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John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

Born May 10, 1838
Bel Air, Maryland
Died April 26, 1865
Port Royal, Virginia

John Wilkes Booth (May 10, 1838 - April 26, 1865), American actor popular on the stage during the mid-19th century, a supporter of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and infamous as the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.

Early history

Booth was born May 10, 1838 near Bel Air, Maryland, the ninth of ten children born to famed actor Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. He was named after a distant relative John Wilkes, a radical politician in the British Parliament. His brothers Junius Jr. and Edwin were also actors, with Edwin on the way to becoming the finest actor on the American stage. John Wilkes Booth attended several private schools - including an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland known as St. Timothy's Hall - but he got into acting after his father's death in 1852. He made his stage debut as the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare's Richard III in August, 1855, when he was just 17. In 1858 he joined the Richmond (Virginia) Theater and became enchanted with the South and their way of life (the remainder of his family considered themselves Northerners). At 5'8", with jet-black hair, ivory skin, and an athletic build, he was considered the "handsomest man in America" by many newspaper writers. He was also among the first American actors to have a fan base with women; many cartes de visits - akin to studio photographs or sports cards today - were made and distributed by him or the theaters which presented his appearances (TL 26, pp. 34, 60).

By 1860 he was earning over $20,000 a year, starring in Shakespearian plays such as Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, and Macbeth.


As he was just getting into acting in the 1850s he also dabbled in politics. He became a member of the American Party, a nativist organization which declared that America was only for native-born whites, and whose secrecy led to the derisive epithet "Know-Nothing" as a second title. In 1859, already entrenched on the Richmond stage, he disguised himself as a private in the 1st Virginia Regiment to witness the execution of abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town (now West Virginia).

Plans against Lincoln

The Booth brothers (l-r: John Wilkes Booth, Edwin, Junius Jr.) used their name and talent to raise funds for the construction of a statue to William Shakespeare in New York City on November 25, 1864, when they appeared together in the play Julius Caesar
Ford's Theater; the black crepe went up almost immediately after Lincoln's death.

Several times the Lincolns had viewed the performance of Booth, including the play The Marble Heart on November 9, 1863 at Ford's Theater. Mary B. Clay, a daughter to an American diplomat to Russia, saw this performance as well, and reflected that not all was well with Booth; indeed, she thought Booth meant to do the president harm:

In the theater President and Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and I, Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay, occupied the same box which the year after saw Mr. Lincoln slain by Booth. I do not recall the play, but Wilkes Booth played the part of villain. The box was right on the stage, with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and the other gentlemen farther around. Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln's face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, "Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you." "Well," he said, "he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?" (Helm, pg. 243)

Booth began making plans to stage a kidnapping of Lincoln during the summer of 1864; the president would be taken to Richmond and held hostage in exchange for Confederate soldiers languishing in Federal prison camps. To this end he collected several men as co-conspirators, among them childhood friends Michael O'Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, John Surratt, and David Herold. German immigrant George Atzerodt came into the plans later, as he had owned a ferry at Port Tobacco on the Potomac in Maryland. Ex-Confederate soldier Lewis Thornton Powell was brought in to add some muscle, as Lincoln was a physically-powerful man. In Washington D.C. on March 15, 1865 Booth met with all the men to stage an abduction; Lincoln was to attend a play at Campbell Hospital outside Washington on March 17, with the plan that he would be taken from his carraige while on the way there. But the plans fell through when Lincoln attended another event. Within days, and with the realization that the South was going to lose the war, Booth changed his plans from kidnapping to murder.

The assassination

On Friday, April 14, Booth learned that the president, his wife, and guests General Ulysses S. Grant and wife Julia would be attending the performance of Our American Cousin. Giving his men their orders, Powell was to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, and Atzerodt was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson in his hotel room; Booth wanted the glory of killing Lincoln himself.

Lincoln failed to get the Grants to the theater; they declined his invitation. Lincoln then went to Stanton, asking for Major Thomas Eckert, a burly man who could provide a reasonable amount of protection in a fight, but he declined as well, citing work which needed to be done. Finally, Lincoln invited a young couple engaged to be married, Major Henry R. Rathbone and Clara Harris, the daughter of a New York senator.

