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As a fugitive on the run, John Wilkes Booth recorded his version of the Lincoln assassination in a diary, but some of his secrets are lost to history.
The Diary of Lincoln's Assassin - HISTORYPhoto of Seward's attacker Lewis Powell taken after his arrest. Famous photographer Alexander Gardner snapped the picture and modern-day Minus user Mad Madsen (@zuzahgaming) colorized it causing internet fan girls to swoon.
April 14 th , 1865 was a pretty bad day for a lot of people. Lincoln was assassinated, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone had their lives torn apart, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed along with most of his family and a few bystanders.
Oh, you hadn’t heard about that last one?
Booth and his co-conspirators’ plan was larger than just the assassination of Lincoln. Their plot included a number of top officials in the U.S. government whose death they hoped would bring the country to its knees. Lewis Powell, a twenty year old Confederate soldier, was chosen to assassinate the Secretary of State.
Powell used the fact that Seward had been injured in a carriage accident the week before to his advantage by manufacturing a story about having medicine for the Secretary. The butler let the young assassin into the house and Powell wasted no time getting right down to his deadly business. Attempting to gain access to the room where Seward was confined to bed, Powell was stopped by Seward’s son and Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick. They argued and Powell turned violent, trying to fire a gun at Frederick. Luckily for the Assistant Secretary, Powell’s gun misfired, but unfortunately the assassin would let nothing keep him from his goal. He took his useless gun and savagely clubbed Frederick with it.
With Frederick senseless on the floor, Powell rushed towards the Secretary’s room, stabbing Augustus Seward, another son, on the way. Finally in Seward’s room, Powell plunged his knife “repeatedly in the face and neck” of the Secretary, shouting wildly. The assassin was pulled off by Sergeant George F. Robinson, Seward’s bodyguard, and another man acting as Seward’s nurse. Powell stabbed Robinson and the nurse, and when suddenly confronted by Seward’s daughter Fanny, stabbed her as well. Amidst all the blood and screaming, with the Secretary on the floor and his job apparently done, Powell decided to high tail it out of there -- but not before claiming yet another victim when he stabbed a telegram messenger on the way out.
Powell had left a veritable horror story in his wake, but he could not consider himself victorious. Luckily for the Sewards, Powell turned out to be the most ineffective assassin ever. He’d brutally stabbed six people and beaten another one in his quest to commit murder, but he didn’t actually end up killing anyone. William H. Seward’s neck brace, worn because of his injury, protected vital areas from Powell’s knife. Frederick Seward escaped with a skull fracture and a two-month coma. The person most grievously injured was the telegram messenger, Emerick Hansell, who although he wasn’t even supposed to be there was paralyzed for life. More than that, Powell was lost in D.C. for a while after escaping, not being from the city and unable to navigate the city’s streets.
The attempt on Seward’s life is not well-remembered today, as it is overshadowed by Lincoln’s death, but the inept Lewis Powell retains some infamy by his inclusion on social media lists of “historical crushes”. Tumblr blogs in particular love him Lewis Powell even has an entry on "My Daguerreotype Boyfriend." Hey, a violent madman involved in the plot to kill Lincoln? Whatever floats your boat.
Linder, Douglas O. “Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Lewis Powell.” Famous Trials. University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, (2012).
Van Deusen, Glyndon G. “The Life and Career of William Henry Seward 1801-1872”. University of Rochester Library Bulletin, 31.1. The University of Rochester, (1978)
The Closest Source We Have to Really Knowing John Wilkes Booth Is His Sister
Asia Booth Clarke, sickly pregnant with twins at her mansion in Philadelphia, received the morning newspaper on April 15, 1865, in bed and screamed at the sight of the headlines: John Wilkes, her younger brother, was wanted for the assassination of President Lincoln.
Asia was married to an actor, John Sleeper Clarke. In their home, they kept an iron safe, where Asia’s brother often stored papers when he traveled. As the reality of Lincoln’s death took hold, Asia remembered documents that Booth had deposited during the winter and fetched them. In a large sealed envelope marked “Asia,” she found four thousand dollars’ worth of federal and city bonds a Pennsylvania oil-land transfer, made out to another of her brothers a letter to their mother explaining why, despite his promises, Booth had been drawn into the war and a written statement in which he tried to justify an earlier attempt to abduct the president as a prisoner of the Confederacy.
Years later, Asia would describe these events—and attempt to explain her brother—in what is today a lesser-known memoir. Scholars have “delighted” in the slender book, says Terry Alford, a John Wilkes Booth expert in Virginia, because it remains the only manuscript of significant length that provides insightful details about Booth’s childhood and personal preferences. “There’s no other document like it,” Alford told me.
John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir
Asia Booth Clarke's memoir is an indispensable resource for perceiving the complexities of her ill-fated brother. Certainly no outsider could give such insights into the turbulent Booth's childhood or share such unique personal knowledge of the gifted actor.
Booth’s letter to his mother did not run immediately in the press, but the manifesto did, supplying what Asia called “food to newsmongers and enemies” and drawing “a free band of male and female detectives” to her doorstep. As the manhunt proceeded, the authorities twice searched her home. Her difficult pregnancy exonerated her from having to report to Washington—a detective was assigned to her home, instead, to read her mail and coax her to talk—but her husband, a Unionist, was taken temporarily to the capital for interrogation. One of her brothers, Junius, an actor and theater manager, was also arrested—on the same day, as it happened, that the authorities finally tracked John to a barn in Virginia and shot him dead. He had been at large for 12 days.
Asia was the fourth of the six Booth children who lived to adulthood John was number five. The two were extremely close. Several years before Lincoln’s death, they had started collaborating on a biography of their famous father, a stage actor. Unable to focus, Booth had left the project to his sister. With the family name destroyed, Asia recommitted herself to the biography, which was published in 1866, and to regaining credibility.
She also became formally religious. The Booths had raised their children to be spiritual without directing them to any one church, but her brother’s ignominious act, along with his death, had “brought to a crisis Asia’s need for a sense of legitimacy and order,” Alford has noted. After converting to Roman Catholicism, Asia had her children baptized in the church. In the spring of 1868, having renounced the United States, she moved with her family to London.
In England, Asia gave birth to three more children. They all died. Her rheumatism grew worse. Friendless, she felt isolated and estranged from her husband, who was often away at the theater. Every Fourth of July, and on George Washington’s birthday, she would hang an American flag in nostalgia for the homeland to which she felt she couldn’t return. By now, she had lost her adored brother, her country, her parents, several children, her health, and now she was losing her husband to “dukelike haughtiness” and “icy indifference,” not to mention a mistress. London she despised: its weather, chauvinism, food. “I hate fat, greasy-voiced, fair-whiskered Britons with all my heart,” she wrote in a letter in 1874.
With her family name destroyed (a lithograph by J. L. Magee, a specialist in “America’s most lurid disaster scenes”), Asia renounced the United States and moved to England. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division) “Strange men called at late hours, some whose voices I knew, but who would not answer to their names,” Asia wrote. (Courtesy Terry Alford) Edwin Booth urged Asia to forget their brother: “He is dead to us now.” (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Nine years had passed since Lincoln’s death. Lonely and irritable, Asia revised the biography of her father and began writing about her brother. In distinctive, slanted handwriting, she worked quickly in a small, black-leather journal equipped with a lock. “John Wilkes was the ninth of ten children born to Junius Brutus and Mary Anne Booth,” she began.
The second paragraph sketched a haunting précis:
His mother, when he was a babe of six months old, had a vision, in answer to a fervent prayer, in which she imagined that the foreshadowing of his fate had been revealed to her. This is one of the numerous coincidences which tend to lead one to believe that human lives are swayed by the supernatural.
Asia, a poet, had made verse of the “oft-told reminiscence” of the vision, as a birthday gift for her mother 11 years before the assassination. (“Tiny, innocent white baby-hand / What force, what power is at your command / For evil, or good?”) Now, in the memoir, she also recounted an eerie experience her brother had as a boy, in the woods near the Quaker boarding school that he attended in their native Maryland: A traveling fortuneteller told him “Ah, you’ve had a bad hand. It’s full enough of sorrow. Full of trouble.” He had been “born under an unlucky star” and had a “thundering crowd of enemies” he would “make a bad end” and “die young.”
The young Booth wrote out the fortune in pencil on a scrap of paper that eventually wore to tatters in his pocket. Asia wrote that in “the few years that summed up his life, frequent recurrence was sadly made to the rambling words of that old Gipsey in the woods of Cockeysville.”
Asia was smart and sociable, with a mind for mathematics and poetry. Her father thought she had a “sulky temper” at times. Thin and long-faced, she had narrow lips, brown eyes and a cleft chin, and wore her dark hair parted down the middle and gathered up in back.
Her brother was beautiful, with “long, up-curling [eye]lashes,” “perfectly shaped hands,” his “father’s finely shaped head,” and his mother’s “black hair and large hazel eyes,” she wrote. In intimate detail, Asia documented his preferences and habits, as if to freeze his memory and humanize him before the public:
He had a “tenacious rather than an intuitive intelligence” as a boy—he learned slowly but retained knowledge indefinitely. He had a “great power of concentration”—at school, he sat with “forehead clasped by both hands, mouth firm set, as if resolute to conquer.” When trying to accomplish a difficult task, his strategy was to imagine challenges as a column of foes to be struck down one by one. In the woods, he practiced elocution. (“His voice was a beautiful organ.”) A lover of nature, he might “nibble” some roots or twigs or throw himself to the ground to inhale the “earth’s healthy breath,” which he called “burrowing.”
The president’s killer loved flowers and butterflies. Asia noted that her brother considered fireflies “bearers of sacred torches” and that he avoided harming them. She remembered him as a good listener. He was insecure about his lack of stage grace, and he worried about his chances as an actor. The music that he enjoyed tended to be sad, plaintive. A flautist, he adored reciting poetry and Julius Caesar. He loathed jokes, “particularly theatrical ones.” He smoked a pipe. He was a “fearless” rider. He preferred hardwood floors to carpet for the “smell of the oak,” and sunrises to sunsets, which were “too melancholy.”
Describing her brother’s bedroom, Asia wrote: “A huge pair of antlers held swords, pistols, daggers and a rusty old blunderbuss.” His red-covered books, cheaply bound, contained “Bulwer, Maryatt, Byron and a large Shakespeare.” He slept on “the hardest mattress and a straw pillow, for at this time of his life he adored Agesilaus, the Spartan King, and disdained luxuries.” In dire times, he “ate sparingly of bread and preserves” so as to leave more for others. He was mannerly, “for he knew the language of flowers.”
Asia wrote straightforwardly, often lyrically. (A stream “came gurgling under the fence and took its way across the road to the woods opposite, where it lost itself in tangled masses of wild-grape bowers.”) A few passages are tone deaf (her brother, she recalled, had “a certain deference and reverence towards his superiors in authority”) or objectionable: While the family did not share Wilkes’ Southern sympathies, Asia referred to African-Americans as “darkies” and immigrants as “the refuse of other countries.”
It should be noted that Asia worked almost entirely from memory as she wrote what she might have hoped would be the definitive portrait of her brother. “Everything that bore his name was given up, even the little picture of himself, hung over my babies’ beds in the nursery,” she wrote. “He had placed it there himself saying, ‘Remember me, babies, in your prayers.’”
Several months before the assassination, Booth showed up at Asia’s house, his palms callused, mysteriously, from “nights of rowing.” His thigh-high boots contained pistol holsters. His threadbare hat and coat “were not evidence of recklessness but of care for others, self-denial,” Asia wrote. Their brother Junius would later describe to Asia a moment, in Washington, when Booth faced the direction of the fallen city of Richmond, and “brokenly” said, “Virginia—Virginia.”
During his visit with Asia, he often slept in his boots on a downstairs sofa. “Strange men called at late hours, some whose voices I knew, but who would not answer to their names,” Asia wrote, adding, “They never came farther than the inner sill, and spoke in whispers.”
One night, Booth raged against Lincoln and his delusions about an impending monarchy. “A desperate turn towards the evil had come!” Asia wrote. For once, she found herself unable to calm her brother’s “wild tirades, which were the very fever of his distracted brain and tortured heart.”
Before having his sister deposit some of his papers in her safe, Booth told her that if anything should happen to him she should follow the instructions in the documents. He then knelt at her knee and put his head in her lap, and she stroked his hair for a while. Rising to leave, he told her to take care. She said she would not be happy until they saw each other again. “Try to be happy” were his last words to her.
“There is no more to add,” she wrote. “The rest is horror, fitter for a diary than for these pages.”
In a letter, her brother Edwin advised her to forget John: “Think no more of him as your brother he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world.”
But Asia could not let it go. She used her memoir to assert that her brother never openly plotted against the president and, contrary to rumor, never carried in his pocket a bullet meant for Lincoln. She repeatedly defended his mental health, citing the fortuneteller’s augury to explain his actions: only a “desperate fate” could have impelled someone with such “peaceful domestic qualities” to murder the nation’s leader.
