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My Odd Adventure with Junius Brutus Booth

More than twenty years ago, being pastor of a church in one of our Western cities, I was sitting, one evening, meditating over my coal fire, which was cheerfully blazing up and gloomily subsiding again, in the way that Western coal fires in Western coal grates were then very much in the habit of doing. I was a young, and inexperienced minister. I had come to the West, fresh from a New England divinity-school, with magnificent ideas of the vast work which was to be done, and with rather a vague notion of the way in which I was to do it. My views of the West were chiefly derived from two books, both of which are now obsolete. When a child, with the omnivorous reading propensity of children, I had perused a thin, pale octavo, which stood on the shelves of our library, containing the record of a journey by the Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris, of Dorchester, from Massachusetts to Marietta, Ohio. Allibone, whom nothing escapes, gives the title of the book, "Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Allegheny Mountains in 1803, Boston, 1805." That a man should write an octavo volume about a journey to Marietta now strikes us as rather absurd; but in those days the overland journey to Ohio was as difficult as that to California is now. The other book was a more important one, being Timothy Flint's "Ten Years' Recollections of the Mississippi Valley," published in 1826. Mr. Flint was a man of sensibility and fancy, a sharp observer, and an interesting writer. His book opened the West to us in its scenery and in its human interest.

I was sitting in my somewhat lonely position, watching my coal fire, and thinking of the friends I had left on the other side of the mountains. I had not succeeded as I had hoped in my work. I came to the West expecting to meet with opposition, and I found only indifference. I expected infidelity, and found worldliness. I had around me a company of good Christian friends, but they were no converts of mine; they were from New England, like myself, and brought their religion with them. Upon the real Western people I had made no impression, and could not see how I should make any. Those who were religious seemed to be bigots; those who were not religious cared apparently more for making money, for politics, for horseracing, for duelling, than for the difference between Homoousians and Homoiousians. They were very fond of good preaching, but their standard was a little different from that I had been accustomed to. A solid, meditative, carefully written sermon had few attractions for them. They would go to hear our great New England divines on account of their reputation, but they would run in crowds to listen to John Newland Maffit. What they wanted, as one of them expressed it, was "an eloquent divine and no common orator." They liked sentiment run out into sentimentalism, fluency, point, plenty of illustration, and knock-down argument. How could a poor boy, fresh from the groves of our Academy, where Good Taste reigned supreme, and where to learn how to manage one's voice was regarded as a sin against sincerity, how could he meet such demands as these?

I was more discouraged than I need to have been; for, after all, the resemblances in human beings are more than their differences. The differences are superficial,—the resemblances radical. Everywhere men like, in a Christian minister, the same things,—sincerity, earnestness, and living Christianity. Mere words may please, but not long. Men differ in taste about the form of the cup out of which they drink this wine of Divine Truth, but they agree in their thirst for the same wine.

But to my story.

I was sitting, therefore, meditating somewhat sadly, when a knock came at the door. On opening it, a negro boy, with grinning face, presented himself, holding a note. The great fund of good-humor which God has bestowed on the African race often makes them laugh when we see no occasion for laughter. Any event, no matter what it is, seems to them amusing. So this boy laughed merely because he had brought me a note, and not because there was anything peculiarly amusing in the message which the note contained. It is true that you sometimes meet a melancholy negro. But such, I fancy, have some foreign blood in them,—they are not Africans pur sang. The race is so essentially joyful, that centuries of oppression and hardship cannot depress its good spirits. It is cheerful in spite of slavery, and in spite of cruel prejudice.

The note the boy brought me did not seem adapted to furnish much provocation for laughter. It was as follows:—

"United States Hotel, Jan. 4th, 1834.

"SIR,—I hope you will excuse the liberty of a stranger addressing you on a subject he feels great interest in. It is to require a place of interment for his friend[s] in the church-yard, and also the expense attendant on the purchase of such place of temporary repose.

"Your communication on this matter will greatly oblige,

"Sir,

"Your respectful and

"Obedient Servant,

"J.B. BOOTH."

It will be observed that after the word "friend" an [s] follows in brackets. In the original the word was followed by a small mark which might or might not give it the plural form. It could be read either "friend" or "friends"; but as we do not usually find ourselves called upon to bury more than one friend at a time, the hasty reader would not notice the mark, but would read it "friend." So did I; and only afterward, in consequence of the dénouement, did I notice that it might be read in the other way.

