Good Friday, 1865: John Wilkes Booth, Pt. II (S2E9)
Updated: Aug 2
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. John Wilkes Booth shot him in the middle of the show and escaped from the playhouse, after which a dramatic manhunt ensued. His crime would not only cost him his life but forever tarnish the name of Booth, which had previously belonged to the nation’s most celebrated theatrical dynasty. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Depiction of Booth’s Flight from the Presidential Box of Ford’s Theater (ca. 1865). Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery (Catalogue # NPG.83.232)
Wanted Poster. Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery (Catalogue # NPG.85.32)
Letter of Consolation to Edwin Booth Regarding John Wilkes, From (unknown?) Friend (1865). It says, in part: “I believe your brother to have been sincerely fanatized [sic], and made to consider his fatal act as a public service. For this, many besides himself are responsible.” (New York: New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Division, Catalogue #b14686277)
Photograph of Boston Corbett (1865). Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery (# NPG.2006.66)
Lithograph Depicting Booth's last stand (ca. 1865). (Washington, DC: National Museum of American History: Catalogue # 60.3325)
)Photograph (undated) of the Booth family burial plot in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA. (Harvard Theatre Collection TCS 1.3090)
Booth’s Theater. Founded by Edwin Booth in 1869 in New York City. Though Edwin would never entirely overcome the stigma of his brother’s crime, the opening of Booth’s Theater testifies to the professional stature of Booth in the years following the assassination. Incidentally, the theater was located on 23rd Street, just a couple of blocks east of the Chelsea Hotel, where Valerie Solanas lived in the 1960s.
---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.
https://fords.org/lincolns-assassination/history-of-fords-theatre/, accessed on Apr. 24, 2023.
---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.
Asa and Augusta would make a terrible couple. It’d be like Daniel Boone shacking up with Queen Victoria. Asa Trenchard hails from the backwoods of Vermont and fancies himself “about the tallest gunner, the slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state.” Serve him up a supper of what he calls “slapjacks” and sit him by the hearth with a bottle of peach brandy and you’d have sent Asa to hillbilly nirvana. Augusta, meanwhile, is a finespun Englishwoman more at home in a manor house than a log cabin. She meets Asa at the Trenchard estate in Hampshire, England, where the woodsman is visiting his old-world relatives. Initially intrigued by this “Apollo of the prairie,” she bursts out laughing when she first catches sight of him in his folksy, paint-flecked hunting getup. Despite the young woman’s obvious lack of interest, her mother, the single-mindedly mercenary Mrs. Mountchessington, wants Augusta to marry the American. Who cares what he wears when he goes out hunting? Asa is rich.
Except that he isn’t. Mrs. Mountchessington and her daughter only think he is. Asa is happy to disabuse them of the notion because, truth be told, he would rather wed a woodchuck than hoity-toity Augusta. He breaks it to them as only he can: “You crave affection, you do,” he tells Augusta. “Now I’ve no fortune, but I’m boiling over with affection, which I’m ready to pour out to all of you, like apple sauce over roast pork.” Far from appetized, Augusta taps out. Her mother replies, “I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone, will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.” She leaves Asa to kvetch to himself, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Wal I guess I know enough to turn you inside out old gal—you sockadologizing old man trap!”
The audience howled. That line always had the crowd in stitches, even if nobody knew what exactly “sockadologizing” meant. It was April 14, 1865, and playgoers had come to Ford’s Theatre in Washington to partake of a comedy called Our American Cousin. The hour had just passed 10:15 p.m., and the actor playing Asa, Harry Hawk, was alone onstage as he griped about that “man trap,” Mrs. Mountchessington. The room quieted down after that big, collective belly-laugh, and Hawk was preparing to make his exit when they all heard the pop: John Wilkes Booth had just shot the president.
Most Americans know that Abraham Lincoln was watching a play when he was assassinated. Some can even tell you the title of that play—it’s become a piece of morbid historical trivia. But few take the time to read Our American Cousin. I can’t entirely blame them. Written by Tom Taylor in 1858, the comedy reminds you that tastes have changed radically over the past 165 years. Our American Cousin deals gleefully in national stereotypes, introducing not only Asa Trenchard but also Lord Dundreary, a lackwit-caricature of English aristocracy. Surprisingly, perhaps, the play enjoyed instantaneous success on either side of the Atlantic—Yanks and Brits took just as much pleasure in laughing at themselves as they did at each other. (Taylor was British and worked in London, by the way.) Yet slogging through this comedy enriches our understanding of Lincoln’s assassination, throwing the shock of it into relief. One minute, the audience were laughing their heads off at redneck hokum. The next, they became witness to the murder of their president. Comedy turned to tragedy in the time it took to squeeze a trigger.
In the previous episode, we talked about the theatrical institution that was the Booth family. Peerless Shakespearean Junius Brutus Booth fathered three sons who followed his footsteps onto the stage, achieving renown. When John Wilkes, the youngest of these brothers, entered the profession, he hid his true parentage. As his acting improved, however, he became more comfortable identifying himself as his father’s son. 1n 1864, three years into the American Civil War, Booth plotted the kidnapping of Abraham Lincoln, which fell to pieces, leading him to pursue more drastic measures. Today, we’ll hear about how the actor committed his offense and tried to get away with it, how the country reacted to this unprecedented act of political violence, and how it forever altered what it meant to be a Booth. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 9 of Assassins . . .
