[See The shooting of Jesse Wharton]
JOHN WILKES BOOTH.
His School-Day Dreams and Constant Study--His Thoughts of Greatness
To the Editor of the Press:--The Press having taken up the subject of John Wilkes Booth and the "assassination of Lincoln," several parties connected with the event have given their opinions of the motives that actuated Booth to the deed. After reading the story given by Mr. T. Ford Mathews and others, I think a scrap from his school-days will show conclusively to every one the real motive for his action. Mr. Ford says admiration for Brutus, and the fact that the public had "made assassination respectable by applauding the chief actor in the play of Julius Caesar," was the mainspring of his action. I beg leave to give my views on the subject, and relate some of his early life in college, to prove what, in my view, was the proper and only motive he could have for the deed that has been a source of sorrow for the whole country, and regretted by North and South alike as the most uncalled-for and lamentable act in the whole civil war. Mr. Ford's idea bears some resemblance to the real one, yet I am sure Booth's admiration of Brutus and love of tragedy was not the governing cause.
It was a "name in history" he sought. A glorious career he thought of by day and dreamed of by night. He always said "he would make his name remembered by succeeding generations" John had one of the most lively and cheerful of dispositions; was kind, generous and affectionate in his nature, with an admiration for his father and his abilities that amounted almost to idolatry.
Our first meeting was in 1852, at St. Timothy's Hill, Catonsville, Baltimore county, Maryland. From the first we were friends and companions, and "Billy Bowlegs" (Booth's nickname), Morris Oram [?] and I were inseparable. John and I slept in cots side by side for two years, and during that time we were constantly together. If one of us fell into disgrace and was kept in study to complete some task (generally writing so many lines from "Paradise Lost") the three would accomplish it, and then off to our bush house in Reed's woods adjoining the grounds of the hall, and it was our delight to spend our Wednesday and Saturday afternoon holidays in cooking chickens, eggs and such things as a schoolboy would procure by "ways that are dark." We had cooking utensils, and a gun hooked from the armory of the school, and each of us had a five-barreled Colt's [?] revolver, with which we killed rabbits and birds, that were very abundant in the surrounding woods. We became very expert with the pistol, and either of us could kill a rabbit running, and about once in three times a partridge flying.
I have no doubt many of your readers will recollect the good times they had at school, and ours was no exception. To see the three of us in our bush castle and hear the boyish plans each would set forth as their ideas of life and its duties, would have shown to anyone that the problem of life was even then a serious thing, and with our boyish knowledge fully considered.
Morris Oram always looked forward to either a great merchant or lawyer, and he never could decide exactly which, and in stating his views for the future his ambition inclined to the law, and said he would like to be a greater orator than Daniel Webster and a more profound lawyer than Reyerdy Johnson, while Booth thought only of being a man admired by all people. He asserted that he would do something that would hand his name down to posterity, never to be forgotten even after he had been dead a thousand years. Booth and Oram had red-clay pipes with reed stems about a yard long, and when they with their pipes lay on the ground, these daily conversations were always in order. Our opinions of the future were freely discussed. I recollect when we asked Booth how he expected to acquire such greatness and notoriety as he was continually talking of, one of his answers was, "Well, boys, I'll tell you waht I mean. You have read about the Seven Wonders of the World? Well, we'll take the Statue of Rhodes for example. Suppose that statue was not standing, and I I [sic] should by some means overthrow it? My name would descend to posterity, and never be forgotten, for it would be in the histories of the times, and be read thousands of years after we are dead, and no matter how smart and good men we may be, we would never get our names in so many histories."
On another occasion when the same subject was discussed I recollect he said: "I wish there was an arch or statue at the mouth of the Mediterranean sea, across the straits of Gibraltar, with one side resting on the Rock of Gibraltar and the other on an equally prominent rock, on the coast of Africa. I would leave everything, and never rest until I had devised some means to throw it into the sea. Then look out for history. English, French, Spanish, and all Europe, Asia and Africa would resound with the name of John Booth. I tell you it would be the greatest feat ever executed by one man."
RECKLESS OF CONSEQUENCES.
While speaking, his whole soul appeared to contemplate with satisfaction the future he had drawn.
Oram said, "Billy, suppose the falling statue took you down with it, what good would all your glory then do you?" His answer was: "I should die with the satisfaction of knowing I had done something never before accomplished by any other man, and something no other man would probably ever do."
In 1853 [?] there occurred a "rebellion" at St. Timothy's Hall, caused by the principal, Rev. L. Van Bockelen, depriving the whole school of the Wednesday and Saturday afternoon holidays, because three or four boys killed a lot of chickens, and not eating them they became spoiled, and the boys tied them to a pole and marched around the college in procession, finally leaving the pole resting on the ground by the house with the upper end with the spoiled chickens on it resting against the window of the housekeeper, Mrs. Van Bocklen, who was the principal's aunt. No one would tell who were the guilty ones, and the whole school were made to suffer.
