Booth's Sister

Booth's Sister

Jane Singer

$14.95 July 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9802453-3-8

A poignant novel about Asia Booth, the beloved sister of John Wilkes Booth. The story takes readers from Asia and "Johnny's" turbulent childhood on a Maryland farm to the growing drama in their star-crossed adult lives as Asia is accused of being her brother's accomplice.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt


"My brother killed Abraham Lincoln. That is my weight, my shame. While he remained at large, I was held captive in my home. I should have told the soldiers who came with guns drawn and bayonets at the ready this true thing: I might have stopped him, for I harbored him and kept his secrets. I was a pie safe locked tight and guilty as he."

Asia Booth Clarke was twenty-nine years old and pregnant when Union soldiers and Federal detectives stormed her Philadelphia home in search of her assassin-brother. John Wilkes Booth's older sister had grown up in one of America's most notoriously troubled but spectacularly acclaimed acting families. "Johnny" and Edwin, her handsome brothers, were the matinee idols of the era. When John Wilkes Booth's crime left the nation in furious mourning and the Booth family under a dark cloud of accusation, it was Asia who bore the brunt.

Booth's Sister was inspired by Asia Booth Clarke's personal memoirs. Author, Civil War scholar and storyteller Jane Singer has masterfully imagined the family dynamics and intimate dilemmas that led to one of America's most fateful crimes and left a sister's life in shambles.


Author's Note

I had seen only two photos of her. They were tattered, very old and riveting.She was a beauty—black-eyed and fine boned— her soul-weary gaze unchanged from the intense young woman trapped on a lonely farm to a solemn matron enduring a forced exile in England. Her name was Asia Booth, the beloved sister, teacher and other self of a famous young actor who changed history with a single gunshot.

On the moonless night of April 14th, 1865, five days after a plot to blow up the White House failed, John Wilkes Booth killed President Abraham Lincoln. During the twelve days of his flight through the Southern Maryland outback, Asia Booth was arrested and held in the Philadelphia home she shared with her husband. On April 26th, after a massive manhunt, Booth was cornered and killed in a burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia

Had her brother lived to face a trial, Asia surely would have been charged, for Booth used her home as a safe house, taught her the Confederate cipher code and entrusted her with papers revealing names and most likely, plots for the destruction of the United States government.

"A desperate turn towards evil had come,” she wrote, after hearing her brother damn the United States and the "falsely” elected president. It was her memoir called The Unlocked Book— a paean to a lost boy penned in secret during the last years of her life and smuggled to a trusted friend—that moved me.

My daughter Jessica who has with humor and grace, long endured my passion to ferret out and write about the unknown men and women in the Civil War, traveled with me to the Booth family home in Bel Air Maryland several years ago. For years, I'd been researching the Lincoln assassination, was writing a non-fiction work about terrorism in the Civil War and for good measure, completing a lengthy trek though Southern Maryland on the trail of Lincoln's assassin.

"Not another Dr. Mudd type farmhouse with spiders and people in costume who speak from another time,” Jessica said, longing for a nice hotel room with thick towels where she could study for a final exam in peace.

"Just one more stop,” I said. "It's only a hundred or so miles north of here.” My true companion-daughter rolled her eyes and pulled out a map. And soon, well, soon enough, we were bumping along a dirt road; any evidence of the mini-malls and gas stations we had passed, a memory—another time away.

"Tudor Hall,” is and was the hand-hewn creation of Asia's half-mad tragedian father Junius Brutus Booth – a tattered place rife with tales of ghostly apparitions, little changed in one hundred and sixty years-seemingly suspended in time. Asia Booth's feather bed and rocker remain in her small room, her brother's bookcase, bed and nightstand—a whisper away in his.

There was a sadness, a loneliness about the place. But there was also the sure feel of youthful lives, the dips and stutters and strangeness of country kids raised on Shakespeare, with mostly each other for company until the Civil War consumed John Booth and sent them both to an unimaginable hell.

We spent the night. A soundless, sweet one for Jessica nestled in Asia's bed. A troubled one for me, sleepless in John Wilkes Booth's room, lights and shadows playing on the walls, plenty of moaning wind brought by a sudden June storm. In the morning, Dorothy and Howard Fox, the gentle and genteel owners of the house smiled tolerantly at me as I wandered in the dewy grass. They puttered about the kitchen and served Jessica a country breakfast she would wax poetic about for years. Just before we left, I lingered in Asia's room. I knew so much about her brother and his deed and almost nothing about her. Feeling just a little silly, I asked her if I might write her story. I asked silently of course. Maybe the still, June air moved a bit. Maybe there was a small breeze. I left her room, the imagined scent of lilacs lingering in the air. In the narrow, narrow hallway that separated the ill-fated boy and girl, I made a promise. I would tell her story: Not a justification or a supplication, I told myself, but a tale, a sister's tale. Herein lies a promise kept.


