John Wilkes Booth (May 10, 1838 – April 26, 1865) was an American stage actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865. Lincoln died the next day from a single gunshot wound to the back of the head, becoming the first American president to be assassinated.
Booth was a member of the prominent 19th century Booth family of actors from Maryland and by the 1860s was a popular, nationally-ranked actor. He was also a Confederate sympathizer and expressed vehement dissatisfaction with the South's defeat in the American Civil War. He opposed Lincoln's proposal to extend voting rights to recently emancipated slaves.
Booth, and a group of co-conspirators led by him, planned to kill Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a desperate bid to help the tottering Confederacy's cause. Although Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered four days earlier, Booth believed the war was not yet over since Confederate General Joseph Johnston's army was still fighting the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman. Of the conspirators, only Booth was successful in carrying out his part of the plot.
Following the shooting, Booth fled by horseback to southern Maryland and eventually to a farm in rural northern Virginia, where he was tracked down and killed by Union soldiers twelve days later. Several of the other conspirators were tried and hanged shortly thereafter. In later years, some have suggested that Booth escaped his pursuers and subsequently died many years later under a pseudonym.
As a boy, John Wilkes Booth attended the Bel Air Academy, where the headmaster described him 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". 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 school in Catonsville, Maryland, beginning when he was 13 years old. As recounted by Booth's sister, Asia Booth Clarke, in her memoirs written in 1874, no one church was preeminent in the Booth household. Booth's mother was Episcopalian and his father was described as a "free spirit", preferring a Sunday walk along the Baltimore waterfront with his children to attending church. On January 23, 1853, the 14-year old Booth was finally baptized at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.
While attending the Milton Boarding School, the youth met a Gypsy fortune-teller who read his palm and pronounced a grim destiny, telling Booth that he would have a grand but short life, doomed to die young, meeting "a bad end". According to his sister, Booth wrote down the palm-reader's prediction and showed it to his family, often discussing its portents in moments of melancholy in later years.
By the age of 16, Booth was interested in the theatre and in politics, becoming a delegate from Bel Air to a rally by the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party for Henry Winter Davis, their candidate for Congress in the 1854 elections. Booth also began practicing elocution daily in the woods around Tudor Hall and studying the works of Shakespeare. At age 17, he had his first stage role as the Earl of Richmond in Richard III at Baltimore's Charles Street Theatre on August 14, 1855.
On December 2, 1859, Booth attended the hanging of militant abolitionist John Brown, who was executed for leading a raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in present-day West Virginia). Booth bought a uniform from a member of the Richmond Grays militia unit, which was heading for Charles Town, and he joined the Grays, who stood guard for Brown's trial. When Brown was hanged, Booth stood at the foot of the scaffold.
Although Booth was pro-Confederate, his family, like many Marylanders, was divided, and to preserve harmony among his brothers, Booth promised his mother that he would not enlist in the Confederate Army. As a popular actor in the 1860s, he travelled extensively to perform in both North and South, and as far west as New Orleans, Louisiana. He further enriched himself by investments in land and oil wells. According to his sister Asia, Booth confided to her that he also used his position to smuggle quinine to the South during his travels there, helping the Confederacy obtain the needed drug despite the Northern blockade.
Booth was outspoken in his love for the South, and equally outspoken in his hatred for Lincoln. As the Civil War went on, Booth increasingly quarreled with his brother Edwin, who declined to make any stage appearances in the South and refused to listen to John Wilkes' fiercely partisan denunciations of the North and President Lincoln. In early 1862, Booth was arrested by a provost marshal in St. Louis for making anti-government remarks.
Booth and Lincoln crossed paths on several occasions. Lincoln was an avid theater-goer and especially loved Shakespeare. On November 9, 1863, Lincoln saw Booth in Charles Selby's The Marble Heart at Ford's Theatre in Washington. 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 sat in the same "presidential box" in which he would later be assassinated.
