Dan Feller, history professor and director of the Andrew Jackson papers project, along with two staff members—Research Assistant Professors Tom Coens and Laura-Eve Moss—will appear in a segment of PBS’ "History Detectives" that will air this summer. "History Detectives" host Tukufu Zuberi and a film crew recently spent a day filming in the Jackson papers project headquarters in Hoskins Library.
The mystery centers on a July 4, 1835, letter received by Jackson and signed by Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was a flamboyant Shakespearean actor of the day—and father of John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate President Abraham Lincoln 30 years later, in 1865.
The letter, kept in the Library of Congress, says:
To His Excellency, General Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, Washington City,
You damn’d old Scoundrel if you don’t sign the pardon of your fellow men now under sentence of Death, De Ruiz and De Soto, I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping. I wrote to you repeated Cautions so look out or damn you. I’ll have you burnt at the Stake in the City of Washington.
Your Master, Junius Brutus Booth.
You know me! Look out!
Feller said presidential historians always believed the letter to be a hoax. But a recent investigation, involving Feller and his staff, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., the Hermitage in Nashville, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and others, has proven the letter authentic.
"History Detectives" will chronicle how the mystery unraveled.
Feller said there are several reasons why presidential historians were convinced the letter was a fake.
First, someone—presumably one of Jackson’s clerks—wrote "anonymous" on the envelope. Historians believe that notation meant Jackson’s own staff considered the letter to be a fake.
Also, the letter indicates that Booth had written to Jackson on several occasions before, but there is no other known correspondence between the two.
Finally, Feller said, it was understandable that someone writing such an inflammatory letter might forge Junius Booth’s name to it.
"Booth was sort of a combination of Dennis Rodman and Darth Vader," Feller said. "He was a famously histrionic character. Signing his name as an alias wouldn’t be at all illogical."
While presidential historians dismissed the letter as a fake, theatrical historians assumed it was real. The historians’ debate might have gone unnoticed if the Lincoln Museum in Springfield hadn’t put a copy on display as if it were authentic.
A visitor saw it and, later, while visiting the Hermitage—Jackson’s home in Nashville—began asking questions about the letter and its veracity.
To settle the issue once and for all, Feller, Coens and Moss first looked at the return address—Brower’s Hotel in Philadelphia.
They found records showing that Booth was in a theater production in Philadelphia in July 1835 and coincidentally had called in sick on July 4—the day the letter was written.
"History Detectives" then tracked down a handwriting expert who analyzed the letter and confirmed it was written by Booth.
Feller told "History Detectives" that assassination threats were becoming common in Jackson’s day. It wasn’t a crime to threaten the president’s life; furthermore, there was no Secret Service, no FBI and no CIA.
As for the motive behind Booth’s threat?
In the letter, Booth demands clemency for two men sentenced to death for piracy for robbing an American ship of $20,000 in coins and attempting to kill the crew.
It was a very celebrated case of the day and many people thought the pirates—who claimed they were slave traders and not pirates, but weren’t given time to procure evidence to prove it—had gotten a bum rap, Feller said.
"It had all of the elements of the O.J. Simpson trial," he said. "Vivid personalities, allegations of authorities’ misconduct, over-the-top lawyers, disputed evidence, etc."
In addition to all of this, Feller said, Jackson was quite controversial and some of his decisions—such as his patronage policy, Indian relocation and banking changes—were highly criticized.
"Jackson was a famously polarizing figure in his own day," Feller said. "He was hated more than any previous president."
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