John Wilkes Booth has gone down in history as the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Wilkes shot Lincoln on April 14th 1865 at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC and the President died early on April 15th. Wilkes then fled the theatre and tried to find a safe house in the South.
John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland on May 10th 1838. His father was a famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth. Booth followed his father into the theatre and made his acting debut at the age of seventeen in Baltimore in ‘Richard III’. He quickly became an acclaimed actor and toured throughout America. Booth gained a reputation as a Shakespearean actor. Ironically, Lincoln watched Booth perform as an actor in November 1863 at the Ford’s Theatre.
Politically, Booth sympathised with the views of the South. Booth joined the ‘Know Nothing Party’, which was against what they deemed to be uncontrolled immigration into America. He was an overt supporter of slavery and in 1859 he was part of the Virginia militia that helped in the capture of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Booth witnessed Brown’s execution.
Booth also developed a hatred for Lincoln, as he believed that the President was deliberately trying to undermine the very social and economic structure of the South. When the American Civil War started it would have been expected that Booth would have joined the Confederate Army. However, he did not. Instead, Booth became a spy in the North and used his cover as an actor to smuggle medical supplies procured in the North into the South. As a famed actor, Booth had more freedom than most to travel around unhindered.
Booth became involved in a plot to kidnap Lincoln – something he and others planned to do in March 1865. The kidnap plan was abandoned when Lincoln cancelled his visit to a theatre at the last moment. By March 1865 it was clear that the South was a defeated force and Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant on April 9th 1865. Booth decided that the only way forward was for Lincoln to die and plotted accordingly. What appears to have spurred Booth on was Lincoln’s desire to give some African Americans the right to vote. It is said that Booth said, “That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll out him through.”
Booth found out that Lincoln was going to visit the Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on April 14th 1865 to watch ‘Our American Cousin’. Lincoln decided to ignore the advice he had been given by his security team not to attend the theatre. Booth arrived at Ford’s Theatre armed with a knife and pistol. At 22.00 he made a move to the State Box. At that particular time, Lincoln’s bodyguard, John Parker, had gone for a drink and the State Box was undefended. At 22.15, Booth entered the State Box and shot Lincoln. Various witnesses claimed that he shouted, “Revenge for the South” or “Freedom” while shooting Lincoln.
Booth then leapt from the State Box onto the stage. He landed badly and broke his left leg just above the ankle. Booth hobbled to his tethered horse outside of the theatre and made his escape.
Not unnaturally, he headed south and his plan was to get to the Deep South where he believed he would find safety. However, Federal troops were already on his trail and they were not too fussy about how they got information on the whereabouts of the President’s murderer.
On April 26th he was surrounded by troops in a barn owned by Richard Garrett – the man Federal troops had threatened to tie to the top of a tree if he did not tell them where Booth and an accomplice, David Herold, were. Booth was ordered to surrender but he refused to do so. Herold took the opportunity to surrender. Federal troops set the barn alight in an attempt to flush out Booth. He was, in fact, shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett who had moved close to the barn. The shot severed Booth’s spinal cord. He was dragged out of the burning barn by troops and died two hours later. The troops recovered Booth’s diary and in it were the names of all those who had helped him in his quest to kill Lincoln or at least knew about his plan but refused to get involved. Most of them were executed in June 1865.