On 14 April 1865 at Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC, John Wilkes Booth held a derringer to the back of Lincoln’s head and carried out one of history’s most infamous assassinations
Entering the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre, President Abraham Lincoln stood before his chair while Our American Cousin — the play currently showing that he was late for — was halted, the entire audience rose from their seats and the orchestra played Hail To The Chief Thousands of hands rang out in deafening applause, celebrating the now increasingly evident feats of a man who would go down in history as one of humanity’s greatest-ever leaders. Lincoln and the Union had guided the United States of America through one of the most turbulent periods in its short history — a civil war that had claimed thousands of lives and had left the developing country broken. As the applause died away, Lincoln sat back to enjoy the play, little knowing what danger awaited him…
The date was 4 March 1865. The Confederate Army was on its last legs. News had spread of the Union’s inevitable victory and the president of the United States — Abraham Lincoln — was standing outside the US Capitol building, its new central dome towering over an assembled crowd numbering in the thousands. Lincoln was about to deliver his second inaugural address as president -the topic: reconstruction of a battered and broken nation. There was to be no grandstanding and political rallying this day, just a pervasive sadness that it had come to this — that over 600,000 Americans lay dead, a newly formed country was reeling financially and, in some states, slavery remained ingrained as part of everyday life. This speech was an opportunity for President Lincoln to outline the way forward. The crowd waited.
The disconcerting and dangerous thing with crowds though — as has been proven again and again through history — is that by their very nature they transform their constituent parts into one homogeneous mass, shrouding individuals.
And this was no more true than on this bright day in March, with a killer standing mere metres away from the US president. Looking down on Lincoln from the rear-left as he gave his heartfelt speech, renowned actor John Wilkes Booth listened and learned. He learned of the president’s abhorrence to slavery, the need for the country to rebuild not just its material worth, but also that of the ideas it promoted, and that while the southern Confederacy was to be defeated, their role in carrying the country forward must be ensured. Booth also realised he had ”a splendid chance to kill the president where he stood».
Later on, by 17 March 1865, John Wilkes Booth -along with David Her old,
George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (aka Paine), John Surratt and Edmund Spangler, all of whom had been present on 4 March — decided to ditch their recently hatched plan to kidnap Lincoln. The conspirators — all supporters of the crumbling Confederacy and enraged by Lincoln’s iron resolve to abolish slavery — had intended to hold the president hostage and ransom his return for the release of notable Confederate Army prisoners. However the game had now changed.
Lincoln’s address had tipped the balance; now the leader of the USA was on the verge of being marked for death, alongside Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The slate was to be wiped clean by Booth and the conspirators so that the Confederacy might rise again from the ashes.
It was now the morning of 14 April 1865. John Wilkes Booth lay in his bed at the National Hotel, Washington DC. Opening his diary, he wrote, ‘Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done.’ After eating, Booth headed to Ford’s Theatre around midday. As a well-known actor he had a permanent mailbox at the building and so routinely stopped by to collect his post. His murderous scheme was beginning to formulate in his mind…
Booth now firmly believed that Lincoln was hell-bent on destroying the South and everything it stood for, after he had reaffirmed his stance on slavery during a speech on 11 April, where he supported the idea of enfranchising former slaves. Booth, who had attended the talk at the White House just as he had done on Lincoln’s inauguration day, had now been tipped over the edge. Provoked by Lincoln’s speech he promised to ‘put him through’, stating that this would be ‘the last speech he will ever give’. Kidnapping was now definitely off the cards; Lincoln, Seward and Johnson all must die — an opportune moment was all Booth needed.
Riffling through his letters at Ford’s Theatre, that moment fell into his lap. While chatting to the brother of the theatre’s owner, John Ford, Booth became aware that both the president and famous war hero General Grant would be attending that very theatre that evening to see the farce Our American Cousin. Like a bullet, the final plan exploded into Booth’s mind. He knew the theatre’s layout well, having performed there just the previous month — indeed, he knew the entrances, exits, stairwells, corridors and backstage passes all like the back of his hand. Lincoln was to step forth into his domain and, as Booth now resolved, he would not be stepping out again.
Bolting across town, Booth went immediately to a boarding house and requested that a package be delivered to the house’s sister establishment in Surrattsville, Maryland, also requesting that weapons he had stored previously there be made ready for his arrival. With his first port-of-call following his intended escape from Washington laid out, Booth then — at roughly seven o’clock in the evening — called on his fellow conspirators.
Here Booth outlined his new plan and assigned Powell to ldll Seward in his home and Atzerodt to eliminate Johnson at his temporary base at the Kirkwood Hotel. Booth assigned himself the biggest scalp — Lincoln himself — and then informed them all to strike at shortly after 10pm that evening. The men, preparing for what lay ahead, disappeared into the night.
Entering Ford’s Theatre Booth took time to re-evaluate the plan. It would be easy to execute the American premier for many reasons. Firstly, Booth could run the warrens of the theatre without thought; secondly he was well known to both the theatre’s staff and owner, allowing him to approach his target in plain sight and, thirdly — above all — he now had little regard for his own life, his future erased by a burning sense of injustice. Even if Lincoln’s box was guarded, it would be token resistance and all Booth would need to do was make it past the security for a fraction of a second to take his shot.
As the show’s last bell rang — indicating the audience should take their seats — Booth began to walk methodically through the mingling crowds. Ascending through the theatre and then up to the first floor via a series of walkways and stairwells, Booth approached a vantage point from which he could watch as his mark took his seat. But, as Booth gazed over to the Presidential Box, his plan came crashing down around his feet: Lincoln wasn’t there. He had been deceived -misinformation or Chinese whispers leading him on a wild goose chase. All, it appeared, was lost.
But Lincoln was coming — that much became evident; staff still anticipated the president at Ford’s Theatre, even though he would be arriving late. Booth, whose life now revolved around ending President Lincoln’s couldn’t have left even if he had wanted; all he could do was wait…
It was during the first act of the play when Lincoln, his wife and retinue finally arrived. The show was halted and the president was applauded. Booth then moved with lethal efficiency. He just had to make his approach to the box during the show, get past the guards to Lincoln’s box and then… But incredibly, when he arrived at the box, there were no guards. Booth could never have known, but the man charged to accompany the Lincolns during their outing had gone to a nearby bar along with Lincoln’s footman and coachman during the play’s interval and had failed to return in time for the show’s next act.
To think that the most powerful and important man in the entire country was now completely defenceless, to Booth, was almost insanity itself. Steeling himself, Booth approached the box’s door, slid it open, waited for a round of laughter from the audience and then, in one fever-dream rush, placed his derringer pistol at point-blank range to the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head and fired. One of history’s greatest leaders now had just hours to live.
Who else was involved in the plot to take out the Union leadership?
As well as Lincoln, Booth and his fellow conspirators also marked Secretary of State William Seward and Vice-President Andrew Johnson for death, with a planned sweep of the three most important men in the country intended to bring the US Union to its knees, allowing the Confederacy to once more gain a foothold. Booth assigned Lewis Powell to take out Seward, while George Atzerodt was tasked to eliminate Johnson.
Powell was tasked with killing Seward at his home in Lafayette Park. However, acting as a messenger to gain entry, he was stopped at the top of the dwelling’s staircase by Seward’s son. Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward, who was suspicious of his presence. This led Powell to attack the Assistant Secretary before entering Seward’s bedroom and repeatedly attempting to stab the vice-president. However he failed to land a fatal blow and, after fighting with numerous other inhabitants of the house, he fled, allegedly screaming, «I’m mad! I’m mad!».
Atzerodt’s tale was nowhere near as eventful. Tasked with going to Kirkwood House in Washington DC where Andrew Johnson was staying, and shooting him at 10.15pm, Atzerodt did no such thing, instead getting drunk in a hotel bar. After talking to the bartender about the vice-president, he left the hotel and threw his knife into the street. At 2am he checked in at the Pennsylvania House Hotel and went to sleep. He was later caught and hung along with three other conspirators.
Despite playing no part in the eventual attempted murders, John Surratt was one of Booth’s original conspirators, agreeing to kidnap and ransom the president for the release of Confederate soldiers. He was quickly accused of playing a key role in the attacks on 14 April, with an arrest warrant issued. Unlike the other conspirators, who were all captured or killed, Surratt managed to escape the manhunt and fled to Canada. He did later return to the USA and was put on trial, but was found not guilty.
On the run!
Following the assassination, Booth — who had injured his leg during his escape — quicldy made for his supplies and horse in Washington DC. Within 30 minutes he was riding at speed across the Navy Yard Bridge and out into Maryland to the south. His fellow conspirator, David Herold — who had guided Lewis Powell to the home of Secretary of State William Seward — followed him roughly an hour later, meeting Booth at a pre-planned rendezvous point.
Both men then proceeded to Surrattsville, where Booth had ordered weapons and supplies to be delivered to Mary Surratt’s tavern. After retrieving the weapons the pair headed to Samuel Mudd’s house, a local doctor who attended to Booth’s leg, which was broken. He created a splint and crutches and, after a day in the house, Booth and Herold continued south with a local guide. The guide was to take them directly to Confederate sympathiser Samuel Cox.
After arriving at Cox’s house, close to the north bank of the Potomac River, Cox helped Booth and Herold hide in the nearby Zekiah Swamp, where they remained for five days as they awaited their transport across the river. When they did eventually cross the river, however, they inadvertently travelled upstream and landed once more on the Potomac’s north bank. Realising their enor, Booth and Herold retraced their steps and headed for the opposite bank once more.
Aniving on the south bank of the Potomac, the pair spent a night in a wooden cabin at a small farmstead, before heading to the farm of tobacco farmer Richard Garrett, which was located near Bowling Green, Virginia. Here Booth told Garrett that he was a wounded Confederate soldier and was granted lodgings, staying for two days. Finally however, 12 days after going on the run, Booth and Herold were tracked down. Union soldiers surrounded the Garrett farmhouse and, whereas Herold gave himself up, Booth attempted to escape and was gunned down.
1. Weapons’ cache
Booth’s first port-of-call following the assassination was to pick up weapons he had asked to be delivered to Mary Surratt’s tavern. He arrives near midnight on 14 April in Surrattsville, collects the weapons and then carries on through Maryland.
2. Patched up
Booth arrives at Samuel A Mudd’s residence, who is a local doctor. Mudd determines that Booth’s leg has been broken during his escape from Ford’s Theatre and puts it in a splint. He fashions a pair of crutches too and Booth and Herold depart the following day.
3. Zekiah Swamp
Leaving Dr Mudd’s with a local guide, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold then travel to Samuel Cox’s house, a Confederate sympathiser. Cox helps the pair to hide nearby for five days in Zekiah Swamp until they can cross the Potomac River and flee south.
4. Potomac River
Booth and Herold finally cross the Potomac River on 22 April, however accidentally travel upstream instead of down and land on another peninsula on the north side of the river. Realising their mistake they return downstream and make it to the south bank.
After spending the night of 23 April in a small wooden cabin, the pair arrive on the afternoon of 24 April at the farm of tobacco grower Richard Garrett. The farmhouse is surrounded two days later by Union forces and Booth is shot dead while trying to make a getaway.