Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Part of the American Civil War

The Assassination of President Lincoln (Currier & Ives, 1865), from left to right: Major Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and the assassin, John Wilkes Booth
This print gives the impression that Rathbone saw Booth enter the box and had already risen as Booth fired his weapon. In reality, Rathbone was unaware of Booth's approach and reacted after the shot was fired.
Location Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Date April 14, 1865 (1865-04-14)
10:15 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time)
Attack type
  • Political assassination
  • shooting
  • stabbing
Deaths 1 (Abraham Lincoln)
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators John Wilkes Booth and co-conspirators

United States President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre as the American Civil War was drawing to a close.[1] The assassination occurred five days after the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac.

The 16th president, Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated.[2] An unsuccessful attempt had been made on Andrew Jackson 30 years before in 1835, and Lincoln had himself been the subject of an earlier assassination attempt by an unknown assailant in August 1864. The assassination of Lincoln was planned and carried out by the well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth, as part of a larger conspiracy in a bid to revive the Confederate cause.

Booth's co-conspirators were Lewis Powell and David Herold, who were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt who was tasked to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. By simultaneously eliminating the top three people in the administration, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to sever the continuity of the United States government.

As the President was watching the play, Booth shot Lincoln from behind hitting him in the head. At 7:22 a.m. the following day Lincoln died in the Petersen House across the street from the theater.[3] The rest of the conspirators' plot failed; Powell only managed to wound Seward, while Atzerodt, Johnson's would-be assassin, lost his nerve and fled. Booth made a dramatic escape resulting in a lengthy manhunt that ended in Booth's death. Several other conspirators were later tried and hanged. The funeral and burial of Abraham Lincoln was a period of extended national mourning.


Original plan: Kidnapping the president

In late 1860, Booth had been initiated in the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore.[4]

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, the commanding general of all the Union's armies, decided to suspend the exchange of prisoners-of-war.[5] As harsh as it may have been on the prisoners of both sides, Grant realized the exchange was prolonging the war by returning soldiers to the outnumbered and manpower-starved South. John Wilkes Booth, a Southerner and outspoken Confederate sympathizer, conceived a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and deliver him to the Confederate Army, to be held hostage until the North agreed to resume exchanging prisoners.[6]:130–134 Booth recruited Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell (also known as "Lewis Paine"), and John Surratt to help him. Surratt's mother, Mary Surratt, left her tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland, and moved to a house in Washington, D.C., where Booth became a frequent visitor.

While Booth and Lincoln did not know each other, Lincoln did know about Booth and enjoyed watching him perform at Ford's Theatre.

Lincoln watched Booth perform in numerous plays, including one called The Marble Heart at Ford's Theatre on November 9, 1863. The Washington Chronicle called it a "beautiful emotional play" and Booth earned rave reviews for his role in the production. According to the book Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home, Lincoln enjoyed Booth's performance so much he sent a note backstage inviting him to the White House so they could meet. Booth, a rebel sympathizer and Confederate spy, evaded the president's invitation. Booth didn't give Lincoln a specific reason why he couldn't visit but he later told his friends "I would rather have the applause of a Negro to that of the president!" According to the book Inside Lincoln's White House, the actor Frank Mordaunt later corroborated this story:

"Lincoln was an admirer of the man who assassinated him. I know that, for he said to me one day that there was a young actor over in Ford's Theater whom he desired to meet, but that the actor had on one pretext or another avoided any invitations to visit the White House. That actor was John Wilkes Booth."

This photograph (top) of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address is the only known photograph of the event. Lincoln stands in the center, with papers in his hand. John Wilkes Booth is visible in the photograph, in the top row right of center (White, The Eloquent President). The second photo highlights both Lincoln and Booth from the photo above.

Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865, as the invited guest of his secret fiancée Lucy Hale, daughter of John P. Hale, soon to become United States Ambassador to Spain. Booth afterwards wrote in his diary, "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!"[6]:174, 437 n. 41

On March 17, 1865, Booth informed his conspirators that Lincoln would be attending a play, Still Waters Run Deep, at Campbell Military Hospital. He assembled his men in a restaurant at the edge of town, intending that they should soon join him on a nearby stretch of road in order to capture the President on his way back from the hospital. But Booth found out that Lincoln had not gone to the play after all. Instead, he had attended a ceremony at the National Hotel in which officers of the 142nd Indiana Infantry presented Governor Oliver Morton with a captured Confederate battle flag.[6]:185 Booth was living at the National Hotel at the time and could have had an opportunity to kill Lincoln had Booth not been at the hospital.[6]:185–6, 439 n. 17[7]:25

Meanwhile, the Confederacy was falling apart. On April 3, Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, fell to the Union Army. On April 9, 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia, the main army of the Confederacy, surrendered to the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Court House. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the rest of his government were in full flight. Despite many Southerners giving up hope, Booth continued to believe in his cause.[8]:728


On April 11, 1865, two days after Lee's army surrendered to U.S. forces under Ulysses S. Grant, Booth attended a speech at the White House in which Lincoln supported the idea of enfranchising the former slaves. Furiously provoked, Booth decided on assassination and is quoted as saying to Lewis Powell:

That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.


