I taught a class on great crimes in American history, and this was the one people were most interested in. So I began to look into the life of Booth. Try to understand who he was, why he did what he did. He was a great actor, a charming person, but had a disturbed side as well.

I put more than 20 years of research into my new book on Booth, called FORTUNE'S FOOL.

It also has been mentioned in the New York Times.

I'm looking forward to answering your questions about Booth on today, the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln's Death. Victoria's helping me get started.

Proof: http://imgur.com/da4HIw7

Edit at 12:53 PM ET Well, please remember that today is the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln's Murder, which took place at 10:22 PM Eastern Time tonight.

I will be back later today to answer additional questions that come in. Thank you all for your support for the book and my efforts!

Edit at 3:53 PM ET I'm back, caffeinated, and ready to go. Let me hear from you, AMA.

Edit at 4:53 PM ET That's all the time I've got. Thanks for all the good questions.

I'm appearing tonight on a special on the Smithsonian Channel called Lincoln's Last Day. I hold the gun that Booth used to kill President Lincoln and talk about the murder. It's airing at 10 PM ET.

Hope you enjoy the book.

Comments: 140 • Responses: 49  • Date: 

drcorndog28 karma

I took a couple of your American History classes when I was in school and you were one of my favorite professors, just wanted to say thanks.

Do you plan to write another book on any of the other great crimes in American History?

Terry_Alford14 karma

Hey, Doc! How you doing and nice to hear from you! Thanks for the kind words. Let me know what you think of the book!

I'm going to keep writing and I need a few months off before I dive into the next one.

estellemhallick21 karma

What was the most surprising part of your research?

Terry_Alford47 karma

The most surprising part was realizing what a really good actor he was.

He was an exceptional actor.

He was one of 4 or 5 great actors of the Civil War generation.

He had armies of fans. Tons of money. Critics loved him.

So he was a very serious actor. And of course, that is lost, once he shot Lincoln. Nobody thinks about that anymore.

In a way, he was kinda like Brad Pitt. He was that popular. Those good looks, that success.

And it was all overshadowed when he shot the President.

trainsacrossthesea3 karma

Have you been to the Players Club in NYC? They have a painting of his brother. I believe he was considered the best Shakespearean actor of the day. If so, was his career ruined by his brother? Sorry, question answered.

Terry_Alford9 karma

Yes, been to the Players Club. They have some original Booth family manuscripts there. Edwin stayed off the stage until the year following the assassination, but he then returned and was well received. He was not his brother's keeper, apparently.

beernerd18 karma

Who was the second most interesting person you discussed in your class?

Terry_Alford23 karma

I would say it would be Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot JFK. People really wanted to know - was he working for the Russian government, or was he just a nut job?

beernerd8 karma

Well, was he?

Terry_Alford30 karma

Recent discoveries in Russian archives reveal they were very suspicious of him (the Russian government was) and didn't think he was an appropriate person to work through. So my understanding of that was that he was just a flake. The Russian government watched him, they actually bugged his apartment.

beernerd11 karma

Wow, I had no idea the Russians were even involved. Any plans to write a book about him as well?

Terry_Alford32 karma

No. I think Booth is a cut above Lee Harvey Oswald. He had a serious profession that he was at the top of. People asked for his autograph BEFORE he shot the President.

He was somebody with something to lose, not a born loser. Nobody ever heard of Lee Harvey Oswald before, and if he hadn't have shot Kennedy, nobody would've.

Booth starred in THE WINTER GARDEN across America, and made tons of money. Lincoln saw him perform, loved his acting, and wanted to meet him.

fuhrerhealth5 karma

Did Stephen King get the Oswald history right in his book, 11/22/63?

Terry_Alford8 karma

Sorry, haven't read it yet. I'm a miserable failure.

The thing is when you're working on something like this you have limited time to read anything else. Even a book like this, written by my distinguished friend and colleague.

ScathachRises15 karma

Thanks for the AMA! I've always been very interested in Edwin Booth, and I wondered - I know Edwin was very ashamed of what his brother did, but what was their relationship like before that?

Terry_Alford21 karma

Edwin was a good older brother, but had a bit of a drinking problem when John was growing up. They were very close. John was the only family member who went to Edwin's wedding in 1860. During the war, politics pulled them apart. Edwin was very pro-Northern. They had some very heated arguments over politics, but always loved one another.

kahund14 karma

As one of the most written about men in history(Lincoln), how is it that this is the first biography of JWB?

