If you're like me, you learned about John Wilkes Booth in your high school American History class. He was the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. What I didn't know was that Booth had a direct connection to Greenwich!
Booth's parents were Junius and Brutus Booth, who immigrated from England. John was born in 1835 in Bel Air, Maryland, and was the ninth of ten children. His brother, Edwin, and he were accomplished Shakespearian actors. Years later, Edwin lived at Cedarcliff in Cos Cob overlooking the Mianus River, near the land where the Cos Cob Power Plant was eventually built. Playwright Charles Barras had built Cedarcliff, but met an untimely death. Edwin Booth moved there in the 1870s with his wife, Edwina, and his children. He was a close friend of Commodore E.C. Benedict, and spent many an afternoon on the Oneida, Benedict's yacht. It's been written that Booth, Benedict, Mark Twain and others came up with the idea for the Player's Club, an old fashioned "gentlemen's club" in New York City, aboard the Oneida in 1888. Edwin was well-liked, and when he died in 1893, hundreds showed up for his funeral.
Now, according to Judge Frederick Hubbard in "The Judge's Corner", Edwin's brother, John Wilkes Booth, travelled around the country with a theatrical troupe. When he was in Providence, RI, he met actress Martha Mills. They fell in love. She was a Puritan, and her family didn't approve of John because actors had a bad reputation. So the two eloped, and married in Greenwich on January 18, 1859, at what is now called the "Little Church in Dingletown". Surprisingly, there is no record of the marriage! Booth and his wife subsequently moved to Baltimore, MD.
John Wilkes Booth was a Southern sympathizer. He thought slavery was good for America. John came up with a scheme to kidnap Abe Lincoln to ransom him for peace, or an exchange of Confederate soldiers. He enlisted the help of 6 other people to help kidnap Lincoln on the outskirts of Washington and deliver him to the Confederate capital in Richmond. Lincoln never arrived. However, Booth heard that Lincoln was to attend a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington. Booth created an elaborate plan to assassinate Lincoln, while others were to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.
On April 14, 1865, Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the balconey of Ford's Theater. He then jumped to the stage below the balconey, breaking his leg. He yelled "Sic semper tyrannis! (Death to tyrants!) The South is avenged!" He dragged himself out of the theater, and rode off on his horse. He and another conspirator sought out Doctor Samuel A. Mudd, who set the leg, gave them food and refuge for several days. Booth and his friend eventually crossed the Potomac, and held up at the farm of Richard H. Garrett. They were discovered in a tobacco barn on April 26th. Booth refused to surrender, and the barn was set afire. One of his pursuers, Austin Corbett, claims to have shot Booth. Witnesses claimed Booth stated as he was dying, "Tell mother. . .I died for my country!" A doctor reportedly pronounced him dead at the scene. There seems to be a bit of a controversy over whether Booth was shot by someone else, or if he committed suicide, fearing he would be tortured if caught.
Authorities gathered up the rest of Booth's accomplices. One was executed, and others were imprisoned. Doctor Mudd received a life sentence, but President Johnson pardoned him in 1869.
Interestingly, Judge Frederick Hubbard in "The Judge's Corner" on June 16, 1932, reported that he received a letter from a woman in Norwalk who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth's granddaughter. She said she was in possession of her grandmother Martha's diary, which indicates Booth lived in San Francisco under an assumed name for 20 years after the close of the Civil War! In 1870, he wrote to his wife, Martha, and she moved to the west coast , where she lived until she died in 1886. This would contradict other accounts of a doctor pronouncing Booth dead in the barn. The body was examined, and dental records verified that the dead man was, indeed, John Wilkes Booth. It's an interesting urban legend, anyway!
SOURCE: Greenwich History: The Judge's Corner; Hubbard, F., 2001. (Print)
"John Wilkes Booth". Gale History in Context. Gale Centage Learning. n.d. Web. 20 Sep. 2012 (Electronic)