Lincoln's premonitions

Lincoln on the White House balcony, March 6, 1865. This is the last known high-quality photograph of Lincoln.

It is widely believed that Lincoln anticipated his assassination.[9]

According to Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln's friend and biographer, three days before his assassination Lincoln discussed with Lamon and others a dream he had, saying:

About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.[10]

On the day of the assassination, Lincoln had told his bodyguard, William H. Crook, that he had been having dreams of himself being assassinated for three straight nights. Crook advised Lincoln not to go that night to Ford's Theatre, but Lincoln said he had promised his wife they would go. As Lincoln left for the theater, he turned to Crook and said, "Goodbye, Crook." According to Crook, this was the first time he said that. Before, Lincoln had always said, "Good night, Crook." Crook later recalled: "It was the first time that he neglected to say 'Good Night' to me and it was the only time that he ever said 'Good-bye'. I thought of it at that moment and, a few hours later, when the news flashed over Washington that he had been shot, his last words were so burned into my being that they can never be forgotten."[11]

After Lincoln was shot, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln was quoted as saying, "His dream was prophetic."[12]

Day of the assassination

Booth's actions before the assassination

On April 14, 1865, Booth's morning started at the stroke of midnight. Lying wide awake in his bed at the National Hotel, he wrote his mother that all was well, but that he was "in haste". In his diary, he wrote that "Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done".[8]:728[13]:346

Lincoln's day started well for the first time in a long time; he woke up cheerful. Senator James Harlan remembered taking a drive with the Lincolns only days before the president's assassination, and found him transformed. "His whole appearance, poise and bearing had marvelously changed. He was, in fact, transfigured. That indescribable sadness which had previously seemed to be an adamantean element in his very being, had been suddenly exchanged for an equally indescribable expression of serene joy as if conscious that the great purpose of his life had been achieved." Hugh McCulloch, the new Secretary of the Treasury, remarked that on that morning, "I never saw Mr. Lincoln so cheerful and happy". Edwin M. Stanton said: "At the earliest moment yesterday, the President called a cabinet meeting, at which Gen. Grant was present. He was more cheerful and happy than I had ever seen him. He rejoiced at the near prospect of a firm and durable peace at home and abroad, which manifested in a marked degree the soundness and honesty of his disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him." No one could miss the difference. For months, the President had looked pale and haggard. Lincoln himself told people how happy he was. This caused First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln some concern, as she believed that saying such things out loud was bad luck. Lincoln paid her no heed.[13]:346 Lincoln told members of his cabinet that he had dreamed that he was on a "singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore." He also revealed that he'd had the same dream repeatedly on previous occasions, before "nearly every great and important event of the War" such as the victories at Antietam, Murfreesboro, Gettysburg and Vicksburg.[14]

At around noon while visiting Ford's Theatre to pick up his mail (Booth had a permanent mailbox there), Booth learned from the brother of John Ford, the owner, that the President and General Grant would be attending the theatre to see Our American Cousin that night. Booth determined that this was the perfect opportunity for him to do something "decisive".[13]:346 He knew the theater's layout, having performed there several times, as recently as the previous month.[7]:12[15]:108–9

That same afternoon, Booth went to Mary Surratt's boarding house in Washington, D.C. and asked her to deliver a package to her tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland. He also requested Surratt to tell her tenant who resided there to have the guns and ammunition that Booth had previously stored at the tavern ready to be picked up later that evening.[7]:19 She complied with Booth's requests and made the trip, along with Louis J. Weichmann, her boarder and son's friend. This exchange, and her compliance in it, would lead directly to Surratt's execution three months later.

At seven o'clock that evening, John Wilkes Booth met for a final time with all his fellow conspirators. Booth assigned Lewis Powell to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, George Atzerodt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at his residence, the Kirkwood Hotel, and David E. Herold to guide Powell to the Seward house and then out of Washington to rendezvous with Booth in Maryland. Booth planned to shoot Lincoln with his single-shot Deringer and then stab Grant with a knife at Ford's Theatre. They were all to strike simultaneously shortly after ten o'clock that night.[15]:112 Atzerodt wanted nothing to do with it, saying he had only signed up for a kidnapping, not a killing. Booth told him he was in too far to back out.[6]:212

Booth shoots President Lincoln

Ford's Theatre in 1865
The Presidential Box at Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated
The Philadelphia Deringer pistol Booth used to murder Lincoln, on display at the museum in Ford's Theatre

Contrary to the information Booth had overheard, General and Mrs. Grant had declined the invitation to see the play with the Lincolns, as Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant were not on good terms.[16]:45 Several other people were invited to join them, until finally Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris (daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris) accepted.[7]:32

Lincoln told Speaker Schuyler Colfax, "I suppose it's time to go though I would rather stay." He assisted Mary into the carriage and they took off.

