John Wilkes Booth – the American stage actor who killed U.S. President Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth: Fast Facts
Born: May 10, 1838
Place of birth: Maryland, U.S.
Died: April 26, 1865
Place of death: near Port Royal, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death: asphyxiation caused by a fatal gunshot wound
Buried at: Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Father: Junius Brutus Booth
Mother: Mary Ann Holmes
Siblings: Edwin Booth
Pseudonym: J.B. Wilkes
Height and description: 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m), black hair and lean and athletic, muscular with curling hair
John Wilkes Booth was an American stage actor who became infamous for the assassination of 16th U.S. President and Civil War hero Abraham Lincoln. The Virginia-born who had amassed quite the fame in many Shakespearean plays was a devout supporter of slavery in America and by extension the cause of the Southern states that seceded from the Union. Sore over the defeat of the South in the American Civil War (1861-1865), Booth and his co-conspirators sought to bring down President Lincoln and his administration. On April 14, 1865, Booth managed to sneak himself into the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was in attendance for a stage performance, and delivered a fatal shot at the president. The assailant then jumped down from balcony and fled the scene to a farm in Virginia. Hunted down by the authorities, by April 26, Booth had been cornered. Finding his situation untenable, the 26-year-old assassin turned his weapon on himself. A different account states that John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed by one of the Union soldiers sent to track him down.
The son of a famous English immigrant Shakespearean actor
John Wilkes Booth, the 9th of 10 children of his parents, was born on May 10, 1831 in Bel Air, Maryland United States. His parents were English immigrant and famous Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes.
The Booth family resided on a 150-acre farm close to Bel Air, Maryland. His parents named him after one of his distant relatives called John Wilkes (1725-1797), a radical politician and member of the English Parliament.
At the time of his birth, his mother Mary Ann Holmes was one of the numerous mistresses of his father; however, 13 years after his birth, his parents tied the knot.
Growing up, Booth is said to have developed a knack for horse riding and fencing. He also grew up a big admirer of Classical writers like Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Herodotus and Cicero.
At the Bel Air Academy, he had an average academic performance, with many of his tutors describing him as indifferent to his studies. From the academy he proceeded to Milton Boarding School for Boys in Sparks, Maryland, and then later to St. Timothy’s Hall in Catonsville, Maryland. Upon his father’s death in 1852, the 14-year-old Booth left the military academy to go into acting proper.
The Booth family of actors and stage managers
John Wilkes Booth had nine siblings, including famous stage actors Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and Edwin Thomas Booth. Like their father, the Booth children, including Wilkes Booth, made quite the name in acting, becoming renowned actors of their time. His brother Junius Brutus Booth Jr. (1821-1883) was an actor and theatre manager who married Agnes Booth (1843-1910), a famous Australian-born American actress. Junius manged a number of theatres – including Walnut Street Theatre, Winter Garden Theatre and Booth’s Theatre.
Booth’s faltering start to his acting career
Booth was around 16 years old when he took to acting. Around 17, he made his professional acting debut, playing the role of the Earl of Richmond in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Richard the Third. His performance in the play, which was at Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre, was a forgettable one, as he missed a number of his lines.
Rising acclaim and his energetic stage performances
Like many of his siblings, particularly Edwin, Booth got a number of roles in many theaters across Baltimore, including Holiday Street Theater, which was owned by John T. Ford. He also had a number of acting gigs at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. In time, his faltering career start gave way for more enthusiastic and critical acclaimed performances. Be it as it may, he could never escape his brother Edwin’s shadow. Edwin was undoubtedly the most talented of the Booths.
In 1858 alone Wilkes Booth performed in over 80 plays, including Lucrezia Borgia at the Arch Street Theatre and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the latter play, he starred as Horatio alongside his brother Edwin.
By the 1860, he had successfully put behind him his below-par mid-1850s theatrical debut to become one of the most famous stage actors in Richmond, Baltimore and Philadelphia at the time. He had also moved from minor roles to staring in leading roles in many Shakespearean plays. In 1860, he took a nationwide tour, performing in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Montgomery, Alabama. It’s been said that he was particularly fond of the long tour of the Deep South, visiting places like South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Did you know: In mid-autumn of 1860, he came close to dying from accidental gun shot. The actor was in Columbus, Georgia performing?
