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Birthplace of Infamy

An old house in Maryland -- home to America's greatest tragic actors and an actor in America's greatest tragedy -- has never lost its power to impassion.


Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer  

February 4, 2001

THE SOURCE OF THE HIDEOUS DEED, the poisoned birthplace from which the murderer sprang, lies along a gravel road in a patch of rural Maryland, beside the stalks of a dried-out cornfield.

Shrouded in fog, a metal "No Trespassing" sign is nailed to a sycamore tree that stands nearby smooth and white as bone.

Here is the half-frozen pond where the assassin once frolicked. There, the lawn, mingled with the dust of his three siblings, dead, probably from cholera, in 1833.

And, at the end of the lane, like a tomb in the forest, rises the Gothic house his crazed father built, the dwelling to which the cavalry thundered in 1865, searching for the Brutus of his day.

A faint light twinkles from the second-floor chamber whose sloping ceiling is said to suggest curtains on the grand stages he and his family once strode.

Shrieks can be heard inside.

And on the first floor, a stately woman wearing her wedding dress wanders from room to room bearing a wand.

Behold the boyhood home of John Wilkes Booth -- the Harford County, Md., site on which he was born, illegitimately, in 1838; the 150-year-old house between Bel Air and Churchville where he spent much of his adolescence; the place where his sister, Asia, said his damaged character was formed.

It feels cursed. Damned. Haunted by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln's killer. Seeded with the dust of dead Booths -- and, it turns out, other departed residents. The locus, yet, of pain, contention and drama.

Then, right beneath the outdoor balcony where Booth is said to have practiced his Shakespeare during the bleak winters of the 1850s, amiable Beth Baker opens the side door.

Alas, within, all gloom is dashed.

Bunches of pink balloons are tethered to chairs in the living room, where Booth, his mother and sisters grieved after the death of his father, Junius.

The shrieks, not of madness, are those of delight, from a covey of 6-year-old girls, all of whom seem to be in white tights and corduroy jumpers.

And the mysterious wanderer is just Beth's friend Janice Waltemeyer -- "I'm the only blonde she knew" -- done up with plastic wand and gown as a giant Barbie doll for the benefit of the children's birthday party.

There's also pizza and a pinata, and grandparents, and more balloons and pink-and-lavender bunting in the dining room, and crayons and Polaroids and merriment, and vans in the driveway.

Right here at the heart of base corruption and black Shakespearean treachery!

Oh, woe is the wellspring of iniquity . . .

In 1999, after spring had pushed cold weather from the horse farms and housing developments of Harford County, mourners gathered on the lawn of the bedraggled house the Booths named Tudor Hall and sprinkled the ashes of its most recent residents on the property they loved.

Howard L. Fox, 77, a dashing Marylander who had been a decorated Army medic in World War II, a harness racing driver and then restorer of historic houses, had died of cancer the previous February, 15 days after his third wife, Dorothy, 66.

The couple had bought the place in 1968, the year they were married -- unaware at first that it was the former home of the Booths. They had spent the next 30 years devoted to its lore and legend.

They were the latest in a fairly short line of occupants that began in the early 1820s with the eccentric English actor Junius Brutus Booth -- recently arrived from Europe with his girlfriend and a pet pony named Peacock.

Brilliant, alcoholic, at times deranged, Booth had abandoned a wife and son back in England. He had fled to the United States with a reputation as one of the world's best Shakespearean actors, and quickly became a sensation. But, settling in Baltimore, he had searched for a country home to escape the fevers and distractions of the city.

He leased a large tract of wilderness along the Bel Air-Churchville road, dragged a rented log dwelling across several open fields to the site, and established what he called "the farm."

Here were born most of his 10 American children; here three of them were buried for 30 years. Here, in 1833, was born Edwin Thomas Booth, who would become the greatest American tragedian of his day. And here, five years later, John Wilkes Booth was born.

Here, too, in the late 1840s, builders started work on an elegant little farmhouse to replace the rustic cabin. Junius would not live to see it occupied in 1853. But it would be a refuge for his widow, and the haunt of the teenage John and his devoted sister Asia in the years before the Civil War.

In one of its bedrooms -- no one is certain which -- Wilkes, as his sister called him, slept on a straw pillow, like his hero, the Spartan general Agesilaus. He hung his swords, pistols, daggers and blunderbuss on a set of mounted antlers.