There is evidence to suggest that either Booth or his fellow conspirator Michael O'Laughlen, who looked similar, followed Grant and his wife Julia to Union Station late that afternoon and discovered that Grant would not be at the theater that night. Apparently, O'Laughlen boarded the same train the Grants took to Philadelphia in order to kill Grant. An alleged attack during the evening took place; however, the assailant was unsuccessful since the private car that the Grants were riding in had been locked and guarded by porters.[17]

The Lincoln party arrived late and settled into the Presidential Box, which was actually two corner box seats with the dividing wall between them removed. The play was stopped briefly and the orchestra played "Hail to the Chief" as the audience gave the president a rousing standing ovation. Ford's Theatre was full with 1,700 in attendance.[18] Mrs. Lincoln whispered to her husband, who was holding her hand, "What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?" The president smiled and replied, "She won't think anything about it".[7]:39 Those were the last words ever spoken by Abraham Lincoln, although it was claimed he later told his wife he desired to visit the Holy Land, finishing by saying, "There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem."[19]:434

The box was supposed to be guarded by a policeman named John Frederick Parker who, by all accounts, was a curious choice for a bodyguard.[20] During the intermission, Parker went to a nearby tavern with Lincoln's footman and coachman. It is unclear whether he ever returned to the theatre, but he was certainly not at his post when Booth entered the box.[21] Nevertheless, even if a policeman had been present it is questionable at best as to whether he would have denied entry to the Presidential Box to a premier actor such as John Wilkes Booth – Booth's celebrity status meant that his approach did not warrant any questioning from audience members, who assumed he was coming to call on the President. Dr. George Brainerd Todd, a Navy Surgeon who had been aboard when the Lincolns visited his ship the monitor Montauk on April 14, was also present at Ford's Theatre that evening and wrote in an eyewitness account[22] that:

About 10:25 pm, a man came in and walked slowly along the side on which the "Pres" box was and I heard a man say, "There's Booth" and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in.

Upon gaining access through the first door of the entry to the Presidential Box, Booth barricaded the inward-swinging door behind him with a wooden stick that he wedged between the wall and the door. He then turned around, and looked through the tiny peep-hole he had carved in the second door (which granted entry to the Presidential Box) earlier that day.[23]:173

Although he had never starred in the play itself, Booth knew the play by heart, and thus waited for the precise moment when actor Harry Hawk (playing the lead role of the "cousin", Asa Trenchard), would be on stage alone to speak what was considered the funniest line of the play. Booth hoped to employ the enthusiastic response of the audience to muffle the sound of his gunshot. With the stage to himself, Asa (Hawk) responded to the recently departed Mrs. Mountchessington, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!" Hysterical laughter began permeating the theatre. Lincoln was laughing at this line when he was shot.[24]

Booth opened the door, crept forward and shot the President at point-blank range, mortally wounding him.[7]:42–3 The bullet struck the back of Lincoln's head behind his left ear, entered his skull, fractured part of it badly and went through the left side of his brain before lodging just above his right eye almost exiting the other side of his head. Lincoln immediately lost consciousness. Lincoln slumped over in his rocking chair, and then backward. Mary reached out, caught him, and then screamed when she realized what had happened.

Upon hearing the gunshot, Rathbone thought Booth shouted a word that sounded like "Freedom!" He quickly jumped from his seat and tried to prevent Booth from escaping, grabbing and struggling with him. Booth dropped the pistol on the floor and drew a knife, stabbing the Major violently in the left forearm and reaching the bone. Rathbone quickly recovered and again tried to grab Booth as he was preparing to jump from the sill of the box. He grabbed onto Booth's coat causing Booth to vault over the rail of the box down to the stage below (about a twelve-foot drop).[25] In the process, Booth's right boot struck the framed engraving of Washington, turning it completely over and his riding spur became entangled on the Treasury flag decorating the box, and he landed awkwardly on his left foot. He raised himself up despite the injury and began crossing the stage, making the audience believe that he was part of the play. Booth held his bloody knife over his head, and yelled something to the audience.

While it is widely believed that Booth shouted "Sic semper tyrannis!"[8]:739 (the Virginia state motto, meaning "Thus always to tyrants" in Latin) in the box, or when he landed on the stage, it's not actually clear whether the traditionally-cited quote by Booth is accurate. There are different "earwitness" accounts of what he said. While most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout "Sic semper tyrannis!", others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled "Sic semper!"[26][27] Some didn't recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin.

What Booth shouted in English is also muddied by varying recollections. Some witnesses said he shouted "The South is avenged!"[7]:48 Others thought they heard him say "Revenge for the South!" or "The South shall be free!" Two said Booth yelled "I have done it!"

While the audience were yet to realize what had happened, Maj. Joseph B. Stewart, a lawyer, rose instantly upon seeing Booth land on the stage and he climbed over the orchestra pit and footlights, and started pursuing Booth across the stage.[25] Mary Lincoln's and Clara Harris' screams and Rathbone's cries of "Stop that man!"[7]:49 caused the rest of the audience to realize that Booth's actions were not part of the show, and pandemonium immediately broke out.

Some of the men in the audience chased after him when they noticed what was going on, but failed to catch him. Booth ran across the stage just when Rathbone shouted and exited out the side door. On his way, he bumped into William Withers, Jr., the orchestra leader, and Booth stabbed at Withers with a knife.[28][29]

Upon leaving the building, Booth approached the horse he had waiting outside. Booth struck Joseph "Peanuts" (also called "Peanut Johnny")[29] Burroughs, who was holding Booth's horse[30] in the forehead with the handle of his knife,[31] leaped onto the horse, apparently also kicking Burroughs in the chest with his good leg,[32] and rode away.

