Ford's Theatre National Historic Site

John Wilkes Booth

Photo of John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
Library of Congress

Quick Facts

Significance:
Prominent American actor; assassin of President Abraham Lincoln
Place of Birth:
Bel Air, MD
Date of Birth
May 10, 1838
Place of Death:
Port Royal, VA
Date of Death
April 26, 1865
Place of Burial:
Baltimore, MD
Cemetery Name
Green Mount Cemetery

Born into an illustrious acting family, John Wilkes Booth was raised in Bel Air, Maryland where he followed in his family's acting footsteps, making his first appearance on stage at the age of 17. Booth was noted for his energetic performances, and for his habit of being a bit of a scene stealer.

Following John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Booth joined the Richmond Grays, a militia unit, and was in attendance at Brown's execution. Booth expressed his satisfaction with Brown's fate, though he also applauded how stoically the condemned man had faced his death.

When the Civil War began President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imprisoned pro-secession Maryland politicians and many Marylanders, Booth included, saw this as unconstitutional. A fervent southern sympathizer, Booth covertly shipped quinine to the South to get the desperately needed drug past the Union blockade.

In late 1864, Booth and others began to craft a plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in order to ransom him for the release of southern prisoners of war. However, following the surrender of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, Booth decided to assassinate Lincoln instead, as well as have his cohorts kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

On April 14, while Lincoln was attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater, a venue that Booth was extremely familiar with, Booth crept into the Presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then leapt to the stage, cried out "Sic Semper Tyrannis," (Thus Ever to Tyrants), and fled the scene. Pursued for 12 days by the largest manhunt in United States history, he was trapped in a barn on the Garrett farm in Virginia, where he was fatally shot.