What Do John Wilkes Booth and Charles Dickens Have in Common?

New play by UCR alumnus Richard Reed explores conspiracy theory behind Lincoln assassination during the Riverside Dickens Festival Feb. 27-28

John Wilkes Booth was killed before he could stand trial for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but with a little dramatic license from UCR alumnus Richard Reed, the infamous actor-turned-assassin will finally see his day in court during the 2016 Riverside Dickens Festival Feb. 27-28.

“The Trial of John Wilkes Booth” is the third play written for the annual festival by Reed, a Riverside attorney and playwright. His other two plays, “The Trial of Jack the Ripper” and “The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” will also be performed during the festival’s 24th annual event in downtown Riverside.

What do three sensational 19th century crimes have to do with the famed British author Charles Dickens? They were all major events while Dickens was writing his best-selling works, Reed said, and part of the festival’s intent to tie the United States to the United Kingdom during the Victoria era.

“These worlds didn’t just exist in little pockets, they bled into each other,” Reed said. “There were lots of things going back and forth and lots of cultural awareness being exchanged between the two continents. I want people to understand that Dickens didn’t write into a vacuum. This was all part of the Victorian era, and we want people to see what it would be like in America when Dickens was alive and doing a couple of tours over here.”

In real life, Dickens did tour the United States twice, and met with U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton while President Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was being impeached from office. Stanton reportedly told Dickens about a dream Lincoln had shortly before his assassination. In the dream, Lincoln was standing on the deck of a ship being pulled to a vague horizon. When he reported it to his cabinet the next morning, Lincoln thought the dream was a good omen, Reed said.

Alas, Lincoln would be dead a short time later, shot in the back of the head by Booth during a performance at the Ford Theater. There’s little question about Booth’s guilt, in real life or Reed’s play; the question Reed explores is who else conspired to kill the president.

There are lots of conspiracy theories about the Lincoln assassination, and indeed, four people were hung for conspiring to help Booth, including innkeeper Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.

Some of the theories claim that Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, played a role in orchestrating Lincoln’s assassination, but Reed is more persuaded that the conspiracy came from within the Lincoln administration itself, directed by Stanton, the Secretary of War who often disagreed with the president’s policies.

As with his other plays, Reed looks carefully at who had the motive to commit the crimes. Lincoln wanted reconciliation after the war, Reed said, but Stanton wanted to see the South punished, Reed said, something he was ultimately able to orchestrate through his harsh Reconstruction policies.

“Reconstruction was more devastating on the South than the war was,” Reed said. “Lincoln knew the best hope for the country was to be reunited, and for Southerners to become Americans again, not subjugated people. Maybe Stanton had such hatred for the South he wanted to get rid of the one man who was standing in the way of his vengeance.”

By bringing Booth to trial, borrowing heavily from the proceedings of Mary Surratt’s actual trial, Reed explores some puzzling questions, such as why Booth went to visit Lincoln’s vice president the day before the assassination, and why another of the convicted conspirators, Michael O’Laughlin, tried to visit with Stanton that same night.

Again, as with his other plays, Reed doesn’t answer all the questions he raises. “We just raise them to let people decide for themselves,” he said. “But we want to raise these questions so people will talk about it, read about it and study the history for themselves.”

“The Trial of John Wilkes Booth” will be performed once each day of the festival in a tent outside the Riverside County Historic Courthouse at 3:30 p.m. The other two plays will be performed twice a day during the festival, in the courthouse, and due to their grisly nature, no one under 13 will be permitted. Admission to each play is $10. For performance times, go to the festival website here. 

Long-time Dickens’ impersonator Paul Jacques, another UCR alumnus, will once again portray the author during the festival, giving lectures and even testifying during the fictitious Booth trial about Stanton’s recounting of Lincoln’s dream.

The festival will feature lots of other Victorian era notables, including Queen Victoria herself, as well as literary lectures by American authors Mark Twain (portrayed by Ken Stansbury) and Edgar Allen Poe (portrayed by Travis Wilson)

Three UCR people will be among the festival’s lecturers Jean Weiss, an assistant at the UCR library, will feature Victorian garden designs; English graduate student Mackenzie Gregg will discuss Dicken’s life and career in “Dickens 101” and English graduate student Lorenzo Servitje will discuss the career of Victorian physician John Snow.

Civil War buffs will be treated to a Civil War battle reenactment during the festival at 10th and Main streets, as well as an authentic, interactive Civil War field hospital and performances by The Armory Band, playing the overture from “Our American Cousin,” the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. And President Lincoln himself, portrayed by actor Christopher Yates, will deliver his second inaugural address in redacted form.

“It’s a moving speech, and we want to bring that history in as much as we can,” Reed said. “These were very interesting times, and we want people to start thinking about how things were back then.”

Find out more details about the festival and a full breakdown of events here.

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E-mail: john.warren@ucr.edu

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