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Booth, John Wilkes

John Wilkes Booth

Born: May 10, 1838
Bel Air, Maryland
Died: April 26, 1865
Port Royal, Virginia

American assassin and actor

One of the most promising American actors of his time, John Wilkes Booth was a vocal supporter of the South during the Civil War (186165) and was the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln (18091865).

Son of an actor

John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland, the son of Junius Brutus Booth, an actor, and Mary Ann Holmes. He was a spoiled child whose education was limited because of his failure to attend school regularly. His father was often on the road, appearing in plays in other parts of the country, and he died when Booth was only fourteen years old.

Booth was very handsome and charming, and he decided while still in his teens to become an actor like his father and his brother Edwin. Although he sometimes refused to learn his lines and was unwilling to work very hard at acting, he had natural talent that made him popular in performances of the plays of William Shakespeare (15641616), especially in Richmond, Virginia. In 1860, the year Lincoln was elected president, Booth became more popular as he played to approving audiences across the country. It seemed that he would soon be famous.

Sympathized with the South

Unlike the rest of his family, John Wilkes Booth had always been a supporter of the South. He believed the Civil War was necessary to maintain Southern freedom. Booth resented the Northern position that slavery had to be outlawed. He attended the execution of John Brown (18001859), one of the most famous abolitionists (opponents of slavery) in history. Booth wrote that he considered abolitionists to be "traitors" and that they deserved the same fate as Brown.

When a breathing problem in 1863 forced Booth to leave the stage for a while, he began to work on a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and deliver him to Richmond. He may have intended to use the president in an exchange to secure the release of some Confederate (Southern) prisoners. It is not known whether this was all Booth's idea or if he was acting on the orders of someone else. He enlisted six other Confederate supporters in the scheme. In March 1865 they planned to capture Lincoln near Washington, D.C., but the president failed to appear. Booth's anger over the mission's failure is believed to have led to his decision to assassinate Lincoln.

Booth learned at noon on April 14 that Lincoln would attend a performance of a play called Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington that evening. Vice President Andrew Johnson (18081875) and Secretary of State William Seward (18011872) were also supposed to be killed, but the other members of Booth's gang failed to carry out these murders. Booth went to the theater in the afternoon and fixed the door of the president's private box so that he would be able to get in later. At about ten o'clock Booth entered the theater, shot Lincoln, and jumped to the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis! (Latin for 'Thus ever to tyrants!') The South is avenged!" Lincoln died the next morning.

Pursued and killed

Booth had broken a leg when he jumped to the stage after the shooting. The pain slowed him down as he tried to make his escape, and he and another suspect were forced to seek medical help. A doctor named Samuel Mudd treated Booth's leg and fed the two men. For several days they tried to cross the Potomac River, and when they finally succeeded, they traveled to the farm of Richard Garrett, south of the Rappahannock River. Pursuers found them in Garrett's barn on April 26. When Booth refused to give himself up, the barn was set on fire. His figure was seen briefly just as a shot was fired. Although one of the pursuers claimed to have shot Booth, it is unclear whether he was killed or committed suicide.

Booth's pro-South friends were quickly rounded up and put on trial. Four of them were sentenced to death. Mudd and two others received life sentences. One of these men died in 1867; the other man and Mudd were both pardoned (allowed to go free and not serve the sentences for the crimes of which they had been convicted) in 1869. John Wilkes Booth, the leader of the group, will be forever remembered for his twisted vision of patriotism. He never understood the horror caused by his act, and he died with these last words: "Tell Mother I died for my country."

For More Information

Otfinoski, Steven. John Wilkes Booth and the Civil War. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1999.

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John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

One of the most promising American actors of his time, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) was the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland, and attended school sporadically. A strikingly handsome youth, he attracted many people, and early decided to try the stage. Although unwilling to work at his parts, native talent enabled him to win acclaim as a Shakespearean actor, especially in the Richmond, Virginia stock company. In 1860—the year Lincoln was elected president—Booth achieved recognition across the country and played to approving audiences. Contemporary actors praised him as a "comer," and his reputation seemed assured.

A respiratory problem in 1863 forced Booth to leave the stage temporarily, and he began conceiving a romantic "conspiracy" to abduct President Lincoln and deliver him to Richmond for a ransom of peace or an exchange of Confederate prisoners.