Reviews

"a compelling re-imagining of Booth's childhood from the perspective of his sister" -- AmericanCivilWar.com

"Booth's Sister is a fascinating look at the life of the sister who was left to deal with the aftermath of the assassination." -- A Bookworms World

"Singer's novel is beautiful, and sad, with its love, passion, and language." -- Lesa Holstine, Library Manager and a contributing Book Reviewer for Library Journal, Blogcritics Magazine, and various websites


Excerpt

Your tale ... would cure deafness.

--The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Prologue

My brother killed Abraham Lincoln. That is my weight, my shame. While he remained at large, I was held captive in my home. I should have told the soldiers who came with guns drawn and bayonets at the ready this true thing: I might have stopped him, for I harbored him and kept his secrets. I was a pie safe locked tight and guilty as he.

When John Wilkes Booth was small and in my stormy keep, I fused us, so alike in face and form, into one muddle of a being. He was beautiful always. I was hat-rack thin with hair like a Hottentot's and a longing to be him as deep and wide as any river I ever did see. "You'll teach him the verses, Asia, and make him the greatest Booth of them all,” my father said. "Poor Hamlet weeps and sighs in your head, that I know,” he added, forbidding me to ever set foot on a stage.

The memory of the world around us—our celebrated family, the words of Shakespeare as necessary as morning porridge, our reckless, enchanted childhood deep in the woods—was a symphony of endless variation.

I watched as my brother grew to manhood; a famous actor with half the country in a lather about him and an easy passage through the world that lay beyond our sorry farm overgrown with tick weed and blighted corn. When war came, though our family remained dead loyal to Mr. Lincoln's Union, my brother did not. He was a Rebel to his bones and no ordinary soldier. John Wilkes Booth was an enemy agent on an enemy mission. And I who lived in him, lived for him could not, would not turn away.

On April 15, 1865, the day the President died, rain poured incessantly as though ordered by a raging god to drown we sinners in our sleep.

I begin my tale with that raw April dawn. I begin with rain.

... So full of dismal terror was the time.

--Richard III by William Shakespeare

1

Philadelphia

April 15, 1865

The gentle thrum of rain was soothing. I lay abed in my husband's house, a new life nesting in me. I traced the outline of the tiny body as it twitched and bumped and tickled. My first child would soon slumber in a grand nursery under a picture of his uncle, Johnny Booth.

"Remember me in your prayers,” my brother wrote on the photo we hung—the bold, snapping black-eyed broth of him—just over the crib. Dithering, vaporous women wept at the sight of John Booth, tearing off bits of his clothes as keepsakes as though cloth were flesh. Pity them, I mused. Pity the lasses that long for a famous man bright and beautiful as a new moon …

"Christ, oh, Christ!” My husband's cry jolted me from my reverie.

He was hopping from one foot to the other pulling at his pants in a frenzied effort to get them closed; wobbling and rubber-kneed in a minstrel's dance that was no dance at all. "God help me,” he whispered.

He hurled the morning newspaper on the floor. I struggled to my feet, my sleeping gown slipping from my shoulders, the hem caught around my ankles. I stumbled after him into the hallway. He'd forgotten his boots, racing away in stocking feet as though fleeing a fire.

"Answer me!” There was only silence save the slamming of doors.

"Gillie?” I whispered at the door of my trusted friend and companion. Her bed was empty.

I moved further down the hall. "Mama?” Just then I remembered my mother had gone to stay with friends in New York. And, it was cook's day off.

Perhaps someone summoned my husband to tell him his precious theatre had burned in the night. Or had disaster befallen the sloe-eyed actress who stroked his hand with uncommon tenderness and thought I did not notice? I was meant to be such a woman, to have light, long fingers, their tips scented with lavender, paid to float onstage to wild applause. My husband was passing happy once with me. Sometimes we'd dance till dawn, a waltz or a horn piper's jig weightless as leprechauns floating through a cloud. But the war and my brother's rebel stand had winnowed him to a shadow I barely knew.

I swore my tiny child rocked in my belly as if to cheer me, as if to say, "Wait for me, for the new-struck eyes of me. Wait for love.”

I walked toward my room, made heady by visions of the child and the flash of freedom at my husband's departure. I'd don britches and boots and ride far from this place, past the city into the woods. I'd not return 'til midnight passed, praying my brother's messengers would not land on my porch like nighthawks with more ciphers to decode: Men I met in shadow and prayed never to see again, the armed Rebels ordered to make themselves known to no one but me. Because my husband returned at all hours and slept like the dead 'til dawn, they passed in safety and silence.

And always, as I handed off the dispatches because I could not refuse my brother, I wished us young again, with nothing more pressing than reciting a verse of Shakespeare's at the tip of dawn. Trip away, I'd whisper to him, make no stay; meet me all by break of day. Tousled and hungry we'd drift through the silent house to the kitchen where yellow-topped johnnycakes shimmered like buttercups in Gillian's iron skillet.

In that empty hallway, I ached for that lost time and sang quietly to myself: When that I was and a little bitty boy, with a hey, ho the wind and the rain. A foolish thing is but a toy, for the rain, it raineth . . .

Someone grabbed me by the hair and clapped a hand over my mouth. Hard against my back I felt the body of a man. He yanked me across the landing, my legs bouncing like a rag doll. "Don't make a sound,” he whispered, his mouth against my ear.

