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  • Gavin Whitehead

A Family Affair: John Wilkes Booth, Pt. I (S2E8)

Updated: Mar 7

John Wilkes Booth hailed from America’s most celebrated theatrical dynasty. At the height of his powers, his father, Junius, ranked as the greatest Shakespearean in the country, and John’s older brothers, Junius and Edwin, also achieved fame. After an unpromising professional debut, John lived up to the family name, rising to stardom. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, however, he eventually left acting and plotted a conspiracy to aid the Confederacy by treasonous means. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: John, Edwin, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr. in character as Mark Anthony, Brutus, and Cassius in Shakespeare's historical tragedy, Julius Caesar. The Booth brothers appeared onstage together for one night only in November 1863, roughly five months before John assassinated Abraham Lincoln.



1823 portrait of Junius Brutus Booth by John B. Neagle. Oil on canvas. Held by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.c. Catalogue # NPG.2000.9.

Handbill for the Montgomery Theater’s Production of The Apostate, starring “John Wilkes.” At the time of this production, the performer had yet to own his identity as a Booth.

Photograph of John Wilkes Booth taken in 1865, the year of the assassination.

1863 portrait of Edwin Booth by Thomas Hicks. Oil on canvas. Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery. Catalogue # NPG.70.62.

Page from John Wilkes Booth’s Prompt Book for Shakespeare’s Richard III. Austin: Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin (Performing Arts Collection PA-00075).



---Alford, Terry. Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth. Oxford: Oxford University, 2015.

---“Booth, Edwin.” American National Biography. Published in 1936, accessed on Mar. 11, 2023.

---“Booth, Junius Brutus.” American National Biography. Published in 1936, accessed on Mar. 11, 2023.

---Clarke, Asia Booth. John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir. Edited by Terry Alford. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

---“History of Ford’s Theatre.” Ford’s Theatre.

---Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracy. New York: Random House, 2004.

---Winter, William. The Life and Art of Edwin Booth. Boston: Joseph Knight Company, 1894.



It was 1864, and New York actor Edwin Booth was planning a family reunion worthy of Shakespeare. That year marked the three-hundredth anniversary of the immortal bard’s birth, and in honor of the occasion, Edwin mounted a special production of Julius Caesar to run for one night only at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. Something of a rarity in Shakespeare’s corpus, Julius Caesar features three male leads (Caesar isn’t one of them, oddly enough). Edwin’s bright idea was to cast himself and two of his brothers, both noted actors, in these roles. Edwin would play Brutus, the historical tragedy’s most compelling character, conflicted as he is about his role in the plot to assassinate Caesar. His older brother, Junius, nicknamed “June,” would take the part of Cassius, another conspirator. That left the role of Mark Anthony, a friend to the slain statesman and an enemy of his killers. Anthony would go to the youngest of the stars, John Wilkes. “What a cast!” enthused a critic for the New York Leader, “the three best tragedians in the land, and brothers at that!” It would be the first time that Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth shared the same stage in a professional production. It would also be the last.

New Yorkers bought tickets as if they knew such an event would never happen again. Twice postponed, the performance finally took place on November 25, 1864. Doors opened at 7:15 p.m., and by the time the curtain rose at 8 o’clock, more than 2,000 spectators had crammed into the auditorium. There wasn’t an empty seat, even with five rows added to the orchestra section on the main floor. More than fifty years later, Asia Booth Clarke recalled the crush in a biography of her brother, John Wilkes Booth: “The theatre was crowded to suffocation, people standing in every available place.” Ticket-scalpers left the Winter Garden with a windfall. Last-minute seats sold for as much as twenty dollars, $384.00 in today’s currency.

The production got off to a scintillating start. In Act 1, the Brothers Booth made a dramatic joint entrance, side-by-side, wrapped in togas and wearing sandals. The action ground to a standstill as the audience showered them in a torrent of applause. During the ovation, the trio bowed to their mother, Mary Ann, radiant with pride and seated in a box overlooking the stage.

Then, during the second act, the performance screeched to a halt for more alarming reasons. The actor playing Caesar was midway through a line when the sound of a commotion cut him off. Above the disturbance, somebody shouted the word that could fill a playhouse with terror like no other could in the nineteenth century: “Fire! Fire!” It’s not just that theaters were tinderboxes at the time. In an age before venues had adopted modern fire safety precautions, including wider aisles to allow for speedy egress, theatergoers often died just trying to escape, trampled beneath the feet of other terrified patrons. The panic itself could prove as deadly as the blaze. So when this playgoer yelled “Fire,” a horrible realization would have shot through the crowd: packed to the rafters, the Winter Garden was a death trap. “The great audience rose to its feet as one man,” one performer remembered, and confusion seized the auditorium. Dashing onstage from the wings, Edwin urged calm, as did an off-duty policeman who happened to be present as a paying customer, to no avail. Hundreds of spectators stampeded toward the exit, knocking down others, as screams punctuated the tumult. Firefighters burst into the Winter Garden vestibule, hoses in hand and bellowing orders. The scent of smoke wafted into the room.

Finally, a scenic artist helped calm the mob. Acting fast, he grabbed a great brush and painted a message in enormous capital letters on the backdrop: “THERE IS NO FIRE. IT HAS ALREADY BEEN EXTINGUISHED.” It was true. As more and more spectators caught sight of the advisory, they relaxed. Meanwhile, police inspectors and firefighters restored order by degrees. After thirty minutes, the excitement had passed, and audience members returned to their seats. The actors picked up right where they left off and finished out the play. When it came time for curtain call, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes returned to the stage again and again as spectators waved handkerchiefs in the air and cheered their names. For all intents and purposes, the mortal terror of an hour or two earlier had faded away.

