The Shadowy Presence of John Wilkes Booth
While history tell us of the well-known story of the famous actor and southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth assassinating President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., it does not often tell us of lesser historical events without the benefit of historical research. This is in the case of two instances of John Wilkes Booth having a historical presence right here in the State of Connecticut, the first one in Collinsville/Unionville and the second in Hartford proper. There is also an unverified shadowy presence, in a town approximately 43 miles east of the State Capital of Hartford, in Canterbury, which will be addressed later in the course of this article.
A little background on John Wilkes Booth . John Wilkes Booth was born the ninth of ten children to Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes Booth on May 10, 1838 in Bel Air, Maryland. Six of the ten children would reach adulthood. He was born as with most of his siblings in a modest log cabin home on the farm. In 1851-1852 the elder Booth build Tudor Hall on the property, a one and half story gothic revival home, this home is well preserved owned by Harford County Maryland. Unfortunately the elder Booth died in November 1852 while the home was still being built.
The Booth’s also had a Baltimore city residence on 62 N. Exeter Street purchased sometime in the mid 1840’s which was a middle class City townhouse. Tree lined street with a grocer on one side and a banker on the other. This residence is no longer standing.
John’s parents were from England, they immigrated to the United States in 1821. His father Junius was a famous actor even before coming to the United States. He performed in the 1820’s & 1830’s and made about $5,000, a year a very comfortable sum in those times. John had two older brothers, Junius and Edwin who would also become actors and two older sisters’ Rosalie and Asia. We don’t hear much from the Booth’s on Rosalie, just that she was kind and devoted to her mother. A romance cut short by her father Junius seems to have impacted her to not to attempt another romantic adventure. And then sister Asia, Booth family Chronicler, writer and sometime poet, and incredibly close to her brother John Wilkes.
And younger brother Joseph who would eventually become a doctor. Interesting note…in family letters that it was younger brother Joe the family often worried about, bits of melancholia, and depression and at one point taking off to Australia and returning to the States to San Francisco where his older brother Junius secured a position for him delivering letters for Wells Fargo in CA.
The first historical presence of John Wilkes Booth is tenuous at best but still a fact of history. In the years 1858-1860 JWB was stock player/actor employed in the Marshall Theater in Richmond VA. In October 1859 an event occurred in Harpers Ferry, VA or Charles Town VA (now West VA) and that was the raid by abolitionist and Torrington, CT native John Brown. John Brown purchased his weaponry from the Collins Company 500 pikes as well as an additional 500 pikes from the C Hart & Sons Company in Unionville CT. In December 1859 John Brown was sentenced to hang for his crime and John Wilkes Booth joined the Virginia Militia in the Richmond Grays’ as a sergeant/quartermaster and was present at the execution of John Brown. There is a misunderstanding that when John Wilkes Booth heard of this event he jumped on a train and borrowed a uniform of the Virginia militia. There is verified evidence found in the State of Virginia Archives which has John Wilkes Booth pay voucher for his service, in the amount of $64.58 and the date of the voucher was April 14, 1860, yes exactly 5 years to the day of John assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Subsequent to the execution of John Brown, we read from Terry Alford’s book, Fortune’s Fool…that ”he (John) also had one of Brown’s impressive spears made in CT, this pike had an iron blade two inches wide and about eight inches long, screwed onto a handle made of ask. Down the handle in large ink letter was written “Major Washington to J. Wilkes Booth.” The weapon had been presented to Booth by B.B. “Bird” Washington of the Continental Morgan Guard of Winchester, VA. Major Washington was initially captured at the beginning of the raid. Major Washington was the great-great nephew of George Washington.
The second historical presence of John Wilkes Booth comes from our own Hartford Courant, dated on Oct 22, 1863 at Allyn Hall, a play The Courant described as “ever full of deep interest, and to the Shakespeare student on of the most sublime, if not the grandest of the Bard of Avon’s matchless works.”
Its star? John Wilkes Booth.
The Courant gave him a rave for that performance-and for that in “Richard III.”
“Booth…does everything so naturally…There is no claptrap or wordy waste of sentiment…Booth need fear no rival in artificial love making. The voice an attitude and gesture of the artist invested in the stage.”
John Wilkes Booth is a shadowy and compelling man of history. We know after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln, Booth jumped from the balcony of Ford’s Theater and landed awkwardly on his leg stage, breaking his left leg. He then raised the bloody knife that was used to slash his way out of the President’s box and cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, meaning ‘thus always to tyrants’. This is also the State motto on the Virginia State Flag, and mindful just a few days prior to the assassination, General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia April 9, 1865. There would be a twelve day manhunt for Booth, his demise ending at the farm of Richard Garrett at Port Royal, Virginia April 26, 1865.
The information presented above is a historical story of John Wilkes Booth, but what of the prevalent unverified story about Booth that has its roots right here Canterbury Connecticut, the story of Izola Martha Mills (the widow of John Wilkes Booth? 1837-1887). See photo of gravesite. The story of John Wilkes Booth and Izola Martha Mills becomes even more shadowy with the book authored by Izola’s granddaughter, Izola Forrester, “This One Mad Act.” (1937).