Katherine M. Evans, a young actress in the play, who was offstage in Ford's green room when Lincoln was shot, rushed on the stage after Booth's exit, and said in subsequent interviews in the 1900s "I looked and saw President Lincoln unconscious, his head dropping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face".[29]

Death of President Lincoln

Charles Leale, a young Army surgeon doctor on liberty for the night, and attending the play, made his way through the crowd to the door at the rear of the Presidential box when he saw Booth finish his performance to the audience and saw the blood on Booth's knife. The door would not open. Finally, Rathbone saw a notch carved in the door and a wooden brace jammed there to hold the door shut. Rathbone shouted to Leale, who stepped back from the door, allowing Rathbone to remove the brace and open the door.[15]:120

Leale entered the box to find Rathbone bleeding profusely from a deep gash in his chest that ran the length of his upper left arm as well as a long slash in his arm. Nonetheless, he passed Rathbone by and stepped forward to find Lincoln slumped in his chair, held up by Mary, who was sobbing and could not control herself. The President was paralyzed, and barely breathing. Leale lowered the President to the floor believing that Lincoln had been stabbed in the shoulder with the knife. A second doctor in the audience, Charles Sabin Taft, was lifted bodily from the stage over the railing and into the box.

Dr. Todd, also seated in the audience, stated: "I attempted to get to the box, but I could not, and in an instant, the cry was raised 'The President is assassinated'. Such a scene I never saw before."

Taft and Leale cut away Lincoln's blood-stained collar and opened his shirt, and Leale, feeling around by hand, discovered the bullet hole in the back of his head right next to his left ear. Leale attempted to remove the bullet, but the bullet was too deep in his head and instead Leale dislodged a clot of blood in the wound. Consequently, Lincoln's breathing improved.[15]:121–22 Leale learned that if he continued to release more blood clots at a specific time, Lincoln would breathe more naturally. Then Leale saw that the bullet was lodged in Lincoln's skull. He allowed actress Laura Keene to cradle the President's head in her lap. Leale finally announced that it made no difference: "His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him to recover."[7]:78

Dr. Todd reported that as news of the assassination spread to the street, "Soldiers, sailors, police, all started in every direction but the assassin had gone. Some General handed me a note and bid me go to the nearest Telegraph office and arouse the nation. I ran with all my speed, and in ten minutes the sad news was all over the country."

The Petersen House

Leale, Taft, and another doctor from the audience, Albert King, quickly consulted and decided that while the President must be moved, a bumpy carriage ride across town to the White House was out of the question. After briefly considering Peter Taltavull's Star Saloon next door, they chose to carry Lincoln across the street and find a house. The three doctors and some soldiers who had been in the audience carried the President out the front entrance of Ford's Theatre. One of the soldiers who carried the President was William Hall, a grocer originally from North East England who had signed up for the 12th Illinois Cavalry during the Civil War.[33] Rain fell down upon the crowd that carried Lincoln outside the theater.[25]

Across the street, a man was holding a lantern and calling "Bring him in here! Bring him in here!" The man was Henry Safford, who was staying at the boarding house owned by William Petersen, a German tailor.[34] The men carried Lincoln into the boarding house and into the first-floor bedroom where they laid him diagonally across the bed because his tall frame would not fit normally on the smaller bed.[15]:123–24

The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln by Alonzo Chappel, 1868

A vigil began at the Petersen House. The three physicians were joined by Surgeon General of the United States Army Joseph K. Barnes, Charles Henry Crane, Anderson Ruffin Abbott, and Robert K. Stone. Using a probe, Barnes located some fragments of Lincoln's skull and discovered the bullet was still in it. Crane was a major and Barnes' assistant. Stone was Lincoln's personal physician. Robert Todd Lincoln, home at the White House that evening, arrived at the Petersen House after being told of the shooting at about midnight. Tad Lincoln, who had attended Grover's Theatre to see Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, was not allowed to go to the Petersen House, although he was at Grover's Theatre when the play was interrupted to report the news of the President's assassination.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton came and took charge of the scene. Mary Lincoln was so unhinged by the experience of the assassination that Stanton ordered her out of the room by shouting, "Take that woman out of here and do not let her in here again!" While Mary Lincoln sobbed in the front parlor, Stanton set up shop in the rear parlor, effectively running the United States government for several hours, sending and receiving telegrams, taking reports from witnesses, and issuing orders for the pursuit of Booth.[15]:127–8 For most of the night, Leale held the president's hand, and afterwards said that "sometimes, recognition and reason return just before departure. I held his hand firmly to let him know, in his blindness, that he had a friend."[35]

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.[3] He was 56 years old. Maunsell Bradhurst Field wrote in a letter to the New York Times: "The expression immediately after death was purely negative, but in fifteen minutes here came over the mouth, the nostrils, and the chin, a smile that seemed almost an effort of life. I had never seen upon the President's face an expression more genial and pleasing."[36] According to Lincoln's secretary John Hay, at the moment of Lincoln's death, "a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features".[37]

Mary Lincoln was not present at the time of his death.[38][39] The crowd around the bed knelt for a prayer. When they were finished, Stanton made a statement, though there is some disagreement among historians as to what exactly the statement was. All agree that he began "Now he belongs to the ..." with some stating he finished with ages while others believe he finished with angels.[15]:134[40] Hermann Faber, an Army medical illustrator, was brought into the room immediately after Lincoln's body was removed so that Faber could visually document the scene.[41]

