He had planned the moment with great care.
John Wilkes Booth, a well-known American actor, was crouched in a hiding place in the auditorium of Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
Booth had worked out exactly how he would kill Lincoln. He would wait for actor Harry Hawk to deliver the famous line about the manners of good society, which always raised a good laugh. Then, as the audience guffawed, he would shoot the president in the head at point blank range.
Booth’s assassination was no random killing. It was a carefully planned murder intended to have huge political ramifications. The American Civil war was nearing and end and Confederate forces were close to defeat. Booth hoped the killing of President Lincoln would bring to a sudden halt the triumph of the Union armies.
Booth knew the script of Our American Cousin by heart: the famous line was fast approaching. He crept into the box and, as the audience laughed, pumped a bullet into the president’s head. As Lincoln slumped forward, his wife, Mary, screamed.
Several men gave chase, but they failed to catch Booth. He leaped onto his getaway horse and headed towards the Navy Yard Bridge. His ultimate destination was the Potomac River that separated the warring sides in the Civil War. If he could cross this, he would be safe.
They nevertheless carried Lincoln across the street and into William Peterson’s boarding house. A third doctor also examined Lincoln: all three knew that nothing could be done. The president remained alive but unconscious for much of the night. Then, at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, he breathed his last. He was 56 years old.
Although Lincoln was dead, the attempt on the Vice President’s life had failed and the Secretary of State was stabbed but not killed.
|Booth: the assassin|
Nearby, in the presidential box, sat Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. Lincoln was greatly enjoying the play Our American Cousin, which was playing to a packed house. It was 14 April, 1865.
|Lincoln: the victim|
The laughter, he thought, would cover the noise of the gunshot.
|Ford's: the crime scene|
He persuaded two fellow plotters to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Steward on the same night. It was intended to be a mortal blow to the government.
As Booth crouched close to the presidential box, he had some unexpected good fortune. Lincoln’s bodyguard, an unreliable individual named John Parker, slipped away to a nearby tavern. The president was suddenly extremely vulnerable.
|Bang: the fatal shot|
The presidential couple were not alone in the box: also present were their friends Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris.
Rathbone now leaped from his seat and grabbed Booth, but the assassin slammed his dagger into Rathbone’s arm. Booth then vaulted over the rail and down onto the stage screaming ‘Sic temper tyrannis’ - ‘Thus always to tyrants’ Rathbone and his fiancée were meanwhile shouting: ‘Stop that man!’ Only now did the audience realise that this unexpected drama was not part of the play.
|Leale: a doctor in the house|
A doctor in the theatre audience, Charles Leale, meanwhile rushed to attend to Lincoln. The president’s pulse had faded and Leale was convinced he was near death.
A second doctor, Charles Taft, entered the box and the two men cut away Lincoln’s clothes. They tried to treat him but it made little difference. ‘His wound is mortal,’ said Leale. ‘It is impossible for him to recover'
|Wanted! Preferably alive|
Booth had meanwhile made his escape. He left Washington and rode into Maryland. Here, the ankle he’d fractured in the theatre was treated by a doctor. He then continued towards the Potomac River, which he crossed in the third week of April.
He was hiding in a barn in Virginia, thinking himself safe, when he was expectedly surrounded by Union soldiers. He refused to surrender, causing his assailants to set fire to the barn. As the building burned, one of the troops, Boston Corbett, sighted him and shot him in the neck. Two hours later, Booth was dead.
The assassination of Lincoln led to a massive investigation. Booth had been aided by fellow plotters; these were rounded up and either imprisoned or executed.
|John Surratt: survived|
Only one of the alleged plotters escaped with his life. John Surratt fled to Europe where he served in the Papal Infantry force. He was eventually tracked down and extradited, but so much time had passed that the statute of limitations had expired.
All charges were dropped and he eventually died, a free man, in the spring of 1916, the last survivor in the most infamous assassination in history.
My latest book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is available here, price £11.40. The American edition will be published in October.
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