The senior department with the sophomore and freshman classes, marched out to Reed's woods and formed a camp with the guns from the school armory. Guards mounted and all prepared for defense, we waited a deputation from the faculty. Drs. Deffenderffor, Starr and Wharton, and Mr. Arnold, the well-known confectioner of Baltimore, were sent to us and made speeches. Dr. Wharton was replied to by his son Jessie (afterwards shot by a sentinel for looking out of a window at the old capitol prison in Washington), and Drs. Deffenderffor and Starr, and Mr. Arnold by his son Samuel Arnold, (afterward connected with Booth in the Lincoln tragedy.) [sic] It was finally settled, after the boys had slept in the woods three nights. Thomas F. Bayard, the present Senator, of Delaware, was one of the most indignant rebels we had. While all the boys were sitting on the fence and looking the situation in the face, Bayard cut a pole, and straddling it came galloping into our midst and dismounted. He then made a speech, which I feel sure he has never beaten since--in the effect it created; we made the welkin ring. He was taking the part of Caesar, and after he had made his speech, in imitation of Caesar to his soldiers when about to cross the Rubicon, he mounted his horse (pole) and galloped across a small trench that happened to be in front of him, with a stick waving in the air representing a sword; and to have heard the applause and hearty concurrence of his fellow-students was enough to have convinced any one of his eloquence and the favor with which his speech was received. The huzzas were heard up at the Hall, about a mile off, and we were told that the faculty got frightened and supposed we were going to clean out the place. It was during this last year that we had a dramatic association at the college, and Booth was one of the most active members. We gave regular exhibitions and entertainments on holiday occasions, and they were largely attended by people of the surrounding country. The young lady students from Ingleside Seminary, about two miles off, were often invited guests. On all such occasions Booth was in his element. He used to tell us anecdotes of his father, how, when playing Richard III, it would be almost impossible for Richmond to subdue him. He was a splendid swordsman, and as he entered with his whole soul into the fight, he had been known to run his antagonist off the stage when he should have submitted to being killed. It was often difficult to get persons of sufficient ability to play the part of "Richmond" with his father, as he would often have to be reminded that the play called for his defeat, which point he admitted with great reluctance.
Jos. A. Booth, a younger brother, was also at St. Timothy's at this time. He was a remarkably quiet, diffident boy, with no aspirations whatever for the life of an actor. He always appeared to enjoy life in others, but lacked that dash and go-ahead-ativeness [sic] of his brother John. Joe was ever obliging and ready to do anything to make things agreeable to others, and kept away from fights and broils. Joe was in the junior department, and only on the play-ground did we regularly meet. John Wilkes never was a vicious or bad-minded boy; on the conrary, he was noble in mind, generous to a fault, and honorable in all his actions. He loved the South--all his associates were from that section. St. Timothy's Hall was principally supported by scholars from south of Mason and Dixon's line, and believing I knew John Wilkes Booth as well as any other living person, I am led to but one conclusion in regard to his taking the life of Abraham Lincoln, and that is, first, his great desire to do some deed or accomplish some act that had never been done by any other man, so that his name might live in history; second, take his view on the condition of the country at that time, with his whole heart in sympathy with the South, and I firmly believe that he thought if he killed Lincoln the result would be a complete change in the position of affairs; the South would gain her independence, and that independence would be secured by his single arm raised at this critical moment, and that he would be regarded as the Washington of the South and the savior of his country. He persuaded himself that he would be successful, escape into Virginia, and the whole country South, men, women and children, would rise to defend him and hide him from his enemies, and finally he, when the freedom of the South had been secured would be regarded in a high, honorable light, a patriot and liberator. I believe, instead of following the Brutus idea, his thoughts were rather after Washington, Bolivar and Leonidas, but his great boyish aim would be accomplished--"his name, known in history, to live forever." To arrive at this matter finally one must have known the true workings of his mind. I am convinced he did not consider the enormity of his act. He only recognized that one man stood in the way of his friends, barred the way of liberty to his beloved South, and by helping his friends and, as he believed, ridding the country of a man that, as a sectional candidate, should never have been President of the United States. He thought the deed would be glorified in the South. He did not understand the feelings of the Southern people on the subject. He never knew Mr. Lincoln, never studied his character, or thought how good a man he was, never for one moment imagined his act would prove the worst blow the South could possibly receive. Convincing himself that the opportunity he so long sought for making himself famous had arrived, he seized it, and the result we all know, and deeply lament.A MARYLANDER,
Philadelphia, December 5, 1881.