Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC April 14th, 1865. The stage is set for a performance of the play Our American Cousin with the prestigious company of the President of the United States in the audience.
Abraham Lincoln, 56 years old and the 16th President of the United States of America. He had just led his country through its most difficult time, the US Civil War (1861-1865) resulting in victory over the Southern Confederates and the abolishment of slavery.
John Wilkes Booth, 26 years old and a famous actor in his day. He was also a Confederate sympathizer who despite the Confederate Army under the command of Southern General Robert E. Lee having surrendered 4 days prior, hatched a plot to destroy the Union Government of the North. His plan was to personally kill Lincoln (originally it was just to kidnap him), and also have his fellow conspirators Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt simultaneously kill the Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The plot was intended to destabilize the government enough to allow the Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his government time to consolidate and continue the war (not that they are likely to have known anything about his plans!).
The Plot Unfolds :
The Confederate conspirators were only partially successful. The Vice-President was not attacked at all (George Atzerodt decided not to go through with it) and the Secretary of State despite being seriously wounded by Lewis Powell recovered and survived his attack. Unfortunately for Lincoln, his bodyguard for the evening apparently went for a drink in the Star Saloon next door to the theatre during the intermission leaving the President unguarded. John Wilkes Booth had entered the theatre, sneaking into the Presidential box just after 10pm, he immediately shot Lincoln in the back of the head at point-blank range with a .44 caliber Derringer pistol. This was a mortal wound. Accompanying Lincoln and his Wife that evening was Major Henry Rathbone and his Fiance. He tried to intervene but John Wilkes Booth stabbed him and leapt over the balcony of the box onto the stage below. He raised his knife and is said to have yelled to the stunned crowd “Sic semper tyrannis” which is latin for “Thus always to tyrants” which has been attributed through history to Brutus at the time of his assassination of Julius Caesar in Rome.
The Escape of Booth:
John Wilkes Booth is said to have broken his leg when leaping from the Presidential box, but he still managed to escape the theatre and then get to Maryland on horseback that night with a fellow conspirator David Herold. There was no question about his identity being unknown as a large audience had witnessed his deed and he was now well and truly on the run.
The Death of Lincoln:
An army surgeon Doctor Charles Leale was in the audience that night and attended to Lincoln’s wound immediately. Clearing a blood clot allowed Lincoln to breathe more easily but he determined Lincoln would not survive if taken to the White House (a number of blocks away). As such he was taken across the road from the theatre to the Petersen House (a boarding house which still stands today) for further treatment, but in reality nothing more could be done to save him. The strength of Lincoln can not be denied, he held on in a coma until the morning and passed away at 7:22 am on April 15th, 1865.
The Demise of Booth:
On April 26th, 1865, Union soldiers located John Wilkes Booth in a barn in Virginia around 70 miles / 110 kilometres south of Washington DC. His companion David Herold surrendered, but Booth chose to fight saying “I prefer to come out and fight“. For what ever reason the soldiers set the barn on fire and then Booth was shot while still inside the barn by Sargeant Boston Corbett. Booth died 3 hours later.
The Fate of the Conspirators:
The 8 other conspirators involved in John Wilkes Booth’s plot were all quickly rounded up and found guilty on June 30th, 1865. 4 were hung 7 days later (Lewis Powell – took part in the plot, David Herold – aided John Wilkes Booth, George Atzerodt – took part in the plot and Mary Suratt the first woman to be executed by the US Federal Government – she aided the plot by providing lodging and a meeting place for the conspirators at her boarding house in Washington DC and also facilitated weapons and equipment for John Wilkes Booth during his escape).
The other 4 conspirators were imprisoned (3 were given life imprisonment): Dr. Samuel Mudd – he provided a safe haven and medical care for John Wilkes Booth during his escape and it is alleged he knew of his plans prior to the assassination; Samuel Arnold – he was part of the original plan to kidnap Lincoln; and Michael O’Laughlen – also part of the earlier kidnap plan and possibly involved in the assassination plan. Edmund Spangler who was employed at Ford’s Theatre at the time of Lincolns assassination it was alleged aided John Wilkes Booth in his escape from the theatre and as such was given a 6 year prison term. Lincolns successor President Andrew Jackson (who was sworn into office just 3 hours after his death) eventually pardoned all but one of these 4 men in 1869 (Michael O’Laughlen had died of Yellow Fever in prison in 1867).
A nation was left in shock, the Southerners that John Wilkes Booth planned to help probably suffered more as a result of the anger of the North and the ripples of time have not diminished the impact of this event and the death of one of America’s great leaders. Despite Ford’s Theatre being closed for a long period following Lincoln’s death; then being gutted and turned into an office it was eventually restored in the 1960’s and today remains a hugely popular tourist attraction that is run by the National Parks Service. At certain times of the year stage productions are still held there but otherwise it is open year round for tours. Be prepared for long queues if you visit Ford’s Theatre, but trust me it is worth it. The legacy of Lincoln’s success and reforms lives on today while John Wilkes Booth will forever remain in infamy.