Booth made a final appearance at Ford's on March 18, 1865, when he played Duke Pescara in The Apostate, in what was the last appearance of his career. However, Booth's family were long time friends with John T. Ford, the theater's owner, and Booth was in and out of the theater so often during the war that he even had his mail sent there. This granted Booth complete access to Ford's Theatre, day and night.
By 1864, the tide of the war had shifted in the North's favor. The North halted prisoner exchange in an attempt to diminish the size of the Confederate Army, and because the Confederates refused to exchange captured African-American soldiers. Booth began devising a plan to kidnap Lincoln from his summer residence at the Old Soldiers Home three miles (5 km) from the White House and smuggle him across the Potomac and into Richmond. He would be exchanged for the release of around 10,000 Southern soldiers held captive in Northern prisons. He successfully recruited his old friends Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlin as accomplices.
In the summer of 1864, Booth met with several well-known Confederate sympathizers at The Parker House in Boston, Massachusetts. In October 1864, he made an unexplained trip to Montreal. At the time, Montreal was a well-known center of clandestine Confederate activities. He spent ten days in the city and stayed for a time at St. Lawrence Hall, a meeting place for the Confederate Secret Service, and met at least one blockade runner there. It is possible that it was here that he also met Confederate Secret Service director James D. Bulloch, as well as George Nicholas Sanders, a one-time U.S. ambassador to Britain. Booth is believed to have been active in the "Knights of the Golden Circle", described as a "nest of 'Secesh' spies" (that is, pro-secessionist).
There has been much scholarly attention devoted to why Booth was in Montreal at this time, and what he was doing there. No solid evidence has ever linked Booth's kidnapping or assassination plots to a conspiracy involving any elements of the Confederate government, although this possibility had been explored at some length in two books; Nathan Miller's Spying For America and William Tidwell's Come Retribution: the Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln.
Booth began to devote more and more of his energy and money to his plot to kidnap Lincoln after his re-election in early November 1864. He assembled a loose-knit band of Southern sympathizers, including David Herold, George Atzerodt, John Surratt, and Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne). They began to meet routinely at the boarding-house of Surratt's mother, Mrs. Mary Surratt.
On November 25, 1864, he performed for the first and only time with his two brothers, Edwin and Junius, in a single engagement production of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. The proceeds went towards a statue of Shakespeare for Central Park which still stands today. The performance was interrupted by a failed attempt by clandestine Confederate agents to burn down several hotels, and by extension the city of New York, with Greek fire. One of the hotels was next door to the theater, but the fire was quickly extinguished. The following morning, Booth argued bitterly with his brother, Edwin, about Lincoln and the war.
Booth also railed against Lincoln in conversations with his sister Asia, saying, "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." As the Confederacy's imminent defeat became more certain in 1865, Booth decried the end of slavery and Lincoln's election to a second term, "making himself a king", the disgruntled actor fumed, in "wild tirades", his sister recalled.
Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration, on March 4, 1865, as the invited guest of his secret fiancée, Lucy Hale. (Lucy's father, John P. Hale, was Lincoln's minister to Spain.) In the crowd below were Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold. There seems to have been no attempt to kidnap or assassinate Lincoln during the inauguration. Later, however, Booth remarked about "what a wonderful chance" he had to shoot Lincoln, if he had so chosen.
On March 17, Booth learned at the last minute that Lincoln would be attending a performance of the play Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital near the Soldier's Home. Booth assembled his team on a stretch of road near the Soldier's Home in the attempt to kidnap Lincoln en route to the hospital, but the president never showed up. Booth later learned that the President had changed his plans at the last moment to attend a reception at the National Hotel in Washington, where Booth was staying at the time.
On April 12, after hearing the news that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Booth 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. Although Weichmann did not understand the reference, Venice Preserv'd is about an assassination plot.
The previous day, Booth was in the crowd outside the White House when Lincoln gave an impromptu speech from his window. When Lincoln stated that he was in favor of granting suffrage to the former slaves, Booth declared that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever make. \"Our cause being almost lost\", Booth wrote in his journal, \"something decisive and great must be done.\"
On the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Booth learned that the President and Mrs. Lincoln would be attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. He immediately set about making plans for the assassination, which included a getaway horse waiting outside, and an escape route. 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 assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. Herold would assist in their escape into Virginia.
