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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

150 Years: The Lincoln Assassination

"Abraham Lincoln O-116, 1865-crop" by Alexander Gardner - Library of Congress

One hundred and fifty years ago on April 14, our country was changed forever by a single gun shot to a sitting president by a frustrated, outspoken, pro-Confederate actor.  The history that surrounds the Lincoln assassination is so rich and deep, that a book would do well to cover the topic and all its facets, let alone a humble blog.  However, there are some lesser-known historic facts surrounding that terrible day to which few are privy - a glaring shortcoming in our education considering Mr. Lincoln's standing as the most beloved and greatest U.S. President to date.  Presented here will be a highly abridged version of the events leading up to that date, the event itself, and its results.

Booth invited to the White House

It is well documented that John Wilkes Booth was a dedicated Confederate sympathizer and was technically a Southerner, being born in Bel Air, Maryland around 160 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line.  His parents (a Shakespearean trained father and his mistress) were English and had made the trip 17 years earlier.  By the 1850's Booth was performing in Shakespeare plays of his own, receiving rave reviews after a somewhat rocky start, and was generally recognized as supremely handsome.  His genius and good looks were only proclaimed more loudly after a national tour in the 1860s.  The start of the Civil War pulled Booth passionately in the direction of the South, though he continued his acting.  In fact, Lincoln has seen Booth perform on several occasions, and like most theatergoers, was quite impressed with the young man's talents.  In 1863, the president had gone so far as to invite the actor to his box and even to the White House, but Booth had avoided the visits with excuses and is quoted telling acquaintances, "I would rather have the applause of a Negro to that of the president!"

A Booth Saves A Lincoln's Life?

The two men's lives would cross again in 1864.  John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin was also a famous Shakespearean actor, arguably the most famous of the 19th century.  Unlike his brother, Edwin was a Unionist who seldom tolerated John's tirades against Lincoln and the North.  In a show of loyalty, and perhaps a jab at his brother, Edwin refused to perform in the South as the Civil War wore on.  One day in Jersey City, NJ, Edwin was taking a train to Richmond, VA with John T. Ford, the owner of the now infamous Ford's Theater.  Also at that same station was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the president.  Robert would recall the events some years later in an interview with The Century Magazine.

"The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name."

Edwin Booth had by no small measure just saved the life of the president's son!  Robert was not keen to tell his parents the story, but made the event known to several others all of whom expressed their gratitude for Booth's courage and quick action, with many pledging him their service if needed.

Lot 1144: Outstanding Presentation Cased Set of Philadelphia Deringer Percussion Pistols with Accessories
The pistol on the left is the exact model used by Booth to assassinate President Lincoln.

Booth Plans to Kidnap Lincoln

In 1864 General Ulysses S. Grant suspended the exchange of POW between the Union and Confederacy in order to further deprive the South of desperately needed manpower.  That event gave rise to Booth's plot to kidnap the president and to trade him as a hostage for Southern prisoners.  If Lincoln's 1864 re-election didn't send Booth's loathing into a fever pitch, then his advocacy of the 13th Amendment, effectively abolishing slavery, certainly would have.  The president had made, "himself a king," slavery was now in grave danger, and the Confederacy was circling the drain.  A dramatic change would require a dramatic action.

The plan was to kidnap Lincoln while he was attending a March 17, 1865 performance of "Still Waters Run Deep," at the Campbell Military Hospital.  Booth had assembled the men necessary and must have been deflated to find out the president had made alternate plans at the last moment to instead attend a ceremony at the National Hotel involving the presentation of a captured Confederate battle flag.  It was the same hotel Booth was currently using as a residence!  Within days, Booth would lose his window of opportunity.  On April 3, Richmond would fall.  April 8 brought the surrender of the main Confederate Army at the Appomattox Court House, and on April 11, Booth attended an impromptu speech at the White House.  Lincoln gave the speech to a crowd on the White House lawn from his window and mentioned granting suffrage to former slaves.  By the 14th, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had fled the temporary capital of  Danville, and Booth had had enough.  Desperate and enraged, with no Confederacy to help him barter a kidnapped Lincoln, Booth's plan changed from abduction to assassination.

