Walking into the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. is like taking a visceral journey into the past. Not only does it perfectly capture the nostalgia of the 19th century—when the United States was in the midst of grave political dissension—but it remains the backdrop of one of the most infamous moments in American history, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. First built in 1833 as a house of worship, the building was purchased by John T. Ford in 1861 and turned into a theater. It was later destroyed by fire in 1862 and immediately rebuilt, eventually setting the stage for a spectacle so intense, it would shock the nation and close the final chapter on its innocence.
Lincoln’s assassination marked the end of an era, the beginning of a new chapter, and a moment in history when truth was indeed stranger than fiction. It would also reveal a new breed of killer, delusional and tenacious enough to take the course of history into his own trembling hands.
As the story of John Wilkes Booth and his nefarious plot to support the Confederate South unfolded, it became clear the events of that fateful night in the balcony seats of Ford’s Theatre would offer considerably more drama than anything being performed onstage. Playing out like a violent narrative from the wild west, the first assassination of an American president and the motivations of his killer still contains enough surprisingly harrowing details to captivate people’s minds today.
Forever known as the man who took down one of the nation’s greatest presidents, John Wilkes Booth was a startling anomaly who soon became a dark legend. Despite his role as an assassin, Booth was a surprisingly well-respected figure in the theater and a member of a prominent 19th-century family from Maryland. And he was no slouch either, often considered by those who knew him to be wildly charismatic, funny, and eloquent. Booth’s good looks also made him quite the ladies’ man.
On stage, he was known to be enigmatic, animated, and full of life, often stealing the spotlight from more major players. Critics called him “the handsomest man in America” and a “natural genius.” At 5 feet 8 inches tall, he was lean and athletic with curly black hair—a man with ambition, talent, and great promise. Even more, he was cultured, performing in plays like Hamlet, Lucrezia Borgia, and William Wallace. But in a moment of portentous truth, Booth claimed to love the role of ancient Brutus most—the assassin of an unjust tyrant—who felt his own dark ambitions could only be reached through violence.
Born in 1838 as the ninth of ten children, he was named after a distant relative who was a political agitator and a member of British Parliament. It was perhaps this familial connection to radicalism that gave rise to Booth’s disposition as a Confederate sympathizer and vehement hater of Lincoln and his anti-slavery views.
Either way, Booth strongly opposed abolition and was determined to see the Civil War err on the side of the south. While there were certainly plenty of other sympathizers who felt the same way as Booth, what made him different was how his seemingly normal life as a talented actor and playboy seamlessly gave way to a political passion so great, it would demand the ultimate price.
Even though the single gunshot wound to the head was what most people tended to remember about that evening, there was a lot more involved in the larger plot to kill Lincoln and destroy the political order. Booth had a team of nine co-conspirators, including one woman, Mary Surratt. Bringing these various southern sympathizers together, Booth initially planned to kidnap Lincoln and bring him to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, where he could serve as a bargaining chip for the release of rebel prisoners. Hiding along the side of a country road in Washington, D.C., the motley crew waited for the approach of the presidential wagon expected to attend a matinee performance that day. But Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute and never appeared, leaving Booth and his henchman frustrated and ready to up the ante.
As it turned out, Booth’s timing was excellent, as the Civil War was reaching a violent crescendo, and it was time for a new plan. Knowing Lincoln was supposed to attend Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater soon, Booth masterminded a way end the problem for good. The plot called for two of his cohorts to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, while he took down President Lincoln with a single shot. That way, the President and his successors would all be permanently removed from the picture, and the U.S. government would crumble into confusion.
But the waiting part was hard for Booth, and when given the chance to confront Lincoln in public, he could barely restrain himself. The two men met face to face in November 1863, as Lincoln watched Booth perform in a production of The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre.