Good Friday, 1865: John Wilkes Booth, Pt. II
Good Friday at Ford’s
Good Friday fell on April 14th in 1865. Merriment filled the U.S. capital, though not at all because of the religious holiday. Five days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Yes, fighting continued, but to most observers, this capitulation signaled the end of the long and brutal Civil War. Now it was time to celebrate. Washington transformed into a city of lights. By careful prearrangement, government offices, shops, hotels, and private residences across the capital illuminated lanterns, lamps, and gas jets. Some sixty candles burned at City Hall, one per window. The word “PEACE” blazed forth in gigantic letters on the façade of the War department building. Bonfires provided further illumination. According to John Wilkes Booth’s biographer, Terry Alford, “The principal avenues looked like rivers of flame to the thousands of admiring men, women, and children who moved along them.” The festivities were no less deafening than blinding. Brass musicians struck up patriotic tunes while the steam horns of fire-engines shrieked as if overcome with joy.
The good cheer extended to Ford’s Theatre on Tenth Street. It had opened its doors just a few years earlier. Constructed in 1833, the building originally housed a Baptist church until impresario John T. Ford purchased the property in 1861, converting it into a playhouse. Yet a fire damaged it the following year, and it wouldn’t reopen until 1863. In two short years, Ford’s emerged as one of the most prominent entertainment venues in Washington, holding its own against its main competitor, the National Theatre. Unlike other playhouses in the U.S., Ford’s attracted a high volume of military personnel. Soldiers and sailors flocked to the establishment from every barracks in the vicinity, eager for a respite from the rigors of warfare. Their dark blue uniforms announced their occupation and stood out amid a sea of top hats and crinolines.
As advertised in newspapers, Ford’s would play host to special guests that night. President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, would attend the performance. Joining the Lincolns were Clara Harris, a friend of Mary Todd’s, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone. In his late-twenties, Rathbone had red hair and a pair of punchy mutton chops. He had served as a paymaster in the army and acquitted himself well in the line of duty. Union General Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to watch with them, but, alas, he had had canceled at the last minute.
A great lover of drama, Lincoln had passed many evenings at Ford’s as president. Whenever he attended, he took his seat in the State Box, which was built into the proscenium and overlooked the right side of the stage from the audience’s perspective. In truth, the State box consisted of two boxes, numbered 7 and 8, divided by a wooden partition on most nights. When Lincoln favored Ford’s with his presence, however, management had the divider removed and special furniture brought into the space. The president preferred a walnut rocking chair, fitted out with splendid damask upholstery. Stagehands positioned a matching sofa against a back wall, and a large armchair rounded out the furnishings.
The guests of honor arrived after the show had already begun. When the party came into view on the second floor of the auditorium, the crowd went wild, as did the performers, showing their love for the commander in chief and celebrating an imminent end to the war. Lincoln nodded and smiled in acknowledgment and walked with his wife and friends to the State Box. There, he settled down in his customary rocker, bundled up in his overcoat and mostly screened from the audience by a flag. Mary Todd took a seat to his right while Harris and Rathbone seated themselves seven or eight feet away. As much as Lincoln may have wanted to enjoy himself, the work of a president seldom stops. Twice during the performance, couriers tiptoed into the box to deliver Lincoln messages. He thanked them each time, leaned back in his rocker, and rested his head against one hand, gazing downward at the action while his mind wandered elsewhere.
“Sic Semper Tyrannis”
American ingenue Jeanine Gourlay was onstage when she saw him. Cast in the role of Asa’s love interest, Mary Meredith, and playing a scene with Harry Hawk, she happened to cast a glance into the crowd and spy her friend and fellow performer, John Wilkes Booth. He was standing near the back of the parquet, a section of the floor on the theater’s main level. He wore a plain business suit of dark material, a quilted slouch hat on top of his head and a pair of boots with spurs on his feet. Even at a distance, Gourlay noticed his pallor. “Over the heads of the audience his face showed as pale as death,” she recalled. He was already gone when she finished her scene a minute or two later.
It was 10:10 p.m. By now, Booth had taken the stairs up to the second-story dress circle, humming as he went. He carried a concealed single-shot derringer, outfitted with a stylish walnut stock and silver mountings. Small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, this weapon could nevertheless deal out massive damage if fired at close range. Also on his person was a long bowie knife. He made his way around the back wall of the playhouse toward the State Box on the south side.
Approaching the entrance, Booth came to a halt before presidential messenger Charles Forbes, seated on a chair. He would have to make it past Forbes to reach the president. Thinking fast, Booth produced a pack of visiting cards from his pocket. Flipping through them, he stopped and studied one before handing it to the attendant. Nobody knows what name was printed on the visiting card. Forbes recognized it, however, and raised his eyes to size up the carrier. Fiercely loyal to his longtime employer, Abraham Lincoln, Forbes would have defended the president if he had suspected trouble. At the same time, Forbes was far from a modern-day Secret Service officer. It wasn’t his job to stand between Lincoln and any and all unauthorized visitors to the State Box. If someone appeared to have come on urgent business, he ushered them in. Forbes saw nothing amiss about Booth and thus granted admission. He would later express profound regret.