He played the flute, recited Shakespeare and Longfellow, but, already a person of extreme views, also galloped off to secret meetings of the Know-Nothing Party, whose anti-immigrant policies he championed.

He is said to have etched his name or initials on a window beside the front door, on a beech tree beside the spring, and tattooed JWB on his left hand, where police would find it in 1865.

Years later, after the family had moved and rented out the place, the authorities scoured the farm in the hunt for the assassin. All that was left was some furniture and theatrical clothes packed away in storage, which had once been used by an illustrious father and his now notorious son.

Over all of this Howard and Dorothy Fox had been able guardians for as long as they could.

They'd kept the place open for visits, parties, tours, weddings, banquets, symposiums and overnight guests. "They more or less kept open house at Tudor Hall for everyone," says Howard's son, the Rev. Kevin Fox, an Episcopal priest. "Civil War groupies. Booth groupies. Shakespeare groupies."

All had gone well until the last few years. The couple had gotten older and their income was limited. They had no children together. Howard had been estranged from the three children from his earlier marriages for decades, including Kevin Fox.

Plus, the house had fallen into severe disrepair: The porch pillars were rotting and nearing collapse. The living room floor was warped. The roof leaked, and the grounds were overgrown.

The Foxes had had some help from a grass-roots Tudor Hall preservation association, but lost even that after a bitter personal falling-out with the association leader, who had once lived with them and had been like a son.

Now they were dead.

As their ashes were scattered that day in 1999, on the horizon across the cornfields loomed the particle board and vinyl siding homes of the newest housing developments.

Empty cul-de-sacs were already laid out. Foundations, with future addresses spray-painted on the walls, had been poured. And faded yellow earthmovers sat beside vast piles of ripped-out tree stumps.

In the path of such a tide, the crumbling home of an assassin, and his unfortunate family of forgotten actors, seemed doomed.

On Friday evening, April 14, 1865, when the dazzling 26-year-old American actor John Wilkes Booth fired a .41-caliber bullet into Lincoln's brain, the rest of the Booth family was scattered around the country.

His sister Asia, married and pregnant with twins, was living in Philadelphia with her husband, a comedian. His eldest brother, Junius Jr., also an actor, was playing in Cincinnati. His mother, Mary Ann, and sickly sister, Rosalie, were living in New York with his increasingly famous brother, Edwin. Edwin was performing in Boston.

The family still owned Tudor Hall, but had been renting it out for the last eight years. The night after the assassination -- with Booth still at large -- the authorities descended on the house, then occupied by the family of a Washington businessman named Patrick Henry King.

King's wife, unaware of Lincoln's death, was stunned to find the house surrounded by armed men as she said her evening prayers. The men rummaged through the Booths' stored belongings -- stabbing with swords at batches of old theatrical costumes -- and set up a stakeout in case the suspect chanced to return.

But Booth had headed south. He was cornered and shot to death on a farm in Caroline County, Va., 12 days later, doubly devastating the family.

"The tongue of every man and woman was free to revile and insult us," Asia wrote years later. "Every man's hand was against us. If we had friends, they condoled with us in secret; none ventured near."

At Tudor Hall, Asia recalled, "sensation hunters" sifted for stories and clues "amid the happy scenes of our childhood," until gradually the "fury" died down.

That October, after spending eight weeks in a Washington jail during the assassination probe, Junius Jr. took a buggy from Baltimore to visit Tudor Hall. "Everything neglected & ruinous," he recorded in his diary.

Later, according to a 1997 article by Kathryn Hopkins Kavanagh in a Harford County historical society pamphlet, the spinster sister Rosalie visited to sell some of the furniture.

She also had the old family graveyard dug up, and what little remained of the long-dead children were moved to a cemetery in Baltimore. (Most of the Booths -- including John, whose body was finally handed over by the government in 1869 -- would eventually rest in the city's Green Mount Cemetery.)

Edwin also paid a visit about that time, accompanied by his old friend Adam Badeau, who had been a staff officer with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the war.

They found Tudor Hall cold, locked and deserted. They had a former servant who still lived in the neighborhood open the house and start a fire in the fireplace. They pulled out old costumes and playbills, Kavanagh wrote, tried on wigs and selected some old volumes of Shakespeare they wanted to take with them.

They spent the night in the empty house, a place already filled with ghosts.

The Booths appear to have been stuck with the house for another 10 years despite efforts to sell it. Then in 1878 Booth's mother sold Tudor Hall for $3,500 to a 60-year-old Baltimore widower and businessman, Samuel Kyle, who was about to remarry.

