John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

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John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland, on 10th May, 1838. He was the ninth of ten children born to the famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth.

Booth made his acting debut at the age of seventeen in Baltimore. He toured throughout America and soon became one of America's leading actors and was especially acclaimed for the work he did with the Shakespearean company that was based in Richmond.

Unlike the rest of his family, Booth was an ardent supporter of slavery. In 1859 he joined the Virginia militia company that assisted in the capture of John Brown at Harper's Ferry.

Although Booth had a deep hatred for President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, he did not join the Confederate Army on the outbreak of the American Civil War. Instead he worked as a secret agent and also helped to smuggle medical supplies from the North to the Confederate forces in the South. As a touring actor Booth had the perfect cover for this work.

In 1864 Booth devised a scheme to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in Washington. The plan was to take Lincoln to Richmond and hold him until he could be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners of war. Others involved in the plot included Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, John Surratt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin and Samuel Arnold. Booth decided to carry out the deed on 17th March, 1865 when Lincoln was planning to attend a play at the Seventh Street Hospital that was situated on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnap attempt was abandoned when Lincoln decided at the last moment to cancel his visit.

On 9th April, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later Booth attended a public meeting in Washington where he heard Abraham Lincoln make a speech where he explained his views that voting rights should be granted to some African Americans. Booth was furious and decided to assassinate the president before he could carry out these plans.

Booth persuaded most of the people who had been involved in the kidnap plot to join him in his plan. Booth discovered that on 14th April, Abraham Lincoln was planning to attend the evening performance of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Booth decided he would assassinate Lincoln while George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. All attacks would take place at approximately 10.15 p.m. that night.

Booth, armed with a derringer pistol and a hunting knife, arrived at the theatre at about 9.30 p.m. John Burroughs, a boy who worked at the theatre, was asked to hold his horse while he went to a nearby saloon for a drink. He entered Ford's Theatre soon after 10.00 p.m. and made his way to the State Box. John Parker, Lincoln's bodyguard from the Metropolitan Police Force, had left his position outside the State Box to get a drink. Inside was Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Lincoln, and two friends, Major Henry Rathbone and his future wife, Clara Harris.

At 10.15 p.m. Booth entered the State Box and shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. When Rathbone attempted to grab Booth he was slashed with the hunting knife. Booth then jumped about 11 feet onto the stage below. He landed badly and snapped the fibula bone in his left leg just above the ankle. Booth waving his hunting knife at the audience, hobbled outside and got on his horse and rode out of the city.

Meanwhile Lewis Powell had attacked William Seward in his house. Although badly wounded, he survived. George Atzerodt, lost his nerve, and never made his assassination attempt on Andrew Johnson. The plan was for the conspirators to meet at the boarding house owned by Mary Surratt in Surrattsville, Maryland. After a brief stop to pick up supplies Booth and David Herold left and headed for the Deep South.

At 4.00 a.m. Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Booth's broken leg. With the help of other sympathizers they reached Port Royal, Virginia, on the morning of 26th April. They hid in a barn owned by Richard Garrett. However, federal troops arrived soon afterwards and the men were ordered to surrender.

David Herold came out of the barn but Booth refused and so the barn was set on fire. While this was happening one of the soldiers, Sergeant Boston Corbett, found a large crack in the barn and was able to shoot Booth in the back. His body was dragged from the barn and after being searched the soldiers recovered his leather bound diary. The bullet had punctured his spinal cord and he died in great agony two hours later.

On 29th June, 1865 Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Lincoln. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865. Surratt, who was expected to be reprieved, was the first woman in American history to be executed.

In the fall of 1864 I was introduced to John Wilkes Booth, who, I was given to understand, wished to know something about the main avenues leading from Washington to the Potomac. We met several times, but as he seemed to be very reticent with regard to his purposes, and very anxious to get all the information out of me he could, I refused to tell him anything at all. At last I said to him, "It is useless for you, Mr. Booth, to seek any information from me at all; I know who you are and what are your intentions." He hesitated some time, but finally said he would make known his views to me provided I would promise secrecy. I replied, "I will do nothing of the kind. You know well I am a Southern man. If you cannot trust me we will separate." He then said, "I will confide my plans to you; but before doing so I will make known to you the motives that actuate me. In the Northern prisons are many thousands of our men whom the United States Government refuses to exchange. You know as well as I the efforts that have been made to bring about that much desired exchange. Aside from the great suffering they are compelled to undergo, we are sadly in want of them as soldiers. We cannot spare one man, whereas the United States Government is willing to let their own soldiers remain in our prisons because she has no need of the men. I have a proposition to submit to you, which I think if we can carry out will bring about the desired exchange."

There was a long and ominous silence which I at last was compelled to break by asking, "Well, Sir, what is your proposition?" He sat quiet for an instant, and then, before answering me, arose and looked under the bed, into the wardrobe, in the doorway and the passage, and then said, "We will have to be careful; walls have ears." He then drew his chair close to me and in a whisper said, "It is to kidnap President Lincoln, and carry him off to Richmond!" "Kidnap President Lincoln!" I said. I confess that I stood aghast at the proposition, and looked upon it as a foolhardy undertaking. To think of successfully seizing Mr. Lincoln in the capital of the United States surrounded by thousands of his soldiers, and carrying him off to Richmond, looked to me like a foolish idea. I told him as much. He went on to tell with what facility he could be seized in various places in and about Washington. As for example in his various rides to and from the Soldiers' Home, his summer residence. He entered into the minute details of the proposed capture, and even the various parts to be performed by the actors in the performance.

I was amazed - thunderstruck - and in fact, I might also say, frightened at the unparalleled audacity of this scheme. After two days' reflection I told him I was willing to try it. I believed it practicable at that time, though I now regard it as a foolhardy undertaking. I hope you will not blame me for going thus far. I honestly thought an exchange of prisoners could be brought about could we have once obtained possession of Mr. Lincoln's person. And now reverse the case. Where is there a young man in the North with one spark of patriotism in his heart with would not have with enthusiastic ardor joined in any undertaking for the capture of Jefferson Davis and brought him to Washington? There is not one who would not have done so. And so I was led on by a sincere desire to assist the South in gaining her independence. I had no hesitation in taking part in anything honorable that might tend toward the accomplishment of that object. Such a thing as the assassination of Mr. Lincoln I never heard spoken of by any of the party. Never.

The President was his usual stature and erect self. I had never seen Mr. Lincoln up close and I knew he was a tall man however nothing could have prepared me for the sight of him. A long shadow did he have. And his arms, when at his sides, touched near his knees. Very professionally he said that there would never be any suffrage based on differences in the way people look. Upon this, Booth turned to the two of us and said, “That means ****** citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through!”

When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back toward the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. The distance from the door to where the President sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was "Freedom!" I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm, below the elbow and the shoulder. The orifice of the wound was about an inch and a half in length, and extended upward toward the shoulder several inches. The man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box.

I was at Ford's Theater on the night of the assassination of the President. I was sitting in the front-seat of the orchestra, on the right-hand side. The sharp report of a pistol at about half-past 10 startled me. I heard an exclamation, and simultaneously a man leaped from the President's box, lighting on the stage. He came down with his back slightly toward the audience, but rising and turning, his face came in full view. At the same instant I jumped on the stage, and the man disappeared at the left-hand stage entrance. I ran across the stage as quickly as possible, following the direction he took, calling out, "Stop that man!" three times.

Near the door on my right hand, I saw a man (Spangler) standing, who seemed to be turning, and who did not seem to be moving about like the others. I am satisfied that the person I saw inside the door was in a position and had an opportunity, if he had been disposed to do so, to have interrupted the exit of Booth.

After making inquiries at the house, it was found that Booth was in the barn. After being ordered to surrender, and told that the barn would be fired in five minutes if he did not do so, Booth made many replies. He wanted to know who we took him for; he said his leg was broken; and what did we want with him; and he was told that it made no difference. The parley lasted much longer than the time first set; probably a full half hour; but he positively declared that he would not surrender.

After a while we heard the whispering of another person - although Booth had previously declared that there was no one there but himself - who proved to be the prisoner Herold. Although we could not distinguish the words, Herold seemed to be trying to persuade Booth to surrender. Then Booth said, "Oh, go out and save yourself, my boy, if you can;" and then said, "I declare before my Maker that this man here is innocent of any crime whatever."

Immediately after Herold was taken out, the detective Mr. Conger, came round to the side of the barn where I was and set fire to hay through one of the cracks. In front of me was a large crack in the barn. I saw him make a movement toward the door. I supposed he was going to fight his way out. He was taking aim with the carbine. I took steady aim of my arm, and shot him through the large crack in the barn. He lived, I should think, until about 7 o'clock that morning; perhaps two or three hours after he was shot.

We requested Booth and Herold to come out of the barn. Herold eventually surrendered. I searched him and found a map of Virginia. Just at this time the shot was fired and the door thrown open, and I dragged Herold into the barn with me. Booth had fallen on his back. The soldiers went into the barn and carried out Booth. I took Herold and tied him by the hands to a tree opposite, about two yards from where Booth's body was carried, on the verandah of the house, and kept him there until we were ready to return. Booth in the mean time died.

Through the cracks could be seen the form of Booth standing in the middle of the building, supported by his crutch. In his hands he held a carbine. At this instant, Sergeant Corbett fired through a crack in the wall. He said afterward that Booth had a gun to his shoulder and was about to kill one of the officers. This is not so, as I was standing within six feet of Corbett when he fired the shot, and Booth never made a motion to shoot.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth was an actor and a confederate sympathizer who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865.

Early Life

John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in Hartford County, Maryland. His parents came to the U.S. from England in 1821. His father, Junius Brutus Booth was an actor. His mother was Mary Ann Holmes. John was the second youngest of ten siblings. From a young age he strove to get recognition and fame.

A photograph of John Wilkes Booth. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

John wanted to be an actor like his father, he practiced elocution and studied Shakespeare. When he turned 17 he made his acting debut at the Charles Street Theater in Baltimore with the role of the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s Richard III. He was an immediate success and was invited to join the theater company to tour the entire country.

Booth was 5’8” or 1.73 m, he had curled jet black hair and an athlete’s build. Some critics described him as one of the handsomest men in America. His performances were a hit with the opposite sex, he was physical and energetic. By 1860 he was touring the country as a leading actor while accumulating wealth. He invested his money in real estate in Boston and oil wells in Pennsylvania.


The Know Nothing Party was primarily anti-Catholic, xenophobic and hostile to immigration, starting originally as a secret society.

During the 1850s Booth became politically active by joining the Know Nothing Party, an anti immigrant group whose purpose was to limit the influence of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. He was an ardent supporter of slavery. In 1859 he joined the Richmond Grays, a volunteer group that guarded the execution of John Brown and any attempt at rescuing him. John Brown was an abolitionist who led the Raid of Harper’s Ferry.

During the Civil War in the early 1860s Booth continued to travel extensively to perform in the north and south. He worked as a confederate spy, recruiter and courier as part of the Confederate secret service network.

Conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln

In 1864 as the presidential elections were coming closer and the prospect of Lincoln winning the election was almost certain Booth prepared a plan to kidnap the president. His plan was to smuggle him across to the Potomac River into Confederate dominated Richmond. He would then be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners. Booth found out that the President would be attending the play Still Waters Run Deep at the Campbell Hospital on March 17 and considered it a perfect opportunity to kidnap Lincoln. His plan was to intercept the president’s carriage on his way to the play. Booth’s plan this day was spoiled by Lincoln’s change of plan. Instead he decided to speak to the 140 th Indiana Regiment.

A second attempt was a plan to kidnap the President at the Ford’s theater but Booth’s conspirators dismissed the plan as unfeasible.

Conspiracy to murder President Lincoln

Henry Rathbone attempting to stop John Wilkes Booth. Source: Currier and Ives Print

On April 11, 1865 Abraham Lincoln addressed a crowd that had gathered outside the White House celebrating his re-election. This was to be his last public address before he was murdered. In his speech he let know his plan to grant the right to suffrage to African Americans and his efforts to provide education and integrate former slaves to society. To John Wilkes Booth it was the last drop, he was enraged by this perceived injustice. The only way for the Confederation to win was to eliminate the president.

