John Wilkes Booth and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln's Box at Ford's Theatre - Washington, D.C.
Abraham Lincoln's Box at Ford's Theatre - Washington, D.C. Martin Kelly

When Abraham Lincoln garnered enough votes to win the 1860 presidential election, the U.S. was still a united country. However, before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had seceded from the Union. The Civil War officially began about five weeks, later on, April 12, 1861, when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, which had been held by Union troops in South Carolina.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant marking the beginning of the end of the U.S Civil War

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln, his wife Mary, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris were seated in the presidential box at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. to watch a comedy named “Our American Cousin.”  

Although his entire presidency had been marred by the Civil War before Lee’s surrender, reportedly the President was in an excellent mood on this evening. His laughter could be heard throughout the Theater as he enjoyed the play. However, at approximately 10:00 p.m., an actor named John Wilkes Booth walked into the President’s box and fired a single-shot .44-caliber derringer behind Lincoln’s left ear with the bullet ending up lodged right above the right eye.

Major Rathbone tried to stop the attempted assassin from fleeing, but Booth stabbed him before jumping to the stage below.

Even though Booth broke his leg upon landing, he was still able to flee out a back door. A Washington D.C. policeman, John Frederick Parker, was supposed to be stationed outside the door guarding the entrance to the President’s box. Instead, he was drinking at a nearby tavern when the fatal shot was fired.

Booth had conspired with Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold to simultaneously assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel, and General Ulysses S. Grant who was supposed to be with Lincoln and who Booth intended to stab Grant to death. Also, Mary Surratt was a fifth conspirator whose job was to make sure the necessary guns and ammunition were available to be picked up earlier that day.

Seward was attacked at his residence but survived the injuries delivered by Powell. Atzerodt made no attempt on Johnsons’s life and ended up drunk in a tavern. Grant had backed out of attending the play and was not attacked.

Background on Booth

Well-known actor Junius Brutus Booth immigrated to the Harford County, Maryland from England in the early 1820s, where the ninth of his ten children, John Wilkes, was born on May 10, 1838. 
In 1846, Booth learned that his father was a bigamist, which allegedly had a tremendous impact on Booth.  Booth withdrew from the widely respected military school, St. Timothy’s Hall, in 1852 right after his father’s death.

In 1855, Booth acting debut occurred at Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Booth then worked in a Philadelphia theater for about a year and then moved to Richmond, Virginia to work at the Marshall Theatre where he became well known for his good looks and being very acrobatic.

Like most people from Maryland, Booth was pro-slavery, so he was appalled at the 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia by staunch abolitionist John Brown.  Shortly afterward, Booth enlisted in the Richmond Virginia militia and was present at Brown’s hanging.

In October 1860, Booth accidentally shot himself in the thigh while preparing to play Hamlet in a nationwide tour. While recuperating from his wound, Lincoln was elected president about one month later.   

Booth was angered when Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland at the start of the Civil War, but instead of enlisting in the Confederate Army Booth continued a very prosperous acting career.

 In November 1863, he performed in a play at Ford’s Theatre before the President and First Lady.
By mid-1864 Booth had begun to hatch a kidnapping plot against the President and began performing on a very infrequent basis.  Booth had attended Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4, 1865. His last acting performance would occur just over three weeks later – March 28, 1865.

Two days after Lee’s surrender, Booth attended Lincoln’s April 11, 1865, address where the President had inferred that he would support voting rights for the freed slaves.  Only three days later, Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

On April 26, 1865 – a mere 12 days after assassinating President Lincoln – Booth was shot to death in a barn by Union soldiers.