John Wilkes Booth during the American Civil War
Booth was a vocal supporter of the South’s cause during the American Civil War. He also publicly leveled criticism at then U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. With every passing day during the Civil War, his hatred for Lincoln went unabated.
Although his home state Maryland was a slaveholding state, it did not secede from the Union as it had majority of the population of Baltimore supported staying in the Union. On April 28, 1861, the state legislature voted 53-13 against seceding from the Union. As it was common in many American families at the time, the Civil War tore families apart. Booth’s family was no different, with Booth never hiding his support for the South’s cause. His views caused a huge rift between himself and some of his pro-Union siblings, including his sister Asia and his brother Edwin, who vehemently boycotted all plays and acting in the South.
In 1863, while on tour in St. Louis, Missouri, his scathing remark against President Lincoln and his administration landed him in a bit of hot waters as authorities arrested him for a bit while. With a steep fine and a pledge of allegiance to the Union, he was able to avoid charges of treason against the government in Washington, D.C.
Regardless of all those public utterances, Booth continued to appear in a number of plays in both Union and border states in the South. His acting career went largely unscathed throughout the Civil War.
In May 1862, he appeared in a lead role in William Shakespeare’s play Richard III in New York City. That same month he also featured in other plays such as The Apostate, The Lady of Lyons and Romeo and Juliet. His performance in Richard III received rave reviews from the Boston Transcript. He thus remained very famous throughout the Civil War, with critics calling him “The Pride of the American People” and “A Star of the First Magnitude”.
Read More: 10 Most Famous Americans of the American Civil War (1861-1865)
“The greatest theatrical event in New York history”
In 1864 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, he played the role of Mark Antony alongside two of his brothers Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and Edwin in the play Julius Caesar. Dubbed “the greatest theatrical event in New York history”, the play was the first and only time three Booth brothers performed together. The event managers used the proceeds from the play to construct a statue of English playwright and actor William Shakespeare at Central Park.
Wilkes Booth’s favorite character of all characters in Shakespeare’s plays was Brutus, the character from the play Julius Caesar. He was known for having quite of a lot of athleticism on statge, as well using a lot of gestures when performing. For his acting prowess, some critics gave him the epithets “the handsomest man in America” and “natural genius”.
John Wilkes Booth’s ideology and beliefs
In April 1861, Booth was working on play in Albany, New York when the American Civil War broke out. A big supporter of slavery, he quickly lent his support to the Southern states that had succeeded from the Union following the election (on November 6, 1860) of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President. Booth publicly called the actions of those Southern states as “heroic”. In a very long unpublished speech, Booth condemned the North’s anti-slavery stance.
About two years prior to the breakout of the Civil War, Booth was in attendance at the execution of radical abolitionist leader John Brown. The abolitionist and anarchist John Brown was slapped with the death sentence for his involvement in the slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Booth went to the extent of wearing a Richmond volunteer militia uniform in order to have clear view of the John Brown’s hanging on December 2, 1859.
It was also alleged that Wilkes Booth was a prominent member of the pro-slavery secret society the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC). His ideologies aligned with the group’s objective of creating a new country, called the Golden Circle, where slavery would remain legal.
How Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln
When it had all become apparently clear that the South was heading for a defeat in the Civil War, many pro-slavery supporters and advocates of the South’s cause began dreading a nation without slavery. One such person was John Wilkes Booth. The landslide re-election of President Lincoln at the 1864 presidential election was met with immense discontent and anger from Booth. Lincoln and his running mate Andrew Johnson rode to victory with their campaign promise of outlawing slavery by a constitutional amendment (the 13th Amendment which was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865). Lincoln’s victory triggered a kind of rage never seen in Booth. The actor also placed the South’s economic and infrastructure problems squarely on the shoulders of Lincoln.
Slightly self-loathing of the fact that he failed to enlist in the South’s army, he sought for ways to avenge the South’s loss in the war by conspiring with a number of like-minded people to do harm to President Lincoln and his cabinet. Booth’s goal was to kidnap Lincoln from his summer house at the Old Soldiers Home (also known as President Lincoln’s Cottage) and then transport the president across the Potomac River and then into the Confederate capital Richmond, Virginia. Upon arriving in Richmond, he would then collaborate with Confederate officials to use Lincoln in a prisoner exchange deal between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. His ultimate goal was to use those sorts of political concessions in securing full Union recognition of the Confederate government and its institution of slavery.