Terry_Alford13 karma

There have been books on the assassination before, but never one on the assassin. I thought until there was a full understanding of him, we wouldn't fully understand what he did.

Booth didn't leave a big collection of letters, so there wasn't really one place to go for research on the subject. I had to go to dozens of places, put puzzle pieces together.

mtown4ever3 karma

I would argue that Michael Kauffman's American Brutus is a de facto biography of Booth. While its focus is the assassination, it covers a wide range of Booth's life and his family's history.

I'm somewhat fascinated by Booth and was unaware of our book until now. I'm excited to read it. Thanks for answering questions!

Terry_Alford4 karma

Mike wrote a very fine book. It's a very interesting read.

CareyLovesDaisy14 karma

Is there any common trait that assassins seem to have? Does Booth have personality similarities to the person who shot JFK? MLK?

Terry_Alford29 karma


Particularly Oswald.

Both were politically fanatic type-people. Both would do something that a million other people wouldn't do. So they're not crazy when you look at 'em walking down the street, but one-to-one, face to face, they were not normal.

They were obsessive.

thefoolofemmaus14 karma

What is an interesting crime most people have not heard of?

Terry_Alford31 karma

One little known fact that I bring out in the book is when he was 12 years old, John Wilkes Booth killed cats.

Now, what was weird about that, was that he was VERY kind to other animals.

He protected dogs, horses, even butterflies. He'd go out of his way to not hurt a lightning bug. But he just had a cat-killing mania.

He killed all the neighborhood cats he could get to.

There are accounts from two friends of his that I include in my book that say how he would tie cats together, so if one moved, it would hurt the other one, that he would chase 'em across rooftops, trying to get ahold of 'em... obviously something was going on.

This is obviously a bad sign.

But weirdly, he was kind to other animals.

Apparently he grew out of it, because in a later story, in his 20's he was kind and rescued some kittens.

From what survives in the accounts, I'd like to think he outgrew that.

thefoolofemmaus31 karma

This is obviously a bad sign.

You have a gift for understatement.

Terry_Alford18 karma


lastsecondmagic8 karma

How did you uncover this fact?

Terry_Alford9 karma

One of the accounts I discovered was that of an actor named Stuart Robson. He was a close friend of Booth with no reason to lie about this story.

CareyLovesDaisy13 karma

Was there anyone else besides Lincoln that Booth had hatred for as well? Perhaps Grant? Was his anger focused only on Lincoln?

Terry_Alford18 karma

I think he focused on Lincoln almost as if Lincoln had done something personal to him. Lots of Booth's friends talked about how he discussed Lincoln as if he had done a personal injury to him. When in fact, Lincoln hadn't! All of the problems of that time - Booth just rolled onto Lincoln, and into Lincoln. He became a symbol.

themelephant12 karma

How long did it take for the average American to hear that the president had been assasinated?

Terry_Alford22 karma

People in New York knew it by the time they woke up in the morning of April 15. Down South, due to the war, it took a few days to two weeks for the news to reach there. Thanks to Western Union telegraph line across the country, people in San Francisco knew it the next day, which is pretty amazing.

jaymaslar12 karma

Have you ever seen the Stephen Sondheim musical 'Assassins'? I grew up doing theater, and there is one role for a child in the show. When I was 10 or so I was asked to play the part (I'm 31 now). Ever since then I have been intrigued by Booth. I look forward to reading your book!

Terry_Alford15 karma

Yes, I have seen that. It's a great, great play. Sondheim was very open to historical information about Booth. He answered letters from scholars and really reached out academic community. Stephen Spielberg did the same thing with the Lincoln film that I worked on.

jaymaslar5 karma

Awesome! Do you have any other projects lined up? Thank you so much for your time.

Terry_Alford6 karma

Yes, I'm kicking around a book on Lincoln, Booth, and spiritualism. And thinking about a TV series on creativity that I'd like to produce.

MaroonOldCrow9 karma

I grew up in West Tennessee and for a period of time one of JWB's descendants was a classmate. She was very, very sensitive about her ancestor's notoriety. Did you or have you considered reaching out to any of JWB's descendants to get their take on how over a century later their lives have been affected?

Edit: "Descendant" may not be the most accurate term; she was from the Booth family and carried the surname.

Terry_Alford6 karma

Obviously I don't know her, but there are a lot of Booths out there. My research indicates he had no direct descendents that can be confirmed, either by DNA or by a paper trail.