More Missed Opportunities

It seems by now that Booth had no shortage of opportunities to murder the president of the United States.  He missed a kidnapping, and excepting a small change in schedule, could have done so in the very building where he lived.  The previous paragraph recalls Booth's visit to the White House, which seems unbelievable.  Why was the assassination not performed then?  Did Booth, not anticipating the remarks regarding slaves not come prepared with the necessary lethal tools?  Was security doing its job?  No sources I can find can state definitively why Booth did not act that night.

For that matter, nor can they say why he did not act at Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1865.  Booth attended the event as the guest of his then secret finacée who was the daughter of a man slated as the next U.S. Ambassador to Spain.  In a small pocket calendar found on Booth's body after his death, were several damning entries he wrote while a fugitive.  They shine a clear light into the mind of a delusional, desperate zealot.  One of the entries recalls the inauguration and exclaims, "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!"

Lot 1149: Pair of Philadelphia Deringer Percussion Pistols
With the exception of the silver fore end cap and the ramrod, this is another nearly identical model to the assassination weapon, right down to the checkering and engraving.

Good Friday

April 14, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln awakes in such a cheerful mood that many note the change from a previously tired, somber, and war-weary leader.  Expecting the news of  Confederate General Joseph E Johnston's surrender, he saw himself at the end of a long ordeal and the beginning of a great peace.  Booth saw him as a target.  His urgency and desperation mixed together in a dangerous cocktail.  Upon visiting his mailbox at Ford's Theater, Booth discovered that the President, General Grant, and their wives were to attend that night's showing of Our American Cousin.  Though he didn't need the "insider information," the daily papers told the same story, much to the theater's delight.

With few other thoughts, he went to a boarding house run by Mary Surratt.  He asked her to send a package for him to Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD) and to have his guns and ammunition ready for his pick-up.  Booth had stored them there on a prior occasion as Surratt's boarding house was a frequent meeting place for the conspirators.  The package he had sent was for himself and Booth retrieved the package within hours of the assassination while on the run from authorities.  Within three months Mary Surratt would be the first woman tried and executed by the federal government.  He would also arrange a getaway horse with local livery stable owner James W. Pumphrey.  To Pumphrey this might not have been anything unusual.  His stables were located next to the National Hotel, where Booth lived, and Booth regularly hired a particular horse from him.  At some time during the day, the industrious assassin also took advantage of his friendship with John Ford and his access to the theater to create a spy hole into the Presidential Box to perform last second reconnaissance before the deed.

Lincoln had an 11 o'clock meeting with his cabinet and General Grant that day.  It was then that Grant cancelled his plans with the First Couple, though some sources say that due to tensions between the wives that the plans were never made in the first place.  In any case, a suitable guest was eventually found in Major Henry Rathbone and his finacée Clara Harris.  Allegedly, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton begged Lincoln not to go out on that night, or any night while the blood still boiled hot in Rebel veins, for fear he might be shot.  After dinner, Mrs. Lincoln was not  feeling well and debated not attending the play, but the president, tired but still in a fine mood, said he needed a laugh and would attend if she decided to stay in for the evening.  With that she elected to attend as well, but the couple would first stop by the War Department to see if word from North Carolina had arrived about Johnston's surrender.  It hadn't.  His body guard William Crook, also fearing some ill against the president, asked if he could accompany them to the theater if they insisted on attending.  Again, Lincoln dismissed his worries and declined his volunteer to serve as an extra guard.  After all, they would have guards posted in and outside their box.  Meanwhile, Booth had returned to the National Hotel to pen a letter to the editor of the National Intelligencer, in which he detailed his early plans to kidnap Lincoln, how they had changed to a conspiracy of assassination, and signed his name - also listing the names of his fellow conspirators.  He then downed a drink at the Star Saloon, next to Ford's Theater and waited for the play to begin.

The Lincolns and their guests arrived in their carriage after the start of the play.  The entrance of the parties into their box caused the play to pause and the orchestra to play "Hail to the Chief" while the packed house of 1,700 rose to give the president a standing ovation and "vociferous cheering."  Booth would arrive in an alley behind the theater around 9:30 p.m. and asked a theater employee Edmund Spangler to hold his horse for him.  Spangler, with other things to do, in turn asked Joseph "Peanut" Burroughs to hold the high-spirited mare.  No one thought twice about Booth being in the theater.  He was well known and no one would suspect anything if he were to call on the president.  The assassin was armed with his now infamous Deringer pistol and a large Rio Grand camp knife with a stag horn handle.  Acid etched on each side of its blade were the well known phrases, "Land of the Free / Home of the Brave" and "Liberty / Independence."