Ford's Theater that night was holding a performance of Our American Cousin, a comedy starring Laura Keene as a British dowager who believes that a visiting country bumpkin (played by Harry Hawk) is a millionaire. Good Friday was usually a slow night for the theater, but the cast, excited that they would entertain the president, prepared to entertain a full house (TL 26, pg. 73). The play was already in progress when the president arrived, and stopped when Lincoln was seen; the performers and audience rose and gave a standing ovation while the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief”. Inside their box, decorated that night with flags by the son of the theater's owner, they were seated. Lincoln in a rocking chair on the far left, Mary in a chair next to him, and Major Rathbone and his fiancée on a small sofa to their right. Beneficial to Booth was the fact that a guard whose job it was to protect the president had left for a better seat to view the play.

After a few drinks at Taltavul's Star Saloon, Booth entered Ford's Theater from the front and walked up the stairs behind the dress circle towards the president's box. Entering the first door, he slipped a wooden beam (which he had brought and hidden earlier in the day) under the door knob to prevent it from being opened, crept to the second door, and peered through a small hole, looking at the back of the chair Lincoln was sitting in. He then opened it, and pulled out a single-shot Derringer pistol and a large dagger.

On the stage, Laura Keene was speaking her lines.

”I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, that you are not used to the manners of polite society.”

Harry Hawk, as Trenchard:

”Heh, heh. Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sock-dologizing old man trap!”

While the audience reeled with laughter, a gunshot was heard in the box. Booth jumped from the box to the stage - landing awkwardly and breaking his left leg after his spur caught a flag hanging off the box - turned to the audience with the boody knife in his hand, and shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!" ("Thus always with tyrants") before escaping across the stage, exiting the back of the building and escaping out of the city on a horse he rented and had held by a stableman behind the theater. Booth rode down the alley, turned left up another alley, turned onto "F" Street, and headed toward the Navy Yard Bridge. Although the bridge was guarded by Sergeant Cobb and his detail, no passes had been required for crossing since the first of April. Thus, as the guards were there as a matter of routine rather than of necessity, Booth and fellow conspirator David Herold, who arrived separately, were allowed to pass without hindrance. The two men rendezvoused later and then headed to the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD) where they arrived shortly after midnight. At the tavern, they picked up supplies (including two Spencer carbines, ammunition, and field glasses) before continuing south. The pain of his broken leg would delay his escape, causing him to seek a doctor.

That same night Secretary Seward was nearly killed by Powell, who forced his way up the stairs to his bedroom and slashed him with a knife before escaping himself. Atzerodt, instead of killing Vice President Johnson, holed up in his hotel room and got drunk; both men were arrested within days.

Escape and death

Rewards for the capture of Booth and his accomplices totaled $100,000, the largest sum of money for wanted men at that time.
Booth's end at Richard Garrett's farm, as illustrated for Harper's Weekly, May 13, 1865

At 4:00 a.m. on April 15 they arrived at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth received medical treatment for his injured leg and both men were extended hospitality by the Mudds (Mudd was arrested several days later). Early that afternoon Booth and Herold headed into the nearby Zekiah swamp and were guided by Oswell Swann, a free black. About midnight, Swann brought the two men to their next destination, the home of southern sympathizer, Colonel Samuel Cox, who provided them with food for the next four days. On April 20, Thomas A. Jones, Cox's adopted son, led them to the Potomac River. Instead of crossing the river to Virginia, they headed north on the Potomac and landed on the Maryland side at the home of southern sympathizer Peregrin Davis. The next night, they successfully crossed the river to Virginia, where they stayed at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Quesenberry, a woman who was well connected to the Confederate spy network. Thomas Harbin, an acquaintance of Booth and originally part of the plan to capture President Lincoln, took them to William Bryant and then to Dr. Richard Stuart's home. Stuart, however, did not allow the two men to remain at his home. Booth and Herold went to the cabin of William Lucas, another free black man, forcibly removing Lucas and his wife from the cabin for the night.

On the morning of April 24, Booth and Herold left the cabin of William Lucas in a wagon driven by Lucas' son Charles. He drove the men about 10 miles to the ferry at Port Conway, in King George County, Virginia.

