Murderer! The notorious collectibles of Lincoln's assassin: John Wilkes Booth

Today, May 10, marks the birth date of one of America's least popular but most famous characters: John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser who shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at the theatre in 1865. Booth, himself an actor, was shot himself by a Union soldier.

Now obviously Lincoln collectibles are extremely valuable. We sold a document last year which had been signed by the celebrated President, and a version of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln and later owned by Robert Kennedy achieved a $3.7m World Record price last year.

But collectibles associated more directly with Booth are valuable in their own right.

John Wilkes Booth signed photo
Respectable: a John Wilkes Booth signed photo

A rare signed carte-de-visage photo of Booth sold for $10,000 last December at Alexander Autographs, which had previously sold a letter by Booth's killer, Thomas P "Boston" Corbett. Corbett gunned Booth down contrary to orders to take him alive, but escaped serious punishment.

The letter was to a well-wisher, and Corbett describes the circumstances of Booth's death. It was sold for an impressive $20,000. The same auction offered a letter by Booth himself in which Booth, who describes himself as "the worst letter writer alive" mourns the loss of his whiskey flask.

He had given it to a boy for safekeeping, but the boy failed in the task and Booth saw it destroyed. Something of a drinker, Booth describes the scene in poetical (or slight deranged) terms:

"I returned within sight of the Fort, and judge of my dismay upon arriving to see a waggon just crushing my best friend, but I kissed him in his last moments by pressing the snow to my lips, over which he had spilled his noble blood."

John Wilkes Booth broadside
Public enemy... a John Wilkes Booth broadside

The letter went under the hammer with an estimate of $40,000-50,000, though it did not sell until after the auction so the final price is not known.

Heritage is currently getting in on the act, offering a very rare example of a broadside calling for his capture (along with his accomplices). It is expected to sell for $25,000 - $30,000 in the auction, and has already attracted a bid of $15,000 in the May 21 sale.

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