John Wilkes Booth

One of the most promising American actors of his time, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) was the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland, and attended school sporadically. A strikingly handsome youth, he attracted many people, and early decided to try the stage. Although unwilling to work at his parts, native talent enabled him to win acclaim as a Shakespearean actor, especially in the Richmond, Virginia stock company. In 1860—the year Lincoln was elected president—Booth achieved recognition across the country and played to approving audiences. Contemporary actors praised him as a "comer," and his reputation seemed assured.

A respiratory problem in 1863 forced Booth to leave the stage temporarily, and he began conceiving a romantic "conspiracy" to abduct President Lincoln and deliver him to Richmond for a ransom of peace or an exchange of Confederate prisoners.

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Sympathized with the South

Unlike the rest of the Booth family, John had always been a Southern sympathizer. He believed the Civil War to be a simple confrontation between Northern tyranny and Southern freedom. He enrolled six other Confederate sympathizers in his kidnapping scheme. Their efforts in March 1865 to capture Lincoln on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. were foiled by the President's failure to appear. Booth's frustration undoubtedly contributed to his decision to assassinate Lincoln.

Booth learned at noon on April 14 that Lincoln would attend Laura Keene's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington that evening. Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also to be killed, but Booth's confederates failed to carry out these murders. Booth went to the theater in the afternoon and fixed the door of the President's box so that it could be barred behind him. At about ten o'clock Booth entered the theater, shot Lincoln, and jumped to the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis! (Thus ever to tyrants!) The South is avenged!"

Pursued and Killed

Breaking a leg in his leap to the stage, Booth dragged himself from the theater to a waiting horse. The pain slowed him, and he and another conspirator were forced to seek a doctor. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd set the leg and fed the fugitives. For several days they tried to cross the Potomac, and when at last they succeeded, they journeyed to the farm of Richard H. Garrett, south of the Rappahannock River. Pursuers found them in Garrett's barn on April 26. When Booth refused to surrender, the barn was set afire. His figure was glimpsed briefly just as a shot was fired. Although one of the pursuers claimed to have shot Booth, it is unclear whether he was killed or committed suicide.

Booth's accomplices were rounded up and tried in one of the wildest travesties of justice ever perpetrated. Four of the conspirators were condemned to death. Dr. Mudd received a life sentence, as did two of Booth's accomplices. One accomplice died in 1867; the other and Mudd were pardoned by President Johnson in 1869.

Booth's tragedy lay in his twisted vision of patriotism. He never understood the horror caused by his act, and he died with these last words: "Tell Mother … I died for my country."

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Further Reading on John Wilkes Booth

Lewis, Lloyd, and Mark Neely, Jr., The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth (1994).