Acting the Afterlife: John Wilkes Booth in the Afterlife by Ryan Thorpe

Journal Entry

Day 1

I find myself strangely alive. To what circumstances I can ascribe my current revival remains unknown to me, but I thank Providence twice and then once more to convey my eternal thanks to the boundless God who understands my cause. I observe the soft hills of Virginia surrounding Corbett’s farm and remember only the vaguest of details: a fire, a heat choking everything. I recall Yankee dogs yelling from safety for me to come out, but I screamed that would fight with every modicum of strength left in this corporeal frame and would abandon no structure as long as these arms still held guns. Then nothing. All black.

The smoking remains of the barn pop and crackle as the fire lulls itself down, and I arrive at the most obvious conclusion: I, John Wilkes Booth, struck down the dogs pursuing me all the way from Washington. For at least this moment, I am free to breathe the air God himself crafted during the idle hours of the seventh day and take a moment to stare out at the lovely land of Virginia, which serves as the tenth muse in all my actions.

After a moment, I look around for my companion Davey, but only his absence is noted. He either fled or was cut down in the fight. I say a quick prayer for his soul before rushing away from the farm and into the woods. The Union troops could be lurking anywhere, and I need to stay concealed until I can continue traveling south.

I find a small thicket of woods similar to the thicket we hid in during our flight from Maryland, and I establish camp with a blanket on the ground and a small fire of the driest tinder hidden under a small rock cropping to warm myself. The twilight of Virginia still nips at a man if he fails to cover himself adequately.

I want to give this journal entry a date, but the date escapes me. This day is only the next day of existence, the next moment of salvation, the sliver of humanity that warms me in this instant. It is the first day since my amazing escape past the guards of the Union, and I want to thank God again for my salvation, but I the words for such a prayer elude me.

As night overtakes my camp, I lie on my blanket and stare at the first emerging stars, and I imagine their twinkling to be the applause of God himself. His praise will be second only to the recognition given to me by my countrymen as I ride south to restart life in Texas.

Before sleep takes me from this world, I remember a brief scene from Corbett’s farm: I am prone on the ground near the front porch. My spine screams from its severed state as my head stares limply at my body. My mouth functions only in the most primitive ways. I want to see my hands. I want to see the instruments that failed me. I want to scream at their complete lack of faculty but instead only mutter “useless, useless.” That is all my mouth can perform. People walk around me, talking with one another. A cavalry officer fans his face with his wide-brimmed hat to ward off flies, and in the ultimate insult, he looks away from me to see the rising sun and comments on its splendid beauty as if he cannot think of a more contrived phrase.

Such thoughts comprise the character of the darkest of nightmares, but I still reach back with my hand before breeching the threshold of sleep and rub the spot at the base of my neck to feel for a hole.


Day 2

I find myself losing the excitement of living and taking stock of my life once again. The basic components of life are simple: a body and a will to use that body. Everything else in life serves one of these two masters. I slide my hands down my body and feel the texture of my skin, this thin bag drawing the purse strings of my vitality tight, and with each breath, I feel more alive. As I walk around my small encampment, though, I feel perhaps too alive because my leg mysteriously no longer troubles me. I know it to be broken.

I sit down near a stream, remove my boot, and upon examination of my leg and foot, find no injury. I still remember the tumble from the President’s box clearly. After the gun’s discharge, I grappled with the soldier until I wounded him enough for him to yield the edge of the balcony to me. I attempted to vault onto the stage, but the flags draped in front of the box caught my boot spur, and I landed in the most blinding pain. For days, I fought the pain, and the small handcrafted crutches that Dr. Mudd supplied me failed to adequately quell the pain. I took one tentative step and then another, and after several such steps, discovered that no pain surged through my body now, and my corporeal frame stood sturdier than I could ever remember. My hands no longer throbbed with pain when I woke in the morning, and unlike previous mornings when I woke to sensations of discomfort in my back from my lack of a mattress, I felt fully capable this morning.

The answer to my new luck can only be a divine blessing because for the first time since the assassination I was fit to travel without any hindrance. With this new capability, I drafted a new resolution to head immediately towards Richmond and find shelter among loyal agents of the Confederacy.

