The Bel Air Academy was one of the earliest institutions of learning that the future assassin of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, attended. Founded in 1811, the Academy, which was also known as the Harford County Academy, was one of many private institutions that existed in the 1800’s well before centralized school districts were the norm. The Academy catered mainly to the education of the locals in Harford County, but also advertised itself as a suitable boarding school for out of town pupils.
The exact date of John Wilkes Booth’s attendance of the Bel Air Academy is not known with exact certainty, but it appears to have started in about 1846, when Booth was eight years old. John Wilkes was joined at the school by his younger brother, Joseph, who was a little less than two years his junior.
In 1848, the Bel Air Academy received a new principal who also served as teacher. His name was Edwin Arnold. A native of Canada, Dr. Arnold was the son of Rev. Oliver Arnold, an Anglican pastor and Indian teacher in New Brunswick. Edwin Arnold was also ordained in the Anglican faith but resigned from the pastorate after eight years in order to devote his full time to teaching. Prior to becoming the principal of the Bel Air Academy, Dr. Arnold had served schools in New Brunswick; Freehold, New Jersey; Bordentown, New Jersey; Easton, Maryland; and Washington, D.C. When Dr. Arnold was chosen to lead the Bel Air Academy, he was highly spoken of by all his former schools. Edwin Arnold moved himself and his family next to the Bel Air Academy building. The principal’s son, Edwin, Jr. joined the school as one of his father’s pupils.
Edwin Arnold provided the students at the Academy a classical education based on the English tradition. The days were spent reading, memorizing, reciting, and learning the lessons of classic works of literature. For an extra fee, students could also receive instruction in the French language taught by another teacher whom Dr. Arnold hired for the purpose. Dr. Arnold was also fond of arithmetic, writing and publishing his own book on its proper instruction called Arithmetical Questions, a new plan, intended to answer the double purpose of arithmetical instruction and miscellaneous information. With the help of his colleague, the book was also available in French.
At the time of Dr. Arnold’s arrival at the school, and likely in the time preceding it, John Wilkes Booth was known as one of the school’s “day scholars”. This meant that, everyday, John Wilkes rode his horse from the family farm outside of Bel Air into town for school. Joseph Booth, on the other hand, lived with and lodged with Edwin Arnold and his family. Such accommodations cost more money, but Dr. Arnold highlighted the benefits of one-on-one after hours instruction and continual access to his library to student boarders. It appears that Mary Ann and Junius Booth decided that it was their youngest son, Joseph, who would make better use of such an arrangement as opposed to their less educationally inclined son, John Wilkes.
One of the Booths’ fellow students at the Bel Air Academy was a boy by the name of George Y. Maynadier. In the years that followed, Maynadier became an important figure in Harford County. As a young lawyer he was elected state’s attorney for the county from 1862 to 1867. In 1871, he was made a Harford County judge. Maynadier did another stint as state’s attorney from 1879 to 1887 and in his later retirement from civic duty, though he was still a lawyer, Maynadier was one of the editors for the local Bel Air newspaper, the Southern Aegis.
In 1902, as part of his editorial duties for the Aegis, Maynadier wrote an article about his time at the Bel Air Academy with the Booth brothers. Titled “Additional Reminiscences of the Booth Family”, George Maynadier’s account gives us our only glimpse into the Booths’ time at the Bel Air Academy. In the article he describes the differences between the two brothers:
“…John Wilkes and Joseph A. Booth, as I said, were both pupils of Dr. Arnold at the Bel Air Academy for the five [sic] years or a large portion of that time during which the writer attended that school. John Wilkes was by no means considered a studious boy – or as one inclined to take advantage to the full of his educational opportunities. Joseph A. was much more naturally that way inclined, that is, was much more studious. The two were very little alike in appearance – John Wilkes being much the handsomer in his face and figure. The clear cut lineaments of his face with slightly acquiline nose and altogether magnetic expression of countenance was such as once seen could never be forgotten or mistaken for anyone else. Joseph was a lighter complexion, of slender build, as the expression is, and of all together different shape of features and expression…John Wilkes was by no means deficient in intelligence and brains (very much in fact the other way), but was not “bookish”, which is all I mean, when I say he was not as a boy devoted to his studies…”
Maynadier’s description of John Wilkes as a less than studious boy is backed up by Asia Booth’s own notes on her brother. “He had to plod,” Asia wrote, “His was not a quickly receptive mind.”
