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John Wilkes Booth, Casanova of assassins?

You could stack the books written about John Wilkes Booth to the ceiling and beyond. Authors have examined his acting career, his family, his friends, his pursuit and capture — but for the first time, a new book examines the love life of the “American Brutus.”

Following the capture and death of Booth, five photographs of young women were found in his pocket along with a compass, keys, a notebook and a dagger.

As the investigators surely did at the time, you’ll want to know who these women were and what they meant to Booth.

In “John Wilkes Booth and the Women Who Loved Him,” E. Lawrence Abel, a noted Lincoln scholar and Wayne State University professor, details exactly who these women were and speculates how the photographs ended up in the assassin’s pocket.

He also delves into an additional nine women who were lovers of Booth — including Maggie Mitchell, once considered the most famous actress in America.

Investigators at the time soon discovered the identities of the women and determined they lacked connections to Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Through newspaper accounts and personal letters, Abel brings them back to life.

At the time, small photographs called cartes de visite were commonplace — especially of famous people. Photography was only 26 years old at the time of the assassination, but it blossomed during the Civil War. Soldiers left a photograph at home with a loved one, or carried a loved one’s photograph into battle with them.

Actors with the professional notoriety of John Wilkes Booth would have had thousands of cartes taken to be sold at stage doors, or given away to fellow actors and actresses. Booth carte de visites are rare, but still can be purchased on auction sites for a few hundred dollars.

Abel posits that following the assassination, many of Booth’s photographs and countless letters to his many lovers would have been burned to hide any affiliation with him. He said no one would want it to be known that they were a friend, let alone a lover, of Booth.

Like a sailor, the handsome Booth, who travelled from city to city performing, had many lovers and sometimes more than one in every port.

“You could call him a Casanova,” Abel said.

Investigators at the time of the assassination would have lined the photos up and asked, “Who are these women?” One of the identities would’ve been obvious, since Fanny Brown was a famous actress in her own right.

Others were less obvious, but investigators soon determined the identities of three other actresses: Alice Gray, Helen Western and Effie Germon.

One photograph may have perplexed them though. The photograph of Lucy Lambert Hale was less high profile, but it wouldn’t take long for it to be discovered that she was of the daughter of a U.S.

Senator — something that was long kept secret.

Abel writes in his book about the hysteria that soon followed when rumors spread that Booth had been engaged to Lucy Hale.

“It was simply too juicy a story for reporters to ignore,” he observes.

It became even juicier when it was revealed that Booth and Robert Lincoln were both lovers of Hale.

National Enquirer style headlines like, “Were J. Wilkes Booth and Robert Lincoln Rivals in Their Love Making” and “He Hated the President Because He Loved his Country, and Hated the Son Because He Loved Bessie Hale” proliferated.

Despite denials by family members, the engagement rumor was proved to be true.

During his acting career, women threw themselves at the feet of the handsome, masculine and debonair John Wilkes Booth. In real life he had a dark side, suffering from depression and syphilis.

In his book, Abel details Booth’s relationships with 14 women, mostly actresses, but also several prostitutes. Booth’s proclivity for prostitutes was well-known.

Abel also refreshes our memory about the entire Booth family tree of actors. His father Junius Brutus Booth was a Shakespearian actor who left a spouse and child in England behind when he came to America to become a star. He also fathered 10 other children in America — most notably John and his older brother Edwin, also a famous actor of the time.

The Booth family history was complex.

The bigamist father, whose sin would be uncovered later in life making his American children “bastards,” was away from home for hundreds of days a year, and when at home, embracing his alcoholism with bouts of insanity.

In one of the most lurid of Booth’s escapades, actress Henrietta Irving discovers Booth leaving her sister’s room and flies into a rage — attacking Booth with a knife and then attempting suicide.

“Nothing good ever came of knowing John Wilkes Booth,” Abel said. “Almost anyone who had anything to do with him had a bad outcome.”

Book signing and discussion with E. Lawrence Abel

Wednesday, June 13 7 p.m. Schuler Books & Music 1982 W. Grand River Ave. Okemos Free


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