John Wilkes Booth
In the hallways of the Hoole Library at the University of Alabama hang life-size portraits of Southern generals. Their dove gray uniforms, scarlet sashes, and courtly poses indicate that they are gentlemen and romantic honor is important to them. I drew close to the faces of few, hoping that their eyes would be, as the saying goes, windows to the soul. But these defenders of the Southern empire were turned toward something in the far distance that only they could see.
The Hoole Library contains the papers of professor Hudson Strode, which is why I was there. His creative writing workshop during the 1930s and 40s received an average of 1,200 manuscripts annually from students eager for one of the two dozen or so spots available. The subject of my biography, Nelle Harper Lee was not one of his workshop students, but she had been in his Shakespeare class and I suspected there might be some correspondence between them, especially after Lee became famous.
Strode had been born in Cairo, Illinois, but raised in Demopolis, Alabama and considered himself a Southerner. After graduating from Columbia University, he tried acting, but Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, one of the greatest Shakespeareans of the day, told him he was too short. He also had a high, squeaky voice. Lessons from a voice teacher eventually dropped his register two octaves into a rich, smooth baritone. To improve his deportment, Strode occasionally walked along the banks of the Black Warrior River near the Alabama campus balancing a book on his head. He wore ascots instead of ties, and draped a Burberry overcoat around his shoulders like a cape. A few students who revered him, referred to him as “the master.”
His 1955 biography, Jefferson Davis: American Patriot was three volumes long, and a fourth contained the president of the Confederacy’s letters. A leading journal of history was unimpressed. Davis’ “enemies are devils,” wrote the reviewer, “and his friends, like Davis himself, have been canonized. Strode not only attempts to sanctify Davis but also the Confederate point of view, and this study should be relished by those vigorously sympathetic with the Lost Cause.”
White supremacy was an incontrovertible fact to Strode, and to anyone who spoke of “preserving our way of life,” in the 1860s or the 1960s. Almost exactly 100 years after Gettysburg, in fact, on June 11, 1963 Alabama governor George Wallace stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to oppose the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood, both black. After taking a symbolic last stand for the Old South, Wallace finally stepped aside only when a commander of the Alabama National Guard asked him to. Strode’s wife, Therese, wrote to a friend, “The white race is lost. The US has become not only the champion but the leader of the colored races. Now I understand why Plato rejected democracy, regarding it as little more than rule by the mob. And Greek mobs were neither black nor ‘mixed.’ Hudson walks in and out among it all like Daniel in the lion’s den. We pay as little attention to it as possible. . . . Do not worry about us, darling Peggy. We live five miles from town in the midst of twenty acres of trees. Negroes are urban people. If these green, gentle woods were the Wilds of Africa, they could not regard them with more terror.”
I spent three days looking through Strode’s papers. The correspondence between him and Harper Lee was rather ordinary: a congratulatory note from him; a thank-you from her.
And then in the very last manila folder I found something unexpected. Folded inside a square of tissue paper was a calling card, a carte de visite. I recognized the face instantly as John Wilkes Booth. He had written his name underneath. According to an accompanying letter, an admirer of Strode’s Jefferson Davis biography had sent as a gift.
Booth strikes a pose for his photographic portrait (shown to the left) of a Southern cavalier, a gallant, caught in a moment of restive energy. The cane is rapier-thin. It could be used for whipping up a horse, motioning someone out of the way, or thrashing an enemy across the back. Like the Confederate generals in the halls of Hoole Library, Booth is looking away, denying you the privilege of seeing him, eye-to-eye, as an equal.
He was an actor from a family of thespians, and in his hands, Lincoln’s assassination would be turned into a performance. He barged into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater, shot the president from behind, and stabbed Major Rathbone who tried to stop him from escaping. Booth attempted a giant leap to the stage below— one of his acrobatic specialities as an actor— but he caught his foot on a swag of red-white-and-blue bunting and fell heavily in a heap, breaking his leg. ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’ he shouted— ‘Thus always to tyrants!’, the motto of his home state of Virginia. Then he hobbled off, stage right, and exited the rear of the theater, like a villain in a melodrama.
I called the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago for an estimate of how much Booth’s carte de visite might be worth. Because he died at 26, his signature is scarce, I was told. The card could bring as much as $10,000, possibly more.
The head librarian was busy at the desk when I showed him what I’d found. He looked startled. “Here,” I said. “This was in Hudson Strode’s papers. You should put it someplace safe. I understand it’s worth a lot.”
Charles J. Shields is a literary biographer and the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt, rev. 2017)