Even before he became famous as the first man to assassinate a United States president, John Wilkes Booth was a well-known name. Born into one of the most famous acting families in America, Booth was the ninth of ten children of Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland. His mother was Mary Ann Holmes, his father’s mistress until 10 May 1851 when they were married.
Booth and his brother Edwin were athletic young men who loved fencing and horses. Booth attended Bel Air Academy for a time, but was described as an ‘indifferent’ student. He later attended Saint Timothy Academy, an Episcopal military academy, where he studied the classical arts.
Booth’s father died when Booth was fourteen. At sixteen, he began to take an interest in the stage and in politics, on 14 August 1855, aged seventeen, he made his stage debut in Baltimore, Maryland.
John Wilkes Booth was often described as handsome and athletic. By the time the American Civil War broke out, he was earning as much as $20,000 a year, a sum equal to about half a million dollars today. During the war, he performed primarily in the Union and in the border states. When Booth T. Ford reopened his theatre in Washington, DC, in 1863, Booth was one of the first leading men to appear there in a play entitled The Marble Heart. Sitting in a box seat just above the stage was President Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s final appearance at Ford’s would be 18 March 1865 in a play entitled The Apostle.
While his acting career and fame grew, Booth’s political views did as well. He was so strongly opposed to abolition that he joined the Richmond Grays, a 1,500-man volunteer militia group that traveled to Charlestown, Virginia, (now West Virginia) in order to guard the hanging of John Brown on 2 December 1859 and prevent any rescue attempts.
Booth traveled throughout the south during the war, often using acting to cover his spying and smuggling. He provided precious quinine to the south and was arrested in Saint Louis, Missouri, for making treasonous remarks. He paid a hefty fine, took an oath of allegiance to the Union and was released.
In February 1865, he became infatuated with a young woman named Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of New Hampshire Senator, John P. Hale. The two became secretly engaged. Lucy later claimed to be unaware of Booth hatred for Lincoln.
Plots to assassinate the president
Booth’s plots against Lincoln began as early as 1864, but did not initially involve murder. At first, the plan was to kidnap the president and hold him as leverage in exchange for Confederate prisoners. Booth felt that it would force the Union to recognize the Confederacy.
Booth is believed to have worked with southern sympathizers in Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, and as far north as Canada. In October 1864, he traveled to Montreal where he reportedly met with the Confederate Secret Service. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Confederate government co-operated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
After Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, Booth began to meet with David Herald, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell and John Surratt at the Surratt Boarding House in Washington, DC. On 17 March 1865, the group learned that Lincoln was scheduled to attend a play at the Old Soldier’s Home, about three miles from the Executive Mansion. Booth gathered his co-conspirators together, but due to a last minute change of plans, Lincoln never arrived.
By the time Booth began to make plans to kidnap the president, he and his brother, Edwin, were estranged. On 12 April 1865, a boarder at Surratt’s named Louis J. Weichman claimed that Booth said that he was planning to quit the stage. It was at this point that the kidnap planned turned to assassination. The previous day, Lincoln had given a speech supporting suffrage for freedmen. Booth declared to Weichman that it would be the last speech Lincoln ever made. Two days later, Booth would make good on the promise.
It was Good Friday, 14 April, 1865. The play Our American Cousin starring Laura Keene was playing at Ford’s Theatre. Booth received word that Lincoln, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and General Ulysses S. Grant were planning to attend the evening performance. Booth briefed his accomplices: Lewis Powell was to kill Secretary of State William Seward; George Atzerodt was to seek out and kill Vice President Andrew Johnson; and David Herold was to assist in the escape for which Booth had already made preparation.
Around 10 pm, Booth entered the theatre and forced his way into Lincoln’s box and jammed the door behind him. He drew a derringer and shot the president point blank in the back of the head. He died at 7.22 the following morning, Easter Day, 15 April. General Grant and his wife had opted not to attend the play. Instead, Major Henry Rathebone and his fiancé, Clara Harris, had joined the Lincolns. Rathbone struggled with Booth and was injured. The actor vaulted over the edge of the presidential box, landing on the stage. It is believe that this was when Booth broke his leg by catching it in the bunting draped around the box and making a bad landing on the stage. He shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for ‘death to tyrants’) and ran offstage.
A horse awaited Booth at the rear stage door and he rode out of Washington to meet David Herold. Lewis Powell forced his way into the home of William Seward and attempted to stab the secretary of state, who was in bed recovering from an accident. Powell was unsuccessful. George Atzerodt got drunk and made no attempt on Vice President Johnson. Powell and Atzerodt were captured quickly. Herold and Booth had escaped, but not for long.
The escape route taken by Herold and Booth had been chosen carefully. It was rural; there was no telegraph and no railroads to carry the news of the president’s death. It was also an area where Confederate sympathizers could be found to aid in their escape. Preparations had also been made in advance. The two stopped at Mary Surratt’s tavern in Surrattsville to fetch supplies left there earlier. They moved on to St. Catherine where they stopped to ask for medical help from Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd set Booth’s broken leg, but later claimed not to know who his patient was.
It is possible that word had not yet reached Mudd that the president had been killed or that Booth was the culprit. In spite of being praised as the handsomest man in America, Booth’s face would not have been readily recognized by most people as a well-known actor today would be. Booth told Mudd that he had broken his leg falling from his horse, and Mudd had no reason not to believe him.
While Booth and Herold were working their way southward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was rounding up every possible culprit and witness. Powell and Atzerodt were quickly arrested, along with Mary Surratt who owned the boarding house where the conspirators held their meetings. A $100,000 reward was issued for the capture of Booth and any fellow conspirators.
In return for his successful slaying of a man he saw as a tyrant, Booth expected a hero’s welcome from the people of the south. Instead, he was condemned. Some southerners feared Union retribution. Booth and Herold spent days hiding out in swamps and waiting for news and southern reaction. Booth was disappointed that he was seen as a murderer rather than a savior.
The Killing of an Assassin
While Booth and Herold were hiding, Lt. Edward P. Doherty led twenty-six men of the 16th New York Cavalry in search of Booth. They tracked him to a farm in Virginia owned by Richard Garrett. Garrett had allowed David Herold and Booth, who had been introduced to him as James Boyd, to sleep in the tobacco barn. It was here that the 16th New York Cavalry found them on 26 April 1865, twelve days after the president had been shot.
Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. The barn was set on fire in hopes of forcing Booth out. Sgt. Boston Corbett became overzealous. He saw Booth through a knothole in the planks and shot the assassin. Booth was pulled from the burning building and taken to the porch of the Garrett House. The bullet had caught him in the neck and Booth was paralyzed from the neck down. He died three hours later.
Booth’s body was wrapped in a blanket and taken to the Washington Naval Yard. The body was identified and autopsied before it was released to the family in 1869. Booth was eventually interred in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was 26 years old.