One of the great pleasures of studying history is the discovery of connections, linkage between the people and places from the past and how those connections might have altered history. One such connection involves a famous actor, the collector of customs for the port of Washington, N.C. and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
The actor was Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was born on May 1, 1796 in London, England, the son of a lawyer. Early on he showed tremendous talent on the stage and became a celebrated performer throughout England. In 1821, Booth ran away with his mistress to the United States, abandoning his wife and young son, finally settling on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland.
Booth soon became one of the most renown actors in America. Critic William Winter said of Booth, “He was followed as a marvel. Mention of his name stirred an enthusiasm no other could awaken.” Booth tired of his fame and the demands of notoriety and soon developed a desire for a simpler life. In 1822, while sailing between Norfolk, Va. and Charleston, S.C., Booth had a chance encounter with a fellow passenger. Perhaps while viewing the Cape Hatteras Light, the young thespian told his acquaintance of a desire “to retire from public life and keep a lighthouse.”
By chance, the fellow passenger happened to be Thomas Harvey Blount, the collector of customs (import taxes) for the port of Washington, N.C. In addition to being the collector, Thomas was a business man who, along with his father John Gray Blount, had large shipping interests and owned wharves, flat boats, and seagoing vessels. His business dealings ranged as far west as Tennessee, up and down the Atlantic seaboard, including the Caribbean. Thomas was a prominent figure in North Carolina history as well having served as a major in the 2nd Regiment of the NC Militia during the War of 1812 and later having been elected to the North Carolina Council of State. As collector of customs, one of Thomas Blount’s responsibilities was the administration of both the Pamlico Point and Cape Hatteras lighthouses. Blount must have been impressed by the young actor. Quoting from Booth’s own memorandum, he describes the conversation:
"Spoke to Mr. Blount, collector of customs, and one of the passengers, about Cape Hatteras lighthouse. He offered it to me with the dwelling-house, and twenty acres of land attached; and a salary of $300 per annum, for keeping the light, — government providing oil and cotton, — a quart of oil per diem. Grapes, water-melons, cabbages, potatoes, carrots, and onions grow in abundance there. Rain-water the only drink; a cistern on the premises for that purpose. Abundance of fish and wild fowl; — pigs, cows, and horses find good pasture. Soil too light for wheat or com. Flour bought for four or five dollars a barrel. The office is for life, and only taken away through misbehavior. Lighthouse seventy-five feet high; light requires trimming every night at twelve o’clock. No taxes whatever. Firewood is procured from the pieces of wreck found on the shoals. One dollar per day is the charge for men who assist in cases of wreck. Strawberries, currant bushes, and apple-trees should be taken there; also a plough, spades, and chest of carpenter tools. Pine tables the best. Mr. Blount is to write me word if the office can be given me in April next, from his seat at Washington, North Carolina.”
History tells us Booth was not appointed to the position. His managers, not wanting to suffer the loss of their celebrity client, schemed with officials and managed to prevent his appointment. Hence Booth settled down for good in Maryland where he raised his family including the ninth of ten children, John Wilkes Booth.
If the Booth family had come to Hatteras Island and young John Wilkes had been raised on the Cape, would Abraham Lincoln's story ended differently? We can only speculate.
Clarke, Asia B. The Elder and the Younger Booth. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1882. 63-64. Google Books. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.
"Junius Brutus Booth." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junius_Brutus_Booth>.