I was watching a new episode of History Detectives last night on PBS (one of the few shows to which I am hopelessly addicted). Tukufu Zuberi did a segment about a letter purportedly written by the father of John Wilkes Booth to President Andrew Jackson threatening to assassinate Old Hickory.
The piece turned up some interesting tidbits supporting the notion that at least thoughts of assassination ran in the Booth family, such as what appears to be a contemporaneous apology for the letter from Booth the elder to Jackson in a Philadelphia newspaper.
The Library of Congress in the past had done some pretty exhaustive work of which I was unaware that signals our letter’s authenticity. Quoting Barbara Bair of the Library’s Manuscript Division:
[A]ccording to research by an LC conservator who specializes in manuscripts [Mary Elizabeth (Betsy) Haude], and who has examined the letter, the paper used in the Junius Booth to Andrew Jackson letter of July 4, 1835, as evidenced by the watermarks (dove, and A KELTY), was that of the paper maker Anthony Kelty. He operated a paper mill from 1830-1840 on Buck Run, near Coatesville in East Fallowfield Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. [The letter was dated July 4, 1835, and addressed from Philadelphia.]
One of the unsolved mysteries regarding the letter was why the word “anonymous” had been scrawled in blue on the letter’s docketing (an identifying inscription on the letter’s covering). Again, Bair quotes Library conservators:
Pinpointing the origin of the inscription of “anonymous” that was added in a different hand to the docketing/address portion of the document is difficult without scientific analysis. It is possible that the blue ink is made from Prussian Blue, often referred to as the first modern/synthetic/artificial pigment. It was in use from approximately 1774.
It’s also possible that the blue ink is made from an aniline dye. Aniline dyes were manufactured in the mid-to-late 19th century. Both indigo and Prussian blue were added to iron-gall ink. However the blue ink on the Junius Booth document does not exhibit the qualities of iron-gall ink. And it is quite vivid in color. Aniline dye-based inks came into use after the 1850s. This does not determine to any precise degree when the notation was written, but that it appears to be 19th century in origin, and most likely written after Jackson had died (which was in 1845).
So why did Booth write the letter? It has been well-established that Junius Booth, a renowned Shakespearean actor of his time, was a heavy drinker who was given to insane outbursts, even during his on-stage performances. For instance, Bair relates an account from the book “American Gothic: The Story of Americas Legendary Theatrical FamilyJunius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth” by Gene Smith. As the story goes, the character played by Junius was about to kill the character played by his son Edwin when they were heckled by a drunk, to whom Junius, still in character, raged: “Beware. I am the headsman, I am the executioner!”
It’s unclear how President Jackson responded to the letter, especially given the published Booth apology and the fact that Booth and Jackson were actually friends. (The Booth letter states, “You know me! Look out!”) But it’s possible that the old general and hero of the War of 1812 held little fear of death at the hands of another: Earlier in 1835, when a man tried to shoot Jackson at the Capitol and his gun misfired, the president personally fended off the would-be assassin with his cane as observers merely stood agape.
The Library has made the Junius Booth letter available to historians for some time, but I’ve also included in this post links to high-resolution images of the letter and its docketing for any other “history detectives” out there.
And watch “History Detectives” on Aug. 17, when another piece featuring the Manuscript Division will air. I hope to write about it at the time.