Although there have been 45 presidencies, few are actually remembered. Some presidents are known for their amazing work, like George Washington helping to pull the USA together into an actual nation. But some are known almost exclusively for their deaths, like William Henry Harrison who died only 32 days into his presidency. Or JFK being assassinated in a convertible. Or, yes, like today’s subject, Abraham Lincoln, being killed while at the theatre.
It’s almost unfortunate that these presidents become known simply for how they died. Obviously, William Harrison wouldn’t have been able to do much in 32 days, but both JFK and Lincoln made huge marks on the nation with their work as presidents. Yes, Lincoln is absolutely remembered for abolishing slavery, but there are many things he did that are overshadowed by to his extremely interesting assassination. And we won’t be discussing a single one of those things today, so I suppose we’re not really helping.
What we’ll be discussing today is a fantastic story of conspiracy and murder. It’s honestly almost like this story couldn’t have possibly happened. It’s much closer to a Guy Ritchie film than an actual moment from history.
Before we start, I’d like to give a little disclaimer to say that we will not be going into great detail on Lincoln’s life today. It isn’t very necessary for the story, and we will be covering a lot of Lincoln throughout other topics in the near future. So, we will only touch on the main points today.
With that said, I think the best place to begin, as with most stories, is to set the scene, and a good place to start is the American Civil War.
Much like Lincoln’s life, I don’t plan to go into very much detail about the American Civil War because it is a very detailed moment in American History. Lincoln’s assassination also occurred just after the South had surrendered, so there’s no real point in going into a ton of detail about the war. However, we will absolutely be covering it in depth in the future, so don’t you worry.
As I said, the Civil War had ended in America just days before Lincoln’s assassination. This does not mean things were all roses. Obviously, there were still many ardent supporters of the South, as well as many angry Northerners that were not very quick to forget the last four years of war. The Civil War had completely split the nation, literally. Brothers had fought brothers. Families had killed each other. It is very difficult for that to just stop and everyone to go back to celebrating Thanksgiving together.
So, obviously, it was a very tumultuous time in the country, and tensions were still high. But, with an enormous amount of help from the Union’s Commanding General, Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln and the Union were able to push the South, and its Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, into surrendering. As a side note, Grant and Lee were both amazing military tacticians and will both be covered in the future.
To this day, there is disagreement on what the main cause of the Civil War actually was. There are generally two schools of thought. One side believes the South wanted to continue keeping slaves for plantations, which provided plantation owners with free labour keeping them very wealthy. But Lincoln was threatening this by wanting to abolish slavery, thus leading to the start of the war. The other side believes that the Southern states just wanted to have the power to govern themselves exclusively. They were solely interested in the federal government not interfering with states’ rights.
Obviously, most reasonable people would see that it would not have been just one cause. It was much more likely a combination of issues that lead to the war, not just a single issue. With that said, if you believe that slavery was not one of the causes of the Civil War, I am very confident that you are mistaken. Slavery was obviously a very big part of the South’s economy and abolishing it would have a very drastic economic effect on southern states. It was absolutely one of the reasons for the Civil War.
Well, one person that absolutely supported the South, as well as greatly opposed Lincoln’s goal to abolish slavery, was the villian of our story: Mr John Wilkes Booth.
John Wilkes Booth was supposedly born in Maryland. I say “supposedly” because there are apparently no birth or death certificates for him on public record anywhere. He was the 9th of 10 children born to famous actor Junius Brutus Booth. John Wilkes Booth was actually a very talented actor in his own right. However, he wasn’t the only one of his siblings with acting prowess.
John’s brother, Edwin Booth, was said to have been a seriously talented actor and became arguably more famous than John. John was also described as egotistical or egocentric. So, the fact that he was in not only his father’s shadow, but also his brother’s, didn’t sit well with him. He felt he had to go out and make his own name in acting.
He had an unsuccessful theatrical debut in 1856, so he was off to a good start. He then joined a Shakespearian theatre company, from which he did receive success. But the majority, if not all, of this success was from the Deep South. Booth’s company had done successful tours throughout the southern states, and this may be where Booth’s southern support began.
