John Wilkes Booth

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John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth (May 10, 1838 – April 26, 1865) was an American actor who shot and killed U.S. president Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the next morning. Booth was born in Bel Air, Harford County, Maryland to English immigrant parents. He was a very well-known stage actor who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. He was angry with Lincoln for supporting voting rights for former slaves, and he hoped to rally the remaining Confederate troops to keep fighting the war, which was coming to an end. Booth was chased by United States soldiers and killed at a farm in Virginia 12 days after the assassination.

Booth's political activity[change | change source]

Booth became politically active in the 1850s, joining the Know-Nothing Party, a group that wanted fewer immigrants to come to the United States. Booth strongly supported slavery. In 1859, he joined a Virginia company that helped with the capture of John Brown after his raid on Harpers Ferry. Booth watched Brown's execution.

During the Civil War, Booth worked as a Confederate secret agent. He met frequently with the heads of the Secret Service, Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay, in Montreal.

Failed plots against President Lincoln[change | change source]

In the summer of 1864, Booth began making plans to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. The plan called for Lincoln to be taken south to Richmond, where he would be held until traded for Confederate prisoners-of-war. Booth recruited friends and known southern-sympathizers for his mission, including the eight persons tried by the 1865 military commission. Some who resisted his persuasive efforts, such as actor Samuel Chester, became key government witnesses in the trial.

On March 4, 1865, Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration as President, as can be seen in photographs taken that day. On March 15, Booth and most of his fellow conspirators met at a restaurant three blocks from Ford's Theatre to plan the kidnapping. Soon thereafter, Booth heard that the President would be attending a matinee performance of Still Waters Run Deep on March 17 at the Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of Washington. This, he decided, would the perfect opportunity for a kidnapping and—according to John Surratt—Booth developed a plan to intercept Lincoln's carriage en route to the play. Booth's plans were stopped, however, when the President changed his plans and decided instead to speak to the 140th Indiana Regiment and present a captured flag.

Booth's next plan was to kidnap the President at a future performance at Ford's Theatre (where the actor had several friends). This plan failed to win the support of some of his co-conspirators, who dismissed it as unworkable.

The assassination of Lincoln[change | change source]

After the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond (April 4) and General Lee's large-scale surrender of Confederate forces (April 9), Booth decided to kill Lincoln instead of kidnapping him. According to Booth's former friend, Louis Weichmann, Booth may have made the decision to kill the President after hearing Lincoln deliver a speech on April 11 urging Negro suffrage. Weichmann spoke of his viewing of the President's speech with Booth:

"I had never seen Mr. Lincoln up close and I knew he was a tall man, however nothing could have prepared me for the sight of him. A long shadow did he have. And his arms, when at his sides, touched near his knees. Very professionally he said that there would never be any suffrage based on differences in the way people look. Upon this, Booth turned to the two of us and said, “That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through!”

On April 14, 1865, while picking up his mail at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., Booth found out that Lincoln would be going to a play with his wife there that evening. Booth knew the play well. Booth met with his co-conspirators and made a plan to kill President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and possibly General Grant—all around 10:15 that evening. That afternoon Booth prepared a peep hole into the balcony room the Presidential party would use. During the play, Booth quietly entered the unguarded balcony room. At 10:15 pm, following a line in the play he knew would get a laugh, Booth fired a pistol at point-blank range into the back of Lincoln's head. Booth escaped by jumping from the balcony onto the stage, where he shouted a triumphant line to the audience. He broke his leg during the jump, but escaped out the back door and onto his horse.

The mortally wounded Lincoln was carried across the street to Petersen House, where he died the next morning. One co-conspirator did attack Secretary of State Seward with a knife the night of the 14th, but Seward survived the attack. The conspirator who planned to attack Vice-President Johnson did not follow through with the plot.

Booth fled with an accomplice south through Maryland to Virginia. An army troop caught up with him on April 26. His accomplice surrendered but Booth refused. He died from shots fired during his capture. Booth cried out, "I will not be taken alive!". The bullet struck Booth in the back of the head behind his left ear, passed though his neck, and out into the barn.[1][2] A low scream of pain like that produced by a sudden throttling came from the assassin, and he pitched headlong to the floor.[3] Corbett and the other soliders would note a sense of poetic, or cosmic, justice in that Lincoln and Booth were each shot around the same spot of the head.[4][5] And the damage to Booth was no less severe than that to Lincoln: the bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him.[6][7] Their conditions were different as well, as Mary Clemmer Ames summed it up, "The balls entered the skull of each at nearly the same spot, but the trilling difference made an immeasurable difference in the sufferings of the two. Mr. Lincoln was unconscious of all pain, while his assassin suffered as exquisite agony as if he had been broken on a wheel."[8] A soldier poured water into his mouth, which he immediately spat out, unable to swallow. The bullet wound prevented him from swallowing any of the liquid. In a weak voice, Booth asked for water and Conger and Baker gave it to him.[9] He asked them to roll him over and turn him facedown. Conger thought it a bad idea. Then at least turn me on my side, the assassin pleaded. They did, but Conger saw that the move did not relieve Booth’s suffering. Baker noticed it, too: "He seemed to suffer extreme pain whenever he was moved...and would several times repeat, ‘Kill me.’"[10] At sunrise, Booth remained in agonising pain. His pulse weakening as his breathing became more laboured and irregular. In agony, unable to move his limbs, he asked a soldier to lift his hands before his face and whispered as he gazed at them, "Useless ... Useless." These were his last words. A few minutes later, Booth began gasping for air as his throat continued to swell, then there was a shiver and a gurgle and his body shuddered, before Booth died from asphyxia - he literally choked to death.

Corbett maintained that he didn't intend to kill Booth, but merely wanted to inflict a disabling wound, but either his aim slipped or Booth moved at the moment Corbett pulled the trigger.[11]

References[change | change source]

  1. "American Experience | The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln". PBS. Retrieved December 14, 2012.
  2. Martelle, Scott (2015). The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth. Chicago Review Press. p. 103.
  3. Terry Alford, Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth.
  4. Goodrich 2005, pp. 227–228
  5. "The Death of John Wilkes Booth, 1865". Eyewitness to History/Ibis Communications. Retrieved August 16, 2012. the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln.
  6. Goodrich, p. 211.
  7. Smith, pp. 210–213.
  8. Clemmer, Mary. Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital as a Woman Sees Them. Cincinnati: Queen City Publishing Company, 1874.
  9. Martelle, Scott (2015). The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth. Chicago Review Press. p. 104.
  10. Swanson, p. 139.
  11. Martelle, Scott (2015). The Madman and the Assassin: The Strange Life of Boston Corbett, the Man Who Killed John Wilkes Booth. Chicago Review Press. p. 104.

Other websites[change | change source]