Ultimately, she conceded a possibility:
The fall of Richmond “breathed air afresh upon the fire which consumed him.” Lincoln’s visit to the theater signaled the “fall of the Republic, a dynasty of kings.” His attending a play “had no pity in it,” Asia wrote. “It was jubilation over fields of unburied dead, over miles of desolated homes.” She ended her book by calling her brother America’s first martyr.
The handwritten manuscript totaled a slim 132 pages. Asia left it untitled—the cover held only “J.W.B.” in hand-tooled gold. In it, she referred to her brother as “Wilkes,” to avoid reader confusion about the other John in her life. She hoped the book would be published in her lifetime, but she died in May of 1888 (age 52 heart problems) without ever seeing it in print.
In a last wish, she asked that the manuscript be given to B.L. Farjeon, an English writer whom she respected and whose family considered Asia “a sad and noble woman,” his daughter Eleanor wrote. Farjeon received the manuscript in a black tin box he found the work to be significant but believed the Booths, and the public, to be unready for such a gentle portrait of the president’s killer.
Fifty years passed. Eleanor Farjeon pursued publication. In 1938, G.P. Putnam’s Sons put out the memoir as The Unlocked Book: A Memoir of John Wilkes Booth by His Sister Asia Booth Clarke, with a price of $2.50. In the introduction, Farjeon described the project as Asia’s attempt to repudiate the “shadowy shape evoked by the name John Wilkes Booth.” The New York Times gave it a matter-of-fact review. In the Saturday Review, the historian Allan Nevins said it had been “written with a tortured pen.”
University Press of Mississippi republished the memoir in 1996 as John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir, with an introduction by Alford, a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College (and the author of “The Psychic Connection” on p. 40). An addendum contains family letters and documents if Asia’s feelings about her brother are conflicted, Booth’s are made clear on the issues of slavery (a “blessing”), abolitionists (“traitors”) and secession (he was “insane” for it).
The original manuscript is privately owned, in England, according to Alford, whose research and introduction provide much of the contextual narrative detail given here. He thinks of Asia’s work as “diligent and loving,” and told me, “It’s the only thing we’ve really got about Booth. If you think about the sources, most are about the conspiracy. There’s nothing about him as a person, no context.”
Though an important commentary on Booth’s life, the text was unpolished and never “properly vetted for the reader by literary friends and a vigilant publisher,” Alford notes. Better to think of the memoir as “an intense and intimate conversation,” he wrote, “thrown out unrefined from a sister’s heart.”
About Paige Williams
Paige Williams is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of The Dinosaur Artist, which was named one of The New York Times's Top 100 Books of 2018 and was a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters 2019 prize in nonfiction.
1864 Election and 1865 Inauguration and Assassination of President Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was re-elected President on November 8, 1864 and inaugurated on March 4, 1865. Although William made brief notes of these events in his diary, he did not reveal his personal views on Lincoln or the war. When Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, William did take note of the tragic events and of the reactions in New York as the country mourned and buried the President. However, he gave no details with respect to his personal feelings at that time.
Abraham Lincoln was re-elected President on November 8, 1864 as the candidate of the Republican Party, renamed the Union Party to accommodate Democrats who supported the Union war effort.(1) William Steinway mentioned in his diary on November 8 that Election Day passed quietly but gave no indication of whether he voted for Lincoln or for the Democratic candidate, George McClellan. (Diary, 1864-11-08)
Steinway was a Democrat who generally supported New York City's Tammany Hall, the political machine that dominated city politics, although at times he gave his support to a reform faction of the party. In the 1862 elections, he noted that he and Charles voted Democratic, but his other brothers, Henry and Albert, voted Republican.(Diary, 1862-11-04) And on September 17, 1864, he wrote that he and his wife had attended a McClellan Meeting at Stereopticon on Union Square.(Diary, 1864-09-17) He was in Buffalo on November 1 where he said they could "see from front window the democratic procession."(Diary, 1864-11-01) And on November 6, two days before the election, back in New York, he visited Rev. Mr. McMahon to discuss the possibility of an attack on the Steinway factory on election day "in case of a riot." (Diary, 1864-11-06) As noted above, the day was quiet. Many years later, on November 3, 1896, William noted in the Diary that " this is the first time in my Life that I voted for any but the democratic ticket." If William remembered correctly, we can conclude that he did not vote for Lincoln.
Lincoln's opponent in the election, George McClellan, was the former commander of the Union Army who had been relieved of his command by Lincoln after failing to pursue the Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee following the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.(4) McClellan became the leader of those dissatisfied with Lincoln's conduct of the war, and the Democratic Party nominated him for president at its convention in Chicago on August 29, 1864, under a platform calling for immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy.(1) The diary makes no mention of his nomination.
The two political conventions were held at a time when the prospects of a Union victory appeared doubtful and Lincoln's management of the war was widely criticized. However, when the Union army under General Willliam Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, and other victories followed, the tide of war began moving clearly in favor of the North.(1) Lincoln carried 21 states against three for McClellan, winning 212 votes in the Electoral College compared with McClellan's 21 votes, and a popular majority of some 400,000, which the New York Times called a preponderance of popular sentiment unexampled since the reelection of James Monroe forty-four years ago.(1)(3)
It is surprising that Steinway did not discuss the campaign or the election results in more detail.(Diary, 1864-11-09) There were a number of happenings in the city that had an effect on the community and on business although of course the press reported Lincolns victory.(3) The diary was still a fairly new endeavor - Steinway had started it in April 1861, just three years earlier and diary entries were still quite brief. He frequently mentioned only his evening activity, often a musical event. In addition, he was concentrating on family and business affairs rather than current events although he made occasional mention of specific battles. His first note on the Civil War appears to be on January 13, 1862, reporting on a frigate running blockades. (Diary, 1862-01-13)
About this Collection
This collection represents three manuscript volumes that document daily life in Washington, D.C., through the eyes of U.S. Patent Office examiner Horatio Nelson Taft (1806-1888), including Taft's connection with Abraham Lincoln and his family. Of special interest is Taft's description of Lincoln's assassination, based on the accounts of his friends and his son, who was one of the attending physicians at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot, on April 14, 1865. Transcriptions for all three volumes have been made by Library of Congress staff and are available online with the digital images.
The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft is housed in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. Mrs. Willoughby Davis, a Taft descendant, donated the diary's three volumes as a gift to the Library in 2000.
The three volumes comprise about 1,240 digital images in the online collection and span the years 1861 to 1865. Taft wrote daily from January 1, 1861, through April 11, 1862, and irregular entries thereafter until May 30, 1865.
The diary documents Taft's life in Washington, D. C., where he worked as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office. It is especially significant because of his connection to the Abraham Lincoln family and because of his descriptions of daily life in Washington during the Civil War. Its contents provide details about Taft's family life and various events in Washington, including descriptions of the arrival and quartering of regiments, hospitals, and the daily news reports (sometimes inaccurate) of battles. Included in the diary is a report of President Lincoln's assassination based on accounts Taft received from friends and particularly his son, Charles Sabin Taft, a U.S. Army surgeon who was in Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. He was one of the physicians in attendance on Lincoln throughout the night of April 14, 1865.
Transcriptions for all three volumes of the diary have been made by Library of Congress staff and are available online along with the digital images. Horatio Nelson Taft's written narration presented a challenge to transcribers. Those who wish to compare the manuscript diary with the transcription should note that many "stray" marks have been ignored and treated as "pen rests." Taft's remarks often form a series of unpunctuated phrases that require some type of clarification. A limited amount of punctuation and capitalization has been introduced in the transcription, chiefly to clarify text or begin new sentences. Inconsistent capitalization within sentences and misspellings have been left largely as they appear in the hand of the diarist. Missing quotations have been supplied and confusing abbreviations expanded. Many personal names in the diary appear with variant spellings, and nicknames for family members are often used. These will be identified in the published version of the diary sponsored by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Lincoln’s Assassination Stuns the Nation
Shot on Good Friday and dead on Saturday: The timing of the assassination made Easter Sunday 1865 a particularly important—and confusing—occasion, as shocked mourners came to church for what should have been a day of rejoicing over both the resurrection of Christ and military victory.
The reversal of fortunes was manifested materially, as churchwomen rearranged the colorful springtime displays they had readied. Easter decoration had become something of a commercial enterprise by the mid nineteenth century, with elaborate presentations meant to reflect religious devotion. Flowers played a central role, and now the women highlighted the white blossoms as they searched for black fabric to cover railings and arches, chancel and altar, pulpit and organ, and placed portraits of the late president amid the myrtle, tea roses, and heliotrope. As a congregant in Boston recorded, grappling with the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, “This glorious Easter morn our Church put on the garb of mourning.”
The crowds were phenomenal. Pews always filled to capacity on Easter, but no one had ever seen anything like April 16, 1865. Wherever the news had arrived, from the East Coast to the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean, black churches and white churches were jammed. Aisles and galleries were full, choir steps packed tight. Men carried in extra settees and benches, leaving not an inch of floor space to spare. Many who spilled out the doors strained to hear the service, and those at the back of the outdoor crowds stood too far away to hear anything at all. The same was true in army camps, where Union officers and soldiers gathered in unprecedented numbers to listen to whoever was preaching and however many sermons were offered. The same as the day before, mourners craved company in order to absorb the tragic event. The shock had not yet dissipated, and just as in the streets on Saturday, on Sunday people observed the grief of their neighbors in church or their comrades in camp, reading the faces around them for confirmation that it was not, after all, a hoax or a dream.
Very sad: Those two words conveyed the heavy sorrow that had mixed with the initial shock from the first moment Lincoln’s supporters had counted the news as credible. In Baton Rouge, a Union army chaplain found the hundreds of freedpeople “all very sad.” In Minnesota, “the people all feel very sad,” a soldier wrote in his diary. It was, Mary Emerson wrote from Paris, in her petit souvenir journalier, the “saddest saddest news we ever heard.” Others employed more vivid vocabulary. The news “threw a mantle of sadness over every heart,” or people were “struck down” in anguish, “crest fallen and agitated.” One soldier thought even the defeat of Sherman or Grant would have brought less gloom to camp. Just as mourners had draped their churches, so too did they imagine nature attired in grief. Where it rained, people saw the clouds “weeping copiously,” where skies were blue, “the very sunshine looked mournful.” A former slave in Washington said that even the trees were weeping for Lincoln.
For communities of freedpeople across the South, grief washed through like a tidal wave. From Norfolk and Portsmouth, Beaufort and Charleston came the most “heartfelt sorrow,” “troubled countenances,” and “very great” grief. Everywhere children cried audibly and grown-ups wept bitterly. Some cried all night, others just felt numb. One woman described herself as “nearly deranged” with grief. Black soldiers were utterly bereft. Edgar Dinsmore of the 54th Massachusetts felt “a loss irreparable.” One man compared the circumstances to a horrific scene he had witnessed as a slave: a mother whipped forty lashes for weeping when white people took away her children. The violence had traumatized him, “but not half so much as the death of President Lincoln,” he confessed. Some white officers in black regiments felt the sense of loss magnified. “Oh how Sad, How Melancholy,” James Moore wrote to his wife. Such intense sorrow overcame him that it seemed “an impossibility to rally from it.” In Petersburg, Thomas Morris Chester saw both “unfeigned grief” and an “undisguised feeling of horror,” for the question hadn’t gone away: Would they “have to be slaves again”?
African Americans claimed for themselves a special place in the outpouring of sorrow, and the prayers and sermons of Easter Sunday magnified Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator. A New Orleans minister asserted that his people felt “deeper sorrow for the friend of the colored man,” and black clergymen in the North allowed that their people felt the loss “more keenly” and “more than all others.” Journalists singled out the “dusky-skinned men of our own race” as the “chief—the truest mourners,” and black soldiers maintained that “as a people none could deplore his loss more than we.” Frederick Douglass, speaking extemporaneously in Rochester on Saturday, told the overflowing crowd that he felt the loss “as a personal as well as national calamity” because of “the race to which I belong.” Even the most stricken white mourners conceded the point. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles thought the “colored people” to be the “truer mourners.” In the words of one minister, “We who are white know little of the emotions which thrill the black man’s heart to-day,” and as another told his congregation, “intense as is our grief,” no white person could “fathom the sorrow” of black people. White mourners also pondered this difference in their personal writings. “How I pity the poor colored people,” wrote one, “who share perhaps most deeply in our great calamity!”
From the moment the news arrived, Lincoln’s mourners cried as they recorded their emotions, smudging the ink in their journals and letters. Up Broadway in New York, with black drapery obscuring all facades, everything “looked so—sorrowful—& sad,” Emily Watkins wrote haltingly to her husband, her dashes perhaps standing in for intermittent sobs. In a small town in Indiana, a young southern Unionist likewise drew dashes (and comforted herself with imagined universality): “The horror and the sorrow are intense—Tears are in all eyes—sobs in every voice—old men and children—rich and poor, white and black.” By the rules of American culture (which applied most strictly to the middle and upper classes), expressions of grief were meant to be properly bounded: too much, and one was overly self-indulgent too little, and one was not quite sensitive enough. Still, the antebellum decades had witnessed a new sentimentalization of death, as the harshness of the Puritan legacy crumbled, and communities and families increasingly attended to the emotions of earthly survivors. On this particular day, all societal pressure lost its power, and most mourners made little effort to conceal their feelings. For the second day in a row, men wept openly, including clergymen. One minister “broke down & the tears rolled down his cheeks.” Children saw their male Sunday school teachers barely able to get through a prayer. “Even the boys,” Anna Lowell wrote, appeared stricken through the hymns.
