Monthly Archives: April 2014

Killing Lincoln

Before I saw this interesting documentary, my knowledge on the subject of John Wilkes Booth, the young man who shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, was limited.  The only thing that most people remember about the tragic night of 15 April 1865 is that Booth murdered Lincoln, but in fact, what Booth designed was a plot to decapitate the United States government by taking out, not just the President, but Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.  Obviously, his plan failed, but the story is one of the greatest conspiracies in American history, maybe even the greatest of all time.

John Wilkes Booth was an actor of the stage and had been dubbed the handsomest man in America, with jet-black curling hair and a lean yet athletic figure of five feet and ten inches in height.  The son of British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and his beloved mistress and later wife Mary Ann Holmes, Booth was the ninth of ten children born to the couple and was constantly in the shadow of his brothers, Edwin and Junius Jr, also actors.  Unknown to most Americans, Booth was an agent of the Confederacy, complete with a magnetic personality, though he was self-assured and known best for his energetic, tense, and passionate skills on stage.  However, he was strongly opposed to the Union in the North during the Civil War, himself being a Southerner who hated President Lincoln with a passion.  He was very outspoken on his hatred for the President and in 1864, he masterminded a plot, not to murder, but to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war.  But his plans changed when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on 12 April 1865, effectively ending the american Civil War.  As Lincoln delivered a speech from a high window announcing his wish for emancipation of all slaves in both the north and the south, Booth, who was in the crowd that night, nearly shot him dead then and there in his rage, but was heard to say “Now, by God, I’ll put him through! That is the last speech he will ever give.”

And so on the fateful evening of 14 April 1865, Booth’s plan was put into motion.  His associates gathered at a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt before taking on their designated roles.  While Booth was to take out the President, Confederate soldier Lewis Powell was to assassinate the Secretary of State and German immigrant George Atzerodt was assigned the task of murdering the Vice-President.  Atzerodt lost his nerve at the last second and decided to drink at the inn instead, while Powell entered the home of Secretary Seward in the guise of a delivery boy, where Seward was recovering from a carriage accident and was thus bedridden at the time.  Powell stabbed the Secretary multible times, the only thing saving his life being the metal brace he wore around his neck.  He made his way out of the Seward house and into the night, slicing up everyone in his path, but killing no one.

Allthewhile, Booth had made his way to Ford’s Theatre, where the President and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were attending the performance of the comedy Our American Cousin, along with their friend Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance Clara Harris.  1700 people were in attendance, but not one made a sound as Booth crept up the short flight of stairs to the Presidential Box, where Lincoln’s bodyguard was conveniently absent.  While the play continued on, Booth, undetected by the box’s occupants aimed his Derringer pistol and fired a single shot to the back of Lincoln’s head.  After the mighty sound of the gunshot, there was silence.  Lincoln’s body pitched forward and Mary, who was holding her husband’s hand, screamed.  Booth stabbed Rathbone in the forearm before he could catch him and leapt from the box onto the stage below, breaking his leg as he landed.  The crowd stared in shock as he drew his knife into the air above him and shouted a single phrase, which according to witnesses, was either “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (a Latin term meaning Thus always to tyrants) or “The south is avenged!”  Rathbone shouted out for Booth’s capture while Mary screamed hysterically for help, but by the time everyone had realized that his actions were not part of the show, Booth was gone.

Lincoln’s unresponsive body was carried across the street to the Peterson Boarding House, where he was laid down on a bed too small for his six-foot-four frame.  Three physicians began doing all they could to revive him, but there was no luck; he was already in a coma.  The President’s two living sons were contacted quickly.  Robert, the oldest, arrived just after midnight, but the younger child, Tad, was not allowed to go, perhaps because of the horror of the scene. Secretary of State Edwin Stanton took charge and, essentially, became the sole figure by which the government was run for several hours until the Vice President could be located and briefed.  By this time, everyone had resigned themselves to the fact that all hope was lost and the President was indeed dying.  All except for Mary Lincoln, whom in her hysteria, was ordered to be removed from the room and not allowed back in.  No member of Lincoln’s family was with him when at 7:22 am the next morning, nine long hours later, he took his last breath.