Booth knew that the president would be attending the play Our American Cousin at the Ford Theater on Friday, April 14. Booth was a well known actor who had performed many times at the Ford Theater in addition he was a good friend of the owner of the theater and would not have trouble accessing the president’s box. Booth had planned to assassinate Lincoln and create chaos in the government by severing the continuity of the presidency and murdering the top three people in the administration. The attacks were to happen simultaneously at 10:00pm. One of his conspirators, Atzerod, was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson but when the time to act came he changed his mind and fled. Another conspirator, Paine (Powell), was to murder Secretary of State William Seward, he did not manage to kill him but was badly wounded.

At around 10 pm Booth slipped into the presidential box and shot the President in the head with a .44 caliber Derringer. Major Henry Rathbone who was accompanying the president at the play was stabbed by Booth when he tried to stop him. Booth tried to escape by jumping down to the stage. One of his legs got tangled in a flag breaking its bone but he was able to make it to the alley outside of the theater where a horse was waiting for him. He escaped to southern Maryland.

The pursuit for Booth

The weapon that shot President Lincoln. Source: Smithsonian Magazine.

On April 15, 1865 Booth and his conspirators stopped at Dr. Samuel Mudd at St. Catherine for treatment of his injured leg. Federal troops were looking for the fugitives and issued a reward of $100,000 for information leading to Booth’s arrest. In the south, Booth was seen as a real hero who liberated them from the villain who wanted to take away their property. On April 21, Booth and Harold were provided a boat to cross the Potomac and William Jett found shelter for them in Richard H. Garret’s farm. The Garrets were unaware of who they were as they could not get the news because the railways had been destroyed. Jett introduced them as soldiers coming back home and Booth’s wound inflicted during the Battle of St Petersburg.

Union soldiers tracked Jett and in April 28 after a long interrogation he disclosed the fugitive’s location. They were able to locate Booth and Harold in Garrett’s tobacco barn. Harold surrendered but Booth refused saying “I prefer to come out and fight”. Soldiers cornered him by setting the barn on fire. Booth was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett.

Legends of America

John Wilkes Booth loved acting but was even more passionate about his politics, which would lead to one of the darkest days in American History and the loss of a beloved President.

Born May 10, 1838, into the prominent Booth family of Maryland, he was the ninth of ten children whose father was Junius Booth, a famous and eccentric actor. Junius, who was estranged from his wife in England, came to the U.S. with his mistress, John’s mother Mary Ann Holmes in 1821. Junius wouldn’t officially marry Holmes until John’s 13th birthday in 1851.

John was athletic and popular as a boy and was skilled in horsemanship and fencing. About the time his father was making him legitimate by marrying Holmes, John was attending an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland. However, he would leave school at age 14 after his father’s death.

A couple of years later, at age 16 Booth gained interest in the theatre as well as politics. Looking to follow in the acting footsteps of his father and older brothers Edwin and Junius Jr., John began practicing formal speaking daily and studied Shakespeare. He also became a young delegate to a rally for the ‘Know-Nothing Party’ anti-immigrant candidate Henry Winter Davis in his congressional run of 1854.

By the time he was 17 he made his own stage debut in Baltimore, appearing in Richard III. His performance did not go well, but he kept at it, acting at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre, a frequent stage for the Booth’s. In 1857 he joined the stock company of the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA and played a full season. By 1858 he was a stock company actor at the Richmond Theatre in Virginia and performed in 83 plays that year. Reportedly his favorite role was that of Shakespeare’s Brutus, the slayer of a tyrant.

With his athletic build and romantic personal attraction, Booth was a hit with the ladies, and toward the end of the 1850s, he was already becoming famous and wealthy, earning $20,000 a year. All during this time, Booth kept active in politics, and as an ardent supporter of slavery joined a Virginia Company that aided in the capture of John Brown after his raid at Harpers Ferry. Booth was an eyewitness to Brown’s execution.

In 1860, Booth’s acting career took him on a tour of the deep south where he was widely acclaimed. At the same time, his anger toward the newly elected President, Abraham Lincoln, grew, and after the Civil War began in 1861, he would smuggle medicines to the Confederacy during his travels. Booth’s hatred for the Union and Lincoln was not shared by his entire family, and John wound up feuding with his brother Edwin, who refused to make stage appearances in the south.

Booth was also outspoken about his admiration for the South, which did not play well with audiences in New York, with some citizens calling for his arrest for treasonable statements. This did not seem to hamper reviews from critics, however, who continued to play him up as “the most promising young actor on the American stage”.

In 1863, Booth was arrested in St. Louis while on tour after he was heard saying he wished the President and the whole government would go to hell. He was charged with treasonous remarks against the government but was released after taking an oath of allegiance to the Union and paying a substantial fine. Later that year, family friend John T. Ford opened Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and John was one of the first leading men to appear on the stage. During a performance attended by President Lincoln, Booth is said to have shaken his finger at the President as he delivered a line of dialogue.

In November of 1864, Booth would perform for the only time with both his actor brothers, Edwin and Junius Jr., in a single benefit performance of Julius Caesar in New York. This time he played Mark Anthony with his brother Edwin playing Brutus, in a performance acclaimed at the time as being the greatest theatrical event in New York history. The proceeds from the event paid for a statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park, which still stands today.

John Wilkes Booth and brothers Edwin and Junius in the play Julius Caesar in 1864

That same month President Lincoln was re-elected, filling Booth with more rage. Leading up to the election, Booth wrote in a letter to his mother “I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence”. In fact, Booth had already begun to formulate plans to kidnap Lincoln and smuggle him to Richmond. Booths plans called for the President to be exchanged for Confederate prisoners, and in Booth’s mind, help bring the war to an end by emboldening opposition to the war in the North, or forcing Union recognition of the Confederate government.

While no exact proof exists that Booth was acting as a Confederate Spy, some historians insist he was, pointing to a trip Booth made in October of 1864 to Montreal, then a center for clandestine Confederate activity. He reportedly spent 10 days in the city, staying for a time at St. Lawrence Hall, a known rendezvous point for the Confederate Secret Service.

Lincoln won re-election on a platform advocating the abolishment of slavery through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which prompted Booth to devote increasing energy and resources into his plan. He brought into the plot Southern sympathizers including David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Lewis Payne) and John Surratt, a rebel agent. John also began fighting more with his brother Edwin, who finally told him he was no longer welcome at his home in New York. Of Lincoln, Booth would tell his sister Asia “That man’s appearance, his pedigree, his coarse low jokes and anecdotes, his vulgar similes, and his policy are a disgrace to the seat he holds. He is made the tool of the North, to crush out slavery.” Asia would write later that as a Union victory became more certain in 1865, Booth would go into wild tirades over Lincoln.

That February Booth became secretly engaged to Lucy Hale, the daughter of U.S. Senator John Hale of New Hampshire. Unaware of his deep hatred for Lincoln, Hale invited John to Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4. His co-conspirators were also in the crowd, but no attempt was made against the President. Later Booth would remark about his excellent chance to kill the President if he had wished. An attempt to kidnap Lincoln later that month failed when the President’s plans changed, taking him away from a stretch of road where Booth and his men were waiting.

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, Booth’s kidnapping plan was mute. He reportedly told a friend of John Surratt that he was done with acting and that the only play he wanted to present was Venice Preserv’d. Though the meaning was lost to Surratt’s friend, the play he referred to was about an assassination plot.

On on the morning of Good Friday, April 14, while Booth was at Ford’s Theatre getting his mail, John Ford’s brother told him that Lincoln and his wife, along with General and Mrs. Ulysses Grant, would be attending the play “Our American Cousin” that evening. Booth immediately gathered his co-conspirators with plans of not only assassinating the President, but also General Grant, Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. His hope was to throw the Union into chaos by decapitating the Government, thus allowing the Confederate government to re-organize, or at the least avenge the South’s defeat.

The Assassination of President Lincoln, by Currier and Ives, 1865

Booth’s plan came together that evening, with his cohorts assigned to kill Seward and Johnson, while he would go to Ford’s theatre to kill the President and General Grant. Lewis Powell went to take out Seward, who was bedridden as the result of a carriage accident. Powell stabbed Seward, but the Secretary of State would survive. Meanwhile, Atzerodt, who was to assassinate Vice President Johnson, lost his nerve and wound up drinking all night, never making an attempt. General Grant changed his plans and would not attend the play with the President that night, instead of leaving Washington D.C. to visit relatives in New Jersey. However, the President and First Lady kept their plans for the Ford Theatre, which Booth had full access to due to his relationship with John Ford.

Around 10 p.m. that evening, as the play progressed, Booth slipped into the theatre’s Presidential Box and shot the President in the back of the head. Major Henry Rathborne, who was with the President, lunged at Booth, but John stabbed him, then jumped from the box to the stage and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis”, which is Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”. Booth fled the stage through a door to the alley where a getaway horse was waiting, and at some point injured his leg. Booth would later say that it was during his jump to the stage, however, others say he was injured during his escape when the horse tripped and fell on him. Regardless, Booth, along with David Herold, made for southern Maryland in route to rural Virginia.

John Wilkes Booth Wanted Poster

After stopping at Surratt’s Tavern where they had stored guns and equipment during their kidnapping plot, the fugitives continued on to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Booth’s leg fracture in the early morning of April 15. That same morning, shortly after 7 a.m., President Lincoln died.

The next day Booth and Herold made their way to the home of Samuel Cox and hid in the woods while Cox contacted his foster brother and Confederate agent Thomas Jones. By this time Federal troops were searching southern Maryland, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton advertised a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Booth and his accomplices.

As Booth and Herold waited in the Maryland woods, some of the co-conspirators where captured, including Mary Surratt, mother of John Surratt, Lewis Powell, along with Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, whom Booth had earlier recruited as underground operators for the Confederacy. John was aware of their arrests as he was brought newspapers every day by Jones. He was dismayed how even anti-Lincoln newspapers showed little sympathy for him.

On April 21, Booth and Herold decided it was time to cross the Potomac River into Virginia. After a failed attempt that landed them back in Maryland, they finally made it on April 23. Provided with horses by another Confederate agent, the pair found refuge at Richard H. Garrett’s farm just south of Port Royal on April 24. The Garrett’s were told that Booth was James Boyd, a Confederate soldier who was returning home, and they were unaware of the President’s assassination.

The pair were tracked there by Federal Soldiers and, on the morning of April 26, were found hiding in Garrett’s barn. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. After the soldiers set the barn ablaze, Booth was moving about in the barn and was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett, who says Booth had raised his pistol at him. Booth was fatally wounded in the neck and dragged from the barn to Garrett’s porch where he died three hours later. His body was identified by a doctor who had operated on Booth the year before and was secretly buried, then re-interred four years later. Despite many theories that Booth actually escaped, there is no acceptable evidence to support the rumors.

John Wilkes Booth Didn't Act Alone: The Conspiracy to Kill Lincoln

On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln attended a performance of the comedy "Our American Cousin," accompanied by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in addition to a young U.S. Army officer, Maj. Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris.

It seemed like a perfect night for the president to relax. Just five days before, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and two days after that, Lincoln had given a speech to a crowd of ex-slaves to celebrate the Union victory in the Civil War. Union forces had occupied Fort Sumpter, the site where the hostilities began in 1861, and houses and public buildings in Washington were illuminated with candles in celebration.

But instead, the night turned into a national tragedy. Sometime after 10 p.m., a 26-year-old Maryland-born actor named John Wilkes Booth — whom Lincoln had once seen perform in another play at Ford's — managed to slip into the president's box and point a Derringer pistol at the back of Lincoln's head. Booth fired a single shot that mortally wounded Lincoln, though he didn't die until the next morning. Booth then dropped the pistol, stabbed Maj. Rathbone in the arm, and then jumped over the box's railing to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, as this account of the killing from the FBI website details.

Booth, who shouted the Latin phrase "Sic semper tyrannis" — "thus always to tyrants" — the motto of Virginia, to the shocked audience, managed to escape from the theater, despite his injury. But 12 days later, he was cornered in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, by a force of Union soldiers, who lit the structure on fire in an attempt to force Booth out and capture him. But instead, the assassin was shot by a Union Sergeant named Boston Corbett, who explained to frustrated government investigators that God had told him to do it. Booth died seven hours later.

But Booth hadn't acted alone. Instead, the actor had been joined in the plot by a group of Confederate sympathizers, whose intention was to somehow stave off the demise of the Confederacy and slavery by killing the Union's leadership. Four of Booth's fellow plotters — George Atzerodt, David Herold, Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell — were put on trial and executed. Several others were sentenced to prison for their roles in the event.

