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John Wilkes Booth: His Life and Death

By

John T. Marck

 



 

  John Wilkes Booth

His Life and Death

by John T. Marck

John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 on a small farm known as Tudor Hall, located a few miles outside of Bel Air, Harford County, Maryland. His parents, Junius Booth and Mary Ann Holmes were British, and moved to the United States in 1821. John Wilkes was the ninth born of their ten children. The Booth family stayed on their farm at Tudor Hall in the warmer months, and also owned and used slaves. During the winter, they would move to their other home located on North Exeter Street in Baltimore City. His father, Junius was a very well-known actor.

John Wilkes received his schooling in Maryland, first at a boarding school in Cockeysville (Baltimore County) operated by Quakers, after which he attended St. Timothy's Hall, an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, also in Baltimore County. As a young man in the 1850s, Booth joined the Know-Nothing Party. This party was formed by Americans for the purpose of preserving the country for native-born white citizens. In 1852, his father died and John left school and spent the next few years working on their farm near Bel Air.

However, farming was not in John's life plan. According to his sister, Asia Booth Clarke, he had always wanted to be famous. So, John followed in his father's footsteps toward a career in acting. In 1855, at the age of seventeen, Booth made his acting debut in the production of Shakespeare's Richard III, in the role of the Earl of Richmond. Following this, it would be two years before he again appeared on stage. He did play minor roles in Philadelphia, but was not well received, as he would frequently forget his cues and lines. But, desiring to be a good actor, he did not give up, and finally landed roles in 1858 as part of the Richmond Theatre. Living in Richmond, he became fascinated with the people and the Southern way of life. In 1859, Booth witnessed the execution of John Brown, working as one of the guards stationed there to prevent any attempts to rescue Brown.

In 1860, his acting career started to take off. He landed the role as Duke Pescara in The Apostate, at the Gayety Theatre in Albany, New York. It was here that President Lincoln passed through Albany en route to Washington, D.C. Booth's acting continued in such productions as Romeo and Juliet, The Marble Heart, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, Macbeth, and others. His appearances took him to New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Leavenworth, Nashville, New Orleans and Richmond, prior to the Civil War. From November 2 through November 15, 1863, Booth appeared in The Marble Heart in the role of Raphael at Ford's theatre in Washington, D.C. It was during his November 9 performance that President Lincoln attended and saw Booth in this role. The box where Lincoln sat was the same exact spot in which he would be later assassinated. Following The Marble Heart at Ford's, Booth made only one more appearance there, when on March 18, 1865, he appeared as Duke Pescara in The Apostate. Although Booth was considered a good actor, he never excelled to the level of talent possessed by his father, nor his brother Edwin, who all worked together in one production of Julius Caesar. In the play, Booth appeared as Marc Antony, while Edwin played Brutus, and their father Julius, played Cassius. In the summer of 1864, Booth appeared in a production at Meadville, Pennsylvania, and stayed in a room at the McHenry House. Upon checking out, a cleaning woman attending the room found an inscription on one of the windowpanes that read, "Abe Lincoln departed his life August 13, 1864, by the effects of poison." Unfortunately, no one gave it much attention, nor focused on Booth as the writer.

Late in the summer of 1864, Booth began his plans to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. His idea was to abduct Lincoln, then take him to Richmond where he would be held for ransom in exchange for Confederate prisoners held in Union camps. Booth believed this was one way to increase the deteriorating ranks of Rebel soldiers. To assist him in his plan, he began recruiting helpers. He was able to recruit Michael O'Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, Lewis Paine, John Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt. A meeting was set whereby all the members met at Gautier's Restaurant, a short distance from Ford's Theatre in Washington, and discussed their abduction plan. A few days after this meeting, Booth became aware that Lincoln would be attending a play at the Campbell Hospital near Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1865. To Booth this seemed to be his best opportunity to abduct Lincoln. That day in March came and Booth's plan was in place. Lincoln decided at the last minute not to attend the play, but rather to speak to the 140th Indiana Regiment and present a captured Confederate flag to the Governor of Indiana. As this plan failed, some of Booth's conspirators became disenchanted and abandoned the group. NOTE: It should be said that many books say that the abduction attempt actually took place, whereby Booth and his gang saw Lincoln's carriage and started their plan, but once they realized Lincoln was not in the carriage, they stopped. This incident never occurred.

