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The Elusive Trail of Lucy Hale




Details are few and far between. Was she beautiful? Was she really engaged to John Wilkes Booth? Were they really in love, or was the daughter of a New Hampshire senator, just one more pawn in the assassin’s plan? Here's the complete story from a NH perspective.







Was Lucy Lambert Hale o NH Engaged to John Wilkes Booth?

ALSO: The New Dying Words of John Wilkes Booth
ALSO READ: Lincoln the Vampire Hunger

Lucy Lambert Hale of Dover, NH, legend says, was secretly engaged to actor John Wilkes Booth when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Both had been staying at the National Hotel in Washington, DC where they had met months earlier. Booth was among the most famous and recognizable actors in America and Lucy was the daughter of a former US Senator from New Hampshire. Her father, John Parker Hale, was a vocal abolitionist who himself ran unsuccessfully for president. Booth was an avowed Confederate sympathizer and an advocate of slavery.

Star-crossed lovers

Pinning down the details of this unlikely romance is a frustrating affair. Lucy appears in scores of modern books about Booth and Lincoln, but rarely earns more than a paragraph or footnote. She is sometimes called "Bessie" and more scrupulous scholars refer to her as Booth’s "alleged" fiancée. She is almost universally painted as a great beauty and the belle of Washington society. At first glance, this makes sense. Booth, after all, was a notorious playboy, and was even billed as the most handsome man in the nation. But look closer.

In a rare picture of her taken by famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, Lucy Hale appears rather plain and matronly, even in her early twenties. John Ford, owner of Ford’s Theatre once described Lucy simply as "stout". A smaller "carte de visite" portrait of Lucy was found tucked in Booth’s pocket diary after he was captured and killed. But then, so were the portraits of four other women, all attractive young actresses.

Soon after they met, Lucy apparently used her influence to get Booth an invitation to Lincoln’s second inauguration on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC. Booth and five of his conspirators are visible in photographs of the March 4 inauguration, standing within "striking distance" of the president, as Booth later boasted. Booth returned the favor by taking Lucy to a performance at Ford’s Theatre where, days later, he shot Lincoln in the head with a bullet from a small derringer. Today Ford’s Theatre is a national museum where Booth’s derringer and portrait of Lucy are on display.


Assassination day

According to most accounts, Booth met with Lucy (also called "Bessie") at their hotel on the very morning of the assassination, perhaps around the same time that her father was meeting with President Lincoln at the White House. Senator Hale had been appointed Ambassador to Spain and was preparing to take his wife and Lucy with him.

jwb01.jpgWhether Senator Hale knew about his daughter’s engagement to a lowly actor and a Confederate-sympathizer is unknown. It is extremely unlikely that Lucy was aware of Booth’s murderous plan for the evening of April 14. For months, Booth had been planning to kidnap Lincoln, not kill him. But a failed attempt and the ending of the Civil War just days earlier pushed Booth to take desperate action.

On Good Friday, the day of the murder, after meeting briefly with Lucy in the morning, Booth learned that Lincoln would attend a performance at Ford’s that night. He revised his plan, plotted with his team of conspirators, then calmly sat down for dinner at the National Hotel at 6:30 pm. According to at least one bystander, Booth dined with Lucy and her mother that very evening. Then just before 8 pm he looked at his watch and stood to leave. Booth then took Lucy’s hand and recited a line from Shakespeare: "Nymph, in thy orisons [prayers] be all my sins remembered." Two hours later, he became the greatest villain in American history.

Fiancée or pawn?

How intimate Lucy Hale had been with John Wilkes Booth is best left to tabloids and novels. They reportedly exchanged rings and poems. Historians have suggested that Lucy shared a room with Booth not long before the assassination. The evidence is thin since they used a false name in the hotel register. That unlikely scenario has even been dramatized in a made-for-TV movie.

More likely, Lucy was innocently swept away by Booth’s effusive charm and enormous celebrity. Lucy had played at love before. According to Richmond Morcom, a history buff and collector, Lucy also attracted the attention of other famous admirers. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son enjoyed her company. Years earlier while at school, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future Supreme Court Justice, wrote to Lucy. Holmes asked Lucy whether she had scented her letter with a perfume called "Kiss Me Quick," and if so, did she intend he should do so?

Morcom, who published excerpts from a few of Lucy’s love letters in American Heritage Magazine in 1970, reportedly found the letters in an antique shop and, at age 86, still owns them today. He also owns a letter addressed to Lucy on Valentine’s Day in 1862. It begins, in part, "You resemble in a most remarkable degree a lady, very dear to me, now dead…" It is signed simply "A Stranger." Morcom, who now lives in New Hampshire, remains convinced the anonymous note Is from John Wilkes Booth.

