A chance meeting and the destiny of Abraham Lincoln 

Published 1:40 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2023

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Note: This is a reprint of a past article about a chance meeting between a prominent Washington businessman and a famous actor and the fateful outcome for a U.S. president.

One of the great pleasures of studying history, at least for me, is the discovery of connections between the people and places from the past and how those connections might have impacted history. One such connection involves a famous actor, the collector of customs for the port of Washington, NC, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

The actor was Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was born on May 1, 1796, in London, England, the son of a lawyer. He showed tremendous talent early and 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 settling on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland. Booth soon became one of the most celebrated 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.” But Booth soon tired of his fame and the pressure of acting and thus desired a simpler life. In 1822, while sailing between Norfolk, VA, and Charleston, SC, Booth had a chance encounter with a fellow passenger. Perhaps while passing within sight of the Cape Hatteras Light Station, the young actor told his acquaintance of a desire “to retire from public life and keep a lighthouse.”

By chance, the fellow passenger was one Thomas Harvey Blount, the collector of customs or taxes for the Port of Washington, NC. In addition to being the collector of customs, Thomas was also a businessman who, along with his father, John Gray Blount, had significant shipping interests and owned wharves, flatboats, and seagoing vessels. Their business dealings ranged as far west as Tennessee, up and down the Atlantic seaboard and included the Caribbean. Thomas was a major in the 2nd Regiment of the NC Militia during the War of 1812 and was elected to the North Carolina Council of State. As a collector of customs, one of Thomas Blount’s responsibilities was administrating the Pamlico Point and Cape Hatteras lighthouses. Blount must have been impressed with the young actor. Quoting from Booth’s memorandum, he described the conversation:

“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, and 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 com. 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 the pieces of wreck found on the shoals. One dollar per day 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 are 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 Booth was not granted the position. His managers, not wanting to suffer the loss of their celebrity client, pulled strings and managed to prevent his appointment. Hence, Booth settled down for good in Maryland, where he raised his family, including the ninth of ten children, John Wilkes Booth.

What if the Booth family had moved to Hatteras Island and John Wilkes Booth had been raised as a Hatteras islander? Would Abraham Lincoln’s fortune end differently? We can only guess.

Ray Midgett is a Washington resident, local historian and the past president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.