The three Booth boys had every reason to celebrate. Yet the night of November 25 would leave a sour aftertaste. The next morning, newspapers revealed what had caused the pandemonium. Three-and-a-half years earlier, in 1861, civil war had divided the nation in two, pitting the Union in the North against the Confederacy in the South. While the Booth brothers were onstage acting Julius Caesar, a Confederate agent set fire to the Lafarge House, a hotel adjacent to the Winter Garden Theatre. This arson was part of a larger conspiracy to burn down a dozen of New York’s ritziest hotels—a bid to give northerners a taste of the fear that southerners were experiencing as Union forces captured their cities. The arsonist, John T. Ashbrook, lit a fire in a third-story room directly above the Winter Garden entrance before fleeing the scene. He botched the job. Hotel employees extinguished the blaze without great difficulty. Ashbrook’s accomplices were equally ineffectual. Like the nation as a whole, the Booths were bitterly divided over the war, and an argument broke out as the brothers discussed the plot. While June and Edwin decried it, John defended it as a valid retaliation against what he saw as Union atrocities. He clearly considered violence a just means of avenging the South. In five months’ time, he would act on this belief when he entered Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

It's impossible to look at the stage career of John Wilkes Booth in isolation from the crime that made him infamous. Take the Booth reunion at the Winter Garden Theatre. John Wilkes’ biographer, Terry Alford, calls this production “the most celebrated theatrical event of [the assassin’s] generation.” Astounding, isn’t it, that this high-water mark in Booth’s career—not to mention the American theater in the mid-1800s—involved a production of Julius Caesar, the most famous play ever written about an historical assassination? And isn’t it ironic that John Wilkes Booth played the law-abiding Mark Anthony while his two brothers portrayed the assassins?

It's also impossible to look at the stage career of John Wilkes Booth in isolation from his family. There’s a reason three Booths in one play could sell more than 2,000 tickets. Not only were they capable actors in their own right, but they were the sons of Junius Brutus Booth, the single greatest Shakespearean on the American stage at one point in time. He may have passed his talents onto his heirs, but with that inheritance came enormous expectations. Striving to meet these would cause plenty of pain in John’s professional life.

This episode is the first of a two-part series on John Wilkes Booth. As we trace the assassin’s path to that fateful day in 1865, we’ll examine his stage career and his fraught relationship to the name of Booth. Today, we’ll hear the story of how John rose to fame as his father’s son, fell into despair with the eruption of war, and hatched a plan to aid the Confederacy by treasonous means. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 8 of Assassins . . .

A Family Affair: John Wilkes Booth, Pt. I

Junius, the Mad Genius

John Wilkes Booth had a vexed relationship with his father and his enduring legacy. If you want to tell the story of this assassin-artist, you have to start with this fact.

Born on May 1, 1796, Junius Brutus Booth was endowed with more talents than he knew what to do with. When it came to the arts, he excelled in painting, poetry, sculpture, and acting. With such an embarrassment of gifts, Junius could have gone into any number of careers, making it difficult to find the right fit. At the age of seventeen, however, he devoted himself to the stage. Within two or three years, he had proven himself one of London’s most electrifying Shakespeareans. The first role to win him serious recognition was Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most venerated inventions, right up there with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. Among the most hated English kings, this fork-tongued tyrant is deliciously nasty as portrayed by Shakespeare. He orders beheadings as he would a cup of mead.

Not long after his wondrous rise, Junius left London, never to return. In 1820, his eye fell on a beautiful, dark-haired flower girl named Mary Ann Holmes, who plied her trade outside Covent Garden Theatre. They courted on the sly, married in January 1821, and then vanished without warning, destined for a new beginning in the United States. Within a few years of their arrival, Junius purchased 150 acres of land in Maryland, three miles away from the nearest village, Bel Air, twenty-three miles away from Baltimore. The couple made their home in a four-room log cabin. The property featured a garden, orchard, and fishpond while rolling hills and dense woodland surrounded the homestead. It was here that Junius and Mary Ann would bring ten children into the world, five of whom survived into adulthood.

Junius took pride in his farm, but he might have liked to enjoy it more than he could. Shortly after immigrating, he cemented his status as an entertainment phenomenon. He toured relentlessly, appearing in theaters across the country. Over the course of his career in the U.S., Junius gave an estimated 2,800 performances in sixty-eight cities. He had a reputation for never turning down an engagement, no matter how Podunk the town. His fame spread far and wide as a result. According to drama critic William Winter, “He was followed as a marvel. Mention of his name stirred an enthusiasm no other could awaken.”

As is sometimes the case with artists of Junius’s caliber, genius went hand-in-glove with eccentricity. He was notorious for erratic behavior onstage and off, earning him the sobriquet of “the mad tragedian.” He often played Hamlet, and during one performance, Junius stopped talking to the actress playing Ophelia in the middle of a scene, scrambled up a ladder against the back wall, and started crowing like a rooster. It was only with great effort that his manager coaxed him back down. Now and then, Junius skipped scheduled performances altogether. On at least one occasion, the absentee tragedian’s collaborators went looking for him after he failed to materialize for a show only to discover him wandering the woods in costume, refusing to explain what the hell he was doing.

Yet there was a darker, more destructive side to his unpredictability. Junius hit the bottle, and when he did, he hit hard. Worse still, he was quick to throw punches when inebriated or even just angry. While playing in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1838, he flew into a rage and attacked his manager with a fireplace andiron, a metal stand used to hold logs. The victim fought back and broke the assailant’s nose, marring his face and nasalizing his previously melodious speaking voice. Junius harmed himself as well. One day, Mary Ann walked in on him trying to hang himself, a noose around his neck and his feet in the air. She cut him down in the nick of time. “My God! My God! what could have come over me?” he exclaimed later.

Junius also had a skeleton in his closet, and its uncovering disgraced the family. On November 16, 1846, a woman named Marie Christine Adelaide Delannoy disembarked from the Great Western, a steamship that had just pulled into New York. Tall and refined, she liked to introduce herself as Mrs. Junius Brutus Booth—not without good reason. Belgian by birth, Adelaide met the actor when he was boarding at her mother’s residence in Brussels. They fell in love and moved to London, where they married in 1815, some five years before Junius met Mary Ann. He told Mary Ann that he had married once before, but he led her to believe that he had divorced his first wife. In fact, he never had. When Junius eloped to the other side of the Atlantic with Mary Ann, he abandoned not only Adelaide but his young son, Richard. For a time, Adelaide made do with a yearly stipend, faithfully paid by her runaway husband. But then she caught wind of just how wealthy Junius had become as an actor abroad. Hungry for a larger helping of his income and aflame with freshly reignited rage over his infidelity, she went after him with a vengeance. “My lawyer will fall on his back like a bomb,” she wrote to her sister. Having hunted the deserter down to Maryland, Adelaide ambushed him and made it known around town that she was his lawfully wedded wife. Exposed as an adulterer, Junius had little choice but to meet her demands. First, he paid $1,000 in compensation. Then, he contested nothing when she filed for divorce in 1851. His trans-Atlantic spouse’s resurfacing caused a scandal, and Junius lashed out at Mary Ann. According to John Wilkes Booth’s biographer, Michael W. Kauffman, townspeople overheard him berating her while intoxicated.