Booth opened the door and crossed the threshold into a dim and narrow corridor, eight feet long by four feet wide. Two wooden doorways along one side of this hall opened onto the box. Without a sound, Booth picked up a wooden plank and wedged one end of it against the door though which he had just passed, jamming the other end into a deep notch in the wall. Booth himself had carved it on a previous visit to Ford’s Theatre, taking the opportunity to hide the pinewood board as well. This brace could withstand considerable force. Anyone wishing to enter the box would have no choice but to break down the door.
Next, Booth approached the nearer of the two doorways and squinted through a peephole. There he was, Abraham Lincoln, right in front of him. He took a deep breath and drew his derringer.
Down onstage, Asa was badmouthing Mrs. Mountchessington. Mary Todd laughed along with others in the audience. The president turned to face the orchestra, as if he had suddenly spotted a friend. Booth stepped forward and leveled his pistol at the back of Lincoln’s head. “Freedom!” he cried. Nearly two thousand years before this moment, Julius Caesar’s multiple assassins made the same declaration as they unsheathed their daggers. Booth pulled the trigger.
The bullet penetrated the president’s head behind his left ear. His right arm jerked upward in a violent convulsion, and then he slumped forward, his chin sagging downward, onto his chest. He never made a sound, not even a sigh. For a moment, he seemed to have nodded off. A confused silence hung in the air.
Letting his pistol fall to the floor, Booth forced his way past Mary Todd to the front of the box, brushing the shawl from her shoulders as he did so. He placed one boot on the cushioned balustrade and looked down below. He would have to jump eleven-plus feet to the stage. This height would have intimidated many in Booth’s position, but the assassin was accustomed to making such leaps. As an actor, he had dazzled with daring feats of athleticism. He had sprung onto the boards from similar heights before—in fact, he had done so onto this very stage.
Before he could lift himself up and over the ledge, however, Booth felt a pair of hands yank him backward into the box. They belonged to Major Henry Rathbone. At first stunned by the gunshot, he had whirled to his left and seen the shooter through a plume of white smoke, hurrying, wraithlike, toward the balustrade. Rathbone rose to his feet and lunged for the murderer, grabbing hold of him. Booth twisted around to face his assailant. “Let go of me or I will kill you,” he growled. “No, I will not,” was the officer’s reply. The actor had not made a quick enough exit, and now he would have to fight his way out. His opponent was no lightweight, a combat veteran who had served with distinction. Rathbone held tight to the gunman, in vain. “I might as well have attempted to hold a giant,” he recalled. “He seemed endowed with sinews of steel.” Booth freed his right arm and raised it in the air. Rathbone followed its movement with his eyes and saw, to his horror, that Booth held a bowie knife. He plunged it downward, aiming to kill, while Rathbone lifted his left arm in defense. The blade sliced into him, severing an artery. Rathbone fell, paralyzed with pain and bleeding profusely.
Spinning around, Booth raced back to the front of the box, placed a hand on top of the bannister, and pulled himself onto it. Standing tall before the audience, he proclaimed in a loud, defiant voice, “Sic semper tyrannis,” “Thus always to tyrants”—the words Brutus supposedly uttered after cutting down Caesar. With that, Booth prepared to half-jump, half-drop to the ground.
Just as his feet left the balustrade, however, a hand clawed at him from behind yet again. Biting through the pain, Rathbone had collected himself and grasped at the back of Booth’s business coat. He gripped the garment only for it to slip through his fingers an instant later. Rathbone sank back down to the floor.
Yet he had not swiped at Booth in vain. The actor lost his center of gravity as the spur on his right heel became entangled in the frilly, patriotic bunting draped over the banister, ripping a flag to ribbons as he fell. He slammed onto the baize stage carpeting, letting out a cry of pain so piercing that cast members could hear it as distinctly backstage as they had the gunshot. His left fibula had snapped on impact, roughly a foot above the ankle joint. For an instant, Booth remained frozen just as he had landed, his hands outstretched to break his fall as best he could, his left foot awkwardly pinned underneath him. Searing pain shot through his body. Nausea came over him, he later told a friend, and he felt for a moment as if he would vomit. Pulling himself together, he rose to his feet and found that he could stand despite his injury. Unlike the tibia, according to Alford, the fibula bears little weight. If Booth had broken his tibia, he would not have been able to support himself and probably would not have made it out of Ford’s Theatre. Summoning all his determination, Booth hobbled as fast as his legs could carry him toward the wings. Within a minute or two, he had exited the playhouse by way of a stage door, jostling past actors and other crew members. The passage led to a back alley where he had tied up his horse. As he mounted the mare, the backdoor flew open. Audience member Joseph B. Stewart had given chase. He saw Booth’s horse circle hard to the left and hoped beyond hope that the fugitive would lose control of the beast. Booth had ridden since boyhood, however, and knew what he was doing in a saddle. Manipulating the reins, he dug his spurs deep into the sides of the animal, inducing her to shoot forward, her hooves kicking dirt into Stewart’s face. In a matter of heartbeats, the horse and her rider vanished into the night.