His new bride was one Ella Harwood, then 20, who had grown up on a farm nearby and as a child had played in the house with the children of its tenants after the Booth family had moved on.

Ella would die in the house 70 years later, making her Tudor Hall's longest resident.

She became fascinated with the original occupants, conducted her own research, and in 1925 produced a tiny memoir that is now one of the chief sources of information about the site.

Among other things, she reported that it was her husband, Samuel, who moved Junius's old log dwelling, in which John Wilkes had been born, to a far corner of the property. The cabin was later moved up to the main road, where today it forms part of a farmhouse that's been erected around it. ("I've lived here for 50 years," says its resident, Mary Valerie Handy, 76, "and loved every minute of it.")

Ella loved Tudor Hall and the story of the Booths, "whose histories have somehow grown into my own life," she would write later.

"I shall be glad if I have done a little to perpetuate the memory of those who in this shelter of their quiet home played at tragedy and later went out into the world to live it in their own lives."

Samuel Kyle died in 1893, and four years later, in a ceremony in Tudor Hall, Ella married John F. Mahoney, a blind local church organist who had been teaching Ella's daughters music. After he died in 1916, Ella and one of her daughters began a serious effort to assemble Booth memorabilia. In 1928 they opened the house as a small museum, charging 25 cents admission.

The museum, according to an old pamphlet of the time, touted the site as the birthplace of Edwin, the great Shakespearean. The state historical marker that went up on the main road a few years later made no mention of John. But he was the real draw. Sixty years after the most famous murder in American history, the assassin and his family had become a commodity.

Ella had interesting visitors: An elderly woman who had been Mrs. King's child-care nurse the night the soldiers came; an old man who had been a teenage actor onstage at Ford's that fatal night; a granddaughter of Mary Surratt, who'd been hanged in the case as a conspirator. Woodrow Wilson and H.L. Mencken also are said to have stopped, along with a hobo or two.

Ella's great-grandson James T. Wollon Jr., 62, now a Havre de Grace, Md., architect, remembers visiting as a child during the late 1940s.

"It was spooky," he recalls, "dark and spooky. I can remember being afraid to go in certain rooms without adult accompaniment." He was drawn in particular to an old music box that played classical melodies and folk tunes.

There were Booth family theatrical posters and tickets on the walls, some costumes on display, a saddle, Booth furniture and a silver meat platter and silverware bearing the initials of Booth's father, Junius.

Ella, who had been 7 when Lincoln died and could still recall the grown-ups weeping, was then almost 90. A photograph from a decade earlier shows a rather severe-looking, white-haired woman in a dark dress with lace sleeves. "Sweet old lady," Wollon says, though "the family remembers that she could be pretty mean."

She died in September 1948 in an upstairs bedroom that had a small outside balcony where, tradition says, John Booth would practice Brutus's line from "Julius Caesar": "Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest, that have but labor'd to attain this hour."

Gary Sloan was sitting in a pew in Bel Air's Emmanuel Episcopal Church equipped with a borrowed cell phone and praying that everything would turn out all right.

Three miles away, a large crowd, attended by the national news media, was gathered at Tudor Hall. It was Oct. 16, 1999, and though Sloan, a 48-year-old actor, had been banned from the the day's proceedings, his dreams were riding on its outcome.

When Howard and Dorothy Fox died the previous February, they had left behind some significant debts, a historic, ramshackle house and no will.

Howard Fox's three children lived well outside the area and had neither the interest nor the resources to take over the house. The Bel Air lawyer for the Foxes' estate, Robert G. Cassilly, had been unable to generate much government interest in it. (Among other obstacles, it was quietly pointed out, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had lost both her father and uncle to assassins). Nor had he received any private offers that came near what he believed the house was worth.

So he had decided to put it up for auction. And in so doing he had threatened to crush the vision of Gary Sloan.

A native of New Castle, Ind., and a veteran Shakespearean actor, Sloan had become enthralled with Tudor Hall via the brilliant but tormented life of Edwin Booth.

Edwin had started out in theater as an aide to his father, but had quickly become famous on his own. Before his death in 1893, he was among the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the 19th century.

But he had often been visited by tragedy. His first wife had died two years after their marriage. His second wife went mad. And his brother had killed a president.

Constantly on the lookout for disaster, Edwin had an expressive actor's face -- on which, it was said, much of his life's travail could be read.

Decades after his death someone mentioned to Gary Sloan that he resembled Edwin Booth, and therein a fascination was born.