In his narrative, Maynadier recalled a booze filled party that he, the Booth brothers, and even the principal’s son, Edwin Arnold, Jr., took part in at the close of a spring session. This event likely occurred in the spring of 1849.
“I well remember a school boy incident in which the brothers, John Wilkes and Joseph figured and which if I am not mistaken, the president of the Board of County Commissioners and others of my contemporaries of the Academy in the regime of Dr. Arnold, now resident hereabout, can recall as well as myself. A debating club had existed for a long time at that institution and thereby in the way of dues etc. a fund of some size, comparatively, had accumulated. As the spring of the year and short evenings were approaching, and we had concluded to suspend the club at least for a while, the question arose what to do with our money. It was soon resolved that we would “blow it in” in a grand “blow out” at our last meeting, prior to suspending altogether. Accordingly, the day scholars procured to be prepared at home and brought with them sundry cakes and confections and so forth, and Hughey Rogers, barkeeper at the Harford House, was seduced by the larger boys (some of them in fact young men) into making divers pitchers of hot stuff (it was cold weather) or cogent quality. So on the night in questions, the matter having been carefully concealed from Dr. Arnold, the affair came off. The Doctor’s son, one of the good boys of the school, had been taken into our plans in order to insure his secrecy, as we well knew he otherwise would “blow” on us if he found it out. The Booth boys, I remember, were among the chief promoters and leaders in the affair, although they were most efficiently seconded and encouraged by others fully as much inclined for mischief and a “good time” as themselves. Well, it is only necessary to say, that after partaking of the refreshments provided, including Hughey Rogers’ “hot stuff,” which was freely imbibed, pandemonium broke loose at the old Academy and continued loose until midnight. Card playing and shouting (it would be a misnomer to say singing) of songs interspersed with blood curdling yells and whoops such as only boys can emit, made up the bulk of the proceedings on the festive occasion. This was Friday night and you can imagine our consternation on the following Monday morning, when on the assembling if school we learned from his own lips that we had been visited, unknown to ourselves, by the venerable Dr. Arnold himself. He had expected something and made a personal inspection and fairly caught us all in crimine delicto. The only thing that saved us from being expelled was that so many were engaged in the affair, equally guilty, that expulsion as a punishment would have broken up the school. We received, however, such a lecture as made us thoroughly ashamed of our conduct…”
For reference, at the assumed time that this rambunctious party of boys occurred John Wilkes Booth, George Maynadier, and Joseph Booth were 11, 10, and 9 years-old, respectively. While Dr. Arnold did not expel any of the party participants (the inclusion of his own 8 year-old son caused difficulty in that), the spring session of 1849 proved to be John Wilkes Booth’s last at the Bel Air Academy. In the fall of 1849, John Wilkes Booth was sent by his parents to the Milton Boarding School in Cockeysville, Maryland. It appears, however, that Joseph Booth stayed on at the Bel Air Academy with Dr. Arnold for a couple more years before the brothers were reunited in school together at St. Timothy’s Hall in Catonsville, Maryland in 1852.
The Bel Air Academy building (with later additions) still stands today.
Dr. Arnold continued as the head of the Bel Air Academy until either 1853 or 1854. In November of 1854, he became the principal of Elkton Academy, which was located about 30 miles east of Bel Air. Coincidentally, in the fall of 1854, Asia Booth wrote a note to her friend Jean Anderson stating that, “Joe goes to school in Elkton, Cecil County”. It appears that Joseph Booth was, for a time, returned to the tutelage of Dr. Arnold.
While John Wilkes Booth had ended his formal education in 1853, he was still seen from time to time around Bel Air. Even after he started his stage career, Wilkes returned to his former hometown. He spent most of the summer of 1861 in isolation in Bel Air, renting a hotel room and memorizing plays. In his article, Maynadier recalled a run in with Booth during this time.
“I remember on one occasion whilst a party of us younger men were gathered on the upper porch of the dwelling house now occupied as a store by Mr. C. C. Rouse, sometime in the sixties [likely 1861], discussing politics and what not, on a July afternoon, when everything seemed to be in repose and quiet prevailed all around, we were suddenly startled by a terrific explosion and crash as if a mine had been sprung in our midst. On leaping to our feet, it was discovered that Mr. John Wilkes Booth had espied our assemblage from the porch of the adjoining hotel, and procuring all the ‘torpedoes’ left over from the fourth of July, had hurled them in our midst to enjoy the effect of the explosion.”
It appears that Booth couldn’t help playing a trick on his old Bel Air Academy chums.