On the Run
Booth rode like hell until he reached the foot of Soper’s Hill in southern Maryland, just past the boundary of Washington D.C. Five or ten minutes passed before he heard the steady gallop of a horse headed his way. Astride of the roan sat twenty-three-year-old physician’s assistant David Herold, a supporter of the Confederacy and one of several stooges still at Booth’s side. “Dave,” the actor called. “Dave, I’ve done it! I’ve killed the tyrant!”
The two switched horses and hit the road. In the ensuing days, Booth would tell several helpers that he was fleeing to Mexico. Before he could make it as far south as Virginia, however, he needed a doctor, and he knew one in the area. The horsemen rode seventeen miles down a lonely road, passing dark meadows dotted with tree stumps and cemeteries. If Booth had made the journey alone, he may well have gotten himself turned around. Yet as Herold later stated, he knew these parts “better than the Lord’s Prayer” and led the way. They came to a stop and tethered their horse before the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Jolted from sleep after 4:00 a.m., the physician took a knife and cut the leg of Booth’s boot down to the instep, tugging it off along with the sock. He had no idea he was aiding a killer. As his patient moaned, Mudd located the fracture and—for lack of a better option—fashioned makeshift splints using strips of a hat box he had ripped apart. He would later furnish Booth with a pair of crude crutches. After dressing the wound, Herold and Mudd helped the injured man upstairs, where he collapsed into a bed and dozed through first dawn into the early morning.
Booth saw himself as a freedom-loving hero. To everyone else, he looked like shit. “Booth’s eyes had an almost unnatural expression,” Mudd’s wife, Sarah, testified later, “either from excessive drinking or excessive mental excitement. His hair was in disorder, his clothes covered with mud, and he appeared unable to stand.” In the words of Terry Alford, “Booth had a black mark down the side of his face—like Cain.”
Death of a President . . .
While Booth was receiving medical attention, Lincoln lay in a bed, comatose. After the assassin made his escape, the auditorium descended into out-and-out chaos. Amid the tumult, however, three separate physicians managed to attend Lincoln in the State Box and swiftly pronounced his injury fatal. Not wishing the president to die in a theater, a vulgar place of entertainment, a group of men carried him across the street and then to his deathbed inside the Petersen boardinghouse. He passed into eternity approximately eight hours later, at 7:22 a.m., April 15, 1865, surrounded by mourners, including Mary Todd.
Meanwhile, terror seized the capital as news of a broader conspiracy spread. Not only had Booth assassinated the president, but he had directed the murders of an additional two politicians. While the actor was infiltrating the State Box at Ford’s, one of his co-conspirators, twenty-one-year-old Alabama boy and Confederate veteran, Lewis Powell, was invading the home of William Henry Seward, secretary of state and Lincoln’s valued adviser, then convalescing from a nasty carriage accident. After climbing up to the second story and forcing his way into the cabinet member’s bedroom, Powell stabbed Seward in the face and neck before taking flight. Seward survived, despite serious injuries. As became evident in the following days, Booth had also tasked the Prussian-born repairman and Confederate sympathizer George Atzerodt with murdering Vice President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt quailed at the eleventh hour, however, making no attempt on his target’s life. Booth had conceived the plot hoping to bring the federal government to its knees, leaving it vulnerable to a Southern insurrection. Fortunately, however, Johnson was sworn in as Lincoln’s successor and assured the continuity of government.
Grief mingled with rage as the country became aware of the assassination. Though a small minority of extremist voices praised the bloody deed, Northern and Southern commentators alike roundly condemned it. In his book, Fortune’s Fool, Terry Alford conveys the intensity of public outrage with a litany of epithets directed at Booth by those who knew him: “Butcher! Wretch! Sanguinary fiend! Dastard murderer!” The American people wanted his blood, and a manhunt commenced. While police made quick work of rounding up Booth’s accomplices, including Atzerodt, Powell, and several we mentioned in the previous episode, the runaway murderer remained at large.
. . . Disgrace of a Family
Booth had dodged punishment for the time being. Yet his mother and siblings would suffer greatly for his sins. Prior to the events of April 14, the name of Booth belonged to America’s most famous theatrical dynasty. Then, in a flash, it belonged to America’s most infamous criminal. He annihilated the family reputation overnight.
The crime spelled personal and professional disaster for Edwin Booth, the assassin’s older brother. As we heard about last episode, Edwin opposed slavery and supported the North from the start of the Civil War. Five months prior to the assassination, he helmed a production of Julius Caesar starring himself and his two brothers at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. Edwin was staying with a friend in Boston when he received word of the Ford’s Theatre tragedy. A servant wept openly as she handed him a newspaper identifying John as the president’s killer. At first, he refused to believe what he read, and friends assured him that journalists had made a mistake. Yet as the hunt for Lincoln’s murderer persisted, and his brother never materialized, Edwin accepted the soul-shattering truth. “If John didn’t do it, where is John?” he once demanded. Strangers sent death threats, convinced that he had somehow aided his brother. His fiancée left him, no longer wishing to marry into the family. Finally, he announced his retirement from acting, too ashamed to face the theatergoing public. In the words of Edwin Booth’s biographer, William Winter, “For a time, his hard-earned reputation, the honour of his name, and the station and repute of his family seemed destroyed. Life in the present was a blank, and beyond the present a waste of misery stretched into the future.”
