While Boston Corbett has entered history as the man who avenged Abraham Lincoln in the morning hours of April 26th, 1865, Booth had another bullet enter his body some time before that date. This shooting was courtesy of his own manager and agent, Matthew W. Canning.
By 1860, John Wilkes Booth had started to tire of playing supernumerary parts. The pay was very small, and he longed to be recognized as a talented actor. His brother, Edwin Booth, was being lauded as his father’s creative heir and was enjoying life as a bona fide star. While lacking the training his older brother received through his father’s tutelage, Wilkes believed himself to be on par with his famous brother. He set out for his own “star” tour. The theatrical star system of the day allowed the lead actor and actress to receive a part of the profits for each performance, rather than a small set salary for the season that the stock actors received. Being the son of the great tragedian Junius Brutus Booth and brother to the successful Edwin, Wilkes had an easier time than most finding himself an agent. Despite his amateurish experience, his Booth name was guaranteed to bring in patrons. Wilkes was invited to play as a star by a former Philadelphia lawyer turned theatrical manager, Matthew Canning.
Matthew W. Canning was in the process of building his own theatre in Montgomery, Alabama and saw the benefits of having a Booth as his star.
Before his own theatre opened, however, the Canning Dramatic Company toured the southern states starting in Columbus, Georgia. The other actors in the company included the sisters Maggie, Mary, and Emma Mitchell and Samuel Knapp Chester, a man Booth later would attempt to include in his conspiracy. Perhaps to save the Booth name for his own theatre’s success, Canning continued to bill John Wilkes Booth under his stage name, “J. B. Wilkes”. While the lineage of the Canning Dramatic Company’s lead was becoming less and less of a secret with the press and the public, during the troupe’s entire run in Columbus, “Mr. Wilkes” was the star.
Mr. Wilkes’ first performance as a star occurred on October 1, 1860, playing Romeo to Maggie Mitchell’s Juliet. His time in Columbus proved a success, with newspapers speaking of the company being, “much superior” from Canning’s last troupe and citing that, “Mr. Wilkes and Miss Mitchell are highly complimented.” For an actor who had a shaky start as a stock player, Booth’s first star tour was everything he could have hoped for. Until the night of October 12th that is, when Canning shot Booth.
The exact details on how the shooting occurred are varied. A newspaper of the day, stated, “Mr. John Wilkes Booth was accidentally shot in the thigh at Cook’s Hotel. Mr. Booth and Mr. Canning were practicing with a pistol, when it went off in Mr. Canning’s hand as he was letting down the hammer, inflicting a flesh wound in Mr. Booth’s thigh.” A more amusing, though less likely account comes from The Mad Booths of Maryland by Stanley Kimmel: “The night he was to play Hamlet another actor was with him in his dressing room when Canning entered and jokingly threatened to shoot both of them. The gun unexpectedly exploded and Wilkes ‘was shot in the rear.’”
The most reliable account, while written years after the fact and probably embellished with age, comes from Matthew Canning himself. On January 19th, 1886 George Alfred Townsend, better known as GATH, published an interview he had with Matthew Canning in the Cincinnati Enquirer:
“No doubt your readers smile at me for having so often in this correspondence brought up incidents concerning John Brown and Booth, the assassin. The fact is that I have just got off my hands a piece of literary work concerning these parties, which has taken so much investigation that I have at times discharged my findings into correspondences. I shall not have the amiable defect of Lot’s wife in ever looking behind me, and therefore, these notes will end with the work for which they were obtained.
Yesterday I saw Matthew Canning, who started with Booth on a starring tour as his manager, and he said to me as follows: ‘Edwin Booth asked me to give his brother Wilkes a star. He was not, strictly speaking, a star: he was a member of my stock company and played as a star, but of course he did not get the profits a star would receive. I had a little circuit in the Southern States, with Montgomery for its chief center, and I was building a theater down there when I happened to shoot John Booth. I can tell you about that curious incident. Booth was one of the best shots in the profession, and his special passion was his physical training and strength. That may have led him into the crime in the way he committed it. When I took him out he was quite a young fellow, and had been known in the profession before as Mr. Wilkes. I made it a point with Edwin Booth that he should play under his family name, as it would draw me money. We were at Columbus, Ga., and my theater was not finished and had given me a great deal of trouble.