Though some experts have disagreed,[3] Dr. Leale's treatment of Lincoln has been considered good for its time.[42] He was honored for his efforts to save the President by participating in various capacities during the funeral ceremonies.[43]

Powell attacks Secretary of State William Seward

An artist's depiction of Lewis Powell attacking Frederick W. Seward

Booth had assigned Lewis Powell to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward. On April 5, 1865, Seward had been thrown from his carriage, suffering a concussion, a jaw broken in two places, and a broken right arm. Doctors improvised a jaw splint to repair his jaw (this is often mistakenly called a neck brace). On the night of the assassination, he was still restricted to the bed at his Washington home in Lafayette Park, not too far from the White House. Herold guided Powell to Seward's residence. Powell was carrying an 1858 Whitney revolver, which was a large, heavy and popular gun during the Civil War. In addition, he carried a silver-handled Bowie knife.

Powell knocked at the front door of the house a little after 10:00 p.m. William Bell, Seward's butler, answered the door. Powell told Bell that he had medicine for Seward from his physician, Dr. Verdi, and that he was to personally deliver and show Seward how to take the medicine. Upon gaining admittance to the residence, Powell began making his way up the stairs to Seward's third-floor bedroom after much persuasion on his part.[7]:54[8]:736[44] At the top of the staircase, he was stopped by Seward's son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward. Powell told Frederick the same story that he had told Bell. Frederick was suspicious of the intruder, and told Powell that his father was asleep.

William and Fanny Seward in 1861

After hearing voices in the hall, Seward's daughter Fanny opened the door to Seward's room and said, "Fred, Father is awake now", and then closed the door, thus revealing to Powell where Seward was located. Initially, Powell started back down the stairs; suddenly he turned around and drew his revolver, pointing it at Frederick's forehead. He pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. Powell then bludgeoned Frederick Seward about the head with it, to the point that the pistol was damaged and no longer functioned. Frederick Seward crumpled to the floor unconscious. William Bell began yelling "Murder! Murder!" before running outside to summon help.

Fanny, wondering what all the noise was, looked out the door again. She saw her brother bloody and unconscious on the floor and Powell running towards her, having pulled out his knife. Powell shoved her aside, ran to Seward's bed and began stabbing him repeatedly in the face and neck. He missed the first time he swung his knife down, but the third blow sliced open Seward's cheek.[7]:58 Seward's splint was the only thing that prevented the blade from penetrating his jugular vein.[8]:737

Bell's screams and Fanny Seward's frightened Herold, who ran away and abandoned Powell. Powell, who was unfamiliar with the city's geography, was left to escape on his own.[7]:59

Sergeant George F. Robinson, a soldier assigned to attend the secretary, and Seward's son Augustus, an army officer, tried to drive Powell away. Augustus had been asleep in his room, but was awakened by Fanny's screams of terror. The force of Powell's blows had driven Secretary Seward off the bed and onto the floor behind the bed where Powell could not reach him. Powell fought off Robinson, Augustus, and Fanny, stabbing them as well.

When Augustus went for his pistol, Powell ran downstairs and headed for the front door.[45]:275 Just then, a messenger named Emerick Hansell arrived with a telegram for Seward. Powell stabbed Hansell in the back, causing him to fall to the floor, and leaving him permanently paralyzed. Before running outside, Powell exclaimed, "I'm mad! I'm mad!", untied his horse from the tree where Herold left it, and rode away, alone.

Washington Metropolitan Police Department blotter listing the assassination

Fanny Seward cried, "Oh my God, father's dead!" Sergeant Robinson lifted the Secretary from the floor back onto the bed. Seward spat the blood out of his mouth and said, "I am not dead; send for a doctor, send for the police. Close the house."[7]:61 Seward was covered with blood, but Powell's wild stabs in the dark room had not hit anything vital, and he recovered. His face, however, was permanently scarred after the blade hit Seward's cheek.

Atzerodt fails to attack Andrew Johnson

Booth had assigned George Atzerodt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood House in Washington. Atzerodt was to go to the Vice President's room at 10:15 p.m. and shoot him.[8]:735 On April 14, 1865, Atzerodt rented room 126 at the Kirkwood, directly above the room where Johnson was staying. He arrived at the Kirkwood at the appointed time and went to the bar downstairs, carrying on his person a gun and a knife. Atzerodt asked the bartender, Michael Henry, about the Vice President's character and behavior. After spending some time at the hotel saloon, Atzerodt got drunk and wandered away through the streets of Washington. Nervous, he tossed his knife away in the street. He made his way to the Pennsylvania House Hotel by 2 a.m., where he checked into a room and went to sleep.[15]:166–7[45]:335

Earlier that day, Booth stopped by the Kirkwood House and left a note for Johnson that read, "I don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth."[44] The card was picked up that night by Johnson's personal secretary, William Browning.[46] This message has been interpreted in many different ways throughout the years.[45]:334 One theory is that Booth, being afraid that Atzerodt would not succeed in killing Johnson, or worried that Atzerodt would not have the courage to carry out the assassination, tried to use the message to implicate Johnson in the conspiracy.[47] Another theory is that Booth was actually trying to contact Browning in order to find out whether or not Johnson was expected to be at the Kirkwood that night.[46]

Flight and capture of the conspirators

Broadside advertising reward for capture of Lincoln assassination conspirators, illustrated with photographic prints of John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, and David E. Herold.

