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Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, by Terry Alford

New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 454. Illus., map, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0195054121.

A Comprehensive look at John Wilkes Booth

While there are several biographies of Booth out there, most rely on a small number of well known sources, and spend only a little time on the man’s early life and acting career, devoting most of their attention to his role in developing and carrying out the plot to assassinate Lincoln. In contrast, in this work Prof. Alford, earlier the author of Prince Among Slaves, the remarkable story of Abdul-Rahman ibn Ibrahim Sori, and African prince who spent decades in slavery in the United States, had produced a very scholarly, thoughtful, and readable account of Booth’s life and career, based on an immense mass of primary and secondary materials.

Alford devotes about half his text to Booth’s early life and theatrical career. He discusses Booth’s several roles, his numerous romantic affairs, and his Southern sympathies, all within the framework of his family life, the theatre of the times, and the political setting. Alford even asks “How good an actor was Booth?”, presenting various published and private comments on the subject.

The second half of the book covers the events of the final eight months of Booth’s life. It was in this period that Booth, who despite his outspokenly Southern sentiments lived undisturbed in the North, hatched a plot to kidnap Lincoln, to use the president as a bargaining chip to secure the release of thousands of prisoners-of-war or perhaps even recognition of Southern independence. Following the collapse of the Confederacy, Booth – whether to seek vengeance for the South’s defeat or outraged over Lincoln’s proposal to grant the franchise to African-Americans -- turned his efforts to the decapitation of the federal government, with the assassination of the president and secretaries of State and War. Alford follows the movements of Booth and his henchmen through the events of April 14, 1865, which culminated in the death of the president and wounding of Secretary of State Seward.

In Alford’s account, Booth emerges as a charming and amusing if somewhat narcissistic young man, who at times fabricated tales about himself (e.g., he lied about taking part in the April 19, 1861 attack on the 6th Massachusetts), with a rather erratic temperament that grew more so as time passed. Booth was also quite a lady’s man, and Alford examines some of his romances, and his engagement with Lucy Lambert Hale, whom he was two timing at the time of the assassination, spending several days in on a trip to Boston with an unknown woman. Since in the course of his life Booth had encounters with an amazing number of people, right up to Lincoln, Alford offers us many personal accounts and opinions about the man, as well as other folks, and various events.

Fortune’s Fool will prove rewarding reading for anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, or the American theatre.

Note: Fortune’s Folly is also available as an e-book

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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