Every state claims to have one. I got an email from somebody from Mississippi just a few minutes ago who claims to be a descendant.

R00QIE8 karma

Have you heard any conspiracies that just might be true?

Terry_Alford11 karma

I think that the Confederate government had plan independent of Booth to kidnap Lincoln. So there were several parallel plans to kidnap Lincoln going on at the same time. It's obvious today that the government duplicates and does contradictory stuff.

HamburgerJames7 karma

How were his interactions amongst the theater community? Were any of his supporting cast members concerned about his behavior prior to that night? Were there any note-worthy actors co-starring with him during that period?

Sorry for multiple questions - his place as an actor amongst his peers has always been a subject of curiosity for me.

Terry_Alford6 karma

He was very liked by other actors. From star actors to stock actors, top to bottom. You'll see some people say in later years that he could be very rough in handling other actors on stage. He was a very physical actor, and you needed all your wits when you were acting with him. But you never hear anybody say before 1865 that he was crazy. You have to almost be a little crazy to make a living at acting. He was a star himself so he always took top billing. The support actors were second tier, so he very rarely costarred with his equals, like his brother Edwin, except just once with Edwin in 1864. He knew all the famous actors, but very seldom co-starred with them.

Ima_asku_aboutcheese5 karma

What was John's favorite Cheese?

Terry_Alford19 karma

Lincolnshire. A hard unpasteurized cow's milk cheese, generally of a cylindrical shape. Much like Lincoln's hat. Which was also made of cheese. Little-known historical fact.

HugAThunderMug5 karma

If there's another actor to assassinate a world leader, who do you think it would be on both sides of the crime and why?

Terry_Alford13 karma

That's a good question.

I think actors are unusual people. And they really engage their emotions in their jobs MUCH more than most of us do. So if one gets too tightly wound up - there could be trouble.

HugAThunderMug16 karma

Oh my God, someone on /r/IAmA replied to me! I've had this recurring dream of Gary Busey assassinating Vladimir Putin on horseback, shirtless.

Terry_Alford21 karma

Wow, I had the same dream last night!

foistie5 karma

While researching your book:

1) what was the most surprising thing you learned about John Wilkes Booth not commonly known?

2) what was equally surprising to learn about the crew that supported the assassination of President Lincoln?

3) What was the most surprising thing you learned about the public reaction to the death of President Lincoln; including the general population living in the South?

Terry_Alford14 karma

I would say to #1, how many friends he had, of both sexes. When time when on and they felt safe to talk about him, their recollections were surprisingly positive. The crew Booth gathered from school friends, former Confederate soldiers, they were solid middle class people. Not geniuses, not dummies. And very drawn in by his personality. The further away you were from the North, the friendlier the reaction was. But alot of Southern people were freaked out by the assassination because they feared they'd be blamed or suffer for it. I'm really surprised that the country didn't blow it's stack and just kill Southerners randomly. I'd like to think it says something good about the country that there wasn't an excessive amount of vengeance.

LatenightSurfer5 karma

As a writer whose work inspired you the most? Also what is your favorite book related to philosophy?

Terry_Alford9 karma


Whose work has inspired me the most? I like the works of James McPherson. He's a Civil War Historian at Princeton University. Great writer, great person. And he won the Pulitzer Prize.

CareyLovesDaisy5 karma

Who would you recommend play Booth if they were to make a movie of his life and assassination today?

Terry_Alford14 karma

Perhaps Cillian Murphy or Jack Huston would be great.

cloud-is-good5 karma

On Booth's famous quote after jumping onto the stage, Sic semper tyrannis, was this a common perception, in the South, of Lincoln, as a tyrant? Or was it a personal opinion of Booth?

Terry_Alford8 karma

It was a common perception. That belief was so widespread, in fact, that it led to secession. It's still the state motto of Virginia.

DisapprovingLlama4 karma

How might have reconstruction differed in the years following the war had Lincoln lived?

Terry_Alford13 karma

It would have been much better. Lincoln had political skills that Andrew Johnson didn't have. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would have definitely been better. Johnson didn't have a political base that Lincoln did. Lincoln had a strong control of the Republican party. Plus he wasn't a mean or malicious guy. Johnson was very stubborn and a loner and difficult, and he didn't like black people that much. Lincoln did. The loss of Lincoln was one of the real tragedies of the assassination. Not just his life but his presence.

fortrines4 karma

Any story behind the name - "FORTUNE'S FOOL" ?