Taking my hat, I stepped into the street. Gas in those days was not; an occasional lantern, swung on a wire across the intersection of the streets, reminded us that the city was once French, and suggested the French Revolution and the cry, "À la lanterne!" First I went to my neighbor, the mayor of the city, in pursuit of the desired information. A jolly mayor was he,—a Yankee melted down into a Western man, thoroughly Westernized by a rough-and-tumble life in Kentucky during many years. Being obliged to hold a mayor's court every day, and knowing very little of law, his chief study was, as he expressed it, "how to choke off the Kentucky lawyers." Mr. Mayor not being at home, I turned next to the office of another naturalized Yankee,—a Yankee naturalized, but never Westernized. He was one of those who do not change their mind with their sky, who, exiled from the dear hills of New England, can never get away from the inborn, inherent Yankee. He was a Plymouth man, and religiously preserved every opinion, habit, and accent which he had brought from Plymouth Rock. When Kentucky was madly Democratic and wept over the dead Jefferson as over her saint, he had expressed the opinion that it would have been well for the country, if he had died long before,—for which expression he came near being lynched. He was the most unpopular and the most indispensable man in the city,—they could live neither with him nor without him. He founded and organized the insurance companies, the public schools, the charitable associations, the great canal, the banking-system,—in short, all Yankee institutions. The city was indebted to him for much of its prosperity, but disliked him while it respected him. For he spared no Western prejudice; he remorselessly criticized everything that was not done as Yankees do it: and the most provoking thing of all was that he never made a mistake; he was always right.

Finding no one at home, and so not being able to learn about the price of lots in the church-yard, I walked on to the hotel, and asked to see Mr. J.B. Booth. I was shown into a private parlor, where he and another gentleman were sitting by a table. On the table were candles, a decanter of wine, and glasses, a plate of bread, cigars, and a book. Mr. Booth rose when I announced myself, and I at once recognized the distinguished actor. I had met him once before, and travelled with him for part of a day. He was a short man, but one of those who seem tall when they choose to do so. He had a clear blue eye and fair complexion. In repose there was nothing to attract attention to him; but when excited, his expression was so animated, his eye was so brilliant, and his figure so full of life, that he became another man.

Having told him that I had not been successful in procuring the information he desired, but would bring it to him on the following morning, he thanked me, and asked me to sit down. It passed through my mind, that, as he had lost a friend and was a stranger in the place, I might be of use to him. Perhaps he needed consolation, and it was my office to sympathize with the bereaved. So I sat down. But it did not appear that he was disposed to seek for such comfort, or engage in such discourse. Once or twice I endeavored, but without success, to turn the conversation to his presumed loss. I asked him if the death of his friend was sudden.

"Very," he replied.

"Was he a relative?"

"Distant," said he, and changed the subject.

It is twenty-seven years since these events took place, and I do not pretend to give the conversation very accurately, but what occurred was very much like this. It was a dialogue between Booth and myself, the third party saying not a word during the evening. Mr. Booth first asked me to take a glass of wine, or a cigar, both of which I declined.

"Well," said he, "let me try to entertain you in another way. When you came in, I was reading aloud to my friend. Perhaps you would like to hear me read."

"I certainly should," said I.

"What shall I read?"

"Whatever you like best. What you like to read I shall like to hear."

"Then suppose I attempt Coleridge's 'Ancient Mariner'? Have you time for it? It is long."

"Yes, I should like it much."

So he read aloud the whole of this magnificent poem. I have listened to Macready, to Edmund Kean, to Rachel, to Jenny Lind, to Fanny Kemble,—to Webster, Clay, Everett, Harrison Gray Otis,—to Dr. Channing, Henry Ward Beecher, Wendell Phillips, Father Taylor, Ralph Waldo Emerson,—to Victor Hugo, Coquerel, Lacordaire; but none of them affected me as I was affected by this reading. I forgot the place where I was, the motive of my coming, the reader himself. I knew the poem almost by heart, yet I seemed never to have heard it before. I was by the side of the doomed mariner. I was the wedding-guest, listening to his story, held by his glittering eye. I was with him in the storm, among the ice, beneath the hot and copper sky. Booth became so absorbed in his reading, so identified with the poem, that his tone and manner were saturated with a feeling of reality. He actually thought himself the mariner,—so I am persuaded,—while he was reading. As the poem proceeded, and we plunged deeper and deeper into its mystic horrors, the actual world receded into a dim, indefinable distance. The magnetism of this marvellous interpreter had caught up himself, and me with him, into Dreamland, from which we gently descended at the end of Part VI., and "the spell was snapt."

