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Author explores background of John Wilkes Booth in book

BY HANNAH KRAMER | DECEMBER 07, 2010 7:20 AM

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Nora Titone rummaged through private letters, diaries, and reminiscences to uncover the story of a family who created history in the 19th century.

But Titone isn’t a detective. She’s an author.

“Nora is very curious and adventurous,” said Titone’s husband, Jason Bridges. “In an intellectual vein, she’s not much for rock-climbing, say. But she loves to dig into libraries and archives and discover stories of the past that have been overlooked or ignored.”

Titone will share her historical discoveries by discussing her book My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to An American Tragedy at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 7 p.m. today. Admission is free.

My Thoughts Be Bloody delves into the sibling conflict between Edwin Booth, a renowned Shakespearean actor of the era, and brother John Wilkes Booth, who became notorious for his assassination of President Lincoln. The book sheds new light on the historical tragedy by showing the assassination as the pinnacle of this dark relationship between brothers rather than an effect of the Civil War.

For Titone, motivation to complete the project came from a fascination with cultural lifestyles in the 19th century.

“I think I love 19th-century America because you see so many modern themes and issues that we are familiar with now, such as celebrity culture and a hunger for fame, but on such a smaller scale,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way of going back in time and trying to understand to where we are today by looking at the earliest chapters of the story.”

The story Titone found about the Wilkes family was challenging to uncover. Putting together information about the family members required her to dig through personal information of others that weren’t presented in encyclopedias or in archives at the library.

One place in which she stumbled upon an abundant supply of sources was in a mansion in Manhattan. This building was formerly the Players’ Club, which Edwin Booth started in 1888 with Grover Cleveland for actors and others associated with the arts, including J.P. Morgan and Mark Twain.

“[The book] follows a path that no one had followed for generations,” Titone said.

Researching for the book, as well as writing it, was a learning experience for her. She said she was forced to become an expert in theater history because the Booth family was famous for its acting accomplishments. She said she learned a lot about the subculture of 19th-century actors.

The endeavor of writing My Thoughts Be Bloody was also difficult because of the expansive story she wanted to tell. She admits there are trails she did not fully pursue in the book and would love to explore further.

For that reason, Titone enjoys exchanging ideas with audiences at readings, such as the one in Iowa City, to find new ways to develop stories.

“Nora’s book is different,” Bridges said. “She tells it like a novel, without sacrificing on the accuracy. I see no reason, as a general rule, nonfiction shouldn’t be as grippingly written as fiction.”


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