In Booth's personal life was a lady named Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of John Parker Hale, an abolitionist senator from New Hampshire. In early 1865, the Hale family moved into the National Hotel, in Washington, where Booth was also staying. In the first days of March 1865, Booth became secretly engaged to Lucy. On March 4, on the occasion of Lincoln's second inauguration, Booth invited Lucy as a guest. In his quest for Lincoln, Booth once confided to an actor friend by the name of Samuel Knapp Chester, that, "What an excellent chance I had to kill the President, if I had wished, on inauguration day!" Booth and his conspirators had other plans to kidnap Lincoln, specifically at a theatre, but these plans fell through. Then on April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Two days later, President Lincoln gave a speech at the White House where he discussed possible new rights for blacks. In the audience were Booth, Herold and Paine. The speech enraged Booth, and he vowed to silence Lincoln.

April 14, 1865

The following outlines the activities John Wilkes Booth, the day of the assassination.

At about 9:00 a.m., Booth met with his fiancée, Lucy, at the National Hotel. The National Hotel was originally located at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was demolished in the 1930s. They parted, then he went to Booker and Stewart's barbershop on E Street. Here barber Charles Wood gave him a haircut. Upon leaving the barbershop he stopped by the Surratt boardinghouse and met with Mary Surratt. He then returned to his room, number 228 at the National Hotel. Booth seemed to be normal in his activities and behavior according to witnesses who saw him at the hotel. After a short while, Michael O'Laughlen stopped by his room and visited with Booth.

Two hours later, at 11:00 a.m., Booth went to Ford's Theatre to pick up his mail. While there he spoke with Henry Clay Ford, who told him that Lincoln was expected to attend that evenings performance of Our American Cousin. Booth, knowing just about every line of the play, knew when the greatest laughter would occur. He figured it would happen at 10:15 p.m., when an actor in the play, Harry Hawk, would be alone on stage. Booth decided that this was the time to assassinate President Lincoln.

At about noon, Booth went to the C Street stable operated by James W. Pumphrey. He asked Pumphrey if he had a fast horse, and he did, so Booth rented it, saying he would pick it up at 4:00 p.m. Booth then returned to his room at the National Hotel.

At 2:00 p.m., Booth left the National Hotel and walked to the Herndon House where Lewis Paine was staying. Booth advised Paine of his plan, but Booth also had further plans in mind, whereby he instructed Paine to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. He then told Paine that it was time to check out of the Herndon House, which he did. At about 2:30, Booth stopped by the Surratt boardinghouse and gave Mary Surratt a package containing field glasses and asked her to take them with her to her tavern in Surrattsville.

Booth then went to visit another conspirator named George Atzerodt at the Kirkwood House at about 3:00 p.m. Here Booth intended to discuss his plan for Atzerodt to assassinate Vice-President Andrew Johnson, who also lived at the Kirkwood House. But, Atzerodt was not in. Booth then left a note for Vice-President Johnson with either his personal secretary or the desk clerk, Robert Jones. No one knows for sure why he left this note, but in any case, Johnson was not in, but rather was at the White House.

At 4:00 p.m. Booth returned to the stable and picked up the horse he had rented earlier. He road this horse to the Grover Theatre where he stopped, and went upstairs to the Deery Tavern for a drink. While there, he wrote a letter explaining that his plans for kidnapping the President had changed to murder. He then signed the letter not only with his name, but also from Paine, Herold and Atzerodt. The letter was addressed to the editor of the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper. About an hour later, as he walked his horse down Fourteenth Street, he met a fellow actor named John Mathews, who was appearing in the play Our American Cousin. He gave him the letter and asked him to deliver it to the National Intelligencer the next day. He then mounted his horse and rode away, passing Ulysses S. Grant who was riding in a carriage. Booth observed Atzerodt walking down the street, and stopped. Booth told him to murder Andrew Johnson as close to 10:15 p.m. as was possible. Atzerodt was hesitant to carry out the plan.

