Hamlet was his signature role, and going back in time to, say, 1880, to see him play it is a time-travel fantasy for me. (And, I'll confess, I would've loved to have had a brandy or two with the man and discussed Shakespeare and Hamlet and John Wilkes, but the best I could do is put him together with the gunfighter and his lady in a
passage in Widowmaker...)
The Booth family was an acting dynasty; think Barrymores, or maybe Kirk Douglas and his kid. Unlike Michael Douglas in our time, though, Edwin Booth far surpassed both the fame and the reputation of his old man, Junius Brutus Booth. And Edwin Booth's younger brother -- "Wilkes" -- was a matinee idol, the Brad Pitt of his day.
Booth left a few recordings preserved on wax cylinder, the voice barely audible with all the surface noise, but what can be heard reveals it to have been rich and deep.
The days following the death of Abraham Lincoln were not kind to the Booths, as you can imagine. Public sentiment against anyone named Booth was intense, and he left the stage for a period of years.
In point of fact, Edwin Booth was a staunch Union man and had been feuding with John Wilkes over their antithetical loyalties for some time. He disowned him completely after the assassination, and refused to even allow his brother's name to be said aloud in his house. In a letter to his sister Asia, he advised her to "forget that he (Wilkes) was ever born." That Edwin Booth was able to salvage his career and return to eminence and fortune is some evidence of how great an actor the man was, I think.
In 1869, after a lengthy correspondence with President Andrew Johnson that was sometimes drunken and sometimes quite mad, Edwin Booth was given the body of John Wilkes Booth. (It had been kept in storage in a warehouse at the old Washington Arsenal.) Edwin Booth had his brother's body re-interred in an unmarked grave in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. One small, blank headstone is believed to be the marker over the assassin's grave. (No one is sure.)
Interesting: Edwin Booth saved the life of Abraham Lincoln's son. It happened on a train platform in 1865, shortly before the assassination. Robert Todd Lincoln wrote about it in a letter dated 1909: "The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was, of course, a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name."
Addendum: Edwin Booth is not buried in that family plot in Baltimore. Instead, he ended up at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not sure why.