Sympathized with the South

Unlike the rest of the Booth family, John had always been a Southern sympathizer. He believed the Civil War to be a simple confrontation between Northern tyranny and Southern freedom. He enrolled six other Confederate sympathizers in his kidnapping scheme. Their efforts in March 1865 to capture Lincoln on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. were foiled by the President's failure to appear. Booth's frustration undoubtedly contributed to his decision to assassinate Lincoln.

Booth learned at noon on April 14 that Lincoln would attend Laura Keene's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington that evening. Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also to be killed, but Booth's confederates failed to carry out these murders. Booth went to the theater in the afternoon and fixed the door of the President's box so that it could be barred behind him. At about ten o'clock Booth entered the theater, shot Lincoln, and jumped to the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis! (Thus ever to tyrants!) The South is avenged!"

Pursued and Killed

Breaking a leg in his leap to the stage, Booth dragged himself from the theater to a waiting horse. The pain slowed him, and he and another conspirator were forced to seek a doctor. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd set the leg and fed the fugitives. For several days they tried to cross the Potomac, and when at last they succeeded, they journeyed to the farm of Richard H. Garrett, south of the Rappahannock River. Pursuers found them in Garrett's barn on April 26. When Booth refused to surrender, the barn was set afire. His figure was glimpsed briefly just as a shot was fired. Although one of the pursuers claimed to have shot Booth, it is unclear whether he was killed or committed suicide.

Booth's accomplices were rounded up and tried in one of the wildest travesties of justice ever perpetrated. Four of the conspirators were condemned to death. Dr. Mudd received a life sentence, as did two of Booth's accomplices. One accomplice died in 1867; the other and Mudd were pardoned by President Johnson in 1869.

Booth's tragedy lay in his twisted vision of patriotism. He never understood the horror caused by his act, and he died with these last words: "Tell Mother … I died for my country."

Further Reading

Lewis, Lloyd, and Mark Neely, Jr., The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth (1994). □

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Booth, John Wilkes

John Wilkes Booth (wĬlks), 1838–65, American actor, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, b. near Bel Air, Md.; son of Junius Brutus Booth and brother of Edwin Booth. He made his stage debut at the age of 17 in Baltimore. He later toured widely, winning acclaim mainly for his swordplay and physical effectiveness in Shakespearean roles, rather than for his weak acting ability. Unlike the rest of his family, Booth was an ardent Confederate sympathizer. He had joined (1859) the Virginia militia company that guarded John Brown on his way to execution and falsely claimed to have aided in his capture, but Booth did not enter Confederate service in the Civil War. Instead, he continued with his theatrical career in the North. For some six months in 1864–65 Booth laid plans to abduct the president and carry him to Richmond, a scheme that was frustrated when Lincoln failed to appear (Mar. 20, 1865) at the spot where Booth and his six fellow conspirators lay in wait.

On Good Friday, Apr. 14, 1865, Booth, having learned that Lincoln planned to attend Laura Keene's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington on that evening, plotted the simultaneous assassination of the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lewis Thornton Powell, who called himself Payne, guided by David E. Herold, seriously wounded Seward and three others at Seward's house. George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Johnson, lost his nerve. The main act the egomaniacal Booth reserved for himself. His crime was committed shortly after 10 descr='[PM]', when he entered the presidential box unobserved, shot Lincoln, and vaulted to the stage (breaking his left leg in the process) shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!" [thus always to tyrants] "The South is avenged!" He then went behind the scenes and down the back stairs to a waiting horse upon which he made his escape. Not until Apr. 26, after a hysterical two-week search by the army and secret service forces, was he discovered, hiding in a barn on Garrett's farm near Bowling Green, Caroline co., Va. The barn was set afire and Booth was either shot by his pursuers or shot himself rather than surrender. Although it has been said that no dead body was ever more definitely identified, the myth—completely unsupported by evidence—that Booth escaped has persisted. For the fate of others involved, see Surratt, Mary Eugenia.

See memoir by his sister, Asia Booth Clarke (1930, repr. 1971, 1996); biographies by R. G. and K. O. Gutman (1979) and G. Samples (1982); M. W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004); N. Titone, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth (2010).

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"Booth, John Wilkes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Booth, John Wilkes." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/booth-john-wilkes

Booth, John Wilkes

Booth, John Wilkes (1838–65) US actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln. He was a Confederate sympathizer. On April 14, 1865, during a performance at Ford's Theater, Washington, D.C., he shot Lincoln, who died the next day. Booth escaped but was either shot, or killed himself, two weeks later.

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