Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tudor Hall

Today marks the 143rd anniversary of Lincoln's death. He died at 7:22AM on the morning of April 15, 1865, from a gun shot wound to the head inflicted by John Wilkes Booth. This entire event (the assassination and its 14-day aftermath) fascinates me. True I find Lincoln to be a complex man, but I also find Booth to be much more intriguing. When people ask that question of what person, living or dead, would you invite to dinner, my answer is always John Wilkes Booth.

I've been to Ford's Theatre (the site of the murder) many times; I've biked Booth's escape route out of DC; visited the Surratt Tavern where he picked up supplies and carbines after fleeing DC; visited Samuel Mudd's house where Booth had Dr. Mudd set his broken leg; and even visited Booth's grave in Baltimore and his Gothic revival childhood home, Tudor Hall, in Bel Air, MD.

The latter is dichotomous in American History: on one hand it was the dwelling of man who committed the first Presidential assassination in America and changed the course of history forever. On the other hand, it was also home to the two greatest Shakespearean tragedians of the American stage: Junius Brutus Booth and his even more talented son, Edwin Booth. And while the house was more or less spared demolition because of Edwin, the true source of wonder is Wilkes.

I visited the house (now an office for Harford County's Center of the Arts) one Saturday last June when it was closed, roped off, and generally off limits. I went anyway. And much like the initial feeling I had when I entered Ford's Theatre for the first time, as I walked down the long driveway to the house, I couldn't help but get the feeling I had been here before. As I slowly neared the house, it all seemed familiar -- it could have been the numerous websites I've read about the place and even the details I garnered from the 15 or so books I've read about Wilkes and the Booth Family.

Once I arrived at the porch of the house, I turned around to see the driveway I had just walked. So many pictures are taken of the front of the house, but none are taken from the vantage point of the porch - the same vantage point the Booth's would have had when expecting visitors during the good times, and government soldiers during the bad times. If anything has remained untouched on the property for the last 143 years, it is the road leading to the house. Except for being paved (a few added trees), the path is the same.

The house was closed and no one was around so I had free range of the grounds but couldn't go in. Not sure how many renovations the inside of the house has experienced. I tried to get some pictures of the inside, but the bubbled glass in the windows made it impossible to get a clear shot. The weird thing was that even though I was alone on the 8 acres of land, I still got the feeling I was being watched. So I didn't dare climb too close or be too aggressive near the house.

I walked around the side of the house and spotted the balcony where its been said Wilkes and his sister, Asia, would rehearse scenes from "Romeo & Juliet". It is also suspected that this is the window into which Wilkes carved his initials, JWB (Wilkes apparently loved his initials so much he even had them tattooed in the crux of his right hand between his thumb and forefinger - this tattoo was later used to identify his body after being shot himself on Garrett's Farm near Port Royal, VA on April 26th). But that window has been long removed and it is uncertain where on the house that window originally belonged. Still, there is something a little haunting about the balcony.

I walked around the back of the house and tried to imagine, based on the books I've read, where the barn would have been located. In 1973, Tudor Hall was included in the National Register of Historic Places with a historical boundary of 136.5 acres to maintain the rural surroundings and distant views since Tudor Hall had been a farm during the Booth period. In 1982, the State of Maryland reduced the protective boundaries to the 8.33 acres, despite the oppositional pleas of historical experts.
As I walked around to the other side of the house, I noticed a window - nothing special about it - but there just seemed to be something to it. Could this be where the original JWB window had been cased? Was this the bedroom window young Wilkes would look out of when planning his future of following in his father's and two older brothers' footsteps on the American stage?

Wilkes would leave this place finally in 1857 at the age of 19 to join the Arch Street Theater Company in Philadelphia.
At his request he was billed as "J.B. Wilkes", a pseudonym meant to divert attention away from his famous family. In 1858 he was accepted as a member of the Richmond Theatre, Virginia, stock company, and became increasingly popular, called "the handsomest man in America" by reviewers. He stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, had jet-black hair, and was lean and athletic. His performances were often characterized by his contemporaries as acrobatic and intensely physical. Eerily prophetic to his "final performance" on the stage at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865.