He was “the handsomest man in America,” a magnetic charmer and one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of his time. The son and brother of internationally famous thespians, he was “possessed with genius in the highest degree,” critics said. At the age of just 26, he had mesmerized theatergoers nationwide with his interpretations of Romeo, Othello, Hamlet and King Richard III.
And then he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
When the fugitive John Wilkes Booth was killed by US troops 12 days after he shot the president in 1865, he carried a diary. Tucked inside were photographs of five women. Horrified authorities ordered the pictures to be suppressed: One of ladies was the daughter of the American ambassador to Spain . . . and, as Washington gossips knew, Booth’s secret fiancée.
But Booth had left a string of broken hearts in his womanizing wake. His romances included famous co-stars, high-class prostitutes and ordinary fans. “John Wilkes Booth and the Women Who Loved Him” by historian E. Lawrence Abel (Regnery), out now, brings to life nearly two dozen ladies who fell for the first presidential assassin.
At the time, star performers traveled the theater circuit from fall through spring, spending a few weeks in each city to act with a local company of stock players. They frequently, but briefly, crossed paths with other stars. The pattern allowed actors like Booth to carry on stop-and-start affairs with multiple women.
Booth’s overwhelming physicality was his trademark onstage and off. “How he threw me about!” wrote Kate Reignolds, who played Juliet opposite him in 1861, describing how he shook her out of her shoes and shredded her dress in the throes of their final scene.
The violence sent female theatergoers into an ecstatic frenzy. “The stage door was always blocked with silly women waiting to catch a glimpse” of “this sad-faced, handsome boy,” Reignolds wrote. Booth was the first celebrity on record to have the clothes torn off his body by crazed fans.
Some went to extremes to make an impression. One, a Miss Becket of Richmond, Va., cut off her hair and gifted it to Booth just before she died of typhus in 1860. He made it into a stage wig that he wore for the rest of his life.
Lucy Lambert Hale pledged herself, hair and all, to the dashing future killer. The daughter of a US senator, Hale was a vivacious fixture on the Washington social scene and a notorious flirt whose admirers included First Son Robert Todd Lincoln.
Hale boldly sent the actor a bouquet when she first saw him onstage in 1863. The next year, they were seen together in the nation’s capital, often with her mother along. He gave her a ring; she gave him her carte de visite, a professionally printed photo used as a calling card. Her family connections scored Booth a ticket to Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865, where he stood on the Capitol balcony just feet from the president he was plotting to murder.
The Hales were about to sail for Spain with her father, just confirmed as US ambassador, when Booth shot President Lincoln and went on the run. Lucy was never questioned in the roundup of Booth associates after the assassination — not even when her picture was found on the dying killer’s body.
When a sobbing, heavily veiled woman was allowed aboard the ship that bore Booth’s corpse back to Washington, rumor had it that her well-connected father had found a way to let Lucy Hale see her lover one last time.
Booth carried the images of four other women along with that of his high-society fiancée. One was Helen Western. Hers was one of the two “sister acts” that Booth broke up in 1861, just as the Civil War was dawning. He nearly got himself killed in the process.
Helen and sister Lucille’s scandalous and massively popular cross-dressing act overflowed with sexual innuendo. Often playing male characters, the “Star Sisters” wore the flimsiest possible garments — in one role as a French spy, a mustachioed Helen sported a tunic-like getup that bared both legs up to the thigh. “Really offensive,” scolded The New York Post.
During a two-week engagement in Portland, Maine, 19-year-old Helen played Desdemona to Booth’s Othello and Juliet to his Romeo. Evidently, they shared a bed as well as a stage. Lucille, enraged that Booth chose her little sister over her, quit the act and never performed with Helen again.
Booth moved on to Albany, where he hooked up with Henrietta Irving, 28, on tour with sister Marie. Irving had gotten cozy with Booth on several previous occasions — but this time, she spotted Booth emerging from Marie’s room.
Henrietta followed with a dagger and attacked. He deflected her blow, which slashed his famous face. Then she stabbed herself. “All for Love and Murder,” headlines blared.
Irving survived, but it took her two years to recover. Booth hid the scar with his abundant dark hair, laughing it off as “just a wound from a knife inflicted by an infatuated, jealous and angry girl.”
With the photos from Booth’s diary hidden away at the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Office, it was decades before all five women were identified.
Eventually, researchers discovered that his three remaining ladies were actresses who worked with Booth in 1863, his most successful year. That season he commanded from $650 to as much as $900 a week — or $12,000 to $17,000 in today’s dollars.
Fanny Brown, hailed as “the most beautiful woman on the American stage” at the time, played Lady Anne to Booth’s Richard III in 1863. For appearance’s sake, the two were booked into separate rooms as they toured — but always adjoining, with a connecting door. In the full-length picture of her that Booth carried, Brown struck a teasing smirk and a brazen pose that showed off her ample curves.
Alice Gray often worked with Booth’s elder brother Edwin, an acclaimed tragedian. The younger man nursed a years-long rivalry with his sibling, so hiring Gray for a lengthy run in Washington, DC, in 1863 may have been his way of encroaching on Edwin’s territory.
Later, Gray became John Wilkes Booth’s last leading lady. She starred with him in “The Apostate” at Ford’s Theatre one month before his fatal encounter with Lincoln in the same building.
Tenderhearted Effie Germon was the only one of Booth’s theater colleagues to send condolences to his family after his death. She was just 18 in 1863 when Booth hired her to be his company’s ingenue. In 1865, she was onstage in Washington, performing to a house that included Lincoln’s son Tad, when word of the assassination — and the assassin’s identity — panicked the crowd.
Germon can be seen to this day inside the US Capitol dome: She was the model for a goddess who sits alongside George Washington in the great fresco by Constantino Brumidi.
Strikingly, the horror of Booth’s act and the disgrace of his death did not sour his paramours’ memories. Decades later Maggie Mitchell, the most successful actress of the era, was unashamed to say that she still cherished a lock of her onetime lover’s curly black hair. “ ’Twas the loveliest hair in the world,” she said.