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Full Circle in the Book World


Ah, the library sale. These fundraising events, at which libraries sell duplicates from their holdings as well as donated books, are usually highly attended by bookdealers and bibliomaniacs. You need to arrive early to a get good place in line, and a few extra layers of clothing to protect yourself from flying elbows is not a bad idea either. Okay, so I've never actually been assaulted at one of these sales, but some folks do get rather aggressive. On the whole I prefer buying my stock from private individuals. And yet library sales, amidst the chaos and frenzy, churn up a nugget often enough to make them rather addictive.

This addiction is how I ended up standing in a long line at the Pratt Library in Baltimore late last year. The doors opened, the stampede started, and I was swept inside with the herd. After a few minutes the frenzy began to wane a little and I managed to find the "Maryland" table, or what was left of it. Fortunately for me not everyone who grabs quickly grabs well, and I immediately spotted a little stack of four copies of a thin, rather drab looking paperback called "Sketches of Tudor Hall and the Booth Family," by Ella M. Mahoney, published in the late 1920's.

I have been interested in Lincoln, his assassination, and his assassin for some time, and the name "Booth" had therefore caught my eye. I had never heard of this book before, but I knew that John Wilkes Booth's family had a "country house" in Harford County near Bel Air. The patriarch of the family, Junius Brutus Booth, built the house and named it Tudor Hall, so I knew this book must be about the family and childhood home of Lincoln's killer. Indeed it was, and what an interesting little book it turned out to be.

Mrs. Mahoney and her husband purchased the property directly from Mary Ann Booth-wife of Junius Brutus, mother of John Wilkes-in 1878. In fact the author herself grew up in the area, and her father had been boyhood companions with the Booth children. She wrote the book mainly out of a love for the old house and an admiration of the Booth family-particularly John Wilkes' brother Edwin. In writing her book Mrs. Mahoney talked to many people who were close to the Booths, and she includes some really neat anecdotes that only such people would know. For example she describes the location of a tree on the property where John Wilkes carved his name. It would be interesting to see if the tree and the name are still there. She also tells how as a boy John Wilkes got the scar on his head that later helped identify his body. It seems that some of his siblings and other children were putting on a little play in the cellar of Tudor Hall when John Wilkes peeked his head into the window and started to laugh at them. One of the young actors threw an oyster shell and hit him in the head.

Another interesting thing about books like this are the references you often find in them to other material on the same subject. For example there is a chapter that talks about Booth's supposed escape after the assassination. There was a handsome and cultured gentleman that turned up in the South here and there in the years following the assassination. In a moment of confidence he would reveal himself to be John Wilkes Booth. He would always disappear shortly thereafter. One Firnis Bates was apparently so convinced by one such encounter that he spent 30 years trying to track this Booth down, which he finally did in Enid, Oklahoma. Unfortunately the man had committed suicide in 1914. Bates, still convinced, published a book called "The Escape and Suicide of J. Wilkes Booth." I was aware that there were theories about Booth's escape, but I had never heard specifically of the "Enid Myth." Because of my find at the library sale I now know what it is and I know the name of a book about it. Mahoney also refers to the November, 1924 issue of Harper's Magazine in which another gentleman refutes the "Enid Myth."

I took great satisfaction in finding this book, and I took great pleasure in reading it. But the greatest reward came through the phone call I received the other day. The gentleman on the other end said a friend of his had seen online that I had a copy of "Sketches of Tudor Hall..." for sale, and did I still have it? I did, and soon the book was on its way back home. My caller was none other than the current resident of Tudor Hall.

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