On the front porch of Richard Garrett’s farmhouse near Bowling Green,Virginia,on April 26, 1865, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln was dying. John Wilkes Booth,paralyzed by a bullet that had shattered his cervical vertebrae and his spinal cord,lay in a pool of his own blood. As Colonel Everton Conger began to rifle through his pockets,the proud and private actor,who could move only his eyes and his tongue, watched helplessly as his captor removed money, keys, tobacco and a compass, and laid them out on a handkerchief.
Finally, an inner pocket yielded up Booth’s diary, and tucked inside it were photographs of five women—one the daughter of a U.S. senator, the other four actresses.We know something of each one, but missing from that stash of images was a photo of perhaps the most intriguing woman in Booth’s life, an actress and former lover who had narrowly missed ending Booth’s life in 1861. Had she succeeded, she would have changed the course of American history.
The most surprising photograph in Booth’s pocket was that of Lucy Lambert Hale, reported by some to be engaged to Booth. Her father, U.S. Senator John P. Hale,a New Hampshire Republican,was the most ardent anti-slavery man in Congress and a representative of all that Booth hated. Some historians speculate that Booth had been using Lucy to get near the senator, who was frequently in the company of Lincoln. Once, while escorting Lucy,Booth came within 3 feet of the president. For whatever reasons, Booth chose not to strike. Lucy’s relationship with her possible fiancé was filled with tension,since Senator Hale hated and despised Booth.
The other four women whose pictures Booth carried to his death were all actresses.Euphemia “Effie”Germon was 20 when Booth died. Married to violinist Carlo Patti, she excelled in roles as a soubrette, a woman whose traits are coquetry,pertness and a tendency to engage in intrigue. Fanny Brown was old by Booth’s standards—she was 28—and first achieved fame in The Octoroon, a drama about Louisiana slave life. Helen Western was another well-known leading lady.She was 22 the year of the assassination and died only three years later.The last of the four was Alice Grey, who left little in the historical record.
Whose image did Booth not carry that fateful day? It was Henrietta Irving,an actress long forgotten, but one whose dramatic role offstage came close to changing the history of Reconstruction, denying Lincoln the crown of martyrdom and making Ford’s Theatre just one more old brick building in downtown Washington.
Irving flourished on the American stage for 20 years after her debut in 1850, and starred in plays well known then but now recalled only by historians of the American theater scene. Three Red Men, The Handsome Husband and The Serious Family are hardly household words today, but they propelled Irving into the upper ranks of her profession.
In the spring of 1861, she and John Wilkes Booth were touring together, appearing in a production of Evadne, with Booth as Ludovic, while she played the heroine Evadne. On April 26, 1861, they opened at the Green Street Gayety Theatre in Albany, N.Y., with good reviews. Afterward they returned to their hotel and began drinking heavily in Booth’s room. Irving was wildly in love with him, smitten with his powerful tenor voice, his commanding presence and the flashing eyes so frequently noted by contemporaries.It seems very likely that their relationship had progressed to include what was known in the 19th century as “carnal knowledge.”
There was only one flaw in this love idyll. Irving had come to realize that although she loved him,he did not love her. As they drank, this became the center of the conversation, and talk turned into quarreling and then into angry words.It is not hard to imagine what she had to say; fights of this nature have shattered relationships for eons. In an era before electronic amplification, both Irving and Booth had voices trained to reach the farthest seats in the upper balcony,so it’s likely this was not a quiet, subdued chat.
His replies did not calm her, since he did not use the only words which would have made things better—“I love you.” Rage flared into action. Suddenly there was a dagger in her hand; suddenly she drove it downward toward his heart. She was quick, but he was quicker. He knocked her arm upward, and the blade missed his heart but slashed his face. She jumped back, alarmed at the cascade of blood down his cheek.“Oh, my God! I have killed you!”Still clutching the bloodied blade, she fled to her room, slammed the door shut,and plunged the dagger into her own bosom,apparently without much effect, since both gave statements to the police the next morning.She pleaded that he had “tampered with my affections,” a plea well understood in 1861. No one pressed charges. Booth and Irving went their separate ways and never worked together again.
There is a current vogue,“alternative history,” a dubious but amusing exercise in which one can explore the full power of “what if.”Had Booth died and Lincoln lived, would the stresses and disappointments of Reconstruction have diminished our memory of the president? Could Lincoln have steered a safe course between the radical Republicans and the quickly reconstituting Southern aristocracy? Could he have obtained the support of Robert E.Lee in a program of reconciliation? Could he have better integrated 4 million illiterate former slaves into the economy than did Andrew Johnson? Would he be on the $5 bill if he had not been martyred?
Or is “what if” a feckless enterprise? Harry Truman, when asked,“What if the South had won the war?” simply replied, “They didn’t.”Truman’s acerbic practicality has much to recommend it.And yet, what if Henrietta Irving had indeed killed John Wilkes Booth in April 1861?
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.