Finding words to speak aloud or write down could be a challenge. Frederick Douglass, who had met President Lincoln for the third time only weeks earlier, had “scarcely been able to say a word” to friends who had grasped his hands and looked into his eyes. A black soldier in Florida saw sorrow and misery on every face, yet still “none could express their feelings.” Silence, allowed another black mourner in the South, was the “sure sign of sorrow, and when the heart is full it is difficult to speak.” The same was true for white mourners. After recording facts and details, many stumbled in their attempts to articulate their sentiments on paper. “I cannot express my feelings” and “I cannot describe my feelings” became common refrains for men and women alike. Some conveyed the point more poetically. A Philadelphia man felt a “dull & stupefied sense of calamity.” The British writer Edward Peacock found himself stymied, since any description of genuine emotion would appear “wildly exaggerated.”
Others couldn’t write anything at all. “I have heard such dreadful news today that I feel totally unfit for writing a letter,” a Massachusetts woman confessed to her mother. From the battlefront, General Carl Schurz explained to his wife that he would have written earlier had he been able to “shake off the gloom.” At the same time, those who routinely committed but few words to paper betrayed their sorrow by writing more than usual. Whereas Unitarian minister George Ellis normally kept a bare roster of church doings and dining companions, he now added two descriptive words to his log: “awful consternation.” The perfunctory journal of Elizabeth Childs, usually home to memos like “Fanny dined here,” now carried the notation, “Sad day.”
Complete listlessness could take over from the inability to speak or write. “Do not feel like doing anything,” wrote sixteen-year-old Margaret Howell in Philadelphia (she then crossed out the word thing, and changed it to “work or sewing”). For a Union soldier in Alabama, the news made him feel “so bad,” he told his wife, “that I went to bed and I have not felt like getting up since.” For others, it was just the opposite. “Sleep was out of the question!” wrote a disconsolate English woman. Grief affected people’s physical well-being too, in all kinds of ways: lightheadedness or debilitating headaches, prolonged trembling, “prostration of the nervous system,” even days of indefinable sickness. The declaration of victory had enabled Moses Cleveland, serving outside Mobile, to bear his poor health more easily, but the assassination brought him back to the army surgeon, who dispensed medicine and orders to rest. Henry Gawthrop’s body reacted the other way around suffering in a Virginia field hospital with an amputated foot and a bleeding stomach, he found that the terrible tidings made him “almost forget bodily pain.” From the start of the ordeal, from the first moments the shock began to wear away to reveal the truth of President Lincoln’s murder, in rushed overwhelming sorrow.
Excerpted from Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes, published 2015 by Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.
Martha Hodes is a professor of history at New York University and the author of The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century and White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South. Part of the research for her latest book, Mourning Lincoln, was conducted while she was at the Massachusetts Historical Society on an NEH fellowship.
The Diary of Lincoln's Assassin - HISTORY
Abraham Lincoln wrote three autobiographies in a two-year period. This first, terse effort was prepared at the request of Charles Lanman, who was compiling the Dictionary of Congress.
Born, February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky.
Profession, a lawyer.
Have been a captain of volunteers in Black Hawk war.
Postmaster at a very small office.
Four times a member of the Illinois legislature, and was a member of the lower house of Congress.
December 20, 1859
Lincoln wrote this second autobiography for Jesse Fell, a long-time Illinois Republican friend who was a native of Pennsylvania. Fell used his influence to get the piece incorporated into an article appearing in a Pennsylvania newspaper on February 11, 1860. Lincoln enclosed the autobiography in a letter to Fell, remarking, "There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me."
I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families-- second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks, some of whom now reside in Adams, and others in Macon Counties, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from Rockingham County, Virginia, to Kentucky, about 1781 or 2, where, a year or two later, he was killed by indians, not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest. His ancestors, who were Quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New-England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite, than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham, and the like.
My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age and he grew up, litterally [sic] without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals, still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond "readin, writin, and cipherin" to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard [sic]. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.
I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twenty-two. At twenty one I came to Illinois, and passed the first year in Macon County. Then I got to New-Salem (at that time in Sangamon, now in Menard County), where I remained a year as a sort of Clerk in a store. Then came the Black-Hawk war and I was elected a Captain of Volunteers--a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since. I went the campaign, was elated, ran for the Legislature the same year (1832) and was beaten--the only time I ever have been beaten by the people. The next, and three succeeding biennial elections, I was elected to the Legislature. I was not a candidate afterwards. During this Legislative period I had studied law, and removed to Springfield to practise it. In 1846 I was once elected to the lower House of Congress. Was not a candidate for re-election. From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Always a whig in politics, and generally on the whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses--I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.
If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes--no other marks or brands recollected.
When Lincoln first ran for President, John L. Scripps of the Chicago Press and Tribune asked him for an autobiography to write a campaign biography about him. This third-person account is the result. The longest of his autobiographies, it offers fascinating information about his early years.
Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, then in Hardin, now in the more recently formed county of La Rue, Kentucky. His father, Thomas, and grandfather, Abraham, were born in Rockingham County, Virginia, whither their ancestors had come from Berks County, Pennsylvania. His lineage has been traced no father back than this. The family were originally Quakers, though in later times they have fallen away from the peculiar habits of that people. The grandfather, Abraham, had four brothers--Isaac, Jacob, John, and Thomas. So far as known, the descendants of Jacob and John are still in Virginia. Isaac went to a place near where Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee join and his descendants are in that region. Thomas came to Kentucky, and after many years died there, whence his descendants went to Missouri. Abraham, grandfather of the subject of this sketch, came to Kentucky, and was killed by Indians about the year 1784. He left a widow, three sons, and two daughters. The eldest son, Mordecai, remained in Kentucky till late in life, when he removed to Hancock County, Illinois, where soon after he died, and where several of his descendants still remain. The second son, Josiah, removed at an early day to a place on Blue River, now within Hancock County, Indiana, but no recent information of him or his family has been obtained. The eldest sister, Mary, married Ralph Crume, and some of her descendants are now known to be in Breckenridge County, Kentucky. The second sister, Nancy, married William Brumfield, and her family are not known to have left Kentucky, but there is no recent information from them. Thomas, the youngest son, and the father of the present subject, by the early death of his father, and very narrow circumstances of his mother, even in childhood was a wandering laboring-boy, and grew up literally without education. He never did more in the way of writing than to bunglingly write his own name. Before he was grown he passed one year as a hired hand with his uncle Isaac on Watauga, a branch of the Holston River. Getting back into Kentucky, and having reached his twenty-eighth year, he married Nancy Hanks--mother of the present subject--in the year 1806. She also was born in Virginia and relatives of hers of the name of Hanks, and of other names, now reside in Coles, in Macon, and in Adams counties, Illinois, and also in Iowa. The present subject has no brother or sister of the whole or half blood. He had a sister, older than himself, who was grown and married, but died many years ago, leaving no child also a brother, younger than himself, who died in infancy. Before leaving Kentucky, he and his sister were sent, for short periods, to A B C schools, the first kept by Zachariah Riney, and the second by Caleb Hazel.
At this time his father resided on Knob Creek, on the road from Bardstown, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, at a point three or three and a half miles south or southwest of Atherton's Ferry, on the Rolling Fork. From this place he removed to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in the autumn of 1816, Abraham then being in his eighth year. This removal was partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of the difficulty in land titles in Kentucky. He settled in an unbroken forest, and the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead. Abraham, though very young, was large of his age, and had an axe put into his hands at once and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument--less, of course, in plowing and harvesting seasons. At this place Abraham took an early start as a hunter, which was never much improved afterward. A few days before the completion of his eighth year, in the absence of his father, a flock of wild turkeys approached the new log cabin, and Abraham with a rifle-gun, standing inside, shot through a crack and killed one of them. He has never since pulled a trigger on any larger game. In the autumn of 1818 his mother died and a year afterward his father married Mrs. Sally Johnston, at Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a widow with three children of her first marriage. She proved a good and kind mother to Abraham, and is still living in Coles County, Illinois. There were no children of this second marriage. His father's residence continued at the same place in Indiana till 1830. While here Abraham went to A B C schools by littles, kept successively by Andrew Crawford,--Sweeney, and Azel W. Dorsey. He does not remember any other. The family of Mr. Dorsey now resides in Schuyler County, Illinois. Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar--imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want. In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time. When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he made his first trip upon a flatboat to New Orleans. He was a hired hand merely, and he and a son of the owner, without other assistance, made the trip. The nature of part of the "cargo-load," as it was called, made it necessary for them to linger and trade along the sugar-coast and one night they were attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill and rob them. They were hurt some in the mêlée, but succeeded in driving the negroes from the boat, and then "cut cable," "weighed anchor," and left.
March 1, 1830, Abraham having just completed his twenty-first year, his father and family, with the families of the two daughters and sons-in-law of his stepmother, left the old homestead in Indiana and came to Illinois. Their mode of conveyance was wagons drawn by ox-teams, and Abraham drove one of the teams. They reached the county of Macon, and stopped there some time within the same month of March. His father and family settled a new place on the north side of the Sangamon River, at the junction of the timberland and prairie, about ten miles westerly from Decatur. Here they built a log cabin, into which they removed, and made sufficient of rails to fence ten acres of ground, fenced and broke the ground, and raised a crop of sown corn upon it the same year. These are, or are supposed to be, the rails about which so much is being said just now, though these are far from being the first or only rails ever made by Abraham.
The sons-in-law were temporarily settled in other places in the county. In the autumn all hands were greatly afflicted with ague and fever, to which they had not been used, and by which they were greatly discouraged, so much so that they determined on leaving the county. They remained, however, through the succeeding winter, which was the winter of the very celebrated "deep snow" of Illinois. During that winter Abraham, together with his stepmother's son, John D. Johnston, and John Hanks, yet residing in Macon County, hired themselves to Denton Offutt to take a flatboat from Beardstown, Illinois, to New Orleans and for that purpose were to join him--Offutt--at Springfield, Illinois, so soon as the snow should go off. When it did go off, which was about the first of March, 1831, the county was so flooded as to make traveling by land impracticable to obviate which difficulty they purchased a large canoe, and came down the Sangamon River in it. This is the time and the manner of Abraham's first entrance into Sangamon County. They found Offutt at Springfield, but learned from him that he had failed in getting a boat at Beardstown. This led to their hiring themselves to him for twelve dollars per month each, and getting the timber out of the trees and building a boat at Old Sangamon town on the Sangamon River, seven miles northwest of Springfield, which boat they took to New Orleans, substantially upon the old contract.
During this boat-enterprise acquaintance with Offutt, who was previously an entire stranger, he conceived a liking for Abraham, and believing he could turn him to account, he contracted with him to act as clerk for him, on his return from New Orleans, in charge of a store and mill at New Salem, then in Sangamon, now in Menard County. Hanks had not gone to New Orleans, but having a family, and being likely to be detained from home longer than at first expected, had turned back from St. Louis. He is the same John Hanks who now engineers the "rail enterprise" at Decatur, and is a first cousin to Abraham's mother. Abraham's father, with his own family and others mentioned, had, in pursuance of their intention, removed from Macon to Coles County. John D. Johnston, the stepmother's son, went with them, and Abraham stopped indefinitely and for the first time, as it were, by himself at New Salem, before mentioned. This was in July, 1831. Here he rapidly made acquaintances and friends. In less than a year Offutt's business was failing--had almost failed--when the Black Hawk war of 1832 broke out. Abraham joined a volunteer company, and, to his own surprise, was elected captain of it. He says he has not since had any success in life which gave him so much satisfaction. He went to the campaign, served near three months, met the ordinary hardships of such an expedition, but was in no battle. He now owns, in Iowa, the land upon which his own warrants for the service were located. Returning from the campaign, and encouraged by his great popularity among his immediate neighbors, he the same year ran for the legislature, and was beaten,--his own precinct, however, casting its votes 277 for and 7 against him--and that, too, while he was an avowed Clay man, and the precinct the autumn afterward giving a majority of 115 to General Jackson over Mr. Clay. This was the only time Abraham was ever beaten on a direct vote of the people. He was now without means and out of business, but was anxious to remain with his friends who had treated him with so much generosity, especially as he had nothing elsewhere to go to. He studied what he should do--thought of learning the blacksmith trade--thought of trying to study law--rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education. Before long, strangely enough, a man offered to sell, and did sell, to Abraham and another as poor as himself, an old stock of goods, upon credit. They opened as merchants and he says that was the store. Of course they did nothing but get deeper and deeper in debt. He was appointed postmaster at New Salem--the office being too insignificant to make his politics an objection. The store winked out. The surveyor of Sangamon offered to depute to Abraham that portion of his work which was within his part of the county. He accepted, procured a compass and chain, studied Flint and Gibson a little, and went at it. This procured bread, and kept soul and body together. The election of 1834 came, and he was then elected to the legislature by the highest vote cast for any candidate. Major John T. Stuart, then in full practice of the law, was also elected. During the canvass, in a private conversation he encouraged Abraham [to] study law. After the election he borrowed books of Stuart, took them home with him, and went at it in good earnest. He studied with nobody. He still mixed in the surveying to pay board and clothing bills. When the legislature met, the lawbooks were dropped, but were taken up again at the end of the session. He was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840. In the autumn of 1836 he obtained a law license, and on April 15, 1837, removed to Springfield, and commenced the practice--his old friend Stuart taking him into partnership. March 3, 1837, by a protest entered upon the "Illinois House Journal" of that date, at pages 817 and 818, Abraham, with Dan Stone, another representative of Sangamon, briefly defined his position on the slavery question and so far as it goes, it was then the same that it is now. The protest is as follows:
"Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.
