The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Building a Replica of the John Wilkes Booth Diary

Guest Post by Folger conservator Austin Plann Curley

“You can’t always get what you want.” So said the Rolling Stones in 1969. Such was the case for the Folger Shakespeare Library in our recent request to borrow the Diary of John Wilkes Booth for our current exhibition America’s Shakespeare, which runs through July 24, 2016.

Ford’s Theater keeps the diary on permanent display alongside other artifacts from the assassination. Within its pages, Booth ruminates on his slaying of President Abraham Lincoln and laments his own plight as an injured and hunted fugitive, loathed by his countrymen. The assassination of Lincoln occurred on April 14, 1865, and the document captures Booth’s final recorded thoughts, penned during his 12 days on the run before he was tracked down and killed by Union soldiers on April 26.

Though the diary, which is owned by the National Park Service, is not available for loan, Folger conservators were graciously invited to Ford’s Theater for an early-morning peek at the artifact with Laura Anderson, Museum Curator for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. We photographed and measured the binding, taking notes in order to build our own copy of the diary.

Our replica began with a high-resolution image of the diary printed to the scale of the original. The image shows the diary open to a printed title page and the red leather interior of a wrapper that covers the textblock. Our goal was to transform the flat print to a three dimensional replica suitable for display.

Printed image of the Booth diary open to the title page
A printed image of the original diary, open to the title page.

First we prepared a mock-up of the textblock and trimmed it to the size of the original diary. Images of the title page and the adjacent leaf were cut out and pasted atop the mock-up. The edges were colored to simulate the accumulated grime on the original pocket journal.

The next step was to build a structural replica of the leather wrapper resting in the open position. For this, we used a thin card trimmed to the contour of the cover in our image. Heavier boards were used to build up thicker areas of the binding, and the structure was then wrapped in a heavy maroon paper, which roughly matched the color of the leather wrapper. Our image of the diary’s interior was pasted atop the structural replica.

The Booth diary replica in process
The textblock, from the back, held above the replica of the leather wrapper. Portions of each are overpainted out with watercolors to blend with the leather.

After overpainting a few areas with watercolors, the textblock was placed on the wrapper and the replica was ready for display!

The completed replica of the Booth diary
The completed replica.

Come see America’s Shakespeare April 7 through July 24 at the Folger Shakespeare Library OR November 10 through February 26, 2017 at Los Angeles Public Library.

Thanks to Curator, Laura Anderson, Museum Curator for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, for allowing access to the original diary. Thanks to Julie Ainsworth, Head of Photography and Digital Imaging at the Folger, for scaling and printing images for the facsimile.

4 Comments


  • As props master for “The Assassins” the attempt is going to be made to replicate John Wilkes Booth diary. Would you please share the dimensions of the diary. Thank you.

  • Hi Darby,
    The way the book is displayed, it is 160mm x 240mm and 15mm thick. It does not actually close the way it looks like it would, but I’d guess it be about 160mm x 80mm and 20mm thick closed.

    Good luck building your own!

    • Thank you so much for your prompt response. The information is deeply appreciated. The performances of “The Assassins” is not until May 2017 so I have time to create as close a facsimile as possible on a almost non-existent budget. The rental of the guns is actually more than the budget! This information is very helpful. Again, thank you!

  • Greetings! I have another question about the diary. John Wilkes Booth’s diary is not like most Civil War diaries. The case appears to have been much more extravagant. Most diaries, when closed, had a tab that inserted into a strip on the front of the journal. Booth’s closure, however, was not like that. Do you know how what type of closure the journal had? When looking at a movie prop journal, that is quite exquisite, it appears a magnetic closure may have been used. I see no slit on the front of the journal and the tab is small, like the original. Thank you for your assistance. Authentic props for a performance sometimes take more time than anticipated!


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)