This startling handwritten letter by John Wilkes Booth, the ultimate show business sleazeball mixing in politics, demonstrates the intriguing and unexpected turns that are encountered in the collection of historical manuscripts. From Tudor Hall in Bel Air, Maryland , on November 12, 1855 , Booth has addressed boyhood friend T. William O'Laughlin, older brother of one of the conspirators later recruited by Booth in his plots against Lincoln . While most manuscripts will not carry the impact of this one, the opportunities for learning are endless and the preservation of historical artifacts is highly rewarding in itself.
This is a rare and dramatic letter written by Booth at age 17, his only known boyhood letter to depict an interest in politics; but he was active in the American "Know Nothing" Party that had a spectacular rise and fall in the 1850s. The young man was attracted by the allure of the secret society (hence "Know Nothing") that was the American Party. Its anti-foreign and anti-Catholic stance drew many followers who expected it to sweep the 1856 general election. But even it became a victim of the slavery question that realigned politics in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and its candidate in the 1856 election, former President Millard Fillmore, carried only one state - where else?, Maryland!
Several youthful letters by Booth to school friend T. William O'Laughlin have appeared; he was the older brother of the conspirator Michael O'Laughlin and employed him in his grain business in the early 1860s. The younger brother was recruited by Booth for his failed plots to kidnap Abraham Lincoln prior to the assassination. He blundered back into Washington at the time of the assassination, voluntarily surrendered to authorities later and was sentenced by the military tribunal, which did not distinguish between the kidnap and murder plots, to life imprisonment. He died of yellow fever at Fort Jefferson , Florida , in 1867.
Here Booth has written from his family home in the Maryland country near Baltimore , offering apologies for not meeting his friend as arranged:
"It is too early yet for a light and too late, to see without one, so you must excuse all crossing the line. Allow me to appologize for not meeting you...I went to the Fountain and found that Mother had Company so I was kept there til after nine Oclock and then had to show my galantry by going as far as broad way. I returned to the Fountain, saw nothing of you... "
He exults over the result of local elections: "Things are going on fine in the Country, only I am getting tired. The excitement is all over. The American ticket was elected by 1749 Majority in this County."
At the close is his forcefully written "Three Cheers For America."
Booth's autographs in any form have been scarce despite his notoriety as an actor; it is reasonable to think that many were destroyed to remove any evidence of prior association with him in the hysteria filled days after he shot Lincoln .