The debacle gave way to Junius’s unexpected death. While on tour in 1852, one year after the divorce went through, he came down with a severe cold and died alone in his cabin aboard the Chenoweth, a steamboat bound for Cincinnati. His body lay in state for three days at the Booth residence, now on Baltimore’s Exeter Street. A sealed glass panel afforded grievers one final look at the luminary’s face, his gray eyes half-open, his lips curled gently into the ghost of a smile, his brown hair streaked with hoary white. A bust of Shakespeare positioned nearby seemed almost to gaze downward into the casket, as if to bid adieu to one of his most indelible interpreters, Junius, the mad genius.

In the Shadow of Their Father

John Wilkes Booth came into the world on May 10, 1838, following his father’s footsteps from an early age. He and Edwin, his older brother, even helmed a troupe of juvenile dramatics, joined by other neighborhood boys. Blessed with a knack for comic timing, Edwin took the funny parts and strummed his banjo during musical numbers. The performance venue shifted from production to production, with the Booth brothers playing in boardinghouses as well as stables. The boy-impresarios borrowed costumes, props, and even horses for the occasional equestrian scene from local families. With production values like these, they felt justified in charging admission. Children gained entry for just one penny, while adults paid twice that. The Booths were well on their way to show business.

John may have adored his father’s vocation, but he had mixed feelings about his father. On a professional level, John respected Junius for his sky-scraping skill and the glory he had brought to the family name. At the same time, he resented Junius for the shadow he would always cast on him as a performer. His would be a career of inescapable comparisons, of constant measuring against the mad tragedian. Next to that giant, John could easily look like a shrimp. Added to these frustrations were personal grievances. Junius’s alcoholic escapades embarrassed John, and his abuse of Mary Ann after Adelaide’s revelations infuriated him—he had always cleaved closer to his mother than his father.

As an adolescent, John became obsessed with defining his identity in relation to his family as well as his father. He even tattooed “J.W.B.” on the back of his left hand in permanent India ink, his initials encircled by a wreath of stars. In the words of Terry Alford, “The initials affirmed his identity as a Booth, but they also asserted his individuality. He was himself and not his father. Junius was a great actor—the greatest—but John could be a better man.”

An Awkward Apprenticeship

In the summer of 1857, aged nineteen, John embarked on his stage career, determined to succeed. He had a lot going for him. His mind was sharp and his memory retentive, both of which would come in useful. He was also well-favored in the looks department. There’s no getting around it: by nineteenth-century standards, Booth was hot. I mean, really hot. Men and women agreed on this point. Lean, brawny, well-proportioned, five-foot-eight, and hazel-eyed, he wore his curly, long, black hair in what playwright Augustus Thomas referred to as “Civil War standard,” parted on one side. Theater critics likened him to Roman gods and gushed about his “manly beauty” in review after review, fanning themselves with one hand as they scribbled down their effusions with the other. But could the heartthrob actually act? The answer is yes, yet it would take time for Booth to find his footing in front of the footlights. The first three years of his professional life saw him gain confidence as a performer, and as he gained confidence, he also leaned into his identity as a Booth.

His apprenticeship began at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Like most U.S. theaters in the nineteenth century, the Arch operated on what was known as the “stock system.” It employed a full-time company (or “stock”) of performers, all of whom worked within a so-called “line of business,” or “line” for short. Think of these lines as character types. Examples included the leading man and lady as well as the villain, referred to as the “heavy.” Lines with less stage time were the old man and lady, male and female singers, along with a variety of other bit parts. Actors seldom if ever strayed from their lines, playing the same basic character with a different name over and over and over again. This arrangement bears certain similarities to what we now call “typecasting.” New members of a stock company typically started with slimmer roles, and if they were lucky, they could work their way up to the meatier parts. But this was show biz, capricious as ever in its bestowal of success, and plenty of aspirants never spoke more than a few lines per show, often as servants or other minor characters. As Joseph Whitson, treasurer of the Arch Street Theatre, liked to say, they settled for, “‘My lord, the carriage awaits’ and six dollars a week.”

When Booth joined up, management assigned him an unglamorous line: “third walking gentleman.” In this capacity, he would hardly do more than alert lords to their carriages, but he would earn eight—instead of six—dollars a week.

Most audience members wouldn’t know they were watching a Booth as the “third walking gentleman.” Playbills credited him not as J.W. Booth but as J.B. Wilkes. The neophyte deliberately requested this billing to protect his family’s reputation. He feared failure and wanted nothing less than to besmirch the name of Booth.

It would prove prudent to masquerade as Mr. Wilkes. He initially suffered terrible stage fright, which led to humiliation. In early performances, he went pale as soon as he came onstage, visibly ill-at-ease and frequently tongue-tied. While acting a melodrama entitled The Wife, Booth played a courier with a few modest speeches. He flubbed his lines on three separate nights, prompting the audience to hiss in disapproval. Other mistakes met with less mortifying responses. In one play, Booth’s character introduces himself as follows: “Madam, I am Ascanio Petruci, son of Pandolfo Petruci, Lord of Siena, who was assassinated by your order that you might seize his fair city.” Booth made a mess of this alliterative mouthful: “Madam, I am Pandolfio Pet—Pedoflio Pat—Pantuchio Ped—Dammit! What am I?” The crowd cracked up, and Booth laughed with them. All the same, mishaps like these wounded his pride. “I must have fame!” he cried to his acquaintances, living the cliché of the vainglorious actor, and mangling dialogue was no way to obtain it.

After a year at the Arch, Booth had shown little promise. Nevertheless, as often happens in the entertainment industry, especially to those with famous parents, he failed upward. He received an offer to join the company of the Marshall Theatre in Richmond, Virginia. It became his home for the next two years. There, he would play more substantial parts than he had in Philadelphia, bringing home a salary of eleven dollars a week. As before, however, he would mostly perform as J.B. Wilkes.

