The Booth family, by and large, proved more easily moved when it came to the metaphysical. Their patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, one of the most famed thespians of his day, was also famously peculiar, a man who held funerals for pigeons and once dug up his daughter’s grave and attempted to revive her by sucking out her “impure” blood. Several sons succeeded him in his career path, and his idiosyncrasies: Edwin had an abiding fear of ivy vines and peacock feathers; Joe, the youngest, once absconded to Australia without warning, then spent years there on some kind of vision quest.
As for Lincoln’s eventual killer? “His mind was a haunted house,” according to one contemporary journalist quoted here. But even Alford, whose 2015 book, “Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth,” was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, never really roots out the source of the mania that turned a celebrated performer of no particular political will or creed (though he really seemed to hate house cats) into a foaming radical willing not just to die for the Southern cause, but to unseat democracy. Booth’s fanatical conviction that Lincoln had kingly designs on a dictatorship — and that he alone could stop it — somehow managed to pass, it seems, as one more quirk of an artistic temperament.
Whimsy is one thing for an actor; it’s another altogether for a sitting president. And the cool logic of a trained attorney (“not impulsive, fanciful or imaginative, but cold, calm, precise and exact,” according to his longtime law partner) did seem to live incongruously alongside an almost primal set of superstitions; unlucky numbers, for example, worried Lincoln so much that he once reportedly refused to be seated 13th at a table. News of quirks like those were manna to his enemies, who envisioned a daft administration run by a rapping table: “No need for a constitution when it tapped, thumped and banged out orders from Hannibal and Attila the Hun that were the new law of the land.” Not exactly Nancy Reagan divining foreign policy from her astrologer, maybe, but not far off.
Beyond the prospect of dinner-party amusement or indulging his increasingly mercurial wife, though, Lincoln had at least one good reason to want to believe: the loss of his favorite child, Willie, a “noble, beautiful boy” whose death from typhoid at the tender age of 11 left both Lincolns bereft. Set against the wider landscape of a Civil War whose mass casualties were already carving deep wounds in a poisonously divided nation, is it any wonder he sought comfort in the supernatural, or at least the clever performance of it?