On Good Friday, Apr. 14, 1865, Booth, having learned that Lincoln planned to attend Laura Keene's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington on that evening, plotted the simultaneous assassination of the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lewis Thornton Powell, who called himself Payne, guided by David E. Herold, seriously wounded Seward and three others at Seward's house. George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Johnson, lost his nerve. The main act the egomaniacal Booth naturally reserved for himself. His crime was committed shortly after 10 P.M., when he entered the presidential box unobserved, suddenly shot Lincoln, and vaulted to the stage (breaking his left leg in the process) shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!" [thus always to tyrants] "The South is avenged!" He then went behind the scenes and down the back stairs to a waiting horse upon which he made his escape. Not until Apr. 26, after a hysterical two-week search by the army and secret service forces, was he discovered, hiding in a barn on Garrett's farm near Bowling Green, Caroline co., Va. The barn was set afire and Booth was either shot by his pursuers or shot himself rather than surrender. Although it has been said that no dead body was ever more definitely identified, the myth—completely unsupported by evidence—that Booth escaped has persisted. For the fate of others involved, see Surratt, Mary Eugenia.
See memoir by his sister, Asia Booth Clarke (1930, repr. 1971, 1996); biographies by R. G. Gutman and K. O. Gutman (1979) and G. Samples (1982); M. W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004).
(born May 10, 1838, near Bel Air, Md., U.S.—died April 26, 1865, near Port Royal, Va.) U.S. actor and assassin of Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Born into a family of famous actors, he achieved success in Shakespearean roles but resented the greater acclaim enjoyed by his brother, Edwin Booth. A fanatical believer in slavery and the Southern cause, he made plans with co-conspirators to abduct Lincoln; after several failed attempts, he vowed to destroy the president and his cabinet. On April 14, 1865, he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford's Theatre. Though he broke his leg jumping from the president's box, he was able to escape on horseback to a Virginia farm. Tracked down, he refused to surrender and was shot, either by a soldier or by himself.
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In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1771 he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776 he introduced the first Bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament. Wilkes' increasing conservatism as he grew older caused dissatisfaction among radicals and was instrumental in the loss of his Middlesex seat at the 1790 general election. Wilkes then retired from politics and took no part in the growth of radicalism in the 1790s.
Wilkes was notoriously ugly, being called the ugliest man in England at the time. He possessed an unsightly squint and protruding jaw, but had a charm that carried all before it. He boasted that it "took him only half an hour to talk away his face", though the duration required changed on the several occasions Wilkes repeated the claim. He also declared that "a month's start of his rival on account of his face" would secure him the conquest in any love affair.
He was well known for his verbal wit and his snappy responses to insults. For instance, when told by a constituent that he would rather vote for the devil, Wilkes responded: "Naturally". He then added: "And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?" On another occasion, in an exchange with John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who declared "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox." Wilkes replied "That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress."
Wilkes was initially a supporter of William Pitt the Elder. When the Scottish John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, came to head the government in 1762, Wilkes started a radical weekly publication, The North Briton, to attack him, using an anti-Scots tone. Typical of Wilkes, the title was a satirical take on the Earl's newspaper, The Briton, "North Briton" referring to Scotland.
Bute resigned in 1763 after a very short tenure, but Wilkes was equally opposed to his successor, George Grenville. Wilkes was charged with seditious libel over attacks on George III's endorsement of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 in his speech at the opening of Parliament on 23 April 1763. Wilkes was highly critical of the speech using issue 45 of The North Briton to attack it. The issue number in which Wilkes made his critical editorial was well chosen. Number 45 referred to the Jacobite uprising of 1745, commonly known as "The '45". Bute, being Scottish and highly controversial as an advisor to the King was associated in the popular eye with Jacobitism, and it was this that Wilkes played on.
The King felt personally insulted and general warrants were issued for the arrest of Wilkes and the publishers on 30 April 1763. Forty-nine people, including Wilkes himself, were arrested under the warrants. Wilkes, however, gained considerable popular support as he asserted the unconstitutionality of general warrants and was soon restored to his seat, citing parliamentary privilege. Wilkes began a case against his arresters for trespass. People were chanting "Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45", referring to the newspaper, as a result of this episode.
Wilkes hoped for a change in power to remove the charges, but this did not come to fruition. As his French creditors began to put more pressure on him he had little choice but to return to England in 1768. He returned intending to stand as a Member of Parliament on an anti-government ticket; warrants were not issued for his immediate arrest as the government did not wish to inflame popular support for him. He stood in London and came bottom of the poll of seven candidates, possibly due to his late entry into the race for the position, but was quickly elected MP for Middlesex where most of his support was located. He then handed himself in to the authorities, surrendering to the King's Bench in April and on waiving his parliamentary privilege to immunity he was sentenced to two years and fined £1,000. The charge of outlawry was overturned.
When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, his supporters appeared before King's Bench, London, chanting "No justice, no peace." Troops opened fire on the unarmed men, killing 7 and wounding 15.
Wilkes was expelled from Parliament in February 1769, on the grounds that he was an outlaw at the time when he was returned. He was re-elected by Middlesex in the same month only to be expelled and re-elected in March. In April, having been expelled and winning the election again, Parliament declared his opponent, Henry Luttrell, the winner. In defiance Wilkes had himself elected an alderman of London in 1769, using his supporters' group, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, to campaign for him. Wilkes eventually succeeded in convincing Parliament into expunging the resolution barring him from sitting.
While in parliament he condemned the government's policy towards America during the American Revolution and introduced one of the earliest radical Bills to parliament, albeit unsuccessfully.
His popularity fell after 1780 as he became popularly perceived as less radical. During the popular uprising known as the Gordon Riots, Wilkes was in charge of the soldiers defending the Bank of England from the attacking mobs. It was under his orders that troops fired into the crowds of rioters; seen as a hypocrite by the working classes who had previously seen him as a "man of the people" and scaring off his middle class support with this violent action, the Gordon Riots almost extinguished his popularity.
When the phrase "Wilkes and Liberty!" was said to him in later years, he would turn away.
While he had been returned for the county seat of Middlesex in 1784, he found so little support by 1790 that he withdrew early in the election. The French Revolution of 1789 had proved a very divisive issue, and Wilkes had been against it due to the violent scenes from France. This went against the grain of popular feeling among radicals of the time and was a view associated with more conservative figures of the period such as Edmund Burke.
He spent his final years as a magistrate campaigning for more moderate punishment for disobedient household servants.
British subjects in the American colonies closely followed Wilkes's career. His struggles convinced many colonists that the British constitution was being subverted by a corrupt ministry, an idea that contributed to the coming of the American Revolution. After the Revolution, James Madison explicitly acted on his story when writing measures into the American constitution that prevented Congress from rejecting any legally elected member and proscribing general warrants for arrest.