Wilkes Booth initially plotted to kidnap President Lincoln
early in 1864, in order to trade for ransom and the release
of confederate prisoners of war. As a consequence of unfolding
events Booth switched gears and a new desperate plan to
cripple the union and help the confederacy emerged.
Lincoln Assassination Fact: Days
before the 15th of April, 1865, President Lincoln
had a dream which greatly troubled him. He talked
with his wife about it. He told his bodyguard, William
Crook, and his cabinet.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was
the first American president to be assassinated. He was
mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth in the Presidential
Box of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., while watching
the comedy, Our American Cousin. Accompanying him at Ford's
Theater that night were his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a twenty-eight
year-old officer named Major Henry R. Rathbone, and Rathbone's
fiancee, Clara Harris. After the play was in progress, a
figure with a drawn derringer pistol stepped into the presidential
box, aimed, and fired. The president slumped forward.
assassin, John Wilkes Booth, dropped the pistol and waved
a dagger. Rathbone lunged at him, and though slashed in
the arm, forced the killer to the railing. Booth leapt
from the balcony and caught the spur of his left boot
on a flag draped over the rail, and shattered a bone in
his leg on landing. Though injured, he rushed out the
back door, and disappeared into the night on horseback.
doctor in the audience immediately went upstairs to the
box. The bullet had entered through Lincoln's left ear
and lodged behind his right eye. He was paralyzed and
barely breathing. He was carried across Tenth Street,
to a boarding-house opposite the theater, but the doctors'
best efforts failed. Nine hours later, at 7:22 AM on April
15th, Lincoln died.
almost the same moment Booth fired the fatal shot, his
accomplice, Lewis Paine, attacked Lincoln's Secretary
of State, William Henry Seward. Seward lay in bed, recovering
from a carriage accident. Paine entered the mansion, claiming
to have a delivery of medicine from the Secretary's doctor.
Seward's son, Frederick, was brutally beaten while trying
to keep Paine from his father's door. Paine slashed the
Secretary's throat twice, then fought his way past Seward's
son Augustus, an attending hospital corps veteran, and
a State Department messenger.
escaped into the night, believing his deed complete. However,
a metal surgical collar saved Seward from certain death.
The Secretary lived another seven years, during which
he retained his seat with the Johnson administration,
and purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.
were at least four conspirators in addition to Booth involved
in the mayhem. Booth was shot and captured while hiding
in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died later
the same day, April 26, 1865. Four co-conspirators, Paine,
George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt, were
hanged at the gallows of the Old Penitentiary, on the
site of present-day Fort McNair, on July 7, 1865.
Lincoln's Last Day
President Abraham Lincoln on his death bed.
(Library of Congress)
As usual the president arose at seven. Friday, April 14,
1865, began as a lovely spring day in Washington, D.C. The
dogwood trees were in bloom, and there was a scent of fresh
flowers in the air. The willows along the Potomac River
were green. In the parks and gardens the lilacs bloomed.
Before breakfast Mr. Lincoln, 56, went to his office, sat
down at an upright mahogany desk and worked for awhile.
Behind him was a velvet bell cord which he pulled to summon
a secretary. The president left instructions for Assistant
Secretary of State Frederick Seward to call a Cabinet meeting
at 11:00 A.M. (Secretary of State William Seward was confined
to bed due to a carriage accident.) Mr. Lincoln also wrote
a note inviting General Ulysses S. Grant to attend the Cabinet
Abraham Lincoln ate breakfast. Normally he had one egg and
one cup of coffee. This morning Mary Todd Lincoln, 46, sat
at the opposite end of the table with sons, Robert, 21,
and Tad, 12, at the sides. President Lincoln listened as
Captain Robert Lincoln discussed his brief tour of duty
in the Union Army. Robert had been present at the Mclean
House in Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee surrendered.
Mary said she had tickets to Grover's Theatre, but she'd
prefer to see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. She
also indicated a hope that General and Mrs. Grant would
accompany them to the theater. After breakfast the president
excused himself to go back to work in his office which was
located in the southeast corner of the White House.
Lincoln read the morning newspapers. His first visitor of
the day was Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax. Lincoln
told the Speaker his own ideas as to what the future policy
should be toward the Southern states. Colfax expressed a
concern that Lincoln would proceed with reconstruction without
legislative branch consultation. At the War Department General
Grant told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the Grants
were going to decline the Lincolns' theater invitation.