  "And now, all in my own countree,
  I stood on the firm land,"—

returned from a voyage into the inane. Again I found myself sitting in the little hotel parlor, by the side of a man with glittering eye, with a third somebody on the other side of the table.

I drew a long breath.

Booth turned over the leaves of the volume. It was the collected Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.

"Did you ever read," said he, "Shelley's argument against the use of animal food, at the end of 'Queen Mab'?"

"Yes, I have read it."

"And what do you think of the argument?"

"Ingenious, but not satisfactory."

"To me it is satisfactory. I have long been convinced that it is wrong to take the life of an animal for our pleasure. I eat no animal food. There is my supper,"—pointing to the plate of bread. "And, indeed," continued he, "I think the Bible favors this view. Have you a Bible with you?"

I had not.

Booth thereupon rang the bell, and when the boy presented himself, called for a Bible. Garçon disappeared, and came back soon with a Bible on a waiter.

Our tragedian took the book, and proceeded to argue his point by means of texts selected skilfully here and there, from Genesis to Revelation. He referred to the fact that it was not till after the Deluge men were allowed, "for the hardness of their hearts," as he maintained, to eat meat. But in the beginning it was not so; only herbs were given to man, at first, for food. He quoted the Psalmist (Psalm civ. 14) to show that man's food came from the earth, and was the green herb; and contended that the reason why Daniel and his friends were fairer and fatter than the children who ate their portion of meat was that they ate only pulse (Daniel i. 12-15). These are all of his Scriptural arguments which I now recall; but I thought them very ingenious at the time.

The argument took some time. Then he recited one or two pieces bearing on the same subject, closing with Byron's Lines to his Newfoundland Dog.

"In connection with that poem," he continued, "a singular event once happened to me. I was acting in Petersburg, Virginia. My theatrical engagement was just concluded, and I dined with a party of friends one afternoon before going away. We sat after dinner, singing songs, reciting poetry, and relating anecdotes. At last I recited those lines of Byron on his dog. I was sitting by the fireplace, my feet resting against the jamb, and a single candle was burning on the mantel. It had become dark. Just as I came to the end of the poem,—

  "'To mark a friend's remains these stones arise,
  I never knew but one, and here he lies,'—

"my foot slipped down the jamb, and struck a dog, who was lying beneath. The dog sprang up, howled, and ran out of the room, and at the same moment the candle went out. I asked whose dog it was. No one knew. No one had seen the dog till that moment. Perhaps you will smile at me, Sir, and think me superstitious,—but I could not but think that the animal was brought there by occult sympathy."

Having uttered these oracular words in a very solemn tone, Booth rose, and, taking one of the candles, said to me, "Would you like to look at the remains?"

I assented. Asking our silent friend to excuse us, he led me into an adjoining chamber. I looked toward a bed in the corner of the room, expecting to see a corpse. There was none there. But Booth went to another corner of the room, where, spread out upon a large sheet, I saw—what do you suppose, dear reader?

About a bushel of Wild Pigeons!

Booth knelt down by the side of the birds, and with every evidence of sincere affliction began to mourn over them. He took them up in his hands tenderly, and pressed them to his heart. For a few moments he seemed to forget my presence. For this I was glad, for it gave me a little time to recover from my astonishment, and to consider rapidly what it might mean. As I look back now, and think of the oddity of the situation, I rather wonder at my own self-possession. It was a sufficiently trying position. At first I thought it was a hoax, an intentional piece of practical fun, of which I was to be the object. But even in the moment allowed me to think, I decided that this could not be. For I recalled the long and elaborate Bible argument against taking the life of animals, which could hardly have been got up for the occasion. I considered also that as a joke it would be too poor in itself, and too unworthy a man like Booth. So I decided that it was a sincere conviction,—an idea, exaggerated perhaps to the borders of monomania, of the sacredness of all life. And I determined to treat the conviction with respect, as all sincere and religious convictions deserve to be treated.

I also saw the motive for this particular course of action. During the week immense quantities of the Wild Pigeon (Passenger Pigeon, Columba Migratoria) had been flying over the city, in their way to and from a roost in the neighborhood. These birds had been slaughtered by myriads, and were for sale by the bushel at the corners of every street in the city. Although all the birds which could be killed by man made the smallest impression on the vast multitude contained in one of these flocks,—computed by Wilson to consist of more than twenty-two hundred millions,—yet to Booth the destruction seemed wasteful, wanton, and from his point of view was a wilful and barbarous murder.