"They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy, but that the promulgation of Abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils.
"They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power under the Constitution to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.
"They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, but that the power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of the District.
"The difference between these opinions and those contained in the above resolutions is their reason for entering this protest.
"Representatives from the County of Sangamon."
In 1838 and 1840, Mr. Lincoln's party voted for him as Speaker, but being in the minority he was not elected. After 1840 he declined a reelection to the legislature. He was on the Harrison electoral ticket in 1840, and on that of Clay in 1844, and spent much time and labor in both those canvasses. In November, 1842, he was married to Mary, daughter of Robert S. Todd, of Lexington, Kentucky. They have three living children, all sons, one born in 1843, one in 1850, and one in 1853. They lost one, who was born in 1846.
In 1846 he was elected to the lower House of Congress, and served one term only, commencing in December, 1847, and ending with the inauguration of General Taylor, in March 1849. All the battles of the Mexican war had been fought before Mr. Lincoln took his seat in Congress, but the American army was still in Mexico, and the treaty of peace was not fully and formally ratified till the June afterward. Much has been said of his course in Congress in regard to this war. A careful examination of the "Journal" and "Congressional Globe" shows that he voted for all the supply measures that came up, and for all the measures in any way favorable to the officers, soldiers, and their families, who conducted the war through: with the exception that some of these measures passed without yeas and nays, leaving no record as to how particular men voted. The "Journal" and "Globe" also show him voting that the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States. This is the language of Mr. Ashmun's amendment, for which Mr. Lincoln and nearly or quite all other Whigs of the House of Representatives voted.
Mr. Lincoln's reasons for the opinion expressed by this vote were briefly that the President had sent General Taylor into an inhabited part of the country belonging to Mexico, and not to the United States, and thereby had provoked the first act of hostility, in fact the commencement of the war that the place, being the country bordering on the east bank of the Rio Grande, was inhabited by native Mexicans, born there under the Mexican government, and had never submitted to, nor been conquered by, Texas or the United States, nor transferred to either by treaty that although Texas claimed the Rio Grande as her boundary, Mexico had never recognized it, and neither Texas nor the United States had ever enforced it that there was a broad desert between that and the country over which Texas had actual control that the country where hostilities commenced, having once belonged to Mexico, must remain so until it was somehow legally transferred, which had never been done.
Mr. Lincoln thought the act of sending an armed force among the Mexicans was unnecessary, inasmuch as Mexico was in no way molesting or menacing the United States or the people thereof and that it was unconstitutional, because the power of levying war is vested in Congress, and not in the President. He thought the principal motive for the act was to divert public attention from the surrender of "Fifty-four, forty, or fight" to Great Britain, on the Oregon boundary question.
Mr. Lincoln was not a candidate for reelection. This was determined upon and declared before he went to Washington, in accordance with an understanding among Whig friends, by which Colonel Hardin and Colonel Baker had each previously served a single term in this same district.
In 1848, during his term in Congress, he advocated General Taylor's nomination for the presidency, in opposition to all others, and also took an active part for his election after his nomination, speaking a few times in Maryland, near Washington, several times in Massachusetts, and canvassing quite fully his own district in Illinois, which was followed by a majority in the district of over 1500 for General Taylor.
Upon his return from Congress he went to the practice of the law with greater earnestness than ever before. In 1852 he was upon the Scott electoral ticket, and did something in the way of canvassing, but owing to the hopelessness of the cause in Illinois he did less than in previous presidential canvasses.
In 1854 his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.
In the autumn of that year he took the stump with no broader practical aim or object than to secure, if possible, the reelection of Hon. Richard Yates to Congress. His speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done. As the canvass proceeded he was drawn to different parts of the State outside of Mr. Yates' district. He did not abandon the law, but gave his attention by turns to that and politics. The State agricultural fair was at Springfield that year, and Douglas was announced to speak there.
In the canvass of 1856 Mr. Lincoln made over fifty speeches, no one of which, so far as he remembers, was put in print. One of them was made at Galena, but Mr. Lincoln has no recollection of any part of it being printed nor does he remember whether in that speech he said anything about a Supreme Court decision. He may have spoken upon that subject, and some of the newspapers may have reported him as saying what it now ascribed to him, but he thinks he could not have expressed himself as represented.
The Diary of Lincoln's Assassin - HISTORY
After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country's but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong, except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so. I have only heard of what has been done (except what I did myself), and it fills me with horror. God, try and forgive me, and bless my mother. Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name - which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God's will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may He, may He spare me that, and let me die bravely. I bless the entire world. Have never hated or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so, and it's with Him to damn or bless me. As for this brave boy with me, who often prays (yes, before and since) with a true and sincere heart - was it crime in him? If so, why can he pray the same?
I do not wish to shed a drop of blood, but 'I must fight the course.' 'Tis all that's left to me."
Mystery surrounds this diary. The little book was taken off Booth's body by Colonel Everton Conger. He took it to Washington and gave it to Lafayette C. Baker, chief of the War Department's National Detective Police. Baker in turn gave it to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The book was not produced as evidence in the 1865 Conspiracy Trial. In 1867 the diary was re-discovered in a "forgotten" War Department file with pages missing. Although most sources indicate 18 pages were missing the FBI's forensic laboratory has examined the diary and stated that 43 separate sheets are missing. This means that 86 pages are gone. For details please see page 188 in Edward Steers' Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President (Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2007).
Over the years there has been endless speculation on those missing pages including rumors that they had surfaced. Nevertheless, they remain officially missing. Two of the pages was torn out by Booth himself and used to write messages to Dr. Richard H. Stuart on April 24, 1865. To speculate on their contents makes for interesting reading, but it's essentially fruitless as no one knows for sure what the rest of the missing pages may or may not have contained.
Booth's diary is on display at Ford's Theatre. For more information, see pp. 154-159 in "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me" The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997). For more discussion of the diary and the missing pages see chapter 12 (pp. 177-202) in Edward Steers' Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President (Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2007). Additionally, please see Dr. William Hanchett's article entitled Booth's Diary online here.
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The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Over the next twelve days, as a fractured nation mourned, the largest manhunt ever attempted closed in on his assassin, the renowned 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln recounts this great American drama: two tumultuous months when the joy of peace was shattered by the heartache of Lincoln’s death. Featuring Will Patton (Numb3rs, A Mighty Heart) as the voice of the assassin and narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit, Adaptation), the film includes interviews with the nation’s foremost Lincoln scholars, who recount a great American drama: two tumultuous months when the joy of peace was shattered by the heartache of Lincoln’s death.
Written, Produced and Directed by
Director of Photography
Music Composed by
Voice of John Wilkes Booth
Sound Edited & Mixed by
Jung Hoon Lee
Historical Recreations Coordinator
Additional Set Dressing
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Hair & Makeup
John Wilkes Booth
Guy W. Gane III
Young John Wilkes Booth
Union Cavalry Officers
Michael E. Brown
Amos Lee Beiler
Clement R. Smith
Scott E. Zeiss
Lincoln Coffin Courtesy of Batesville Casket Company
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library
National Archives and Records Administration
Collection of Lincoln Financial Foundation, Fort Wayne, IN
Courtesy of the National Park Service, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
Collection of Edward Steers, Jr.
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Western Reserve Historical Society
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Indiana Historical Society
Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of State Archives of Florida
Courtesy of The Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Alexandria Library, Special Collections, Alexandria, VA
College of Southern Maryland
Collection of Seward House Museum, Auburn, NY
Joseph N. Nathanson Collection of Lincolniana, McGill University Library
The U.S. Army Military History Institute
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
Robert N. Dennis Collection, The New York Public Library
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St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Port Royal, VA
The New York Historical Society
2nd US Cavalry Co. A
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John F. Andrews
Edna Green Medford
For AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
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An Ark Media production for American Experience
© 2009 WGBH Educational Foundation
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Narrator: In the early morning of April 21, 1865, a train draped with black bunting slowly departed Washington. In the second-to-last car rode the body of the America’s first assassinated President: Abraham Lincoln. Over the next 12 days, the funeral train would wend its way across the country. Millions paused to stand by railroad sidings, or file past his open casket to glimpse the martyred president’s face.
David Blight, historian: It’s a nation mourning, it’s a people mourning, it’s a whole society mourning, but in the end, they’re mourning the death of a simple man like themselves, who came from a place like they came from.
Harold Holzer, writer: You could not write this from scratch. You could not invent this and make it believable, the life and the death. He’s an authentic hero who is bigger than life, bigger than war, and almost bigger than America by the time he died.
Narrator: At the very moment Lincoln’s funeral train departed Washington, his murderer lay shivering in the reeds beside the banks of the Potomac River. The largest manhunt in American history was closing in and John Wilkes Booth managed to scribble a few words in his diary.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. A country groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see any wrong.
James L. Swanson, writer: It’s often said that Booth killed Lincoln because he was a failed actor, because he went mad. John Wilkes Booth shared political views that were identical to the views held by millions of southerners, hundreds of thousands and likely millions of northerners. John Wilkes Booth was not insane, he was not mad, unless you think the country was mad.
Gene Smith, writer: For 150 years, people have asked, why did this handsome, rich, happy young man. Why did he do it?
Terry Alford, historian: While millions of people dislike Lincoln and hundreds of thousands fought against him in armies and thousands wanted to see him dead and maybe dozens even daydreamed about it, only one person in millions stepped up to him with a pistol and that was John Wilkes Booth.
Narrator: The night of April 13, 1865 was one of the most radiant any one in Washington could remember. With the agony of the Civil War drawing to a close, the city celebrated peace by draping itself in lights.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian: There’s an incredible sense of jubilation that the war is coming to an end, and it was witnessed in the light: the spectacular scenery, with the crowds on the street and the lights in all the windows, it must have been a beautiful thing to behold.
Narrator: “The Great struggle is over,” editorialized the New York Times. “The history of blood is brought to a close. The last shot has been fired. The last man, we trust, has been slain…” That night, John Wilkes Booth walked among the revelers in a haze of resentment and alcohol.
James L. Swanson, writer: He heard the taunts against General Lee and the Confederate army. He saw the Union soldiers in their uniforms marching up and down the streets, celebrating. It was the most beautiful, joyful night in American history since we had won the Revolutionary War. And John Wilkes Booth had to witness it all.
Narrator: Later, a disconsolate Booth wrote his mother a note.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): “Everything was bright and splendid. More so in my eyes if it had been a display in a nobler cause. But so goes the world. Might makes right.”
James L. Swanson, writer: When he went to bed that night, he was a man with little hope. He was a man without prospects. He was a man who felt his world and everything he held dear had been crushed and humiliated.
Narrator: John Booth grew up on his family farm in Bel Air, Maryland.
James L. Swanson, writer: He really grew up in a country style, horseback riding. He spent a lot of time outdoors. He had a very idyllic, free childhood
Edward Steers Jr., writer: He had a very vivid imagination. So much so that he could create all sorts of fantasies in his own mind.
Terry Alford, historian: When he was ten or twelve he got an old lance that a soldier had brought back from the war with Mexico and could be seen riding around the woods making heroic speeches and mounting mock charges against trees and bushes.
Gene Smith, writer: The words winning, buoyant, gaiety, joyous, cheerful, laughing, it turns up in the mention of Johnny by anybody who knew him.
Narrator: To the Booths of Maryland, greatness was assumed as a birthright. Led by their patriarch, the flamboyant and eccentric Junius Brutus Booth, the family was known as the foremost theatrical dynasty of their time.
Gene Smith, writer: He was the son of the greatest actor in America. His brother Edwin was on his way to inheriting the mantle and Johnny Booth saw himself, I suppose the modern word would be, “entitled.”
Narrator: By 17, John had decided to follow his famous father and brother onto the stage.
James L. Swanson, writer: Booth was terrible when he began. He didn’t know how to perform he would mess up his lines. But he developed special skills that his father didn’t have and his brother Edwin didn’t have.
Terry Alford, historian: When you went to see John Wilkes Booth you knew you would get your money’s worth. You were going to get some very exciting stage action. He electrified you with his movements. A tremendous swordsman.
Gene Smith, writer: He had presence, he had flair, he had dramatic impulse, he had a fiery quality on the stage and off the stage. And he was gorgeous to look at.
Narrator: In 1958, at the age of 20, Booth began traveling the country as a featured performer.
Terry Alford, historian: He appears to be in fact the first American actor who had his clothes ripped by fans when he was coming out of the theater one night. He was adored.
