The Booth Brothers: A Legacy On Stage and Off

‘The Shakespeare monument in Central Park, New York.’ (1864) Courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery

From our partners at Gothamist: In a passing mention at the beginning of last night’s episode, Elizabeth Haverford says that she’s headed to tea with the Booth brothers, “to discuss their upcoming performance to raise funds for the Shakespeare statue.” The Booth Brothers were a famous acting family of the time—Edwin Booth, Junius Booth Jr. and John Wilkes Booth. Yes, that John Wilkes Booth.

The year 1864 was the 300th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, and New York’s theatrical community wanted to erect a statue of the playwright in Central Park. Edwin Booth, who also managed the Winter Garden Theater, and various theater owners and actors contributed money and/or their performances for the effort.

According to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, the group “received permission from Central Park’s Board of Commissioners to lay the cornerstone for a statue at the south end of the Mall between two elms” in 1864. Edwin Booth, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, and his brothers performed a special production of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden on November 25, 1864. He was Brutus, while Junius played Cassius and John played Mark Antony.

However, it wasn’t until 1866 that a sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward, was selected through a competition and in 1872, the statue was erected on a temporary base. You can see the statue, featuring Shakespeare in Elizabethan dress on Central Park’s Literary Walk. The park today remains a touchstone for Shakespeare lovers: Every summer, one of his plays is performed outdoors in Shakespeare in the Park. Famous actors from stage and screen (for instance, Al Pacino as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) can be seen at Delacorte Theater—for free.

As for the Booth brothers, Junius Booth Jr. never achieved the fame of Edwin Booth or the infamy of John Wilkes Booth. John Wilkes Booth was killed 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865.

Edwin Booth, who had a falling out with John Wilkes before the assassination (he reportedly threw him out of his house), retreated from the spotlight after Lincoln’s murder. Many people even wrote letters in support of Edwin, and Booth was thankful, writing, “While mourning in common with all other loyal hearts, the death of the President, I am oppressed by a private woe not to be expressed in words. But whatever calamity may befall me or mine, my country, one and indivisible, has been my warmest devotion.”

When he returned to acting, Booth continued to draw crowds and promote theatrical performances. At his final performance (he played Hamlet) in 1891, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a crowded affair with over 3,000 attendees. The Times reported, “Seats were sold at prices ranging from $1.50 to 75 cents. and admission with standing room could be obtained in some parts of the house for half a dollar.” Booth died in 1893.

The Booth Theatre, on West 45th Street, is named after Edwin Booth.