Thoughts from an Assassin: The Journal of John Wilkes Booth

Ford's Theatre Interior, view from stage right, with seating on the floor and two balconies, and the decorated presidential box just opposite.
Ford's Theatre Interior, recreated to appear as it did on April 14, 1865.
John Wilkes Booth was on the run from authorities for 12 days after he murdered President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

Booth and his accomplice David Herold were assisted by a series of knowing, and unknowing, people as they fled deeper into what they presumed would be the safety and protection of the south. In the end, they would travel approximately 90 miles, trekking through Maryland, across the Potomac River, and finally into northern Virginia, with Federal troops constantly in close pursuit.

From April 16 – 20, 1865, the two fugitives hid in a pine thicket in southern Maryland, with food, water and newspapers supplied by accomplice Thomas Jones. Booth was anxious to read any news of the assassination, and his plot to take down the United States government. Booth was certain that he would be heralded as a hero by many and, like any actor, he looked forward to reading the “reviews” of the events of April 14, 1865, for-which he played a leading role. Jones would later recall Booth’s insatiable interest in how he was being judged for his act. He wrote that Booth “never tired of the newspapers. And there – surrounded by the sighing pines, he read the world’s condemnation of his deed and the price that was offered for his life.”
3/4 length portrait photo of John Wilkes Booth wearing a suit, tie, and heavy overcoat. The text on the photo matte reads "Wilkes Booth The Man that Shot Lincoln."
John Wilkes Booth

Library of Congress

As it turned out, Booth was not lauded as a hero, but instead was vilified in unforgiving, vicious language by reporters around the devastated nation. Booth recorded some of his thoughts in a small leather datebook that he had in his possession. This historic artifact provides a glimpse into his thinking, and his reactions, to the country’s response to his deadly act.

The diary is described in the museum collection at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site as “a small book, which was actually an 1864 appointment book kept as a diary, found on the body of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865. The datebook was printed and sold by a St. Louis stationer named James M. Crawford. The book measured 6 by 3 1/2 inches and pictures of 5 women were found in the diary pockets. Booth's entries in the diary were probably written between April 17 and April 22, 1865."

The diary is now on display in the museum at Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, along with many other artifacts presented as evidence at the trial of the conspirators in June, 1865.

A transcription of Booth's handwritten text in the diary is as follows:
Trifold Leather datebook opened up to a December 1864 calendar on one side and Booth's diary entries on the other.
Booth's diary, opened to the first entry after the assassination, April 14, 1865

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site Museum Collection [FOTH 3221]

[Page 1]

April 14 Friday, The Ides. Until today nothing was even thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic Semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it. Thought we hated to kill. Our country owed all her trouble to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not

[Page 2]

April 1865. what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved “I care not what becomes of me” I have no desire to outlive my country. This night before the deed, I wrote a long article and left it for one of the editors of the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings. He or the South

[Page 3]

Friday 21. After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun-boats till we I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every man’s hand, against me. I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew. Am looked upon as a common, cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One, hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country's but his own wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gains, I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country groaned beneath this tyranny and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hand they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see any wrong except in serving a degenerate people. The little,
Booth trifold leather datebook and diary opened to the title page with "Pocket Diary, 1864"
Booth Diary, title page

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site Museum Collection [FOTH 3221]

[Page 4]

the very little I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me since man condemns me so. I have only heard of what has been done (except what I did myself) and it fills me with horror. God try and forgive me and bless my mother. Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross, though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington and in a measure clear my name, which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man.

[Page 5]

I think I have done well, though I am abandoned. With the curse of Cain upon me, when if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness.Tonight I try to escape these blood hounds once more. Who, who read his fate. God's will be done.I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. O may he, may he spare me that, and let me die bravely.I bless the entire world. Have never hated or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong. Unless God deems it so. And its with him, to damn or bless me.And for this brave boy with me, who often prays (yes, before and since) with a true and sincere heart. Was it crime in him, if so, why can he pray the same? I do not wish to shed a drop of blood, but "I must fight the course.” ‘Tis all that’s left me.

Last updated: June 27, 2021

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