Gene Smith, writer: This dramatic, handsome young man, filled with excitement, with vibrancy, took the stage by storm.
Narrator: Just as Booth reached stardom, however, the country itself was losing interest in idle pursuits like the theater. A much more vivid drama was turning North against South, and brother against brother. The Booths were no exception.
James L. Swanson, writer: Edwin really became a man of the North. He became a star in the North. And his political consciousness developed along those lines. John Wilkes spent most of his time in the South. That’s where he received his great acclaim, that’s where he felt best loved. And over time he naturally adopted the Southern point of view.
Narrator: “We are of the North!” Booth’s sister Asia once insisted. “Not I,” he replied. “So help me God, my soul, life and possessions are for the South.”
Terry Alford, historian: There was a really big burden to being a Booth whether you went on the stage or not. You have these giants in your family that you’re inevitably compared to and to some extent, as a young man, he needed to just psychologically to individualize himself from them and to show that he was his own person.
Narrator: While his family dispersed across the North, Booth spent most of his time in Richmond, Virginia, the citadel of the South.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: He viewed the South as the ideal type of society. Unlike the North, which he considered rough, mongrel, the South was pure. He did not view slavery as an evil. Slavery was God’s blessing to the African-American, it brought him to Christianity, it brought him to higher civilization. It was the abolitionists in the North that were splitting this country apart and he hated abolitionists, he hated the anti-slavery movement.
Narrator: When radical abolitionist John Brown was captured while trying to incite a slave rebellion in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Booth heeded a call for volunteers to guard against Brown’s escape. He couldn’t help but be impressed as Brown held the nation spellbound from his prison cell, issuing bloody prophecies about the fate of the Union.
Terry Alford, historian: One of the interesting features of John Wilkes Booth is his fascination with romantic characters, with heroic characters in particular. People who defined the age, people whose acts made everyone stand up and pay attention to what he was doing. He loved characters in the heroic mold.
Narrator: In November, 1860, a little-known Illinois politician named Abraham Lincoln was elected President. The victory of an anti-slavery Republican provoked seven states to secede from the Union, and enraged millions of Southern sympathizers, including John Wilkes Booth. “We used to laugh at his patriotic froth whenever secession was discussed,” Edwin Booth remembered. “That he was insane on that one point, no one who knew him can well doubt.”
Terry Alford, historian: Shortly after Lincoln’s election, Booth wrote a speech. He apparently wrote this to deliver to an audience. It doesn’t appear that he ever had an opportunity. But it is a great window into Booth’s mind. And it shows us that Booth is terrifically disturbed by the division of the country. That he blames the abolitionists entirely and essentially he sees what’s happening as a giant John Brown raid on the South.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): You all feel the fire now raging in the nation’s heart. It is a fire lighted and fanned by Northern fanaticism, a fire which naught but blood can extinguish. The South wants justice, has waited for it long, she will wait no longer.
Narrator: “This war is eating my life out,” President Abraham Lincoln once said. “I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see its end.” The small skirmish that Lincoln thought would be quickly over had, by 1862, turned into a bloody stalemate with no end in sight. Lincoln haunted the War Department, where reports of casualties preyed on his mind.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, writer: This is not an abstract conflict. The important battlefields could be heard, or could be gone to very quickly. The casualties stumbled into the capitol. Lincoln was someone who felt death and disappointment and difficulty extremely clearly. It was always with him: the sheer physical grueling horror of it.
Harold Holzer, writer: Lincoln assumes the-the role of a sort of a bereaved and grieving father. He does absorb all of the loss and it ages him and it weighs him down and it makes him so melancholy and somber.
Narrator: In February, 1862, death reached out and touched Lincoln’s own family. His beloved 12 year-old son Willie fell sick with typhoid, contracted from drinking tainted water. After a weeklong illness, Willie died.
Harold Holzer, writer: The light went out of his life and he mourned very, very deeply, and then he was forced to go back into the work of seeing other boys die.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, writer: He was constantly wondering, why is this happening? What was God’s purpose in this death? Why would he be so afflicting? Not only to the nation but Lincoln personally. It calls to mind the Biblical story that Lincoln was seen reading in the White House, which was the Book of Job. This man who just has everything taken from him. Job collapses, as Lincoln collapses. But that’s not the end of the story. The collapse is on its way towards some new understanding of the nature of reality and the moral universe.
Narrator: Out of suffering, Lincoln resolved must come “a new birth of freedom.” If so many had to lose their lives, it must be so that many more could gain their freedom. In January, 1863 Lincoln issued an order freeing the slaves in the rebellious Confederate states. His Emancipation Proclamation transformed the meaning of the war.
David Blight, historian: He’s now linked the cause of black freedom to the cause of the preservation of an American republic, which means in effect, the war is being fought to reinvent the United States, not to preserve it. The government, the republic, that would come out of this war, would not at all be the same anymore.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: What else could all this death and suffering and blood mean except a greater understanding of what it is to be a free people?
Joshua Wolf Shenk, writer: He believed that the government was built on an idea and that this was a war over an idea. And to surrender, to withdraw, to compromise on that idea would be to surrender something precious for all humanity, for all time.
Narrator: “I expect, to maintain this contest until successful,” Lincoln wrote, “or till I die or am conquered, or the country forsakes me.”
James M. McPherson, historian: There was no more talk of conciliation, no talk of compromise through some kind of political process. This is an outcome that can only be “tried by war and decided by victory. Tried by war, decided by victory.” Those six words put it, said it all.
Narrator: The trial of war would last far longer than Abraham Lincoln ever imagined. With Southern victories at Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, public opinion in the North began to falter. In the summer of 1863, draft riots broke out in several Northern cities. Newspapers denounced Lincoln with what one friend called a “frantic malignancy.” Soon sentiment was so strongly against him that Lincoln was certain he would lose his bid for reelection. “The people are impatient,” he said. “The bottom is out of the tub.”
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: The costs are mounting, the politicians are complaining, and the voters are turning against him. And by the end of August 1864, Lincoln has concluded, “If we come to the polls like this in November, we’re going to lose.”
Narrator: Salvation for Lincoln came in the form of a battlefield victory. On August 31st, General William Tecumseh Sherman broke through the Confederate defenses around Atlanta. He sent a short telegram to President Lincoln: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”
James M. McPherson, historian: When that was published in the Northern newspapers, it changed Northern opinion around almost overnight. Lincoln, who looked like the defeated and discredited commander-in-chief of a losing army now emerges as the leader of a triumphant army and he was triumphantly reelected.
James L. Swanson, writer: Something turned in Booth when Abraham Lincoln was reelected. He realized Lincoln was in there for good, to prosecute the war to the end. He knew Lincoln was not going to settle with the South and that many more would die, that Lincoln was going to serve another four years in the White House.
David Blight, historian: These Yankees, led by this “black Republican” — as they called him — Abraham Lincoln, were going to use this war now to tear up the South, to destroy its institutions, to overthrow its way of life, and to end their civilization as they had known it.
Narrator: By 1864, John Wilkes Booth was only 25 years old, yet he had already begun losing interest in his acting career. “I hardly know what to make of you,” his agent wrote him. “Have you lost all your ambition?”
Terry Alford, historian: I don’t think we should forget that acting in those days, is very, very hard work. There’s travel, there’s exhausting performances, they are drafty theaters, managers who won’t pay you and I think at some point Booth began to tire of the stage.
Narrator: To Booth, the war had rendered his life marginal and irrelevant. “What are actors?” he wrote. “They know little, think less, and understand next to nothing.” Booth’s dreams of glory beyond the stage were quickly passing him by. He had nothing to show for the war, but the scars of a few overzealous stage duels.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): For four years I have cursed my willful idleness and begun to deem myself a coward. I cannot longer resist the inclination, to go and share the sufferings of my brave countrymen, against the most ruthless enemy the world has ever known.
Narrator: Booth’s anger and disappointment began to focus on the one man he held responsible for the South’s suffering.
Terry Alford, historian: There’s no doubt that the war was pushing Lincoln forward as a symbol, an icon, something bigger than life. Booth began to focus on Lincoln in this way, that Lincoln in fact was the source of all the nation’s troubles.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: Because of the war, Lincoln had to institute a whole series of acts that were viewed as very anti-democratic. Suspension of the writ of habeas corpus for instance, shutting down newspapers, censoring people’s speeches. All of these things were an anathema to John Wilkes Booth and he viewed himself in the end I think as someone that literally god had put here to correct the tyranny of Abraham Lincoln.
Terry Alford, historian: Early on, Booth seems to have developed this passionate hatred for tyranny. It’s curious where that came from. If we remember that his father’s middle name was Brutus, that may tell us a good bit. Brutus of course was the character who assassinated Caesar and if you look both in the play of Shakespeare and in the writings of the historians of ancient Rome, Brutus was a character as noble as Caesar, as distinguished as Caesar, as well-regarded as Caesar and whose patriotism and decency were unquestioned.
Narrator: Like Brutus, Booth dreamed of a single, grand gesture that would turn the tide of history and catapult himself into immortality.
James L. Swanson, writer: John Wilkes Booth felt he had to justify why he wasn’t a soldier on the front lines. Why didn’t he volunteer? Why wasn’t he fighting? Booth thought his resources, his talent and skill could be put to better use.
Narrator: Booth began taking on small assignments for the Confederate Underground, a loose network of Southern spies living north of the Mason Dixon Line. It was here, in the ferment of the Underground, that Booth settled on a bold plan. He would kidnap the President of the United States, convey him south to the Confederate capitol in Richmond, and ransom him for thousands of Confederate prisoners.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: The idea of capturing or kidnapping a United States president may seem preposterous on the surface, but at the time it was quite feasible. Lincoln was unprotected. He moved about frequently on his own. And he traveled as much as three miles to his summer residence at Soldiers Home, often unattended, by himself.
Narrator: In November and December, Booth made several trips to Southern Maryland, a hotbed of sedition, where he began to recruit co-conspirators and scout escape routes.
James L. Swanson, writer: His most valuable conspirator was John Surratt. College educated, Confederate courier, known in Richmond. He helped Booth interact with other Confederate agents. Without John Surratt, Booth couldn’t have organized the conspiracy.
Narrator: Surratt introduced Booth to twenty nine yr-old George Atzerodt, a German-born carriage painter and boatman. During the war, Atzerodt secretly ferried Confederate agents across the waterways of Southern Maryland. Surratt also introduced Booth to David Herold, 22, an impressionable and dull-witted pharmacy clerk, who knew the back roads that would serve as the conspirators’ escape route. Lewis Powell, tall and powerful, was a former Confederate prisoner of war who would provide the muscle for the kidnapping conspiracy. Rounding out the group were two of Booth’s childhood friends, Samuel Arnold and Mike O’Laughlen — both ex-soldiers in the Confederate Army. The group had little in common other than a strong attraction to the charismatic actor who would be their leader.
James L. Swanson, writer: It was as though a great star of the modern age picked you, a completely anonymous, unknown person of no status, no wealth, no importance, a great star picks you to be his confidante, his pal, his companion, to travel with, to dine with, drink with. Many of them didn’t join the conspiracy because they hated Abraham Lincoln, they joined the conspiracy because they loved and admired John Wilkes Booth.
Narrator: On March 4th, 1865, more than 50,000 people gathered under rainy skies to witness Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration. After four harrowing years, the end of the war was at last in sight. Lincoln stood to address the crowd, just as a brilliant ray of light pierced the clouds overhead. “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,” Lincoln implored, “to bind up the nation’s wounds to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace”.
David Blight, historian: There’s not even a moment of bitterness. There’s not even the slightest declaration of what will be done with Confederate leadership. It is remarkable that in a moment like that, in this country that has all but won a victory in an all-out, terrible, total civil war, and he doesn’t even spend one sentence to declare the righteousness of victory and the evil of Confederate defeat.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian: What he does is to suggest that the sin of slavery was shared by both sides. His way of reaching out to the south: “Both sides read the same bible, both prayed to the same God, neithers prayers were fully answered.” And then of course the words we remember: “with malice toward none, with charity for all, let us bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Narrator: Standing on the steps of the Capitol that day, only yards from the President, John Wilkes Booth seethed with hatred. For Booth, the prospect of another Lincoln term held not consolation, but the sting of bitterness and defeat. “What a splendid chance I had,” he’d later confided, “to kill the President where he stood.” Two weeks later, Booth and his co-conspirators met in the private dining room of a Washington restaurant. Over oysters and champagne, Booth laid out his kidnapping plan.
James L. Swanson, writer: When Booth started to reveal the details, they thought he was a madman. We’re going to kidnap Abraham Lincoln we’re going to get him at Ford’s Theatre. He said, one of you will turn down the gaslights at the signal and the theater will be plunged into darkness. Lewis Powell will get into the president’s box. He’ll be the one who’s going to subdue Lincoln, tie him up and then lower him to the stage with a long rope while the theater is plunged into darkness.
Narrator: Samuel Arnold scoffed at the audacity of Booth’s plan. “You can be the leader of the party,” he said, “but not our executioner.”
