April 14, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head and fatally wounded by a Confederate sympathizing actor, John Wilkes Booth, while watching a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington.
In early 1865, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth, along with a group of co-conspirators (including Sam Arnold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, and John Suratt), hatched a plan to kidnap President Lincoln, ransom him for the release of all Confederate soldiers being held as prisoners-of-war, and thereby continue the war. Booth and his crew set up shop at the boarding house of Suratt’s mother, Mary Suratt, in nearby Maryland, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
The kidnapping plan fell through in March, however, and in early April, when Richmond fell and General Lee had surrendered, Booth hatched a new plan: kill Lincoln, Vice-president Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward. His opportunity came on April 14th, when he learned that President Lincoln and General U.S. Grant would be attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. The new plan called for Booth to kill Lincoln as he attended the play, while Lewis Powell would kill Seward at his home and George Atzerodt would kill Vice-president Johnson at his hotel at the same time that night. They would then all flee the city and meet up in Maryland.
Booth spent the rest of the day making preparations. He went to a nearby stable and arranged to have a horse saddled and ready for him later that day, so he would be able to make his escape. Later that afternoon he went to the theater; since he was a well known actor, he easily gained admittance without a second thought. Once inside, he went up to the balcony to the presidential box to reconnoiter the scene of the crime.
The Presidential box was large; there was an outer door which led to an inner door where the seats overlooking the stage were. He brought a large stick with him to use to block the outer door behind him later that night, so that nobody could come to Lincoln’s rescue. Placing the stick in a dark corner, he then left the theater to make his final preparations.
Booth returned to the theater at 9:00 that evening. He rode to the back door of the theater where he ran into a stagehand who recognized him, Ned Spangler. He asked Spangler to hold his horse for him and then ended up next door at the Taltavul tavern, drinking whiskey and waiting for his moment to strike.
Lincoln arrived at the theater late with his wife, Mary, Major Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancé Clara. He was also accompanied by a White House aide, Charles Ford, and his police guard for the evening, John Parker. Although the play had already started, once Lincoln and his party settled in the President’s box overlooking the stage the actors stopped mid-sentence and looked up towards his box. The orchestra played “Hail to the Chief,” and the entire audience roared and cheered. Lincoln bowed to the audience, and the play resumed.
Parker’s assignment was to sit in a chair outside of Lincoln’s box, guarding the door. During the intermission between Acts 2 and 3, however, Parker left his post to go to the same Taltavul tavern Booth had been drinking at earlier. By then Booth had already left the bar, however, and had slipped into the theater as the lights dimmed for Act 3. Booth was able to slip up the back stairs, unnoticed, and make his way to Lincoln’s box.
Booth, expecting to find a police guard outside of Lincoln’s box, was surprised to find only Charles Ford. He nonchalantly handed Ford his card; Ford, recognizing the famous actor was happy to let him pass. Booth quietly opened the outer door to the box found the stick he had left earlier that day, and propped it up, blocking the door. He then waited for his moment to strike, gun in hand.
Booth was very familiar with the play being performed, and knew that it was approaching a well-known laugh line. When the line was spoken – “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing man-trap” – the audience roared as Booth had expected. At that moment Booth opened the inner door and walked behind Lincoln, who was facing the stage. He put his derringer right behind Lincoln’s head and pulled the trigger, sending a bullet into Lincoln’s brain.
The noise momentarily startled the audience. Many thought it was part of the play. As Lincoln slumped over his seat, Major Rathbone moved towards Booth. Booth quickly pulled out a large knife and stabbed Rathbone in his arm, sending blood everywhere. He then grabbed the railing of the box and leapt onto the stage.
Booth was actually famous for performing stunts such as this, but as he leapt his boot got caught on the flag hanging below the box, and he landed awkwardly on the stage, breaking his ankle. Undeterred, he then waved the bloody knife over his head, shouting “sic semper tyrannis!” and “The South is avenged!” Confused audience members thought that this was part of the play; only after Rathbone shouted from the box did some begin to chase Booth as he ran from the stage. Booth made it to the exit where he leapt on his horse and was able to ride out of Washington D.C. and into Maryland before the general alarm was raised.
Rathbone was able to remove Booth’s stick blocking the door, and a doctor, Charles Leale, examined Lincoln, finding no pulse. Leale and others were able to get Lincoln breathing again, but knew that the wound was fatal. They picked Lincoln up and carried him across the street to a boarding house, where they lay him across a bed, simply trying to make him as comfortable as possible. He died the following morning at 7:22 a.m.
In the meantime, Booth’s co-conspirators both failed in their assassination attempts. Powell was able to get into Seward’s home by pretending to be a doctor delivering medicine, but his knife attack was thwarted by Seward’s son and bodyguard, and he was only able to wound Seward. Atzerodt never even tried to kill Johnson – he got cold feet and chickened out.
Booth, meanwhile, was galloping through Maryland with a broken ankle. He made his way to the home of a doctor, Samuel Mudd (yes, his name was “mud”), who gave Booth some crutches and set his ankle. From there Booth moved on while thousands of Union soldiers searched for him.
On April 26, 1865, Booth was tracked down by Union soldiers to a farm in Virginia, where he was hiding out in a barn. When he refused to come out, the barn was set on fire in an attempt to smoke him out. While the barn burned, a Union soldier was able to shoot Booth through a window, hitting him in the neck. He died within a few hours.
All of Booth’s remaining co-conspirators (except John Surratt, who escaped to Europe) were eventually captured, tried, and convicted. Four were hanged, including Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where the conspirators met to hatch their plot. The rest were given lengthy prison sentences.
Lincoln, of course, was given a hero’s funeral. On April 19, his body lay in state in the Rotunda of the Capital, as thousands passed by to pay their respects. The next day his coffin was put on a train to slowly head west for internment home, in Illinois. Along the way, funerals were held in a dozen cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. He was finally laid to rest in the family vault in Springfield, Illinois.