Nor did he envision a future for John. Amid his despair, Edwin wrote to his sister, Asia Booth Clarke, with a word of advice. “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world.” John Wilkes Booth would indeed be dead within two weeks of the assassination. We’ll hear about the events leading up to his death after a quick break.
Virginia farmer Richard H. Garrett heard the dog barking and went to investigate. He, his wife, Fannie, and their half dozen children lived in a whitewashed, two-story country house with bookend chimneys. It stood at the end of a long, dusty lane in the town of Port Royal. Gullies ran along either side of the property, which was amply shaded by a grove of locust trees. Standing in the front yard, Garrett saw three men heading up the sandy walkway to his front door. One of them had gotten himself badly hurt and was limping along with a pair of janky crutches. The threesome stopped a few feet from Richard, and one of them introduced himself as a local boy named Jett before turning to his injured companion. Jett explained that he had served in the Confederate army and answered to the name of Boyd. A recent battle near Petersburg, Virginia had temporarily crippled him. Would Richard be so kind as to put him up for a day or two while he recovered? The farmer assented without hesitation. He did so not only out of a sense of good, old downhome Southern hospitality but also because he had espoused the rebel cause during the war. Indeed, his two beloved sons, Will and Jack, had taken up arms for the Confederate States, and the Garretts had been blessed with their safe return.
By now, you will have guessed what Farmer Garrett would learn later. Boyd wasn’t a soldier, and his name wasn’t Boyd. Boyd was actor John Wilkes Booth, just playing another character. He may not have seen military combat over the past week-and-a-half, but life on the lam had not treated him kindly. It was April 24, 1865, ten days after the assassination, and among other hardships, he had spent several of the intervening nights camped out in a thicket, cold and hungry with his fellow fugitive, David Herold. A couple days before now, the pair had crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, at one point believing themselves to be under fire by a gunship. They had made it this far thanks to the assistance of both ready allies and reluctant strangers. That morning, Booth and Herold had parted ways with the understanding that they would soon reunite. Herold was currently bouncing around in town, making the most of his furlough while Booth secured shelter for the next few nights.
Booth could not have hoped for a more agreeable waystation. That afternoon, he napped in a cushioned armchair on the porch, smoking tobacco after he awoke. Then, he palled around with the three Garrett daughters in the yard until the dinner bell sounded. The aroma of fresh baking filled the dining room, and Booth sat down to the most bountiful meal he had eaten in days, chatting merrily with his hosts. After hiding out in a coppice for the better part of a week and constantly looking over his shoulder, the outlaw must have felt like he had passed through a gateway into paradise.
And then the conversation turned to the topic of Lincoln’s assassination. Jack had run errands in town that afternoon and come home with a newspaper confirming the president’s death about a week earlier. Police were offering a reward for the killer’s capture, Jack related.
“What reward?” Booth asked, playing it cool.
“$140,000,” Jack answered.
Booth about choked on his biscuits and gravy. Most would have considered the figure astronomical, but it struck Booth as insufficiently galactic. “I would sooner suppose $500,000,” he opined, as if just throwing it out there.
“I wish he would come this way,” Will chimed in. “I’d like to get that amount.”
Booth stared across the table, scarcely able to believe his ears—this, from a soldier who had fought for the Sough, who still wore Confederate gray around the house. “I hadn’t taken you for that bloodthirsty kind of man,” the imposter declared. Keeping the discussion as friendly as he could, he followed up with a smile, “Would you do such a thing?”
“Indeed, I would,” was Will’s reply. Times were hard.
“Not as hard as hearts,” the assassin shot back. Richard butted in and shushed his son, trying his best to keep the peace. They finished their supper without further issue.
Nevertheless, the Garretts noticed a change in their guest’s mood. He grew forlorn after dinner and muttered ominous pronouncements to himself. “The ship’s gone down, down, down, never to rise again,” he whispered, apparently unaware that others could hear. “Down, down, down.” He must have meant the proverbial ship of state. It had filled Booth with melancholy to hear a Southerner say that he would happily turn him in. This remark about the sunken ship of state—and others like it—have led commentators to suspect that Booth doubted the efficacy of his crime. Assassinating the president, he may have feared, would not see his country through the troubled waters it had navigated of late.
The Garretts were growing suspicious of this ragtag wayfarer, and they only became more so the second day of his stay. That afternoon, Jack and Booth were sitting on the porch, the self-styled soldier in his shirt sleeves. “There goes some of your party now,” Jack observed, indicating a line of riders trotting toward the house, maybe three-quarters of a mile distant. To the lad’s surprise, Booth tensed up. He plainly was not expecting any such party. “Will you please go and get my pistols,” the actor asked. When the farmer hesitated, Booth blurted out, “You go and get my pistols!” Non-plussed, Jack hurried upstairs and fetched Booth’s weapons belt from his bedroom. Stepping back out onto the porch, he handed them over. “Why are you so nervous?” he asked in a steady voice. “I feel safer when I am armed,” came the reply.