Soldiers with weapons drawn moved silently up the stairs toward us. I struggled against him. "God damn it, don't move,” he said.

One of the men had Gillian. She reached for me and broke free.

"Shoot the nigger if she takes another step,” my captor ordered. The bravest woman I had ever known stood down, though her body fairly vibrated—the fix of her green eyes set deep in a fine-cut ebony face and long, strong legs put me in mind of a wildcat caught mid-spring.

Soldiers were all around us now, opening doors, wardrobes, moving through the entryway toward the parlor, flattening themselves against the walls.

"Captain!”

"Anything?” My attacker demanded.

"No, sir, just her and the nigger.”

"Outside?”

"We've secured, sir.”

"Every inch, every God damn inch?”

"We have, sir.”

He pulled me into the bedroom. I spotted the paper my husband had thrown to the floor. Hard black lines tracked down the page.

Lincoln Shot at Ford's Theatre! Actor Booth Sought!

I broke from his grasp and stumbled to the staircase, clutching the arm of the banister. A window exploded above me. I fell to the carpet, my arms over my head as pieces of glass landed on my back and hands. Blood streamed from somewhere on my body. I struggled to rise.

"Stay down,” he ordered and pushed me hard to the floor. There were gunshots. Sharp loud bursts. And voices, loud and louder still.

"Hang them all!”

"God damn the devil Booths!”

"Burn the house!”

He yanked me to my feet, twisting my arm behind my back. Only then did I realize that I was not badly hurt; that the blood was coming from a cut on my hand. He ignored this, his face so close to mine I could feel the hiss that was his breathing.

Gillian rushed to my side.

"Don't you grab her like that, she's gonna have a baby!” She wrapped her apron around my wound, all the while railing at the men, "I'll see you in hell if you hurt her!”

"She's got a rolling pin under there, Captain. That is one killer nigger,” a soldier said, wrestling the rough wooden implement from Gillian's hand. "I got a pistol from off her boot before.”

Bravo, my love, I thought. I turned to face to my captor, saw a short, red beard, a worn, young face and hard, gray eyes. His hands were huge and black-gloved. I was thrust into a chair.

"Where is Booth?” He stood over me, his belt at the level of my eyes.

"I don't know.”

"And your husband?”

I didn't answer

"She don't know beans about shit, Captain Martin,” another said. The red beard had a name.

"Name?” Martin demanded.

"Asia.”

"Your whole name!”

"Clarke. Asia Booth Clarke.”

"Where is he?”

"Who?”

"Your brother.”

"Which brother?'

‘Don't game me, woman.”

"I have three brothers.”

"John Wilkes Booth!” he said, as though mouthing a curse.

"I swear, I don't know.”

"Lock them in,” Martin ordered.

A mob was forming in the street. Through the shattered window I saw and heard them: Men with brickbats and pistols cursing and firing at the house and a cordon of soldiers keeping them back. I heard the keening of a woman: A high, long wail.

They tied us to the bedpost and left the room. Gillian's hands, touching mine, were cold as the grave.

"They got my gun,” she whispered.

"Mine is below in the pantry, Gillie.”

"We got no defenses now, child. "

"Even if, Gillie. We're no match at all.” I pressed against her.

"What do they want with us, Asia?”

"The President's been shot.”

"Oh, God Jesus, no!” she cried

"The paper said they're looking for Johnny. I don't believe it.”

Gillie offered no comfort. She prayed.

"He would never harm the President, Gillie. He only meant to—”

"Don't you say nothing! You got that baby inside you.”

"He didn't shoot anyone.” I was shaking and gasping for breath. "Maybe he did. God, I can't remember. I couldn't see him—”

"The soldiers are coming back, hush!”

"I have to think, Gillie.”

"Don't say nothing!”

The door flew open.

"Get up, woman,” Martin commanded as he untied me.

I faked a faint and dropped to the floor. I was bred in the bone to be the actor my brother was. But at the last moment, my head struck the heavy warming iron that sat by the bed. I saw lights—bold and flashing.

"Is she dead?” I heard Martin ask though a fog in my head. "I can't interrogate a person who isn't breathing.”

I felt his hand on my heart, his mouth close to mine.

"Shake the woman, for Christ's sake,” he ordered.

"Don't touch her again.” The hard voice was Gillian's.

"Quiet, Mammy,” someone said, "or we'll blow your head off.”

There was a rushing in my brain. And darkness.

"Find a doctor,” I heard Martin say.

I felt Gillian's hand stroking my face, her lips against my temple. I struggled to open my eyes, to move, but could not.

"I can't see, Gillie.” I was slipping in and out of consciousness.

"The doctor will come, child.”

"Where am I?”

"Somewhere in the middle,” Gillian said.

"Help me.”

"Go away in your mind, Asia.”

"Where?'

"Go home.”

"How?' I whispered, as it grew darker.

"Remember the breeze we'd make for your papa? ‘Cue the wind!' he'd say. And we'd pump those bellows until we was near a faint, remember?”

"Don't leave me.”

"Never. Think of wind,” she said.

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