Traveling at night will provide me with an addition disguise, so I curl up under a canopy of pines to sleep and contemplate Hamlet’s lines as he considers his own suicide. Sleep must be a kind of death, and death is that journey from which no traveler ever returns. I have said those lines countless times on countless stages, but tonight, his words feel more like my own.


Day 3

I wake to complete darkness and pack my meager camp: a few changes of clothes, a bedroll, and a few cooking supplies. The heaviest item are the guns, but I never abandon them. They constitute a vital part in the removal of any unfortunate obstacles blocking my path. I do not look to kill anyone else. I have killed the last man I want to kill. I will kill more if they keep me from my freedom, though. I will kill until the ultimate freedom of anonymity is mine because I refuse to play the role of conquered anymore. For too long, I smiled and performed for others and now I can finally be free in the soft hills of Texas.

As I exit the front gate of Corbett’s farm, I consider how the farmer and his family appear to have completely vanished from the Earth. No lights burn inside the house, and despite the man’s complete hatred for me, he allowed me to slumber peacefully on his lawn. I shake my head for a second to clear it of pointless questions and focus on the long road in front of me. I consider all the tales I have heard of Texas. That’s where my mind should be. It is a land still being explored, and in its heart, Indians race the sun across the sky, completely free of a tyrannical government. Although I have never met an Indian, I have spent many hours considering how it would feel to be an Indian when I played in Augustus Stone’s Indian drama, Metamora. I craved to live on the open plain, and I once looked at a series of photographs of Texas see what the land looked like. The complete emptiness enchanted me. It was as barren as God’s ambitions. It was an ocean of land that spread out as far as the camera could see, and I wanted to live as an anonymous fish among the tall grass; another nameless creature drifting through the water without the smallest nod of a head or flick of a fin.

After several hours, I find my feet no longer troubled me, and I start to consider if I could walk to the end of the earth. I place one foot in front of the other in an endless cycle of footfalls, and in that instant, I feel that distance is more a state of mind than an obstacle to be overcome.

As I near Richmond, I see smoke circling in the sky like a message written from God in soot and then smeared to avoid detection. I leave my small bag of worldly goods in a thicket and enter into a sprint towards the capital. I rush past the small outlying farms and villages until I near the heart of Richmond itself, but there is no more Richmond. The heart of the Confederacy no longer beats. The body of my country lies gutted and lifeless. I look from house to house in a vain attempt to find someone who could relate to me the story of how she fell, but I find no one. They must have fled into the hills to avoid the soldiers.

Some of the buildings still burn, but I make no attempt to put any of them out. There is no quenching the fires of Richmond. The fire twists the city I knew into something strange and foreign. Richmond could be rebuilt, but it would never be the same. In a reconstructed Richmond, I would walk down strange streets and avenues, look down alleyways, and have nothing to say besides the most commonplace of remarks: this is a nice street, unobjectionable in all respects.

I walk until I find an open plaza where the stones still felt warm from the fires. I lie down on them and watch the smoke spiral further and further into the sky until it might gather in the face of God and instigate a tear.


Day 4

I wake to find Richmond still burning, and as I brush myself off from the stones, I knew it will burn forever. Some cities never stop burning; they stand with the singe painted over, but they still smolder and cradle the embers of fire in their foundations.

I leave the city after finding my pack, and I walk around and try to find someone to talk with about the crisis but no one is present. Southern hospitality dictates that a stranger must at least be seen at the front door. He might be refused entry, but he should at least be seen. I give a quick yell to the sky to see if anyone might inquire about the sound, but no one comes. I watch the main road for sign of a coach or postal rider, but none appear.

I might be the only Southerner alive. The rest of my countrymen might have been lost in fire. As I exit the city, I want to look back and tell it that I killed Lincoln. That I did it for her as a lover might for his beloved. I never turn around, though. Nothing can be said. Richmond no longer listens. She was too busy burning.


Day 5

I start my journey to Washington DC to find another person to speak to. Even if I find the enemy, I will fight and in that conflict, feel the sharp edge of life. In the silence, I find myself becoming increasingly bold. I no longer jump at the slightest increase in breeze and walk in the middle of the road with little fear of cavalry. Their hoofs would announce their arrival in the ground’s tremble long before I would see any of them.