How did Booth intend smuggling Lincoln out of Washington, D.C.? He recruited Confederate soldier and sympathizer Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Bland Arnold to help him establish contacts with clandestine smugglers that operated in southern Maryland. Booth then set out to track the President’s movement and engagement. He and his conspirators decided to carry out the plan during Lincoln’s attendance of a play at a hospital near soldier’s Home. The plan went out of the window when Lincoln did not attend the play.
Booth and his co-conspirators often held meetings at the residence of fellow Confederate sympathizer Maggie Branson, which was at 16 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore.
Booth also traveled to Boston, Massachusetts and Montreal, Canada, where he met many other Confederate sympathizers.
Wilkes Booth’s plot to assassinate President Lincoln
In addition to Arnold and O’Laughlen, Booth conspired with Confederate sympathizers such as David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine), John Surratt, and Mary Surratt. As the Confederacy’s defeat in the War became more definite, Booth and his conspirators intensified their plan, which soon metermphosed into a plan to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant.
To gain a better understanding of his target, Booth was present at President Lincoln’s second inauguration ceremony on March 4, 1865. He later lamented on not carrying out the assassination plot at the inauguration ceremony. Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 12, 1865, certainly devastated Booth. Upon hearing Lincoln’s speech in which the President stated his support for former slaves having voting rights, Booth flew into a maddening rage.
Why did Booth target Lincoln and his successors?
Booth’s plot to kill Lincoln and his two immediate successors – Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward – was aimed at crippling the government in Washington, D.C. He believed that the ensuing chaos and disarray would give the Confederate States time to regroup and restrategize to mount a massive offensive against the Union government.
April 14, 1865 – the day Booth fatally wounded President Lincoln
On April 14, 1865, a Good Friday, Booth went to John Ford’s Theatre to get his mail, at which point he he was told by Ford’s brother that Lincoln and his wife First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln would be in attendance at the Ford Theater to watch the play Our American Cousin. It was also revealed that Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant, his wife, and other government officials would join Lincoln for the evening’s performance of the comedy Our American Cousin . Upon hearing the news, Booth quickly realized that he had a perfect opportunity to carry out the assassination of Lincoln.
Before mapping out his escape route, he secured a get-away horse from James W. Pumphrey, an owner of stable in Washington, D.C. He also made it known to his conspirators – Herold, Powell, and Atzerodt – of his intention to shoot the president that night at the Ford’s Theater. During the meeting, it was decided that Powell would assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward, while Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Herold was tasked with the logistics for their escape into Confederate stronghold state Virginia.
Due to not his just popularity as an actor, but also his close relationship with owner John T. Ford, Booth had an unrestricted access to almost every part of Ford’s Theater. At around 6:00 PM, Booth entered the empty presidential box of the theatre and proceeded to jiggle the outer door of the presidential box. He did this in order to be able to jam shut the door from the inside.
“Sic semper tyrannis!”
Around the third act of the play, Booth snuck into the presidential box, which had President Lincoln, his wife, and Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. Booth then pulled out his .44-calibre derringer and fired straight into the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding the president. Major Rathbone lunged at Booth and had a bit of a scuffle with the attacker. To secure his escape, Booth stabbed Rathbone and then proceeded to jump from the balustrade onto the stage. Wielding a knife, Booth yelled out the Latin phrase “Sic semper tyrannis!” The phrase, which was the motto of the state of Virginia, translates to “Thus always to tyrants!”) or “The South is avenged!” or both. In some slightly different account, Booth shouted “I have done it, the South is avenged!”
Some historians have stated that Booth is believed to have broken a bone in his left leg as he landed on the floor of the stage from the presidential box. Slightly limping, he managed to make his way into the alleyway. Some witnesses stated that his leg injury occurred when his getaway horse tripped and fell. Regardless, he, with the help of David Herold, was able to ride the horse into southern Maryland.
Regarding the other assassination plots on the lives of Vice President Johnson and Secretary Seward, Powell came close to killing Seward. The Secretary of State sustained life-threatening injuries, but ultimately survived. Atzerodt could not follow through on the plan to kill Vice President Johnson and went into a bar to douse his frustration.
Reason behind the assassination of Lincoln
Some historians opine that Booth carried out the assassination on Lincoln in a bid to secure personal glory and fame. Others claim that the actor thought he was performing a self-sacrificing act. In the troubled mind of Booth, President Lincoln was a tyrant that had to be eliminated by all means possible.