While the book raises possibilities that perhaps Izola and Booth were married, or partners or common law husband and wife it is this author’s belief that although compelling, there is no marriage license supporting the (marriage of Booth to Izola on January 9, 1859 in Cos Cob, Greenwich, CT). See photo as a letter from the Reverend Peleg Weaver attesting to a marriage ceremony,but no license.
In late December 1858 Booth and the Richmond Company were performing in Petersburg, Virginia at Phoenix Hall. As to that, in the new year of 1859 John was in Richmond, with a growing fascination with an actress, singer and dancer named Maggie Mitchell. In Maggie’s’ February appearances, Booth supported her. It was only in April 1859 that Booth requested and was granted time off to travel to Philadelphia to be present at his sister Asia’s wedding. In Asia Booth Clarke’s book “The Unlocked Book, A memoir of John Wilkes Booth, By His Sister, Asia Booth Clarke 1938, she states “In 1859 Wilkes came from Richmond, where he was fulling an engagement, to be present at my wedding.”
It would seem highly unlikely that Booth would have travelled to Connecticut in January of 1859 to be married, with no mention by the Booth family chronicler sister Asia, nor a mention to his mother Mary Ann to whom John was equally close and devoted to.
However, in a short volume written by Ella V. Mahoney, Sketches of Tudor Hall, 1925, Mrs. Mahoney writes, “Mrs. Rogers once, when showing me pictures of the Booths, came across a picture of a young woman, a girl of about twelve, and a boy, younger. She said some years before, the woman with her children paid her a visit and claimed to be the wife of John Wilkes booth and they his children. She wanted Mrs. Rogers advice about putting the girl on the stage. Mrs. Rogers did not believe her story, and of course advised her against trying to get the girl’s interests advanced in that capacity, as the daughter of Booth. The woman and children disappeared and nothing more was heard of them.”
Mrs. Ella Mahoney lived at Tudor Hall after the Booth’s coming to reside there around 1878 as a young bride. Her husband purchased Tudor Hall directly from Mrs. Booth. She lived from the age of twenty until her death after WWII. She grew to love the Booth’s and became a kind of caretaker/writer. Her father had known John Wilkes Booth and she had heard stories of the family and often found things belonging to the Booth’s in the home or and on the property.
Not long before her death in 1899 Mrs. Rogers told Mrs. Mahoney that when John Wilkes was a fugitive (in 1865) she baked a ham and kept other food cooked to give him if he should come to her, for provisions to eat in hiding or on a flight to Canada. She sat up all night watching for him with a light placed as a signal in her window to guide him. As Aunty Rogers explained, “I loved him.” Mrs. Rogers was close in age to Mary Ann and helped deliver John and nursed him as a baby.
Who was it that came to the home of Mrs. Rogers? Was this in fact Izola and her children? And why did Mrs. Rogers still have the picture if she did NOT believe the woman’s story?
The story of John Wilkes is full of such compelling and unverified conspiracy theorists that sometimes the line between what is fact and what is fiction is blurred. However, it is a fact that a woman named Izola Martha Mills is buried in Canterbury, CT behind Calvary Chapel and Routh 14. It begs the imagination to wonder if the woman who came to town after the Civil War about 1870 and lived in a Victorian house called “Terrace Hall” on Goodwin Road, a house that is no longer standing was the widow of John Wilkes Booth. It was enough of a compelling story for this author to travel to Canterbury, to see the gravesite and with the help of the Town of Canterbury Clerk , Natalie Ellston and staff and Lorraine and Luther Thurlow of Canterbury, to direct me to the area where Izola once lived. From an article by Steve Grant of the Harford Courant, “ There appear to be no records indicating (Bates) – Izola married twice after Booth, owned property in Canterbury, so it is assumed she rented while living there. One of the places she lived was the large home on Goodwin Road that had been built by a mill owner, whose mill was across the street on the Little River. The dam that supplied the mill with power remains, though it is in disrepair.”
This author found the ruins of the dam and walked a bit on the broken stone dam wall. Further up were the ruins of stone wall and the general area where Izola lived, the area flush and deep with the greenery of summer, the silence and loneliness of the area haunting. For in that moment, it all seemed so real, that perhaps this area once lived the widow of John Wilkes Booth, but sometimes not even history or unproven mysteries ever truly reveal their secrets.
Canterbury Town Clerk, Natalie Ellston and staff
Lorraine and Luther Thurlow, Canterbury
Article Hartford Courant by Steve Grant “Lover, son may be buried in Canterbury”
Terry Alford, Fortune’s Fool, The Life of John Wilkes Booth, 2015
Izola Forrester, This One Mad Act, 1937
Ella V. Mahoney, Sketches of Tudor Hall, 1925
The Unlocked Book A Memoir of John Wilkes Booth, by his sister Asia Booth Clarke 1938
Stone dam- authors own
Revered Peleg Weaver letter-Ancestry.com