214: Edwin Booth, America’s Greatest Actor of the 19th Century

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925); Edwin Booth; 1890; Oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 2013.7
Edwin Booth by John Singer Sargent, 1890; Oil on canvas; (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas/Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is the birthday of the man, considered by some to be the greatest American actor of the 19th century, Edwin Booth.

Here are some things you may not have known about him.

Edwin Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland in 1833. He was the illegitimate son of Junius Brutus Booth, who was also among the most well-known actors of his day. Booth was also the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, another noted actor, who went on to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Edwin Booth made his debut as Tressel in a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in Boston in 1849. He made his New York debut a year later. In 1851, he took over for his father in the role of Richard III. In 1864, the Booth Brothers, Edwin, John Wilkes and Junius Junior, appeared onstage together in a production of “Julius Caesar.” The proceeds from the production were used to place a statue of Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park, where it stands to this day. Afterward, Edwin became known as the “Hundred Nights Hamlet,” for playing the role for a record 100 performances.

Late in 1864 or early in 1865, Edwin Booth saved the life of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. The younger Lincoln, at the age of 22 or so, had fallen between a train platform and a departing car. Edwin Booth, reached down and grabbed Lincoln by his collar and pulled him to safety. Lincoln, who recognized the famous actor, thanked him by name. Booth didn’t know who he had saved until months later.

Later in 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot the elder Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.. After the assassination, Edwin, a staunch unionist, disowned John Wilkes and refused to have his brother’s name spoken in his home. He would return to the stage a year later. Edwin Booth also was said to have derived some comfort after the assassination from the fact that he had saved the life of the president’s son.

In 1869, Edwin was granted possession of his brother’s remains, which he had buried in an unmarked grave in the family’s plot in Baltimore.

Later in his life, Booth founded the Players’ Club, a social club for actors and other artists at his home on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. He died there in 1893. The club remains active to this day in the same building.

Our question, Edwin Booth is mentioned in a song called “The Ballad of Booth” from what musical and by what songwriter?

Today is World Kindness Day. It’s the birthday of author Robert Louis Stevenson, U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, and actor/comedian Whoopi Goldberg.


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