‘I went into my room one day, and he said to me: ‘Now, you must let me nurse you. You are fagged out.’ I told him I only wanted to go to sleep. I laid down on the bed and was in a doze when he saw my pistol in my rear pocket. Every body carried weapons down in that country, and so did I. Seeing the pistol, Booth yielded to his passion for arms, and he drew it out of my pocket. I could feel it glide from me, but was in that state that I did not resist or rise. Although he had just said that I wanted rest and sleep, he pointed the pistol at an iron mark on a wall opposite and discharged it right there in the room. Of course I sprang up, complaining that he excited me by that explosion. He then said he wanted another shot, and I objected; but he seemed to have his mind on firing again to show his accuracy of aim. The pistol had got rusted, and when I gave him a cartridge to put in it, it would not fit easily. He took his knife and began to scrape the pistol and the cartridge, and while in the act of doing it, down came the lock in my hand and discharged the pistol, and the ball struck him in the side, barely missing the femoral artery and it lodged in his body. We thought he would die, but he recovered in a few weeks.”
The wound Booth received from Canning was not just a flesh wound as the newspaper stated and would lay him up for some time. Starting from the night of the accident until Booth’s return, the lead roles were played by John W. Albaugh, Canning’s stage and acting manager. This gave Albaugh the opportunity to act alongside Mary Mitchell, the woman who would later become his wife.
On October 19th, seven days after Booth was shot, Canning scheduled a benefit in his honor where he would receive most of the proceeds of the show. It is likely Canning was attempting to assuage his guilt for shooting and disabling his lead actor. Unfortunately, inclement weather in Columbus kept even the heartiest of theatre-goers away on the 19th, and so the benefit was rescheduled for the next day. This was the company’s last day in Columbus and they performed Julius Caesar. Booth’s injury kept him from performing in the whole play but, as a gesture of thanks for the city that supported him and celebrated him in his first starring engagement, Booth took the stage and recited Mark Anthony’s pivotal, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” speech.
From Georgia, the Canning Dramatic Company travelled to Montgomery, Alabama to perform in Matthew Canning’s own, appropriately named, Montgomery Theatre. Though advertisements promised “Mr. John Wilkes” would make his debut on the 23rd of October, the night came and went without his appearance on stage. The notoriously agile and active player was still not physically healed enough to perform. He would not make his Montgomery debut until October 29th when he played the role of Pescara in The Apostate.
Though his wound forced him to be a little more reserved than his normal acting habits, the Montgomery audiences supported this young and talented actor. When Booth played Hamlet, Canning’s theatre was filled to the brim with patrons. Everyone came to see the son of Junius Brutus Booth, rival of Edwin Booth, and most agreed that, while he needed some refinement, he carried his father’s torch well. During all of this time, however, John was still billed as “Mr. Wilkes”.
It does not appear that the transition from “Mr. Wilkes” to “J. Wilkes Booth” was instigated by John. In fact, his star billing as “Mr. Wilkes” for weeks shows that he wanted to be celebrated for his own abilities. In the end, John did not take the Booth name back; rather it was justly given to him. The first billing of him as J. Wilkes Booth occurred on December 1st, when Maggie Mitchell presented a benefit in his honor.
His fellow actors had conferred his Booth name upon him and, after receiving such admiration in his first tour, he believed it to have been rightly bestowed. He had proven himself worthy of the name Booth and would keep it for the rest of his career.
By mid-December, Booth’s time with Canning’s company was up. He returned to Philadelphia to rest at the home his brother Edwin had rented for their mother and siblings. Asia wrote to a friend on December 16th that, “John Booth is at home. He is looking well but his wound is not entirely healed yet – he still carries the ball in him.” With Canning as his agent, Booth accepted starring engagements in northern cities like Albany and Portland, Maine. Eventually, he would become a hugely successful star and become his own agent, no longer needing Matthew Canning’s services. Before that occurred however, the two men shared another experience that involved Booth shedding some blood:
The following is the continuation of GATH’s 1886 interview with Canning:
“Somewhere about 1862 I was playing Booth in Washington City, and he began to have a boil on the side of his neck. It grew more and more inflamed, and at last was discernible from the house, and on his fine, youthful skin it made a bad impression. So I said to him one morning: ‘Come here, John, and take a ride with me. It is none of your business where I am going.’ I drove him to the house of Dr. May, a surgeon, and took him in there. May looked at his neck and said: ‘Why, this is a tumor. You will have to submit to an operation to be relieved of it.’ Booth said he would sit right down there and have it cut out. The doctor said to him: ‘Young man, this is no trifling matter. You will have to come when we are ready for you, when I have an assistant here.’