According to Mary Clay, an observer who came forward after the assassination, the actor pointed his finger menacingly at Lincoln’s face two separate times—a threatening gesture. And when it happened a third time, she said, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” The President replied to her, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” It seemed Lincoln had sensed Booth’s message through the mere seconds they shared looking at one another.
April 14, 1865. It was a crowded spring night at Ford’s Theatre as Lincoln and his wife arrived late, quickly joining his younger friend Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee in the private balcony seats. All could be seen smiling and laughing during the performance as Booth—who was intimately acquainted with the passages of the theater— slipped quietly into the box around 10:15 p.m., drawing a .44-caliber derringer pistol from his belt and firing it into the back of Lincoln’s head. Dropping the gun and grabbing his dagger, Booth faced the blood splattered Major Rathbone with every intention of taking him down as well.
As the two men lunged towards each other, Booth managed to stab his challenger in the shoulder before leaping over the railing onto the stage 12 feet below. And perhaps he would have even made the landing if the spur of his boot hadn’t caught on the bunting draped over the side, sending him crashing onto the stage and shattering a bone in his left leg. Quickly righting himself in the spotlight, Booth couldn’t resist a moment of theater, shouting to the packed audience, “Sic semper tyrannis! (“Thus always to tyrants”) The South is avenged!” He then threw himself off the stage and disappeared up the aisle. It took a moment for the crowd to realize Booth’s antics were not part of the show and just a few seconds longer to hear the screams of the first lady from above as she cradled her husband’s dying body.
A doctor from the audience quickly found his way upstairs and examined the bleeding president. The situation was grim—the bullet had entered right through Lincoln’s left ear and lodged itself in his right eye—and he was paralyzed and barely breathing. A crowd of men lifted him and carried his limp body directly across the street to a house sitting opposite the theater, where he was placed on a child’s bed.
But there was nothing anyone could do; there were no ambulances or emergency rooms to visit, only the sounds of sobbing, and the grim revelation that President Lincoln would not live much longer.
Just like most great crime stories, Booth’s daring escape from capture was indeed the perfect coups de grâce. After flinging himself from the stage and staggering past the stunned audience, the killer slammed out the back door of the theater and grabbed the reigns of his waiting horse, spurring it into action and galloping down the dark alley. He raced full speed to a bridge across the Anacostia River, gained passage from a curious Army sentry, and met his friend before heading to the roadside inn of Mary Surratt, the woman involved in Lincoln’s assassination plot. As a result of her compliance, Surratt would also be the first woman executed in the new nation, eventually hanging in the gallows with three of Booth’s other unfortunate cohorts.
The fugitives grabbed supplies while Booth chugged some whiskey to dull the pain of his throbbing, broken leg. But it was no use—he couldn’t ride anymore. At four in the morning, the men woke the local doctor who patched him up, unaware of Lincoln’s assassination. By this time, federal troops had traced Booth’s journey and kicked off one of the greatest manhunts in the American history.
Soon recognizing their peril, Booth and his companion headed out to the nearby Zekiah swamp where they were (most ironically) kindly guided by a free black man named Oswell Swann. Once there, they were also assisted by various members of the Confederate underground who provided them with news and ham sandwiches, and Booth spent four days hiding in a dense thicket of trees, waiting for a chance to cross the Potomac River into Virginia.
Devouring local articles about the assassination, Booth soon learned his brilliant plan to upset the balance of war and politics had failed miserably—the public had painted him as a villain, not a hero. Having nourished himself for so long on a notion of righteousness, Booth was stunned to discover his efforts were not perceived as those of brave Brutus, but rather as the killer of a great American Caesar. His diary entries reflected this crestfallen condition, writing “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 for me in the heavens, since man condemns me so.” The awful truth had finally penetrated his delusions, and he would soon pay the ultimate price for his well-loved fantasy.
Traversing over 100 miles on horseback in 12 days, the authorities would finally catch up with Booth on April 26, shooting him dead while he tried to hide in a rural Virginia barn.
And the rest is history.