The Marshall ran differently from the Arch, employing what was called the “stock-and-star” system. Like the Philadelphian theater, the Marshall was home to a company of resident actors. Unlike the Arch, it lacked male and female performers to play the lead roles. Here’s where the “star” comes in. Nineteenth-century theatrical celebrities left their homebases and toured the U.S. on a routine basis. They were the ones who covered the central characters at the Marshall (as well as other playhouses run on this model). After booking an engagement, which usually lasted a week or two, the visiting A-lister programmed a series of performances, drawing on the various roles in his or her repertoire. In many cases, each night offered a different play, enticing spectators to come back for more. When his or her engagements ended, the star moved on, making way for the next artiste. The stock-and-star model ran the stock performers ragged. No sooner had the curtain fallen on one performance than the resident actors received a new script to be staged the next evening. The stars knew these dramas backward and forward—they were the ones who selected them, after all—but the stock actors did not. Off they dashed to memorize their lines, poring over them into the small hours, and back they hurried the following day to block the show. In the words of John Barton, a stock performer at the Marshall, “It was study! study! study! rehearse! rehearse! rehearse! act! act! act!” Every now and then, Booth certainly sagged beneath the workload. Co-workers discovered him asleep behind the scenery, having dozed off while running his lines, his manuscript still open.

During his two-year tenure at the Marshall, John played alongside a star he knew well: his older brother, Edwin. The elder Booth had a pair of entrancingly luminous eyes that glowed like glass buttons and long, wild hair like a lion’s mane. Slender and elegant, he carried himself as if weightless. By this point, Edwin had set out on several ambitious though calamitous ventures, speculating in California mining country, managing a theater in Honolulu, and even touring Australia. He had hit rock bottom more than once before his fortunes improved. Now, he had arisen as one of the most promising performers in America. Especially popular in the Virginian capital, Edwin was billed as “Richmond’s favourite.” When Edwin and his younger brother performed in the same play, John took the stage as J.W. Booth, a rare acknowledgment of where he had come from.

Together, the two Booths were representing the family, and John wanted Edwin on his best behavior. His older brother would disappoint. During one performance, English stage megastar Barry Sullivan reserved a private box to watch Edwin act. To John’s chagrin, his older brother had taken a drink or three before curtain. Like his father before him, Edwin was no stranger to acting under the influence—he once vomited onstage in the middle of a show. John thought he saw Sullivan sneer at the sloppy drunk of a leading man and confronted his brother about it afterward. “Is it not enough,” he demanded, “that our father’s reputation should follow us without such an exhibition as you have given tonight? When I saw the Englishman look at you, I could have killed you where you stood.” Edwin snapped back with a sarcastic remark, whereupon John became violent. Edwin took to his heels and hid inside his dressing room.

Perhaps because of this incident, part of Edwin wanted to cut his brother down to size. Yet there was no denying it: John was catching his stride. In a letter to June, Edwin paid John the kind of backhanded compliment competitive siblings have been known to give: “I don’t think he will startle the world, but he is improving fast and looks beautiful on the platform.” (To be fair to Edwin, he would later heap lavish and genuine praise on his younger brother.) At any rate, over the next half decade or so, John Wilkes Booth would startle the world—both on and offstage. First, however, he would startle his workmates when he left the Marshall to enlist in what he called “the wars.” We'll hear what happened to the young warrior after a quick break.

Off to the “Wars”

These “wars,” such as they were, revolved around the political issue that was splitting the United States: slavery. Northerners overwhelmingly called for its abolition whereas Southerners favored its continuation, largely because slave labor powered the region’s agriculture-driven economy.

Booth came from a household with what appears to be an unusual relationship to slavery. Strictly speaking, the Booths never owned slaves because Junius opposed slavery on moral grounds. Nevertheless, his family relied on forced labor to hold down the homestead, especially when Junius was traveling for work. Rather than buying bondsmen as property, Junius periodically “rented” the slaves of a neighbor. These laborers were a married couple named Joseph and Ann Hall. Often sporting a broad-brimmed hat, Joseph was tall, dark-complexioned, and in the habit of carrying a spelling book, which he used to learn to read. Ann was characterized as having “an ample figure, a serious face, and long yellow cheeks.” Joseph tended the garden and livestock—the Booths kept a herd of sheep on the farm—while Ann took care of the children as well as domestic chores. By the time of John Wilkes’ birth, Junius had purchased Joseph’s freedom and paid him a regular wage as a servant. Ann, however, remained a slave. Over the years, Joseph saved up, hiding his money behind a sail in the Booth stable, and eventually bought the freedom of Ann as well as their children. After Lincoln’s assassination, Ann spoke about the experience of living in bondage while working for the Booths. It kicked up a whirlwind of conflicting emotions for her. On the one hand, she harbored a searing hatred of her owner, Rowland Rogers, not least because he forbade her to live with Joseph while she was still a slave. At the same time, Junius treated her and her husband with kindness, and she developed an indestructible loyalty to both the tragedian and his offspring. She even became something of a second mother to John Wilkes, reading aloud to the little boy so often that others jokingly called him her foster child. This maternal bond endured in the wake of the assassination. After the death of Abraham Lincoln, a neighbor asked Ann if she would feed and shelter John Wilkes if he turned up on her doorstep. “Indeed I would, honey,” she answered. “Give him all dat I have.”

Unlike his father (and his abolitionist brothers, Edwin and June), John Wilkes Booth was adamantly and unabashedly pro-slavery. He makes his stance clear in an 1864 letter titled “To Whom it May Concern.” John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper have published this document along with others left behind by the actor in “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me”: The Writing of John Wilkes Booth. Here’s what the assassin had to say about enslavement: “This country was formed for the white, not the black man. And, looking upon African slavery from the standpoint as held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the great blessings (both for themselves [that is, African slaves] and us [white slaveowners]) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness therefore our wealth and power. Witness their elevation in happiness and enlightenment above their race elsewhere.” For Booth, white Americans have a special claim to the United States—it was founded “for” them—and thus enjoy freedoms unavailable to Black people. All the same, Booth regards slavery as mutually beneficial to slaveowners and slaves. On the one hand, the former reap riches thanks to free labor. On the other hand, Booth argues, Black men and women have it better in the United States than they would “elsewhere,” even in bondage. Furthermore, he presents this system as sanctioned not only by the Founding Fathers in their infinite wisdom but the Lord Almighty, too. These white-supremacist views lay at the heart of Booth’s politics and to some degree motivated the crime that would come to define him.