I never stop to rest or admire the view anymore. I am on a mission to find someone else to discuss the evils of this war, and even if that man is Lincoln’s ghost himself, I want to tell him of what I have seen. Someone needs to know my story, but as I walk closer and closer to Washington, I fear no one will ever listen. Instead, I will be a ghost walking the curve of the Earth, more of a shade than a man. The last man alive is a ghost in all but form with no one to haunt except for himself.

I stop for a rest in the middle of the night, but I fail to tire. I have the stamina of a Greek marathon runner or a Japanese monk sprinting through the trees in reed sandals. Anything is possible, but the anger of being isolated for so long grows in my stomach. I want to anywhere other than where I currently am. I want to ask God why he has placed me here on this road between Richmond and Washington, but he never answers me. I want to inquire what kind of fate awaits me, his most loyal servant, after death, but God’s answers never make sense to me. I am the hand of God, but fail to understand the arm to which I am attached.


Day 6

I never fell asleep last night. I closed my eyes and tried to slide down night’s slick tongue into the abyss, but I never feel the fatigue of the day’s travels. I walk for what feels like days until I reach Washington DC, but I eventually reach the city. Despite my hatred for so many of its inhabitants, I always find a certain beauty in the city. The new Capitol rides into the sky, and the Washington monument stands tall with two shades of stone.

As soon as I near the city, I know something is different. No bridge sentries cry out to me, and I know that Secretary of War Stanton would never let his beloved city stand unguarded. When I left the city, I found a challenge at both ends of the bridge over the Potomac, but now I cross unimpeded. The city has transformed into an open museum of grand buildings that stretch on for as far as I can see.

I walk first to the Capitol Building and find the place entirely empty. I yell my name as I enter, “I, John Wilkes Booth, the famed actor, the infamous assassin, nears the heart of my enemy!” I stand under the massive dome, but I hear nothing. No feet rush to stop me, so I walk down the marble corridors, trying to find someone, but I am entirely alone. With each passing moment, I desire a companion, anyone willing to talk. I would argue with Stanton about the war or even listen to Lincoln explain long personal anecdote after anecdote in a waterfall of congenial argumentation, but no one is there.

As I walk towards the United States Senate, I stop to think about the damned souls who polluted my way of life with their intentions for unity, but in a world of intentions, I am the only man actions. I walk directly onto the Senate floor and stare out at the myriad desks placed across the chamber with their empty chairs. I stand on the desk of the President of the Senate and stare out at the ghostly congress convened in front of me. “I am here,” I declare. “I am here, and I await your judgment.” I say this out of comic irony because I know no one is coming, but I also say this because I must. The only way to defeat the fear of a beast is to stare the beast in the face until it looks away, and when it looks away, kick it in the belly so it remembers. If it moves, kick again.

I search through desk drawers until I find a stack of papers, and by utilizing the flame from the gas lanterns, I create a small fire in the makeshift hearth of a desk. I feed the flames with papers found in other desks, and as the fire rises I add broken off desk legs. The flames grow until I can capsize the original desk and allow the flames to spread to the floor. I feel satisfaction at watching the fire advance, a pride stemming from the sweetest justice in existence: revenge. In addition to being the assassin of Lincoln, I am the destroyer of Washington. The torch bearer. The bringer of fire. The sword of the angel.

I walk to the entryway of the chamber and watch the flames inch their way towards the president’s desk. The flames hold for a moment and then lick forward, ravenous and blind. Richmond would be proud. Richmond will find comfort when a mirror is held up to this city and Washington sees a stranger requiring an introduction.

I walk the short distance to the White House and never slow to announce myself. In this world, whatever it is, no civilities are required. The large portico funnels me into the house. Soon I will see the enemy of all people.

The lobby of the White House feels unadorned compared to some of the great playhouses. Some of the wood remains unvarnished. Some walls suggest another coat of paint. The hallways feel damp and small wooden rooms feel as though they feed on any idea of hope. I walk from one room to the next, trying to find the origin of Lincoln’s motivation. Surely, the man held a few instigators of inspiration around him to comfort him through the darkest moments of the war, but I find nothing. Everything looks and feels like a copy of something else, and the things motivating a man are nothing to others. It could have been a piece of clothing from childhood, a bookmark from school, a quick portrait his son attempted; such scraps construct a man.