Was the Confederate government aware of Booth’s plot to kidnap Lincoln?
Some historians have stated that Booth likely discussed his plans to kidnap Lincoln with low-level Confederate Secret Service agents. However, at no point in time, were top Confederate politicians and army officers aware of Booth and his co-conspirators’ plan to kidnap President Lincoln.
Federal troops give Booth and his co-conspirators a hot pursuit
Just immediately after Lincoln was shot on April 14, federal troops initiated a massive manhunt for Booth and all his conspirators. Largely helped by David Herold, Booth quickly made it into southern Maryland. He and Herold’s escape plan made good use of the thick forests and the Zekiah Swamp near the Potomac River basin in Charles County.
By midnight that day, the two men had made their way to Suratt’s Tavern, which was about 9 miles from Washington, D.C. The men then continued to ride southward, only stopping at the residence of American physician Samuel Mudd in St. Catharine, about 25 miles from Washington.
Americans mourn the death of Lincoln
As the thousands of mourners trooped into the nation’s capital, authorities scaled up the manhunt for Booth, whom was described in many of the papers as the epitome of evil and a deranged monster. Booth’s heinous act brought a great deal of damage to the Booth family, with many Northerners publicly burning the photographs of the Booth family.
Famous African-American civil rights activist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass described the assassination of Lincoln as an “unspeakable calamity”. Even in the South, there were some mourners who believed that Booth’s action was nothing short of evil. Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee described Booth’s killing of Lincoln as a huge stain on the South and “a disgrace to the age”. There was however a great deal of Southerners who felt that Lincoln got exactly what he deserved. In the deep the South, some people rejoiced upon hearing the assassination of Lincoln. Amidst all of that, Southerners were afraid that the North would ruthlessly avenge the death of the slain president.
The $100,000 reward and the huge nationwide manhunt
To hasten the apprehension of Booth and Herold, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton placed a $100,000 reward (around 1.7 million in today’s dollars) on the capture or information leading to the capture of the fugitives and their accomplices. After authorities received intelligence on the Booth’s likely whereabouts, several government troops were sent on a huge manhunt through Maryland. The woods and swampy terrain of Maryland were thoroughly searched.
While he hid in the woods of Maryland, Booth received news of how the authorities were relentless in searching for him and his accomplices. He also got news of the authority’s successful apprehension of his accomplices, including Powell, O’Laughlen, Arnold, and Mary Surratt. He was surprised to learn that majority of the public considered his action evil.
On April 23, Booth and Herold had made their way to the Virginia shore, where they met up with Confederate sympathizers Thomas Harbin and William Bryant. The latter
gave the fugitives provisions and horses. Leading about 26 soldiers, Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty and Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger tasked to pursue Booth and Herold down the Potomac River before tracking the fugitives to Richard H. Garrett’s farm near the Port Royal, Virginia. Having lied to the Garretts that he was “James W. Boyd”, a Confederate soldier, Booth was welcomed into the home of the Garetts, who at the time did not know of the assassination of Lincoln. The following day, Booth informed the Garetts of his decision to go to Mexico.
Booth’s refusal to surrender to U.S. Federal troops
Meanwhile Lieutenant Conger and his officers had taken into custody and interrogated William S. Jett, a man that had led Booth and Herold to the Garett’s tobacco farm. Armed with the information provided by Jett, Federal troops made their way to the farm at dawn on April 26. Federal troops, who by then had the barn surrendered, managed to convince Herold to surrender peacefully. However, Booth preferred to put up a fight. Therefore the soldiers set the tobacco barn ablaze in an attempt to force Booth out.
How John Wilkes Booth died
As fire engulfed large parts of the barn, Booth moved in the barn frantically, looking for a way out. It was in that moment, according to official account, Union Army Sergeant Boston Corbett (1832-c.1894) shot Booth. Lincoln’s assassin sustained a fatal wound in the neck. The bullet from Corbett’s weapon had gone through three of Booth’s vertebrae, causing Booth to be paralyzed. The federal troops then moved Booth to the front of the farmhouse, where he died a few hours later.
At the time of his death, Booth was 26 years old. According to the officers at the scene, Booth instructed the soldiers to tell his mother that he had died for my country. His last words were reportedly “Useless, useless”.
