Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mysterious Mr. Booth

Every American knows the essential details of the Lincoln assassination: shot in the back of the head by actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play in Washington, DC. It occurred on 14 April 1865, at the very end of the Civil War.

But do you know how Booth met his own death?

Booth, a Maryland-born Shakespearean and southern sympathizer, broke a leg when he leaped from the Lincolns’ box onto the Ford’s Theater stage after the shooting. He painfully struggled outside into the darkness and escaped. Almost two weeks later, soldiers found him in a farm shed near Bowling Green, VA. They set fire to the structure. Hopelessly trapped, Booth was shot to death.

Many assume the assassin was killed by his pursuers. Others, however, believe he shot himself to avoid capture, trial and execution. The record remains unclear, and proof is unlikely 140 years after the fact.

Another lingering mystery is the legacy of Booth’s “phantom.” Famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady photographed the tragic presidential box at Ford’s Theater not long after the assassination. While developing the photographic plates, he reputedly was astonished to perceive the murky form of a man crouching near Lincoln’s box chair. Stage crew, actors and attendees began reporting encounters with Booth’s ghost at the theater. Not surprisingly, when a section of ceiling collapsed inside the building in 1893, killing 22 people and injuring more than 60, Booth was blamed. Sightings of the actor’s ghost continued to be reported even after the old theater was restored in 1968.

Of course, such a place is an obvious scenario in which pranksters and the overly jittery might create a haunting. It may have nothing to do with the emerging tradition of Booth's ghost, but it's interesting to note that Brady had gone heavily into debt to finance his prolific war photography, hoping to make a fortune selling prints to private collectors, museums and publications. His expected market never materialized, and he quickly found himself in crisis, ultimately declaring bankruptcy.

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