Who Were the Plotters?

Booth and his co-conspirators originally didn't intend to assassinate Lincoln. Instead, their original goal was to kidnap and hold him hostage. In March 1865, when Booth got a tip that Lincoln would be visiting a military hospital, the group hastily planned to stop his carriage on the way back, overpower the president and his driver, and spirit them away to a hiding place in southern Maryland. But after the Union captured Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, in early April, the plotters' intentions became murderous.


Booth's parents were noted British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, who moved to the United States from England in June 1821. [4] They purchased a 150-acre (61 ha) farm near Bel Air, Maryland, where John Wilkes Booth was born in a four-room log house on May 10, 1838, the ninth of ten children. [5] He was named after English radical politician John Wilkes, a distant relative. [6] [7] Junius' wife Adelaide Delannoy Booth was granted a divorce in 1851 on grounds of adultery, and Holmes legally wed Junius on May 10, 1851, John Wilkes' 13th birthday. [8] Nora Titone suggests in her book My Thoughts Be Bloody (2010) that the shame and ambition of Junius Brutus Booth's actor sons Edwin and John Wilkes eventually spurred them to strive for achievement and acclaim as rivals—Edwin as a Unionist and John Wilkes as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. [9]

Booth's father built Tudor Hall on the Harford County property as the family's summer home in 1851, while also maintaining a winter residence on Exeter Street in Baltimore. [10] [11] [12] [13] The Booth family was listed as living in Baltimore in the 1850 census. [14]

As a boy, Booth was athletic and popular, and he became skilled at horsemanship and fencing. [15] He attended the Bel Air Academy and was an indifferent student whom the headmaster described as "not deficient in intelligence, but disinclined to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered him. Each day he rode back and forth from farm to school, taking more interest in what happened along the way than in reaching his classes on time". [16] In 1850–1851, he attended the Quaker-run Milton Boarding School for Boys located in Sparks, Maryland, and later St. Timothy's Hall, an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland. [17] At the Milton school, students recited classical works by such authors as Cicero, Herodotus, and Tacitus. [18] Students at St. Timothy's wore military uniforms and were subject to a regimen of daily formation drills and strict discipline. [18] Booth left school at 14 after his father's death. [19]

While attending the Milton Boarding School, Booth met a Romani fortune-teller who read his palm and pronounced a grim destiny, telling him that he would have a grand but short life, doomed to die young and "meeting a bad end". [20] His sister recalled that he wrote down the palm-reader's prediction, showed it to his family and others, and often discussed its portents in moments of melancholy. [20] [21]

By age 16, Booth was interested in the theater and in politics, and he became a delegate from Bel Air to a rally by the Know Nothing Party for Henry Winter Davis, the anti-immigrant party's candidate for Congress in the 1854 elections. [22] Booth aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father and his actor brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr. He began practicing elocution daily in the woods around Tudor Hall and studying Shakespeare. [23]


Booth made his stage debut at age 17 on August 14, 1855 in the supporting role of the Earl of Richmond in Richard III at Baltimore's Charles Street Theatre. [24] [25] [26] [27] The audience jeered at him when he missed some of his lines. [25] [28] He also began acting at Baltimore's Holliday Street Theater, owned by John T. Ford, where the Booths had performed frequently. [29] In 1857 he joined the stock company of the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where he played for a full season. [30] At his request, he was billed as "J.B. Wilkes", a pseudonym meant to avoid comparison with other members of his famous thespian family. [25] [31] Jim Bishop wrote that Booth "developed into an outrageous scene stealer, but he played his parts with such heightened enthusiasm that the audiences idolized him." [28] In February 1858, he played in Lucrezia Borgia at the Arch Street Theatre. On opening night, he experienced stage fright and stumbled over one of his lines. Instead of introducing himself by saying, "Madame, I am Petruchio Pandolfo", he stammered, "Madame, I am Pondolfio Pet—Pedolfio Pat—Pantuchio Ped—dammit! Who am I?", causing the audience to roar with laughter. [25] [32]

Later that year, Booth played the part of Mohegan Indian Chief Uncas in a play staged in Petersburg, Virginia, and then became a stock company actor at the Richmond Theatre in Virginia, where he became increasingly popular with audiences for his energetic performances. [33] On October 5, 1858, he played the part of Horatio in Hamlet, alongside his older brother Edwin in the title role. Afterward, Edwin led him to the theater's footlights and said to the audience, "I think he's done well, don't you?" In response, the audience applauded loudly and cried, "Yes! Yes!" [33] In all, Booth performed in 83 plays in 1858. Booth said that, of all Shakespearean characters, his favorite role was Brutus, the slayer of a tyrant. [34]

Some critics called Booth "the handsomest man in America" and a "natural genius", and noted his having an "astonishing memory" others were mixed in their estimation of his acting. [34] [35] He stood 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m) tall, had jet-black hair, and was lean and athletic. [36] Noted Civil War reporter George Alfred Townsend described him as a "muscular, perfect man" with "curling hair, like a Corinthian capital". [37] Booth's stage performances were often characterized by his contemporaries as acrobatic and intensely physical, with him leaping upon the stage and gesturing with passion. [36] [38] He was an excellent swordsman, although a fellow actor once recalled that Booth occasionally cut himself with his own sword. [36]

Historian Benjamin Platt Thomas wrote that Booth "won celebrity with theater-goers by his romantic personal attraction", but that he was "too impatient for hard study" and his "brilliant talents had failed of full development." [38] Author Gene Smith wrote that Booth's acting may not have been as precise as his brother Edwin's, but his strikingly handsome appearance enthralled women. [39] As the 1850s drew to a close, Booth was becoming wealthy as an actor, earning $20,000 a year (equivalent to about $576,000 more recently). [40]


Booth embarked on his first national tour as a leading actor after finishing the 1859–1860 theatre season in Richmond, Virginia. He engaged Philadelphia attorney Matthew Canning to serve as his agent. [41] By mid-1860, he was playing in such cities as New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Columbus, Georgia, Montgomery, Alabama, and New Orleans. [28] [42] Poet and journalist Walt Whitman said of Booth's acting, "He would have flashes, passages, I thought of real genius." [43] The Philadelphia Press drama critic said, "Without having [his brother] Edwin's culture and grace, Mr. Booth has far more action, more life, and, we are inclined to think, more natural genius." [43] In October 1860, while performing in Columbus, Georgia, Booth was shot accidentally in his hotel, leaving a wound some thought would end his life. [44]

When the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Booth was starring in Albany, New York. He was outspoken in his admiration for the South's secession, publicly calling it "heroic." This so enraged local citizens that they demanded that he be banned from the stage for making "treasonable statements". [45] Albany's drama critics were kinder, giving him rave reviews. One called him a genius, praising his acting for "never fail[ing] to delight with his masterly impressions." [46] As the Civil War raged across the divided land in 1862, Booth appeared mostly in Union and border states. In January, he played the title role in Richard III in St. Louis and then made his Chicago debut. In March, he made his first acting appearance in New York City. [47] In May 1862, he made his Boston debut, playing nightly at the Boston Museum in Richard III (May 12, 15 and 23), Romeo and Juliet (May 13), The Robbers (May 14 and 21), Hamlet (May 16), The Apostate (May 19), The Stranger (May 20), and The Lady of Lyons (May 22). Following his performance of Richard III on May 12, the Boston Transcript's review the next day called Booth "the most promising young actor on the American stage". [48]

Starting in January 1863, he returned to the Boston Museum for a series of plays, including the role of villain Duke Pescara in The Apostate, that won him acclaim from audiences and critics. [49] Back in Washington in April, he played the title roles in Hamlet and Richard III, one of his favorites. He was billed as "The Pride of the American People, A Star of the First Magnitude," and the critics were equally enthusiastic. The National Republican drama critic said that Booth "took the hearts of the audience by storm" and termed his performance "a complete triumph". [50] [51] At the beginning of July 1863, Booth finished the acting season at Cleveland's Academy of Music, as the Battle of Gettysburg raged in Pennsylvania. Between September and November 1863, Booth played a hectic schedule in the northeast, appearing in Boston, Providence, Rhode Island, and Hartford, Connecticut. Every day he received fan mail from infatuated women. [52]

Family friend John T. Ford opened 1,500-seat Ford's Theatre on November 9 in Washington, D.C. Booth was one of the first leading men to appear there, playing in Charles Selby's The Marble Heart. [53] [54] In this play, Booth portrayed a Greek sculptor in costume, making marble statues come to life. [54] Lincoln watched the play [55] from his box. At one point during the performance, Booth was said to have shaken his finger in Lincoln's direction as he delivered a line of dialogue. Lincoln's sister-in-law was sitting with him in the same presidential box where he was later slain she turned to him and said, "Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you." [56] The President replied, "He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?" [56] On another occasion, Lincoln's son Tad saw Booth perform. He said that the actor thrilled him, prompting Booth to give Tad a rose. [56] Booth ignored an invitation to visit Lincoln between acts. [56]

On November 25, 1864, Booth performed for the only time with his brothers Edwin and Junius in a single engagement production of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. [57] He played Mark Antony and his brother Edwin had the larger role of Brutus in a performance acclaimed as "the greatest theatrical event in New York history." [56] The proceeds went towards a statue of William Shakespeare for Central Park, which still stands today (2019). [57] [58] In January 1865, he acted in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in Washington, again garnering rave reviews. The National Intelligencer called Booth's Romeo "the most satisfactory of all renderings of that fine character," especially praising the death scene. [59] Booth made the final appearance of his acting career at Ford's on March 18, 1865, when he again played Duke Pescara in The Apostate. [60] [61]

Booth invested some of his growing wealth in various enterprises during the early 1860s, including land speculation in Boston's Back Bay section. [62] He also started a business partnership with John A. Ellsler, manager of the Cleveland Academy of Music, and with Thomas Mears to develop oil wells in northwestern Pennsylvania, where an oil boom had started in August 1859, following Edwin Drake's discovery of oil there, [63] initially calling their venture Dramatic Oil but later renaming it Fuller Farm Oil. The partners invested in a 31.5-acre (12.7 ha) site along the Allegheny River at Franklin, Pennsylvania in late 1863 for drilling. [63] By early 1864, they had a producing 1,900-foot (579 m) deep oil well named Wilhelmina for Mears' wife, yielding 25 barrels (4 kL) of crude oil daily, then considered a good yield. The Fuller Farm Oil company was selling shares with a prospectus featuring the well-known actor's celebrity status as "Mr. J. Wilkes Booth, a successful and intelligent operator in oil lands". [63] The partners were impatient to increase the well's output and attempted the use of explosives, which wrecked the well and ended production.

Booth was already growing more obsessed with the South's worsening situation in the Civil War and angered at Lincoln's re-election. He withdrew from the oil business on November 27, 1864, with a substantial loss of his $6,000 investment ($81,400 in 2010 dollars). [63] [64]

Booth was strongly opposed to the abolitionists who sought to end slavery in the United States. He attended the hanging of abolitionist leader John Brown on December 2, 1859, who was executed for treason, murder, and inciting a slave insurrection, charges resulting from his raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (since 1863, West Virginia). [65] Booth had been rehearsing at the Richmond Theatre when he read in a newspaper about Brown's upcoming execution. So as to gain access that the public would not have, he donned a borrowed uniform of the Richmond Grays, a volunteer militia of 1,500 men traveling to Charles Town for Brown's hanging, to guard against a possible attempt to rescue Brown from the gallows by force. [65] [66] When Brown was hanged without incident, Booth stood near the scaffold and afterwards expressed great satisfaction with Brown's fate, although he admired the condemned man's bravery in facing death stoically. [43] [67]

Lincoln was elected president on November 6, 1860, and the following month Booth drafted a long speech, apparently never delivered, that decried Northern abolitionism and made clear his strong support of the South and the institution of slavery. [68] On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began, and eventually 11 Southern states seceded from the Union. In Booth's native Maryland, some of the slaveholding portion of the population favored joining the Confederate States of America. Although the Maryland legislature voted decisively (53–13) against secession on April 28, 1861, [69] [70] it also voted not to allow federal troops to pass south through the state by rail, and it requested that Lincoln remove the growing numbers of federal troops in Maryland. [71] The legislature seems to have wanted to remain in the Union while also wanting to avoid involvement in a war against Southern neighbors. [71] Adhering to Maryland's demand that its infrastructure not be used to wage war on seceding neighbors would have left the federal capital of Washington, D.C., exposed, and would have made the prosecution of war against the South impossible, which was no doubt the legislature's intention. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed martial law in Baltimore and other portions of the state, ordering the imprisonment of many Maryland political leaders at Fort McHenry and the stationing of Federal troops in Baltimore. [72] Many Marylanders, including Booth, agreed with the ruling of Marylander and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in Ex parte Merryman, that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland was unconstitutional. [73]

As a popular actor in the 1860s, Booth continued to travel extensively to perform in the North and South, and as far west as New Orleans. According to his sister Asia, Booth confided to her that he also used his position to smuggle the anti-malarial drug quinine, which was crucial to the lives of residents of the Gulf coast, to the South during his travels there, since it was in short supply due to the Northern blockade. [62]

Booth was pro-Confederate, but his family was divided, like many Marylanders. He was outspoken in his love of the South, and equally outspoken in his hatred of Lincoln. [56] [74] As the Civil War went on, Booth increasingly quarreled with his brother Edwin, who declined to make stage appearances in the South and refused to listen to John Wilkes' fiercely partisan denunciations of the North and Lincoln. [62] In early 1863, Booth was arrested in St. Louis while on a theatre tour, when he was heard saying that he "wished the President and the whole damned government would go to hell." [75] [76] He was charged with making "treasonous" remarks against the government, but was released when he took an oath of allegiance to the Union and paid a substantial fine.