I step into Lincoln’s bedroom. Nothing stands out of place as I walk around the large bed dominating the center of the room. I sit in his desk chair, lean back, and try to imagine his power. I watched him give so many speeches, and while others appreciate the off-cuff way he approached his public remarks, I saw an unprepared man. An actor should always know his lines. I leaned forward and placed my elbows on his desk. I held my head to one side in the flat of my palm and tried to mimic the pose of contemplation I had seen in lithographs. To look contemplative, a man never needs to be a philosopher. I tried to copy his relaxed smile, the way his arms hung at his side as if unaccustomed to their length, the tussled angles of his hair from days and days of being uncombed. Philosophy is a pose the body takes; an idology telegraphed through positioning the body.

I sit there for a long while, but I feel cracks in my performance. I fail to remember many of his poses, and his words ran dry after a few rehearsed speeches. The man known by many was unknown to me. The real man anyway. I never wanted to kill a man, though. I wanted to chop the head from the snake constricting my country into non-existence.

I rise from the chair and walk over the bed. I slide between the sheets and do not question the light outside the window. It could have been the burning Capital or the sunlight, but neither interests me. I am questioning how I will live through tomorrow if such metaphysical speculations persist. If I am in my own afterlife, then I craft all aspects of its existence. If I control all variables in this world, then I must have the ability to craft people, an audience to hear my message, because this world is surely a fiction as all dream worlds and afterlives must be. They are by their nature too personal and surreal to be the hard fact of reality. This world is my truth.

I say a quick prayer before drifting to sleep. I thank him for my freedom, but I ask that he grant me audience, one that knew how to clap with the same crazed intensity of Lincoln’s mourners.

Day 7

Dear World,

I am writing to you rather to myself at this point. I feel if I am able to write a letter to someone then maybe the message will leave my consciousness and find an audience somewhere far away. In that hope, I fling these words into the abyss.

I wake up in Lincoln’s bed, but I am unsure if I ever fell asleep. I closed my eyes, but I stopped trying to measure time. Time is only needed if I am trying to find a certain place in a certain moment, and as I exit the White House through the front portico, I think I am trapped in a singular repeating moment. I do not know if this is heaven or hell, but I know it is not the world I used to know.

I walk past the Capitol, which stands white and gleaming, untouched by the flames of yesterday. I am alone, and no one is coming. I never imagined what I would accomplish with infinite time, but as I ask myself now, I realize that I never really considered a tomorrow.

I walk through the streets of Washington as though seeing them for the first time. Every door front stands unlocked, and I can take part in the story of every house if I walked through the door and acted the various parts. I am a stranger in familiar streets, a vengeful angel with only my anger and myself.

I stroll down F Ave until I reach Ford’s Theater. I walk through the front doors and call out to Ford, but of course I am still alone. I walk out on the stage and look around at the familiar theater where I have performed many times, and on the crowded benches, I can almost see the businessmen grooming themselves before the show, adjusting their shirtsleeves and looking around to find their wives.

I walk to the front of the theater and up to the balcony where Lincoln sat, and I sit in his rocking chair and look down at the stage, which at this angle looks rather unremarkable, an open floor terminating into a black curtain near the rear of the theater. I glance around the box and see the red paneled walls and consider what he might have seen when I shot him. He never turned his head to face me. He leaned back at the moment right before I squeezed the trigger as though he might be moving to avoid the shot or leaning back for a long yawn. I try and turn my head the way I remembered his. He must have been looking at the audience, noticing the impressive whiskers on a man near the front row or recognizing some government official seated near the front of the theater.

After only a short period of time, though, I grow tired of sitting. I am an instrument, and I need to play. As a result, I decide to put on a show, a dramatic recreation of the event itself. I retrieve a gun and knife from my bag and move to the front of the theater. At the moment of the incident, no scenery stood on stage and only a single actor stood there, smiling after speaking one of the more amusing lines from Our America Cousin: “You sockdologizing old mantrap!” The roar of the audience almost covered the shot. Several members of the crowd believed the shot to be a part of the show and kept looking forward.

I walk to the stage and take my place, center stage, and spread my arms wide with a weapon in each hand. “Ladies and gentleman, tonight’s show will be one for you to always remember, and although tonight’s show contains elements of violence, I promise that all of you will return home in one piece.” I look out on the audience with a smile, but there is no one, which troubles me.

