On August 8th, 1854, 16 year-old John Wilkes Booth wrote the following to his friend William O’Laughlen (the older brother of his future conspirator Michael O’Laughlen):
“I paid another visit to the Rocks of Deer Creek the other day. it looks just the same and sunday I whent to that large camp meeting with the hope of seeing you there. but I was dissipointed. I saw John Emlet there or that fellow that works in your shop. The Indian’s where up here the other day with their great Bear.”
The “Rocks of Deer Creek” that Booth describes is a natural outcropping of rocks above Deer Creek in Harford County, MD. It is about 11 miles distant from the Booth family home of Tudor Hall. “The Rocks” as it was called by most, was a popular attraction for the locals during the time that the Booth children were growing up. The area served as a common gathering spot for Christian camp meetings and even reenactments of medieval jousting tournaments, the official sport of Maryland. The Booths traveled to the Rocks frequently for entertainment and to take part in the social activities planned there. John Wilkes Booth wrote another letter to Billy O’Laughlen on June 18th, 1855 describing an upcoming event at the Rocks:
“Then comes the grand affair. A pick nick party to be held on the rocks of Deer crick. Thirty-seven couples to attend”
His sister, Asia Booth, also wrote to her friend, Jean Anderson, about this upcoming trip by John to the Rocks:
“John is going on a picnic to the rocks tomorrow. Oh, those great rocks.”
The Rocks are great indeed. Today the area is an official Maryland park called, appropriately, Rocks State Park. It was previously named Deer Creek State Park. The park is home to the second highest waterfall in Maryland, the Deer Creek is a prime place to fish and go tubing, and many take advantage of the hiking trails. The biggest attraction, however, is the precarious 190 feet rock outcropping called the King and Queen Seat.
Here is a picture of me standing at the edge of the outcropping of the King and Queen seat.
The spot is quite beautiful but not for those who are afraid of heights.
In addition to its magnificent beauty, the King and Queen Seat also serves as a giant memorial to generations of visitors. The rocks are literally covered with carvings. These carvings consist of the names and dates of souls who have long since passed, many of them dating to around the Civil War era. Though many of them are hard to see today, worn down with the passage of time, some are still incredibly clear…
…or, with the spraying of some water, others suddenly leap to life:
It was these carvings that brought me back to the Rocks of Deer Creek after having visited the park the last year. Between that first visit and today, I had learned that one of the names supposedly carved on the Rocks was that of John Wilkes Booth.
As demonstrated by the letters, we know, at the very least, that John Wilkes Booth visited the Rocks on multiple occasions. So, regardless of the outcome of my search, I was pleased to know that I was walking on the same ground and viewing the same awe inspiring vista that teenage John Wilkes Booth once witnessed. The idea that John Wilkes Booth’s name is one of the many carved on the King and Queen Seat comes from author Stanley Kimmel who wrote, The Mad Booths of Maryland. In the comments part of the book Kimmel wrote the following:
“While exploring these rocks, the present writer came upon the names of W. H. Schuck, a boyhood playmate of John Wilkes Booth, and of J. Booth carved on a large boulder. It was a place to which the Booth children often rode on horseback during their vacations, and the Tournaments were surely witnessed by John Wilkes, who was at home much more than Edwin.”
The idea of searching the massive King and Queen Seat and the surrounding boulders for the “J. Booth” found by Kimmel was a daunting one. To ease my search somewhat, I was blessed to have the scholarship of Richard Sloan. Richard is an original Boothie who, for many years in the 1970’s and 80’s published his own Lincoln assassination newsletter, The Lincoln Log. In 1977 Richard published an article about another brave soul who searched for Kimmel’s “J. Booth” and was successful:
As helpful as this piece was (especially the picture of the carving), it did not give a detailed location of the carving at the site. In the days before GPS however, how exact could you really get? I played with the idea of revisiting the Rocks last summer to search for this carving but felt that, without a bit more to go on, the likelihood of discovering the carving was quite remote. I put it on the back burner pending some more investigation. Then, in August, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Michael Kauffman, author of American Brutus. I brought up the carving to him and my desire to look for it. Though it had been many years since he had visited the Rocks, he gave me his best recollections of it and even drew me a rough map on the back of a restaurant placemat. He wished me luck in my search but also expressed one caveat which will follow later.
For eight months I waited for a good opportunity to make the 2 and 1/2 hour drive up to Harford County. When I saw that author and fellow Boothie Jim Garrett was going to speak today at Tudor Hall, I decided that the trip would be justified even if I failed.
Armed with the scrawled map from Michael Kauffman, the above page from the Lincoln Log, a dish brush, and a spray bottle of water I drove to Rocks State Park and hiked up to the King and Queen Seat. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Michael Kauffman’s memory was wonderfully accurate and his map, as basic as it was, led me to the the right boulder straight away. I sprayed the water on the boulder and quickly saw the name “W. H. Schuck” just as Kimmel described. Below it was another “Schuck”. I sprayed around the whole boulder, and used the brush to clear up the rock a bit and remove some of the moss. Then, a familiar looking engraving appeared right near the edge of the boulder:
I knew that I had found Kimmel’s “J. Booth”. It was on the same boulder as W. H. Schuck and the features of the rock matched the picture from the Lincoln Log. Success!…sort of. Shortly after scrubbing the area clean a bit more, I discovered that Kauffman’s caveat proved to be true. Before drawing me the map eight months before, Michael Kauffman had told me directly that he did not believe that the carving said “J. Booth”. Kimmel and others had seen what they wanted to see. After examining the carving carefully, I sadly have to agree. There is no way the carving is of “J. Booth”. The last letter in the name is unarguably an “E” not an “H” and the supposed “B” in Booth is most likely an “H” as the bottom is open instead of closed. I used a stick the trace the carving and this helped to show the carving a bit more clearly:
Though a tad disappointed, I did not leave the Rocks feeling dejected. This whole endeavor is a perfect example of how the process of researching can be even more rewarding than the product. The product of the research was determining for myself that the carving identified by Kimmel was NOT done by John Wilkes Booth – barely a speck of minutiae in the grand scheme of history. The process, however, was incredibly rewarding. I visited the Rocks a year ago, told my colleagues at the Lincoln Discussion Symposium about it, heard about the story of Booth’s name, investigated the prior research, interviewed a person who had seen it, and successfully found the rock, among thousands, containing the same carving. Just because the product was not what I was hoping for does not negate the enjoyment I felt in investigating it.
If you’re ever in the area, I recommend you all visit Rocks State Park. Not only can you enjoy the beautiful vista of the King and Queen Seat but you can also hike around with the knowledge that you are walking on the same land that the Booth children once enjoyed.
And, if you’re curious, there’s a boulder practically on the left of the path before you get to the seat. Clean it off, spray it with some water, and investigate Stanley Kimmel’s “J. Booth” for yourself.
The Mad Booths of Maryland by Stanley Kimmel
“Right or Wrong, God Judge Me”: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper
The Lincoln Log by Richard Sloan (5/1977)
Lincoln Discussion Symposium
Tour of Booth Family Historic Sites in Harford County