Did John Really Love Lucy?

New Hampshire’s Lucy Lambert Hale gets a valentine from John Wilkes Booth
Old Love Letters, Vintage Accessories, Red Rose Flower

Digital collage by John R. Goodwin

The Everly Brothers were right: Love hurts, especially when your fiancée turns out to be the most hated man in the nation. Lucy Lambert Hale of Dover, New Hampshire, according to legend, was secretly engaged to actor John Wilkes Booth when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Lucy was staying with her family at the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., where Booth also lodged. 

At 26, Booth was among the most recognizable figures in America during the Civil War. Handsome and athletic, especially dazzling during swordfights and action scenes, he was considered a third-rate actor when compared to his elder brother, Edwin Booth. Lucy Hale, then 24 and better known as “Bessie,” is often depicted as a beauty, although John Ford, proprietor of Ford’s Theatre, described her simply as “stout.” She was, without doubt, the belle of Washington society. Lucy was also the daughter of an abolitionist senator from New Hampshire. Booth was a notorious playboy and a pro-slavery sympathizer for the Confederate cause. What could possibly go wrong? 

A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Bowdoin College, John Parker Hale, Lucy’s dad, spoke out against slavery, opposed the Mexican-American War and fought against the practice of flogging in the Navy. By 1865, wrapping up a 22-year career as a congressman and senator, he was about to become the U.S. ambassador to Spain. It has been suggested that Sen. Hale asked President Lincoln for the post in order to place the Atlantic Ocean between his starstruck daughter and a troublesome actor. 

The romance reportedly began when Booth sent an anonymous and creepy Valentine’s Day letter to “My Dear Miss Hale.” It read, in part: “You resemble in a most remarkable degree a lady, very dear to me, now dead, and your close resemblance to her surprised me the first time I saw you.”  

Lucy innocently used her father’s influence to get Booth an invitation to Lincoln’s second inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Booth and five of his conspirators are visible in photographs of the March 4, 1865 inauguration. They stood within “striking distance” of the president, Booth later boasted. He returned the favor by taking Lucy to a performance at Ford’s Theatre where, days later, he shot Lincoln in the head with a bullet from a small derringer. Today, Ford’s Theatre is a national museum where Booth’s derringer and a portrait of Lucy are on display. 

According to some researchers, the couple met up at the hotel on April 14, the morning of the assassination, roughly the time her father was meeting with President Lincoln at the White House. Sen. Hale was working out the details of his trip to Spain with his wife and two daughters. 

Whether J.P. Hale knew of his daughter’s engagement is unclear. And it is unlikely Lucy was aware of her fiancé’s murderous plan. For months, Booth and his conspirators had been planning to kidnap Lincoln, not to kill him. But a failed attempt and the ending of the Civil War just days earlier — plus Lincoln’s plan to give African Americans the vote — pushed Booth to take desperate action. 

“We hated to kill,” Booth wrote in a pocket diary while hiding after the murder. Of Lincoln, he added, “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”

On that fateful Good Friday, after meeting Lucy, Booth learned that Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were planning to attend a performance at Ford’s that night. He hastily convened his conspirators to revise their plans. 

According to a bystander, Booth (wearing his spurs for a quick getaway by horse) calmly dined with Lucy and her mother at the National Hotel at 6:30 p.m. Checking his watch before 8 p.m., he stood to leave. Booth took Lucy’s hand and recited a line from Shakespeare: “Nymph, in thy orisons [prayers] be all my sins remembered.” Two hours later, he was the greatest villain in American history. 

How intimate Lucy Hale had been with John Wilkes Booth is best left to tabloids and novels. They may have exchanged rings and poems. It has been suggested that Lucy shared a room with Booth not long before the assassination. That unlikely scenario has even been dramatized in a made-for-TV movie.

More likely, Lucy was swept away by Booth’s practiced charm and celebrity. She was no stranger to courtly love and was considered flirtatious by Victorian standards. According to Albert Richmond “Boo” Morcom, a history buff, collector and Olympic pole vaulter, Lucy had attracted other famous admirers. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son, enjoyed her company, although he later denied ever meeting Lucy. Years earlier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future Supreme Court Justice, wrote to Lucy. Holmes asked whether she had scented her letter with a perfume called “Kiss Me Quick,” and if so, did she intend he should do so?

The Booth Valentine anecdote, now widely repeated, came from the late Morcom, who published excerpts from a few of Lucy’s love letters (American Heritage Magazine, 1970). Best known for his Olympic feats, Morcom graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1947. He claimed to have found the letters in an antique shop. Morcom owned the valentine he attributed to John Wilkes Booth, although it is signed “A Stranger.” 

Was Booth truly in love with Lucy Hale as he told friends and family members? Or was the actor “playing” the young New Hampshire woman, much as he manipulated his less-than-clever co-conspirators? Booth was wealthy, although he spent much of his fortune smuggling weapons and supplies to the Confederacy. He was popular, although often mocked in the press for his mediocre performances. Charming, cunning, duplicitous and vengeful, he seemed to wield a “magnetic” influence over certain people. 