At 6:00 p.m., Booth rode his horse to Ford's Theatre where he invited a few of the employees out for a drink at Taltavul's Tavern. About thirty minutes later he returned to the theatre and mapped out his route for the assassination. He practiced and practiced again everything he would do, except jumping from the stage. Using a tool known as a gimlet, he drilled a small hole in the door that lead to the box where Lincoln would be sitting. He then returned to the National Hotel for dinner and rest.

Awaking a little before 7:00 p.m., Booth readied himself to carry out his plan. He dressed in black clothes, and calf-length boots with new spurs, and a black hat. He carried with him his diary, a compass, a small .44 Philadelphia Derringer and a long Bowie knife. He stuck the knife inside his left side pant leg and loaded the single shot derringer with a .44 caliber lead ball. At 7:45 he left the National Hotel.

Nearing 8:00 p.m., he had one final meeting with his coconspirators, at an unknown location. The final plan was for Paine to assassinate Seward. Herold was to go with Paine to Seward's home and assist him in escaping Washington. Atzerodt would shoot and kill Vice-President Johnson, and Booth was to kill Lincoln. It was Booth's plan that all the attacks would occur simultaneously at 10:15 p.m. Afterwards they would all meet at the Navy Yard Bridge. From this location, they would all travel to Surrattsville where they would pick up weapons and field glasses from the tavern leased by John Lloyd.

At about 9:30 p.m., Booth arrived at Ford's Theatre. Outside the theatre he called upon a man named Ned Spangler to hold his horse in the alley behind the theatre. Spangler was still busy with stage settings, so he asked another employee named Joseph C. Burroughs to watch and hold the horse. Booth then went next door to a tavern and ordered a bottle of whiskey and some water. A customer at the tavern who knew Booth said to him, "You'll never be the actor your father was." To this Booth replied, "When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America."

At 10:07 p.m., John Wilkes Booth entered the lobby of Ford's Theatre. He went upstairs to the dress circle, and saw in the distance the door that would lead him to Lincoln's State Box. Seated outside Lincoln's State Box was Charles Forbes, the President's footman. To get to Lincoln's box Booth had to get past Forbes. Eventually, he handed Forbes a card that enabled him to pass. Booth then entered an area that was dark, directly behind the door that lead to the State Box. He then placed the wooden leg of a music stand that he had put there earlier in front of the door, to block anyone from entering the room. Removing the derringer from his pocket, he then opened the door directly behind where Lincoln was seated. Booth walked a few steps toward the President, and placed his derringer behind Lincoln's head near his left ear and pulled the trigger.

As Booth predicted, his shot rang out during audience laughter, and most did not hear it. Sitting in the box with Lincoln was Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara H. Harris. (Although married in 1867, there future was tainted by Rathbone's inability to forgive himself for not having protected President Lincoln. In time, his torment drove him mad, and in 1894 he murdered Clara, resulting in him spending his remaining years in an asylum). As Rathbone tried to subdue the assassin, Booth pulled his knife and stabbed Rathbone in his left arm. Booth then climbed over the banister of Lincoln's State Box and jumped eleven feet to the stage floor. In doing so, the spur on his right foot caught one of the decorative flags draped from the guardrail, causing him to land off balance, breaking the fibula bone in his left leg just above his ankle. He pointed his knife toward the audience, and fled out the back of the theatre, to his waiting horse, and escaped into the night.

There are two stories as to what Booth may have shouted just after shooting the President. Some audience members believe he said "Sic semper Tyrannis," (Thus Always to Tyrants), while others heard nothing. Major Rathbone stated that he thought Booth shouted "Freedom," as he jumped from the box. Although many of the people present did not agree on Booth's words, it seems commonly accepted that he spoke the Latin phrase.

