Asia Frigga Booth was the youngest daughter of Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. She was born on the Booth family farm in Harford County, MD, on November 20, 1835. While growing up in the secluded wilderness of their Tudor Hall home, Asia grew very close to her younger brother, John Wilkes. The two would often play, with Asia acting as Wilkes’ first acting teacher by helping him run lines and practice his elocution. Asia was described by those who knew her as, “beautiful”, “educated and mathematical”, and “strong-minded”. She was courted for years by a family friend named John Sleeper. He, like the Booth sons, wanted a career in the theater. In order to avoid the connotation that a performance by him would put an audience to sleep, he changed his named to John Sleeper Clarke. The two married in 1859. At first, life for the two was good. Clarke and Asia’s rising acting brother, Edwin, were close business partners and friends. Asia and Clarke had three children by 1865, all of whom were all named after various members of the Booth family. The eldest, Asia Dorothy, named for her mother, was nicknamed “Dollie”. Their next child, Edwin Booth Clarke, was named for his uncle and went by the nickname “Teddy”. Another daughter Adrienne, received her name from Asia’s youngest brother, Joseph Adrian.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln by the hands of her favorite brother, John Wilkes, was a massive blow to Asia and her family. John Sleeper Clarke was imprisoned for a time and pregnant Asia was put under house arrest. Hoping to do something to redeem the family name, Asia set her sights on a long forgotten project she had once started: writing a biography about her father. She plunged back into her work, attempting to forget the tragedy that had befallen her. In August of 1865, she gave birth to twins, Creston and Lillian. By December she had finished her biography of Junius Sr. and it was published under the title, Booth memorials : Passages, incidents, and anecdotes in the life of Junius Brutus Booth (the Elder) by His Daughter.
In 1867, another son, Wilfred, was born. Despite the passage of time, Asia still felt the stigma of her brother’s crime and Clarke discovered he had strong star power on the London stage. Asia agreed to move the family there, despite their strained relationship. She hoped that England would give her the fresh air and foreign setting she needed to start over. Asia and her children depart America in 1868. Asia wrote that she expected to be gone for two or three years. In fact, she would never see her homeland again.
Life in England lost its appeal fairly quickly to Asia and her relationship with Clarke continued to sour. The pair had three more children in England, all of which died, furthering Asia’s grief and separating her even more from her husband. In 1874, she began writing a biography of her misguided brother, John Wilkes. It contained her memories of his younger days and painted a far more human picture of the man who assassinated Lincoln. She knew, however, that this sympathetic view of her brother would never be tolerated during her lifetime and so put the biography aside to be published after her death.
In the 1880’s Asia finished a book entitled, The Elder and Younger Booth, which detailed the careers of her father, Junius, and her brother, Edwin. By this point Clarke was making regular trips back to the States to perform with Asia being left behind in England. She referred to Clarke as “a bachelor in all but name” and described his hatred for her and the Booth name.
Asia Booth Clarke died on May 16, 1888 at the age of 52. Before her death she made Clarke promise to return her body to America so that she could be buried in the family plot in Baltimore. This was done and Asia Booth now lies with her parents and siblings in Green Mount Cemetery. Clarke would later die in England and is buried there.
Two of Asia and Clarke’s children followed the family tradition and became actors. Creston and Wilfred Clarke both had decent careers upon the American stage and vaudeville.
Asia’s secret biography of her brother was given to a family friend upon her death due to her fears that Clarke would destroy it. It was not published until 1938, sixty years after Asia’s death. Though more a collection of Asia’s pleasant memories of her brother than a true biography, the book provides a unique and much needed view of John Wilkes’ early life and interactions with his family.
While Asia Booth never found fame (or infamy) like her other siblings, she remains a valuable chronicler of their achievements.
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I’ve been collecting a lot of Creston’s and Wilfred’s playbills. Great stuff!
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