The Assassination of President Lincoln

We all learned in school that John Wilkes Booth was the man who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, but many of us never learned the entire story of that night. 

Originally, Booth had the brainstorm to kidnap President Lincoln and hand him over to the Confederate Army to be used as a hostage, forcing the Union to resume their recently-abandoned prisoner exchange. To that end, he teamed up with several others to complete the kidnapping. The other conspirators included George Atzerodt, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlen, David Herold, Louis J. Weichmann, Lewis Powell, John Surratt, and Surratt's mother, Mary Surratt, who owned a tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland.

On March 17, 1865, Booth learned that Lincoln would be watching a play at Campbell Military Hospital. The conspirators gathered near the edge of town and had planned to jump and capture Lincoln on his way back from the hospital. But Lincoln had gone instead to a ceremony in another part of town. Ironically, the ceremony was held at the National Hotel, which was where Booth was living at the time, and had he not been waiting for the President to come from the play, he would have been able to easily kill Lincoln at the hotel.

Five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrundered in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on the afternoon of April 14, Booth was at Ford's Theater to pick up his mail and overheard that General Ulysses S. Grant and President Lincoln would be attending a play that very evening. As a local actor, Booth, was very familiar with the layout of the theater, and decided then and there that they would kill Lincoln, General Grant, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward that evening. He reckoned that the chaos which ensued would disrupt the Union government and allow the Confederate Army a chance to resurge and win the Civil War.

Booth called a hasty meeting with his co-conspirators in the early evening, and discussed their plan to do all of their dirty work at exactly the same time. He allowed as how he was going to shoot President Lincoln with a one-shot Deringer and immediately stab General Grant with a knife. He assigned Atzerodt the job of killing Vice President Johnson and Powell to kill Secretary Seward. Herold was given the task of guiding Powell to Seward's house and then back out of the city to Maryland, where they would all meet. 

Atzerodt wanted no part of the murders, insisting that he was okay with kidnapping but not with murder. Booth reminded him that he was already too embroiled in the plot and had no choice in the matter. Grant did not go to the theater after all, declining the invitation apparently because his wife and Mrs. Lincoln did not get along. 

O'Laughlen was dispatched to kill Grant on the train he was riding. That proved to be impossible, due to the privacy of the railroad car and the guards in front of the door to it.

That evening, which happened to be Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, left the White House and went to Ford's Theater in order to watch the play "Our American Cousin."

The man assigned to guard the theater box decided to go to a tavern nearby, leaving the door accessible to anyone who wanted to enter. 

At 10:15 pm, John Wilkes Booth entered the President's box at the theater and shot him in the back of the head. Booth then leapt onto the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and ran out the back door, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis," which is Latin for "Thus always to tyrants" and was the state of Virginia's motto. According to some witness, he also said "The South is avenged!"

Seward was recovering from injuries he suffered when he was thrown from a carriage. He had a broken right arm and broken jaw, so on the night of the assassination, he was bedridden at his house in Washington, near the White House. Powell, armed with both a gun and a bowie knife, knocked on the door and talked his way into the house. 

His mission was bungled, and he tried to shoot the Secretary's son, but the gun misfired. He used it as a club and pistol whipped the son instead.

Powell then dashed to the bed where the Secretary was resting and stabbed him numerous times in the face and neck. The neck brace Seward was wearing kept his jugular vein from being severed. Just about everyone in the house was now aware of what was happening, and the screaming scared co-conspirator Herold away. Powell ran out of the house, but not before a chaotic melee ensued, with several other people being stabbed by Powell. All survived.

Atzerodt, who you might remember was not really interested in the plot any longer, had rented a room on the floor above the Vice President's and was supposed to kill Johnson at 10:15. At that time, however, he went to the bar near the lobby. He eventually got drunk and ended up roaming the streets until he got nervous and threw his knife into the street. He went to another hotel, rented a room, and went to sleep.

Meanwhile, back at Ford's Theater, a doctor who happened to be enjoying the play rushed to President Lincoln's side to attend to the paralyzed President. President Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house, which is where he died early in the morning of April 15, 1865.

Herold and Booth met up, and found a local doctor, Samuel Mudd, to set Booth's leg. They managed to elude authorities for eleven days, settling into a farm in Virginia. Soldiers finally surrounded the farm, and Herold surrendered to them. Booth, however, holed up in the barn, shouting, "I will not be taken alive!"

Soldiers set fire to the barn, forcing Booth to run out the back door where a soldier shot him in the back, severing his spinal cord and paralyzing him. He died a couple of hours later.

Eight prisoners were eventually charged with conspiracy to murder of Abraham Lincoln: Sam Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Dr. Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt.

They were tried by a military tribunal and all were found guilty. Powell, Herold, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were given a death sentence. Seven days after the verdict, they were hanged. Mary was the first woman ever to have been hanged by the United States government.

Mudd, Arnold, and O'Laughlen were sentenced to serve life in prison. O'Laughlen died of yellow fever in 1867.

Spangler, whose crime was tending to Booth's horse, was sentenced to six years in prison. He died in 1875, but had protested his innocence to the end.

John Surratt fled the country immediately after the assassination and ended up in Quebec, where he was hidden by Catholic priests. He eventually made his way to Europe where he became part of the Papal Guard. The authorities arrested him, but he escaped to Egypt, where he was eventually caught. He stood trial but the jury was unable to agree on a verdict, so he lived the rest of his life a free man.

Secretary of State Seward recovered from his wounds and went on to put together the Alaska Purchase, which was known as "Seward's Folly."

Andrew Johnson went on to become one of the most disliked Presidents in history, and was impeached in 1868. He remained in office after the Senate was one vote short of convicting him.

John Ford tried to make a success of Ford's Theater again, but failed, and eventually the building was turned into office space. Years later, the roof collapsed, killing 22 employees. bIn 1968, it was restored to what it looked like in 1865 and is now Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, having had a name change to the British spelling of the word "theater." The Presidential box remains, but it is always empty.

And John Wilkes Booth, once renowned for his acting, is now remembered as the first man to murder an American President. From his diary: "Our country owed all her trouble to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment."