Killing Lincoln

26 Apr

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


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