He was made for spying, Booth thought: his brains, he said, were worth twenty men, his money worth a hundred and best of all, with his profession, and his fame, he had a free pass everywhere. He told his sister how he moved as a spy among Union armies and, in the most distinguished Northern society, gathered intelligence. He smuggled quinine, rowed small boats across the Potomac, and met, too, with shadowy figures in the late hours of the night – perhaps he’d a hand in running blockades. Sometime around 1864, Booth decided to put his many attributes to use in a more dramatic, and desperate, fashion: he would kidnap President Lincoln. That scheme never materialized but when, on April 14, 1865, he was picking up his mail at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Booth heard that Lincoln would be attending Our American Cousin there that evening, he had another idea. As Lincoln watched the play from the presidential box, Booth determined, he would sneak up behind him, and fire a bullet into his brain. This letter is to John Ford, the owner and namesake of that theater, and it was written while Booth was still a spy and, not yet, a kidnapper and assassin.
Writing from the New York home of his brother Edwin - whom he detested, chiefly due to their political disagreement over the war – Booth arranges to appear in a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington in November 1863. “Book me for Nov 2d: for two weeks”, he writes. “ I will be there and I will keep the two following weeks open a time longer. there may be a chance for Baltimore then, or you may want me to keep on in Washington. But consider the two weeks from Nov 2d settled.”
Booth would appear in seven plays during that run, from November 2nd through November 15th. On the 9th, President Lincoln, an avid theater-goer, saw Booth star in The Marble Heart. He watched from the same box he would occupy on April 14th, 1865.
John Ford, not incidentally, was rounded up after the assassination and, although he knew nothing of Booth’s conspiracy, was imprisoned for thirty-nine days as a suspect. His theatre was seized by Stanton, gutted, and turned into offices, as well. It would not be restored until almost a hundred years later.
Autograph Letter Signed (“J. Wilkes Booth”), 1 page, octavo, 107 East 17th Street, [New York City, New York], September 17 . To John T. Ford of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.