Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was only the culmination of a family rivalry that spanned decades in “My Thoughts Be Bloody,” a book about John Wilkes and Edwin Booth.
It’s fascinating to read a book about an event we all know and see coming, and to realize what a long road it took to get there. The assassination almost feels like an aside, the last great act in a family of actors used to taking the big stage.
The book starts with the paterfamilias, Junius Brutus Booth, the greatest British actor of his era, maybe the greatest actor period. He was an alcoholic who left behind a wife and children and set off for America, there finding a new love and fathering many children.
The family secret was they were all illegitimate, as his wasn’t actually married to his American “wife.”
Booth père left to tour Shakespeare, and had more affairs along the way. Eventually, one of the youngest children, Edwin, went with him to help keep him off the bottle and on point. Doing so, he absorbed the family talent – while little brother John Wilkes stayed home with mother.
Edwin eventually takes father’s place as the leader of the family and the talent, even as older brother Junius Jr. (called June) and John Wilkes tried their hand at acting. Short story, neither was as talented as their brother, and John in particular felt a rivalry that grew increasingly bitter.
The book covers many years in the Booth family story, with a full picture of the psychology and mentality of the players leading up to John’s puzzling affinity for the Rebel cause.
There are plenty of twists and turns here, all of them fascinating, and the family story is good enough without the end we know is coming – which only takes part of a chapter, at that.