Throughout Booth’s growing acting career, Lincoln was also simultaneously gaining his political clout. Slowly, but surely, inching towards the presidency. From the moment Booth heard of Lincoln’s intention to abolish slavery, he hated the man. Lincoln hadn’t just introduced the idea of abolishing slavery during his presidency. He had actually been planning it for years prior during his time in the Senate. He had even put forward bills to end slavery in Congress that never passed. But it made it obvious to everyone that if Lincoln were to be elected president, he would push harder for the abolishing of slavery.
Well, obviously, Lincoln was elected president, leading to the Civil War not even a year later. As you can probably guess, Booth was 100% a supporter of the South. He even considered himself a Southern. However, he promised his that he would not fight in the war, so he spent his time during the Civil War in the North. This only made him more infuriated, and only caused his hate for Lincoln to grow.
Booth was still performing during the Civil War, and was actually said to still be an indemand actor even while the battles raged. But that wasn’t all he was doing. He decided that his support for the South and hatred for Lincoln needed to be put to good use. But he wasn’t going to do this by killing the President. Instead, it was his initial goal to kidnap the President.
The South was severely outnumbered by the North during the war. In total, about 2.75 million soldiers fought in the war. Of these, 2 million of them were Northern troops. The remaining 750,000 were Southern. This not only meant the South would struggle in head-to-head battles. They also struggled when their soldiers were taken prisoner, because every single soldier was necessary for the South’s victory.. Luckily, throughout the war there had been a lot of prisoner exchanges. So, Northern and Southern troops were being exchanged back to each other constantly.
However, towards the end of the war in 1864, Ulysses S. Grant (the Union General) decided to stop all prisoner exchanges. The North didn’t need all of their captured soldiers back to win the war, but the South did. Grant’s action began to cripple the South, whose soldiers were being captured frequently. It was with this problem that Booth thought that he could help.
Booth, along with some choice co-conspirators, put together a plan to capture the president in Washington. The plan was to take Lincoln prisoner and to exchange him for the Southern soldiers currently being held in Union prisons. If you’re wondering if Booth ever really had a second thought about this, he did not. Here is a quote from a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law around this time:
“My love (as things stand to-day) is for the South alone. Nor do I deem it a dishonor in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man to whom she owes so much misery.”
The group of conspirators planned out multiple kidnap attempts. One was to capture the president while he was travelling. Another was to capture him as he watched a play at Ford’s theatre, but the men found this to be unfeasible. Which is odd, because this is where Lincoln is eventually assassinated.
All attempts to capture Lincoln were thwarted usually just by coincidence. For instance, Lincoln was meant to attend a ceremony at a hospital in Washington, but was called away at the last minute. It almost seems to be straight out of a film. Don’t forget, Booth was a pretty famous actor at this point, so this would be similar to Nicholas Cage kidnapping Donald Trump. Eventually, however, the kidnapping plan was put aside as it seemed nearly impossible. Instead, Booth’s thoughts began to grow more sinister.
Lincoln gave a speech at the same time this kidnapping plan had been going on. In this speech, Lincoln spoke about the enfranchisement of African Americans. He had not just freed the slaves, but he wanted to bolster their community. Sitting just yards from Lincoln as he gave this speech was John Wilkes Booth, who found this speech to be the last straw. Booth spoke to one of his kidnapping conspirators and said, “That will be the last speech he will ever make.”
Soon after this speech, the South surrendered and the Civil War was declared finished. Although, as I said earlier, the feelings were still there. Especially for Booth. After the failed kidnapping attempts, Booth felt that it would just be best to kill Lincoln. A pretty big leap in logic, if you ask me. Booth heard that Lincoln would be attending a play at Ford’s theatre, so he changed his mind about the kidnapping and settled on assassinating the president during the performance.
Before the play began, Booth made his way into Ford’s Theatre. He was a regular at the theatre due to his acting and he was well respected by everyone there. Because of this, he had free run of the theatre without restriction. He chose to go to the theatre while the cast was out to lunch. This gave him time to set up the scene.
