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History’s Celebrities, Vol. 1: John Wilkes Booth

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John Wilkes Booth

As the Entertainment/Celebrity Blogger for Collectors Quest, I’ve mainly focused on collectibles owned by and memorabilia related to famous names of the past 50 or so years. It recently dawned on me that there’s a whole two centuries of American celebrities to write about, so today let’s see what’s going on in the John Wilkes Booth memorabilia market.

Before we get started, I’ve got a fun fact for you. Well, as fun as this subject gets. Most people know that President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was a celebrated actor in his time, but did you know that he was the second most photographed American man of his era? The first was Lincoln.

A home with ties to Wilkes Booth was auctioned off in October 2011, only for the sale to be rejected by the bank three months later. Retired Navy captain and subdivision developer Ed Veazey bought a King George, Virginia home where once lived a doctor who refused medical treatment to Wilkes Booth hours before he was captured and killed in 1865, but Bank of America axed the deal in January 2012. They said that they wanted the loan tied to it paid off first, but the home (named “Cleydael”) appears to have been included in a foreclosure auction instead.

A couple of months later, RR Auction of Amherst, New Hampshire sold a letter written by Wilkes Booth in 1861, four years before he killed Lincoln. The three-page message to future-conspirator Joseph Simonds discusses the stage tour he was on at the time and features his signature at the end. It’s not clear what the letter sold for in March 2012, but someone paid a heft $42,550 for it in December 1993.

“I confess I should like to hear from you every day,” he wrote to his friend in the correspondence. “I received your photograph, a thousand thanks, I think it very good, I believe you have mine. My second week in Buffalo was so, so. I played 17 nights in Detroit to a good Bus(iness). After here Monday night, 25th, they count high on me but I am doubtful as to my success.”

In August 2012, Legendary Auctions of Lansing, Illinois got $7,170 for a group of eight Lincoln and Wilkes Booth items. Included were a vintage playbill advertising Wilkes Booth’s Our American Cousin stage production, a long strand of his hair from the day he was captured in 1965, an 1860s engraving of Wilkes Booth’s likeness and a small piece of the sheet wrapped around Lincoln’s head the night he was shot.

A set of five Wilkes Booth photographs fetched $654 at a January 2013 RR sale. The 2.5”x4” cartes de visite (a type of small photograph printed on very thin paper and affixed to a thick card) show one of American history’s most hated men both by himself and with his co-conspirators.


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