HC: Learning that Lincoln was to attend Laura Keene’s acclaimed performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, Booth—himself a well-known actor at the time—masterminded the simultaneous assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. By murdering the president and two of his possible successors, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to throw the U.S. government into disarray.
Zero proof has ever emerged that anyone but Lincoln and Seward were targeted by Booth’s plot. The military tribunal claimed assassination attempts were also planned for Johnson, Grant and Stanton, and a different person found guilty of each of those non-attempts, so if you buy the Johnson hit, you must include a Stanton hit and a Grant hit, but it’s far more likely Johnson was designed to be a suspect, not a victim, and the alleged attack on Stanton was invented to steer suspicion away from him, since he was in charge of protecting the president, and had obviously failed miserably in that mission. There was no motive for the South to kill Lincoln and Seward as they were in a minority wishing to go easy on the South. The assassination only created more trauma for a nation rocked from the bloodiest war in American history. Additionally, Booth only knew Lincoln would visit a theater that night, and not which one, which is why he purchased the box next to the presidential box in the alternative, a purchase disguised by having the manager of his billiard parlor purchase the box for him. And if it were a plot to remove successors, then Ben Wade should have been the target, not Seward.
HC: At 10:15, Booth slipped into the box and fired his .44-caliber single-shot derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head. After stabbing Rathbone, who immediately rushed at him, in the shoulder, Booth leapt onto the stage and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus ever to tyrants!”–the Virginia state motto). At first, the crowd interpreted the unfolding drama as part of the production, but a scream from the first lady told them otherwise. Although Booth broke his leg in the fall, he managed to leave the theater and escape from Washington on horseback.
According to his diary, Booth shouted those words before leaping to the stage, and it was his spur catching in the bunting that caused his fall, although his leg may have been broken later, when his horse fell. The Navy Yard bridge was closed at night, but Booth gave his real name and was allowed to pass. A suspicious employee from the stable whose horse Booth had just stolen was following close behind, but the guard strangely did not allow him to pursue a suspected horse thief. Later on, the War Department claimed no effort was made to chase Booth because they believed an imposter had given his name at the bridge as a ruse, but that still doesn’t explain why this man was allowed to cross unimpeded, and not held for questioning, or why the search was concentrated to the north side of town, as if Booth were headed for Canada and not Virginia.
HC: Vice President Andrew Johnson, members of Lincoln’s cabinet and several of the president’s closest friends stood vigil by Lincoln’s bedside until he was officially pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. The first lady lay on a bed in an adjoining room with her eldest son Robert at her side, overwhelmed with shock and grief.
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase did not wish to attend the death watch and went back to sleep when awoken and informed Lincoln was dying. Chase woke at his usual time and then walked to the house where Lincoln lay dying. Upon hearing the president still lived, he screwed his face and walked away. Later portraits commissioned by the government show Chase standing dutifully by Lincoln’s side as he died, a room he never entered.
HC: News of the president’s death traveled quickly, and by the end of the day flags across the country flew at half-mast, businesses were closed and people who had recently rejoiced at the end of the Civil War now reeled from Lincoln’s shocking assassination.
News would have traveled faster had the telegraph lines not gone down immediately after the assassination. The lines stayed strangely dead for over two hours before inexplicably they began functioning. No investigation of this mysterious gap would ever be conducted, yet it prevented the news from reaching the morning papers in New York.
HC: On April 26, Union troops surrounded the Virginia farmhouse where Booth and Herold were hiding out and set fire to it, hoping to flush the fugitives out. Herold surrendered but Booth remained inside. As the blaze intensified, a sergeant shot Booth in the neck, allegedly because the assassin had raised his gun as if to shoot. Carried out of the building alive, he lingered for three hours before gazing at his hands and uttering his last words: “Useless, useless.”
After 11 days of the greatest manhunt in history, 25 soldiers were sent to Booth’s exact location in Virginia. Supposedly an anonymous black youth stopped by the War Department to deliver the information, although his name was not recorded. The fire was not set until after Herold surrendered and had not caught hold when the single shot rang out. The only person in the barn with Booth at the time was Everton Conger, who remains the most likely suspect in shooting Booth, although Conger’s initial words were “Booth shot himself,” yet his initial report claimed Booth was shot attempting an escape.
Four of Booth’s co-conspirators were convicted for their part in the assassination and executed by hanging on July 7, 1865. They included David Herold and Mary Surratt, the first woman put to death by the federal government, whose boarding house had served as a meeting place for the would-be kidnappers.
Not really. Booth seldom visited her house, and held his meetings at his hotel room or nearby restaurants or taverns. Four hours after the assassination, Stanton’s secret police arrived at the Surratt house as it had already been identified as the nest of the conspiracy, which wasn’t even true, but that story helped hang an innocent woman. Much testimony during the trial was later proven to be lies, and the chief witness against Mary Surratt, a War Department employee, later said he believed she was innocent.