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Kin to a killer

On the night of April 14, 1865, at approximately 11 o’clock, a single pistol shot startled the audience watching the British comedy “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

The Grass Valley Morning Union was a scant six months old on April 16, when news reached the newspaper that Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States of America, was dead.

He had been shot by John Wilkes Booth, a member of a prominent theatrical family, whose older brother Edwin had acted in Nevada City, Grass Valley and Rough and Ready in the early 1850s.

Thirst for theater

By 1853, signs of permanent settlement slowly began to appear in the bustling mining camps of Grass Valley and Nevada City. The tents and rude shacks of the early settlers were being replaced with sturdy homes and stores. Residents began to demand those amenities most had enjoyed back “in the states.”

High on the list was entertainment: theatrical entertainment. Favorites were, strangely enough, the plays of William Shakespeare.

Following the gold-seekers to California were the touring theatrical companies. In their repertoire were plays by the Bard, and most traveled the gold country of the Sierra Nevada foothills. One, the Willmarth Waller group, boasted a company member with the established theatrical name of Booth. Though only 19, and with limited experience, Edwin Booth was added to the group, joining other seasoned actors.

From San Francisco, Waller took his troupe by river steamer to Sacramento, then up the Feather River to Maryville. By coach, they headed to Nevada City, Grass Valley and Rough and Ready, where they played to large audiences. It was in Nevada City that Edwin Booth first acted the role of Iago, the villain of Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Othello.” For the next 40 years, Booth was recognized as the foremost tragedian of the American stage, and his portrayal of Hamlet was unparalleled.

An incident in a Philadelphia railroad station adds to the legend and incongruity of the Booth name. According to his biographer Eleanor Ruggles, Edwin saved the life of Robert Lincoln, son of the president, by grabbing him by his coat collar as he fell in the gap between two moving passenger cars and hauling him to safety. The event occurred in March 1865, a month before the assassination.

Lincoln’s local links

The martyred president and Nevada County enjoyed, although remote, an interesting and vital relationship. Lincoln’s goal throughout his presidency was “… to preserve the Union … one and inseparable,” and Nevada County played a leading role in that endeavor. The rich gold mines of the western county supplied a large portion of the wealth necessary for the Union to wage the Civil War to a successful conclusion.

In 1864, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, paving the way for a transcontinental railroad to be built. Nevada County was to be on the mainline of the Central Pacific, the railroad building east from Sacramento. Charles Marsh, a surveyor and Nevada City resident, was one of that railroad’s original incorporators. Marsh would later become a principal in the South Yuba Canal Co., whose Nevada City building on Main street is designated a California Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was unknown to Nevada County voters, but not to Aaron A. Sargent, a pillar of the Republican Party. Sargent was the founder of Nevada County’s arm of that party. In 1860, Sargent was a delegate to the Republican national convention in Chicago, but his first ballot vote was for William Seward. The California delegation eventually cast its four electoral votes for Lincoln.

After Lincoln’s nomination, Sargent, together with Niles Searls, worked tirelessly for the ticket. Lincoln carried Nevada County in both the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections. During the Civil War, there were southern sympathizers, called Copperheads, in both towns. In Grass Valley, the Allison Ranch precinct blanked Lincoln by voting 328 for George McClellan, the Democrat, and 0 for Lincoln.

A published newspaper speculation was, “Such a vote only happens either in a dictated vote or a stuffed ballot box.”

The Civil War ended with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, news of which reached Nevada County the next day by transcontinental telegraph. According to contemporary reports, a Mass celebration began immediately as church bells tolled continuously and cannon fire was heard intermittently. There were spontaneous parades in both towns.

The euphoria of the moment was short lived and rapidly gave way to extreme sorrow and disbelief when word of Lincoln’s death reached the local press on Sunday, April 16. Nevada County joined a stunned nation in mourning the loss of one who gave his life “that that nation might live …”

Locally, all business houses and public buildings were closed. The entire community was overcome with the “deepest sorrow” and bitterly denounced the act as “the result of dementia,” declaring “no sane friend of the south would have done such a deed.”

After the assassination, it is said that Edwin Booth never again spoke the name of his murderous brother, John Wilkes.