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Interpretation of an ASSASSIN

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Frazier International History Museum offers Booth perspective in Louisville

By The Staff

By JOHN NEVILLE

Turret Staff Writer

john.neville@us.army.mil

Some people are defined in history by a single notorious act.

Take, for example, John Wilkes Booth, the famed theatre actor and confederate sympathizer who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at point blank range inside Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865.

But, as portrayed in the Frazier International History Museum’s historical interpretation series underway in Louisville, there was more to Booth’s life than the one heinous act and the 12-day manhunt that followed.

“Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Life of John Wilkes Booth” examines the life of the nationally renowned actor, from his boyhood days until his death by gunshot in a barn on a Virginia farm.

He was a murderer. But he was also a loving brother, a beloved son, a skilled thespian, and a dedicated Confederate.

“I did not want to create only an assassin,” said Tony Dingman, the interpreter who plays Booth in the multi-act play. “I wanted to create a human being.”

Booth almost seemed to fulfill the prophecy of a fortune teller he met when he was a young boy. Asia, Booth’s sister, encouraged her younger brother to allow the fortune teller to read the young boy’s palm.

The reader spoke of a dark future. She told Booth that he would live a lively but short life. He’d break many hearts, would run into much trouble, and would meet a tragic end.

Booth was just 26 when he died. He did live lively, broke many hearts as a womanizer, and he met a tragic end.

Booth’s run from authorities during the 12-day manhunt wasn’t as glorious as the Confederate sympathizer had imagined. Booth expected strangers and friends to praise him and willingly assist in his escape. But the reality was that he found minimal comfort and no cheering along the trail through Maryland and then into Virginia.

“The longer he was on the run, the more he was not wanted,” said interpreter Kelly Moore.

After the assassination, Booth found there was little appetite among Confederate sympathizers to continue the fight against what he called the tyrannical Union government.

Booth had shouted the Latin phrase “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants) after leaping to the Ford’s Theatre stage (and breaking a leg) from Lincoln’s box before fleeing, and in his mind he heard the entire South yell along with him. But the words seemed to run mute as Booth’s run from authorities continued.

The interpretation’s dialogue is taken completely from primary sources, either directly from letters, trial testimony, journals, or the journals and letters of people who overheard the original words.

 Booth actually kept a journal as he attempted escape through the swamps and farmland of Maryland and Virginia.

“Everything said up there (in the interpretation) was either said by him or overhead by another,” Dingman said. “This is as close to John Wilkes Booth as I could get…by using his own words.”

Booth wrote a letter to the National Intelligencer explaining his motivations for killing the president. Ever the actor, Booth even compared his act to Brutus’ stabbing of Julius Caesar.

“John Wilkes Booth says it better than I ever could,” Dingman said.

Booth constantly aspired to be a southern gentleman, even as he lay  crippled and surrounded by Union troops in the burning Virginia barn. He told the soldiers to move

back so he could come out and fight, knowing it would eventually lead to his death.

But the soldiers didn’t abide, and his death wasn’t gentlemanly.

 Sgt. Boston Corbett, ignoring a general order not to shoot,  fired through an opening in the barn

wall and mortally wounded Booth. He was dragged from the fiery structure and died on the ground a short time later. 

ABOUT THE FRAZIER MUSEUM

The Frazier Museum covers 1,000 years of history. The priceless collection is housed in a 100,000- square-foot state-of-the-art museum in downtown Louisville’s historic Doerhoefer building. The Frazier brings history to life every day through live interpretations by costumed interpreters, multi-media presentations, educational programming, and hands-on learning. The Frazier Museum is the only museum to have a partnership with the Royal Armouries, making it the only museum of its kind in the United States and the world. For more information about the museum, call (502) 412-2280 or log on to www.fraziermuseum.org.