Booth is alleged to have been a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret society whose initial objective was to acquire territories as slave states. [77]

In February 1865, Booth became infatuated with Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of U.S. Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, and they became secretly engaged when Booth received his mother's blessing for their marriage plans. "You have so often been dead in love," his mother counseled Booth in a letter, "be well assured she is really and truly devoted to you." [78] Booth composed a handwritten Valentine card for his fiancée on February 13, expressing his "adoration". She was unaware of Booth's deep antipathy towards Lincoln. [78]

Plot to kidnap Lincoln

As the 1864 presidential election drew near, the Confederacy's prospects for victory were ebbing, and the tide of war increasingly favored the North. The likelihood of Lincoln's re-election filled Booth with rage towards the President, whom Booth blamed for the war and all of the South's troubles. Booth had promised his mother at the outbreak of war that he would not enlist as a soldier, but he increasingly chafed at not fighting for the South, writing in a letter to her, "I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence." [79] He began to formulate plans to kidnap Lincoln from his summer residence at the Old Soldiers Home, three miles (4.8 km) from the White House, and to smuggle him across the Potomac River and into Richmond, Virginia. Once in Confederate hands, Lincoln would be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners of war held in Northern prisons and, Booth reasoned, bring the war to an end by emboldening opposition to the war in the North or forcing Union recognition of the Confederate government. [79] [80] [81] [82]

Throughout the Civil War, the Confederacy maintained a network of underground operators in southern Maryland, particularly Charles and St. Mary's Counties, smuggling recruits across the Potomac River into Virginia and relaying messages for Confederate agents as far north as Canada. [83] Booth recruited his friends Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen as accomplices. [84] They met often at the house of Confederate sympathizer Maggie Branson at 16 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore. [29] He also met with several well-known Confederate sympathizers at The Parker House in Boston.

In October, Booth made an unexplained trip to Montreal, which was a center of clandestine Confederate activity. He spent ten days in the city, staying for a time at St. Lawrence Hall, a rendezvous for the Confederate Secret Service, and meeting several Confederate agents there. [85] [86] No conclusive proof has linked Booth's kidnapping or assassination plots to a conspiracy involving the leadership of the Confederate government, but historian David Herbert Donald states that "at least at the lower levels of the Southern secret service, the abduction of the Union President was under consideration." [87] Historian Thomas Goodrich concludes that Booth entered the Confederate Secret Service as a spy and courier. [88]

Lincoln won a landslide re-election in early November 1864, on a platform that advocated abolishing slavery altogether, by Constitutional amendment. [89] Booth, meanwhile, devoted increased energy and money to his kidnapping plot. [90] [91] He assembled a loose-knit band of Southern sympathizers, including David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne or Paine), and rebel agent John Surratt. [83] [92] They began to meet routinely at the boarding house of Surratt's mother, Mary Surratt. [92]

By this time, John was arguing vehemently with his older, pro-Union brother Edwin about Lincoln and the war, and Edwin finally told him that he was no longer welcome at his New York home. Booth also railed against Lincoln in conversations with his sister Asia. "That man's appearance, his pedigree, his coarse low jokes and anecdotes, his vulgar similes, and his policy are a disgrace to the seat he holds. He is made the tool of the North, to crush out slavery." [93] Asia recalled that he decried Lincoln's re-election, "making himself a king", and that he went on "wild tirades" in 1865, as the Confederacy's defeat became more certain. [94]

Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4 as the guest of his secret fiancée Lucy Hale. In the crowd below were Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold. There was no attempt to assassinate Lincoln during the inauguration. Later, Booth remarked about his "excellent chance. to kill the President, if I had wished." [79] On March 17, he learned that Lincoln would be attending a performance of the play Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital near the Soldier's Home. He assembled his team on a stretch of road near the Soldier's Home in hope of kidnapping Lincoln en route to the hospital, but the President did not appear. [95] Booth later learned that Lincoln had changed his plans at the last moment to attend a reception at the National Hotel in Washington — where Booth was staying. [79]

On April 12, 1865, Booth heard the news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House. He told Louis J. Weichmann, a friend of John Surratt and a boarder at Mary Surratt's house, that he was done with the stage and that the only play he wanted to present henceforth was Venice Preserv'd. Weichmann did not understand the reference Venice Preserv'd is about an assassination plot. Booth's scheme to kidnap Lincoln was no longer feasible with the Union Army's capture of Richmond and Lee's surrender, and he changed his goal to assassination. [96]

The previous day, Booth was in the crowd outside the White House when Lincoln gave an impromptu speech from his window. During the speech, Lincoln stated that he was in favor of granting suffrage to the former slaves infuriated, Booth declared that it would be the last speech that Lincoln would ever make. [95] [97] [98]

On the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Booth went to Ford's Theatre to get his mail. While there, he was told by John Ford's brother that the President and Mrs. Lincoln would be attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre that evening, accompanied by Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. [99] He immediately set about making plans for the assassination, which included making arrangements with livery stable owner James W. Pumphrey for a getaway horse and an escape route. Later that night, at 8:45 pm, Booth informed Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt of his intention to kill Lincoln. He assigned Powell to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward and Atzerodt to do so to Vice President Andrew Johnson. Herold would assist in their escape into Virginia. [100]

Historian Michael W. Kauffman wrote that, by targeting Lincoln and his two immediate successors to the presidency, Booth seems to have intended to decapitate the Union government and throw it into a state of panic and confusion. [101] In 1865, however, the second presidential successor would have been the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, Lafayette S. Foster, rather than Secretary Seward. [102] The possibility of assassinating the Union Army's commanding general as well was foiled when Grant declined the theatre invitation at his wife's insistence. Instead, the Grants departed Washington by train that evening for a visit to relatives in New Jersey. [29] Booth had hoped that the assassinations would create sufficient chaos within the Union that the Confederate government could reorganize and continue the war if one Confederate army remained in the field or, that failing, would avenge the South's defeat. [103]

Booth had free access to all parts of Ford's Theatre as a famous and popular actor who had frequently performed there and who was well known to its owner John T. Ford, even having his mail sent there. [104] Many believe that Booth had bored a spyhole into the door of the presidential box earlier that day, so that he could observe the box's occupants and verify that the President had made it to the play. Conversely, an April 1962 letter from Frank Ford, son of the theatre manager Harry Clay Ford, to George Olszewski, a National Park Service historian, includes: "Booth did not bore the hole in the door leading to the box [. ]. The hole was bored by my father . [to] allow the guard . to look into the box". [105]

After spending time at the saloon during intermission, Booth entered Ford's Theater one last time at 10:10 pm. In the theater, he slipped into Lincoln's box at around 10:14 p.m. as the play progressed and shot the President in the back of the head with a .41 caliber Deringer pistol. [106] Booth's escape was almost thwarted by Major Henry Rathbone, who was in the presidential box with Mary Todd Lincoln. [107] Booth stabbed Rathbone when the startled officer lunged at him. [83] Rathbone's fiancée Clara Harris was also in the box but was not harmed.

Booth then jumped from the President's box to the stage, where he raised his knife and shouted "Sic semper tyrannis". (Latin for "Thus always to tyrants," attributed to Brutus at Caesar's assassination state motto of Virginia and mentioned in the new "Maryland, My Maryland", future anthem of Booth's Maryland.) According to some accounts, Booth added, "I have done it, the South is avenged!" [36] [108] [109] Some witnesses reported that Booth fractured or otherwise injured his leg when his spur snagged a decorative U.S. Treasury Guard flag while leaping to the stage. [110] Historian Michael W. Kauffman questioned this legend in his book American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, writing that eyewitness accounts of Booth's hurried stage exit made it unlikely that his leg was broken then. Kauffman contends that Booth was injured later that night during his flight to escape when his horse tripped and fell on him, calling Booth's claim to the contrary an exaggeration to portray his own actions as heroic. [111]

Booth was the only one of the assassins to succeed. Powell was able to stab Seward, who was bedridden as a result of an earlier carriage accident Seward was seriously wounded, but survived. Atzerodt lost his nerve and spent the evening drinking alcohol, never making an attempt to kill Johnson.

In the ensuing pandemonium inside Ford's Theatre, Booth fled by a stage door to the alley, where his getaway horse was held for him by Joseph "Peanuts" Burroughs. [112] The owner of the horse had warned Booth that the horse was high spirited and would break halter if left unattended. Booth left the horse with Edmund Spangler and Spangler arranged for Burroughs to hold it.

The fleeing assassin galloped into southern Maryland, accompanied by David Herold, having planned his escape route to take advantage of the sparsely settled area's lack of telegraphs and railroads, along with its predominantly Confederate sympathies. [100] [113] He thought that the area's dense forests and the swampy terrain of Zekiah Swamp made it ideal for an escape route into rural Virginia. [90] [100] [114] At midnight, Booth and Herold arrived at Surratt's Tavern on the Brandywine Pike, 9 miles (14 km) from Washington, where they had stored guns and equipment earlier in the year as part of the kidnap plot. [115]

The fugitives then continued southward, stopping before dawn on April 15 for treatment of Booth's injured leg at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd in St. Catharine, 25 miles (40 km) from Washington. [115] Mudd later said that Booth told him the injury occurred when his horse fell. [116] The next day, Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Samuel Cox around 4 am. As the two fugitives hid in the woods nearby, Cox contacted Thomas A. Jones, his foster brother and a Confederate agent in charge of spy operations in the southern Maryland area since 1862. [83] [117] The War Department advertised a $100,000 reward ($1.69 million in 2021 USD) by order of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for information leading to the arrest of Booth and his accomplices, and Federal troops were dispatched to search southern Maryland extensively, following tips reported by Federal intelligence agents to Col. Lafayette Baker. [118]

Federal troops combed the rural area's woods and swamps for Booth in the days following the assassination, as the nation experienced an outpouring of grief. On April 18, mourners waited seven abreast in a mile-long line outside the White House for the public viewing of the slain president, reposing in his open walnut casket in the black-draped East Room. [119] A cross of lilies was at the head and roses covered the coffin's lower half. [120] Thousands of mourners arriving on special trains jammed Washington for the next day's funeral, sleeping on hotel floors and even resorting to blankets spread outdoors on the Capitol's lawn. [121] Prominent African-American abolitionist leader and orator Frederick Douglass called the assassination an "unspeakable calamity". [122] Great indignation was directed towards Booth as the assassin's identity was telegraphed across the nation. Newspapers called him an "accursed devil," "monster," "madman," and a "wretched fiend." [123] Historian Dorothy Kunhardt writes: "Almost every family who kept a photograph album on the parlor table owned a likeness of John Wilkes Booth of the famous Booth family of actors. After the assassination Northerners slid the Booth card out of their albums: some threw it away, some burned it, some crumpled it angrily." [124] Even in the South, sorrow was expressed in some quarters. In Savannah, Georgia, the mayor and city council addressed a vast throng at an outdoor gathering to express their indignation, and many in the crowd wept. [125] Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston called Booth's act "a disgrace to the age". [126] Robert E. Lee also expressed regret at Lincoln's death by Booth's hand. [122]