Within half an hour of his escape on horseback from Ford's, Booth crossed over the Navy Yard Bridge and out of the city into Maryland.[7]:67–8 Sentry SGT. Silas Cobb, 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, questioned Booth about where he was going so late at night, and Booth replied that he was going home to the nearby town of Charles. Cobb hesitated, as it was forbidden for civilians to cross the bridge after 9pm, but let him through.[48] David Herold made it across the same bridge less than an hour later[7]:81–2 and rendezvoused with Booth.[7]:87 After retrieving weapons and supplies previously stored at Surattsville, Herold and Booth went to Samuel A. Mudd, a local doctor who determined that Booth's leg had been broken and put it in a splint. Later, Mudd made a pair of crutches for the assassin.[7]:131, 153

After spending a day at Mudd's house, Booth and Herold hired a local man to guide them to Samuel Cox's house.[7]:163 Cox in turn took them to Thomas Jones, who hid Booth and Herold in Zekiah Swamp near his house for five days until they could cross the Potomac River.[7]:224 On the afternoon of April 24, they arrived at the farm of Richard H. Garrett, a tobacco farmer. Booth told Garrett he was a wounded Confederate soldier.

The information relayed to Dr. Todd's brother by his letter of April 15 tell of rumors in Washington D.C. regarding Booth's whereabouts and status.

"Today all the city is in mourning nearly every house being in black and I have not seen a smile, no business, and many a strong man I have seen in tears – Some reports say Booth is a prisoner, others that he has made his escape – but from orders received here, I believe he is taken, and during the night will be put on a Monitor for safe keeping – as a mob once raised now would know no end"[22]
Booth's escape route

During the Union manhunt for Booth, four of his pursuers drowned during patrol duty on April 24.[49] Their small barge, the Black Diamond, collided with the steamer Massachusetts on either the Rappahannock River[50] or the Potomac River.[51] At least 50 fatalities occurred including passengers of the Massachusetts who were Union soldiers recently freed from Confederate prison camps.[52]

The Garrett farmhouse, where Booth died on April 26, 1865

Booth and Herold remained at Garrett's farm until April 26, when Union soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry arrived at the farm. The soldiers surrounded the barn, where Booth and Herold had been sleeping, and announced that they would set fire to the barn in fifteen minutes. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused to come out when the soldiers called for his surrender, stating boldly, "I will not be taken alive!"[7]:326 Upon hearing this, the soldiers set fire to the barn.[7]:331 Booth scrambled for the back door, brandishing a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other. He never fired either weapon.

A sergeant named Boston Corbett crept up behind the barn and shot Booth, severing his spinal cord[7]:335 with the bullet wound being in "the back of the head about an inch below the spot where his [Booth's] shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln".[53] Booth was carried out onto the steps of the barn. A soldier poured water into his mouth, which he immediately spat out, unable to swallow. Booth told the soldier, "Tell my mother I die for my country." In agony, unable to move his limbs, he asked a soldier to lift his hands before his face and whispered as he gazed at them, "Useless ... Useless." These were his last words. Booth died on the porch of the Garrett farm two hours after Corbett had shot him.[7]:336–340[44]

Powell was unfamiliar with Washington, and without the services of his guide David Herold, wandered the streets for three days before finding his way back to the Surratt house on April 17. He found the detectives already there. Powell claimed to be a ditch-digger hired by Mary Surratt, but she denied knowing him. They were both arrested.[15]:174–9 George Atzerodt hid out at his cousin's farm in Germantown, Maryland, about 25 miles (40 km) northwest of Washington, where he was tracked down and arrested on April 20.[15]:169

The rest of the conspirators were arrested before the end of the month, except for John Surratt, who fled to Quebec, Canada. There he was hidden by Roman Catholic priests. In September 1865, he boarded a ship to Liverpool, England, staying in the Catholic Church of the Holy Cross in the city. From there, he moved furtively through Europe, until he ended up as part of the Pontifical Zouaves in the Papal States. A friend from his school days, Henry St. Marie, discovered him in the Papal guard during the spring of 1866 and alerted the U.S. government. Surratt was arrested by the Papal authorities but through suspicious circumstances, he managed to escape. He was finally captured by a U.S. government agent in Egypt in November 1866.[54]

Surratt stood trial for Lincoln's murder in Washington in the summer of 1867. The defense called four residents of Elmira, New York[7]:27[55]:125, 132, 136–137[56]:112–115 who did not know John Surratt but said they had seen him there between April 13 and 15. Fifteen prosecution witnesses, some who knew him, said they saw a man they positively identified, or said resembled, the defendant in Washington on the day of the assassination or traveling to or from the capital at this time. In the end, the jury could not agree on a verdict. Surratt was released and lived the rest of his life, until 1916, a free man.[15]:178[55]:132–133, 138[57]:227

Conspirators' trial

Trial of the conspirators June 5, 1865.

