John Wilkes Booth was the ninth of ten children born to the famous, eccentric, and hard-drinking actor, Junius Booth. The Booth family--along with their slaves--lived on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland.
Booth made his own stage debut at age seventeen in Baltimore, appearing in Richard III. His highly successful acting career for a Shakespearian company based in Richmond took him all over the United States. (On November 9, 1863, Abraham Lincoln watched Booth play Raphael in the play Marble Heart in the same box at Ford's Theatre that he would later be assassinated.)
Booth became politically active in the 1850s, joining the Know-Nothing Party, an organization devoted to reducing the stream of immigrants into the United States. Booth ardently supported the institution of slavery and in 1859 joined a Virginia company that aided in the capture of John Brown after his raid at Harper's Ferry. Booth was an eyewitness to Brown's execution.
During the Civil War, Booth worked as a Confederate secret agent. He met frequently with the heads of the Secret Service, Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay, in Montreal.