Not all were grief-stricken. In New York City, a man was attacked by an enraged crowd when he shouted, "It served Old Abe right!" after hearing the news of Lincoln's death. [125] Elsewhere in the South, Lincoln was hated in death as in life, and Booth was viewed as a hero as many rejoiced at news of his deed. [122] Other Southerners feared that a vengeful North would exact a terrible retribution upon the defeated former Confederate states. "Instead of being a great Southern hero, his deed was considered the worst possible tragedy that could have befallen the South as well as the North," writes Kunhardt. [127]

Booth lay in hiding in the Maryland woods, waiting for an opportunity to cross the Potomac River into Virginia. He read the accounts of national mourning reported in the newspapers brought to him by Jones each day. [127] By April 20, he was aware that some of his co-conspirators had already been arrested: Mary Surratt, Powell (or Paine), Arnold, and O'Laughlen. [128] Booth was surprised to find little public sympathy for his action, especially from those anti-Lincoln newspapers that had previously excoriated the President in life. News of the assassination reached the far corners of the nation, and indignation was aroused against Lincoln's critics, whom many blamed for encouraging Booth to act. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized:

Booth has simply carried out what. secession politicians and journalists have been for years expressing in words. who have denounced the President as a "tyrant," a "despot," a "usurper," hinted at, and virtually recommended. [129]

Booth wrote of his dismay in a journal entry on April 21, as he awaited nightfall before crossing the Potomac River into Virginia (see map):

For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. [130] [131]

That same day, the nine-car funeral train bearing Lincoln's body departed Washington on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, arriving at Baltimore's Camden Station at 10 am, the first stop on a 13-day journey to Springfield, Illinois, its final destination. [83] [132] [133] The funeral train slowly made its way westward through seven states, stopping en route at Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Trenton, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis during the following days. About 7 million people [134] lined the railroad tracks along the 1,662-mile (2,675 km) route, holding aloft signs with legends such as "We mourn our loss," "He lives in the hearts of his people," and "The darkest hour in history." [135] [136]

In the cities where the train stopped, 1.5 million people viewed Lincoln in his coffin. [122] [133] [135] Aboard the train was Chauncey Depew, a New York politician and later president of the New York Central Railroad, who said, "As we sped over the rails at night, the scene was the most pathetic ever witnessed. At every crossroads the glare of innumerable torches illuminated the whole population, kneeling on the ground." [133] Dorothy Kunhardt called the funeral train's journey "the mightiest outpouring of national grief the world had yet seen." [137]

Mourners were viewing Lincoln's remains when the funeral train steamed into Harrisburg at 8:20 pm, while Booth and Herold were provided with a boat and compass by Jones to cross the Potomac at night on April 21. [83] Instead of reaching Virginia, they mistakenly navigated upriver to a bend in the broad Potomac River, coming ashore again in Maryland on April 22. [138] The 23-year-old Herold knew the area well, having frequently hunted there, and recognized a nearby farm as belonging to a Confederate sympathizer. The farmer led them to his son-in-law, Col. John J. Hughes, who provided the fugitives with food and a hideout until nightfall, for a second attempt to row across the river to Virginia. [139] Booth wrote in his diary:

With every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why For doing what Brutus was honored for. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat. [139]

The pair finally reached the Virginia shore near Machodoc Creek before dawn on April 23. [140] There, they made contact with Thomas Harbin, whom Booth had previously brought into his erstwhile kidnapping plot. Harbin took Booth and Herold to another Confederate agent in the area named William Bryant who supplied them with horses. [139] [141]

While Lincoln's funeral train was in New York City on April 24, Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty was dispatched from Washington at 2 p.m. with a detachment of 26 Union soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment to capture Booth in Virginia, [142] accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger, an intelligence officer assigned by Lafayette Baker. The detachment steamed 70 miles (113 km) down the Potomac River on the boat John S. Ide, landing at Belle Plain, Virginia, at 10 pm. [142] [143] The pursuers crossed the Rappahannock River and tracked Booth and Herold to Richard H. Garrett's farm, about 2 miles (3 km) south of Port Royal, Virginia. Booth and Herold had been led to the farm on April 24 by William S. Jett, a former private in the 9th Virginia Cavalry, whom they had met before crossing the Rappahannock. [138] The Garretts were unaware of Lincoln's assassination Booth was introduced to them as "James W. Boyd", a Confederate soldier, they were told, who had been wounded in the battle of Petersburg and was returning home. [144]

Garrett's 11-year-old son Richard was an eyewitness. In later years, he became a Baptist minister and widely lectured on the events of Booth's demise at his family's farm. [144] In 1921, Garrett's lecture was published in the Confederate Veteran as the "True Story of the Capture of John Wilkes Booth." [145] According to his account, Booth and Herold arrived at the Garretts' farm, located on the road to Bowling Green, around 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Confederate mail delivery had ceased with the collapse of the Confederate government, he explained, so the Garretts were unaware of Lincoln's assassination. [145] After having dinner with the Garretts that evening, Booth learned of the surrender of Johnston's army, the last Confederate armed force of any size. Its capitulation meant that the Civil War was unquestionably over and Booth's attempt to save the Confederacy by Lincoln's assassination had failed. [146] The Garretts also finally learned of Lincoln's death and the substantial reward for Booth's capture. Booth, said Garrett, displayed no reaction other than to ask if the family would turn in the fugitive should they have the opportunity. Still not aware of their guest's true identity, one of the older Garrett sons averred that they might, if only because they needed the money. The next day, Booth told the Garretts that he intended to reach Mexico, drawing a route on a map of theirs. [145] Biographer Theodore Roscoe said of Garrett's account, "Almost nothing written or testified in respect to the doings of the fugitives at Garrett's farm can be taken at face value. Nobody knows exactly what Booth said to the Garretts, or they to him." [147]

Conger tracked down Jett and interrogated him, learning of Booth's location at the Garrett farm. Before dawn on April 26, the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett's tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered, but Booth refused Conger's demand to surrender, saying, "I prefer to come out and fight." The soldiers then set the barn on fire. [148] [149] As Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him. According to Corbett's later account, he fired at Booth because the fugitive "raised his pistol to shoot" at them. [149] Conger's report to Stanton stated that Corbett shot Booth "without order, pretext or excuse," and recommended that Corbett be punished for disobeying orders to take Booth alive. [149] Booth, fatally wounded in the neck, was dragged from the barn to the porch of Garrett's farmhouse, where he died three hours later, aged 26. [144] The bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him. [21] [148] In his dying moments, he reportedly whispered, "Tell my mother I died for my country." [144] [148] Asking that his hands be raised to his face so that he could see them, Booth uttered his last words, "Useless, useless," and died as dawn was breaking of asphyxiation as a result of his wounds. [148] [150] In Booth's pockets were found a compass, a candle, pictures of five women (actresses Alice Grey, Helen Western, Effie Germon, Fannie Brown, and Booth's fiancée Lucy Hale), and his diary, where he had written of Lincoln's death, "Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment." [151]

Shortly after Booth's death, his brother Edwin wrote to his sister Asia, "Think no more of him as your brother he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world." [152] Asia also had in her possession a sealed letter that Booth had given her in January 1865 for safekeeping, only to be opened upon his death. [153] In the letter, Booth had written:

I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this, where, on one side, I have many friends and everything to make me happy . to give up all . seems insane but God is my judge. I love justice more than I do a country that disowns it, more than fame or wealth. [84]

Booth's letter was seized by Federal troops, along with other family papers at Asia's house, and published by The New York Times while the manhunt was still underway. It explained his reasons for plotting against Lincoln. In it he decried Lincoln's war policy as one of "total annihilation", and said:

I have ever held the South was right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln, four years ago, spoke plainly war upon Southern rights and institutions. . And looking upon African Slavery from the same stand-point held by the noble framers of our constitution, I for one, have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us,) that God has ever bestowed upon a favored nation. . I have also studied hard to discover upon what grounds the right of a State to secede has been denied, when our very name, United States, and the Declaration of Independence, both provide for secession. [2]

Booth's body was shrouded in a blanket and tied to the side of an old farm wagon for the trip back to Belle Plain. [154] There, his corpse was taken aboard the ironclad USS Montauk and brought to the Washington Navy Yard for identification and an autopsy. The body was identified there as Booth's by more than ten people who knew him. [155] Among the identifying features used to make sure that the man that was killed was Booth was a tattoo on his left hand with his initials J.W.B., and a distinct scar on the back of his neck. [156] The third, fourth, and fifth vertebrae were removed during the autopsy to allow access to the bullet. These bones are still on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. [157] The body was then buried in a storage room at the Old Penitentiary, later moved to a warehouse at the Washington Arsenal on October 1, 1867. [158] In 1869, the remains were once again identified before being released to the Booth family, where they were buried in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, after a burial ceremony conducted by Fleming James, minister of Christ Episcopal Church, in the presence of more than 40 people. [158] [159] [160] [161] Russell Conwell visited homes in the vanquished former Confederate states during this time, and he found that hatred of Lincoln still smoldered. "Photographs of Wilkes Booth, with the last words of great martyrs printed upon its borders. adorn their drawing rooms". [122]

Eight others implicated in Lincoln's assassination were tried by a military tribunal in Washington, D.C., and found guilty on June 30, 1865. [162] Mary Surratt, [163] Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hanged in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865. [164] Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlen were sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson in Florida's isolated Dry Tortugas. Edmund Spangler was given a six-year term in prison. [78] O'Laughlen died in a yellow fever epidemic there in 1867. The others were eventually pardoned in February 1869 by President Andrew Johnson. [165]

Forty years later, when the centenary of Lincoln's birth was celebrated in 1909, a border state official reflected on Booth's assassination of Lincoln: "Confederate veterans held public services and gave public expression to the sentiment, that 'had Lincoln lived' the days of Reconstruction might have been softened and the era of good feeling ushered in earlier." [122] The majority of Northerners viewed Booth as a madman or monster who murdered the savior of the Union, while in the South, many cursed Booth for bringing upon them the harsh revenge of an incensed North instead of the reconciliation promised by Lincoln. [166] A century later, Goodrich concluded in 2005, "For millions of people, particularly in the South, it would be decades before the impact of the Lincoln assassination began to release its terrible hold on their lives". [167]

Theories of Booth's motivation

Author Francis Wilson was 11 years old at the time of Lincoln's assassination. He wrote an epitaph of Booth in his 1929 book John Wilkes Booth: "In the terrible deed he committed, he was actuated by no thought of monetary gain, but by a self-sacrificing, albeit wholly fanatical devotion to a cause he thought supreme." [168] Others have seen more selfish motives, such as shame, ambition, and sibling rivalry for achievement and fame. [9]

Theories of Booth's escape

In 1907, Finis L. Bates wrote Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, contending that a Booth look-alike was mistakenly killed at the Garrett farm while Booth eluded his pursuers. [169] Booth, said Bates, assumed the pseudonym "John St. Helen" and settled on the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, and later moved to Granbury, Texas. He fell gravely ill and made a deathbed confession that he was the fugitive assassin, but he then recovered and fled, eventually committing suicide in 1903 in Enid, Oklahoma, under the alias "David E. George". [11] [169] [170] By 1913, more than 70,000 copies of the book had been sold, and Bates exhibited St. Helen's mummified body in carnival sideshows. [11]

In response, the Maryland Historical Society published an account in 1913 by Baltimore mayor William M. Pegram, who had viewed Booth's remains upon the casket's arrival at the Weaver funeral home in Baltimore on February 18, 1869, for burial at Green Mount Cemetery. Pegram had known Booth well as a young man he submitted a sworn statement that the body which he had seen in 1869 was Booth's. [171] Others positively identified this body as Booth at the funeral home, including Booth's mother, brother, and sister, along with his dentist and other Baltimore acquaintances. [11] In 1911, The New York Times had published an account by their reporter detailing the burial of Booth's body at the cemetery and those who were witnesses. [159] The rumor periodically revived, as in the 1920s when a corpse was exhibited on a national tour by a carnival promoter and advertised as the "Man Who Shot Lincoln". According to a 1938 article in the Saturday Evening Post, the exhibitor said that he obtained St. Helen's corpse from Bates' widow. [172]

