John Wilkes Booth and the little girl in Richmond

My friend asked me to transcribe a newspaper article for her about John Wilkes Booth’s personal interactions with a little girl in Richmond before the Civil War. It sheds interesting light on him, so I decided to post it here, although the article may be somewhat clouded with hindsight. With the benefit of the passage of time, people tend to look at the past through rose colored glasses, and little girls are very prone to hero worship. I do think there is a great deal of truth in her account but possibly a little flowery and romantic in recollection. Take a look and judge for yourselves.

Wilkes Booth’s Ring.

[Mary Belle Beale in Philadelphia News.]

“Many and many a night we would return home with my father after the play was over. There was always a warm supper and a warm welcome for my father’s guests after the theater doors were closed. Those were the days of stock companies, and Richmond has been the cradle in which many of the now famous American actors were first taught to test their strength. Almost every night my father would drop in the Richmond theater, where he had a box, and it was very seldom that he came home alone. The first thing that Wilkes Booth would do would be to make for the nursery, where I lay asleep. He seemed a giant to me when he would hold me up aloft and straddle me across his shoulder. I remember one night his taking me down stairs and sitting me on a silver butter salver that stood embedded in flowers in the center of the table, whence I was rescued by my colored mammy, whose muttered ejaculation was: ‘Them play actors is the debble.’

“He was passionately fond of children. I’ve heard my mother tell about a play he used to act in, in which there was a child. ‘The Sea of Ice.’ I think it was, and she said he was so loving to the little thing that she would nestle in his arms in the wings until her time came to go on the stage.

“Just before the blockade began which divided the north and south, when the cannon had announced that Virginia had seceded, Wilkes Booth and the Richmond stock company seemed to disappear in the mist that was rising to overcloud the once united country. ‘Masks and Faces’ was the last performance given at the old playhouse that had once sheltered so gay a crowd.

“Just about that time I seemed to dream one night that somebody kissed me and put something on my finger. I was very much surprised to find next morning a little gold ring with ‘Regard’ in blue enamel on it in my bed. My mother took the ring to keep it for me until my finger grew to its size and she told me Wilkes Booth had gone away but she hoped to see him again. Mr. Booth was such a favorite with those who knew him, for he was brave, ardent and affectionate–three powerful qualities which are strong claimants upon the southern heart.

“Well, the days passed while I was running around in my homespun frocks, and soon the south was a conquered nation, and then came the terrible tidings of Mr. Lincoln’s assassination by the hands of him who had ever been so gentle and loving in the sunlit past. Ah, those were curious days when they took the little ring and hid it for fear my tongue might babble of that which I never knew. What did I know about assassination, or about rule or misrule?

“I only knew I should never feel those strong arms lift me again. I only heard my childhood’s friend had suffered the felon’s doom.

“There was a little girl with two blonde ‘pigtails’ on her shoulders and a world of defiance in her near-sighted eyes that sat, whenever she could steal away, down in the garden where the dandelions and violets carpeted the April robed terrace. My ring was there, and there I sat like some small but resolute Rizpah, alert to drive away all who would molest my treasure.

“I didn’t know anything about politics, and I was more sorry than I could tell for the president, whose kind eyes I had seen as he drove the week before through our town. I was thinking of the hands that would clasp mine no more as I guarded the ring of him whose heart was once so full of love for little children.”

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