Much to Booth’s relief, his anxieties proved unfounded. The travelers were dropping off David Harold after his twenty-four-hour taste of freedom. He had enjoyed himself, but he still looked haggard after a week-and-a-half of life on the run. He came trudging down the road like a foot-sore hobo, a Spencer carbine thrown over one shoulder and hanging from a homespun cotton strap. Booth’s face brightened with his arrival. Again lying to his benefactors, he introduced the newcomer as his cousin. “Can I stay here?” Harold asked. Jack eyed Herold and didn’t like what he saw. He had served on no fewer than twenty-one battlefields over the course of the war. He could smell danger from a mile away, and these two reeked of it. After a pause, Jack made a non-answer: he would have to speak with his father about this.
After nightfall, the Garretts and their guests gathered round the dinner table, the family less talkative than the previous evening. Whatever he was up to, they seemed to think, this paranoid Boyd had overstayed his welcome. After all of them had cleaned their plates, Jack took Booth and Herold aside and made his misgivings known: “I don’t want you to stay in the house.”
“Well, what’s in the barn, then?” Harold piped up. “We’ll sleep in there.”
Jack permitted it. He showed them outside to the tall, cubic structure behind the Garrett residence, referred to by the family as the “tobacco house.” The wicker door creaked on its hinges when Jack swung it open and led them inside. Hay and corn fodder for the Garrett’s livestock covered one half of the barn’s planked floor while a wheat-thrashing machine, scythes, hoes, plows, and additional tools filled the other half. A chill hung in the air, and a bat flew over Booth’s head as they stepped inside. Last night, Booth had slept in a warm bed. This guano-strewn shack was a serious downgrade. He bundled straw and corn husks together to form a pallet and said good night to Jack before he left. Unbeknownst to Herold and Booth, Jack and Will hid outside the barn and listened to the fugitives whisper to each other. After falling silent, Herold drifted off in no time at all, but Booth tossed and turned for several hours, uncomfortable on his itchy bedstead of corn husks.
The Assassin’s Last Stand
Booth jerked Herold out of his sleep shortly after 2:00 a.m. “Don’t make any noise,” he said, sotto voce. Quiet as dead men, they heard the sound of a commotion outside—the baying of hounds, the pounding of hooves, the shouts of soldiers. There could be only one explanation: the law had caught up with them. “Maybe they will go off, thinking we are not here,” Booth whispered.
Fat chance. A few minutes earlier, twenty-nine men had swarmed the farm, under the leadership of federal detectives Everton Conger and Luther B. Baker. Inquiries in the area had brought them to the property, where the Garretts were known to be sheltering outsiders. Within minutes, a half-dozen armed men had formed a perimeter around the barn and adjacent outbuildings. Waiting and listening, they could make out the cracking of straw and the thud of floorboards. Somebody was hiding inside, alright, and they were certain that somebody was Booth.
“You men had better come out of there,” Detective Baker shouted. “We know who you are.”
“Who are you?” Booth demanded, loud enough to be heard by the Garrett family as they congregated around the front door to their house.
“Never mind who we are,” Baker retorted. “We know who you are and you had better come out and deliver yourself up.”
“This is a hard case, I swear,” the assassin replied. “Maybe I am being taken by my own friends?” he added in a hopeful tone.
The back-and-forth was trying Baker’s patience. He and his men had been hunting these miscreants nonstop for thirty-five consecutive hours. Tired and short-tempered, he was in no mood to suffer fools. So he made the fugitives’ options plain. There were only two, and they were nonnegotiable. Either Booth and Herold could lay down their weapons and surrender in peace or Baker and his men could set fire to the barn and smoke them out. Given this ultimatum, Booth requested five minutes to deliberate with Herold. Baker told them to take their time.
The two hustled to the back of the barn. If they could just remove one of the planks, they could sneak out and run for their lives. None of them would budge, however, and as five minutes turned to ten and then fifteen, an air of futility fell over them. There was no escaping this barn unnoticed, and there was no winning in a firefight with their pursuers. There were simply too many.
Herold had come as far as he would go. “You had better give yourself up,” he advised. “No,” Booth declared. “I’ll die like a man.” A pause. “Let me go out and give myself up,” Herold pleaded.
“I never thought you would desert me,” Booth breathed, incredulous. “I wouldn’t leave a dog under such circumstances.”
“I don’t intend to be burnt alive.” Herold responded. He put down his firearm.
“Certainly,” Booth spat. “Get away from me. You are a damned coward and mean to leave me in my distress. I don’t want you to stay.” Glaring at Herold, he called out to Baker. “There is a man in here who wants to surrender very bad.” Much as Booth detested his sidekick for abandoning him, he made an honest effort to save his life. “I declare before my Maker that this man is innocent of any crime whatever.” The barn door opened, and Herold stuck his head out. A pair of hands seized him by the wrists and dragged him outside, passing him to a senior officer to be frisked.