Mr. Lincoln greeted more visitors. One of them was former
New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale who had recently been
appointed minister to Spain. (Hale's daughter, Lucy, was
John Wilkes Booth's fiancée.) Mr. Lincoln then called
for a messenger and requested that he go to Ford's Theatre
and reserve the State Box for the evening's performance.
He did not yet know General Grant intended to decline the
invitation and leave Washington on a late afternoon train.
The management of Ford's was elated when they heard the
news of their special guests for Good Friday's Our American
president began the scheduled meeting of his Cabinet. Stanton,
as usual, arrived late. Grant was present at the meeting,
and Lincoln was expecting important deliberations regarding
reconstruction to occur. He admitted he was open to suggestions
on this very complex matter. Lots of various ideas were
proposed to begin the process of reconciliation between
North and South. Also discussed was what to do with the
leaders of the Confederacy. Lincoln spoke from the heart
when he said, "... enough lives have been sacrificed."
The Cabinet meeting continued with more discussion of the
process of putting the country on its feet again.
for minor differences of opinion, the Cabinet seemed agreed
that helping the South economically would also be beneficial
to the North. At this point, the president asked General
Grant to describe the details of General Lee's surrender.
Vice-President Andrew Johnson arrived at the White House.
With the Cabinet meeting still in progress, Johnson decided
to take a walk and wait until Lincoln could see him.
The Cabinet meeting ended. Grant got up from his chair and
walked over to Mr. Lincoln. The general explained he and
his wife would not be going to Ford's Theatre; rather they
were taking the evening train out of Washington to visit
their children. At about 2:20 Lincoln left the office for
lunch with Mary. Although no record of the lunch time conversation
exists, it's quite likely Abraham told Mary that the Grants
would not be accompanying them to see Our American Cousin.
Lincoln, back at work, studied some papers dealing with
an army deserter. He signed a pardon, and made the remark,
"Well, I think the boy can do us more good above ground
Johnson and Mr. Lincoln met for approximately 20 minutes.
Then the president met with a former slave named Nancy Bushrod.
Her husband had served in the Union Army, but he was missing
some paychecks. Lincoln promised to look into the matter.
At the War Department, the Stantons decided to "send
regrets" about attending Our American Cousin with the
Lincolns that evening.
had finished his day's work. Mary wished to go for a carriage
ride. The president met briefly with Charles A. Dana, Assistant
Secretary of War.
Edward H. Rollins of New Hampshire stopped by to get a pass
for a constituent to go and see his wounded son in an army
hospital. The president and his wife came out on the White
House porch. A one-armed soldier, hoping to catch sight
of Mr. Lincoln, yelled, "I would almost give my other
hand if I could shake that of Abraham Lincoln." The
president walked toward the soldier and grabbed his hand.
Lincoln said, "You shall do that and it shall cost
you nothing." The Lincolns then entered the carriage
with Francis P. Burke, their coachman, as the driver. Two
cavalrymen followed the carriage as it started down the
gravel White House driveway. The carriage arrived at the
Navy Yard, and the president took a short stroll on the
deck of the monitor Montauk. Then he got back in the carriage
for the short trip back to the White House.
The carriage pulled into the White House driveway. Two old
friends from Illinois, Dick Oglesby and General Isham N.
Haynie, greeted the president. He invited them into his
office for a friendly discussion of 'old times.' Word that
dinner was ready reached Lincoln, and his old friends excused
themselves. The Lincolns ate as a family. Mary told Abraham
that a young couple, Clara Harris, 20, and Major Henry Rathbone,
28, had accepted a Ford's Theatre invitation. (Rathbone's
townhouse at 712 Jackson Place in Lafayette Square still
stands.) The Lincolns would pick up the couple at the Harris
residence on H Street near Fourteenth.
William H. Crook, the president's bodyguard, was relieved
three hours late by John F. Parker. Parker was told to be
on hand at Ford's Theatre when the presidential party got
there. Crook said, "Good night, Mr. President."
Lincoln responded, "Good-by, Crook." According
to Crook, this was a first. Lincoln had always previously
said, "Good night, Crook." Speaker of the House
Colfax visited the president for a second time that day.