Gene Smith, writer: He says, “Johnny, all this is going to be done in front of an audience that will include several hundred soldiers of the Union Army?” And having gotten him out the back, if the soldiers don’t intercede, nobody is going to give the alarm throughout Washington, which is crawling with Yankee soldiers, cavalry patrols, and police?” He said, “it is madness beyond measure.”
Narrator: On April 3, the Confederate Capitol of Richmond, finally fell to Union forces. The President himself toured the smoldering ruins, as newly freed slaves rushed to embrace him. Six days later, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at the small town of Appomattox Courthouse. After four bloody years, the war was over. The Confederacy in ruins and his kidnapping plot in tatters, Booth sank into disappointment and bitterness.
James L. Swanson, writer: By April, 1865, Booth was certainly disillusioned. Think of what he had to endure from his point of view: a few months before, the reelection of the great tyrant. His failure to kidnap the president shamed him. What was his future in the defeated, crushed South?
Narrator: Out of his disappointment, Booth began to hatch a new, even more desperate plan.
Terry Alford, historian: He will punish the North, through Lincoln he will punish the North for what it’s done to the South. Now revenge is not a very noble motive, but we all understand it is a very compelling human motive and sometimes it overwhelms.
Narrator: The morning of April 14th, 1865, Abraham Lincoln awoke unusually cheerful. Less than a week after the surrender of the Confederate Army, he allowed himself a moment of satisfaction.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, writer: He seemed relieved. His face looked different. He had color he had life in a way that he hadn’t all through the war.
Narrator: “He was transfigured,” wrote one close friend. “That indescribable sadness had been suddenly changed for an equally indescribable joy.”
Harold Holzer, writer: It is indeed the first day that he really feels that Washington is free and at peace.
Narrator: At the morning cabinet meeting, Lincoln again expressed his desire for clemency towards the South. Then, in his usual way, he regaled his cabinet with stories.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: Lincoln even talks about a dream that he had, a dream that he was standing on the deck of a ship, the ship was heading towards a dim shore ahead. He said it was a dream he’d always had at important turning points in the war and he was convinced that he’d had the dream again because this was now the last great, final turning point.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian: He invited Mary to a carriage ride that afternoon, just the two of them together. They talked about what it might be like in Springfield, when they went home again to the place where they had begun, and he said to her, 'Mary, we’ve got to try to be happy now, our future is ahead of us’. And then that night they go to the theater.
Narrator: That same morning, John Wilkes Booth awoke late. He made his way to Fords Theater to pick up his mail, held for him by the theater’s owners.
James L. Swanson, writer: And then somebody at Fords Theatre said, 'President Lincoln is coming tonight’. That was the moment. He’s sitting on the front step of Ford’s Theatre and someone tells him, he’s coming here tonight.
Narrator: “He left the theater in a kind of hurry,” remembered one onlooker, “as if he had made up his mind about something to be done.”
Terry Alford, historian: Once Booth learned that Lincoln would be at the theater that night, he had essentially eight hours or so to get ready, and he went into a frenzy of action.
James L. Swanson, writer: He checked on his horse. He made sure his derringer pistol was ready. He thought about what he had to take on the road during his escape.
Narrator: That afternoon, Booth returned to Ford’s theater. He went to the President’s box and, in a small antechamber, he carved a small mortise in which to brace a stick of wood. The other end would bar the door from the inside. An hour later, Booth convened what remained of his accomplices at a restaurant nearby. He informed them of a startling change of plans.
James L. Swanson, writer: Tonight, in about two hours I am going to kill Abraham Lincoln. You Lewis Powell will murder the secretary of state, William Seward. George Atzerodt, your job is to murder the vice president, Andrew Johnson. Booth of course reserved the greatest act for himself. He would perform the Lincoln assassination solo.
Narrator: That night, the Lincolns set out for Fords Theater around eight pm. Having been turned down by a series of more luminous guests, the Lincolns stopped to pick up a young friend of Mary’s named Clara Harris and her fiancé.
James L. Swanson, writer: Booth reached into his pocket, handed him a small piece of paper, probably a calling card. And of course Booth’s calling card would admit him to almost any place in Washington.
Terry Alford, historian: Booth then opens the outer door leading to the vestibule to the box, and closes it. And then picks up the wood stand that he had left behind the door earlier in the day and uses it as a brace, wedging it between the door and the hole that he cut out in the wall.
James L. Swanson, writer: Now he’s one door away from Abraham Lincoln. He can hear the sound of the play, the actors speaking. It’s dark in there. He walks up to the door and he looks through a peephole.
Narrator: Below, the play had reached a climax, as actor Harry Hawk prepared to deliver his biggest laugh-line of the evening.
James L. Swanson, writer: He was waiting to hear that line. The other actors leave the stage, Harry Hawk stands there alone and he says the line.
Narrator: Suddenly a shot rang out through the auditorium. Corporal Rathbone leapt to his feet and Booth swung his dagger cutting the young officer’s shoulder to his elbow.
James L. Swanson, writer: Booth turned from Rathbone and began swinging his leg over the balustrade and he caught one of his spurs on the bunting and on the framed photograph of George Washington that hung at the front of the box.
Narrator: Landing awkwardly on the stage below, Booth broke his left ankle. Audience members later would disagree about what he shouted next. Many heard: “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” 'Thus Always To Tyrants.’ Others: “the South is avenged.”
Terry Alford, historian: He remained almost frozen for a minute as he struggled to gain his composure, and what he later told a friend was all the courage he could muster, he got to his feet and started for the wings.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: People look at each other for a moment: is this part of the play? What is all this about?” This lasts for a second, two seconds, three seconds that’s when the shouts go up: “The president has been shot!” “Somebody stop that man!” People scramble up on the stage apron but Booth has already bolted past the scenery, past the curtains, out the back entrance. He’s on a horse he gallops away into the dark of Washington.
Narrator: As Booth made his escape, his co-conspirators were not faring as well. Around 10:15, Lewis Powell knocked on the door of Secretary of State William Seward’s mansion. After forcing his way up the stairs, he entered Seward’s bedroom, where the Secretary was recovering from a broken jaw suffered during a carriage accident.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian: He has a huge Bowie knife, comes to Seward’s bedside, slashes his face with such force that his cheek is torn off. He loses so much blood that it is astonishing that he didn’t die right then. He is scarred for life however, because of the way the jaw was wired, because of the carriage accident, he missed the jugular vein.
Narrator: As the alarm was raised, one of Seward’s sons along with a nurse rushed the would-be assassin. Powell dropped his knife and escaped down the stairs and out the door. At the same time, George Atzerodt, approached his quarry: Vice President of the United States Andrew Johnson. But as he neared Johnson’s residence, he lost his nerve.
James L. Swanson, writer: Atzerodt never went up those stairs, he never knocked on the door, he never tried to assassinate the vice president of the United States. He was the only conspirator of Booth who failed his master that night.
Narrator: Inside Fords Theater, a young Navy surgeon was the first to gain access to the Presidential box.
James L. Swanson, writer: He cuts open Lincoln’s shirt. He can’t find the wound. There was no blood on him at all. He just won’t wake up. So now the question is where shall the president of the United States die? It can’t be on the floor of a theater box.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: Ten feet across F Street from Ford’s Theatre is a young man standing out in front of a boarding house who shouts over the din in the streets they should bring him over here, and they carry Lincoln’s body across the street, up the small winding steps of the Petersen Boarding House into the back bedroom, and they lay him out crosswise across the bedstead that is in the back bedroom. And that is when the deathwatch begins.
Narrator: By now, the attending doctor had found a small bullet hole below Lincoln’s left ear. He declared the wound mortal. One by one, as they received the terrible news, Lincoln’s cabinet members rushed to the Peterson House. “The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed,” remembered Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. “His slow, full respiration lifted the bedclothes with each breath. His features were calm and striking.”
Edward Steers Jr., writer: After he was completely stripped and covered in blankets and hot water bottles, Mary Lincoln was brought into the room to see him. And she basically became hysterical. She kept pleading with Lincoln, pleading with him to open his eyes just to say one word to her, but of course he couldn’t.
Narrator: Amid the chaos, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: It’s Stanton who was actually the man who keeps his head. He needs to get evidence, he needs to get witnesses, he needs to get depositions.
He wants troops put on alert, he wants certain arrests made, he wants bridges closed, he wants a cordon put around Washington. In a situation like this, there was no precedent.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: The idea that this was done by individuals just was incomprehensible. It had to be — it had to be something much larger, much wider that wasn’t finished yet.
Narrator: By 11:30 pm, more than an hour after he had fled Fords Theater, John Wilkes Booth rendezvoused with Davey Herold in the Maryland countryside. After picking up rifles and a bottle of whiskey at a Country Inn owned by Mary Surratt, they headed south toward Virginia and possible escape into the deep South.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: Booth was now suffering from the break in his leg. He was clearly conscious of it now. The adrenaline had stopped flowing, the pain had taken over.
Narrator: Knowing they needed medical attention, the fugitives galloped southeast toward the home of a country doctor named Samuel Mudd, whom Booth had met months before while scouting escape routes through Maryland.
Terry Alford, historian: From the Surratt house to Dr. Mudd’s was about 17 miles through a difficult country, a road not always well marked, pretty narrow in spots, washed by rain at spots through a swamp and pine forest.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: It was now overcast and a light drizzle was falling and they had to make their way without the aid of moonlight. It took them approximately four hours to get to Mudd’s house. They arrived just before four o’clock in the morning. Herold dismounted, went to the door, pounded on it. Dr. Mudd examined Booth, removed the boot from the leg and determined it was broken. He set the broken leg, and told Booth that he needed to rest. And so he took him upstairs and put him to bed in an upstairs bedroom.
Narrator: As Booth slept, word of what he and his accomplices had done raced through the Capitol.
James L. Swanson, writer: People would encounter each other in the street and say, 'The president has been shot, no, the Secretary of State has been attacked and he was stabbed. No, it’s Lincoln, no it’s Seward.’ Then they realized it’s both.
Gene Smith, writer: Rumors spread that they had slaughtered the Supreme Court justices, they had burned the Congressmen, people were afraid to go to bed at night, every horse that passed by they took to be the Confederate cavalry, people were running through the streets it was a horrible situation.
Narrator: Inside the Peterson House, as dawn approached, Abraham Lincoln was quickly fading.
Harold Holzer, writer: In the room, it’s eerily quiet. Lincoln’s breathing is horrible to hear because he’s taking deep breaths and he’s rattling and wheezing, and sometimes he doesn’t breathe for what seems like forever.
Narrator: Finally, at 7:22 in the morning, the Surgeon General pronounced the vigil over. Abraham Lincoln was dead. “We all stood transfixed in our positions,” remembered one witness, “speechless around the dead body of that great and good man.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian: These men who by that time had come to love Lincoln showed their feelings crying at that bedside. And then of course, Stanton uttered the words that had come down through time. “Now,” Stanton said, “he belongs to the ages.”
Harold Holzer, writer: They send for a coffin and that’s when many people first realize that he’s dead, when they see this wooden coffin being taken up the stairs. And then a bit later, the doors swing open and the soldiers bring the coffin out again, and you can tell from their struggles that it’s — this time it’s occupied.
Narrator: By the morning of Lincoln’s death, telegraphs reporting the assassination had reached nearly every major city in America. That evening, headlines broke the shocking news. “The sun set last night on a jubilant and rejoicing nation,” wrote the New York Herald. “It rose this morning upon a sorrow-stricken people.” No one grieved more than the nation’s newly freed slaves. “There will be sadness today, such as needs no funeral orations or badges of mourning,” wrote the New York Times. “The tears of the forgotten, outcast and oppressed slave will be the sincerest tears that fall on the grave of the President.”
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: Many black people feared that with Lincoln’s death they would be, in fact, returned to slavery, that the Emancipation Proclamation would somehow be revoked.
Narrator: Four hours after Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the new President, restoring a measure of stability to the national government.
Gene Smith, writer: The fear quickly vanished and it was replaced by a fervent rage.
Narrator: In the field, Union Soldiers were kept unaware of Lincoln’s death for several days for fear that they might seek retribution.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: Anyone known to profess Confederate sympathies would be well advised to stay indoors with the shutters closed and the doors locked. People on Washington streets who might, with too great a load on from celebrating, say something like, “Oh, I’m glad they shot old Abe,” would come within an inch of being lynched.
Narrator: Within hours of Lincoln’s death, mobs had formed in many Northern and occupied Southern cities. In San Francisco, throngs destroyed the newspaper offices of the Democratic Press. In Washington, vigilantes surrounded a jail holding Confederate prisoners. Two former-Presidents — Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore — faced angry crowds outside their homes after they failed to show evidence of mourning.
James L. Swanson, writer: It was a dangerous time. Up to 200 people were murdered in the streets of America’s cities within two or three days of the Lincoln assassination.
Narrator: None suffered more in the hysteria than the Booth family itself. Fearing for his life, Edwin Booth stationed guards outside of his New York home. “Think no more of him as your brother,” Edwin wrote his sister Asia, “He is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world.” Within days, federal agents raided Asia Booth’s home where they discovered a trove of papers, including a personal manifesto, which her brother John had asked her to keep safe.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): Right or wrong, God judge me, not man. For four years have I waited, hoped, and prayed for the dark clouds to break, and for a restoration of our former sunshine. To wait longer would be a crime. God’s will be done, I go to see and share the bitter end.