John Wilkes’ sister, Asia, and his brother, Junius, were aware of his infatuation with a senator’s daughter. Junius, also an actor, had seen his brother kissing a ring each time he mentioned Lucy’s name. Writing about her brother years later, Asia Booth Clarke recalled him struggling to write a valentine poem a week before the assassination. His affection for Lucy appeared genuine to friends and family. 

Booth also admitted the engagement to his doting mother. She wrote back to warn him that “a child with a new toy only craves possession of it.” His mother added, “You are looking and saying soft things to one that don’t love you half as well as your old mother does.” On learning that “Bessie” was soon leaving for Spain with her family, Booth had agreed to wait one year and then marry, whether Lucy’s father approved or not. 

Almost everyone with a connection to John Wilkes Booth was interrogated in the weeks following the assassination. Scores of people were arrested and detained, including Junius, who spent two months in prison. But there is no record that Lucy Hale or her mother were questioned, even though they may have been with Booth just before the murder that stunned the nation. John Parker Hale likely used his considerable clout to keep investigators at bay. Sen. Hale also posted notices in the media denying that any relationship had existed between the assassin and his daughter.

Only scraps of paper and remembered conversation remain to document the brief star-crossed romance. Lucy did contact Edwin Booth, the renowned Shakespearean actor. “I have had a heartbroken letter,” Edwin wrote to his sister, Asia, “from the poor little girl to whom he (John Wilkes) had promised so much happiness.”

John Wilkes Booth Wanted Poster New

Following the murder of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, John Wilkes Booth escaped out of a backstage door to a waiting getaway horse and headed for Maryland. Booth and a co-conspirator survived a fierce 12-day manhunt before he was cornered and shot in a Virginia tobacco barn. Lucy Hale’s photograph was among the items discovered in his pockets.

Scholar Nora Titone has argued that John Wilkes was driven to violence against Lincoln, in part, to upstage his better-known, more-sophisticated older brother. Their bitter rivalry began as children. Edwin was chosen to tour with their renowned father, actor Junius Brutus Booth. John, four years younger, stayed on their Maryland farm with his mother and sisters. Junius Brutus, for the record, was also a notorious alcoholic who suffered from bouts of mental illness. Edwin was effectively his father’s caretaker. 

During the Civil War, John Wilkes toured the struggling South while Edwin dominated the North, even building his own theater. By murdering Lincoln in a theater during a play — then leaping dramatically to the stage shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”) — John Wilkes nearly put an end to Edwin’s reputation and career. Ironically, after publicly expressing his grief and shame in public, Edwin Booth went on to become the most revered actor of his era. 

We get a hint of Lucy’s reaction from an article in The New York Herald. Without mentioning her by name, a reporter wrote that Booth’s fiancée, like the rest of the country, was “plunged into profound grief.” Lucy, however, was pining for the assassin, not the president. “But with womanly fidelity, she is slow to believe him guilty of this appalling crime,” the Herald noted. After Lincoln’s death — and again, this is hearsay — she vowed to be loyal even to the gallows. Ella Turner, another of Booth’s lovers, attempted, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide using a bottle of chloroform.

John Wilkes Booth, who had expected to become a hero of the defeated South, was shocked to find himself hunted and despised. Unlike four other conspirators, he never made it to the gallows. He was shot while hiding in a Virginia tobacco barn after a 12-day manhunt. His body was sewn into a horse blanket and taken by tugboat in the dead of night to the ironclad ship Montauk at Washington. Not even the sailors on duty knew that Booth’s corpse had been smuggled aboard.

Among the effects found on the assassin’s body was a photograph of Lucy Hale. However, his pocket diary included pictures of four other women, all actresses. Lucy’s photograph was not identified until 1891.

According to historian Gene Smith, three people arrived by tugboat the next morning and boarded the Montauk. Two were naval officers. One was a woman in a veil. An account in an unpublished manuscript reports that, when the blanket was unwrapped, Lucy Hale threw herself across the body, sobbing. Was it Lucy? Did it happen? The tale of the star-crossed lovers is rich with legend, but poorly documented. 

Either way, Lucy quickly accompanied her parents to Spain. She returned four years later to their Dover, New Hampshire, home, today a museum. She nursed her father until his death in 1873. Two years later, Lucy married another former sweetheart and a widower, William E. Chandler, in a very private ceremony.

It was Abraham Lincoln, curiously, who had appointed Chandler to government. The couple shuttled between Washington, D.C., and Concord, where Chandler was a lawyer, newspaper publisher, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Navy. A naval destroyer was named in his honor.

Lucy Hale Chandler was 43 when she gave birth to her only child, John P. Hale Chandler. She lived a respectable life as the wife of a politician and was active in civic causes. The couple raised funds to erect a monument to Lucy’s father that stands in front of the New Hampshire State House today. Her family home is now part of the extraordinary Woodman Museum campus in Dover. Among its collections is a saddle, once owned by Abraham Lincoln. Lucy died in 1915 and her husband followed two years later. If the couple ever spoke of John Wilkes Booth, no record of that conversation survives.

J. Dennis Robinson is a popular lecturer and the author of countless feature articles and over a dozen books about New England and beyond. His hardcover history of Portsmouth’s landmark Music Hall and his new mystery novel “Point of Graves” can be found online, in bookstores and at JDennisRobinson.com.  

Categories: People