Booth was alone. He knew how this would end, but that didn’t mean he would go down without a fight. With two Colt revolvers and one Spencer carbine, he still had twenty rounds of ammunition. “Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me,” he shouted. “Make quick work of it. Shoot me through the heart!” The assassin had chosen the second option, then. Stationed at the rear of the barn, Detective Conger twisted a handful of straw together, lit it with a match, shoved it through a gap in the barn’s boarded wall, and let it drop to the floor. It fell on a heap of bone-dry stubble that caught aflame in milliseconds. The blaze lit up the barn’s interior, illuminating its occupant to the cavalrymen outside. They trained the barrels of their guns right at him, ready to fire if given the order.
Panicking, Booth hobbled toward the bonfire, a carbine in one hand and a crutch in the other. He tried to stamp it out with his good leg at first, to no avail. Then he picked up an overturned table lying to one side and threw it on top of the flames to smother them. The fire had already grown too large. Booth coughed heavily as smoke enveloped him, billowing outward, into the night air. The wooden walls crackled in the extreme heat.
Detective Baker peered through the door. He saw Booth inside, flanked by fire. The assassin turned to face the exit and ran a hand through his hair. He straightened his back, drawing himself up to his full height. “One more stain on the old banner,” he cried. “Do your worst!” He threw his crutch to the floor and drew a pistol with his free hand, aiming his carbine at the door with the other. He took an unsteady step in Baker’s direction. Many of the soldiers watching this drama wanted the assassinating bastard dead. Even so, they marveled at his fearlessness. One witness who deplored Booth’s crime nevertheless testified, “I was twice wounded in the war, was under fire at many of the most disastrous battles, led my command right through the teeth of almost certain annihilation, and yet this exhibition of sublime courage, with death lurking in every corner, was a lesson to me.”
Standing next to Baker was Sergeant Boston Corbett. Aged thirty-two, he had immigrated from England and obtained U.S. citizenship, jobbing as a hat finisher before enlisting in the 16th New York Cavalry. He was a devout Christian and styled his hair in imitation of Christ, parted down the middle as Jesus’s was often depicted at the time. As Booth advanced on him and Baker, there was no doubt in Corbett’s mind that the wanted man would fire his weapons, and Corbett would not allow him to inflict further harm than he had already. He rested his Colt on his left arm and pointed at Booth. Four years earlier, after the outbreak of war, Corbett had had the honor of shaking Lincoln’s hand. Tears had sprung to the president’s eyes as he thanked the young soldier and his New York militiamen for helping to safeguard Washington D.C. Like countless others, Corbett had joined the hunt for Lincoln’s killer with a vengeful zeal. Pressing the palms of his hands together in prayer, he had nightly implored his Heavenly Father for the privilege of slaying this traitor of all traitors, of meting out justice like they do in the Old Testament—an eye for an eye, a bullet for a bullet. Gripping his revolver in the very same hand that had shaken Lincoln’s, Corbett aimed right for the assassin’s head, precisely where Booth had shot his victim. “I heard the voice of God calling on me to fire,” Corbett recalled. “God commanded me to do it.”
He obeyed. Corbett squeezed his trigger finger, and after a loud pop, the bullet whizzed into the barn and struck Booth in the neck. He gave a grunt like a wounded ox and tumbled headfirst onto the floor. The bullet had severed the fourth and fifth vertebrae of his spinal column.
Baker and another cavalryman flew into the barn and pounced on the rebel, wresting the pistol and carbine from his hands. Booth lay unconscious, apparently paralyzed. Aided by a few others, Baker lifted the assassin’s body and carried him out of the inferno, laying him in the dirt. He regained consciousness there on the ground. His face muscles twitched. His eyes opened, glazed in the firelight. Drenched in sweat, strands of hair falling down on his forehead, he struggled to speak. “Tell Mother,” he gasped before sinking into a swoon. He came to a moment later. A member of the squadron bent over Booth and pressed an ear to his lips. The assassin whispered a dying request: “Tell my mother I die for my country.”
Booth was prepared to leave this world for the next. But he wasn’t dead yet, and he wouldn’t be for hours. Corbett shot him at approximately 3:15 in the morning. and he clung to life as the first rays of dawn crept over the horizon and then as the sun rose. By that time, the cavalryman had deposited him on the Garretts’ porch. There he lay, his eyelids slitted and his lips a moribund blue, silent apart from the occasional utterance and clenching his teeth in indescribable agony. A physician arrived at about six o’clock. Shortly after inspecting his wound, he pronounced it fatal and predicted that Booth would die within the hour. His prognosis proved true. Just after seven, a shiver passed through the prostrate murderer as he made a choking sound. Then, oblivion. One of the soldiers later declared that he had never seen a man “suffer more or die harder.”
Booth was no more, but his confederates were still alive. After the assassination, the authorities rounded them up and held them to account. Several met their maker. David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and another co-conspirator, Mary Surratt, were tried before a military tribunal and sentenced to death. They ascended the gallows at Fort McNair in Washington on July 7, 1865. Others who aided and abetted the assassin faced less severe punishments. Dr. Samuel Mudd served time for providing medical care to the fugitive, as did Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen for their part in the aborted mission to abduct Lincoln.
