Edwin Booth grew up in a family of thespians, and in the mid-19th century became one of the best-known Shakespearean actors in both the United States and Europe. He was highly regarded for his portrayals of Hamlet, and in 1869 he opened Booth’s Theatre in Manhattan. One evening in 1864 (though the actual date is unknown), Booth was on a rail platform in Jersey City, NJ, along with a sizable group of travelers trying to secure sleeping car berths from a conductor. Pressed up against one of the cars, waiting to buy a ticket, was a young man later identified as Robert Todd Lincoln. Booth saw Lincoln lose his footing and fall between the car and platform. Booth grabbed the younger man by the coat collar and pulled him to safety, sparing him from potentially serious injury or death. That heroic anecdote would be an insignificant historical footnote if not for the tragic irony of what happened less than a year later. In April 1865, Edwin’s younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, shot and killed Robert’s father, President Abraham Lincoln, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Two families linked in history:
- Edwin Booth did not know the name of the man he had saved on the platform until years later. Robert Lincoln recalled the incident in a 1909 letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine.
- Edwin was a supporter of President Lincoln, but his brother John was rabid secessionist. Lincoln was shot in the head while watching the play Our American Cousin.
- After the assassination, the infamy forced Edwin Booth to curtail his stage work for a number of months. He disowned his murderous brother, refusing to even speak his name.