John Wilkes Booth, the History Channel and Lessons on Crime

John Wilkes Booth © by Marion Doss

After completing several interviews for magazine deadlines, I decided I needed a cup of coffee and some non-computer down time, so I plopped myself in front of the TV and turned on the History Channel.  What  caught my attention was a show on the hunting down of John Wilkes Booth after the Lincoln assassination.

I have to say, it should have been a breeze being a criminal back then. There were no CSI people buzzing about collecting samples. There wasn’t any yellow tape roping off a crime scene; in fact, there was no yellow tape. Police were a rarity, and the law that was in place didn’t take time to understand rules of evidence. But perhaps the biggest challenge 19th century law enforcement faced was the non-existence of computers and the internet. 

When I watch reruns of cop shows from the 1960’s, I am amazed that those guys caught criminals because they also had no modern technology to speak of. I guess that is why Batman and Robin were needed to pick up the slack, but go back 100 years before that to the 1860’s, and catching any criminal had to be considered a miracle.  Law enforcement back then had no cars, no sirens, no phones and no donut shops–all those things that have made crime fighting so much easier in the modern world. So, with all these challenges facing the union army, the police force who hunted down Booth, they still managed to catch him. Some call that trained soldiering; I call it sheer luck.

History does not paint an impressive picture of Booth to say the least. This guy never commited a crime in his entire life, but he was fine with leaping from “employed actor”, an amazing phrase to utter even back then, to assassin. This was an incredible jump when you consider that Booth was already successful and famous. Okay, TMZ wasn’t parked in his living room and there was no paparazzi…not because no one wanted his photo but because by the time a photographer back then got a picture snapped, an actor’s career had come and gone…but  he did have a steady following and groupies. With his recognizable face, he probably was not the wisest choice when his group of conspirators agreed that he should be the guy to pull off the presidential assassination.   

Another problem I have with Booth  is that he put the “ass” in the word assassin.  I am not an assassin expert, but I would guess that this is a “stay-under-the-radar” profession.  I don’t think people who hire assassins trust assassins who make spectacles of themselves after they pull off their crime unless they are part of a radical Muslim sect.  Booth  reveled in his moment. He jumped from the Presidential box to the stage, and even after breaking his leg, he got up and made it known to the theater crowd that he was the man who did in the President.  Booth had to know that if he got away with this crime, he was going to need to find another job as his acting career would be in the toilet or more accurately–the outhouse so a little secrecy might have been called for.

As the show continued, I started to despise Booth. It wasn’t only his crime that was unforgiveable but all the innocent people who got hanged and sent to prison because of him.  Dr. Samuel Mudd had to spend years in a hellhole prison for setting Booth’s broken leg, and people in these rural farm areas, who just ran into Booth after the assassination were either imprisoned or hung. Again, there was no internet and no TV so how were these people supposed to know that Lincoln was even shot when they ran into Booth?  But I guess it was a tougher time back then; there was no compassion… sort of like the GOP today.  Yes, a cheap shot, but it just seemed like a good place to throw that in.

So, what did I learn from this History Channel special? First: I am so glad I didn’t live in the 1800s. Aside from the lack of communication technology, I never would have lasted in hoop skirts and corsets. Second, People back then were stupid.  Okay, maybe it’s the Bronx in me, but if someone with a broken leg hobbled up to my  house in the middle of the night asking to sleep in my barn – if I had a barn, I would not roll out the welcome mat. I would, however, take out my Louisville Slugger and get ready to use it.  And third:  assassination is not the best way to launch a criminal career.  If you are going to commit a big crime, maybe it’s a good idea to take part in a few petty offenses  to see if you have a talent for being bad. Not everyone is good at being evil. Unless you are possessed or the CEO of a major bank, you probably have to build up to an evil life.   As Booth should have known from his acting career, a little practice goes a long way to achieving success.

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4 thoughts on “John Wilkes Booth, the History Channel and Lessons on Crime”

  1. John Wilkes Booth wasn’t even the most famous actor in his family. His brother Edmund was considered one of the greatest actors of his time, if not THE greatest. Maybe that’s why Johnny wanted to be an assassin instead. It made him infamous through the ages. Everyone who knows even a little bit about American history knows who John Wilkes Booth was, but if you mention Edmund Booth most people nowadays will say, “Who?”

  2. The early police were able to catch criminals for the same reason as many are caught today — they aren’t that smart! Booth pretty well eliminated any possible alibi.

  3. Booth once told a friend that he was finished with the stage and only wanted to do one more play and that play was ‘Venice Preserv’d’ which is only a play about an assassination plot!

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