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A Teacher's Guide

Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth

Lesson Three: Good Brother


In this lesson, students will begin to examine how historians and biographers work to create a full, balanced account of people of the past, in this case focusing on the problem of the "good brother" or any hero. Students will begin by talking about "what's in a name," and brainstorming the characteristics of the stereotypical "good brother." The class will follow up with research in Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth, along with other sources, to determine how Edwin Booth compares with the stereotype of a "good brother" and express their findings in a choice of culminating written activities. The lesson is most appropriate for middle school students, grades 6–8, but may be suitable for high school students, grades 9–12.

National Curriculum Standards

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning has created standards and benchmarks for language arts, math, science, geography, economics, and history. This lesson meets standards and benchmarks for:

United States History Standard (4th Ed.) for Era 5 — Civil War and Reconstruction (1850–1877) including benchmark 14: Understand the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people:

Level III (Grades 7–8)
2. Understands how different groups of people shaped the Civil War (e.g., the motives and experiences of Confederate and white and African American Union soldiers, different perspectives on conscription, the effects of divided loyalties)

Level IV (Grades 9–12)
4. Understands how the Civil War influenced Northern and Southern society on the home front (e.g., the New York City draft riots of July 1863, the Union's reasons for curbing civil liberties in wartime, Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the war)

Historical Understanding (4th Ed.) Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective including benchmark:

Level III (Grades 7–8)
1. Understands that specific individuals and the values those individuals held had an impact on history

Level IV (Grades 9–12)
11. Knows how to perceive past events with historical empathy
12. Knows how to evaluate the credibility and authenticity of historical sources
13. Evaluates the validity and credibility of different historical interpretations
14. Uses historical maps to understand the relationship between historical events and geography

Theatre Standard (4th Ed.), Standard 6: Understands the context in which theatre, film, television and electronic media are performed today as well as in the past

Level III (Grades 7–8)
4. Knows ways in which theatre reflects a culture

Level IV (Grades 9–12)
3. Understands similarities and differences among the lives, works, and influence of representative theatre artists in various cultures and historical periods

Time Required

This lesson will probably take a half to a full class period, more if reading and written assignments are not completed outside of class.

Materials Needed

Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth

The Lesson


1. Some of the greatest moments in drama occur when an innocent person fears that after death, he or she will be considered a villain. Hamlet worries, "O' God, Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!" (Hamlet, V.ii.344-345.) John Proctor refuses to hand over his confession to witchcraft to save himself from the gallows at the end of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Act IV. Proctor declares, "God sees my name; God knows how black my sins are! It is enough . . . it is my name! . . . I cannot have another in my life! . . . How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" To return to Shakespeare, in this case, Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.30–57, pose Juliet's question to your students: "What's in a name?"

2. After your students have had a chance to discuss what is important about a name, share with them the following passage written by Edwin Booth: "You know . . . how I have labored to establish a name that all my friends would be proud of . . . " (Edwin Booth to Adam Badeau, April 1865, p. 4). After Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth worked hard to mend his name, a name that he lent to his New York City theater as well as the home he called Boothden. It was not always easy, as when he visited Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and was told it had not been named after "that damned scoundrel who killed Lincoln" (p. 210).

3. Point out the book's title, Good Brother, Bad Brother. Brainstorm a list of characteristics of the stereotypical "good brother," and record them on a poster or flip-chart so that students can refer to the list.


1. On p. 221 of Good Brother, Bad Brother, Giblin points out, "Real life is more complicated than fiction, however. Edwin Booth, especially in his hard-drinking younger years, did not always fit the stereotype of the 'good brother.'"

2. Direct students to read the book and take notes about what Edwin says about himself and what eyewitnesses say about him. Ask them to note events in his life that support or contradict the stereotype of a "good brother." Students may also conduct outside research, including examining additional information on the Internet (such as listening to Edwin reciting from Othello, viewing the Shakespeare statue in Central Park, and visiting the Players Club website) mentioned in the Internet Resources section (following the Assessment rubric.)

3. As a final activity, students will select one of the following written assignments and complete it:
a. Write an opinion essay evaluating whether, on balance, Edwin fits the stereotypical "good brother" model and provide examples of events or quotations, from text or witnesses, to support the evaluation.

b. Write a biopoem (a pattern poem) in the following style:

Style One — Ten Lines
First name
Four adjectives or descriptive characteristics
Family relationship (sibling/child of/ spouse/parent of . . . )
Lover of (something or someone the person cares deeply about)
Who fears (something or someone the person fears)
Who needs
Who gives
Who would like to see/experience (give two or three examples of things this person would like to see or do)
Resident of
Last name

c. Create a series of diary entries Edwin would have written in April 1865, had he kept a diary, touching on issues including what a "good brother" is; what the name Booth means to him; his duties in his family as son, father, and brother; and what went through his mind and heart when his valet burst into his bedroom saying, "Mr. Booth, President Lincoln has been shot! And — oh, Mr. Booth — they say your brother John has done it!"

d. "Transcribe" an "interview" you've conducted with Edwin Booth focusing on his personal character and whether he was a "good brother". Use some questions patterned after those developed by Bernard Pivot and used by James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio in the "interview." An adapted list of Lipton's questions includes:

• What is your favorite word?
• What is your least favorite word?
• What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
• What turns you off?
• What is your favorite exclamation?
• What sound or noise do you love?
• What sound or noise do you hate?
• What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
• What profession would you not like to do?
• If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?