It was in the early 1980s. Sloan had been a candidate to perform a commemorative "Hamlet" exactly as Booth had performed it in the 1880s, somewhat more operatically than typical in contemporary productions. Sloan began methodically researching the role, and one day, while performing in Baltimore, decided to go see Tudor Hall.

"I walked up the lane, and Dorothy Fox was sitting on the front porch, and I just felt like I was walking back into history," he says. "Seeing that house in the foreground was just a mesmerizing event to me, having read so much and having researched so much about Edwin Booth. The first words I uttered to Dorothy, I remember, were: 'I just had to see it.' "

Thus began a rich relationship between the zealous young actor and the aging couple with the antique house. It would grow into one of deep attachment, and then end suddenly with suspicion, bad feelings and a dashed vision.

"It's a strange story," Sloan says. It ended, predictably, over money.

Sloan says his ties to the Foxes began with simple correspondence and annual visits to Tudor Hall. Gradually, he became more and more involved with the couple's seat-of-the-pants support organization, the Preservation Association for Tudor Hall (PATH).

PATH, with the Foxes in charge, already had tried fundraising. A 1984 prospectus urged donors to make gifts of real estate, securities, bequests, insurance policies and cash. One could become a "Booth Buff" for $500 or a subscriber for $15. PATH would also accept antiques, art, memorabilia, farm equipment, tools and land.

But neighbors opposed much of PATH's efforts. Donations appear to have been negligible; what came in likely went to the upkeep of the house. And within a few years "PATH was all but finished," Sloan says.

He stepped in to revive it. He found himself visiting Tudor Hall more and more. The Foxes were getting old. The house needed work. "A tree would fall and it would stay there," Sloan says. In 1992 he moved in for six months. In 1994, he was elected PATH's executive director. "I took it seriously," he says.

He raised Tudor Hall's profile dramatically, especially in the acting community, and dreamed of turning the home into a kind of Shakespearean/Boothian cultural center.

The house would be restored, and a museum, memorial library and outdoor theater would be built.

Big shots like Hal Holbrook and Stacy Keach lent their names to the project. In 1995 Sloan brought in Lynn Redgrave for a Booth symposium at Harford Community College, down the road from Tudor Hall. And in April 1996, he took the Foxes to Los Angeles for PATH's first -- and only -- Edwin Booth award, which was presented to Hal Holbrook by Sean Penn.

Things seemed to be perfect. "We were like family," Sloan says. Until PATH's new treasurer, a professional accountant, took the concrete step of setting up a post office box for donations. "We were going to start raising hundreds of thousands of dollars," Sloan says. And it had to be done right.

But the Foxes, apparently fearful of their future, balked. Two months after the award ceremonies, they legally terminated their connection with the organization, and "I was given my walking papers," Sloan says. "It was heartbreaking."

The Foxes told friends that all the actors ever did was clean out their refrigerator. Sloan said that the Foxes didn't want donations going any place other than "the kitchen table." On Dec. 1, 1996, he announced in one of PATH's last newsletters: "All fund-raising activities have ceased."

"It was a mess," Sloan says, "a dysfunctional situation. Everybody got in over our heads. I probably was too familial, as opposed to businesslike, from the very beginning."

But when the Foxes died three years later, Sloan's hopes revived.

Sloan, who says he had support but no funding from Hollywood friends, allied himself this time with Harford Community College. The college was interested in Tudor Hall, but loath to pay much more than the few hundred thousand dollars at which it had been appraised. Cassilly, the Fox estate's lawyer, knew of town houses going for that much. He was looking for much more.

A few days before the auction, Sloan took a gamble. He wrote a letter to a local newspaper, urging people not to bid against the college. He said the community as a whole would benefit from the "internationally-known cultural arts center" that was planned by the college and allied agencies.

Cassilly was incensed. His duty was to get the most he could for the estate. (He had padlocked the house, removed the casement window bearing Booth's alleged signature and stored it behind his bedroom dresser for safekeeping.) Here was Sloan, urging people not to bid. Cassilly wrote him, banning him from auction.

That morning, the actor went to church to wait and pray. "This was my dream," he says. "A Shakespearean lighthouse. A classical hall of fame. Shakespeare's birthplace in America." It would be fabulous, and he would be its benevolent steward.

Now, God and the community willing, it could happen. PATH, the college, the county and the state were prepared to collectively bid $350,000. "I felt very good about our chances," he said. With all of Tudor Hall's problems, no one else could want it.

