Frequently Asked Questions: The Assassin

Why did John Wilkes Booth assassinate President Lincoln?

Throughout the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth, a very famous Shakespearian Actor, was also a deep southern sympathizer who was politically aligned with the South and the formation of the Confederate States of America. He was impressed by the South’s code of honor, its chivalry, and its glorification of the past. John Wilkes was also a native of the State of Maryland and in the very early stages of the War, President Lincoln took the unprecedented action of suspending the “writ of Habeas Corpus” within Maryland itself in order to ensure the safe passage of union forces making their way to the federal city. The suspension of the writ also allowed Lincoln the power to arrest and hold individuals without the right of trial by jury or charge for as long as Lincoln deemed necessary. In September of 1861, Lincoln used this power in order to arrest 31 secessionists members of the Maryland State Legislature the day before the assembly was to vote on Maryland’s secession from the Union. From Lincoln’s perspective, this drastic measure was necessary in order to prevent Washington, D.C., from falling into Confederate hands. Moreover, after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln ordered an expansion of the Army and a questionable naval blockade of Southern ports without the consent of Congress. He also disbursed $2 million to supply the Union Army with equipment without the consent of Congress. To John Wilkes, these constitutionally questionable war measures came as a shock to both his southern aristocratic and libertarian sensibilities.

As the Civil War dragged on and the horrific death and destruction which followed in its wake continued, John Wilkes came to believe more and more that President Lincoln himself was ultimately responsible for this misfortune upon the country and particularly upon the people of the South. With both Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union and his subsequent declaration of the emancipation of those slaves residing within the States of the Confederacy, Booth came to believe that if the North prevailed over the South, President Lincoln would then make himself into a permanent ruler or king monarch similar to Ancient Rome’s Julius Caesar and as a result, America’s republican form of government would be forever doomed. Booth, in effect, was very much influenced by the act of assassination of Julius Caesar by the ancient Roman provincial administrator Marcus Junius Brutus. Moreover, Booth was an overtly racist individual who believed in the South’s institution of slavery and that the country was founded to be run by the white man only and was therefore fearful of Lincoln granting citizenship rights to the blacks, particularly to those who served in the Union Armies. On the evening of April 11th, 1865, Booth heard Lincoln give a speech in front of the White House in which he indicated his consideration of granting “voting rights” to those blacks he felt were competent enough and that had proven themselves so battling to preserve the Union. When Booth heard Lincoln speak those words, he exploded in fury saying to another of his conspirators (presumably Lewis Powell) “By God, that will be the last speech that he will ever make!”

Therefore, Booth sought to assassinate the political head of the regime as opposed to the military, thereby giving the Confederate South perhaps a chance to attain its independence as a separate country. Booth’s plan, however, immensely backfired and caused the South much more loss and difficulties. Most historians today agree had President Lincoln lived to oversee the country re-united, the South would have been somewhat spared much of its subsequent ordeal.

Was John Wilkes Booth able to roam the theatre at will?

Booth was a personal friend of the theatre owner John T. Ford, and because of this relationship and because of his fame as an actor, it was not unusual for Booth to be seen around the theatre. Booth had also performed at the theatre several times, including once with the Lincolns in attendance in 1863. Booth was a frequent visitor at Ford’s and would always have his mail delivered to the Theatre whenever he was staying in Washington, D.C. Since actors in those days generally did not have a permanent residential address, they would have had their mail delivered to where they actually worked as performers. Booth was informed of the President’s intended visit to Ford’s while picking up his mail on the morning of April 14.

Was John Wilkes Booth carrying any other weapons when he entered the state presidential theatre box?

Yes, Booth was also armed with a large dagger. After shooting the president, Booth dropped the single-shot derringer to the floor of the box and gripped the dagger in his right hand. Booth struggled with Major Rathbone and attempted to stab the Major in his chest. Rathbone lifted his arm in defense and was wounded with a deep cut from Booth’s dagger in the left upper arm. The wound had cut an artery and bled profusely. After jumping to the stage, numerous witnesses mention Booth brandishing the dagger while shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and running out to the back of the stage. Booth tossed the dagger aside in the alley before mounting his horse, and it was later discovered by a government official.

What is the distance from the Presidential Box to the stage?

The distance from the theatre box wooden balustrade where the American flag is draped across to the stage floor is approximately 12 feet. Some eyewitness accounts suggest that the original height was closer to 9 feet, and a sketch done soon after the assassination suggests the distance was 10 feet, 7 inches. The distance may never be known, as the theatre was gutted for renovation in 1866, and none of the original box remained intact to be precisely measured.

How did John Wilkes Booth break his left leg?

