BOOTH, JOHN WILKES Autograph letter signed. Washington: 14 November . Two page letter on one folded sheet, 7 3/4 x 5...
Washington: 14 November . Two page letter on one folded sheet, 7 3/4 x 5 inches (20 x 13 cm), signed "J. Wilkes Booth" with flourish, the letter addressed to "J.D. Burch, Esq." Well preserved overall but with some spotting and toning, usual folds with a few splits.
A chilling and very late letter from Booth, in which he mischievously seeks out an item stashed before going into the South, long considered his treasured derringer, and mentioning a known conspirator.
The letter reads in full: "Dear Sir. Hope I shall see you again ere long. Our friend of the stage last Friday never left what I gave to his charge. You know what I had to take from my carpet-bag. It's not worth more than $15, but I will give him $20 rather than lose it, as it has saved my life two or three times. He has left the city. If you would be kind enough to get it from him and send it to me I will reimburse you for any outlay, and will never forget you. If you should ever recover it, either send, or give it to our friend, Co. Fayette St. where if you wish you can write me. Remember me to all the friends I met while in your country. I am yours truly. J. Wilkes Booth."
Being a famous actor, John Wilkes Booth enjoyed the uncommon privilege of easy passage between Northern and Southern states during the Civil War. In November 1864, Booth toured southern Maryland claiming to be a real estate investor and, having had successfully speculated in frontier oil investments, this guise would have seemed quite credible. In truth, Booth was touring Southern Maryland in hopes of locating a reliable route out of Maryland into Virginia after his plotted kidnapping or assassination of President Lincoln. In Bryantown, Maryland Booth stayed at the hotel owned by Henry Burch and found himself among a group of Confederate sympathizers to whom he may have confided his plot. As was typical of Booth in this period, he befriended young J. D. Burch, son of the innkeeper, and was obviously comfortable enough with him to contact him with this letter days later. It seems that on his trip to Bryantown, Booth became suspicious that Federal agents were monitoring him, and he planted his gun with the driver of the stagecoach to return to him in Washington rather than risk having it confiscated in a search. As of the date of this letter the stagecoach driver had failed to deliver the item, and Booth penned this letter to Burch seeking its return, couching his devious intents in the flattering language that he frequently employed when attempting to influence a potential, typically young male co-conspirator (it is uncertain but possible that this letter regards the gun used to assassinate Lincoln). In a rare instance, Booth alludes to "our friend" on Fayette Street in Baltimore - this being the home of Samuel Arnold, a conspirator in the plot to kidnap Lincoln, further suggestive of the dark road he attempted to lead Burch down (Arnold was convicted for his role and sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas).
This letter is a remarkable survival as the legal and reputational ramifications of association with Booth were well acknowledged by most of his confidants immediately following the assassination and manhunt that followed. Many recipients of Booth's late letters simply destroyed them to protect themselves rather than risk association with the larger conspiracy. Much of the explanatory information above was supplied in 1936 by a descendant of Burch to the Lincoln scholar David Rankin Barbee, to whom it was reported that young Burch hid this letter from Booth behind a brick in the hearth of his father's home for many years. A transcription of the letter was found among the Barbee papers and the letter was published in Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth in 1997 (p. 123) with the original descending in the family since 1864.
Rare: this letter is the second closest in date to Booth's assassination of Lincoln on April 15th, 1865 that has come to auction in recent years. Vain to the end, that letter was written to a Boston photography firm requesting additional images of himself, and contained none of the nefarious undertones present in this letter to J. D. Burch.
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