John Wilkes Booth was in Portland the night the Civil War broke out

As I wind down this year-long project this month, I’m including some stories that aren’t quite “this week.” Here’s one worth telling.

As you may well know, the Civil War got underway on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter. The guns tore through the dawn sky at 4:30 a.m. It was a Friday, and by evening the news reached Portland via telegraph.

That night, men gathered in Market Square (now Monument Square) for a torch-lit, pro-Union rally. One newspaper said the demonstration was “a great eagle scream for war.”

At the time, the Deering Hall theater stood on the square, about where the Portland Public Library is now. Probably watching the “eagle scream” from the steps, was an actor named John Wilkes Booth — the man who would fire the last shot of the war in another theater, four years later.

That was 156 years ago this year.

John Wilkes Booth (photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

John Wilkes Booth (photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Booth came from a family of famous actors and he performed all over the country. In the spring of 1861, he was 23 and touring the northeast with stops in Albany, Portland and Buffalo. He’d planned to stay a week, performing a bunch of plays with local actors. He was an immediate hit. His run was so successful, he extended it another three weeks.

One local paper wrote of Booth, “Down East audiences rose as one, in a rapturous reception for one of the brightest ornaments on the American stage.”

While he was here, he played Shakespeare’s Hamlet, MacBeth and Richard III. He also played both parts in “The Corsican Brothers.” The theater manager’s 19-year-old stepdaughter, Helen Western, played Juliet to his Romeo and Desdamona to his Othello.

Booth was handsome and ever the charmer. There’s evidence he and his co-star had an offstage relationship. When federal troops gunned him down in 1865, after he killed the president, they found Western’s photo in his pocket. There were also five other ladies’ photos in the same pocket — and he was engaged to another woman at the time.

Western died in 1868, in her early 20s, only a few years after Booth.

This photo of actress Helen Western was found on John Wilkes Booth when he died. (photo courtesy of the National Archives)

This photo of actress Helen Western was found on John Wilkes Booth when he died. (photo courtesy of the National Archives)

There’s no way to know what Booth was thinking that night in April, watching the torch-lit Union rally in Portland. But since he went on to shoot Abraham Lincoln, we can make a pretty educated guess.

There is one fact we do know, for sure. Booth skipped town the next day without paying his newspaper advertising bill.

Not cool.

Note: Most of this story comes to you courtesy of Portland’s “Mr. History,” Herb Adams. Thanks, Herb!

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.