Monday, May 28, 2012

"Killing Lincoln" and the Chicago Connection

I have just finished reading “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly. If you like history and especially the Civil War you will enjoy the book. There is a Chicago connection not mentioned in the book and it begins with the birth of James H. McVicker on February 14, 1822, in New York City.  His father died in the same year and his mother was left with three small children. According to the New York Times both parents were of Scottish heritage. As soon as James was old enough he began working to support the family.  As a young adult, he drifted from place to place and in St. Louis became a journeyman printer.

At the age of twenty he realized that his lack of education was a great hindrance and so he began the process of educating himself. In 1840, he found a job as an actor in New Orleans and in the next few years he traveled the country as an actor and also married. His wife, Harriett G. Runnion, (her maiden name may have been Myers) had been married before and had two children, a boy named Horace and a girl named Mary Francis. In 1848, Mr. and Mrs. McVicker came to Chicago where he found acceptance as an actor.

George Wood, who operated a theater in St. Louis, encouraged McVicker to build a theater in Chicago and he would advance most of the money. Mr. Wood failed to fulfill his part of the bargain but others did and a building was constructed at a cost of $85,000. Among his backers were Potter Palmer, Marshall Field I and W. W. Kimball. The theater seated 2,500 people and was the “most commodious playhouse in the West.”

Edwin Booth first appeared at McVicker’s Theatre, May 31, 1858. About the same time, or perhaps a little later, Mary Francis McVicker began to take children’s parts at her father’s theater. She was then twelve years old and soon became a Chicago favorite. She traveled to other cities along the east coast and was popular there as well. All of this interfered with her education, so her father stopped her acting career. When she was eighteen, Mary was allowed to play Juliet to Edwin Booth’s Romeo. She was a success.

John Wilkes Booth, who in 3 years would shoot President Abraham Lincoln, also appeared in “Richard III” at McVicker’s (1862).

Mary Francis and Edwin Booth fell in love and were married by her grandfather, Rev. B. F. Myers. It was the second marriage for Edwin Booth. Later, Mary appears to have developed severe mental and emotional problems which complicated their marriage. She had gone to Europe with her husband but her health was failing so her father brought her back to America. She died at his home, 13 West Fifty-third street, New York City, and her remains were brought back to Chicago for burial. The funeral was held in St. Paul’s Universalist Church and burial was at Rosehill. Her father never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter and there was a “subsequent misunderstanding with Mr. Booth” which added to his sorrow. I have read that Mary Booth refused to be buried in the family plot in Baltimore because of John Wilkes Booth and chose rather to be buried at Rosehill.

Unlike his brother, Edwin Booth supported the North during the war and had voted for Abraham Lincoln. James McVicker was an ardent supporter of Lincoln. When the President was assassinated, 100 prominent citizens of Chicago were appointed to accompany his body to Springfield for burial. McVicker was one of the 100 chosen. He was an active member of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society while living in Chicago.

James H. McVicker died March 10, 1896 and the funeral service was held at the residence, 1842 Michigan avenue. The Rev. H. W. Thomas, pastor of the People’s Church, which worshiped on Sundays in McVicker’s Theater, conducted the service. (McVicker was also a great admirer of Prof. Swing and attended his Central Church for several years. ) Burial was at Rosehill. His estate was valued at more than $850,000.

Mrs. McVicker appears to have died in Pasadena, California on August 25, 1904 at the age of 81. She is also buried at Rosehill. There were several attempts to break her will, estimated at $350,000, which also included a statement “that no other burial shall be made in the McVicker lot after that of the testatrix.” I assume this was her attempt to keep any members of the Booth family from being buried in their family plot.

John Wilkes Booth was first buried in the Old Penitentiary on the Washington Arsenal grounds in what is now Ft. Lesley J. McNair. “A grave was dug beneath the prison floor, and the remains, wrapped in an army blanket were lowered in a gun box into the hole and covered by a stone slab.” In 1869, the body was given to the family and buried in the Booth family plot in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. His grave is unmarked.

McVicker Theater survived until 1984 and was the oldest in Chicago and the third oldest in the nation. It was located at 25 W. Madison St. and was owned by Citicorp Savings of Illinois. The building had been declared unsafe. According to the Tribune, “the property had been purchased for $7 million in 1979 from the Chicago Board of Education, which had owned the land almost from Chicago’s inception.”

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Scottish American History Club

June 2, 2012 - Next meeting of the History Club. Our speaker is David Simpson. He has been collecting Scottish coins for 30 years. He is a graduate of Aberdeen University and has researched Scottish coins in the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and Aberdeen University. He is a member of the Chicago Coin Club, the Hillside Coin Club and the American Numismatic Association.

The Scottish American Museum opens at 9:00 a.m. - Meeting starts at 10 and ends at noon.

The History Club does not meet in July or August and there are no pies for the June meeting, just scones and coffee. The scones are pretty good, however, so come and enjoy the presentation.

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