The earliest known writings of John Wilkes Booth consist of a series of letters he wrote in 1854 and 1855 when he was 16 and 17 years old. The recipient of these letters was Samuel Williams “Billy” O’Laughlen. Billy O’Laughlen was the elder brother of Michael O’Laughlen who would later join Booth in his plot to abduct President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth had met the O’Laughlen brothers after his father, Junius Brutus Booth, bought a house on Exeter Street in Baltimore in 1845. The purchase of this house was to appease Junius’ wife, Mary Ann Booth, who felt increasingly isolated at their Harford County farm year after year. Since 1840, the family had rented different homes in Baltimore during the cooler months and Mary Ann also found the schools in the bustling metropolis a better place to educate her growing children. The family still travelled back to their farm, especially during the warm summers and it was during these visits to Tudor Hall that a teenage John Wilkes Booth would write to his companion back in Baltimore. A total of eight letters from Booth to Billy O’Laughlen have survived through the years with a few of them having resurfaced in recent auctions.
In preparation for one of my upcoming daily tweets, I decided to devote September 14 to one of the letters Booth wrote to Billy O’Laughlen on that date in 1855. I am much indebted to the 1997 book by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper called, “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth. In this edited volume, Rhodehamel and Taper transcribed a large percentage of John Wilkes Booth’s letters to friends and family, including the known O’Laughlen letters. From their work we know the text of Booth’s letter:
Tudor Hall. Sept: 14th: 1855.
My Dear Friend,
I received you letter the other day. I thought you did not intend to write to me, by your delaying it so long. I should have written long ago but I was waitting till I heard from you. I tried to see you on the night of my debut. I saw Welch (I believe you know him) he said he would tell you to come out, but I expect he never did it. I am doing very well up here, but I am getting very tired of the country. I am thinking of moveing to Sebasterpol you know there is some excitement there. and yet the country has been lively lately and next week there are two pick-nicks going on. and on the 25 there is a very large ball to be held in Bel-Air, and there are Plenty of Pigeons, Patriges and Sqrirrels for shooting. we are thinking of moveing to Baltimore in the winter but are not certain. I will be in Baltimore anyhow in October if nothing happens. you must excuse this dull letter, but I feel very low spirited to day. Answer soon and try to write me a long letter. Give my respects to all who ask after me your Ever Affectionate Friend,
J. W. Booth
In this letter, Booth refers to his debut, which was the first time he took the stage in a professional manner. This occurred on August 14, 1855 where he played the role of Richmond from Richard III at Baltimore’s St. Charles Theatre. The performance was a benefit for his childhood acquaintance (and future brother-in-law) John Sleeper Clarke, who knew the Booth name would help draw in curious theatregoers and increase his box office proceeds. The mention of moving to the excitement in “Sebasterpol” is a reference to Siege of Sevastopol, a yearlong conflict in the Crimean War. Just a few days before Booth wrote this letter, Russian defenses had abandoned Sevastopol after heavy bombardment and massive casualties were inflicted on them by the Allies. The fall of Sevastopol essentially marked the beginning of the end of the Crimean War for the Russians. Booth’s desire to be part of something exciting and historic would be realized four years later when he left his acting career in Richmond to go and serve as a guard at John Brown’s execution.
Always hoping to see the original, handwritten copies of John Wilkes Booth correspondences, I did a little searching to see if this September 14, 1855 letter had been sold at auction lately. While some of the other letters to O’Laughlen have been sold, it does not appear that this one has resurfaced publicly in the last couple decades so I could not find the handwritten version. Still, I was curious where these O’Laughlen letters came from in the first place.
In Rhodehamel and Taper’s book, they state that, “Around 1965, a Baltimore woman cleaning out a desk in her basement suddenly realized that the old letters she was burning were signed, ‘J. Wilkes Booth.’” Digging a bit future we find a newspaper article from the New York Post dated November 2, 1966 entitled “Lincoln & Booth Letters: Evil Will Outsell the Good” which describes an auction set for the next day by auctioneer Charles Hamilton.
Among the many treasures Hamilton was set to auction was a letter Lincoln wrote after this third Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 and three of the letters Booth wrote to O’Laughlen, including the September 14, 1855 one. As the name of the article implies, Hamilton gave his opinion that the Booth letters would sell for more than the Lincoln letter. “Evil is unfortunately always fascinating,” the auctioneer noted. “If you go to a zoo, you’re fascinated by cobras and rattlesnakes. If you have a choice of two books to read, you’d probably prefer ‘The Life and Cruel Deeds of Jesse James’ to a volume of sermons…I dislike the thought of a Presidential murderer’s letters being worth more than those of the President himself, but that’s what happens.” At the conclusion of the article, there is a brief mention of where Hamilton acquired the Booth material proving a little more context than Rhodehamel and Taper provided:
“The John Wilkes Booth letter came to Hamilton from Mrs. Agatha McCarthy, an elderly widow who discovered an old desk in the basement of her Baltimore home, which she said was ‘just full of Booth.’ She burned many of the old letters she found, before she recognized the bold signature: ‘ J. Wilkes Booth.’ Her home was owned previously by Thomas Jones, a co-conspirator with Booth in the Lincoln assassination, and somehow Booth’s old writing desk had resided for years in McCarthy’s basement.”
