Assassins, Executioners and the War of the Currents

The Booth brothers: John, Edwin and Junius Jr.

American actor Edwin Booth was one of the great Shakespearean performers of the nineteenth century. Waiting at a train station one day, he noticed a young man slip and fall in the space between the train and the platform’s edge. As the train began to move, Booth grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back to safety. The two men went their separate ways and never met again. A year later, Edwin’s brother, John Wilkes, also a highly regarded actor, entered a box at Ford’s Theatre and shot dead Abraham Lincoln, the father of the man Edwin had saved at the train station.

The president had seen John Booth before, on stage during one of his performances. Booth’s favourite role was Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar who is credited with the phrase ‘Sic semper tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’) upon Caesar’s death. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, another notable Shakespearean actor, was named after the assassin. After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped down to the stage and cried the famous phrase before escaping from the theatre.

Booth was also present at Lincoln’s second inaugural speech and can in fact be seen in photographs of the event. A number of his co-conspirators were also present and there is some evidence that they intended to kill Lincoln on the day.

Lincoln (bottom centre (#7), partly obscured by a smudge) during his second inaugural speech. Booth is at the top right against the railing (#1). John T. Ford, owner of Ford’s Theatre is standing nearby(#3).

Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert, the man Edwin booth saved, had an unfortunate association with presidential assassinations. He declined an invitation to attend the theatre on the night his father was shot and regretted his decision for the rest of his life. Had he gone, he would have been seated at the back of the box meaning that Booth would have encountered him first. Robert felt that he may have prevented the assassination if he had been there.

While serving as Secretary of War, Lincoln was a witness to James Garfield’s assassination at a train station in Washington, D.C. He was also at the Pan-American Exposition when William McKinley was shot.

McKinley’s assassin, Leon Csogolsz, was executed and his brain autopsied by antatomist Edward Anthony Spitzka. Twenty years earlier, Spitzka’s father, Edward Charles Spitzka took a different interest in the brain of Garfield’s assassin, Charles Giteau. He testified to Giteau’s insanity during his trial, but despite his bizarre behaviour, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

If Giteau had been able to delay proceedings for a few years, he may have been a candidate for the world’s first execution by electric chair where he would have met Spitzka again as the attending physician. He would also have become a pawn in the War of the Currents, the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for control of the delivery of electricity.

Edison favoured direct current; Wesintghouse and many others, alternating current. As part of his efforts to discredit Westinghouse, Edison, an opponent of capital punishment, funded the development of an electric chair based on his rival’s system with the intent of creating an association between AC and lethality in the public consciousness. He also publicly electrocuted animals including Topsy the Elephant.

The first use of the device on a human subject, the unfortunate William Kemmler, was disastrous: it took two attempts and the sight and smell horrified spectators. George Westinghouse famously quipped that they would have done better using an axe.

The two men continued the strange feud, with Edison intent on demonstrating the efficiency of his rival’s system and Westinghouse denigrating it, until, eventually, the benefits of alternating current won out.

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