April 14, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
The president and First Lady Mary Lincoln extended invitations to a dozen people to accompany them to Ford’s on 10th Street on the night of Good Friday. But all had declined. Finally, Major Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris (daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris) accepted. At 8:00 p.m., the Lincolns and their guests left the White House to see the popular comedy Our American Cousin.
Meanwhile, famous actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth had concocted a plan. He had previously schemed to kidnap Lincoln and hold him in exchange for Confederate independence, but when General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, the plan shifted from kidnapping to murder. Booth wrote in his diary, “Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done.”
Earlier that day, Booth had stopped at Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail and learned that the Lincolns and Grants would be attending the performance that night. Booth quickly revised his plan to kill not only Lincoln, but Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Andrew Johnson as well. Nothing would be more “decisive” than to deal this crippling blow to the Lincoln administration.
Booth called on Mary Surratt, mother of fellow conspirator John Surratt, and asked her to have all the weapons that Booth had stored at her Maryland tavern ready for him to pick up later that night. Booth then met with fellow conspirators George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine), and David E. Herold at the Herndon House at 7 p.m. to finalize the details. By this time, Booth had learned that Grant left town, so the new third target would be Secretary of State William H. Seward. According to the plan:
- Booth, having extensive knowledge of the Ford’s Theatre layout, would go into the presidential box, shoot Lincoln, and then escape by jumping over the railing onto the stage below.
- Atzerodt would kill Vice President Johnson in his room at the Kirkwood Hotel.
- Powell would break into Seward’s home and kill the secretary of state, who was still recovering from a carriage accident. Herold would show Powell how to get to Seward’s house.
Atzerodt lost his nerve immediately, saying, “I won’t do it! I enlisted to abduct the president of the United States, not to kill.” Booth cursed him and said it was too late to back out until Atzerodt finally agreed to do it. Powell had no problem with killing Seward. The attacks would all take place at 10:15 p.m. The conspirators would then escape into Maryland, collect the weapons at the Surratt tavern, and cross the Potomac River into Virginia.
The Lincoln party arrived late at Ford’s Theatre, which was filled with some 1,700 people anxious to see the president and first lady. The play stopped as the performers and spectators cheered and the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief.” The Lincolns and Rathbones took their seats in Box 7, which was actually two boxes with the divider removed, in the balcony overlooking stage left.
The Lincolns appeared to enjoy the play, which was about an uncouth American visiting his refined British relatives. During the second act, Lincoln took Mary’s hand, prompting her to ask, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging onto you so?” Lincoln replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”
Booth entered the theater soon after and at 10:12 p.m. he handed his calling card to the usher, who readily allowed such a famous actor to visit the presidential box. The box guard, John F. Parker, had gone to a tavern, leaving nobody to protect the president despite repeated death threats against him over the past four years. The actor entered the vestibule outside the box and wedged a stick between the door behind him and the wall.
Booth held a hunting knife in his left hand and a single-shot .44-caliber derringer pistol in his right. He waited for the play’s funniest line to be delivered, and when the theater erupted in laughter, Booth entered the box and fired the pistol into the back of Lincoln’s head. The bullet entered behind the left ear and, after reflexively raising his right arm, Lincoln slumped in his rocker. Mrs. Lincoln saw him sag and turned to brace him.
Rathbone jumped up to restrain Booth, but the assailant slashed the major’s arm with the knife and jumped off the balcony. Booth’s boot spur caught a decorative flag below the box, causing him to land awkwardly on the stage and break the fibula of his left leg. Some audience members, recognizing the well-known actor and not hearing the gunshot, thought it was part of the performance.
Booth hobbled across the stage with the bloody knife and shouted to the audience. Some remembered him saying “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants”), while others thought he said, “Revenge for the South!” or “Freedom!” Booth shoved his way backstage, where a stagehand named Edward Spangler opened a door and Joseph “Peanuts” Burroughs held a horse. Booth limped out the door, mounted the horse, and raced off toward F Street.
Most of the stunned spectators did not realize what had happened until Booth was gone and Mrs. Lincoln began screaming. Panic quickly spread, as Dr. Charles A. Leale rushed out of the audience to assist. He found the wound and managed to restore Lincoln’s respiration. Other doctors arrived and determined that the bullet had gone through the president’s brain and stopped behind his right eye. The wound was pronounced mortal.
They decided to move Lincoln to a bed, but because he would not survive a trip back to the White House, they carried him across the street to the boardinghouse of William Petersen.
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