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John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

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

Stage actor and Southern sympathizer who
assassinated President Abraham Lincoln

John Wilkes Booth was a fanatical supporter of the Confederate cause during the Civil War. On April 14, 1865—as people throughout the North celebrated the end of the conflict—Booth made a deranged (insane) attempt to strike one final blow for the South. He shot Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) as the president sat watching a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the following day. Although Booth and his accomplices (partners in crime) were soon captured, the assassination sent shock waves through the country. Lincoln's violent death made it much more difficult for the North and South to resolve their differences after the war.

Supports the South in the Civil War

John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland in 1838. His father, Junius Brutus Booth (1796–1852), was the leading Shakespearean actor in the country at that time. His brother, Edwin Booth (1833–1893), became a well-known actor as well. John made a good living as an actor, but he never received the attention he felt he deserved.

By the time Booth reached his twenties, growing political tension in the United States had erupted into war. The Northern and Southern halves of the country had been arguing about a number of issues for many years. The most important of these issues was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. They wanted the Federal government to take steps to outlaw slavery or at least keep it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played an important role in the Southern economy and culture. Many Southerners resented Northern attempts to contain slavery. They felt that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the Federal government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Booth's home state of Maryland remained part of the United States. It was one of four "border states" that allowed slavery, yet decided not to secede from (leave) the Union with the slaveholding states of the South. As a result, the people of Maryland had divided loyalties during the war. Booth's family tended to support the Union cause. But Booth himself believed in slavery because he thought that black people were inferior to white people. For this reason, he became a supporter of the Confederate cause.

Devises schemes to help the Confederacy

Despite his devotion to the South, Booth never volunteered to fight in the Confederate Army. It appeared that he was afraid to become a soldier, and that this fear embarrassed him. "I have begun to deem [believe] myself a coward, and to despise my own existence," he wrote in his diary. As a result, Booth started to dream of new ways to help the Confederacy. He wanted to do something important so that his name would live in history. At the same time, he developed an intense hatred of President Abraham Lincoln. In his unbalanced mind, Booth viewed Lincoln as a tyrant who was responsible for all of the country's troubles. He came up with a variety of schemes to harm the president. As Bruce Catton explained in The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, Booth was "driven by an insane compulsion [impulse] of hatred and perverted loyalty to a cause which he had never felt obliged [required] to fight for as a soldier."

In 1861, shortly before Lincoln was inaugurated (sworn in) as president, Booth devised a plan to kidnap him. The plan failed when the president's travel plans changed unexpectedly. As the Civil War raged over the next few years, Booth formed a small band of anti-Union conspirators. They came up with several schemes to kidnap Lincoln, take him to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, and use him to negotiate an end to the war that favored the South. But all of these plans eventually fell apart.

When Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) surrendered in April 1865 to end the Civil War, Booth realized that kidnaping the president would serve no purpose. Instead, he decided to kill Lincoln and several other important members of the government, including Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry), Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801–1872; see entry), and General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry). Booth thought that the Confederacy might survive if he killed the Union leaders. He also thought that he would be hailed as a hero throughout the South.

Booth assassinates President Lincoln

Booth and his helpers decided to put their plan into effect on April 14. That night, the president and his wife attended a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington called Our American Cousin. The Lincolns were joined in their fine balcony seats by Major Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris. Midway through the play, Booth slipped into the rear of the president's box in the theater. He then withdrew a one-shot pistol called a derringer from his jacket and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.

Major Rathbone leaped to his feet to stop the assassin, but Booth slashed the officer with a knife. He then jumped out of the balcony and landed on the stage below. Although he broke his leg in the fall, he still managed to get to his feet. Booth shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" (a Latin phrase meaning "Thus always to tyrants") to the stunned audience, limped off the stage to the rear of the theater, and escaped on a waiting horse.

