Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2015

The Hand of Fate

By Ray Midgett


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Junius Brutus Booth. (Photo courtesy Library of ...

One of the great pleasures of studying history is the discovery of connections, linkage between the people and places from the past, and how those connections might have altered history. One such connection involves a famous actor, the collector of customs for the Port of Washington, North Carolina and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

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The actor was Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was born on May 1, 1796 in London, England, the son of a lawyer. Early on, he showed tremendous talent on the stage and he became a celebrated performer throughout England. In 1821, Booth ran away with his mistress to the United States, abandoning his wife and young son, and eventually settled on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland.

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Portrait of Thomas Harvey Blount. (Courtesy of ...

Booth soon became one of the most renowned actors in America. Critic William Winter said of Booth, “He was followed as a marvel. Mention of his name stirred an enthusiasm no other could awaken.” Booth tired of his fame and the demands of notoriety and soon developed a desire for a simpler life. In 1822, while sailing between Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina, Booth had a chance encounter with a fellow passenger. Perhaps while viewing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the young thespian told his acquaintance of a desire “to retire from public life and keep a lighthouse.”

By chance, the fellow passenger happened to be Thomas Harvey Blount, the collector of customs (import taxes) for the port of Washington, North Carolina. In addition to being the collector, Mr. Blount was a businessman who, along with his father, John Gray Blount, had large shipping interests and owned wharves, flat boats, and seagoing vessels. His business dealings ranged as far west as Tennessee and up and down the Atlantic seaboard, including the Caribbean. Mr. Blount was also a prominent figure in North Carolina history as well, having served as a major in the 2nd Regiment of the North Carolina Militia during the War of 1812, and later having been elected to the North Carolina Council of State. As a collector of customs, one of Thomas Blount’s responsibilities was the administration of both Pamlico Point Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Mr. Blount must have been impressed by the young actor. Quoting from Mr. Booth’s own memorandum, Booth describes the conversations:

“Spoke to Mr. Blount, collector of customs, and one of the passengers, about Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. He offered it to me with the dwelling-house, twenty acres of land attached, and a salary of $300 per annum, for keeping the light, - government providing oil and cotton, - a quart of oil per diem. Grapes, water-melons, cabbages, potatoes, carrots, and onions grow in abundance there. Rain-water the only drink; a cistern on the premises for that purpose. Abundance of fish and wild fowl; - pigs, cows, and horses find good pasture. Soil too light for wheat or corn. Flour bought for four or five dollars a barrel. The office is for life, and only taken away through misbehavior.

“Lighthouse seventy-five feet high; light requires trimming every night at twelve o’clock. No taxes whatever. Firewood is procured from pieces of wreck found on the shoals. One dollar per is the charge for men who assist in cases of wreck. Strawberries, currant bushes, and apple-trees should be taken there; also a plough, spades, and chest of carpenter tools. Pine tables the best. Mr. Blount is to write me word if the office can be given me in April next, from his seat at Washington, North Carolina.”

History tells us that Mr. Booth was not appointed to the position. His managers, not wanting to suffer the loss of their celebrity client, schemed with officials and managed to prevent his appointment.

Hence, Mr. Booth settled down for good in Maryland where he raised his family, including the ninth of ten children, John Wilkes Booth. If the Booth family had come to Hatteras Island and young John Wilkes Booth had been raised at Cape Hatteras, would Abraham Lincoln’s story have ended differently? We can only speculate.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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