By the late 1850s, the debate over slavery had given rise to violence. In 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led an armed raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in hope of touching off a nationwide slave revolt. It was this event—and its turbulent aftermath—that set off what Booth referred to as “the wars.” It would also leave a lasting impression on the actor.

Shortly after 11:00 p.m. on October 16, a party of nineteen men set out from an out-of-the-way farm in southern Maryland and crossed the Potomac River into the small town of Harpers Ferry, under Brown’s leadership. By this point, Brown had provoked controversy, even among those sympathetic to his cause, for committing such crimes as murder in the name of abolition. Tonight, his first objective was to free slaves in the area. After liberating a handful of captives in town, he and his men moved onto their second objective: the seizure of the local U.S. Armory. They easily overpowered the one and only watchman on duty at the facility. As Armory employees showed up to work the next morning, Brown and his men took them hostage. News of the rebellion soon spread, prompting Harpers Ferry residents to reach for their rifles and descend on the Armory, joined by militiamen from neighboring villages. Soon, they vastly outnumbered the insurgents. As defeat went from probable to inevitable, Brown sent his son, Watson, and another of the raiders outside with a white flag. Both were shot, and Watson died after twenty-four hours of ineffable agony. Meanwhile, President James Buchanan called in the Marines. At 6:30 a.m. on October 18, under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, the soldiers laid siege to the insurrectionists. Gashed by a saber in the fray, Brown was taken prisoner along with a half dozen of his accomplices. The rest of the raiders perished or fled.

Brown went to trial and was sentenced to death. He would hang by the neck on December 2, 1859, in Charlestown, Virginia.

The verdict generated an earthquake of outrage. Letters streamed into the governor’s mansion in Richmond, Virginia from across the country, many in support of Brown and his cause. Several of these writers threatened retaliatory violence, stoking fears of further raids. One sender even signed his missive as “Brutus,” invoking one of Caesar’s assassins, implying his readiness to strike at the head of Virginia’s government. Greatly alarmed, Virginian Governor Henry Wise placed local soldiers—known as the Grays—on standby, instructing them to pack their rucksacks and prepare for deployment if trouble started brewing—in Richmond or elsewhere. In the early evening of November 19, roughly two weeks before Brown’s execution, many Richmonders stopped in their tracks at the ringing of the great bell in Capitol Square. Usually reserved for fire alarms, it tolled six times, then six more. Confusion engulfed the Virginian capital as townspeople poured into the streets, uncertain as to what precisely had prompted this alert. Had fighting broken out in Charlestown, where Brown was in jail? Would it spread to Richmond? As became plain, Governor Wise was shipping off troops to Charlestown.

Booth was a civilian without combat experience, but that wouldn’t stop him from joining their ranks. Actors Alfred Collier and Edward F. Barnes were sitting inside the Marshall Theatre’s dressing room when Booth suddenly flew in, flushed in the face and visibly agitated. “I’m off to the wars!” he proclaimed. He snatched his hat and overcoat and exited the playhouse, not even bothering to notify management of his departure. His boss would have an aneurism when he found out. Ticket sales were drooping after Harpers Ferry, and AWOL actors would only exacerbate matters. Out on the street, Booth hastened to the railway station opposite the Marshall and talked his way onto a military train headed for Charlestown, borrowing a cap, jacket, and other accoutrements. He mingled with officers onboard, and when one of them asked how the theater would manage without him, Booth shrugged it off: he didn’t know, and he didn’t care.

After taking a circuitous route, the troops arrived in Charlestown the following day. It was dark, with thunderclouds gathering overhead. As the date of Brown’s execution drew nearer, the population of Charlestown doubled, with Governor Wise summoning approximately 1,200 armed men from every corner of Virginia. Before long, the town had transformed into one big garrison. Drums beat reveille every morning, acting like percussive alarm clocks. Then, squads of ten or fifteen could be seen heading to breakfast, often held in local hotels and private residences. The cavalry stayed on high alert, fearful, according to one account, that “land-pirates, barn-burners, Brownites, and assassins” were lurking in the woods, waiting for the most opportune moment to launch an attack. One night, a gunshot pierced the quiet. Doors were slammed shut and lanterns blown out without delay. Hundreds of soldiers flooded the streets only to discover that a sentinel had fired a bullet at a crow. Similar false alarms would happen again.

Amid the sea of gray uniforms, pedestrians recognized Booth around town, sometimes standing guard outside the jailhouse where Brown was being kept. When he wasn’t holding down that fort, Booth lent support to the regimental quartermaster, procuring clothing, fuel, and other necessities. His first assignment was to drum up overcoats to keep the troops warm in the chilly mountain nights. Later, he helped sort, label, and deliver government provisions. Superiors considered him a competent soldier, disciplined and mindful of military protocol.

Tensions remained palpable until December 2, the day of Brown’s hanging. That morning, the troops prepared for armed interference by the abolitionist’s adherents. One group of warriors congregated outside the jail, tasked with escorting Brown to the scaffold. Others took up posts in Charlestown roads as well as the woods on the outskirts of town, hawk-eying the area for signs of danger. Still others, including Sergeant John Wilkes Booth, marched to the place of execution, a meadow with a gallows erected on a knoll. Shortly after eleven a.m., Brown emerged from the jail with his arms pinioned, guided by guards and dressed in an old slouch hat and the same black business suit he had worn the night of the raid. Seeing the sheer number of soldiers on hand, he remarked with wry humor, “I had no idea that Governor Wise considered my execution so important.” He mounted a wagon and rode the rest of the way, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and south, draped in haze. Soon, Brown stood atop the scaffold, surveying the scene with a look of muted disappointment. Despite the uproar his verdict had elicited, nobody had come to his rescue. Against expectations, a solemn tranquility had pervaded that morning, and it would hold firm throughout his hanging. The executioner tied Brown’s hands behind his back, slipped a white hood over his head, and positioned him on top of a wooden trapdoor, held in place by a rope. The military authorities dawdled until 11:15 and then gave a signal. The hangman cut the cord securing the trapdoor, and the condemned man dropped. Booth saw all of it, just thirty feet away. The color drained from his face at the sight of it, and he confided in a friend that he could do with a whiskey. Two days later, he was back in Richmond.