But when his phone finally rang in the quiet of the church, his dream was shot.

Beth and Rob Baker have a white couch and white Oriental rug in the living room of Tudor Hall. There's a wooden changing table for the baby, stacked with diapers, and a Graco baby swing in the corner. A gold clock ticks on the mantelpiece and sunlight pours in the windows. Beth, an art history major when she was in college, has impressionist prints on the walls.

On a bright winter morning, the Bakers' baby son, Rob Jr., is asleep in a bassinet in the dining room. Their 6-year-old daughter, Adriana, is in school. Her room upstairs, said to have been Asia Booth's, is painted pink. The front room with the curtain ceiling motif has a fat Panasonic TV in the corner. And an upstairs bathroom has shiny gold fixtures and giant tub.

Outside, Rob has cleared the undergrowth from around the pond. He's set up an outdoor swing set with a green-and-white striped awning. And at great expense he's replaced the four wooden porch columns with exact fir replicas.

Tudor Hall looks elegant, extraordinarily well cared for, and, aside from the family Doberman, Zeus, somewhat un-Boothian.

What it feels a little like is: the suburbs. Which is okay. The latest "housing starts" are right across the cornfield.

There may still be the odd Confederate flag around Harford County, on pickups and front porches, but the battle cries these days are: "my-kid's-an-honor-student . . ." and "luxury family homes . . . now selling!"

The morning of the auction, it was Rob, 30, and Beth, 29, who showed up unexpectedly with their stunning agenda for Tudor Hall.

They didn't want to build a shrine. The property has eight acres of land and is 10 minutes from everything. They wanted to live in it.

Both were raised around Bel Air when, Beth says, it "was small-town U.S.A." They've known each other since grade school. Her father runs a top local car dealership; his, a big commercial landscaping business. They'd already bought and renovated two other old houses and were looking for something bigger.

"It wasn't so much the allure of the Booths," Rob says of Tudor Hall. "That was interesting. We knew the history of the house. It was more the property and the architecture. . . . I can't live in a neighborhood-type situation. I just never have."

They figured maybe the local newspapers would cover the auction. "The auction house had said, 'Well, we advertised everywhere,' " Beth said. "We didn't know they had called all the major news stations. NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN." She said when they saw the throng, her husband whispered that they should "run like hell" as soon as it was over.

That morning about 500 people had gathered before auctioneer Aimee C. O'Neill's green wooden podium, which was set up on the front lawn. The bidding began at around $250,000 and advanced in increments of $25,000 and then $10,000 as O'Neill went through her singsong auction chant.

Above $350,000 everyone had dropped out but the Bakers and a retired local contractor, Alvis Goins, who wanted to sell the worn-out pieces of the house on the Internet, before refurbishing and reselling it.

Things got tense. Bidding was inching up in $500 increments. O'Neill slowed things down. She told stories between bids. "It's a traditional country auction," she says. "It's not a Sotheby's type of auction."

Bidding crawled past $400,000 -- which the Bakers thought would be their ceiling. It passed 405. At 410 Goins was still in, but the Bakers couldn't let it go. At $415,000 they were alone.

"Going once," the auctioneer called. "Going twice . . . Sold!" She pointed to the couple and said: Meet the new owners of Tudor Hall.

As Rob and Beth walked over to sign the paperwork on the hood of O'Neill's silver Ford, some people in the crowd applauded. Others wept, whether from grief or relief was not clear. And someone grumbled: "It's going to cost you a million dollars to fix up this house. You don't know what you're doing."

Fifteen months after "the earthquake" reached Gary Sloan in the Bel Air church, he recounted the day's events from a regional theater in the Midwest, where he was performing. He was in a new play called "Dark Paradise." He plays gunslinger Doc Holliday, who is battling with vampires in the Old West. "It's a mythic take," he said.

He still sounded dispirited about Tudor Hall. The Bakers, who had sent him a nice e-mail, were a "lovely young couple" and were to be congratulated, he said. When he talks about his loss, he uses the pronoun "we," signifying not just himself but the whole Booth . . . movement.

"We felt like the house should be everybody's, and not just somebody's," he said.

"It was our house. It was our home. We lost it. We didn't get it."

Now the Bakers are living with the luscious ghosts of Tudor Hall: Edwin, Junius, John . . . Caesar, Cassius and Brutus.

"And we're in Cincinnati," Sloan said. With vampires.

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