In the turmoil that followed the assassination, scores of suspected accomplices were arrested and thrown into prison. All the people who were discovered to have had anything to do with the assassination or anyone with the slightest contact with Booth or Herold on their flight were put behind bars. Among the imprisoned were Louis J. Weichmann, a boarder in Mrs. Surratt's house; Booth's brother Junius (playing in Cincinnati at the time of the assassination); theatre owner John T. Ford, who was incarcerated for 40 days; James Pumphrey, the Washington livery stable owner from whom Booth hired his horse; John M. Lloyd, the innkeeper who rented Mrs. Surratt's Maryland tavern and gave Booth and Herold carbines, rope, and whiskey the night of April 14; and Samuel Cox and Thomas A. Jones, who helped Booth and Herold escape across the Potomac.[58]:186–188

All of those listed above and more were rounded up, imprisoned, and released. Ultimately, the suspects were narrowed down to just eight prisoners (seven men and one woman):[58]:188 Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler (a Ford's stagehand who had given Booth's horse to "Peanuts" Burroughs to hold), and Mary Surratt.

The eight suspects were tried by a military tribunal ordered by then-President Andrew Johnson on May 1, 1865. The nine-member commission was presided over by Major General David Hunter. The other eight voting members were Major General Lew Wallace, Brigadier Generals Robert Sanford Foster, Thomas Maley Harris, Albion P. Howe, and August Kautz, Colonels James A. Ekin and Charles H. Tompkins, and Lieutenant Colonel David Ramsay Clendenin. The prosecution team was led by U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, assisted by Congressman John A. Bingham and Major Henry Lawrence Burnett.[59] The transcript of the trial was recorded by Benn Pitman and several assistants, and was published in 1865.[60]

The fact that they were tried by a military tribunal provoked criticism from both Edward Bates and Gideon Welles, who believed that a civil court should have presided. Attorney General James Speed, on the other hand, justified the use of a military tribunal on grounds that included the military nature of the conspiracy, that the defendants acted as enemy combatants and the existence of martial law in the District of Columbia. (In 1866, in the Ex parte Milligan decision, the United States Supreme Court banned the use of military tribunals in places where civil courts were operational.)[15]:213–4 The odds were further stacked against the defendants by rules that required only a simple majority of the officer jury for a guilty verdict and a two-thirds majority for a death sentence. Nor could the defendants appeal to anyone other than President Johnson.[15]:222–3

The trial lasted for about seven weeks, with 366 witnesses testifying. Louis Weichmann, released from custody, was a key witness. All of the defendants were found guilty on June 30. Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were sentenced to death by hanging; Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlen were sentenced to life in prison. Mudd escaped execution by a single vote, the tribunal having voted 5–4 in favor of hanging (6 votes being required for the death penalty).[61] Edmund Spangler was sentenced to imprisonment for six years. Oddly, after sentencing Mary Surratt to hang, five of the jurors signed a letter recommending clemency, but Johnson refused to stop the execution. (Johnson later claimed he never saw the letter.[15]:227)

Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt were hanged in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865.[7]:362, 365 The executions were supervised by Union general Winfield Scott Hancock. Mary Surratt was the first woman executed by the United States government.[62] O'Laughlen died in prison of yellow fever in 1867. Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler were pardoned in February 1869 by President Johnson.[7]:367 Spangler, who died in 1875, insisted for the rest of his life that he had no connection to the plot beyond being the man Booth asked to hold his horse.

The courtroom is in a building called Grant Hall that sits on Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.. It was redone in 2012 to look just like it did during the original trials. Each quarter Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall has a quarterly public open house where people can visit the courtroom and learn many more details about the trial.

Mudd's culpability

The degree of Mudd's culpability has remained controversial ever since. Some, including Mudd's grandson Richard Mudd, claimed that Mudd was innocent of any wrongdoing and that he had been imprisoned merely for treating a man who came to his house late at night with a fractured leg. Over a century after the assassination, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both wrote letters to Richard Mudd agreeing that his grandfather committed no crime. However, others, including authors Edward Steers, Jr. and James Swanson, assert that Samuel Mudd visited Booth three times in the months before the failed kidnapping attempt. The first time was November 1864 when Booth, looking for help in his kidnapping plot, was directed to Mudd by agents of the Confederate Secret Service. In December, Booth met with Mudd again and stayed the night at his farm. Later that December, Mudd went to Washington and introduced Booth to a Confederate agent he knew — John Surratt. Additionally, George Atzerodt testified that Booth sent supplies to Mudd's house in preparation for the kidnap plan. Mudd lied to the authorities who came to his house after the assassination, claiming that he did not recognize the man who showed up on his doorstep in need of treatment and giving false information about where Booth and Herold went.[7]:211–2, 378[15]:234–5 He also hid the monogrammed boot that he had cut off Booth's injured leg behind a panel in his attic, but the thorough search of Mudd's house soon revealed this further evidence against him. One hypothesis is that Dr. Mudd was active in the kidnapping plot, likely as the person the conspirators would turn to for medical treatment in case Lincoln were injured, and that Booth thus remembered the doctor and went to his house to get help in the early hours of April 15.[7]:126–9[16]:59–61