Booth made his way to the box the president would be using that night, and he was able to rig the door in a way that it would be impossible to open from the outside. This way, once Lincoln was dead, he could make his getaway. With his plan in place, he left the theatre and waited for the performance to begin.
That evening, during the performance, Booth made his reentrance into the theatre through a side door. Moving confidently to not arouse suspicion. He made his way to the upper levels where the president was seated with his wife and two guests. He watched the play from a vantage point and stood near the president’s box. Throughout the show, he would slowly make his way closer to the box. At one point, he reached a man guarding the box, but was able to get past him without any trouble by presenting one of his cards. Again, Booth was a famous actor at this point, so there was really no obvious cause for alarm. A US president had never been assassinated up to this point, so it was likely not at the forefront of the guard’s mind.
Booth now found himself just inside the president’s box. This box was somewhat split. There were basically two sides with a small door separating Booth from Lincoln. Here, Booth waited. He knew the play that Lincoln was watching well. It was “Our American Cousin”, a comedy. There was one particular line that was always planned to get a very large laugh from the crowd. Booth waited until the moment this line was uttered. The crowd then began to laugh.
Booth grasped the doorknob, turned it slowly, and opened the door to see the back of Lincoln and his wife Mary. He raised his derringer about two feet from the president’s head and pulled the trigger. The bullet shot from the gun and smashed into the base of the president’s skull. It travelled diagonally from left to right, through the brain, before becoming lodged behind Lincoln’s right eye. The president went limp and slumped with his head dropping forward, chin pressed against his chest.
After a moment, the laughter from the audience faded and the actor on stage looked toward the president’s box. He saw a puff of bluish smoke coming from it. The laughter, apparently, had not been enough to mask the shot. A scream was heard from Mary Lincoln and Booth struggled for a moment with one of the guards in the box. He fought him off and jumped from the box to the stage, where he landed in a crouch supposedly breaking a bone in his left leg. He lifted his arms and yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis, the South is avenged!” He then made his escape through the back of the stage to his horse, and rode off into the night.
Back in the theatre, Lincoln was being examined by doctors who had been attending the play. One of the doctors examined his head and found the bullet wound. He found that the wound was not really bleeding, but there was a clot that had formed on the wound. He removed the clot of blood, which instantly caused the president to breathe normally. The wound had not yet killed Lincoln.
The doctor’s moved the president across the street to a boarding house. Lincoln was placed on a bed diagonally, because he was too tall to lay on any of the beds. It was here, lying diagonally on a bed that was too small, that Abraham Lincoln died early the next morning as his wife and members of his cabinet watched over him. When he died, Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was asked for a final word. To which Stanton said through tears, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Booth had made his escape, but to his surprise, he wasn’t being cheerfully celebrated like he thought he would be. Many people supported the South, but many more supported Lincoln. And Lincoln’s assassination only helped further the respect people had for him. So, now Booth was on the run, and being pursued by the largest manhunt the country had ever seen up to that point.
He first had to have his leg mended, which he did in Maryland. The doctor who treated him was later convicted of conspiracy. As were many of the conspirators who had assisted Booth, most of which were put to death by hanging. Including the mother of one of the conspirators.
Booth finally found himself trapped in a barn by pursuers with another Southern sympathiser. They were offered the choice to surrender, but Booth declined. The other sympathiser did, leaving Booth alone in the barn, which was then set on fire. The men could see Booth battling with the flames through the cracks in the barn and then eventually heard a gunshot. It is mostly accepted that Booth shot himself. His body was removed from the barn and secretly buried. There are some doubts that the man killed was actually Booth, but there is not much evidence to support this.
As I said earlier, some presidents are only known for one or two things. But if Abraham Lincoln is only known for abolishing slavery, and dying because he served and did the best he could for his country, then I suppose that is a pretty good legacy. The true tragedy here is John Wilkes Booth feeling like killing Lincoln was his only choice. It was a choice he made for himself, not truly for his country. And it did nothing for the South’s cause. It did nothing for any single American. All it ended up being was a completely senseless death of a great man who helped so many people. And that is what’s truly unfortunate.
“Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” by Edward Steers Jr.