kean, who was at the time the foremost tragedian in Britain. Partisans of the two actors, literally called Boothites and Keanites, would occasionally start rows at venues where the two were playing together. This did not stop the two from performing in the same plays; Kean and Booth acted in several Shakespearean productions at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1817 to 1821. Kean then saw Booth as a threat and orchestrated a way for the two of them to perform those roles yet again, planning to out-perform his opponent. Kean’s long-standing presence contributed to Booth’s never ending comparisons to his rival.
Booth went to the United States in 1821, abandoning his wife and young son for another woman. Booth quickly got hired to play Richard III. Upon his late arrival to rehearsals, his employers were skeptical due to his appearance, wondering, “Is it possible this can be ‘the great Mr. Booth, ‘undoubtedly the best actor living?’” In under a year, Booth became the most prominent actor in America. Critic William Winter said, “He was followed as a marvel. Mention of his name stirred an enthusiasm no other could awaken” (Smith 23). They settled in Bel Air, Maryland. He embarked upon a thirty-year acting career that made him famous throughout the country. Booth traveled to such cities as Baltimore, Boston and New York.
A persistent story, but apocryphal according to some sources, is that Junius Brutus Booth was acclaimed for performing Orestes in the French language in New Orleans. Theatrical Manager Noah Ludlow, who was performing with Booth at the time at the American theatre in New Orleans, recounts the actual events starting on page 230 of his memoir Dramatic Life As I Found It and concludes: "Therefore I consider the story of Mr. Booth having performed Orestes in the French language, on the French stage, altogether a mistake arising from his having acted that character in the French theatre of New Orleans in 1822, but in the English language." However, Stephen M. Archer notes that Ludlow was in Mobile, Alabama in 1828 and was therefore not present for this performance. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. has two playbills from the production and both are in French. Booth's daughter Asia wrote that her father spoke fluent French and cited a review on the subject. The review was not oblivious to the fact that Booth's French pronunciation was less than perfect however. In 1823, Booth did the role in New York in the English adaptation by Ambrose Philips with Mary Ann Duff as Hermione.
In 1825-1826 and 1836-1837 Booth made tours of his native England. He took his whole family with him for the second of these. During their stay in England, one of his children, Henry Byron, succumbed to small pox. By 1831 he had become the manager of the Adelphi Theatre in Baltimore. His acclaim continued to grow throughout the rest of his life; Walt Whitman described him as "the grandest histrion of modern times." Although his relationship with Mary Ann was relatively happy, four of their children died, three in the same year (1833), when there were epidemics of cholera. In addition, he suffered from alcoholism, which had an effect on the entire family and would never escape him.
Booth’s increasing alcoholism also caused him to become increasingly unpredictable and reckless. He would drop lines, miss scenes, and cause chaos onstage. During a performance of Hamlet, Booth suddenly left the scene he was playing with Ophelia, scurried up a ladder, and perched up in the backdrops crowing like a rooster until his manager retrieved him. He was once booked for a sold-out performance in Richmond, then disappeared from town for several days. Eventually he was found with “ragged, besotted wretches, the greatest actor on the American stage.” He soon became so unreliable that he had to be locked into his hotel rooms with a guard standing watch. Often he would still find ways of escaping to drown himself at a nearby tavern.
Reality could become overwhelming for Booth so he would flee from it, both in alcoholism and the roles he played. A critic said of Booth that the “personality of the actor was forgotten, and all the details seemed spontaneous workings and unconscious illustrations of the character he represented.” He seemed to be possessed by the characters, losing his own identity." His son, Edwin, later says of his father, “Great minds to madness closely are allied.” From February 1817 onward, he played almost three thousand performances. Booth brought a romantic natural acting style to America, which he pioneered into the hearts of American audiences.
During the period of Adelaide’s arrival to America, Junius Brutus was touring around the country. His son, Edwin, was chosen to accompany him as his dresser, aid, and guardian. Edwin was not at all like his father. This was an exhausting job because Junius Brutus could go without sleep for very long periods of time and would often disappear.
In 1835, Booth wrote a letter to President Andrew Jackson, demanding he pardon two pirates. In the letter, he threatened to kill the President. Though there would also be an actual attempt of assassination on the President early that year, the letter was believed to be a hoax, until a handwriting analysis of a letter written some days after the threat concluded that the letter was, in fact, written by Booth. Booth apologized to Jackson for his threat. Decades later, Booth’s son, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated president Abraham Lincoln.
In 1852, he was involved in a tour of California with his sons Edwin and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., performing in San Francisco and Sacramento. On the return trip, he again visited New Orleans for some engagements. (Junius had remained in San Francisco where he had previously established his home, and Edwin struck out on his own, acting in various venues in northern California).
Marriages and children
In August 1814, Junius met Marie Christine Adelaide Delannoy while boarding at her mother's home in Brussels. She followed him to London where they eventually married on 17 May 1815, soon after his 19th birthday. Their first child, Amelia, was born 5 October of the same year, but died in infancy. The only child to survive infancy, Richard Junius Booth, was born 21 January 1819.
In 1821, Booth ran off to the United States with Mary Ann Holmes, a flower girl, abandoning his wife and their young son. Booth and Mary Ann claimed to be married that year and settled near Bel Air, Maryland in a farmhouse. Booth remodeled it and named it "Tudor Hall." It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. While Booth toured frequently in the United States, his family, which grew to ten children, lived in great isolation in relatively primitive conditions, despite the grand name he and Mary Ann gave to their residence.
Booth fulfilled his promise to his wife, Adelaide, and went twice back to Europe to see her. Each time he never spoke of Mary Ann Holmes. However, his son Richard Booth set out to visit his father in America, finding his father was a drunk with a prospering family. Richard sent word to his mother who arrived in Baltimore in December of 1846 and confronted Junius when he returned home from touring in March. After living the requisite three years in Maryland (during which she tortured Mary Ann and the children with very public vituperation), she was able to divorce him in February 1851.
On 10 May 1851, with the youngest of their ten children now eleven years of age, Booth finally legally married Mary Ann.
On the steamboat ride from New Orleans to Cincinnati in 1852, Booth developed a fever, presumably from drinking impure river water. No physician was on board, and he died aboard the steamboat near Louisville, Kentucky on 30 November 1852. Booth's widow, Mary Anne, traveled to Cincinnati alone to claim his body. She was so angry with Junius, Jr. and Edwin for, in her view, abandoning their father that she informed them not to "come home." It was several years before either in fact did return.
Booth is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.
Junius Brutus Booth was inducted, posthumously, into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.