Sometime after 11:00 p.m., David Herold and Booth, who both crossed the Navy Yard Bridge on their escape, met each other around Soper's Hill. From here they traveled together en route to Lloyd's Tavern, that was leased and operated by Mary Surratt in Surrattsville, Maryland. The town's name was changed to Robeystown on May 3, 1865, and then changed to Clinton on October 10, 1878, and remains so today.

At midnight, Booth and Herold arrived at the tavern, after roughly an eleven mile journey from Ford's Theatre. Once there, they drank whiskey and picked up the field glasses and a Spencer rifle. In severe pain from the break in his leg, Booth needed medical attention. Riding into the night, they came upon the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd about four in the morning. Here, Dr. Mudd set Booth's leg. At this time, Booth believed that his entire plan was a success. But, unknown to Booth, Paine failed to kill Seward, although he did wound him, and Atzerodt refused to go forward with his part of their plan, and never attacked Vice-President Johnson.

On April 15, 1865 at 7:22 a.m., President Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead, the result of a gunshot wound inflicted by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Just after Abraham Lincoln had been shot on the evening of April 14, he was carried from his State Box at Ford's Theatre across the street to the Petersen House, located at 453 Tenth Street (now 516 Tenth Street). This house was owned by William Petersen, a tailor, who rented out rooms. The room to which President Lincoln was taken was rented by William T. Clark, who happened to be out of town. Being quite tall, Lincoln did not fit on the bed, so he was placed on it diagonally. Extra pillows were supplied so that Lincoln's head could be elevated. While Lincoln was still alive, doctors, using a steel probe, located the .44 caliber lead ball, but as it was lodged in his brain, removal was impossible. One astonishing fact is that a few months before, this same room had been rented by an actor named Charles Warwick. On one occasion, John Wilkes Booth visited Warwick and fell asleep on the same bed on which Lincoln would later die .

The Search for Booth

After Dr. Samuel Mudd set Booth's leg, he and David Herold stayed at the Mudd house until the following night. On April 16, in their flight from Federal authorities, who were closing in, they arrived at the home of Samuel Cox. Here, Cox gave them food and hid them in the woods. On April 17, while President Lincoln's body was lying in state at the East Room of the White House, Booth and Herold arrived in Port Tobacco, Maryland, on the banks of the Potomac River. Here they searched for a way to cross the river. Finally, after hiding out in Port Tobacco for a few days, they crossed the Potomac River in a small fishing boat on April 20. Meanwhile, Federal troops were searching for them, as well as anyone connected with the assassination.

The Booth Conspirators

On April 24, Booth and Herold arrived at Port Conway, Virginia. The next day, Federal troops traced Booth and Herold to a farm owned by Richard H. Garrett, south of the Rappahannock River. Another man named William Jett was a friend of Richard Garrett. It was Jett who provided refuge for Booth and Herold at Garrett's farm. As he was never brought to trial for aiding the two fugitives, Jett later settled in Baltimore as a tobacco salesman. He died in an asylum, punishing himself for the trouble he brought to Richard Garrett for hiding Booth and Herold.

On April 26, Federal troops surrounded the tobacco shed in which Booth and Herold were hiding on the Garrett farm. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused. Time and again, Federal soldiers ordered Booth to surrender and each time, he failed to give up. To force him out, the Federal soldiers set fire to the shed, and just as they did so, a shot was heard, and Booth fell mortally wounded.

The origin of the shot, whether by a soldier or self-inflicted is actually unknown, although it is credited to Sergeant Boston Corbett, one of the Federal soldiers. Booth had been shot in the neck. As he lay wounded, Federal soldiers carried him from the shed and placed him on the porch of the Garrett home. One of the soldiers was sent to Port Royal for a doctor, who did not arrive until daylight. When Booth was carried from the tobacco shed to the porch he was unconscious, but soon came to. The doctor had arrived while Booth was still alive, and tried to give him some medicine. Booth, shaking his head said that it was useless and further stated, "Tell my mother that what I did I did for the good of the country." Meanwhile, the shed had burned to the ground, and soldiers were hunting in the ruins for vestiges. They found two revolvers, that were ruined in the fire, however one Federal soldier found Booth's carbine rifle. Booth died about three hours after being placed on the porch. His body was wrapped in a blanket, laced in a wagon and driven to Acquia Creek, Virginia.

