“Confederates Try to Burn New York”

A new poem by George Green

People had paid five bucks a seat that night
to catch all three Booth brothers in their togas.
Edwin, the brightest star, with Junius,
who'd recently become his Broadway rival,
and dastardly John Wilkes, the pale assassin,
who rode up on the train from Baltimore.

The Winter Garden Playhouse was so jammed
they had to put up benches in the aisles,
and, when a bottle of Greek fire flew
in from the street, a wild commotion spread
throughout the house. Edwin, alone on stage,
would calm the crowd while still in character,
exhorting them, sententiously, as Brutus,
to sit back down and disregard the hubbub.

Out strode John Wilkes, who glared and crossed his arms,
aping the “Coriolanus” pose of Kemble.
The interruption aggravated him
because he had designs on Lucy Kane,
their pulchritudinous Calpurnia,
now fluttering offstage. No Antony
could slip the dogs of war like John Wilkes Booth,
with half as much flamboyancy and flare.
He knew she'd watch him from the wings, and knew
his brooding Antony would conquer her.

He didn't know Confederates had planned
to burn the city down, that very night,
around his ears. Eight rebel saboteurs
had registered in multiple hotels
and cased out targets like the Winter Garden
for maximum combustibility.

They started nineteen fires in an hour,
but most were minor blazes doused with ease.
(A traitor had diluted their Greek fire
the night before.) One lucky raider flung
a bottle into hay bales down at Barnum’s,
and this flared up into a conflagration
that burned spectacularly for a while.

Some animals from the menagerie
escaped in a stampede and, literally,
the mayhem in the streets became a circus.
An ostrich ran as far as Union Square,
and monkeys hid in St. Paul’s Cemetery.
The Female Giant (over eight feet tall!)
loped down the street to Donnelley's Saloon,
anticipating whiskey on the house.

The rebels nonchalantly caught the train
and, undetected, rode to Canada.
But one of them was nabbed, eventually,
crossing the border on his way back home
to Tennessee. They didn't hold him long.
That April he was hanged out in the harbor.

John Wilkes would fold his hand that April, also,
shot down inside a burning barn by Yankees,
who dragged him out still choking on his blood.
Five photographs of actresses fell out
of John Wilkes’ coat, and these were rudely passed
around by men devoid of chivalry.

Inside the house, upstairs, another girl,
as lovely as those actresses, awoke,
and drawn out by the fire found a ruckus,
and Booth, disheveled, dying in the grass.
She knelt and held his lolling head awhile
to beautify this grand tableau, replete
with cavalry, this Viking funeral
without the boat. He died just after dawn,
somewhat romantically, I guess, but like
the man he shot, Booth was a fatalist,
and, “Useless, useless,” were his final words.

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