Booth may have been in love with Lucy as he told many of his friends and family members. But it is easier to imagine that Booth, an accomplished actor, was simply "playing" Lucy Hale, just as he manipulated his team of conspirators. He was rich, famous, charming, duplicitous and cunning, with a "magnetic" influence over almost everyone he met. While preparing to kidnap Lincoln, Booth left a number of clues intended to confuse authorities and implicate others. Throwing suspicion on a northern senator and his daughter was well within the range of Booth’s wild plan.

It is less easy to explain why Booth admitted his marriage plans to his mother, who wrote a jealous note back to her favorite son. "You are looking and saying soft things to one that don’t love you half as well as your old mother does," Mrs. Booth responded. Perhaps the actor was being ironic when he told his brother Junius that Lucy was worth more to him than all the money he could make on the stage.


Averting a scandal

Everyone who had even the slightest connection to John Wilkes Booth was interrogated in the weeks following the assassination. Scores of people were arrested and detained, including John’s brother Junius who spent two months in prison. But there is no record that Lucy Hale or her mother were ever interviewed, even though they may have been with Booth just prior to the murder that threw the nation into mourning. John Parker Hale must have used every ounce of his influence to keep investigators at bay, and posted notices in the media denying any relationship between Booth and Lucy.

Only scraps of paper and bits of conversation remain to document the brief star-crossed romance, one-sided as it may have been. Lucy did contact Edwin Booth, the renown Shakespearean actor and elder brother of John Wilkes.

"I have had a heartbroken letter," Edwin wrote to his sister Asia, "from the poor little girl to whom he [John Wilkes] had promised so much happiness."

We get another hint of Lucy’s reaction from an article in the New York Herald. Without mentioning Lucy by name, the reporter said that Booth’s fiancée, like the rest of the country, was "plunged in profound grief." Lucy, however, was pining for the assassin, not the president. "But with womanly fidelity she is slow to believe him guilty of this appalling crime," the Herald said. Ella Turner, another of Booth’s lovers, attempted unsuccessfully, to commit suicide using a bottle of chloroform.

The corpse bride

Before the assassination, Lucy reportedly told a friend that she would return from Spain to marry Booth in a year "with or without her father". After Lincoln’s death, and again this is hearsay, she reportedly vowed to be loyal even to the gallows. But John Wilkes Booth, unlike four other conspirators, never made it to the gallows. Shot in a burning barn in Virginia after a 12-day manhunt, his body was sewn into a horse blanket and taken by tugboat in the dead of night to the ironclad ship Montauk at Washington. Not even the sailors on duty knew that Booth’s corpse had been smuggled aboard.

According to historian Gene Smith, three people arrived by tug at the Montauk the next morning. Two were naval officers. One was a woman in a veil. An account in an unpublished manuscript reports that, when the blanket was unwrapped, Lucy Hale threw herself across the body of John Wilkes Booth sobbing. Government officials, unwilling to reveal the location of Booth’s corpse to Confederate sympathizers, offered a variety of explanations, according to Smith, for the mysterious woman on the ship.

Perhaps, in an attempt to put an end to Lucy’s hysterical hopes, Ambassador Hale pulled the strings to prove to his daughter that her infamous actor was truly dead. Hale had been a powerful force in the US Navy. If anyone could get aboard an ironclad prison ship, it was Hale. Or perhaps it never happened.


Back to NH

Either way, Lucy quickly accompanied her parents to Spain. She returned four years later to their Dover, NH home, today a museum, and nursed her father until his death in 1873. Two years later Lucy married another former sweetheart and recent widower named William E. Chandler in a very private ceremony.

The late Abraham Lincoln, ironically, had appointed Chandler to a government job the same year he was assassinated by Booth. The couple shuttled between Washington and Concord, NH where Chandler was a lawyer, newspaper publisher, US Senator and Secretary of the Navy. A naval destroyer was named in his honor.

Lucy Hale Chandler gave birth to her only son – John P. Hale Chandler -- at age 43. She lived a respectable life as the wife of a politician and was active in civic causes. The couple raised funds to erect a monument to Lucy’s father that stands in front of the New Hampshire Capitol. Lucy died in 1915 and her husband followed two years later. If they ever spoke of John Wilkes Booth – or heard the never-ending whispers all around them -- no record remains.


Copyright © 2008 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is the owner of the popular web site His latest book is Strawbery Banke: A Seacoast Museum 400 Years in the Making.

KEY SOURCES: Good Brother, Bad Brother by James Cross Giblin (2005) and American Gothic by Gene Smith. (1992)



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