Booth’s service as an irregular stirred up surprisingly complex emotions. He and Brown stood at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Booth believed with all of his heart that the anti-slavery insurrectionist had gotten his just desserts and took pride in the part he played in his execution. He wrote in 1860, “I may say I helped to hang John Brown, and while I live, I shall think with joy upon the day when I saw the sun go down upon one trator [sic] less within our land.” At the same time, Booth idolized Brown. Forget their irreconcilable political differences—the actor regarded this abolitionist as heroic in stature, a man of action driven by his convictions. “John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of this century!” Booth declared to his sister, Asia. Brown fought his fight with the ferocity of a lion, and in Booth’s opinion, “[because] open force is holier than hidden craft, the Lion is more noble than the fox.”

Booth Makes It Big

Booth’s exacting three-year apprenticeship ended with the completion of his second season at the Marshall. Thanks to a recommendation from Edwin, he landed a spot in a theater company based in Montgomery, Alabama. He had come a long way since his inarticulate blunders in Philadelphia, and it was during this phase that Booth rose to stardom. Unlike Richard Mansfield, an American actor we covered last season (if you haven’t already, go back and listen to the episode about him), Booth would not become an overnight sensation. Yet if no single performance rocketed him into the stratosphere, there was at least one that represented a watershed in his professional development. On December 1, 1860, he shared the stage with Montgomery’s star du jour, Maggie Mitchell. This performance served as a “benefit” for Booth, meaning the proceeds went to him. Handbills chanted “Booth! Booth! Booth!” to attract customers. For the first time in the Deep South, Booth had broadcast his family name. He may have simply done so for the sake of ticket sales. However, it’s also possible that with three years’ experience under his belt, he finally felt that he could live up to his father’s reputation. Both may have motivated his decision. Whatever the case, from this point forward, whenever he strode before the footlights, advertisements billed him as J. Wilkes Booth.

This unsurprisingly boosted his market value. Soon enough, he was touring the country, playing leads he had dreamed of playing, from Shakespeare to melodrama. In his salad days at the Marshall, he had done his time as a stock performer, cramming lines into his cranium night after night in support of visiting celebrities. Now, it was his turn to star, stopping at each theater for a week or two at a time, while stock actors burnt the midnight oil to increase his fame.

One of the roles that elevated Booth to the level of a stage king was a role that had done the same for his father: Richard III. It’s worth dwelling on his portrayal of England’s despised medieval monarch since it highlights several of Booth’s strengths as a thespian. To begin with, he appreciated the appeal of costuming and makeup, making ample use of such minerals as chalk, ocher, and Chinese vermillion to paint his face. In the case of Richard, he wanted the villain’s physical appearance to reflect his moral deformity. During the action-packed battle scenes near the close of the play, Booth’s Richard resembled a madman, filthy, bedraggled, and smeared with blood. According to a co-star, “He looked as though he had been run through the business end of a sausage machine.” Yet there was more to Booth than retina-burning costuming. Everybody loves a good swordfight, and Booth distinguished himself as one of the finest theatrical swordsmen of his generation. During the duel between Richard and his rival, Richmond, the title monarch ran upstage and tripped over a tree stump that was part of the scenery, falling face-first onto the ground. His opponent took advantage of his vulnerable state and swung his blade downward with all his might. In a span of heartbeats, Richard had deflected his attacker’s blow and sprung to his feet, slashing like mad. According to one seasoned critic, “As Richard he was different from all other tragedians. He imitated no one but struck out on a path of his own, introducing points which older hands at the business would not dare to attempt.” Booth’s makeup and fight choreography are just two examples of such originality.

Booth’s success appears not to have inflated his ego. By way of example, stock performer Martin L. Wright remembered him as humble, solicitous, and genuinely good-natured: “any supernumerary [what today we’d call an extra] could go to him for advice. [….] Of all the stars that came to play with us the one we loved and admired the most was John Wilkes Booth. He was not high and mighty like most of the stars. There was never a better fellow.” Wright is not alone in extolling Booth’s character, far from it. Scores of his acquaintances, even those who abhorred his politics, saw him as charming, lively, and kind at heart. Indeed, many could not believe that he had assassinated the president when they found out and only came forward with favorable memories about his conduct years later.

Booth received negative reviews from time to time, as do most popular actors. Yet he also garnered rhapsodic praise from audiences, critics, and collaborators. If he had kept performing, there’s a good chance he would have entered the pantheon of great American actors. But, of course, he didn’t. By 1864, he had largely retired from the stage, only appearing for special occasions such as the Winter Garden rendition of Julius Caesar. More than one reason lay behind his withdrawal. For starters, Booth appears to have suffered from chronic bronchitis, making it difficult to project his voice. Moreover, he divided his attention among time-devouring enterprises outside the playhouse. For instance, he dabbled in oil speculation, founding the disastrous and ultimately unprofitable Dramatic Oil Company in northwestern Pennsylvania. He also dedicated many waking hours to a more seditious undertaking.

A Nation Divided—and a Family

Booth trained his crosshairs on Abraham Lincoln. In the 1860 presidential election, this lanky, bewhiskered, stovepipe-hatted Illinois Congressman bested incumbent James Buchanan. Lincoln represented the Republican party, founded six years earlier in 1854. Heavily concentrated in the North, the Republicans pursued one goal above all—the abolition of slavery—and Lincoln made clear that he would champion this cause throughout his presidency. To many onlookers, the end of forced labor seemed certain. (The U.S. would abolish slavery, though after Lincoln’s death, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.) The South wouldn’t stand for it. By the beginning of February 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union, forming the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis served as its president. Inaugurated in early March, Lincoln refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the breakaway states, regarding secession as unconstitutional. However, he also stated that he had no intention of invading the Confederacy, at least for the time being.

His position changed after the events of April 12, 1861. Before daybreak that morning, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, a Union post located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Blasted by some 4,000 shells, Fort Sumter fell the next day.

This siege marked the outbreak of the American Civil War, and Lincoln abandoned any and all pretense of making nice with the rebels. Within about a month of the Fort Sumter firefight, nearly 100,000 volunteers had enlisted in the Northern army. Meanwhile, an additional four southern states seceded and threw in with the Confederacy, with Richmond, Virginia emerging as its capital. Over the next four years, the Northern and Southern militaries waged more than 200 ferocious battles, leaving some 620,000 soldiers dead—the bloodiest conflict the nation had fought thus far in its history.