Lincoln told him he had decided not to call a special session
of Congress to deal with reconstruction. Colfax left, and
at 7:50 former Congressman George Ashmun arrived without
an appointment. Lincoln decided to see Ashmun anyway.
At 8:05 Lincoln's business with Ashmun was still unfinished,
and he requested a return visit in the morning. Lincoln
wrote out the last message of his life: "Allow Mr.
Ashmun & friend to come in at 9:00 A.M. tomorrow."
The note was signed "A. Lincoln, April 14, 1865."
He and Mrs. Lincoln then went out the front door of the
White House to the waiting carriage. (The carriage is on
display at the Studebaker National Museum. There is a photograph
of it on the museum’s website.) Mary wore a black
and white striped silk dress and a matching bonnet; Abraham
wore a black overcoat and white kid gloves. Lincoln's coat
was made of wool and had been tailored for him by Brooks
Brothers of New York. The weather had changed; it was a
foggy, misty night. On the way to Ford's, the carriage stopped
to pick up Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone. (Both of whom
are pictured to the left; the photo of Clara is from the
Associated Press, and the photo of Henry is from the National
Archives.) The carriage proceeded to Ford's. Clara Harris
and Major Rathbone faced the Lincolns, riding backwards.
Also in the carriage were Burke, the coachman, and Charles
Forbes, Lincoln's valet. They arrived at Ford's at about
8:30 P.M. The play had already begun. John M. Buckingham,
Ford's main doorkeeper and ticket collector, greeted the
honored guests. John Parker led the presidential party as
it entered the theater and walked towards the State Box.
The play stopped, and the orchestra played "Hail to
the Chief." People in the audience stood and politely
clapped. Once the president was seated, Our American Cousin
resumed. His chair was a black walnut one with red upholstery.
It had been brought down from the Ford family's personal
quarters located on the 3rd floor above Taltavul's Star
Our American Cousin continued before over 1,000 patrons
in the theater. At one point, Abraham Lincoln felt a chill.
Mary asked if he wanted a shawl, but the president rose
and put on his black coat instead. He sat back in his rocking
chair (which was out of view of the vast majority of the
audience). During the play's intermission, John F. Parker,
the president's bodyguard, left the theater and went next
door to Taltavul's Star Saloon for a drink. He was not at
his post when Act III of the play began.
American Cousin was now in its third act. Mary sat very
close to her husband, her hand in his. She whispered to
him, "What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on
to you so?" The president replied, "She won't
think anything about it." It was between 10:15 P.M.
and 10:30 P.M. On stage actor Harry Hawk was saying, "Don't
know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know
enough to turn you inside out, old gal - you sockdologizing
old mantrap!" John Wilkes Booth came up behind Mr.
Lincoln and shot him in the back of the head near point
blank range. The bullet entered the head about 3 inches
behind the left ear and traveled about 7 1/2 inches into
the brain. Major Rathbone thought Booth shouted a word that
sounded like "Freedom!" (Many accounts have Booth
yelling "Sic Semper Tyrannis" in the box, or when
he landed on the stage.) Booth struggled briefly with Rathbone,
stabbed him with a knife, leaped 11 feet to the stage, broke
the fibula bone in his left leg, and escaped from the theater.
(At least one assassination expert, Michael Kauffman, feels
Booth did not break his leg in his leap to the stage. Kauffman
feels Booth broke his leg later that night when his horse
took a fall.) Lincoln's head inclined toward his chest,
and Mrs. Lincoln screamed.
The first doctor to attend the president was 23 year old
Charles Leale. After examining the stricken man he sadly
said, "His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him
to recover." It was decided to move the president,
and his comatose body was carried across the street to the
Petersen House whose address was 453 Tenth Street (nowadays
516 Tenth Street).
To the right is a contemporary drawing of the Petersen House
on the night of the assassination. Armed soldiers guard
the house as the president is cared for inside. (The drawing
is from the Library of Congress.)
president was placed diagonally on a bed in a room rented
by William T. Clark (pictured to the left; the photo of
Clark came from p. 49 of WHEN LINCOLN DIED: The Assassination,
The Funeral Journey, The Pursuit and Trial of the Conspirators,
The Complete Story in Pictures and in the Words of His
Day by Ralph Borreson), an army clerk. It was a small,
neat room which measured 9 1/2 by 17 1/2 feet. Lincoln's
pulse was 44, and his breathing was heavy. He was cold
to the touch.