Letter from Abe Lincoln's assassin sells for record price

Monday, November 22, 2004

BOSTON -- A letter written by President Lincoln's assassin two months before the 1865 slaying sold at auction Sunday for a record $68,000.

In the letter, dated Feb. 9, 1865, John Wilkes Booth asks a friend to send him a picture of himself "with cane & black cravat" -- the one later used in his wanted poster.

The previous high for a Booth letter was $38,000, according to Stuart Whitehurst, vice president of Skinner Inc. auctioneers.

The buyer was Joe Maddalena, a Beverly Hills-based historical document dealer. Maddalena, who bid by phone, said Booth "is the rarest American autograph."

"When he killed Lincoln, anybody who had any relationship with him burned their letters, because they were so afraid they would be linked to him," Maddalena said. "There are only 300 known letters and he must have written thousands and thousands."

Whitehurst estimated that only 17 Booth letters remain in private hands. This letter was addressed to family friend Orlando Tompkins of Boston, an apothecary and part owner of Boston Theatre. Booth tells Tompkins he "will get any letter sent to Fords Theatre."

Booth was retrieving his mail at the theater on April 14, 1865, when he first heard that Lincoln would be attending "Our American Cousin" that evening. Booth, a Confederate sympathizer and former actor, returned during the play to assassinate the president.

"The fact that Lincoln had just essentially won the [Civil War] made the crime even more shocking," Whitehurst said. "So much of what he could have done to heal the nation was ahead of him."

Also on the block at the fine books and manuscript auction Sunday was memorabilia from President John F. Kennedy's personal doctor, Janet Graham Travell, the first woman to serve as White House physician. Kennedy began seeing her in 1955 for the back pain that plagued him throughout his adult life.

He said her treatments gave him "new hope for a life free from crutches if not from backache."

The autographed copy he gave her of his book, "Profiles in Courage," sold for $5,500. The rocking chair, known as the "Kennedy Rocker," which served as the prototype for the specially made chair that helped the president's back pain, sold for $11,000.

Travell's White House medical bag sold for $2,700.

Kennedy was assassinated 41 years ago today.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: