April 14, 1865. 10:25 p.m.
Five days had passed since General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his troops at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The long and bloody Civil War was over.
John Wilkes Booth, age 27, was a southern sympathizer and a famous, highly recognizable actor from a celebrated family of actors. He had gone to Ford’s Theatre in the afternoon to check out the building and possibly to make some preparations.
In the evening, he came back to the theatre to fulfill a deadly mission. Booth was the ringleader of a deadly conspiracy against President Abraham Lincoln and the government of the United States.
Booth crept up to the presidential box and silently entered. Lincoln was only a few feet away from him, watching the play, Our American Cousin, with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and their guests Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris.
Booth grasped his Philadelphia Derringer pistol, and waited. He knew the play well, and he wanted to time his actions. He saw Lincoln was holding his wife’s hand.
“What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Mrs. Lincoln whispered to her husband.
The president replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”
He had spoken his last words. One of the actors delivered the funny line Booth had been waiting for and Lincoln laughed. The assassin sprang forward and shot the president in the back of the head.
Major Rathbone immediately lunged at Booth and they wrestled for a moment. Booth dropped his pistol, drew a knife from his pocket and stabbed Rathbone in the left arm. Booth struggled out of the major’s grip and leapt from the box onto the stage. It was a 12-foot drop and Booth landed awkwardly.
Because Booth was a famous actor, many people in the audience recognized him and most thought his entrance was part of the play. Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus always to tyrants!). Though the pain in his leg was unbearable, this was his supreme moment. He had avenged the South. And, he had killed a man he hated. His diary recorded his thoughts about the president: Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.
At least one man recognized that this was not a new scene in an old play. Major Joseph B. Stewart jumped from the auditorium onto the stage and ran after Booth. Screams were emanating from the presidential box and Major Rathbone shouted, “Stop that man!”
Booth burst through the side door into the alley, where he had left his horse with a stagehand named Edmund Spangler, mounted and galloped away. His plan was to go south, where he would be protected by Confederate sympathizers.
Lincoln was mortally wounded. He was comatose. The doctors, military personnel, and actors clustering around the president knew he couldn’t possibly survive a trip to the White House. Instead, they carried him across the street to the home of a tailor named William Petersen. They made a hopeless attempt to shield his face from the rain he could no longer feel, and laid the tall president diagonally on Petersen’s bed.
Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. He was 56 years old. His friend and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was present and watched the president take his last breath. “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen,” he murmured. “Now he belongs to the ages.”
With Lincoln’s death ended any hope of empathy and kindness in Reconstruction. His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, was not well known by the public but no one harbored any hope he would have been as magnanimous as his predecessor.
Across the country and even the world, people heard of Lincoln’s murder with horror and despair. Abraham Lincoln was mourned. Many who had thought he was the worst president in the nation’s history saw him very differently now. There was no question of who had killed him or why. The only question on everyone’s lips was, “Where is John Wilkes Booth?”
In the next post, we’ll talk about John Wilkes Booth’s life on the run. Go to Part 2.
But first, here’s an extra for anyone who might be interested. In 1956, an elderly man was featured on the show I’ve Got a Secret. He was the last living eyewitness of Lincoln’s assassination.