Now this entire explanation perplexed me. These are letters written by Booth to Billy O’Laughlen when he was a teenager. According to this article they were found by a woman in the basement of her home that used to be owned by Thomas Jones, the Southern Marylander who took care of Booth and Herold when they were hiding in a pine thicket during their escape. The mixture of these disparate figures into one story felt off to me. In addition, the article suggests that the desk in which the letters were found in Mrs. McCarthy’s basement was Booth’s writing desk. We are to believe that letters a young Booth mailed to Billy O’Laughlen somehow made their way back to Booth’s own writing desk and then into the hands of Thomas Jones in Baltimore.
To be fair, Thomas Jones did live in Baltimore after the Civil War. He can be found living there in the 1870 and 1880 censuses with his family. Jones was still living there in 1883/1884 when he was visited by journalist George Alfred Townsend (GATH) who interviewed him about his involvement in Booth’s escape. That interview resulted in the article “How Wilkes Booth Crossed the Potomac”, filling in the missing timeline in Booth’s escape.
So I decided to try and track down where, exactly, Thomas Jones resided while living in Baltimore. I used census records, Baltimore directories, and even the addresses on GATH’s telegrams to Jones, to plot the different places Thomas Jones lived during his decade and a half in Baltimore. After adjusting for the street numbering change that occurred in Baltimore in 1886, I determined all the modern addresses I could find for Jones’ whereabouts.
I then decided to try and track down Mrs. Agatha McCarthy and see where she lived. The first hiccup in my search for her was her name. Agatha’s last name was McCarty not McCarthy as the auction article stated. I know that’s a minor mistake, but it doesn’t help with overall veracity of the story when you can’t get the name of your provenance source right. With some digging I found that Agatha McCarty’s maiden name was Shipley, she was born on December 5, 1870 in Baltimore County. In 1899, she married Frank P. McCarty and moved to Baltimore where she would spend the rest of her life. In the 1900 census the newlyweds are living at 2709 Boone St. In 1905, the two moved just a bit south to 2409 Greenmount Ave. In 1913 they moved a block south on Greenmount Ave. By 1920, the couple had moved into their forever home at 636 Cokesbury Ave. Agatha McCarty would live here for the rest of her life (save for her final hospital stay) until her death in 1968 at the age of 97.
And so, here is my map of all the places I could find where Thomas Jones and Agatha McCarty lived in Baltimore. Jones’ residences are in yellow and McCarty’s are in red. At no point does it appear that Agatha McCarty lived in a home formerly occupied by Thomas Jones. The two never even lived in the same neighborhood of Baltimore. Now I suppose it’s possible that at some point after Jones moved back down to Southern Maryland a desk he owned might have been sold away or given to a neighbor and from there it somehow made its way to Mrs. McCarty. Furniture does have a habit of moving around. But even in that unlikely scenario, the question remains, “Why would Thomas Jones have Booth’s childhood letters?”
For the most part, Jones largely stayed quiet about his involvement with John Wilkes Booth in the aftermath of the assassination. He was arrested on suspicion and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington for a time but was eventually released. It really wasn’t until he consented to be interviewed by GATH in 1883 that he opened up about his role helping the assassin on the run. Eventually, Jones saw his claim to fame (infamy?) as an opportunity. In 1893, Jones published his own book entitled, J. Wilkes Booth: An Account of His Sojourn in Southern Maryland after the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his Passage Across the Potomac, and his Death in Virginia. It told of Jones’ work with the Confederate mail line during the Civil War and how Booth came to be under his care during the escape. Jones took his book to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair hoping to sell a bunch of copies, but the Yankees in the Land of Lincoln weren’t very good customers. The book was a financial flop for Jones who died two years later in 1895. Though the book doesn’t go into the history of John Wilkes Booth, is it possible Jones somehow acquired Booth’s childhood letters during his work on it? Possibly, but I think even this to be very, very unlikely. After a bit more research, I think I’ve come up with a more believable explanation.
Let’s take a look at the map of the Jones and McCarty residences again.
I’ve zoomed in a little bit and added a purple pin. That purple pin marks 419 E 20th Street. From 1890 through 1913, that was the home of a grocer turned carpenter who had always resided in Baltimore. The carpenter who resided here had gone through a lot, including the death of his younger brother. The reason for his brother’s death could be traced back to when a new family moved in across the street from his childhood home at 57 N Exeter in 1845.