By targeting Lincoln and his two immediate successors to the office, Booth seems to have intended to decapitate the Union government and throw it into a state of panic and confusion. Booth also planned to assassinate the Union commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant; however, Grant's wife had promised to visit family and so they were heading to New Jersey. Booth had hoped that the assassinations would create sufficient chaos within the Union that the Confederate government could reorganize and continue the war.
As a famous and popular actor, Booth was a friend of the owner of Ford's Theatre, John T. Ford, and had free access to all parts of the theater. Boring a spyhole into the presidential box earlier that day, the assassin could see if his intended victim had made it to the play. That evening, at around 10 p.m., as the play progressed, John Wilkes Booth slipped into Lincoln's box and shot him in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer. Booth's escape was almost thwarted by Major Henry Rathbone, who was present in the Presidential box with Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln.
Booth then jumped from the President's box and fell to the stage, injuring his leg when it snagged on a U.S. Treasury Guard flag used for decoration. Witnesses said he shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" (Latin for "Thus always to tyrants", attributed to Brutus at Caesar's assassination and the Virginia state motto) from the stage, while others said he added, "The South is avenged."
A detachment of 25 Union soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment, led by Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty, and accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger, pursued Booth through Southern Maryland and across the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers to Richard H. Garrett's farm, just south of Port Royal, Caroline County, Virginia. Booth and his companion, David E. Herold, had been led to the farm by William S. Jett, formerly a private in the 9th Virginia Cavalry, whom they had met before crossing the Rappahannock.
Booth was surprised when he found little sympathy for his action, and wrote of his dismay in a journal entry on April 21, just before crossing the Potomac River into Virginia (see map, left), "[W]ith 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".
Conger tracked down Jett and interrogated him, learning of Booth's location at the Garrett farm. Early in the morning of April 26, 1865, the soldiers caught up with Booth there. Trapped in a tobacco barn, David Herold surrendered. Booth refused to surrender and the soldiers then set the barn ablaze.
Sergeant Boston Corbett fired at Booth — whether orders to shoot were given is uncertain — fatally wounding him in the neck. Booth was dragged from the barn and died three hours later, at age 26, on the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. The bullet had severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him. In his last dying moments, he reportedly whispered "tell my mother I died for my country". Asking that his hands be raised to his face so he could see them, Booth uttered his Last words, "Useless, useless," and died as dawn was breaking.
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." John Wilkes Booth's body was taken aboard the ironclad USS Montauk and brought to the Washington Navy Yard for identification and an autopsy. The body was then buried in a storage room at the Old Penitentiary at the Washington Arsenal. When the prison was razed in 1867, the body was moved to a warehouse on the Arsenal grounds. 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 James Fleming, minister of Christ Episcopal Church.
Some individuals and writers have advanced theories that Booth escaped his pursuers and died years later under a pseudonym. An early popularizer of these "Booth Escape" theories was Finis L. Bates, who claimed to have met Booth in Granbury, Texas in the 1870s and later to have taken possession of Booth's body after his suicide in Enid, Oklahoma in 1903. He toured the mummified body in carnival sideshows and wrote The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (1907) in order to authenticate the mummy.
The Lincoln Conspiracy details the assassination, the Boyd plot, and Booth's escape to the swamps. The Curse of Cain: The Untold Story of John Wilkes Booth. continues with the claim that Booth escaped, sought refuge in Japan and eventually returned to the United States where he died in Enid, Oklahoma in 1903. Another is that a man claiming to be Booth lived into the 1900s in Missouri. In the mid-1990s, an attempt was mounted to force the exhumation of Booth's presumed remains in order to conduct a photo-superimposition study. This 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. Records made public by the FBI give no information to support the escape theory.