Five Facts About John Wilkes Booth, American Assassin 

By Grace Taylor

John Wilkes Booth, assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

He Wasn't Southern

You might imagine that the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was carried out by a Confederate, but in fact, John Wilkes Booth wasn't even from the South. He was born in Bel Air, Maryland to one of the most famous actors in the world at the time, Julius Brutus Booth. He did sympathize with their cause, however. He even wrote to his mother of his desire to join the Confederate army and called himself a coward for not doing so. Political differences were actually what soured Booth's relationship with his brother Edwin, an ardent Lincoln supporter, both of whom went on to become esteemed actors themselves.

His Original Plan Was To Kidnap Lincoln

With the election of 1864 drawing near and Lincoln the likely victor, an angry Booth decided to kidnap Lincoln while on a trip to his summer home and take him across the Potomac, where he planned to hold the president in exchange for Confederate prisoners, hoping to turn the tide of the war. He convinced two of his friends to help him, and everything was set up for March 17, when Lincoln was to attend a play. However, in a turn of events so bizarre it could only be true, Lincoln skipped the play and instead went to a reception being held at the National Hotel in Washington, the very hotel Booth where was staying.

Shown in the presidential booth of Ford's Theatre, from left to right, are assassin John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, Clara Harris, and Henry Rathbone. (Heritage Auctions/Wikimedia Commons)

His Assassination Plot Was Very Last Minute

Booth just so happened to be grabbing his mail at the Ford Theater on the morning of April 14 when he heard the news that President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant were taking their wives to the theater that night to see Our American Cousin. Not wanting to let this golden opportunity to slip away, Booth regrouped with co-conspirators David Herold, Lewis Powell, and George Atzerodt.

Things Did Not Go According To Plan

Booth planned to shoot and kill both Lincoln and Grant while Powell took down Secretary of State William H. Seward and Atzerodt killed Vice President Andrew Johnson, but Atzerodt lost his nerve at the last minute and got drunk at a bar instead. Powell did attack Seward, but due to a fight with Seward's son, his gun misfired. Powell had to settle for beating and stabbing Seward as he lay in bed, but the secretary survived the attack. Meanwhile, Grant's wife decided she didn't want to go to the theater after all, so the future president's life was spared as well. Booth, of course, killed Lincoln with a shot to the back of the head with a .41 caliber Derringer pistol but was soon attacked by Union Major Henry Rathbone and forced to jump from the balcony onto the stage, where he landed so clumsily that he broke his leg. He stabbed another man on his way out to his escape horse.

Broadside advertising reward for capture of Lincoln assassination conspirators, illustrated with photographic prints of John Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, and David Herold. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

He Thought He'd Be Hailed A Hero

Booth escaped to the Maryland–Virginia border and hid out in the swamps, believing that after things died down, he would enter Virginia as a hero. He found a Confederate sympathizer safe house but was disheartened to see newspapers call him a madman and a monster. Even leading Confederate figures like Joseph E. Johnston and Robert E. Lee called out Booth for his disgraceful and cowardly act. He was eventually tracked down on April 26 to the farm of Richard H. Garrett, who later claimed he didn't even know Lincoln had been assassinated. Booth refused to surrender to police and locked himself inside of Garrett's tobacco barn, which police set on fire in an attempt to smoke him out. Still refusing to leave, he was eventually dragged out of the barn after being shot by a Union Army soldier. It took three hours for him to die an excruciating death, as he had been shot in the spine, and the rest of his co-conspirators were eventually captured and hanged.

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Grace Taylor