As Booth and Herold were crossing the Rappahannock River, they were greeted by three former Confederate soldiers. 1st Lt. Mortimer B. Ruggles, his cousin Pvt. Absalom R. Bainbridge along with Pvt. William S. Jett. Later Herold boasted to the soldiers that they had killed President Lincoln. Jett aided Booth and Herold by eventually finding shelter for the pair at the Garrett farm. Herold then left Booth at the Garrett farm with the three soldiers and headed for Bowling Green, Virginia. The men stopped at a tavern, described by some as a "house of entertainment," and continued chatting and drinking for several hours. Herold spent the night of April 23 at a nearby family farm. The next morning two ex-Confederate soldiers brought Herold back to the Garrett farm.

During his run he managed to pencil a few entries to a diary explaining his actions; he never regreted killing Lincoln, and in one line sought to place part of the responsibility on God:

"I can never repent it, though we hated to kill: Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to out-live my country [i.e., the Confederacy]. This night (before the deed), I wrote a long article and left it for one of the Editors of the National Inteligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings." [1]

Meanwhile, twenty-five members of the 16th New York Cavalry unit, under the command of Lt. Edward Doherty, were following Booth's trail. Lt. Doherty had found out from a shad fisherman, Dick Wilson, that Pvt. Jett had been on the ferry with Booth on the morning of April 24. Doherty was also told that Jett had a girl friend in nearby Bowling Green and Jett could be found there.

Several hours after arriving at the Star Hotel, Detective Everton Conger, one of Doherty's men, forced Jett to reveal Booth's location. In the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, the column of soldiers arrived at the Garrett farm and were told by the Garrett's of two men sleeping in the farm's tobacco shed.

At first Booth refused to surrender, and about 4 a.m., the tobacco shed was set afire. The blaze allowed the soldiers to see Booth moving in the wooden building with a pistol and a rifle. It was at this point that Sergeant Boston Corbett fired his own pistol, claiming later that it was to prevent Booth from killing more people (Corbett, a strange man who had castrated himself after a vision, would tell the world that God directed him to shoot Booth). Several soldiers dragged Booth, still alive, from the burning structure.

Booth had been shot in the neck. As he was laid on a wooden porch, he was found to be paralyzed from the neck down and whispering "tell my mother I did it for my country.” As he lay dying, he asked that his hands, so instrumental to his acting skills, be held up to his face. “Useless…useless” was his last words. [2]

The remains of Booth were placed on board the monitor USS Montawk, then anchored in the Potomac, where they were positively identified by acquaintances who had known Booth, and physicians who had kept detailed medical and dental records of him. The body was placed in a pine box and buried on the grounds of the Old Capitol Prison - where four of his fellow conspirators would soon join him after their trial and execution in June, 1865 - and there they stayed for two years before being released to the Booth family for burial in Baltimore. Beneath an imposing obelisk he lies buried in an unmarked grave; occasionally a court reviews a petition to exhume to body to determine if it is really Booth's or that of a double, according to the many conspiracy theories. Each time the request is denied.

In the aftermath, the New York Times published a private letter of Booth revealing his motives.[1]


  • Helm, Katherine. Mary, Wife of Lincoln; New York, Harper and Brothers (1928).
  • Time-Life Books The Civil War, vol. 1 (Brother Against Brother), Time Inc, New York (1983)
  • Time-Life Books, The Civl War, vol. 26 (The Assassination), Time, Inc. New York (1987).
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York (1954)
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon and Schuster, New York (2005)
  • Hanchett, William. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, University of Illinois (1983)
  • Hanchett, William. Booth's Diary, .pdf posted here: [3]
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln, Jonathan Cafe (Random House), London (1995)
  • Bak, Richard. The Day Lincoln Was Shot - An Illustrated Chronicle, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas (1998)
  • Bryan, George S. The Great American Myth, Carrick and Evans, Inc. New York (1940)
  • Chamlee, Roy Z. Lincoln's Assassins - A Complete Account of Their Capture, Trial and Punishment, McFarland and Co., Jefferson, NC (1990)
  • Oldroyd, Osborn H. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, privately published, Washington, DC (1901)
  • Eyewitness to History: The Death of John Wilkes Booth