Autopsy and burial
Federal troops placed his body in a blanket and then transported it on a farm wagon to Belle Plain. From there it was taken to Washington Navy Yard for further investigations and autopsy. It’s been said that up to 10 people went to the Yard to identify Booth’s body.
Initially, his body was buried at the Old Penitentiary; however, in 1869, it released to the Booth family, who buried him at the family plot in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. The gravity of his terrible action is the reason why his brother Edwin buried him in an unmarked grave.
Sargent Boston Corbett – the man who shot John Wilkes Booth
Corbett later defended his reason to fire at Booth as an act of self-defense as Booth had raised his weapon to fire at him. Corbett’s commanding officer Lieutenant Conger called out Corbett for disobeying orders, stating that the sergeant was not given any order to fire at Booth. Therefore Corbett was arrested for disobeying orders but later freed on the orders of Secretary of War Stanton. Corbett was dismissed from the army; however, many people went on to call Corbett a patriot and a hero, including Stanton.
John Wilkes Booth’s last time on stage
In the year that the Civil War came to its conclusion, in 1865, his performance in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet in Washington was met with very positive reviews.
His final play came at Ford’s Theater on March 18, 1865, when he played the role of Duke Pescara in The Apostate.
Did you know?
When he was in his teens, a fortune-teller pronounced a very dire future for him, stating that Booth had a massive but short, dire future ahead of him.
Following the opening of the 1,500-seat Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. in November 1863, Booth was one of the first famous actors at the time to make an appearance in the theatre. On a number of occasions his performances were seen by President Lincoln and the Lincoln family as well as other Union government officials.
Booth earned quite a lot from his acting career. Most of that money was invested in a number of business enterprises beginning around the late 1850s. He partnered with American actor and theatre manager John A. Ellsler in an enterprise. He also had investments in oil wells – fuller farm Oil – in northerwestern Pennsylvania. By the end of November 1864, he had pulled out of the oil business having stacked up losses of over $6,000 in the venture.
In addition to his secret fiancée’s (Lucy Lambert Hale) photograph, photographs of four other women (Helen Western, Effie Germon, Fannie Brown, and Alice Grey) were found in his pocket on the day that he was shot and killed. Also in his pockets were his diary, a candle and a compass.
Four of Booth’s accomplices – George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Suurratt – were found guilty by a military tribunal and then slapped with a death sentence by hanging. The four individuals were hanged on July 7, 1865 at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. Three other accomplices – Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, and Dr. Samuel Mudd – were handed life sentences. The final guilty accomplice Edmund Spangler received a six-year prison sentence. O’Laughlen died of year fever in 1867.
In February 1869, President Andrew Johnson issued a pardon for all of Booth’s accomplices. This was in keeping up with the nation’s effort to heal a nation that had been torn apart by not just four-year civil war but also the immense grief that it was suffering from the death of President Lincoln.
John Wilkes Booth’s secret engagement to Lucy Lambert Hale
Booth is said to have secretly gotten engaged to Lucy Lambert Hale (1841-1915), a known Washington, D.C. society belle and the daughter of U.S. Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire. A photograph of Lucy was found in Wilkes Booth’s pocket just before he died from a gunshot wound.
In the months before Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, Booth and Lucy were seen together at a number of public events. The ticket that Booth used to attend Lincoln’s second presidential inauguration on March 4, 1865 came from Lucy. All the time that Booth was secretly seeing Lucy, plans to kidnap President Lincoln had were being made by Booth and his co-conspirators. Booth’s intention to kidnap the president and later assassination plots were never revealed to Lucy.
Lucy is said to have been completely taken aback when news of her fiancé Booth’s assassination attempt on President Lincoln on April 14. The very evening on the day that Booth carried out his heinous act, he and Lucy, along with Lucy’s mother Lucy Hill Lambert, had dinner together. In the days following the death of Abraham Lincoln, Lucy’s father, Senator John Parker, who had just been appointed ambassador to Spain, worked very hard to distance his family from Booth. On many occasions the senator downplayed the romantic relationship that had existed between his daughter Lucy and Booth. All that damage control paid off, as no investigations were opened on Lucy by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; neither was she called to give any testimony at the trial of Booth’s conspirators.
In 1874, Lucy Lambert tied the knot with a corporation lawyer called William E. Chandler (later U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Senator from New Hampshire). The couple went on to have a son called John Parker Hale Chandler.