‘No,’ said Booth, ‘You can cut it out right now. Here is Canning, who will be your assistant.’ He threw himself across a chair and leaned his head on the chair-back so as to throw up his neck. ‘Now cut away,’ said he. The doctor told me that if I was to assist in the operation that I must pull back the skin or flesh as he cut. The first wipe he made with his knife nearly made me fall on the floor fainting. The black blood gushed out, and he seemed to have cut the man’s neck partly off. Booth did not move, but his skin turned as white as the wall. The doctor continued to cut, and notified me that I was a remarkable assistant for an amateur. Meantime my stomach was all giving away. The first thing that happened was I rolled over and fell on the floor, and Booth from loss of blood reeled and fell off the chair. When he came to the doctor told me that I was not as much of an assistant as he thought I was going to turn out to be. Booth was laid up for about a month…”
This impromptu surgery left a discernible scar upon Booth’s neck. That scar would be identified by Dr. May during Booth’s autopsy and is one of the many details that prove that Booth did not escape.
As stated, Booth and Canning would part ways when Booth felt comfortable on his own. Though occasionally Booth would still contact Canning to help him make engagements. Matthew Canning’s last meeting with Booth occurred in December of 1864.
During that time, Canning was in Philadelphia, as the agent to Vestvale, the actress. Booth was in the city as well and asked Canning for a favor. At that time, Canning was a bit perturbed at Booth as he had made several engagements on his behalf that Booth had cancelled. As we know now, Booth’s mind was no longer on acting but on his “oil speculations” i.e. kidnapping President Lincoln. He had already gained the support of two of his childhood friends, Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold, for the endeavor. His next target was a friend from his initial days with Canning. Booth wanted Samuel Knapp Chester in his conspiracy.
During their conversations, Booth spoke to Canning about his recent visit with Chester in New York. He found out truthfully, that Chester was unhappy at his current theatre in New York, but lacked the ability to change it. Chester was not a star like Booth and had a harder time finding engagements. Booth had revealed to Chester his idea to kidnap Lincoln and ferry him into the open arms of the Confederacy. Chester had refused to join his plot, but Booth was not a man to give up easily. He hoped that assisting Chester in his career would motivate him to reconsider. So, under the guise of a helpful friend, Booth asked Matthew Canning to convince John T. Ford to engage him at one of his theatres. Ford owned theatres in Baltimore and Washington, which would bring Chester closer physically into the realm of the conspiracy. Booth, desperate to get on Chester’s good side promised Canning he would, “give [him] anything if he would see Ford.” After some convincing, Canning agreed to do what he could. At first Ford was hesitant but a recent party had cancelled on him and so Chester was hired to take their place. Canning wrote to Booth of his probable success in finding Chester a job at Ford’s. He received a telegram back from Booth stating, “Don’t fail to hush that matter at once.” This response puzzled Canning. Did Booth mean to stop pursuing it because Chester had reconsidered? He wrote Booth asking for clarification. Booth responded back with, “The telegraph operator is an ass, he telegraphed ‘don’t fail to hush the matter’ when I wrote ‘fail to push the matter.’”
Despite being grateful to Booth for getting him a new engagement, Samuel Chester remained unmoved in his views on the kidnapping plot. He would have nothing to do with it.
After Booth assassinated Lincoln, everyone relating to him was rounded up, including Matthew Canning. Canning had the luck of being arrested in Philadelphia by a former actor turned solider with whom he was friendly. Canning immediately wrote out a statement regarding his history with Booth. While arrested on the night of April 15th, Canning was allowed to retrace his footsteps and collect signed affidavits to his recent whereabouts in the presence of Capt. John Jack, the former actor. Only after all of this was done was Canning sent to Washington. He was placed in the Old Capitol Prison and shared a room with John Ford. His thorough paperwork helped him and he was released from prison on April 28th upon taking the oath of allegiance.
Canning died on August 30th, 1890 at the age of sixty. He was a theatrical manager and agent to the end, dying in a New York hotel room while managing his “The Blue and the Gray” acting company. His body was shipped back to his native Philadelphia and he was buried in Woodlands Cemetery there.
While Canning may have felt guilty in 1860 for accidentally shooting his star and main attraction, after the events of April 1865 he may have adopted the same “what if” beliefs as another veteran actor:
“‘If’ that shot had been fatal he would not have lived to plunge his country into the depths of despair and mourning, nor crushed with most poignant anguish those who loved him best; he would not have lived to ‘pour the sweet milk of concord into hell’, to fire the shot that shook the foundation rock upon which his country lived.”
GATH’s Special Dispatch to the Enquirer – Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan 19, 1886
Lust for Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth by Gordon Samples
The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers
“Right or Wrong, God Judge Me”: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper
The Mad Booths of Maryland by Stanley Kimmel
Article images from GenealogyBank.com
Matthew Canning’s handwritten affidavits are available on Fold3.com in the Turner/Baker papers (must be a paying member to view)
The article containing the ending quote is here.
An additional article recounting Matthew Canning’s arrest is here.