Such a sentiment was perhaps an exaggeration; still I could not but feel a certain sympathy with its humanity. It was an error in a good direction. If an insanity, it was better than the cold, heartless sanity of most men. By the time, therefore, that Booth was ready to speak, I was prepared to answer.

"You see," said he, "these innocent victims of man's barbarity. I wish to testify in some public way against this wanton destruction of life. And I wish you to help me. Will you?"

"Hardly," I replied. "I expected something very different from this, when I received your note. I did not come to see you expecting to be called to assist at the funeral solemnities of birds."

"Nor did I send for you," he answered. "I merely wrote to ask about the lot in the grave-yard. But now you are here, why not help me? Do you fear the laugh of man?"

"No," I returned. "If I agreed with you in regard to this subject, I might, perhaps, have the courage to act out my convictions. But I do not look at it as you do. There is no reason, then, why I should have anything to do with it. I respect your convictions, but do not share them."

"That is fair," he said. "I cannot ask anything more. I am obliged to you for coming to see me. My intention was to purchase a place in the burial-ground, and have them put into a coffin and carried in a hearse. I might do it without any one's knowing that it was not a human body. Would you assist me, then?"

"But if no one knew it," I said, "how would it be a public testimony against the destruction of life?"

"True, it would not. Well, I will consider what to do. Perhaps I may wish to bury them privately in some garden."

"In that case," said I, "I will find you a place in the grounds of some of my friends."

He thanked me, and I took my leave,—exceedingly astonished and amused by the incident, but also interested in the earnestness of conviction of the man.

I heard, in a day or two, that he had actually purchased a lot in the cemetery, two or three miles below the city, that he had had a coffin made, hired a hearse and carriage, and had gone through all the solemnity of a regular funeral. For several days he continued to visit the grave of his little friends, and mourned over them with a grief which did not seem at all theatrical.

Meantime he acted every night at the theatre, and my friends told me that his acting was of unsurpassed excellence. A vein of insanity began, however, to mingle in his conduct. His fellow-actors were afraid of him. He looked terribly in earnest on the stage; and when he went behind the scenes, he spoke to no one, but sat still, looking sternly at the ground. During the day he walked about town, giving apples to the horses, and talked to the drivers, urging them to treat their animals with kindness.

An incident happened, one day, which illustrated still further his sympathy for the humbler races of animals. One of the sudden freshets which come to the Ohio, caused commonly by heavy rains melting the snow in the valleys of its tributary streams, had raised the river to an unusual height. The yellow torrent rushed along its channel, bearing on its surface logs, boards, and the debris of fences, shanties, and lumber-yards. A steamboat, forced by the rapid current against the stone landing, had been stove, and lay a wreck on the bottom, with the water rising rapidly around it. A horse had been left, fastened on the boat, and it looked as if he would be drowned. Booth was on the landing, and he took from his pocket twenty dollars, and offered it to any one who would get to the boat and cut the halter, so that the horse might swim ashore. Some one was found to do it, and the horse's life was saved.

So this golden thread of human sympathy with all creatures whom God had made ran through the darkening moods of his genius. He had well laid to heart the fine moral of his favorite poem,—that

  "He prayeth well, who loveth well
  Both man, and bird, and beast.

  "He prayeth best, who loveth best
  All things, both great and small;
  For the dear God, who loveth us,
  He made and loveth all."

In a week or less the tendency to derangement in Booth became more developed. One night, when he was to act, he did not appear; nor could he be found at his lodgings. He did not come home that night. Next morning he was found in the woods, several miles from the city, wandering through the snow. He was taken care of. His derangement proved to be temporary, and his reason returned in a few days. He soon left the city. But before he went away he sent to me the following note, which I copy from the original faded paper, now lying before me:—

"—Theatre,

"January 18, 1834.

"MY DEAR SIR,

"Allow me to return you my grateful acknowledgments for your prompt and benevolent attention to my request last Wednesday night. Although I am convinced your ideas and mine thoroughly coincide as to the real cause of man's bitter degradation, yet I fear human means to redeem him are now fruitless. The Fire must burn, and Prometheus endure his agony. The Pestilence of Asia must come again, ere the savage will be taught humanity. May you escape! God bless you, Sir!

"J.B. BOOTH."

Certainly I may call this "an odd adventure" for a young minister, less than six months in his profession. But it left in my mind a very pleasant impression of this great tragedian. It may be asked why he came to me, the youngest and newest clergyman in the place. The reason he gave me himself. I was a Unitarian. He said he had more sympathy with me on that account, as he was of Jewish descent, and a Monotheist.