Why did Booth assassinate Lincoln? What did he hope to accomplish? These questions echoed across the country at the time of the crime and continue to do so to the present moment. They are worth asking partly because Booth at first targeted Lincoln with a military aim in mind. As we discussed in the previous episode, he originally planned to kidnap the president to revive the prisoner exchange and replenish the Confederacy’s depleted armies. By the time of the shooting in Ford’s Theatre, however, not only had the government reinstated that policy, but the Civil War had ended for all intents and purposes. In the days leading up to and following the assassination, Booth told others that he hoped his bloodshed would touch off a Southern insurrection. Viewed from a certain angle, this desire recalls the thinking of a man Booth admired despite their wildly divergent beliefs: radical abolitionist John Brown. After all, Brown led the ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia in hope of galvanizing a nationwide slave revolt. Though rooted in diametrically opposed political views, each violent act proved equally ineffective. The demise of Lincoln did not give way to a Southern uprising. If anything, it undermined the Southern cause. Carl Schutz, a major in the Union army, neatly encapsulated this sentiment: “This crime could not possibly be of the least benefit to the Southern people in their desperate straits, but would only serve to inflame the feelings of their victorious adversaries against them.” Purposeless, then, with regard to the war effort, Booth’s transgression appeared to spring from bloody-minded fanaticism and, worse still, a cheap desire to enter the history books. “I must have fame!” Booth cried in the salad days of his stage career. A few weeks before he took his derringer into Ford’s, he remarked to a friend that he would do “something which the world would remember for all time.” The world will not forget what he did anytime soon, and if past experience is any indication, it will not remember it fondly.
The opposite, of course, can be said of his victim. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, commentators predicted that it would only elevate the president’s reputation. According to one, “Mr. Lincoln could not have surrendered his life on terms more advantageous to his country or to his own fame. The manner of his death has transfigured him in the eyes of all mankind.” In the present moment, Lincoln is often cited as the greatest president in U.S. history, and his likeness adorns the penny as well as the five dollar bill, making him a small yet essential part of everyday life. In the eyes of many observers, Lincoln died a martyr, giving his life to save a divided nation, and the timing of the assassination buttressed this perception. As much as Booth styled himself as a latter-day Brutus cutting down a Caesar, he committed his crime on Good Friday. In so doing, he aligned Lincoln’s death with that of Jesus Christ.
What It Means to Be a Booth
To a certain extent, the Booth family name bounced back in the wake of the assassination. After eight months of retirement from acting, Edwin overcame the disgrace of his brother, returned to the craft, and achieved new heights of theatrical celebrity. On January 3, 1866, he played Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre, greeted by cheers when he made his first entrance. By the end of the show, the stage lay strewn with bouquets of flowers. According to biographer William Winter, “Affectionate good-will beamed in every face and gave assurance, good and strong, that the generous public had no intention of casting upon an innocent man the burden and blight of a brother’s guilt.” Edwin’s return heralded a series of triumphs at the Winter Garden in what one theater historian describes as “the most lavishly staged performances which had yet been seen in America.” This winning streak came to a fiery conclusion on March 23, 1867, when the Winter Garden Theatre went up in flames, incinerating Edwin’s costumes and scenery as well as his library and a theatrical portrait gallery. Resilient as ever, he arose from the ashes, phoenix-like, opening the magnificent Booth Theatre at the corner of Twenty-Third Street and Sixth Avenue on February 3, 1869. Though plagued by domestic and financial misfortunes, Booth reached his zenith as a performer during this period, with the 1869-74 seasons stand as a highpoint in nineteenth-century playmaking.
For half a decade, then, the name of Booth lit up the marquis of the nation’s most stupendous playhouse. After Edwin’s death in 1893, Winthrop Ames opened a new Booth Theatre, named for the actor, on Broadway in 1913. In Edwin’s lifetime, however, his surname could never recover its former glory, stained as it was with the blood of a president. According to John’s biographer, Michael W. Kauffman, plenty of theatergoers only knew Edwin as the assassin’s brother. In this regard, John’s specter hovered over every performance that Edwin gave, but it became most chillingly present when he acted Julius Caesar. Throughout the remainder of his career, Edwin appeared by turns as Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Anthony. His family history gave each performance of the assassination play a sharp and no less personal edge.
In life, John Wilkes Booth had had a tortured relationship with his name. The self-assertive teenager who inked his initials on his left hand became the young man who performed under a pseudonym for fear of failure. He wanted by turns to be a part of—and apart from—his family. There’s something of this duality reflected in the killer’s final resting place. John’s remains were buried in the Booth family lot at the Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, beneath the southern face of an obelisk inscribed with the occupants’ names. After John’s funeral, Edwin oversaw the beautification of the lot. He had rosebushes planted at the head and foot of his brother’s grave site, and a one-foot-tall wooden cross was erected. Yet Edwin drew a line when it came to such improvements. When he directed a mason to build headstones for the family tombs, the tradesman asked if he wanted one for John. A shadow passed over the actor’s face as he considered what it would mean to mark his brother’s grave. Under normal circumstances, a tombstone bears a name. and that name represents the life of the departed. Such a memorial enjoins the living to remember that life, insists that that life deserves remembrance. After a pause, Edwin offered simple instructions: “Let it remain as is. Place no mark there.”