Skip To Content

Was John Wilkes Booth Jewish?

In one of the most surprising sections of their new book, “Lincoln and the Jews,” historians Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell discuss the possibility that the president’s assassin belonged to a family of Spanish Jewish ancestry.

Asia Booth Clarke, the sister of acclaimed actor John Wilkes Booth who shot Lincoln, stated in her 1882 memoir that their father, Junius Brutus Booth, attended synagogues along with other houses of worship: “In the synagogue, he was known as a Jew, because he conversed with rabbis and learned doctors, and joined their worship in the Hebraic tongue. He read the Talmud, also, and strictly adhered to many of its laws.”

Asia Booth Clarke is not the only source for this; her other brother Edwin Booth, also an actor, reportedly told Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise that his father was Jewish.

It’s not at all clear how accurate the Booths’ statements are, but it’s certainly interesting that Junius Brutus Booth wanted it to be thought that he descended from Jews, and that two of his children believed him.

There is no indication that John Wilkes Booth ever identified as a Jew, or was seen in a synagogue.

Stephen M. Arthur, author of “Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus,” does not believe Junius Brutus Booth’s accounts of Jewish ancestry to be reliable. Plus, Harold Holzer, the chief historian of the exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, believes that Junius Brutus Booth was “as nutty as his son.”

In one of the many odd coincidences involving the Booths and the Lincolns (Edwin Booth had saved the life of the president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, before the assassination, by preventing him from a fatal fall onto some railway tracks), Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln saw Edwin Booth portray Shylock in an 1864 production of “The Merchant of Venice.”


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.