The student's written assignment may be graded on a twenty-five point scale (which may be multiplied by four to convert to one hundred-point scale or for conversion to letter grades) using the following rubric:

  Excellent Good Fair Not Satisfactory No Work
Historical Research and Accuracy
(5) Written assignment demonstrated
• extensive research
• many details
• no factual errors or anachronisms
(4) Written assignment demonstrated
• complete research
• some details
• no factual errors or anachronisms
(3-2) Written assignment showed
• minimal research
• generalized information
• some errors
(1) Written assignment showed
• little or no research
• no new information
• many factual errors
Technical Writing Skills
(10) Written assignment showed excellent
• compositional structure
• sentence structure and variety
• vocabulary use
• grammar, spelling, punctuation
(9-8) Written assignment showed good
• compositional structure
• sentence structure and variety
• vocabulary use
• grammar, spelling, punctuation
(7-5) Written assignment showed adequate
• compositional structure
• sentence structure and variety
• vocabulary use
• grammar, spelling, punctuation
(4-1) Written assignment showed inadequate
• compositional structure
• sentence structure and variety
• vocabulary use
• grammar, spelling, punctuation
Felicity of style and presentation
(10) Composition
• engaged reader
• showed high originality
• showed empathy with historical figures
(9-8) Composition was above average in
• engaging reader
• originality
• showing empathy with historical figures
(7-5) Composition was adequate in
• holding reader interest
• originality
• showing empathy with historical figures
(4-1) Composition demonstrated attempt to fulfill assignment with little or no success 0

Internet Resources

http://www.theplayersnyc.org/ The Players Club Web site

Edwin Booth reading a passage from Othello I.iii.162–168 (28 seconds)

In 1864, actor Edwin Booth (himself memorialized in bronze in Gramercy Park) laid the foundation for a statue of The Bard of Avon in honor of his 300th birthday. The Civil War delayed construction of the statue, but it finally was installed in 1870. Booth's fellow actor James McKay posed as Shakespeare for sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward. The statue is located at the southern end of the Literary Walk in the Mall, west of West Sixty-sixth Street.

1880 Census of New York City, with Edwin, second wife Mary, and daughter Edwina.

New York Times, May 21, 1906, Account of Players Club fundraising for the Edwin Booth Memorial in Gramercy Park.

Times Square Alliance, Times Square: Then and Now: Theatre

Find A Grave Cemetery Records

Interdisciplinary Activities


1. The Booths were globetrotters. Students could plot all the places mentioned in the Good Brother, Bad Brother on a world and U.S. map; a related art activity would be to make a passport for Edwin and create "stamps" for places he visited overseas.

2. The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society offers tours of Edwin Booth's New York City from time to time. Create a tour pamphlet for an "Edwin Booth tour of New York City" by locating past and present locations mentioned in the book, listing sites and illustrating what they look like now, and mapping their locations. (See Internet Resources for ideas.)

3. Transportation and communication had long been at the mercy of geography, but much changed over Edwin Booth's lifetime. How did people overcome the obstacles of poor roads (see the picture of Tenth Street in Washington, D.C., in front of Ford's Theatre on p. 116), heavy snow (pp. 88–89), rivers, streams, and mountains? Consider the impact of bridges, ferries, and sailing boats large and small on travel. How did the lack of the Panama Canal make sailing from the east coast of the United States to the west coast more difficult? What impact do you see on the Booth's lives with the increase in railroad lines, especially the transcontinental railroad? How does the ability to send cables and telegrams change their lives?


Teachers of drama classes may ask their students to discuss or research and write their findings about some aspects of acting highlighted in Good Brother, Bad Brother.

1. Giblin recounts on p. 226 in his Bibliography and Source Notes that a youthful guide at Ford's Theatre described John Wilkes Booth as "the Brad Pitt of his day." After reading about Edwin Booth and his acting style, decide which contemporary performer you would compare Edwin to, and explain why. In his lifetime, Edwin both learned from his father (in the "Where are your spurs?" episode on p. 21) and reacted against it (p. 48). Select another parent-child pair of performers and examine the degree that the child has incorporated or disassociated himself or herself stylistically from the parent. Edwin Booth was also the brother of actors — Junius, Jr. and, the more famous actor, John. Examine the comments on p. 73 and decide if the brothers' acting styles were predetermined by their differing personalities. Did Edwin's experiences of performing for people who didn't speak English (in Hawaii and Germany) contribute to his development of using his physical presence to build the character, as much as the way he delivered lines? Was one brother a better actor than the other, or just different? What style of acting appeals to you most as a viewer? What style of acting do you think would be your style if you were an actor?

2. The reputation of theaters was poor at the time Junius, Jr., and Edwin were touring the country. Edwin's first performance is at the Boston Museum, "so named because some city residents, influenced by Puritan ideas, were reluctant to enter a building called a theater" (p. 19) When Lincoln was assassinated in a theater, many in the public reverted to their low opinion of the stage (see p. 134). Read Good Brother, Bad Brother and focus on life in the early nineteenth-century theater as described in Chapters 3–6, and the late nineteenth century as described in Chapters 17–21. Compare and contrast the business of running a theater and being an actor between the nineteenth century and the present.

3. Edwin Booth was a celebrity in his time and received public acclaim and silver wreaths, but he also experienced disdain and a nearly-fatal episode with a stalker (Chapter 19). What similarities do you see in the life of Edwin Booth, a famous actor in his time, with that of celebrities today? What differences?

4. How did Edwin Booth, through his acting and his efforts at the Booth Theater and the Players Club, help to transform acting from "playing" into a profession?

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