The Junius Brutus Booth Society is a wonderful organization that works to educate the public and scholars about the illustrious Booth family. Their main venue for doing so is the Booth family home in Harford County, Maryland: Tudor Hall.
In addition to the superb Spirits of Tudor Hall Facebook page and blog, the JBB Society also publishes a quarterly newsletter for members. For the low membership price of $12 a year you are not only supporting a hardworking organization that is effectively transforming Tudor Hall into a preeminent Booth family museum but you also receive impressive scholarship in the form of the newsletter, Booth History Spotlight. For example, the Fall 2014 newsletter contains part one of an in depth look at the life of Dr. Joseph Booth, Edwin’s dedication address for an Edgar Allen Poe Memorial, an account of Edwin’s final days, a recipe written by Edwina Booth, and information about future tours and talks at Tudor Hall and beyond. Each issue also contains a small part called “The Spotlight Quiz”. This quiz takes the form of a piece of trivia which tests and informs you about a member of the Booth family. Today’s post was inspired by this issue’s Spotlight quiz:
Now this question seems easy enough, already giving you the month of Edwin’s birth. Off the top of my head, I knew Edwin was born during a spectacular meteor shower but I’ve never been good at memorizing exact dates. My response was sometime in mid-November.
The newsletter gives the answer, “Edwin Thomas Booth was born at the Booth family farm on November 13, 1833.” But is this true?
Oddly enough when it comes to the exact birthdate of the world’s greatest Hamlet, the biggest theatrical star of his generation, Edwin’s exact date of birth is a little unclear. Back in 2011, Tom Fink, president of the Junius Brutus Booth Society, wrote a piece about how even Edwin Booth was unsure of his birthdate. I quote from Tom’s article which you can read in its entirety here:
“Edwin Booth wasn’t sure of the exact date of his birth at the property of Tudor Hall. His mother and older brother Junius, Jr. disagree on the day he was born. In a letter to his daughter, Edwina, dated November 14, 1869 describes his dilemma:
My Own Daughter,
Your dear letter with the pretty book-mark (“I love you”) came safely last night, just in time. It seems there is some doubt as to the exact date of my arrival here. Grandma says I was born on the night of the great “star shower” in 1883, and insists that it was November 15; but Uncle June says he remembers well—both my birth and the “Star Shower” occurred on November 13, 1833. So you see, I do not know which is the day—for, although I was there, I was too young to pay attention to such weighty matters, and can’t remember much about it. However, your little present, which I shall always cherish, my darling, came in good season for either day…”
It is interesting to note that Mary Ann Booth was always convinced that her son was born on November 15th. Not only does Edwin mention this in the above quoted 1869 letter to Edwina, but Mrs. Booth makes the same claim in her own letter to Edwina in November of 1875:
“You will soon have your Papa in Philadelphia. I think, next Monday is your Papas birthday. I always keep it on the 15th of Nov – that was the day of his birth – but someone has changed it to the 13th.”
As much as I would like to support Mrs. Booth and her claim of November 15th as her son’s birthdate, it doesn’t seem to be correct. As Tom goes on to say in his article, the great Leonid meteor shower of 1833 that both Mary Ann Booth and her eldest son June agreed Edwin was born under occurred during the night of November 12 – 13th. If Edwin was born on the 15th, then he would have missed the prophetic celestial event by two days. It is for this reason that November 13th (June’s pick) is widely accepted as Edwin’s true birthdate and is more than likely correct.
So yes, the answer to this Booth History Spotlight quiz, is true. However, like so many things about the Booth family and the Lincoln assassination, this fun exercise serves to remind us that we must take time to question and find the evidence for every assumption we make. Even something we take for granted, like a birthdate, can have a far more complicated story than we know.