Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fiction and Truth (Or, When the News and the Book You're Reading Coincide)

Has this ever happened to you?  You're reading something - a novel, a short story collection, nonfiction - and while you're reading, you see a news story directly related to what you're reading?

I love that - and that is exactly what happened to me this morning. 

Yesterday I started reading Karen Joy Fowler's new book, What I Didn't See and Other Stories. One of the twelve short stories is a historical fiction piece called "Booth's Ghost," which I read yesterday. It's about Edwin Booth's fame as an actor (as well as his father's), how the family was ostracized and (except for Edwin) charged with conspiracy after their brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and how Edwin would (on occasion) see his father's ghost.

"When the ghost appeared, Edwin was not surprised.  He'd been born with a caul, which meant protection, but also the ability to see spirits. Almost a year earlier, his beloved young wife had died of tuberculosis. She'd been in Boston, he in New York. He was Hamlet then, too, a week's worth of performances and often drunk when onstage.  'Fatigued,' one of the critics said, but others were not so kind.

The night she died, he'd felt her kiss him.  'I am half frozen,' she'd said.  He'd stopped drinking and begun to spend his money on seances instead.

Initially he'd gotten good value; his wife sent many messages of love and encouragement. Her words were general, though, impersonal, and lately he'd been having doubts.  He'd begun to host seances himself, with no professional medium in attendance. A friend described one such evening. He was seized, this friend said, by a powerful electricity and his hands began to shake faster and harder than mortal man could move. He was give pen and paper, which he soon covered in ink.  But when he came back to his senses, he'd written no words, only scrawl.  It had all been Edwin, he decided then, doing what Edwin did best.  Night after night on the stage, Edwin made people believe." (pg 12-13)

"Booth's Ghost" is one of the best of Karen Joy Fowler's What I Didn't See.  It was also on my mind when I read the news today (oh boy) that several of Edwin Booth's descendants, all living in the Philadelphia area, have agreed to have Edwin's body exhumed. 

The reason for such would be to finally lay to rest the mystery of whether John Wilkes Booth is indeed buried in an unmarked grave in Baltimore or if he escaped.

From today's edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer ("Booth descendants agree to brother's body ID tests"):

"History says [John Wilkes] Booth was cornered 12 days later [after Lincoln's assassination] by detectives and Union soldiers in a tobacco barn at the Garrett farm in Port Royal, Va. Shortly after 2 a.m. on a cool and cloudy Wednesday, he was mortally wounded in the neck.

Or was he?

Efforts by descendants to open the Baltimore grave believed to be John Wilkes Booth's were thwarted in 1995 by a judge who concluded its location could not be conclusively determined. The remains were supposed to be in the family plot, but reports placed it at an undisclosed location.

The family had hoped to use the skull and photographic techniques, along with other identifying scars, to make an identification.

Their best option now is to compare DNA from Edwin Booth, buried in Cambridge, Mass., with a specimen from the man shot at the barn, who experts agree is buried in Baltimore. Three cervical vertebrae from that body are in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington."

"Before dawn on April 26, John Wilkes Booth was discovered in a barn in the Maryland swamps. A torch was thrown inside. The straw caught immediately, illuminating the scene as clearly as if he were onstage. 'I saw him standing upright,' one Colonel Conger said later, 'leaning on a crutch. He looked so like his brother Edwin I believed for a moment the whole pursuit to have been a mistake.'" ("Booth's Ghost," from What I Didn't See, pg. 30)

Stay tuned for the next act.

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1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Wow -- that's fascinating! I can't wait to hear more --