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977) contended that there was a government plot to conceal Booth's escape, reviving interest in the story and prompting the display of St. Helen's mummified body in Chicago that year. [173] The book sold more than one million copies and was made into a feature film called The Lincoln Conspiracy which was theatrically released later that year. [174] The 1998 book The Curse of Cain: The Untold Story of John Wilkes Booth contended that Booth had escaped, sought refuge in Japan, and eventually returned to the United States. [175] In 1994 two historians together with several descendants sought a court order for the exhumation of Booth's body at Green Mount Cemetery which was, according to their lawyer, "intended to prove or disprove longstanding theories on Booth's escape" by conducting a photo-superimposition analysis. [176] [177] The application was blocked by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who cited, among other things, "the unreliability of petitioners' less-than-convincing escape/cover-up theory" as a major factor in his decision. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling. [156] [178]

In December 2010, descendants of Edwin Booth reported that they obtained permission to exhume the Shakespearean actor's body to obtain DNA samples to compare with a sample of his brother John's DNA to refute the rumor that John had escaped after the assassination. Bree Harvey, a spokesman from the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Edwin Booth is buried, denied reports that the family had contacted them and requested to exhume Edwin's body. [179] The family hoped to obtain samples of John Wilkes's DNA from remains such as vertebrae stored at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland. [180] On March 30, 2013, museum spokeswoman Carol Johnson announced that the family's request to extract DNA from the vertebrae had been rejected. [181]

  • Booth was portrayed by Raoul Walsh in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
  • John Wilkes Booth is played by John Derek in the film Prince of Players (1955), a biography of Edwin Booth (played by Richard Burton). [182]
  • Booth is played by Rob Morrow in the television film The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1998). [183][184] [better source needed] plays Booth in a flashback cameo in the comedy Zoolander (2001).
  • Chris Conner portrayed John Wilkes Booth in the director's cut of the 2003 film Gods and Generals. depicts Booth in National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007).
  • Booth is portrayed by Toby Kebbell in the Robert Redford film The Conspirator (2010). [185] plays Booth in the telefim Killing Lincoln (2013), where he is the main character. [186]


  • In David O. Stewart's novel, The Lincoln Deception (ISBN978-0758290670), two people in 1900 try to discover the true motive behind Booth's plot.
  • In G. J. A. O'Toole's 1979 historical fiction-mystery novel The Cosgrove Report, a present-day private detective investigates the authenticity of a 19th-century manuscript that alleges Booth survived the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination. ( 978-0802144072) [187][188]
  • In Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, Booth is transformed into a vampire a few years before the Civil War, and assassinates Lincoln out of natural sympathy for the Confederate States, whose slave population provides America's vampires with an abundant source of blood.
  • Booth, along with Lincoln, are depicted in Dan Gutman's children's novel Flashback Four, where four children from the 21st Century travel back in time to photograph Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address and return with the photo for an eccentric rich lady.

Stage productions

  • Booth is featured as a central character of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, in which his assassination of Lincoln is depicted in a musical number called "The Ballad of Booth". [189]
  • Austin-based theatre company The Hidden Room developed a staged reading of John Wilkes Booth's Richard III based on the manuscript promptbook in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center. [190] The promptbook is one of only two known surviving promptbooks created by John Wilkes Booth, and uses the Colley Cibber adaptation of Shakespeare's text. The full book with the actor's handwritten notations has been digitized. [191] The other promptbook is also for Richard III, and can be found in the Harvard Theatre Collection.


  • The Wagon Train episode "The John Wilbot Story" (1958) is based on the premise that Booth survived and moved west the character John Wilbot is played by Dane Clark. [192]
  • Booth was portrayed by John Lasell in The Twilight Zone episode "Back There" (1961). [193]
  • All three Booth brothers interact with the Morehouses and with Elizabeth in New York City in episode 9 of season 1 ("A Day to Give Thanks") of the BBC America series Copper. John Wilkes is particularly taken with Elizabeth, who is helping them raise funds for the brothers' 1864 benefit performance of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre. [194]
  • Booth is portrayed by Kelly Blatz in "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" episode (S01E02) of Timeless. [195]
  • In the early 1990s, an episode of the American TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, presented originally by Robert Stack, examined sympathetically the theory that John Wilkes Booth was not killed in Maryland but escaped, dying in Oklahoma in 1903. The episode was re-edited and hosted by Dennis Farina in 2009. [196]
  • In The Simpsons episode "I Love Lisa" (9F13), Bart Simpson plays the part of John Wilkes Booth in a condensed version of Lincoln's assassination, and Lincoln is played by Milhouse Van Houten. Bart jokingly models his performance after The Terminator and his most famous line ("Hasta La Vista, Abey") before being dragged off stage.
  • In Touched by an Angel, the episode Beautiful Dreamer (1998) shows the angels with Lincoln during his final days. As Booth is dying at the barn in Virginia, Andrew, the angel of death, encourages him to repent but Booth dies unrepentant.
  • In the TV series Bones, Seeley Booth is said to be a descendant of John Wilkes Booth according to Brennan, the similar facial construction is "obvious."
  • In the 2019 web television series "Blame the Hero", Booth is portrayed by Anthony Padilla. In the series, multiple time travelers prevent Booth from killing President Lincoln.


  • "John Wilkes Booth" is a song written by Mary Chapin Carpenter, commissioned and notably interpreted by Tony Rice. The song is included on his recording Native American. The commissioning originated with Rice's interest in this historical figure. [197]

Video games

  • In the 2013 video game BioShock Infinite, John Wilkes Booth is viewed as a hero in the fictional airborne city of Columbia. A cult's headquarters features a large statue of Booth in its lobby, as well as a painting depicting Booth as a saint while assassinating a devil version of Abraham Lincoln. [198]


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  2. Clarke, Asia Booth (1996). Alford, Terry (ed.). John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi. p. ix. ISBN0-87805-883-4 .
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  4. "The murderer of Mr. Lincoln" (PDF) . The New York Times. April 21, 1865.
  5. ^ Hamner, Christopher. "Booth's Reason for AssassinationArchived December 2, 2010, at the Wayback Machine." Accessed July 12, 2011.
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  11. ^ Booth's uncle Algernon Sydney Booth was an ancestor of Cherie Blair (née Booth), wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. –
  12. Westwood, Philip (2002). "The Lincoln-Blair Affair". Genealogy Today . Retrieved February 2, 2009 . –
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  164. ^ Kunhardt, Twenty Days, pp. 106–107. The 26 soldiers who caught Booth were eventually awarded $1,653.85 each by Congress, along with $5,250 for Lieut. Doherty, who led the detachment, and $15,000 for Col. Lafayette Baker.
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  166. ^ Townsend, p. 14.
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  197. ^ Stern, p. 306.
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  204. ^ Donald, p. 597.
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  217. ^ "On the 18th of February, 1869, Booth's remains were deposited in Weaver's private vault at Green Mount Cemetery awaiting warmer weather for digging a grave. Burial occurred in Green Mount Cemetery on June 22, 1869. Booth was an Episcopalian, and the ceremony was conducted by the Reverend Minister Fleming, James of Christ Episcopal Church, where Weaver was a sexton." (T. 5/25/95 at p. 117 Ex. 22H). Gorman & Williams Attorneys at Law: Sources on the Wilkes Booth case. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (September 1995), No. 1531 Archived January 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
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  220. ^ Surratt was the first woman to be executed in the U.S. In 1976, Surratt House and Gardens were restored and opened to the public. The site includes a museum. See: Surratt House Museum.
  221. ^ Kunhardt, pp. 204–206.
  222. ^ Smith, p. 239.
  223. ^ Goodrich, p. 294.
  224. ^ Goodrich, p. 289.
  225. ^ Wilson, p. 19.
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  235. "Dredging up the John Wilkes Booth body argument". The Baltimore Sun. December 13, 1977. pp. B1–B5.
  236. ^ Balsiger and Sellier, Jr., front cover.
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  238. Nottingham, Theodore J. (1998). The Curse of Cain: The Untold Story of John Wilkes Booth. Sovereign. p. iv. ISBN1-58006-021-8 .
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  240. "New Scrutiny on John Wilkes Booth". The New York Times. October 24, 1994 . Retrieved November 6, 2008 .
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  246. "Cambridge cemetery waiting to hear from John Wilkes Booth's family about digging brother up". Cantabrigia. Archived from the original on May 30, 2011 . Retrieved May 16, 2011 .
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  248. "Brother of John Wilkes Booth to Be Exhumed". The Philadelphia Inquirer. December 23, 2010. Archived from the original on December 27, 2010.
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  251. ^Prince of Players at the TCM Movie Database
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  253. Morrow, Rob. "Bio". Rob Morrow. Rob Morrow . Retrieved February 24, 2019 .
  254. ^The Day Lincoln Was Shot at IMDb
  255. ^The Conspirator at AllMovie
  256. ^Killing Lincoln official website
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  265. "John Wilkes Booth's Promptbook for Richard III". . Retrieved March 15, 2017 .
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  267. "TV Theatre". Salt Lake City Tribune. June 11, 1958. p. 12. (subscription required)
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  269. Thompson, Dave (November 1, 2015). The Twilight Zone FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Fifth Dimension and Beyond. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 343. ISBN9781495046100 . Retrieved April 25, 2018 .
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  275. "John Wilkes Booth". Unsolved Mysteries . Retrieved January 8, 2018 .
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  277. Montgomery, David (April 18, 1999). "Happy Boothday to you: An intrepid correspondent rides, rolls and rows his way into history chasing the ghost of John Wilkes Booth". The Washington Post . Retrieved November 20, 2016 .
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  279. Quan-Madrid, Alejandro (April 18, 1999). "BioShock Infinite forces players to confront racism (hands-on preview)". VentureBeat . Retrieved May 21, 2018 .


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Was John Wilkes Booth a Psychopath?

John Wilkes Booth committed one of the most infamous crimes in American history. By shooting President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on April 14th, 1865, Booth irrevocably altered his reputation from "talented stage actor" to "cowardly assassin." All this, you probably know.

But here's something you might not have considered: Was John Wilkes Booth a psychopath? For most, the instinctual answer is "yes."

"Many people assume horrific crimes indicate the perpetrator has a disturbed, even deranged, personality," Dr. Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at the University of Mexico and one of the foremost experts on psychopathy, recently wrote.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder "characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior." It affects less than .4% of the worldwide population, roughly 1 in 250 people.

Continues Kiehl: "I am often asked whether all murderers are psychopaths. Many people assume they are. But. psychopathy is more complicated than the details of an single crime can capture, no matter how despicable the act."

In Kiehl's new book, The Psychopath Whisperer, he demonstrated this point by conducting an in-depth, posthumous assessment of John Wilkes Booth using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. The Checklist is an inventory of 20 traits, including, for example, impulsiveness, callousness, pathological lying, and parasitic lifestyle. Through in-person interviews and examination of official records, the attending mental health professional assigns the individual scores of 0, 1, or 2 for each trait -- 0 if the item does not apply, 1 if it applies somewhat, and 2 if it fully applies. A score above 30 indicates the individual is a psychopath.

For obvious reasons, Kiehl wasn't able to interview Booth. Luckily, as a side effect of his notorious place in history, there is a bounty of information available on Booth's life, which was more than sufficient to complete the Checklist. Here's how Kiehl scored Booth.

1. Glibness and Superficial Charm. Booth was a suave and skilled actor, "attractive, athletic, and an engaging stage performer," Kiehl described. Though he embodied the celebrity lifestyle, with a minor superiority complex in tow, he does not merit full points. Score: 1.

2. Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth. Booth worked very hard to become a popular actor, which earned him a salary of $500,000 per year in today's dollars. But he was arrogant and somewhat of a playboy. Score: 1.

3. Need for Stimulation. Booth practiced roles for hours on end and played parts repeatedly. However, he was both a ladies man and a drinker, and this occasionally got him into trouble. Score: 1.

4. Pathological Lying. Booth was apparently very straightforward in all his dealings, even when womanizing. Score: 0.

5. Manipulation. Booth was regarded as an upstanding businessman and often donated to charity. Score: 0.

6. Lack of Remorse. Before his death twelve days following the assassination, Booth recorded in his diary a plea to his family begging for forgiveness. Score: 0.