Narrator: In the late afternoon of April 15th, Dr. Samuel Mudd, finally realizing the danger he was in, ordered Booth and Herold from his home.
Terry Alford, historian: Booth was heavily armed, in his house, with his wife and four children. Mudd simply could not afford to host a shootout in the family parlor. So his idea was to get Booth out of there, get gone and pray for good luck.
Narrator: The fugitives rode off in the direction of the Zekiah swamp, a nearly impassable snarl of creeks and bogs bordering the Potomac. They wandered in the swamp for several hours, until they found the home of a known Confederate sympathizer who directed them to a thicket of pine trees on his property.
Terry Alford, historian: This is a real thick stand of young pine trees so thick in fact that the visibility in there was only thirty, forty feet at the maximum.
Narrator: In the morning, the fugitives were awakened by a series of short whistles. An Agent of the Confederate Underground named Thomas Jones had been alerted to their presence in the Pine Thicket.
James L. Swanson, writer: Thomas Jones told Booth, 'You have to stay in this pine thicket. The troops are everywhere. You can’t outrun them. The trick is going to be, you stay in place while the soldiers pass through the area and move on, then when the moment is safe I’ll take you down to the river and we’ll cross.’
Terry Alford, historian: Besides the occasional visit from Jones, usually in the late morning, Booth and Herold were left alone in the pine thicket. It was obviously quite lonely in there, and close enough to the road from time to time to hear the pursuers riding up and down it. On one occasion they even heard voices of these Union cavalrymen shouting at each other.
Narrator: It was cold and wet, but the fugitives could not light a fire for fear of discovery. To quiet their horses, Herald led them deep into the swamp and shot them, allowing their bodies to disappear into the thick ooze.
Terry Alford, historian: Booth asks Jones of course for food, and news, and particularly newspapers. He wanted to know what the public thought about the assassination. What were the reviews of this final performance of his. And when he got the papers from Jones, he was absolutely stunned. The country was furious with him. From right to left across the spectrum, from Copperheads to radicals to Southerners to Northerners, they denounced Booth in blistering language.
Narrator: His head once filled with visions of triumph, Booth now staggered from the sheer scale of the betrayal.
John F. Andrews, Shakespearean Scholar: I don’t think there’s any doubt that John Wilkes Booth expected to be remembered as a noble patriot, as someone who had in effect become the American Brutus.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: He had liberated the country from under this terrible despot’s heel and the thanks that he got was to be treated as some sort of base villain.
Terry Alford, historian: Booth had on him a little pocket notebook that he had purchased the preceding year, and in it he began to write down his reaction to the reaction of the public to the murder of Lincoln.
James L. Swanson, writer: He wanted to write about what he did. He wanted to justify what he did. And he wanted to be remembered. These were his notes to the play These were the director’s notes. He had to leave that behind. He didn’t want to vanish from history without leaving us his own voice.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped but pushed on. I passed all his pickets, rode 60 miles that night with the bones of my leg tearing my flesh with every jump. I can never repent it. Our country owed all her troubles to him and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment.
Narrator: The day after Lincoln’s death, April 16, was Easter Sunday. In a nation steeped in religion, on the holiest day of the year, churches and Cathedrals across the land were swelled to the rafters and draped in black. In parishes from Maine to California, ministers tore up their Easter sermons and replaced them with lamentations.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: Preachers in church after church, in pulpit after pulpit, seized upon the extraordinary conjunction of this event and all these events of religious history. And they began drawing the inevitable connection that as Christ had died to save men’s souls Lincoln had died to save the Union.
James M. McPherson, historian: The parallels with Christ on the cross could not escape anybody. Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday. He had taken on the burdens of the whole nation on his own shoulders, and for that he was crucified. Here is a man like Jesus, who, was killed to save the rest of us.
James L. Swanson, writer: It was with the assassination that the myth of Abraham Lincoln was born. Lincoln was not universally liked or beloved during his presidency. Millions of people hated him. Once he was assassinated everything changed.
Narrator: Amid the songs of praise for Lincoln, there were cries for revenge. “Let the (South) perish,” thundered one Northern minister. “In the grave of our murdered President, let the last vestige of them be buried.”
Gene Smith, writer: It wasn’t enough that they had revolted for four and a half long years. That they had slain on the field of battle the cream of a generation, that they had destroyed themselves. Now, to top it off, they had killed Abraham Lincoln, shot in the back in the presence of his wife. The South had indicted, tried, and convicted itself of irredeemable evil.
Narrator: In the occupied sections of the Confederacy, many feared retribution and publicly expressed their deepest condolences. But in private, many praised Booth as “our Brutus.”
“After all the heaviness and gloom,” wrote one Southern woman, “this blow to our enemies comes like a gleam of light. We have suffered 'til we feel savage. Our hated enemy has met the just reward of his life.” More than 60 hours after Lincoln’s assassination, the nation was still in a state of agitated suspense. The pressure to capture John Wilkes Booth was building.
James L. Swanson, writer: The public demanded that Booth and his conspirators be seized. And it was frustrating that day after day passed. Booth escapes Washington. Then he vanishes into Maryland. Then no one knows where he went.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: Reports were coming in from everywhere: Booth was dressed as a woman, living in the basement of some house in Washington. He was seen in Philadelphia in another disguise. Several people were arrested in the North simply because they bore a resemblance to John Wilkes Booth.
Terry Alford, historian: There was a fear. The South was so disordered and chaotic with Confederate armies disbanding, groups of guys going here and there on horseback, Booth could easily get lost in that mix.
Narrator: On April 17th, the government’s luck changed. Acting on a tip, soldiers raided Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington, where Booth and his accomplices had often met. As they began to question Mrs. Surratt, a knock was heard at the front door. It was Lewis Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William Seward.
Terry Alford, historian: Powell was a stranger to Washington, D.C. and he wasn’t the first stranger to get lost in this maze of streets. With nowhere to go, no food, no money, knowing no one he went to one of the only houses he knew in Washington, the home of the Surratts. Unfortunately for him, just at the moment that he chose to come, late one night, detectives were there interrogating Mrs. Surratt. When he walked in, he looked implausible to them and he got arrested.
Narrator: Tipped off by a letter discovered in Booth’s hotel room, authorities also took into custody Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold.
Narrator: The same day, they arrested Edmond Spangler, a stagehand at Fords, whom they suspected of having aided Booth’s escape. On April 20th, George Atzerodt was arrested on his cousin’s farm after he was overheard boasting about his participation in the conspiracy. Most of the prisoners were taken aboard the ironclad Montauk, where they were ordered to wear padded hoods and confined to three-foot by eight-foot cells.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: While the government had most of the conspirators in tow now and in custody, Booth and Herold of course were still out there and the government really did not have any good idea where they were.
Narrator: On April 20, Secretary Stanton announced the largest reward ever offered by the federal government — $100,000 for the capture of John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. “Let the stain of innocent blood be removed from the land by the arrest and punishment of the murderers,” Stanton wrote. “Every man should consider his own conscience charged with this solemn duty and rest neither night nor day until it be accomplished.” It was the beginning of the largest manhunt in American history. For five days and nights, as thousands of soldiers scoured the area, Booth and Herold had hidden safely in the Pine Thicket.
Terry Alford, historian: If he could just get out of Maryland, get over to Virginia, he could receive proper medical care, he would find sympathetic individuals, people who could appreciate what he had done. Finally, Jones determined that the area was clear enough of Union pursuers to attempt a crossing. They began about a three to four mile very cautious walk down cart lanes and public roads in the direction of Jones’ farm and the river. Luck was on their side for once at least. Nobody came out, nobody noticed them, no one passed along the road.
James L. Swanson, writer: It’s dark, it’s quiet, and they make it safely down the road and across the open country. Then he takes them down to the crossing point. It’s a bluff that leads down to the river.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: Jones put the two of them in a boat, he gave them a compass and a candle and pointed on the compass the number of degrees where they should head for, pushed the boat out into the water and God blessed them.
James L. Swanson, writer: All Booth had to do was cross the Potomac that night and he might make it to Virginia, might make it to the Deep South and then it would be almost impossible to catch him. So there Booth and Herold are in the middle of the night. The river is dark it’s as black as ink, and they row the wrong way. Instead of rowing west across the river, they start heading north and west and they end up in Maryland. They haven’t even left Maryland after a night of rowing.
Narrator: As dawn broke, Booth and Herold took refuge in the weeds beside the River. Exhausted, Booth again took out his notebook to write.
John Wilkes Booth (Will Patton): I have been hunted like a dog through swamps and woods, wet cold and starving. With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than he ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. I think I have done well, though I am abandoned with the curse of Cain upon me when if the world knew my heart that one blow would have made me great.
Narrator: On April 21, a special train departed Washington, DC. It carried the remains of Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, disinterred so he could be reburied next to his father. For the next 12 days, the train would reverse the route Lincoln had taken four years earlier on his way to his first inauguration. In Philadelphia, Lincoln’s casket was displayed in Independence Hall, while a line of mourners stretching more than three miles waited to pay their respects. In New York, the next day, Lincoln’s hearse was led down 5th Avenue by 16 magnificent steeds, as bells from Trinity Church rang out. More than half a million people, a quarter of the city’s population, lined the route. From New York, Lincoln’s train made its way slowly west.
Allen C. Guelzo, historian: In remote areas people would come miles to line the track simply to stand and watch, a newspaper reporter who was with the funeral train looked out the windows, he could just see crowds upon crowds of people doing nothing but standing silently.
Harold Holzer, writer: They’re there simply to lift their caps or bow their heads as this car goes by and what they see for just the fleeting second is worth the effort and the wait, and that is a soldier standing on guard in front of a big coffin and a little coffin.
James L. Swanson, writer: The outpouring of grief and emotion during that 1,700 mile journey on the funeral train from Washington to Springfield was not just for Lincoln. The American people mourned their president, but they mourned every son, every brother, every husband, every father lost in that war.
David Blight, historian: When people wept for Lincoln, or when they went to their diaries, as many did, and they drew black around the pages, they were really weeping for themselves. They were weeping for their own kids. They were weeping for their own losses. We mourn for ourselves even when we mourn a great public leader.
Narrator: “The nation rises up at his coming,” wrote one poet. “Cities and States are his pallbearers and cannon beat the hours with solemn procession. Give him place ye prairies! Ye winds that move over the mighty spaces of the West, chant his requiem! Ye people, behold a martyr”. As Lincoln’s funeral train made its slow way across the country, the Navy boat John S. Ide was steaming down the Potomac River. On board were 25 soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry and two detectives: Luther Baker and Everton Conger. The search party had formed as a result of a fortunate case of mistaken identity.
Terry Alford, historian: Union detectives and Union ships were watching the Potomac River very closely and some individuals were seen to have crossed it. They weren’t Booth and Herold but they were mistaken for Booth and Herold.
Narrator: In fact, the real fugitives were only a few miles ahead at a second river crossing along the Rappahannock. Having reached the small village of Port Conway they met three Confederate soldiers who agreed to escort them deeper into Virginia.
James L. Swanson, writer: These Confederates say we know a place to take you. When we get over the river we’re going to take you to the Garrett farm. Old man Garrett will help you.
Narrator: Two hours later, Booth and Herold arrived at the farmhouse owned by Richard Garrett, where they were introduced as Confederate soldiers just back from the war.
James L. Swanson, writer: The image of Booth sitting on that front porch, smoking tobacco, playing on the front lawn with the Garrett children, dazzling them with his compass, he seems like he’s relaxed for the first time, that he thinks he can get away. The whole world is hunting for him. There was a frantic pursuit, and here he is, relaxing at the Garrett farm.
Narrator: Unbeknownst to Booth, the federal Cavalry was closing in.
Terry Alford, historian: When the federal pursuers got to the ferry at Port Conway, the wife of the ferryman told them that three Confederate soldiers had taken two men, one with a broken leg across the river. As you could guess the cavalrymen were very, very excited to hear this.
Narrator: That night the Cavalry regiment found one of the Confederate soldiers and forced him to disclose Booth’s whereabouts. At around two am they arrived at the Garrett farm. Booth and Herold were sleeping in an old tobacco barn on the property.
James L. Swanson, writer: Booth and Herold are up by then. The dogs were barking, they could hear the horses coming.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: Booth and Herold are now completely surrounded by Union cavalry and there’s no escape. David Herold wants to surrender and tells Booth he wants out of this now. He sends Herold out who surrenders to the troopers.
James L. Swanson, writer: Booth has certainly concluded by now it’s either escape or death. Unbelievably, he engages the soldiers in negotiation and dialogue.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: He tells Conger and his men to back off a hundred feet, let him come out shooting and they’ll have a standoff. And of course Conger isn’t going to have a standoff with Booth. He wants to take him alive.
Narrator: Finally, at 3am, the detectives ordered the barn to be set on fire. “The blaze lit up the black recesses of the great barn until every wasp’s nest and cobweb was luminous,” a witness remembered. “About the center of the barn, he stopped, drew himself up to his full height and seemed to take in the entire situation. There was a carbine in one hand, a revolver in the other. Suddenly he threw down his carbine, dropped his crutch, raised the revolver and made a spring for the door.”
