Memoirs of John Wilkes Booth

As I was researching the literary output of Eleanor Farjeon, I came across this unusual item: The locked book: the memoirs of John Wilkes Booth, by Asia Booth Clarke and Eleanor Farjeon. According to Kirkus Reviews:

John Wilkes Booth and his sister were very close, and this is his sister’s story. Anecdotes of their childhood, of his successes in the theatre, of his passionate defence of the South when the Civil War broke out, his machinations as spy and blockade runner, his hatred of Lincoln. Her marriage had separated then by this time, so the assassination of Lincoln came as a shock and surprise to the family, but she continued to believe he did what he thought right. Cuttings from contemporary journals, family letters, reminiscent extracts. Nothing of the doubt thrown upon his fate. This memoir was handed down to Eleanor Farjeon, and is now released for the first time.

As a child, I found history lessons boring and pointless, until some teachers and my reading made me realize that history is about people and why they do things. But for the most part, history lessons completely miss the point. In the year that we studied U.S. history, the assassin of President Lincoln was always described as “an unemployed actor,” as if that somehow motivated him or perhaps simply to add human interest. That was all.

Nowhere did my lessons mention that Booth was a member of a conspiracy of hard-core Southern secessionists. They didn’t say that the secessionist groups were bitterly irreconcilable over their side losing. They didn’t say that the plan of the secessionists was to treasonously undermine the U.S. victory. They didn’t say that the motivation of the secessionists was wildly exaggerated horror stories about what the U.S. government had in store for them. That would have made that bit of history understandable, instead of random, and even more despicable than a violent act by an unstable individual.

It all sounds frighteningly familiar these days. What was that proverb? “Those who forget the past are compelled to repeat it”? It’s time to squash the incipient Southern & right-wing violence, treason, and terrorism in the bud, if we are not to have losers snatching the prize of enlightenment and reason once again.


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