Once at Acquia Creek, Booth's body was placed on a boat, as well was Herold, who was closely guarded. Booth's body was taken to Washington, D.C. where an autopsy was performed. Booth was then buried in an unmarked grave at Arsenal Penitentiary. Today, the grave of John Wilkes Booth is located in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.

Note: In recent years, there has been speculation that Booth's body is not that lays in his grave, whereby others believe he had escaped capture and lived to an old age. This has not been proven, and authorities indicate that he did die as related herein.

John Wilkes Booth's brother, Edwin, anguished over the senseless act committed by his brother, expressed his sorrow in an open letter to the citizens of the United States. It read:

New York, April 20, 1865

To the people of the United States.

My fellow citizens:

When a nation is overwhelmed with sorrow by a great public calamity, the mention of private grief would under ordinary circumstances be an intrusion, but under those by which I am surrounded, I feel sure that a word from me will not be so regarded by you.

It has pleased God to lay at the door of my afflicted family the life-blood of our great, good and martyred President. Prostrated to the very earth by this dreadful event, I am yet but too sensible that other mourners fill the land. To them, to you, one and all go forth our deep, unutterable sympathy; our abhorrence and detestation of this most foul and atrocious of crimes.

For my mother and sister, for my two remaining brothers and my own poor self, there is nothing to be said except that we are thus placed without any agency of our own. For our loyalty as dutiful, though humble, citizens, as well as for our consistent, and as we had some reason to believe, successful, efforts to elevate our name, personally and professionally, we appeal to the record of the past. For our present position we are not responsible. For the future --alas! I shall struggle on, in my retirement, with a heavy heart, an oppressed memory and a wounded name --dreadful burdens -- to my welcome grave.

Your afflicted friend,

Edwin Booth

In 1863, Edwin Booth's wife, Mary Devlin died. In 1865, he was still mourning her death when this dreadful act by his brother struck him another hard blow. In his letter above, he vowed to never perform again. However, when extreme debt drove him back to the stage, less than a year later, his public celebrated. Not blamed for the act of his brother, Edwin regained his name and trust of the citizens of the United States, and was welcomed as a performer on the stage. Not far from their home at Tudor Hall, is the Edwin Booth Theater, so named in his honor. It is located on the campus of Harford Community College, in Bel Air, Maryland.

The Surratt House and Museum, Clinton, Maryland

http://www.surratt.org/

This is a photograph of an actual US Flag that was hand made by my great grandmother, Mrs. John Daniel Webster Thayer, originally intended to be flown at the end of the Civil War in 1865.  The black mourning stripe was added and flown for the funerals of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding, and William McKinley.  In 1941, she gave this flag to my father, William John Marck, Jr., who passed it down to me in 2008. Sadly my father passed away on July 25, 2008. This flag has been in my family since 1865. As it was first flown for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, I thought it appropriate to include it here.

 

 

Copyright © John T. Marck. Information for this article came from a variety of excellent sources. These include: Tudor Hall, Bel Air, Maryland, the home of John Wilkes Booth, and to Howard and Dorothy Fox, who spent many hours with me telling me stories of Booth and his last days, as well as his family, living at Tudor Hall; The Surratt House Museum, Clinton, Maryland; My father, William John Marck, Jr., a historian and teacher; Springfield, Illinois and the National Park Service at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site; Blood On The Moon, by Edward Steers, Jr., The University Press of Kentucky, 2001; A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and of the Conspiracy of 1865 by Louis L. Weichmann, Alfred A. Knoff Publisher, New York 1979; Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, Simon and Schuster, 1995; The Death of Lincoln by Clara E. Laughlin; and the section, "The Objects of Lincoln and Booth," from Time-Life; The Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth by Edward Steers; and information received from a speech by Kate Clifford Larson about Mary Surratt regarding her book,  "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln" et al. Please also see: www.aboutfamouspeople.com/article1147.html