In the meantime, doctors in the audience rushed to Lincoln's aid. They carried him to a boarding house across the street from the theater, but found that they could do nothing to help him. The president died early the next morning. Most of the rest of Booth's plan collapsed, and the attacks on Johnson and Grant never took place. But one of his accomplices attacked Secretary Seward in his bedroom at the same time that Booth was attacking Lincoln. Seward suffered numerous knife wounds, but managed to hold off his attacker until the man fled into the night. He eventually recovered from his injuries.

The assassin is captured and killed

Booth rode through the night until he reached the farmhouse of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd set Booth's broken leg for him, but later claimed that he had not known the identity of the assassin. With the help of fellow conspirator David E. Herold, Booth escaped south to Virginia. But Federal soldiers eventually tracked the two men to a tobacco barn near Port Royal. On April 26, the soldiers surrounded the barn and demanded that the men surrender. Herold gave himself up, but Booth refused. The soldiers then set fire to the barn in order to force the assassin out. Booth died of a gunshot wound while still inside the barn, but it remains uncertain whether he shot himself or whether one of the soldiers shot him.

The United States entered into a period of mourning after Lincoln's death. People in the North who had been celebrating the end of the Civil War suddenly plunged into a mood of deep anger and sadness. Some people questioned whether the assassination had been a conspiracy waged by Southern leaders, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry). A government commission investigated the matter, but the evidence suggested that Booth and his gang had acted on their own, without the knowledge of Confederate leaders.

Within a few weeks of Booth's death, eight other alleged (accused) participants in the assassination plot were captured and put on trial. All eight were convicted of being involved in the plan to kill Lincoln, and four of them were hanged—Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Paine, David E. Herold, and George A. Atzerodt. Three others were sentenced to life in prison, but they were pardoned (granted official forgiveness and released from further punishment) in 1869. (One of those was Samuel A. Mudd [1833–1883], the physician who treated Booth's injured leg but claimed to have no knowledge of either Lincoln's death or of Booth's involvement in the president's assassination.) The eighth person was sentenced to six years for helping Booth escape from Ford's Theatre.

Assassination ends up harming the South

Booth died thinking that he had helped the South by killing Lincoln. But historians point out that this was not really the case. "Confused motives had thronged [crowded into] Booth's cloudy mind, but one stood out with something resembling clarity. He thought that by removing Lincoln he was in some way helping his defeated South. He had not, of course, helped the South at all; he had in fact hurt it," T. Harry Williams wrote in The Union Restored. "By his act Booth had damaged the hopes of the entire nation for an easy 'reconstruction' [the period immediately after the Civil War, when the United States struggled to resolve its differences and readmit the Southern states to the Union]. . . . Booth had shot the one man who might have provided the leadership needed so urgently at this unique moment in history."

Lincoln believed that the country could never be whole again unless the South was welcomed back with open arms. He wanted to give the Southern states significant control over their own affairs and help them rebuild their ruined cities and farmlands. At his second inauguration a few weeks before his death, the president had expressed his desire to act with "malice toward none; with charity for all . . . to bind up the nation's wounds" and "to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves."

After Lincoln's death, power in the U.S. government shifted to lawmakers who were determined to punish the South for the war and for the loss of their leader. Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency following Lincoln's assassination, and both he and leaders in Congress indicated that their Reconstruction policies toward the South would be very stern. The nation struggled to resolve its differences for many years.

Where to Learn More

Abraham Lincoln's Assassination. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Assassins. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Clarke, Asia Booth. John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society, Inc. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum Home Page. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Furtwangler, Albert. Assassin on Stage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Jakoubek, Robert. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.

January, Brendan. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Children's Press, 1998.

National Park Service. Ford's Theatre National Historic Site. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Nottingham, Theodore J. The Curse of Cain: The Untold Story of John Wilkes Booth. Nicholasville, KY: Appaloosa Press, 1997.

Surratt Society. Surratt House Museum. [Online] (accessed on October 8, 1999).

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