John Wilkes Booth watched the disintegration of the Union and the subsequent bloodshed with horror. Every thinking American chose a side and there was no doubt whatever about where his loyalties lay. He supported the Confederacy, arguing that states had every right to secede from the Union. What else had the country done in the 1770s when it threw off the yoke of English rule? Booth condemned Lincoln as a tyrant, a latter-day George III, for trying to strongarm the Confederate State back into the Union.

Other members of the family, particularly Edwin, despised these opinions. He literally laughed in John’s face. The older brother’s contempt became spikeyest, however, when John was visiting at his New York home in August 1864. During this stay, John fell ill with eysipelas, a painful and potentially lethal bacterial infection, in his right elbow. A three-week period of recovery followed, during which time he and Edwin butted heads. One dispute started over breakfast and became so heated that Edwin banished his brother from his house. The latter left in a rage. They would eventually patch things up, but neither forgot the row.

Booth’s emotional state darkened. He often grew moody, and his eyes welled up with tears without warning. He vented his frustration in a letter to his mother: “For four years I have lived (I may say) a slave in the north—a favored slave it’s true, but no less hateful to me on that account. Not daring to express my thoughts or sentiments, even in my own house. Constantly hearing every principle dear to my heart denounced as treasonable, and knowing the savage and vile acts committed on my countrymen, their wives and helpless children. I have cursed my willful idleness and come to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence.”


In the summer, autumn, and winter of 1864, along with the beginning of 1865, John Wilkes Booth was anything but idle. He was masterminding—and making ready for—a traitorous scheme. And now we arrive at the point of this narrative that surprised me most as I researched this episode: the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln started as a plot to kidnap him.

On a warm summer’s day in 1864, Samuel Arnold heard that a friend from his schooldays, John Wilkes Booth, had come back to Baltimore. Like others in town, Arnold had marveled at Booth’s meteoric rise. Arnold himself had not enjoyed such good fortune. Just shy of thirty, open-hearted, and built like a buffalo, he sympathized with the South and had served in the Confederate army before getting discharged on medical grounds. Since then, he had led an unfulfilling existence, picking up odd jobs as a farmhand when he cared to and often boozing around town when he didn’t. According to Alford, “Arnold was a troubled veteran in need of friendship.” So imagine his delight when Booth, the boy who had gone off and made it big in show business, invited him to his room at the Barnum City Hotel. Eager to catch up, Arnold walked to the establishment with a spring in his step. The star received him with open arms, down-to-earth as ever.

Plunking down at a table, the pair ordered wine and a round of cigars. Before long, talk turned from fond memories of the halcyon past to mournful ruminations on the hellish present. Arnold had no inkling of Booth’s political views before stepping into the Barnum, but he soon discovered that they mirrored his own. A knock came at the door, and a man by the name of Michael O’Laughlen entered. A close friend and confidant of the performer’s, O’Laughlen plopped down in a chair beside them. He, too, trumpeted to the tune of Dixie.

As the three emptied, refilled, and re-emptied their wineglasses, conversation lurched toward the topic of prisoner exchanges. In the early years of the war, the Union and the Confederacy had struck an agreement to swap captives at regular intervals. As the conflict dragged on, the rebels abused this agreement. Alive to their ploy, the federal government eventually curtailed and then put a stop to the swapping altogether on April 17, 1864, with rare exceptions. Now, some 66,000 Confederate soldiers were locked up in cities as far-flung as Chicago and Fort Pickers, Florida. General Robert E. Lee badly needed these men if he wanted a fighting chance against the North. If only the South could reinstate the prisoner exchange policy, Arnold observed, the rebels might prevail.

Booth had a solution. It’s easy to imagine a cigar dropping out of Arnold’s slack jaw when the actor proposed it. They could abduct Lincoln and use him as a bargaining chip, refusing to set him free until the North resumed the prisoner exchange. Either Booth was as gifted at improvising criminal enterprises as he was stage business, or he had put considerable thought into this stratagem before now. At any rate, he held forth on how it could be accomplished. Lincoln frequently traveled alone or with minimal protection, Booth maintained, rendering him vulnerable. For example, the commander in chief had a habit of visiting wounded servicemen at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, which stood on the other side of the Anacostia River from the White House. He often made these trips unaccompanied apart from his coachman. What was more, Lincoln was known to frequent the Soldier’s Home, a government facility that cared for disabled and invalid veterans. Near the Soldier’s Home was a comfy Gothic cottage, perched on a hilltop. In recent years, it had become a home away from home for Lincoln and his family, especially in the summer and fall. It afforded an escape from the crowded streets and self-important speechifying of Washington. When staying in the cottage, Lincoln rode to work on horseback each morning and returned at the end of the day. His route took him through secluded farmland, and he often commuted in the failing light of dusk. The three of them, Booth asserted, could lie in ambush and pounce on the president as he passed by. Then, the abductors could whisk him through the wilds of southern Maryland, put him on a boat, cross the Potomac River, and finally convey him to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Backed by President Jefferson Davis, they would demand the revival of the prisoner exchange as ransom for Lincoln.

While he spoke, Booth made kidnapping a sitting U.S. president sound as easy as ordering another glass of wine. As Alford discusses, however, it would have posed far greater challenges than Booth let on. True, the kidnappers would not have to contend with a modern-day Secret Service detail, but contrary to Booth’s claims, Lincoln almost always traveled with a military escort. Only on sporadic, spur-of-the-moment occasions did he sally out solo, making it impossible to predict when he would be unprotected.

With this information omitted, whether out of ignorance or cunning on Booth’s part, his plan struck Arnold and O’Laughlen as not just feasible but downright noble. Confederate prisoners were suffering in captivity, they reasoned, and freeing them from the Union was a worthy end in itself. That these sprung jailbirds could join the Confederate fight against the North added a jingoistic zeal to the idea. In his memoir, Arnold went so far as to call the plot “utterly humane and patriotic in its principles.” He and O’Laughlen agreed to help Booth carry out the kidnapping. Giddy, they guzzled more liquor and hammered out the plan, their confidence in it no doubt increasing in direct proportion to their blood-alcohol content.

By December 1864, Booth had made strides toward executing the conspiracy. In the intervening months, he had recruited additional Confederate sympathizers and purchased firearms and other equipment to carry out the job. The weaponry included a pair of heavy-duty seven-shot Spencer carbines, three pistols, plus bullets and cartridges. He had also procured handcuffs and canteens.