7. Emotional Stability. The evidence suggests that Booth was able to experience a normal range of emotions, from anxiety, to sadness, to happiness. Score: 0.

8. Lack of Empathy. To his friends, Booth was empathetic and genial. However, he fully endorsed slavery, which is hard to ignore. Score: 1.

9. Parasitic Lifestyle. Booth was extremely wealthy, never borrowed money, and always paid his bills. Score: 0.

10. Inability to Control Behavior. Booth was impulsive and prone to excessive drinking, but these behaviors were rarely destructive. Score: 1.

11. Sexual Promiscuity. According to Kiehl, "His sexual liaisons were legendary." Score: 2.

12. Early Behavioral Problems. Booth had a typical childhood for the time. Score: 0.

13. Lack of Long-Term Goals. From striving without end to improve his acting to investing in land and oil, Booth had no problem making plans and seeing them through. Score: 0.

14. Impulsivity. Booth's drinking behavior merits a point. Score: 1.

15. Irresponsibility. As mentioned earlier, Booth handled his finances fairly well. Moreover, his heinous assassination seemed to have been motivated by a perverted sense of duty to the Confederacy. Score: 0.

16. Failure to Accept Responsibility. In a latter to his sister, Booth completely owned his crime and accepted "God's judgment." Score: 0.

17. Many Short-Term Marriages. Booth never married. Score: 0.

18. Juvenile Delinquency. There are no reports of criminal activity in Booth's teenage years. Score: 0.

19. Revocation of Conditional Release. This apples to the criminal justice system, and Booth was never arrested. Omitted.

20. Criminality. Up until his murder of President Lincoln, Booth did not display criminal activity. Score: 0.

Total Score: 8.4 out of 40

Clearly, Booth is nowhere near the score of 30 that's required to diagnose psychopathy. In fact, he's far below the average for a criminal.

"Prior to his crime, he is the sort of person I might have had a beer with, with the hope I could talk him out of his misguided political ideology," Kiehl remarked.

Source: Kiehl, Kent. The Psychopath Whisperer. Crown. 2014

The Closest Source We Have to Really Knowing John Wilkes Booth Is His Sister

Asia Booth Clarke, sickly pregnant with twins at her mansion in Philadelphia, received the morning newspaper on April 15, 1865, in bed and screamed at the sight of the headlines: John Wilkes, her younger brother, was wanted for the assassination of President Lincoln.

Asia was married to an actor, John Sleeper Clarke. In their home, they kept an iron safe, where Asia’s brother often stored papers when he traveled. As the reality of Lincoln’s death took hold, Asia remembered documents that Booth had deposited during the winter and fetched them. In a large sealed envelope marked “Asia,” she found four thousand dollars’ worth of federal and city bonds a Pennsylvania oil-land transfer, made out to another of her brothers a letter to their mother explaining why, despite his promises, Booth had been drawn into the war and a written statement in which he tried to justify an earlier attempt to abduct the president as a prisoner of the Confederacy.

Years later, Asia would describe these events—and attempt to explain her brother—in what is today a lesser-known memoir. Scholars have “delighted” in the slender book, says Terry Alford, a John Wilkes Booth expert in Virginia, because it remains the only manuscript of significant length that provides insightful details about Booth’s childhood and personal preferences. “There’s no other document like it,” Alford told me.

John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir

Asia Booth Clarke's memoir is an indispensable resource for perceiving the complexities of her ill-fated brother. Certainly no outsider could give such insights into the turbulent Booth's childhood or share such unique personal knowledge of the gifted actor.

Booth’s letter to his mother did not run immediately in the press, but the manifesto did, supplying what Asia called “food to newsmongers and enemies” and drawing “a free band of male and female detectives” to her doorstep. As the manhunt proceeded, the authorities twice searched her home. Her difficult pregnancy exonerated her from having to report to Washington—a detective was assigned to her home, instead, to read her mail and coax her to talk—but her husband, a Unionist, was taken temporarily to the capital for interrogation. One of her brothers, Junius, an actor and theater manager, was also arrested—on the same day, as it happened, that the authorities finally tracked John to a barn in Virginia and shot him dead. He had been at large for 12 days.

Asia was the fourth of the six Booth children who lived to adulthood John was number five. The two were extremely close. Several years before Lincoln’s death, they had started collaborating on a biography of their famous father, a stage actor. Unable to focus, Booth had left the project to his sister. With the family name destroyed, Asia recommitted herself to the biography, which was published in 1866, and to regaining credibility.

She also became formally religious. The Booths had raised their children to be spiritual without directing them to any one church, but her brother’s ignominious act, along with his death, had “brought to a crisis Asia’s need for a sense of legitimacy and order,” Alford has noted. After converting to Roman Catholicism, Asia had her children baptized in the church. In the spring of 1868, having renounced the United States, she moved with her family to London.

In England, Asia gave birth to three more children. They all died. Her rheumatism grew worse. Friendless, she felt isolated and estranged from her husband, who was often away at the theater. Every Fourth of July, and on George Washington’s birthday, she would hang an American flag in nostalgia for the homeland to which she felt she couldn’t return. By now, she had lost her adored brother, her country, her parents, several children, her health, and now she was losing her husband to “dukelike haughtiness” and “icy indifference,” not to mention a mistress. London she despised: its weather, chauvinism, food. “I hate fat, greasy-voiced, fair-whiskered Britons with all my heart,” she wrote in a letter in 1874.

With her family name destroyed (a lithograph by J. L. Magee, a specialist in “America’s most lurid disaster scenes”), Asia renounced the United States and moved to England. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) “Strange men called at late hours, some whose voices I knew, but who would not answer to their names,” Asia wrote. (Courtesy Terry Alford) Edwin Booth urged Asia to forget their brother: “He is dead to us now.” (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Nine years had passed since Lincoln’s death. Lonely and irritable, Asia revised the biography of her father and began writing about her brother. In distinctive, slanted handwriting, she worked quickly in a small, black-leather journal equipped with a lock. “John Wilkes was the ninth of ten children born to Junius Brutus and Mary Anne Booth,” she began.

The second paragraph sketched a haunting précis:

His mother, when he was a babe of six months old, had a vision, in answer to a fervent prayer, in which she imagined that the foreshadowing of his fate had been revealed to her. This is one of the numerous coincidences which tend to lead one to believe that human lives are swayed by the supernatural.

Asia, a poet, had made verse of the “oft-told reminiscence” of the vision, as a birthday gift for her mother 11 years before the assassination. (“Tiny, innocent white baby-hand / What force, what power is at your command / For evil, or good?”) Now, in the memoir, she also recounted an eerie experience her brother had as a boy, in the woods near the Quaker boarding school that he attended in their native Maryland: A traveling fortuneteller told him “Ah, you’ve had a bad hand. It’s full enough of sorrow. Full of trouble.” He had been “born under an unlucky star” and had a “thundering crowd of enemies” he would “make a bad end” and “die young.”

The young Booth wrote out the fortune in pencil on a scrap of paper that eventually wore to tatters in his pocket. Asia wrote that in “the few years that summed up his life, frequent recurrence was sadly made to the rambling words of that old Gipsey in the woods of Cockeysville.”

Asia was smart and sociable, with a mind for mathematics and poetry. Her father thought she had a “sulky temper” at times. Thin and long-faced, she had narrow lips, brown eyes and a cleft chin, and wore her dark hair parted down the middle and gathered up in back.

Her brother was beautiful, with “long, up-curling [eye]lashes,” “perfectly shaped hands,” his “father’s finely shaped head,” and his mother’s “black hair and large hazel eyes,” she wrote. In intimate detail, Asia documented his preferences and habits, as if to freeze his memory and humanize him before the public:

He had a “tenacious rather than an intuitive intelligence” as a boy—he learned slowly but retained knowledge indefinitely. He had a “great power of concentration”—at school, he sat with “forehead clasped by both hands, mouth firm set, as if resolute to conquer.” When trying to accomplish a difficult task, his strategy was to imagine challenges as a column of foes to be struck down one by one. In the woods, he practiced elocution. (“His voice was a beautiful organ.”) A lover of nature, he might “nibble” some roots or twigs or throw himself to the ground to inhale the “earth’s healthy breath,” which he called “burrowing.”

The president’s killer loved flowers and butterflies. Asia noted that her brother considered fireflies “bearers of sacred torches” and that he avoided harming them. She remembered him as a good listener. He was insecure about his lack of stage grace, and he worried about his chances as an actor. The music that he enjoyed tended to be sad, plaintive. A flautist, he adored reciting poetry and Julius Caesar. He loathed jokes, “particularly theatrical ones.” He smoked a pipe. He was a “fearless” rider. He preferred hardwood floors to carpet for the “smell of the oak,” and sunrises to sunsets, which were “too melancholy.”

Describing her brother’s bedroom, Asia wrote: “A huge pair of antlers held swords, pistols, daggers and a rusty old blunderbuss.” His red-covered books, cheaply bound, contained “Bulwer, Maryatt, Byron and a large Shakespeare.” He slept on “the hardest mattress and a straw pillow, for at this time of his life he adored Agesilaus, the Spartan King, and disdained luxuries.” In dire times, he “ate sparingly of bread and preserves” so as to leave more for others. He was mannerly, “for he knew the language of flowers.”

Asia wrote straightforwardly, often lyrically. (A stream “came gurgling under the fence and took its way across the road to the woods opposite, where it lost itself in tangled masses of wild-grape bowers.”) A few passages are tone deaf (her brother, she recalled, had “a certain deference and reverence towards his superiors in authority”) or objectionable: While the family did not share Wilkes’ Southern sympathies, Asia referred to African-Americans as “darkies” and immigrants as “the refuse of other countries.”

It should be noted that Asia worked almost entirely from memory as she wrote what she might have hoped would be the definitive portrait of her brother. “Everything that bore his name was given up, even the little picture of himself, hung over my babies’ beds in the nursery,” she wrote. “He had placed it there himself saying, ‘Remember me, babies, in your prayers.’”

Several months before the assassination, Booth showed up at Asia’s house, his palms callused, mysteriously, from “nights of rowing.” His thigh-high boots contained pistol holsters. His threadbare hat and coat “were not evidence of recklessness but of care for others, self-denial,” Asia wrote. Their brother Junius would later describe to Asia a moment, in Washington, when Booth faced the direction of the fallen city of Richmond, and “brokenly” said, “Virginia—Virginia.”

During his visit with Asia, he often slept in his boots on a downstairs sofa. “Strange men called at late hours, some whose voices I knew, but who would not answer to their names,” Asia wrote, adding, “They never came farther than the inner sill, and spoke in whispers.”

One night, Booth raged against Lincoln and his delusions about an impending monarchy. “A desperate turn towards the evil had come!” Asia wrote. For once, she found herself unable to calm her brother’s “wild tirades, which were the very fever of his distracted brain and tortured heart.”

Before having his sister deposit some of his papers in her safe, Booth told her that if anything should happen to him she should follow the instructions in the documents. He then knelt at her knee and put his head in her lap, and she stroked his hair for a while. Rising to leave, he told her to take care. She said she would not be happy until they saw each other again. “Try to be happy” were his last words to her.

“There is no more to add,” she wrote. “The rest is horror, fitter for a diary than for these pages.”

In a letter, her brother Edwin advised her to forget John: “Think no more of him as your brother he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world.”

But Asia could not let it go. She used her memoir to assert that her brother never openly plotted against the president and, contrary to rumor, never carried in his pocket a bullet meant for Lincoln. She repeatedly defended his mental health, citing the fortuneteller’s augury to explain his actions: only a “desperate fate” could have impelled someone with such “peaceful domestic qualities” to murder the nation’s leader.

Ultimately, she conceded a possibility:

The fall of Richmond “breathed air afresh upon the fire which consumed him.” Lincoln’s visit to the theater signaled the “fall of the Republic, a dynasty of kings.” His attending a play “had no pity in it,” Asia wrote. “It was jubilation over fields of unburied dead, over miles of desolated homes.” She ended her book by calling her brother America’s first martyr.

The handwritten manuscript totaled a slim 132 pages. Asia left it untitled—the cover held only “J.W.B.” in hand-tooled gold. In it, she referred to her brother as “Wilkes,” to avoid reader confusion about the other John in her life. She hoped the book would be published in her lifetime, but she died in May of 1888 (age 52 heart problems) without ever seeing it in print.