Terry Alford, historian: As he was coming in their direction a shot rang out. Booth had been shot in the neck by someone and fell to the ground. The doors were flung open, they went in and they grabbed Booth and dragged him outside before the barn caught full fire.
Narrator: A young officer named Boston Corbett had pulled the trigger, later claiming that God had ordered him to do so. The bullet passed through Booth’s neck, severing his spinal cord. “Booth had all the appearance of a dead man,” Lieutenant Conger recalled, “but when I got back to him, his eyes and mouth were moving. I put my ear down close … and finally I understood him to say, “Tell mother I die for my country.”
Gene Smith, writer: Booth is dragged out feet-first from the barn which is crackling in flames. The show is over. The lighting can now be turned out.
Narrator: Booth was laid prostrate on a blanket. With the sun just coming up over the horizon, he managed to utter one, final line.
James L. Swanson, writer: Booth can barely speak. He asks to see his hands. And then he speaks these last words, looking at his hands, “useless, useless.”
Narrator: On May 12th, eight defendants stood trial for the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
Terry Alford, historian: The only person of course who died in the manhunt was Booth. All of his friends were captured and put on trial. And they had to face something in a way even worse than a bullet in the neck they had to face national scorn, opprobrium and a military trial.
Narrator: Booth’s accomplices — Davey Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Powell — were sentenced to death. Booth’s landlady, Mary Surratt, who had knowledge only of the kidnapping plan, also received a death sentence. The others — O’Laughlen, Arnold and Mudd — were sentenced to life in prison under hard labor. On July 7th, on the grounds of the Old Arsenal Prison in Washington, the four condemned conspirators were led up 13 steps to the gallows.
Edward Steers Jr., writer: The hoods were placed on them the nooses were fashioned around their necks. The chairs were removed. The executioner gave a signal by clapping his hands three times. The platforms fell and the four condemned conspirators dropped to their death.
Narrator: Booth’s body had been taken back to Washington. Following an inquest, Secretary Stanton ordered the corpse to be buried on the grounds of a federal prison. It was later dug up and reburied in an unmarked grave in the Booth family plot in Baltimore. Rumors swirled around John Wilkes Booth for decades. Many were willing to believe improbable stories: that he had escaped the Garrett barn and gone on to live in Oklahoma, only to die years later, his mummified corpse displayed in a carnival.
James L. Swanson, writer: The historical memory of Booth is that he was the flawed young tragic actor who wrongfully sacrificed his greatness and his life for a cause he held dear. Booth helped perpetrate that because he performed the assassination. He performed the escape. He performed his death. And somehow he transmuted it all into America’s greatest drama. And he’s tricked us into thinking it isn’t all real. It’s too incredible to be real. And so we forget that Lincoln suffered. We forget how his wife and how his children suffered. How the nation suffered.
Narrator: Abraham Lincoln’s body finally reached his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, on May 3rd, his face now so black with decomposition that it was barely recognizable. Mary Lincoln — too grief-stricken to accompany her husband’s casket on its last journey — had insisted that he be buried in a cemetery called Oak Ridge on the outskirts of town. One final funeral procession was mounted, past Lincoln’s home, now draped in black. Under a scorching sun, a thousand people gathered on a hillside overlooking the simple vault that would accept the bodies of Abraham and Willie Lincoln. A Methodist Bishop, Matthew Simpson, gave the final benediction. “More people have gazed on the face of the departed than ever looked upon the face of any other departed man. More have looked upon the procession for 1,600 miles or more – by night and by day – by sunlight, dawn, twilight, and by torchlight than ever before watched a procession. He made all men feel a sense of himself. They saw in him a man whom they believed would do what is right regardless of the consequences. We crown thee as our martyr, and humanity enthrones thee as her triumphant son.”
One mad act
You know this story. You once learned it, probably in elementary school. In roughest outline, it goes something like this: on April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln accompanied his wife to Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, for a performance of Our American Cousin. The end of the Civil War, the bloody years that had so riven the country, was finally in sight. Early that month the Confederate capital had fallen to Union forces less than a week later, General Robert E. Lee’s surrender ended the war in Virginia and prompted other commanders to lay down their arms. Washington, DC, had begun to feel something like relief.
The president had entered the theater to a standing ovation and the orchestra striking up "Hail to the Chief." Later, as Lincoln sat in the presidential box high above the audience, John Wilkes Booth climbed the stairs. He stood in the dark, narrow passageway with a dagger clasped in his left hand, a Philadelphia Deringer in his right. He’d long planned this moment, believing Lincoln’s death would rejuvenate the Confederacy. "Our cause being almost lost," he had written in his diary, "something decisive and great must be done."
He stepped forward, shot Lincoln in the back of the head, slashed his dagger across the arm of a bystander who tried to subdue him, and leaped over the railing onto the stage. He paused for a melodramatic flourish, facing the stunned crowd and yelling, Sic semper tyrannis — Latin for "Thus always to tyrants." He fled the theater and, amazingly, escaped the capital on horseback.
The escaped Booth became a specter in the public mind
The killing shocked the country. Northerners feared saboteurs among them, while many Southerners believed the murder would bring harsh retribution from the post-war government. The escaped Booth became a specter in the public mind, with witness reports coming in from Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Meanwhile, the real Booth was heading south, dodging the Union dragnet on his way to Mexico.
He didn’t get far. They finally caught him in the rising dawn of April 26th, holed up in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, with an accomplice, David Herold. Surrounded, Herold quickly gave up, but Booth refused. An officer set the barn ablaze, hoping to smoke out the assassin. Instead, Sergeant Boston Corbett fired his pistol through a crack in the building, hitting Booth in the neck. Paralyzed, he was dragged from the flames. As he lay dying, he repeatedly whispered, "Tell my mother I die for my country." And finally, with his limp and nearly lifeless hands raised to his face: "Useless. Useless."
John Wilkes Booth escape route.
This is the story Nate Orlowek had learned, too: of a killer’s mad act, his flight from justice, and his small, pathetic death. Even before he’d learned that official story, though, he’d seen The Prisoner of Shark Island, about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who, the film contends, was scapegoated by a vindictive Northern government. After mending Booth’s broken leg on the night of the assassination, Mudd was tried as an accomplice and imprisoned on the titular island.
The film, directed by John Ford, plays fast and loose with history, but even at seven years old, Orlowek says, "I was outraged when I saw what they did to Dr. Mudd, and I had the sense that I wanted to go back in time." Much like the heroes of another favorite story: The Time Tunnel, a sci-fi TV show in which two scientists’ malfunctioning time machine sent them hurtling through history, righting wrongs along the way. In one episode, of course, they foiled an assassination plot against Lincoln.
Even at his youngest, Nate Orlowek had a strong sense of justice and a belief in the mutability of history. The Lincoln assassination became one of his many historical interests. But despite all he read, he never doubted the official story until he was 15. It was August, 1973. He was visiting a friend’s house one afternoon when he noticed a book its spine bore the familiar presidential silhouette and the title, Web of Conspiracy: The Complete Story of the Men Who Murdered Abraham Lincoln.
David E. George, a drifter who’d poisoned himself with strychnine in the frontier town of Enid, Oklahoma, in 1903. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
He paged through it, flipping to the final illustrated plate. There he saw the familiar face of John Wilkes Booth juxtaposed with a picture of a dead man sitting in a chair. The dead man’s eyes were closed, his face draped with a thick mustache. In the right cast of mind you might see a resemblance between the two, accede that the dapper, 25-year-old star on the right could have sagged and drooped over 40 years to become the swollen, mummified body on the left. And that’s exactly what the book claimed.
"Puzzle for history," it read, introducing the dead man as David E. George, a drifter who’d poisoned himself with strychnine in the frontier town of Enid, Oklahoma, in 1903. As the story went, George had several times confessed to being John Wilkes Booth, even going so far as to admit, "I killed the best man that ever lived." After his grisly, self-inflicted exit from the stage, George’s body was embalmed by the local mortician, who assumed government officials would come to examine it. They didn’t, but the remains became a local attraction, mentioned in newspapers and promoted by civic boosters. A lawyer named Finis L. Bates eventually claimed the body, and later wrote a book, The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth, detailing how he’d come to know David E. George, how the man had confessed, and how his tale offered "a correction of history."
As 15-year-old Nate Orlowek held Web of Conspiracy in his hands and gazed into the "puzzle for history," he could see only dimly the story he’d spend the rest of his life pursuing. It was as though a quest had opened before him, this bookishly serious but charismatic young man. He had found not just a puzzle, but an opportunity to set things right. From his father, who had marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, who when watching sports always rooted for the underdog, and who unapologetically believed that one man could save the world — from him Orlowek learned that when something is wrong, you should try to change it. "There are a lot of things that are not the way they’re supposed to be," he says, "and we should not accept things as they are if they’re not the way they’re supposed to be. We should fight to change them."
"A lot of people ask me, ‘Why John Wilkes Booth?’" he says now, looking back, sitting on a couch in the living room of his childhood home in Silver Spring, Maryland. After his parents passed, he moved back here the coffee table is scattered with papers he’s recovered from his basement, mementos and clippings of his time wandering the lonely labyrinth of counter-history, searching for the truth in a jungle of rumor and misinformation.
Nate Orlowek has spent 40 years investigating whether Booth died in the barn — or escaped to Oklahoma.
Family photographs flank the couch. Behind him, in gold, oval frames, hang line portraits of two young boys: the Orlowek brothers, Nate’s younger self gazing over his shoulder as he speaks. He’s 55 now, thinned by age and time, lightly tinted glasses resting on his nose, yarmulke crowning his head. You could wonder whether it has consumed him, this quest to correct history. But he denies that says it’s really been a small, if persistent, part of his life. When he warms to the subject he speaks quickly, punctuating his points with a defiantly raised finger, his tales digressive, his facts precise.
So why John Wilkes Booth? "Really, that was what floated by," he says. Like his father he wanted a cause bigger than himself like his father he wanted to save the world. "I wasn’t able to save the world when I was 15. I wasn’t able to march for civil rights or work Social Security," the institution to which his father devoted his idealistic energies as a lawyer. "But this thing with John Wilkes Booth was a way of doing something that made a difference, something that impacted people."
He took to his cause with the zeal of an idealistic teenager. He recruited friends. He combed archives. When the Library of Congress told him he was too young to do research there, he cornered his senator in an elevator and, soon enough, got his access. Not only that, but he gained entrance to the rare books room.
The media flocked to him. Local television, newspapers, and radio. A lot of radio. And then, in July 1976, Rolling Stone. Tim Crouse’s skeptically supportive feature — opening with the axiom, "The infuriating thing about nut theories is that there’s always that million-to-one shot that an irrefutable piece of evidence is out there somewhere, half-buried, as it were, just waiting for someone to stoop down and dig it up" — lifted the tale to a new strata of attention. Orlowek soon signed on as a consultant for The Lincoln Conspiracy, billed as "a story every American has the right to know."
John Wilkes Booth's diary. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Working on a movie was new and exciting, even if Orlowek clashed with the producers over a fraudster selling the allegedly missing pages of Booth’s diary. But while the finished film, released in 1977, alleged Booth did not die in the barn, it also claimed Lincoln’s own secretary of war had conspired with the head of the Secret Service to kill the president — a plot supposedly revealed in the missing diary pages. Even in a post-JFK assassination, post-Watergate era, with audiences deeply cynical about government, the theory had limited popular appeal. Historians were appalled.
Afterward, Orlowek found himself drifting away from the work. Because what more could he do? Continue digging through history, hoping to find that one irrefutable piece of half-buried evidence? What were the chances of that? He’d done his best, got the story out there. He turned to more tangible goals, petitioning President Carter to clear the name of Dr. Samuel Mudd.
Only after another researcher contacted him a dozen years later, in 1989, did Orlowek again take up his case in earnest. He traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, where locals had tried to interest the wildly popular TV series Unsolved Mysteries in a story about their famous mummy. His zeal renewed, Orlowek signed on to help.
Soon enough, Nate Orlowek reached the next stage of his quest: bringing up the body
Two years later, the segment aired: a full 20 minutes devoted to the now-mysterious body in the barn. Host Robert Stack solemnly intoned, "Those who question the official account believe that in the confusion following the Civil War, critical evidence may have been mistakenly recorded or perhaps covered up. Other(s) dismiss these theories as revisionist nonsense." Orlowek appeared and summarized The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Opposite him, historian James O. Hall cantankerously dismissed this "evidence" as poorly sourced, speculative, or contradicted by more persuasive evidence. He finally scoffed, "I see no mystery about it at all."
But a show called Unsolved Mysteries was unlikely to agree. Instead, a concluding voiceover described Booth’s final interment in an unmarked grave in Baltimore, Maryland’s Green Mount Cemetery. Over an image of the marble stele marking the family plot, Stack pondered, "Perhaps there lies the definitive proof to this unsolved mystery." The implication couldn’t be clearer.
Soon enough, Nate Orlowek reached the next stage of his quest: bringing up the body.
Portrait of John Wilkes Booth around the time of Lincoln's assassination.