Terry_Alford9 karma

The phrase was originally used by Romeo when he realized he had screwed himself by killing Juliet's cousin. He blamed fate or fortune for it.

Booth told his mother, shortly before the murder, that he felt like fate had put a hand on him and was pushing him forward to a certain destiny.

arkanpillow3 karma

What drew you to do research on JWB? It draws me in as well, the assassination and sequential manhunt.

Terry_Alford7 karma

This was the greatest single crime in American history. And I wanted to know who Booth was an why he did it. And to know the broader person not just the April 14th Booth, but the whole life front to back.

arkanpillow2 karma

Obviously, the number 1 question, why did he do it? To gain notoriety or did his crazy side just take over?

And thanks for answering!

Terry_Alford7 karma

It was probably two things. One, his political fanaticism. And then the context of the war. Thinking about that it's surprising that Lincoln lived as long as he did. How can 700,000 people die and not him?

InTupacWeTrust3 karma

What is something that you learned while researching John Wilkes Booth that the general public doesn't know?

Terry_Alford3 karma

I learned that Booth had a lot of good personal qualities. But he had beliefs so intense that they got swept aside at the end of the day. Too bad, because he was a talented and charismatic person.

Terry_Alford5 karma

I bet everybody knows somebody like that -- who becomes their own worst enemy.

DrSamLoomis2 karma

What are your feelings about Mary Surratt? Do you believe she was involved with the plot with Booth?

Terry_Alford3 karma

Opinions vary, but I believe she was aware of the kidnap plot. I don't think she knew about the murder.

ControlYourPoison2 karma

Is he really buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore? In college, I used to go there all the time to take pictures and the one unmarked tombstone would always be covered in pennies.

Terry_Alford3 karma

Yes, he's really there. He's buried in the family plot. The cemetery has records documenting his burial there.

In 1995, there was a court case in Baltimore. Some people wanted to exhume the body, but the court ruled against them, saying the body had been fully identified at the time of its burial. I testified at that trial.

Whoosier2 karma

What was the oddest thing you learned from the research of an amateur "Boothie" (the "True Crutch"?) and what was the most useful for your book?

Terry_Alford2 karma

Joan Chaconas of Maryland, a cracker-jack researcher, found a statement by George Atzerodt, which gave wonderful details about Booth's conspiracy. She found this in the papers of Atzerodt's lawyer. It was owned by a descendant of the lawyer and it had just been laying there.

Bob0022 karma

Did you do any geneology? I've been told I'm related (and have an Uncle JWB). Wondering how real that claim is.

Terry_Alford2 karma

JWB had no children that we know of. Edwin Booth, his brother, has descendents. His aunt and uncle, the Mitchells, have some descendents as well.

The name Wilkes came from the Lord Mayor of London, who was a cousin of the Booth family.

dmorin2 karma

I love the Shakespeare story of the Booth family. How much of the family's acting history do you explore in the book?

Terry_Alford3 karma

They were great actors. I look at the father and at John, primarily. And then John in the context of the other Civil War actors, so you get a good feeling for what they did and the Shakespearean dimension of their lives.

Frajer2 karma

did Booth want notoriety ?

Terry_Alford7 karma

Yes, and in that way he's an actor. What actor doesn't want center stage? You could always argue whether he was doing a duty or acting a character. I suspect a little bit of both.

fortrines2 karma

Was Booth condemned across the board for his actions at the time, or was there a sizable portion of the US that really did think Lincoln was acting like a tyrant and needed to be put down?

Do you have any good quotes like a diary entry or somebody reacting to the news immediately after learning about it?

Terry_Alford7 karma

Serious numbers of people in the South were immediately ecstatic over the murder. The hardcore, the most pro-Southern. The satisfaction was most widespread in Texas (the least occupied Confederate state; they were still flying the flags out there).

In the final chapter of the book, there are some quotes I found about this which may be of interest to you.

Leumas_Loch2 karma

What are your thoughts on the punishment of his co-conspirators? I was reading a bit on the assassination today and saw that 4 people were executed for the crime and several others received life sentences. Do you think there was a bit of a frenzy to place blame since Wilkes was not alive to stand trial?

Terry_Alford3 karma

I wouldn't want to have been a defendant in that trial. A lot of extraneous evidence was admitted. But I think that everybody who was hanged (except Mrs. Surratt) got just about what they would have got in a court today.

The one sentenced to life imprisonment served only four years. That was for conspiring with Booth to kidnap Lincoln.

