On Friday April 14, 1865, the United States of America was shocked when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The president was at Ford’s Theater attending a play called Our American Cousin, and he was assassinated by an actor named John Wilkes Booth. But John Wilkes Booth was no ordinary actor at Ford’s Theater. Booth was a highly respected actor who used his charisma, charm, and good looks to forge a very successful career on stages around the country. The assassination of the president was only one part of a conspiracy that Booth concocted to overthrow the entire United States government. Booth had targeted the vice president and several other members of the federal government for assassination by his cohorts on the same night he was to kill the president, but Booth would be the only person who would succeed in eliminating his target.
On Friday, April 14, 1865, the United States of America was shocked when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The president was at Ford’s Theater attending a play called Our American Cousin, and he was assassinated by an actor named John Wilkes Booth. But John Wilkes Booth was no ordinary actor at Ford’s Theater. Booth was a highly respected actor who used his charisma, charm, and good looks to forge a very successful career on stages around the country. The assassination of the president was only one part of a conspiracy that Booth concocted to overthrow the entire United States government. Booth had targeted the vice president and several other members of the federal government for assassination by his cohorts on the same night he was to kill the president, but Booth would be the only person who would succeed in eliminating his target.
Prior to the assassination, on March 17, 1865, Booth and his group attempted to kidnap President Lincoln as the president left Campbell Military Hospital after attending a play called Still Waters Run Deep. But the plan was thwarted when the president decided to attend a different military ceremony instead of attending the play. It was at that point that Booth indicated that he had plans to kill the president as the president gave his inaugural address, but he could not get close enough to the president to pull off his plan. Booth vowed to get the job done, and he chose April 14 as his date.
Approximately 10 days before the assassination, President Lincoln revealed to his wife, Mary Todd, that he had a dream about people weeping in the White House over the death of an important figure. When the president asked a soldier in his dream who everyone was crying about, the soldier said, “the president.” The timing of that dream was never lost on Mary Todd Lincoln, and she often referred to it when discussing the assassination in subsequent interviews.
The president had a very pleasant day leading up to the assassination, but he had been disappointed when his son decided to stay home for the night and sleep. Lincoln’s son had fought in the Civil War and had just arrived home to the White House a few days earlier. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were supposed to accompany the president to the theater that night, but they had to cancel for personal reasons. In the general’s place was sent Maj. Henry Rathbone and his wife. While the major was not necessarily sent as a security guard, his military experience was thought to offer the president an additional layer of security.
At approximately 10:25 p.m., Booth used his status as a familiar actor to the theater’s staff to gain access to the outer lobby of the president’s box. Booth was surprised to see that there were no security guards anywhere in the lobby, so he slowly opened the door to the president’s box and prepared his Philadelphia Derringer pistol to be fired. Booth waited for a line in the play that elicited a particularly loud round of laughter from the audience, and that is when he lurched forward and shot President Lincoln once in the back of the head.
After firing the fatal shot, Booth leaped from the box to the stage shouting the Virginia state motto, “Sic semper tyrannis!”, which is Latin for “Thus always the tyrants!” As Booth leaped to the stage, he caught the spur of his boot on the American flag that draped over the president’s box and fell to the stage in an awkward manner. He broke his leg and limped off the stage as quickly as he could.
The entire theater, audience and theater staff included, thought that what had happened was part of the show. But when Mary Todd Lincoln shouted out, “He’s shot the president!” and Rathbone shouted, “Stop that man!”, the audience and actors slowly realized that what had happened was real. By the time everyone was able to grasp the situation, Booth had escaped the theater and was headed for what he thought was safety in the former Confederate States of America.
Links and Resources
To learn more about the Lincoln assassination, look at the following sites:
- The Peterson House: After Booth shot President Lincoln, the president was rushed across the street to the Peterson House, where he died the next morning.
- Historical Medical Sites in the Washington, D.C., Area: It is not widely known that two years after the assassination of the president, the U.S. Army turned Ford’s Theater into a temporary hospital.
- The Assassination of President Lincoln: This is a quick review of the assassination of the president using some of the more famous images inspired by the event.
- The Lincoln Assassination: Selected Images From the Library of Congress: It can be chilling to look at actual photographs and see the artists’ renderings of the people and events that took place in Ford’s Theater that night.
- The Case of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination Pistol: Even though the FBI was not operating in 1865, that did not stop the federal investigators of today from putting together a case file on the gun used in the assassination of President Lincoln.
- Andrew Johnson: Immediately after the assassination of President Lincoln, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president of the United States.
- The Autopsy of President Lincoln: Read the actual autopsy report from the assassination of President Lincoln here.
- Death of Abraham Lincoln, April 15-26, 1865: Sometimes, seeing the actual documents that were handwritten to announce the tragic death of President Lincoln can give a historical perspective on the event.
- Biography of John Wilkes Booth: John Wilkes Booth enjoyed a life of fame and luxury before deciding to give it all up for a cause that only he believed in.
- Character and Death of Abraham Lincoln: You can get a very good understanding of how people felt about President Lincoln when you read newspaper accounts of his life and death from 1865.
- The Assassination of President Lincoln: The assassination of Lincoln was so enthralling to the public that it appeared in a chapter of the book “Behind the Scenes,” published in 1868.
- The Lincoln Presidency: Last Full Measure of Devotion: When President Lincoln was assassinated, even the South realized it had lost someone who would fight for the rights of every human being.
- Diary Account of the Assassination of President Lincoln: Otis Keene was a Civil War veteran who wrote about the pain the whole country felt when President Lincoln was assassinated.
- Lincoln’s Last Night: The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association brings together a wide variety of resources to give as many details as possible about the life and death of President Lincoln.