Booth, along with fellow conspirator David Herold, made their way south, on the run from authorities for several days.  While the other conspirators were quickly rounded up, Booth and Herold managed to evade capture for over a week, even though they were pursued by what eventually became the largest manhunt in history, even to this day.  Finally, on April 26, they were discovered to be hiding out at the Garrett Farmhouse near Port Royal in Virginia.  Herold surrendered without much of a fight, but Booth stood fast, telling the soldiers sent to capture him that they would need to “prepare a stretcher for [him]”.  They set fire to the barn where he was in hopes to smoke him out, but still he would not surrender.  Finally, he raised the gun he held on shaky legs, but before he could fire, one of the soldiers shot him in the neck, fatally wounding and paralyzing him.  It took three hours of agony, but at last, Booth died in the early hours of the morning, 149 years ago today.  It would be a month of trials before the other conspirators – George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt – were found guilty and taken to Washington, where they were all hanged on July 7.

I apologize for the “spoilers”.  I was talking about a film after all, though I did leave several variants of the story and give you the important bits.  This was originally intended to simply be another history article until I saw the documentary previously mentioned last night, so I guess I basically turned it into a review of sorts.  Either way, I strongly recommend this docudrama, narrated by Tom Hanks, to everyone.

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Posted by on April 26, 2014 in American History


The Age of Alexander the Great – Part 1

Everyone at one time or another has heard of Alexander the Great.  He was the man who conquered the ancient world and built an empire that stretched from Macedonia in Greece to India, and as far south as Egypt, where he founded the great city of Alexandria and became the first European Pharaoh.  There are several epic films that tell the story of his amazing life, the best known of which is the 2004 Oliver Stone motion picture Alexander, in which he is played by Colin Farrell, along with Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, and Angelina Jolie.  However, the film differs greatly from real life, as Hollywood productions often do.  The real story of Alexander’s life is, though similar, quite different all the same.  He carved out the greatest empire the world has ever known and died at the young age of thirty-two.  His appetite for battle was insatiable, his influence boundless, his story extraordinary.  Here is the truth as history knows it.

The 2004 film Alexander starring Colin Farrell is said to be the most accurate Hollywood depiction of his life

The 2004 film Alexander starring Colin Farrell is said to be the most accurate Hollywood depiction of his life

Alexander III of Macedon was born in the Macedonian capitol of Pella in modern Greece.  The year was 356 BC, the exact date most likely on the 20th or 21st of July.  Several written accounts from the day describe him as short, estimated as between 5’7” and 5’2” in terms of height (though without his physical body, this cannot be confirmed), clean-shaven with a fair complexion, dark blond hair, and it is even said by several sources that he had heterochromia iridum, which is a condition that causes the eyes to be two different colors, in this case, one dark brown and one light blue.  His father was Philip II, who took seven wives in his lifetime, the fourth of which, Olympias of Epirus, was Alexander’s mother.  He was born into a kingdom of warriors, his father perhaps the greatest of them all and his role model, winning battle after battle despite great injury – Philip even lost an eye battling the Athenians in 354 BC.  Olympias taught her son to believe in himself, which he did absolutely.  He was highly competitive and his temper was fierce, but he was an avid reader and loved philosophy, his thirst for knowledge nearly unquenchable.  In fact, the great philosopher Aristotle was his tutor.

Mosaic depicting Alexander in Naples

Mosaic from Pompeii depicting Alexander in Naples

Alexander’s father, Philip II, was a polygamist, not unusual for the time, but it put a great strain on Philip’s relationship with Alexander’s mother.  When Philip married his seventh wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, (not to be confused with Egypt’s legendary queen) a full-blooded Macedonian and niece to his trusted general Attalus, Alexander’s position as his successor was put into question; if the union between the two produced a son of pure Macedonian blood, Alexander would lose his status as heir apparent to this child, should one be conceived.  Tensions ran high and finally spilled over during the wedding in a scene immortalized in the 2004 film.  Historian Plutarch described the scene as follows;

“At the wedding of Cleopatra [Eurydice], whom Philip fell in love with and married … her uncle Attalus in his drink desired the Macedonians would implore the gods to give them a lawful successor to the kingdom by his niece. This so irritated Alexander, that throwing one of the cups at his head, “You villain,” said he, “what am I then, a bastard?” Then Philip, taking Attalus’s part, rose up and would have run his son through; but by good fortune for them both, either his over-hasty rage, or the wine he had drunk, made his foot slip, so that he fell down on the floor. At which Alexander reproachfully insulted over him: “See there,” said he, “the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another.”

For six months or more following the incident, Alexander left Macedonia.  He returned when tensions between father and son had cooled, perhaps because Philip had no stomach to disown his son, who was a strong and military trained teenager.  Philip was in his forties, in an era where the average life expectancy was only thirty-five years.  Even if his new wife produced the desired heir, he would still be a child when he came to the throne.  Whatever his reasons, the prince returned to Macedonia and when Philip was assassinated in 336 BC, Alexander became King of the Macedonians at the age of twenty.  Eurydice gave birth to a girl, whom ambitious Olympias, to the repulsion of her royal son, ordered to be murdered, and as a result, Eurydice committed suicide.  Perhaps as reprisal for what Alexander saw as a treasonous insult at Eurydice’s wedding, her uncle Attalus was executed.