As 1864 bled into ’65, however, Booth made a massive alteration to the plan. On March 5, 1865, he convened a meeting at Gautier’s Restaurant in Washington, not far from Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, to bring his conspirators up to speed. Booth reserved a private room for the occasion. He turned up after midnight, pacing out front before proceeding inside. Spotting a waiter, Booth let him know that he was expecting friends—could the server kindly point them in his direction once they arrived? His buddies had struck paydirt in the oil industry, Booth lied, and he was of a mind to relieve them of their riches at cards that night.

Within about an hour, his guests had shown up. These included Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, along with two more recent recruits named Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt. Upon entering Booth’s room, the plotters found the table laden with steamed oysters and spirits. They all dug in, puffed on cigars, and played cards until 1:30, by which time they had plenty of liquor in their bellies.

The gathering was lighthearted in certain respects, but a tension must have hung in the air. Arnold’s recollection of it certainly leads you to believe as much. He had never met Powell or Atzerodt before now, and it soon became plain that Booth had presented conflicting versions of the plan to Arnold and O’Laughlen, on the one hand, and Powell and Atzerodt, on the other. Just what was he driving at?

The situation grew tenser when Booth proposed his new gambit. The abductors would no longer waylay Lincoln in the countryside. Rather, they would capture him at one of his favorite places of entertainment: Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Whenever Lincoln took in a play there, he watched from a seat in the presidential box, located above one side of the stage and fully visible to much of the audience. Booth’s confederates already knew of the idea to attack at Ford’s and had even accompanied him to the venue to scope it out. However, none of them were privy to exactly how Booth imagined the abduction would unfold. Clearing his throat, Booth talked them through it, step by step. In the middle of the performance, Booth would give a cue, at which point Arnold would burst into the box and grab hold of the president. Then, Booth and Atzerodt would handcuff Lincoln, lift him over the edge of the presidential box, and lower him onto the stage. Powell would be waiting below, ready to catch the head of state. Next, Booth, Arnold, and Atzerodt would then jump down. Finally, the four miscreants would encircle the president and direct him out of the theater to a carriage. From there, the party would double-time it to Richmond.

Having disclosed his designs, Booth leaned back and waited for a reaction. Arnold sat in disbelieving silence. What Booth had just suggested was a suicide mission, not to mention unfeasible. Were they really to believe that more than 1,000 audience members, many of them soldiers, would sit there idly while the four of them carried off the president of the United States? Bystanders would surely intervene and overpower them. Even if they managed to make it out of Ford’s Theatre, the authorities would be alerted, and police would probably stop them as they left the capital. They would be arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.

Arnold raised these issues without mincing words. Booth rebutted his arguments as best he could, but Arnold wasn’t having it. For months, Booth had been gallivanting around the country, collecting weapons, courting potential accomplices, and dreaming up codenames for those who assented, but what had come of it? Nothing, to Arnold’s mind. With each passing day, the scheming sounded more like empty talk, the puffed-up bluster of an attention-addict actor who had lost his stage voice but not his love of making a scene. Eventually, Arnold went in for the kill, reminding the room of the impetus for all this. The conspirators had hatched this plan in an effort to revive the prisoner exchange. However, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had resurrected this policy in mid-January. That very day, 1,000 Confederate soldiers had returned home—Grant verified the figure on Capitol Hill. What was the point of this midnight conspiring if the mission they initially set out to accomplish was moot?

Arnold might as well have emptied his wineglass onto Booth’s face. Deeply insulted, the actor complained that Arnold always criticized his ideas, no matter how criminally ingenious they were. “You can be the leader of the party,” Arnold retorted, “but not my executioner.” Booth intimated that he might just play that part of executioner right then and there. “Do you know you are liable to be shot?” he demanded. “If you feel inclined to shoot me,” Arnold responded, “you have no further to go. I shall defend myself.” The others stiffened, waiting to see whether Booth—or Arnold—would make a move. After a moment, the actor backed down.

At 5 a.m., the quintet of conspirators went their separate ways. Before the meeting adjourned, Arnold issued an ultimatum, “Gentleman, if this is not accomplished this week I forever withdraw from it.” Booth responded with a wordless glare. He had a matter of days to capture Lincoln.

The opportunity would not present itself until March 17. At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Booth telegraphed a message that would have meant nothing to an outsider: “Get those things together, something is about to happen.” Soon thereafter, Booth’s accomplices had come together, and he was running through the gameplan. That afternoon, Booth maintained, Lincoln was scheduled to attend a play titled Still Waters Run Deep at the Campbell Hospital, virtually on the way to the Soldiers’ Home. Now was the time to spring into action.

After their huddle, the conspirators broke. One of them, a physician’s assistant named David Harold, hightailed it to Southern Maryland, equipped with carbines for when the abductors arrived with Lincoln. Booth and the others would hide out to the country, and when their quarry returned from the afternoon theatrical, they would swarm the carriage and overmaster the coachman.

What ensued was a trainwreck. Embarrassingly for Booth, President Lincoln never even went to the hospital. The play ran without him. The actor would keep the weapons and other equipment on hand, but he reckoned they should all lie low for a while. Then, on March 30, Booth told Arnold and O’Laughlen that the plan was finished. There would be no effort to abduct the president. The news came as a relief to both men, who wanted out of the conspiracy. During the same meeting, Booth declared that he would go back to acting.

Just days later, the Confederacy began to crumble. On April 9, 1865, troops under the command of Union General Ulysses S. Grant surrounded the Army of Northern Virginia, helmed by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, outside the Virginian county of Appomattox Court House. After a brief skirmish, Lee recognized that fighting was futile and surrendered. The war wasn’t over, but most observers could foresee a single outcome: the remaining Confederate generals would fall like dominoes. Over the course of the next month-and-a-half, one Confederate army after another capitulated. The trans-Mississippi Department forces laid down their rifles on May 26, 1865, which many commentators—past and present—pinpoint as the end date of the American Civil War.

At that time, however, the nation was still mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln. By April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth and the handful of conspirators still by his side had devised a new scheme to cripple the federal government. That night, Booth walked through the doors of Ford’s Theatre with a loaded pistol. Next episode, we’ll hear about what happened inside the playhouse as well as the desperate manhunt for the president’s killer.


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