I drop the weapons and head to the costume shop below the stage where I find a small gathering of headless human torso’s used to craft costumes. I grab two of them, and after making my way back to the theater, I position them near the front of the house on one of the benches. I repeat this process until I empty the costume shop, and as I stand on the stage, I observe the gathering of torsos turned in my direction. They lack heads to see, but some of them are fitted with simple arms that thrust forward as if seeking an embrace.

I sit on the stage staring at each of them in turn, thinking that if I wait long enough, one will move.

I rehearse the show more times than I can remember. I make reflective notes in the back of this journal on specific hand motions and body gestures that accentuate the character of John Wilkes Booth. I want the character to be both beloved and feared by the audience. I find a particularly moving moment in the show when I level a loaded gun at the audience and sweep it back and forth like a spotlight. Each member of the audience believes for a moment that he or she could become intimately involved in the show. Each individual feels for a second the fear of being the assassin’s target.

Of course, my finger is nowhere near the trigger, so the benign exercise endangers no one, but no one is looking at my finger. Every member of the audience will look at the gun that unblinkingly stares at them, a single eye seeking a connection.

The rest of the show contains a short background speech about the man, John Wilkes Booth, and includes a humorous moment from his youth involving a young maiden, a mouse, and a Turkish sword guaranteed to earn a laugh. From there, the show depicts Booth as he walks around the stage, contemplating the attack, and escalates as the audience watches Booth appear on the balcony behind a costume torso designated in the dialogue as “Lincoln.” From there, we watch as Booth explains how the preparations for the attack were made: a short stick of wood cut the perfect length to jam the door shut and locks oiled to ensure that no one heard the man enter. All of these actions would be pantomimed with such exactness that the audience would utilize little of their faculty for imagination. With the movements of my hands, they will see the wood being crafted, the lock shifting noiselessly into place, and a small hole bored into the door to preview what stood on the other side.

From there, the show progresses to the actual night and shows how Lincoln sat in his rocking chair, half watching the show. At the critical moment, Booth draws his revolver and discharges the weapon into the costume torso and lets the cotton stuffing fly. During one rehearsal, the gun discharged prematurely and wounded another audience member, but I simply rotated the audience member around so the injury faced away from the stage.

After the shot is discharged, Booth leaps in a graceful arc from the balcony and lands on the stage with an acrobatic roll. As he stands with his knife raised high above his head like an army banner, he yells Sic Simper Tyranus, and flees from the back of the theater. No conclusion or resolution to this show. The audience draws its own conclusions from the empty stage that stands there like an uncompleted painting.

I do not know what day it is, but I have not slept for some time now. I have not left the theater or eaten because such things are not required anymore. All that is left or has any consequence is the show. The show drives me forward, and as I stand ready backstage, I realize that I must also open the curtain, which draws me away from my mark in the middle of the stage. With a deep sigh, I walk off stage, slide open the curtain, and return to stand in the center of the stage with a weapon in each hand. The torsos look up at me from their positions. I have adorned them in coats and ties and dresses from the costume shop to make them a more real, but as a result of the clothing’s origin, Roman togas are warn next to ball gowns and the royal silk robes of the Emperor of China.

I start the performance, but as I enter, no one bursts into a fit of applause. When I level my gun at the audience and sweep it slowly over the coats and dresses of the audience, no one flinches. No one feels the fear except me. At that moment, I drop the knife and turn the gun on myself, pressing the tip to my temple. The field of my vision tightens, and I can remember the smoke rising from the farmhouse in Virginia as it burned around me. I yelled out to the troopers that I would never be taken alive, and I meant that. I was not a man meant to be held in chains. I am no man’s prize.

I press the trigger and feel nothing as I fall to the ground and bleed. I do not know if the scene will reset itself tomorrow, and I will find myself awake and uninjured. Or maybe I will stay on the stage, bleeding out in front of an audience without a voice to cry out or hands to clap.

Dr. Ryan Thorpe, PhD Shanghai Jiao Tong University Assistant Teaching Professor Editor of The Blue Tiger Review UM-SJTU Joint Institute, Office 405A 800 Dong Chuan Road Shanghai,200240,P.R.China