There were two doors between the Presidential Box and Booth.  The first was to be guarded by a man named John Parker.  Known for his hard drinking, Parker was part of Washington's Metropolitan Police Force and had a several infractions listed in his file.  His spot in a hallway outside the Presidential Box only allowed him to hear the play and it wasn't long before he relocated himself to a better seat.  At intermission, it is said that he, Lincoln's footman (Charles Forbes) and his coachman (Francis P. Burke) all absconded to a nearby saloon for drinks.  Whether Parker was at a better seat or at the pub, when the assassin came to the door, there was no one guarding it.

After entering the first door, which had been closed, but not locked, Booth quickly barricaded it with a large plank so that it could not be pushed in from the outside.  He looked through his peep hole and seeing that the president was indeed in attendance, all there was to do was steel his nerves and wait.  Booth was extremely familiar with the play showing and was waiting for the second scene of the third act when a particularly funny line would be delivered. "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!"  The resulting laughter would muffle the gun shot.  At the decided moment, Booth entered the darkened box, pulled the .44-caliber Deringer from his pocket, aimed it at the president's head, and fired.  Lincoln would have been laughing as the bullet stuck.

"The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" by Currier & Ives

The projectile entered just below the president's left ear and left little evidence of its intrusion.  From there it barreled diagonally through his brain before lodging behind his right eye.  The president instantly slumped in his chair amid a large cloud of smoke.  His theater companion for the evening, Major Rathbone, not one dozen feet away, gives the best eyewitness account of what happened.

"When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back toward the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. The distance from the door to where the President sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was 'Freedom!' I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm .... The man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box. The clothes, as I believe, were torn in the attempt to hold him. As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, 'Stop that man.' I then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.

On reaching the outer door of the passage way, I found it barred by a heavy piece of plank, one end of which was secured in the wall, and the other resting against the door. It had been so securely fastened that it required considerable force to remove it. This wedge or bar was about four feet from the floor. Persons upon the outside were beating against the door for the purpose of entering. I removed the bar, and the door was opened. Several persons, who represented themselves as surgeons, were allowed to enter. I saw there Colonel Crawford, and requested him to prevent other persons from entering the box.

I then returned to the box, and found the surgeons examining the President's person. They had not yet discovered the wound. As soon as it was discovered, it was determined to remove him from the theater. He was carried out, and I then proceeded to assist Mrs. Lincoln, who was intensely excited, to leave the theater. On reaching the head of the stairs, I requested Major Potter to aid me in assisting Mrs. Lincoln across the street to the house where the President was being conveyed. . .

In a review of the transactions, it is my confident belief that the time which elapsed between the discharge of the pistol and the time when the assassin leaped from the box did not exceed thirty seconds. Neither Mrs. Lincoln nor Miss Harris had left their seats."

Booth Escapes

Missing from Rathbone's account are several important details.  Foremost, how severly he had been injured.  After firing the Deringer pistol, Booth dropped it and drew the knife when Rathbone attacked him.  The slash that Rathbone parried cut his arm severely, down to the bone in numerous accounts.  Even still Rathbone pursued the assassin as he attempted to leap over the box ledge and onto the stage, but the young Major was not the only resolute man.  Booth, having injured his leg after landing awkwardly on the stage, still managed to stand, thrust the bloody knife in the air, shout "Sic semper tyrannis," the Virginia state motto translated as "Thus always to tyrants," and cross the stage to a backstage door where Burroughs was still holding his horse.  Booth struck Burroughs' forehead with the butt of his knife, mounted his horse, allegedly also kicked him in the chest for good measure with his functioning leg, and sped away on his rented horse.

Booth Had Other Guns As Well

Booth had planned ahead. He and co-conspirator David Herold had made it to Surratt's tavern by midnight and picked up the firearms Booth had sent there earlier.  Waiting for the duo were a pair of Colt revolvers, an 1860 Army and an 1851 Navy pistol, as well as two Spencer repeating carbines.  Booth had also previously lent weapons to all his co-conspirators.

