May 18, 2010

Booth: An honor, I presume

Edwin Booth was known as an important and well-respected actor, probably more successful than his now-infamous brother John Wilkes Booth. On May 18, 1863 (two years before his younger brother would assassinate President Abraham Lincoln), Booth wrote a letter from the desk of Washington Irving in New York. He was not particularly impressed by the opportunity.

Booth had moved into a room rented from publisher George Putnam while looking for a place of his own ("a permanent home while on earth," he wrote). He had recently lost his wife Mary Devlin and worried about what he would leave his daughter Edwina when he was gone. Booth was strongly affected by his wife's death and struggled internally:

You would not think that I suffer... nor would I have you think that I do suffer constantly: it is only at times, as now... Believe in one great truth... God is... This should make me happy, should it not? But it does not. I never knew how much I loved her.

The melancholy mood made it hard for him to enjoy his visit to, presumably, Irving's home in Tarrytown. Irving had died about four years earlier and maintained a reputation as one of America's greatest writers. Booth noted the fact nonchalantly: "I am writing on Washington Irving's table — an honor, I presume." He made no further mention of the incident and concluded his letter (dated the day before Mary Devlin's birthday): "Write cheerfully and at length; I need it!"

Booth remarried a few years later but his second wife, Mary McVicker, died after only about 12 years of marriage. Booth himself died in 1893 and was buried beside his first wife in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

*The image above is an albumen print of Booth with his daughter Edwina ca. 1864, not long after this letter was written. From the George Eastman House Collection.


  1. I love that image. It seems to tell its own story.

  2. Edwin Booth died on June 7, 1893, not in 1881.

  3. Sorry about that error - the link was correct, just a small mistake here.