Dr. Arnold, meanwhile, had departed the Elkton Academy in April of 1856 and traveled to the north Baltimore suburb of Mount Washington, where he had set up his own school, the Rugby Institute. The start of the Civil War greatly reduced the number of enrolled pupils and Arnold was forced to close the Institute down in August of 1861. During the war, Dr. Arnold and his family took up residence in Calvert County in Southern Maryland where he became a farmer. At war’s end he resumed his career as a teacher, heading up the Salisbury Institute on Maryland’s eastern shore while his family stayed in Calvert County. Dr. Arnold’s daughter died in 1869, and the 64 year-old teacher ended his educational career that same year. The one time teacher of John Wilkes Booth died at his Calvert County home on March 11, 1874 and was buried next to his daughter.
In his 1902 article about the Booth brothers, George Maynadier included a cryptic note about another of their Bel Air Academy peers. Giving only initials, Maynadier recalled one of the bullies at the school who was acquainted with John Wilkes and who, in the days after Lincoln’s assassination, ended his own life under mysterious circumstances:
“But my paper is drawing out too long – One other matter which may or may not be authentic, I will set down here and then close these meager additions to the already voluminous Booth reminiscences. At the time when John Wilkes and Joseph A. Booth were pupils at the Academy, there lived in Bel Air a family by the name of L— (I do not for obvious reasons mention the name.) The eldest son, about the age of John Wilkes Booth, was also a pupil at the Academy and intimate with the latter. He was likewise the most notorious of all the boys and young men at school or in the village, as the ringleader of everything desperate and reckless. In those days I was afraid of him, as all the smaller boys were, who often, ‘tasted his quality’ in the shape of a cuff on the head or a punch in the ribs and so forth – consequently, it may be, that he was not so desperate and bad as I thought him to be, but simply reckless and thoughtless of consequences. However, sometime prior to or during the first years of the war, he left Bel Air and removed to Baltimore or Washington, I do not remember which, and turned up at the latter place as an attache, in the medical or drug division of some of the departments of the army. –And here comes the story.- It will be remembered that immediately on the occurance of the assassination, strict lines were drawn and no one was suffered to leave the City unless by special permit. G—– L—, it was said made an effort within a day or two after the tragedy, to get through the lines. He failed and on being repulsed several times, returned and matters in his case culminated by his TAKING HIS OWN LIFE, for what reason, no one apparently knew. This matter was given no prominence that I ever observed, at the time, nor have I heard it commented on to any extent since – But it was, if true, a curious coincidence, that an old schoolmate and intimate associate of former days of John Wilkes Booth, and of the character of man of L—, should have acted as above stated if indeed the matter is true as I have heard it. ‘I tell the tale as ‘twas told to me,’ is all the comment I have to make…”
The name of the schoolmate whom Maynadier refused to provide the full name of was George B. Love. In addition, his recollection of the events regarding Love’s death are correct and George Love did commit suicide after being captured trying to cross the Union lines out of Washington after the assassination of Lincoln.
George Love’s story is a fascinating one that I would love (no pun intended) to tell you. However, as I was working on this blog post I discovered that fellow researcher and author Susan Higginbotham had already beaten me to the punch. Unbeknownst to each other, we were both researching Love’s story at the same time. Susan had visited Love’s grave in Baltimore Cemetery and when I emailed her today asking for permission to use her photo of his grave in this blog post, she informed me of the similar path we had been taking. So, rather than telling you the story of George Love here, you’re all going to have to wait a month until Susan’s article titled, “The Strange, Sad Case of George B. Love” is published in the August 2018 edition of the Surratt Courier. Susan has done a marvelous job delving into Love’s life and mysterious death. If you’re not already a member of the Surratt Society, sign up today so that you won’t miss out on getting Susan’s excellent article.
The old Bel Air Academy building, the place where George Maynadier, George Love, Joseph and John Wilkes Booth, and many others received their early education still stands in Bel Air. Now offices for a law firm and others, a small historic plaque above the door gives the name of what this building once was. For about three years, John Wilkes Booth plodded through classical literature and arithmetic here. Perhaps if he had spent less time at play and more time at his studies, these walls could have changed the course of history.
(1902, March 7) Additional Reminiscences of the Booth Family. Southern Aegis, p 4.
Bel Air Academy – Maryland Historical Trust Inventory
Harry Ransom Center
Karen Needles of the Lincoln Archives Digital Project who acquired information about George Love for me