Lot 263: Extremely Rare Factory Documented Historical Confederate Colt Fluted Cylinder Model 1860 Army Revolver

Lot 1080: U.S. Civil War Spencer Saddle Ring Carbine

  • Lewis Powell, who was to kill Secretary of State William Seward, was given a Whitney revolver and a knife.  Powell made quite a mess of things.  On the pretense of delivering medicine to Seward he encountered Seward's son Frederick, who insisted on taking the drugs to his father.  Powell then shot at Frederick and beat him with the Whitney, breaking it.  He burst into Seward's bedroom, threw aside his daughter and proceeded to stab the secretary of state about the face and neck.  He was quickly tackled by a soldier assigned to Seward, but Powell escaped and fled, stabbing a messenger en route to his getaway horse. However, hearing the ruckus from inside his accomplice had left with both horses, leaving Powell to hoof it back to the Surratt boarding house.
Lot 259: Exceptional Cased Whitney New Pocket Percussion Revolver with Accessories
  • George Azerodt, assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, was also given a revolver and Bowie knife.  He was staying in the same hotel as Johnson, but couldn't muster the fortitude for the act and instead got drunk at the hotel bar.  He would wander the streets that night, throwing the knife somewhere along the way and selling the pistol in Georgetown.  He would later be captured when inquiring about Johnson's location the day after the assassination.
When examining the other weapons at the hands of the conspirators, the plan becomes much more than a simple assassination.  This was a plan to sever the head of the Union government by killing the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State, the top three officials of the executive branch.  It was a desperate, last ditch attempt to rally the South as the North reeled from an unprecedented blow.  Also targeted by the killers was Ulysses S. Grant, who having cancelled his plans with Lincoln, left on a train for Philadelphia earlier that day.  Had he not, the knife Booth used was intended for him.

After retrieving the guns, Booth would proceed to the house of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who would splint Booth's leg and make him a pair of crutches.  After making the long escape into Virginia, the rented horses would be shot.


The nation was struck with grief.  Even newspapers that had previously lambasted Lincoln at every turn, expressed regret at his death, as did Generals Johnston and Lee.  Booth, in his flight, could not believe he was not a hero and lamented this fact in his final writings.  While the nation openly mourned the president, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was charging full steam ahead in an effort to round up absolutely anyone who had even breathed a whiff of the plot.  It was a huge embarrassment that not only had an assassin actually reached the president to complete his treacherous act, but that he did so in front of nearly 1,700 witnesses, escaped on a horse, and had vanished for days.  By Day 6 after the shooting, Stanton issued a $100,000 reward for Booth's capture and lesser amounts for his two associates.  It was a massive sum to fit an unprecedented crime, especially considering the average daily wage was $1.  Posters were printed and well distributed.  On Day 12, Booth would be gunned down inside a barn set aflame by his pursuers.  Of those arrested for involvement in the assassination, eight were tried by a military tribunal.  After seven weeks and 366 witnesses, all were found guilty.  Four would hang, three were sentenced to life in prison, and Spangler, to whom Booth had given his horse, would receive six years (some witness accounts say Spangler physically impeded people pursuing Booth and told them not to talk about which direction he fled).

Execution of the four condemned assassins on July 7, 1865 at Fort McNair.  Image: Library of Congress

Who knows how history may have been altered had Abraham Lincoln been allowed to finish his second term in office.  Many postulate that Lincoln would have sped along the Reconstruction of the South and further advanced Civil Rights, instead of having them flounder for another 100 years.  Lincoln was unquestionably more apt than his successor to help reconcile the nation and get her whole again.  In contrast, Johnson ignored Civil Rights, did little to reconcile, survived impeachment by a single vote, and is generally considered one of the worst U.S. presidents in history.

But today, let us not remember the ineptness of Johnson, nor the the rancor and violence of Booth.  Instead, let us recall the rail splitter, the politician, the avid reader, the self-made man, the wrestler, the abolitionist, the story teller, the lawyer, the orator, the nationalist, and preserver of the Union - Abraham Lincoln - who lost his life serving a country at the brink of dissolution.

-Written by Joel Kolander


"President Lincoln is Shot, 1865," EyeWitness to History, (2009).

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