Lincoln's funeral train
The Apotheosis of Abraham Lincoln, greeted by George Washington in heaven, who is holding a laurel wreath (an 1860s work, post-assassination)

Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated. His assassination had a long-lasting impact upon the United States, and he was mourned throughout the country in both the North and South. There were attacks in many cities against those who expressed support for Booth.[45]:350 On the Easter Sunday after Lincoln's death, clergymen around the country praised Lincoln in their sermons.[45]:357 Millions of people came to Lincoln's funeral procession in Washington, D.C. on April 19, 1865,[7]:213 and as his body was transported 1,700 miles (2,700 km) through New York to Springfield, Illinois. His body and funeral train were viewed by millions along the route to his final resting place in what is now known at Lincoln Tomb.[45]:394

After Lincoln's death, Ulysses S. Grant called him "incontestably the greatest man I ever knew."[8]:747 Southern-born Elizabeth Blair, sister of Montgomery Blair (Lincoln's first Postmaster General), said that, "Those of Southern born sympathies know now they have lost a friend willing and more powerful to protect and serve them than they can now ever hope to find again."[8]:744

Vice President Andrew Johnson became President upon Lincoln's death. Johnson was to become one of the least popular presidents in American history.[63] He was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868, but the Senate failed to convict him by one vote.[8]:752

Secretary of State William Seward recovered from his wounds and continued to serve in his post throughout Johnson's presidency. He later negotiated the Alaska Purchase, then known as Seward's Folly, by which the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.[8]:751

Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris married two years after the assassination, and Rathbone went on to become the U.S. consul to Hanover, Germany. However, Rathbone later became mentally ill and, in 1883, shot Clara and then stabbed her to death. He spent the rest of his life in a German asylum for the criminally insane.[7]:372

John Ford tried to reopen his theater a couple of months after the murder, but a wave of outrage forced him to cancel. In 1866, the federal government purchased the building from Ford, tore out the insides, and turned it into an office building. In 1893, the inner structure collapsed, killing 22 clerks. It was later used as a warehouse, then it lay empty until it was restored to its 1865 appearance. Ford's Theatre reopened in 1968 both as a museum of the assassination and a working playhouse. The Presidential Box is never occupied.[7]:381–2 The Petersen House was purchased by the US government in 1896 as the "House Where Lincoln Died", being the Federal government's first purchase of a historic home.[64] Today, Ford's and the Petersen House are operated together as the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

Skull fragments and probe used, from the National Museum of Health and Medicine
The top hat Lincoln wore on the night of the assassination

The bed that Lincoln occupied and other items from the bedroom had been bought by Chicago collector Charles F. Gunther and are now owned by and on display at the Chicago History Museum.[65][66] The Army Medical Museum, now named the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has retained in its collection several artifacts relating to the assassination. Currently on display are the bullet that hit Lincoln, the probe used by Barnes, pieces of Lincoln's skull and hair, and the surgeon's cuff stained with Lincoln's blood. The chair in which Lincoln was shot is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.[67]

On February 9, 1956, a 95-year-old Samuel J. Seymour appeared on the U.S. game show, I've Got a Secret. The celebrity panel was eventually able to guess Seymour's "secret": He had been in attendance at Ford's Theatre the night of the assassination. Only 5 years old on the day of the April 1865 shooting, Seymour was the last living witness to the event. He died two months after the telecast.

Lincoln was honored on the centennial of his birth when his portrait was placed on the U.S. one-cent coin in 1909. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was opened in 1922.

A piece of John Wilkes Booth's thoracic tissue that was taken following his autopsy is on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[68]

The day before his assassination, Lincoln wrote a personal check for $800 to "self", reportedly to cover some debts incurred by his wife. That check, and several other historical checks, would be put on display by Huntington Bank at a branch in Cleveland in 2012, after a Huntington employee discovered the checks in 2011 looking through old documents from a bank Huntington acquired in 1983. Although checks from several other historical figures were also on display, the check written by Lincoln two days before his death received the most attention.[69]

Found in Lincoln's pocket, after his death, was a copy of British MP John Bright's testimonial for Lincoln's re-election.[70]

International reactions

Lincoln's death sparked outpourings of grief around the world.[71] Governments around the world issued proclamations and declared periods of mourning on April 15, 1865.[72][73]

China's chief secretary of state for foreign affairs, Prince Kung, said Lincoln's death "inexpressibly shocked and startled me."[72]

In a letter to Frederick Hassaurek, the U.S. Minister to Ecuador, the Ecuadorian President Gabriel Garcia Moreno said that "Never should I have thought that the noble country of Washington would be humiliated by such a black and horrible crime; nor should I ever have thought that Mr. Lincoln would come to such a horrible end, after having served his country which such wisdom and glory under so critical circumstances."[72][73]

British Foreign Minister Lord Russell wrote to U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams that Lincoln's death was a "sad calamity."[73]

The government of Liberia issued a proclamation, remarking that Lincoln "was not only the ruler of his own people, but a father to millions of a race stricken and oppressed."[73] The government of Haiti condemned the assassination as a "horrid crime."[73] The United States had recognized both Liberia and Haiti in 1862, only three years prior.

See also


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  5. "Prisoner exchange". Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved May 28, 2011.
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Further reading

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