Previously, I posted about one of the letters that was found in Booth’s room at the National Hotel. As a popular actor, Booth received many letters from friends, fans, and theatre owners. Another letter found in Booth’s room is the following from McVicker’s Theatre in Chicago:
“Chicago, Dec. 25, 1864
What do you say to filling three weeks with me May 29th? I have not yet filled your time in January and see no chance of doing so with an attraction equal to yourself. There are plenty of little fish but I don’t want them if I can help it. So as you can’t come then come at the above date.
With a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
While Booth’s ability as an actor has been questioned by many authors, he nevertheless had the ability to draw a crowd. This letter appears to state that Booth was, at one time, asked to play in Chicago in January of 1865 and declined the invitation. Historically, McVicker’s had been very kind the John Wilkes Booth. In January of 1862, he made his premiere there selling out the 2,500 seat theatre. He would return there several times over the next two years. But, as the years turned from 1864 to 1865, Booth’s mind was on other aspects. He had suffered large losses in his oil ventures but told family and friends of his success. He spoke of big plans that would allow him to retire from acting for good. While wanting of money, an engagement in Chicago would separate him for too long from his new plan and target: Abraham Lincoln.
What makes this letter interesting is not just the content, but also the envelope that held it:
We can see that the letter was originally addressed to “J.Wilkes Booth, 28 East 19th St., New York”. Written along the left hand side, in McVicker’s handwriting is the note, “forward if from home”. McVicker had initially sent the letter to the Booth home in New York.
In September of 1863, Edwin Booth purchased the house on 19th St. near Gramercy Park in New York City as a permanent residence for his family. Mary Ann, Rosalie, and Edwin’s daughter Edwina, lived there year round. During breaks in touring and when the theatrical season ended, Edwin and John would both reside in the house. Despite the brothers’ desire to keep the peace in the presence of their mother, the close quarters caused Edwin and John to engage in many arguments, usually stemming from their opposite political beliefs. In late November of 1864, Edwin finally had enough of his brother’s secessionist talk, and kicked him out of the house. Booth would briefly stay with his sister Asia in Philadelphia, before moving to Washington.
As the note on the envelope requested, someone in the Booth’s New York house forwarded the letter to John in Washington, D.C. Specifically, they sent it to Ford’s Theatre. Noted actors received liberties at theatres and receiving mail was one of them. Harry Clay Ford, treasurer of the theatre, recounted the morning of April 14th, when Booth, once again, received his mail at the theatre:
“When [Booth] came there I do not know whether he asked for a letter or not, but Mr. Raybold ran into the office and brought him out a letter. He generally had his letters directed to the theatre…He then commence[d] opening his letter. Then I left for a while and went into the office. On coming out again, I found him seated on the steps where he was on Thursday, the steps leading into the office…I think he was reading the letter then. He did not make any remark in reference to the letter. I do not know whether the letter consisted of two or three sheets written over. It was notepaper I think; appeared to be written all over both sheets. I don’t recollect positively, but I think the writing was rather large. If I remember right it was zigzag all full of writing. Did not see any blank on it al all. He had not finished the letter when I left him. Was reading it still.”
Harry Ford provides a tremendous amount of detail regarding Booth’s letter. It seems that this was done to direct attention away from the fact that it was probably him (or someone in his office) that divulged to Booth that Lincolnwas coming.
How our history could be different if, on April 14th, 1865, Booth had not received a similarly addressed letter like the one above. He may have continued on past Ford’s never knowing Lincoln was going to be there that night.