Alexander reigned as King of Macedonia for thirteen years, which doesn’t seem like a long time, but in that short time period, he conquered most of the known world at the time, from Europe to Asia.  He was declared King of Asia, Persia after the defeat of its previous king, Darius III, and Pharaoh of Egypt, the first European to hold the title.  He took three wives, first Roxana, daughter of a baron in Bactria (modern day Afghanistan), then Stateira, daughter to his rival Darius III of Persia, and finally, Parysatis.

Alexanders great empire.

This map of Alexander’s great empire shows the impressive size and the king’s boundless ambition.

Some even say that despite his marriages, that Alexander was homosexual, though this has not been proven.  Legends say that he fell for one of his generals and childhood friend, Hephaestion, whom also became his lover.  At the time, this would not be considered as scandalous as it would be today, but it would certainly have caused tension within the king’s army; showing one man to be the favorite of all his men would have brought with it both strife and jealousy, if it is true, though there is no evidence that goes beyond the two men being good friends, unless you squint.  After severely mourning his good friend’s death in 324 BC, Alexander slipped into a depression, though he still planned another invasion, this time in Arabia, however, this battle would never be fought.  At a banquet in his palace in Babylon, the center of his great empire, he fell fatally ill with an ailment that is still being argued over by scholars and historians, and after twelve days of lingering in agony, he died on 11 June 323 BC.  For centuries, it has been assumed that he was poisoned, perhaps without intention

Alexander the Great by sculptor Lysippos

Alexander the Great by sculptor Lysippos

His wife Roxana was pregnant at the time, which meant that there was no legitimate heir for the empire.  The Macedonians supported his half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, though he was mentally ill and unfit to govern.  A few months later, Roxana gave birth to a son, also called Alexander, who became the next king with Perdiccas as regent in his name until the boy reached adulthood.  However, Cassander, another of the generals, had the boy and his mother murdered before he could exercise full power and Alexander’s mother Olympias was arrested for murdering Philip Arrhidaeus and executed shortly after.  Thus with the bloodline gone, the empire was divided between his generals – this time became known as the War of the Diadochi, or Successors,and opened the Hellenistic Period.

Though his tomb has not been found, according to legend, Alexander’s body was placed in a coffin of pure gold and glass filled with honey to prevent decay, after which he was transported from tomb to tomb before finally being buried in his own city of Alexandria in Egypt, where kings to come would pay tribute to the man who ruled the world’s largest empire.  His tomb would be lost during the reign of ancient Rome, though some say he lies beneath the city itself while others claim he was moved, and rests in the Valley of the Golden Mummies, hidden away from those who would seek to harm the sacred corpse.

Sorry for the sloppiness of this post.  I was planning to go into greater depth on Alexander’s rule, but busy as I have been as of late, this was all I could get away with, which is why this past is labeled as Part One.  You can look forward to Part 2, which delves into the years of his conquests, soon.  Until then, this will suffice.  

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Posted by on April 9, 2014 in Uncategorized


Today in History – Matilda becomes Queen of England

Empress Matilda

On this day in 1141, Henry I’s eldest child, his daughter Matilda, became the first female to rule England, but was rejected in a country where female kingship was thought of as “unnatural”.  Born in 1102 on the Seventh of February, Matilda became de facto heir to the English crown when her elder brother William Adelin died as the result of his ship sinking after departure from Barfleur while the crew had been drinking.  She was married twice in hopes of producing a male heir for England, first to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and upon his death, to Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, with whom she had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey, and William.  After the death of her father, Matilda, already declared heir apparent in his will, traveled from Anjou to take her place at Westminster Abbey for her coronation, but before she arrived on English soil, her cousin Stephen of Blois usurped the crown as his own, an act which led to civil war.  Matilda fought long and hard for her right to be queen and finally, at war’s end, Stephen struck a deal; Matilda’s son Henry would be named as his lawful heir and inherit the throne following Stephen’s death.  And this was the case in 1154, when Stephen died of a disease of the stomach, allowing Matilda’s eldest son to become Henry II of England, first ruler of the House of Plantagenet and later husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Matilda acted as her son’s representative and advisor until her death on 10 September 1167 at the age of sixty-five.

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Posted by on April 7, 2014 in British Royalty