In a last wish, she asked that the manuscript be given to B.L. Farjeon, an English writer whom she respected and whose family considered Asia “a sad and noble woman,” his daughter Eleanor wrote. Farjeon received the manuscript in a black tin box he found the work to be significant but believed the Booths, and the public, to be unready for such a gentle portrait of the president’s killer.

Fifty years passed. Eleanor Farjeon pursued publication. In 1938, G.P. Putnam’s Sons put out the memoir as The Unlocked Book: A Memoir of John Wilkes Booth by His Sister Asia Booth Clarke, with a price of $2.50. In the introduction, Farjeon described the project as Asia’s attempt to repudiate the “shadowy shape evoked by the name John Wilkes Booth.” The New York Times gave it a matter-of-fact review. In the Saturday Review, the historian Allan Nevins said it had been “written with a tortured pen.”

University Press of Mississippi republished the memoir in 1996 as John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir, with an introduction by Alford, a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College (and the author of “The Psychic Connection” on p. 40). An addendum contains family letters and documents if Asia’s feelings about her brother are conflicted, Booth’s are made clear on the issues of slavery (a “blessing”), abolitionists (“traitors”) and secession (he was “insane” for it).

The original manuscript is privately owned, in England, according to Alford, whose research and introduction provide much of the contextual narrative detail given here. He thinks of Asia’s work as “diligent and loving,” and told me, “It’s the only thing we’ve really got about Booth. If you think about the sources, most are about the conspiracy. There’s nothing about him as a person, no context.”

Though an important commentary on Booth’s life, the text was unpolished and never “properly vetted for the reader by literary friends and a vigilant publisher,” Alford notes. Better to think of the memoir as “an intense and intimate conversation,” he wrote, “thrown out unrefined from a sister’s heart.”

About Paige Williams

Paige Williams is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of The Dinosaur Artist, which was named one of The New York Times's Top 100 Books of 2018 and was a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters 2019 prize in nonfiction.

John Wilkes Booth

Granbury's folklore is rich with tales about the legend of John St. Helen. St Helen lived in Granbury during the 1870's, the frontier settlements earliest says, and he worked as a bartender at two saloons. One of the saloons where he tended bar was located in the old buildings on the south side of the town square where the Nutshell Eatery and St. Helen's are today.

Many Granbury old-timers believe, and longstanding local tradition says that John St. Helen was in fact John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln's assassin.

History says that John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed at Garrett's farm in Virginia shortly after Lincoln's assassination. Some historians believe there was a conspiracy among members of Lincoln's cabinet to murder the president. Legend has it these same high-ranking officials helped Booth escape and the man killed at Garrett's far wasn't the president's assassin.

Booth found his way through the sympathetic South to Glen Rose and then to Granbury where he used the name John St. Helen.

St. Helen disappeared from Glen Rose late one night because a local girl was marrying a US Marshal. Although he owned a store on the grounds of a mill in Glen Rose, St. Helen left for Granbury the same night the betrothed marshal arrived in town.

St. Helen kept his true identity a secret for many years, until he believed he was dying. St. Helen didn't die however and he left Granbury as soon as he recovered.

The mystery of John St. Helen has been featured on two popular television series: "20/20" and "Unsolved Mysteries". In addition it is the subject of an original Granbury Opera House production called "The Myth and the Mummy".

John Wilkes Booth: history's most charming assassin?

‘Fortune’s Fool,’ the first-ever biography of John Wilkes Booth, portrays Lincoln's assassin as charismatic, talented, and overcome with hatred and rage.

There may have never been a more charming assassin than John Wilkes Booth, who took the life of President Abraham Lincoln in a theater 150 years ago this week.

“He was a man with something to lose, not a born loser,” says Terry Alford, professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College. “He was somebody.”

As one of his era’s top actors, Booth had legions of fans, including at least two White House residents named Lincoln. His masculine energy and sexiness captivated women, and men found him to be a fine companion for evenings out on the town. When I asked if Booth had enemies, Alford – now his sole biographer – couldn’t think of one.

The reverse was hardly true. Booth hated the North with an uncommon rage, one that exploded in blood and ruined lives.

This assassin like no other deserves to be understood by history. What drove this beloved celebrity to murder? Alford seeks the answer in his extraordinary new book Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth.

‘The signs are there.’ Is US democracy on a dangerous trajectory?

We all know what happened on the night of April 14, 1865. Thanks to the gripping and deeply perceptive “Fortune’s Fool,” we know much more about why.

In our interview, I asked Alford to ponder what he learned about this extraordinary man’s life and his lust for revolution and revenge.

Q: What was John Wilkes Booth like in person?

He had drop-dead good looks, perfect teeth, great complexion. Physically, he was a marvel, a gym rat, an exercise fanatic.

A lot of people found him charming to be around with great personal appeal. He could be very sympathetic, he could put his face up next to yours and listen.

He was brave on occasion. When an actress’s dress caught fire, he put it out. And when a horse bolted with a young girl riding down the street, he ran the horse down and saved the girl.

It’s amazing how many friends he had, an army of friends of both sexes. He did a terrible thing, but as time passed and people felt safe to speak they mind, there’s a surprisingly positive amount of things said about him.

Q: You focus in the book on Booth’s incredible acting talents, which tend to be forgotten today. What was he like as a performer?

He was an exceptionally good actor. He excelled at physicality on stage – leaping, swordplay, dramatic conclusions. He’d seem a little bit over the top and melodramatic to us now, but that was pretty much what the audience wanted. He could also be tender and play parts like Romeo that required openness and sincerity.

I wonder if he would have burned out given his acting style. Once the curtain fell, he would lie on the floor for 5-10 minutes because he was so exhausted. I don’t know how he would have lasted or held up.

Q: What did he care about the most?

His main obsession was the opposite sex, and he had a two-volume little black book. He’d have his respectable upper-middle class girlfriends and romances, but their life was so restricted they had no idea of the world he lived in. He could be engaged to a high-born lady and be with prostitutes at the same time.

Q: What were the roots of his racism, which led him to deeply hate the North and Lincoln?

I thought a lot about that. He could be kind to individual African Americans, but the basic problem to him was that they didn’t belong in the United States. When the war came along, they were the most obvious beneficiaries, It was almost like for him, they couldn’t win freedom without him losing his. It wasn’t just that they would get something. He would lose something.

He identified all these changes with Lincoln. In fact, he seemed less focused on the war than Lincoln. I think he personalized Lincoln to represent everything bad that was happening around him.

Q: One of the amazing things about Booth, which is unique among assassins, is that he knew his victim, and his victim knew him and liked him. Booth was so famous that even Lincoln’s young son Tad was a fan. What did you learn about the connections between and his fan in the White House?

Lincoln had seen him act and applauded his efforts, and according to several people, Lincoln wanted to meet him. He was a star.

Q: As you write, shortly before the assassination, Booth tried to kidnap Lincoln, and he created public scenes by getting inappropriately close to the president. What was going on there?

At the end, Booth was starting to get desperate. It’s possible he could have shot Lincoln before he did.

Q: Why do you think he didn’t? Did he want to make sure he could escape?

As crazy as he became, he always showed a firm regard for not only doing his dirty work, but also getting out of it.

Q: Some people don’t realize that there was a wider assassination plot among Booth and his conspirators. The plot succeeded in killing Lincoln and severely wounding the secretary of state, although the vice president escaped unharmed. What did Booth think would happen next?

He realized he may gain some benefit by cutting the head of the government. If the South couldn’t kill the Northern army, why not kill the head?

Based on what he had to say, he hoped that the North might fall into revolution or confusion about who should govern, and it would be distracted enough for the South to win.

He knew this was desperate stuff, a major difference from plotting a kidnapping. He knew all that. Things that meant a lot to him like money, women, and family got swept aside by this fanaticism.

Q: If he’d ever faced trial, should Booth have gotten off on an insanity plea?

He’s not in crazy in the sense that we’re having lunch at the mall and we say, “Hey, look at that guy” because we’d both know something was wrong.

But he’s crazy in the sense of fanaticism: He’s perfectly OK on 9 out of 10 things, but don’t bring up the 10th thing. Fanaticism overwhelmed all of his good instincts – and he had many – and his good sense.

Q: How did you pick the book title “Fortune’s Fool,” which comes from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”?

It’s said when Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin and realizes what he done. Shakespeare was very invested in this idea of fate, that there are things impelling you forward that are out of your control.

Booth did say late in life to his mother that “I think there’s a hand on me that’s pushing me in a direction.” I think that’s exactly what was happening: He wasn’t in control of what he was doing. What he was doing in control of him. He was overwhelmed by his desire to help the South and for personal redemption for not having been a Confederate soldier.

Q: Booth lives for days after the assassination as he tries to escape, and he’s stunned by the universal horror at the assassination. How did he miss reality so completely?

He totally misread how people would see the assassination, and that makes you wonder how sane he is. But he had to be sane since he knew when to attack Lincoln and how to get out of Ford’s Theater.

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He also said he wanted revenge for the South. He’d been exceedingly distressed by the Confederate surrender, and he’d seen prisoners being mistreated in the streets.

Revenge is not a very noble motive, but it’s a very human motive: “I’m hurting, and I want to share this hurt with you.” I think that was certainly in his mind.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

On Exhibit: John Wilkes Booth’s Calling Card

Tucked in a corner in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is a rectangular piece of paper faded grey with time. It is unobtrusive and, due to its small size, could easily be missed among the larger and flashier documents and artifacts. But this card is a reminder of one of the most resonant and well known stories of American history—that of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

On April 14, 1865, Vice President Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House—a hotel that stood at the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Also in the hotel, and in a room directly one floor above the Vice President’s suite, was George Atzerodt. He was a fellow conspirator in Booth’s larger plot to murder President Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice President Johnson and thus throwing the recently victorious North into chaos and disarray. Atzerodt—a German carriage painter from Maryland who had spent the Civil War years ferrying Confederates across the Potomac—arrived at the Kirkwood House on the morning of the 14th. His task: to assassinate Vice President Johnson.

Like a character from a bad cop movie, Atzerodt proved to be an inept conspirator—he signed for the room with his own name and spent most of his “surveillance” time in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about Johnson. Once drunk, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point him in the direction of the Vice President’s ground-floor room. When told that Johnson had just returned to his room, Atzerodt balked and immediately left the hotel. He spent the next several hours drunkenly wandering around the streets of Washington. Vice President Johnson left shortly afterward for his own meeting with Lincoln at the White House.

Later that afternoon, just hours before he assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth arrived at the Kirkwood Hotel looking for George Atzerodt. Upon learning of his co-conspirator’s flight, Booth asked for a blank card, addressed it to Vice President Johnson and wrote, “Don’t wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.”

This card is now on display in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” an exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

We all know the rest of the story. President Lincoln, joined by his wife Mary, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, attended a staging of the popular comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street on the night of April 14. Having acted on its stage, Booth knew the ins and outs of the theatre, and he was also quite familiar with the play. He walked up the back stairs, waited for the line that would garner the most laughs (Mr. Trenchard: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap”), and fired into the back of Lincoln’s head.

The crowd was at first unaware of what had happened, thinking it was a part of the play, until audience members heard Mary’s scream from the Presidential box and saw Booth jumping to the stage. As he jumped, he caught his boot spur on the bunting and broke his left shin bone as he landed. Booth then uttered his famous line, “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants,” the Virginia state motto—before hobbling off the stage and making his escape on horseback.

President Abraham Lincoln died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

Historians continue to debate why Booth would have left this card for Vice President Johnson. The Senate’s biography on Andrew Johnson posits the idea that, upon knowing that Atzerodt was not up to task, Booth devised a plan to implicate the Vice President in the conspiracy. Having to explain a calling card left by the assassin of the President of the United States would certainly create problems for Johnson and further Booth’s ultimate plan of throwing the North into confusion.

Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary William A. Browning picked up the mail (including Booth’s calling card) assuming it was for him. Browning had met Booth once after a theater performance.

Whether or not this is the whole story behind the calling card, the signature gives us pause.

We know what it speaks to, we know the date it was signed, and we recognize the name. We recognize this calling card and this signature—a signature that played a direct role in the assassination of one of the United States’s most beloved Presidents—as small yet important parts in a story that we all know so well.

The exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” is free and open to the public in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2015.

Watch the video: A Timeline of the Hunt for John Wilkes Booth (July 2022).


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