Yes, I’m talking about John Wilkes Booth’s childhood friend, Samuel Williams “Billy” O’Laughlen. Even at the time of the assassination, the elder O’Laughlen was in the grocery business and was trying his best to get his younger brother, Michael, involved. Part of the reason Michael O’Laughlen was able to meet with Booth so often in D.C. was because he was doing work for his brother’s business there. The elder O’Laughlen transitioned to carpentry work after the Civil War and remained in Baltimore where he married and had children of his own. He died in 1915 at the age of 76 and is buried next to his brother and other family members at Green Mount Cemetery.
Looking at the map we can see that the home Samuel Williams O’Laughlen had for 23 years was in the same vicinity of where Agatha McCarty resided just off of Greenmount Ave. They’re not next-door neighbors, but definitely closer to each other than Thomas Jones ever was. Also, unlike Jones who resided in Baltimore years before Agatha McCarty moved to town, O’Laughlen was there at the same time as the later owner of the letters. For 13 years O’Laughlen and McCarty lived in the same area of Baltimore, just blocks apart.
I’m inclined to believe that Agatha McCarty got the Booth letters from Samuel Williams O’Laughlen not Thomas Jones. The letters had been written to O’Laughlen after all, and he likely retained them. How McCarty ended up with them is anyone’s guess. Maybe she knew the O’Laughlens from the neighborhood and received them directly or, as the original story goes, she found them in an old desk that had once belonged to them and somehow ended up in her possession. Regardless of how she came across them, we know that she did have them as of 1942. In that year an article was published about a Shipley family reunion, which Agatha McCarty nee Shipley attended. McCarty was a bit of a family genealogist and was mentioned in the article as having brought with her a file of 1,900 births and deaths in the family. The article also included the line that, “She also had a framed copy of a letter written by J. Wilkes Booth bearing his autograph eleven years before the death of Lincoln.”
I haven’t been able to find any other mentions of Mrs. McCarty and the Booth letters aside from this and the auction article from 1966. Whether there is any truth to her having burned several other letters before noticing the signature, we’ll never know.
In the end, this is an example of the inherit difficulties in tracing provenance of an item. For these specific Booth letters, their still uncertain line doesn’t really change much. The handwriting and contents of the letters from Booth and Billy O’Laughlen establish that they were, indeed, written by the future assassin of Lincoln. But for countless other artifacts, where the question of authenticity is less self-evident, establishing the provenance of the item and how it got from historical person or place to now is often filled with holes. Sometimes the best we can do is to lay out the evidence we have and acknowledge that it could be wrong or mixed up a bit as I think is the case here. In truth, far fewer things you see on display in museums are as iron-clad authentic as you might expect. This is not because museums are actively lying to you or trying to trick you, but because humans often leave poor or almost nonexistent records behind sometimes. Institutions do their best to engage in exercises like this to trace provenance, but as you can see, the process often raises more questions than it answers.
Finally, with all due respect to Mrs. McCarty knowing that the whole story of her flaming discovery may have been just a clever ploy by the auctioneer, please don’t go around burning old letters and documents you might find without looking at them first. You never know what valuable piece of history you might uncover.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to promote an upcoming book on John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination from a familiar name. Coming twenty-four years after the publication of his edited volume of Booth letters, “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, John Rhodehamel is set to release a new book on September 7, 2021 called America’s Original Sin: White Supremacy, John Wilkes Booth, and the Lincoln Assassination.
I am very much looking forward to reading Rhodehamel’s work which explores Lincoln assassination through the lens of the white supremacist act it was. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“In this riveting new book, John Rhodehamel argues that Booth’s primary motivation for his heinous crime was a growing commitment to white supremacy. In alternating chapters, Original Sin shows how, as Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation and racial equality grew, so too did Booth’s rage and hatred for Lincoln, whom he referred to as “King Abraham Africanus the First.” Examining Booth’s early life in Maryland, Rhodehamel traces the evolution of his racial hatred from his youthful embrace of white supremacy through to his final act of murder. Along the way, he considers and discards other potential motivations for Booth’s act, such as mental illness or persistent drunkenness, which are all, Rhodehamel writes, either insufficient to explain Booth’s actions or were excuses made after the fact by those who sympathized with him.”
Terry Alford, the author of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, has already positively reviewed the book writing:
“This unique book combines Rhodehamel’s intriguing insights with the excellent characterizations and top-tier research that have always distinguished his work.”
With Alford’s endorsement, I’m confident Rhodehamel’s book will be a valuable addition to any Lincoln library and encourage any one interested in the Lincoln assassination to pre-order it from your favorite bookseller.