Many people believed that John Wilkes broke his leg as a result of jumping from the state presidential box onto the theatre stage where he landed somewhat off balance. , Today however, some historians speculate that Booth may have in fact broken his left leg when the horse that he was riding, galloping away from the murder scene at a high rate of speed, tripped on something and fell on its left side. The weight of the horse’s left side then landed upon Booth’s left leg causing an injury to the fibula of the leg; a leg injury that is common to equestrian type leg injuries. Moreover, the left side of the horse Booth was riding was injured as well. In any event, by the time Booth arrived at the Surratt Tavern that night at around midnight, (his first stop during his twelve days on the run as a fugitive) his left tibia was definitely broken, and he was clearly in pain as a result. Booth himself, in his diary, writes that “in jumping broke my leg” just following his shooting of the president. It’s likely that we will never know definitively exactly how the actor broke his left leg.

How did Booth escape the theatre?

John Wilkes Booth ran across the stage and escaped out of the theatre through a rear back door by the extreme rear left back side of the stage area. That door led out to an alley way, where his horse was being held by a young theatre worker Joseph “Peanuts” Burroughs. Booth mounted his horse and escaped down the alley, and up to F street. In 1865, the passageway was known as Baptist Alley because the first theatre building originally served as a Baptist church, established around 1833. The church was converted into a theatre by the Fords in 1860-1861.

Did John Wilkes Booth act alone, or was he part of a larger conspiracy?

Booth was in fact part of a larger conspiracy in the plan to try to kidnap President Lincoln and transport him to the Confederate South as a hostage. It was both Booth’s and other confederate agents’ hopes that by holding Lincoln as ransom, they might then be able to force the Lincoln administration to resume the exchange of prisoners of war which Lincoln earlier had halted. The other motivation was that by holding Lincoln as hostage, the Confederate government could possibly force “peace terms” from the Lincoln administration that would be favorable to the South.

Booth alone was the master mind in the plan to assassinate not only President Lincoln on the night of April 14th, 1865 but also Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Booth assigned Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, respectively, to carry out those assassinations. Of the conspiracy to assassinate, we now know that Powell, Atzerodt and David Herold all had knowledge and were complicit in the President’s murder that day. The question of Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence regarding knowledge of Booth’s plan to murder Lincoln, however, is still debated and somewhat controversial among historians.

Most people subscribe to the simple conspiracy theory positing that Booth and nine other conspirators were responsible for the assassination as described above. Probably the next most popular conspiracy theory would be the “grand” conspiracy theory which posits high level confederate government involvement in the assassination. Some historians argue that the assassination was part of a broad Confederate attempt to kidnap Lincoln that morphed at the last minute into a murder plan. “Grad conspiracy” historians speculate that Jefferson Davis may have had knowledge of an earlier plan to blow up the White House while Lincoln and his cabinet were in attendance there just days prior to his assassination. Four days before the assassination, John S. Mosby’s men had been assigned to escort a bomb maker from the Confederate government’s torpedo bureau into Washington to blow up the White House. Some evidence also suggests a money trail involving the Confederate Secret Service and Booth that linked the actor via his travel schedule to a Confederate clandestine apparatus that was run out of Montreal, Canada and included agents in the Northern Neck of Virginia and Southern Maryland. Though the circumstances are suggestive, no definitive evidence connecting these efforts to the Confederate leadership has yet emerged.

Beyond these two arguments, other conspiracy theories get steadily more preposterous and unsupported by evidence. For a study of some of the more extreme conspiracy theories, involving Andrew Johnson, or Secretary Stanton, or the Pope, please read William Hanchett’s The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies. Many conspiracy theories gained momentum with the publication of Otto Eisenschiml’s Why Was Lincoln Murdered? in 1937. Eisenschiml’s theories have been largely discredited by subsequent historians.

How many conspirators altogether were tried and convicted in their involvement with John Wilkes Booth?

Altogether, eight of the conspirators were tried by a military court in time of war and convicted. Four of the conspirators were pronounced guilty of conspiracy to assassinate and given death sentences by hanging. They included George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt; the first woman ever to be executed by the federal government.

Three others of the conspirators were found guilty of conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln. They included Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin and Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, all of whom were given life imprisonment sentences. The eighth conspirator to be sentenced was Edman Spangler who was found guilty of aiding Booth’s escape out of Ford’s Theatre by deciding to have his horse held for him behind the theatre. For this crime, Spangler was sentenced to six years of hard labor imprisonment. Michael O’Laughlin died in prison. The three conspirators that were left alive were pardoned by Andrew Johnson as one of his last acts in office (a presidential pardon does not absolve a person of a crime, however, just removes the punishment). A ninth conspirator, John Surratt, was caught much later and put on trial in civil court in June of 1867. John Surratt’s trial resulted in a hung jury and he was never brought back to trial.

Last updated: August 15, 2020

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