Tough trial, scary situation, but reasonably fair outcome.

manderso71 karma

Have you ever heard the song John Wilkes Booth by Clutch? It's a bit loud, but describes finding the body of John Wilkes Booth, and the gruesome power he still has over the public.

Terry_Alford1 karma

No I haven't, but I'll check it out tonight. Thanks for checking in.

DisapprovingLlama0 karma

Do you plan to write other biographies? What drew you to Abdul-Rahman's story?

Terry_Alford4 karma

I like biography as a form. And I like stories of unusual people in unusual circumstances. I have another project coming up dealing with Lincoln and Booth and a very unusual connection they have. Stay tuned!

DisapprovingLlama2 karma

Can you give us some spoilers? :)

Terry_Alford5 karma

Booth and Lincoln shared a spiritualist in common, who held seances with both men. The spiritualist knew enough to know that Lincoln's life was in danger and warned him. Just like Caesar and the soothsayer, Lincoln didn't take the advice seriously.

BigYearColorado4 karma

How much of Lincoln's participation in spiritualism was due to a legitimate belief (even the faddish sense of spiritualist belief going around at the time), and how much of it was done to help Mary Todd process her grief over losing Willie?

One characterization I see frequently concerning the Lincoln's relationship is Mary Todd as an insane whacko who believed in ghosts, and Abe was forced to suffer her various delusions. What I find however is that he, too, was devastated by Willie's loss and held it together because he had to be there for the rest of the family. He could easily have succumbed himself. There's been plenty published about his propensity for depression.

And spiritualism wasn't just some fringe belief: during the Civil War, death came to every doorstep and brought its own mass culture of mourning. David Blight's Race and Reunion, which you've probably read, uses the culture of national mourning as a framework to explain a number of behaviors and actions after the Civil War. I've seen some studies on the radical change in tombstone and cenotaph imagery around the period.

Anyway my historiography professor had a wonderful guiding principle: people are neither crazy, nor are they stupid. When researching, I remember that every decision made sense at the time to someone. The Lincolns' behavior and especially Mary Todd's might look bonkers, but placed within an atmosphere of overwhelming death and mourning, I get it.

Terry_Alford4 karma

I address some of this issue in an article in last month's Smithsonian magazine. Obviously Mary was more into this than Lincoln. But the thing is it offered avenues for her to be exploited by unscrupulous people.

BigYearColorado1 karma

I'll have to read your article, thanks!

If you cover this in the article let me know, but I wonder how much of her descent into devout spiritualism and mental illness was an expression of a lack of control. I look at the mental state of the couple and I have to wonder why Abe survived, mentally. Responsibility for the family and obligation to the country is probably the x-factor, but I find a contribution in gender analysis: as a woman, even a wealthy, politically-connected woman, Mary Todd had no control over her situation relative to Abraham. No ability to vote, it would be improper and dangerous for her to be involved with suffragists, very few legal rights. Being a second-class citizen wears on a person.

Terry_Alford2 karma

This is a good question and deserves more time than I can give it, but it's something I intend to work on in the future. Stay tuned.

fearatmoss990 karma

Is there any chance the Lincoln assassination was an inside job to get rid of a guy that the south hated so the country could unite faster after a blood civil war?

Terry_Alford3 karma

If by "inside job" you mean someone in the federal government around Lincoln, I found no evidence of that. There were people who were frustrated with Lincoln and jealous of Lincoln around him. But it wouldn't have reached to the level of killing him.

Detectives in 1865 were not idiots -- they knew how to investigate and solve a murder like this.

fearatmoss991 karma

I did mean in the federal government. One last question is what do you make of Booth and Vice President Johnson being acquaintances and Booth leaving a note to him only hours before the assassination.

Johnson was supposed to be assassinated but wasn't because the assassin got cold feet? Seems suspicious? Also didn't Mary Todd Lincoln dislike Johnson and believed he had a hand in it?

Thanks for responding, this has been great!

Terry_Alford4 karma

Johnson later denied he ever knew Booth, although their times overlap when Johnson was governor of Tennessee and Booth was acting in Nashville. Most historians believe the card left in Johnson's mailbox was for his secretary, a man named Browning, whom Booth knew. Booth assigned a smuggler to attack Johnson, so it's no surprise this fellow backed out of the plot. He wasn't a killer. Mrs. Lincoln did dislike Johnson a great deal, and thought he might have been involved in the murder, but I never saw the evidence for it.