He should have stayed acting

     The art of acting has seen few practitioners more passionate than John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865).  During his acting career he was called “the handsomest man in America” and a “natural genius”, with an “astonishing memory”.   Certainly he fit the description of “tall, dark and handsome.”  Booth stood 5 feet 8 inches, had jet-black, curly hair and was lean, muscular and athletic. 

     He was born into a prominent 19th century theatrical family from Maryland.  His father was British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, and his two older brothers, Edwin and Junius Jr., were also well-known actors.  At age 16 young John also became interested in acting.  He memorized Shakespeare, and practiced elocution when he was alone in the woods, acting out various scenes and declaiming famous speeches from the plays.

     He made his stage debut in 1855.  Like many new actors, at first he suffered stage fright and stumbled over his lines.  At one point, in the play “Lucrezia Borgia” instead of introducing himself by saying “Madame, I am Petruchio Pandolfo,” he stammered “Madame, I am Pondolfio Pet – Pedolfio Pat – Pantuchio Ped – dammit!  Who am I?” which caused the audience to roar with laughter.  To avoid comparison with his famous family, he acted under an assumed name.  It wasn’t long before he became so skilled that his brother Edwin insisted on revealing the handsome youth’s true name to a cheering audience after a performance.

     Booth became an outrageous scene stealer and enthralled audiences with his enthusiastic, athletic acting style.  A skilled swordsman, he sometimes got so carried away in fencing scenes that he cut himself with his own sword.  Women swooned over the handsome young actor, and men enjoyed his exciting performances.  By the 1860s Booth was a “star”, well known in both the North and the South.  Soon he was earning $20,000 a year (by today’s standards, around $500,000), and well on the way to being a wealthy man.

     Unfortunately, the young man had other passions besides acting.  He was a Confederate sympathizer and was absolutely outraged by the South’s defeat in the Civil War.  He bitterly opposed the abolition of slavery and was horrified by Lincoln’s proposal to extend voting rights to recently emancipated slaves.  He went from patriotism to obsessive frenzy.  His violent tirades against Lincoln became so upsetting to his family that his brother Edwin finally banned Booth from his home.

     Booth had promised his mother that he would not enlist at a soldier, but he became increasingly upset at not being able to fight for the South.  He confided to his journal that he felt like a coward because he could do nothing to support the Confederacy.  Therefore, he concocted a plan to kidnap Lincoln and smuggle him into the Confederacy to be exchanged for Confederate prisoners of war.  Booth reasoned that this would force the Union to recognize the Confederate government.

     He assembled a group of Southern sympathizers, and the conspirators began to hold regular meetings at a boarding house.  Although Lee had surrendered, Booth believed the war was not over and the South could still form a separate government, given the opportunity.  He and his co-conspirators hoped to provide that opportunity.

     Booth attended Lincoln’s second inauguration as the guest of Lucy Hale, his secret fiancée.  He can be seen in one of the photos taken that day, a face in the crowd, close enough to Lincoln to be a real threat.  He later noted in his journal that he could have killed the president then, if he had chosen to do so.  However, he still hoped to kidnap the president rather than shed blood. 

     At one point the conspirators actually waited on a deserted road that they believed Lincoln would travel, planning to kidnap him.  However, the president changed his schedule for the day and didn’t use the planned route.  The would-be kidnappers were left staring at an empty road, their plans crushed.  It may be that this was the point where Booth decided that Lincoln should be killed rather than kidnapped.       

     On the morning of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail and learned that Lincoln would be attending the play “Our American Cousin” that evening.   A regular actor at Ford’s, Booth not only had his mail delivered there but also had free access to all parts of the theatre and his presence at odd hours did not arouse suspicion.  He slipped upstairs and bored a spyhole into the door of the presidential box so he could observe its occupants.  Then he went home to wait for evening.

      At around 10 p.m. the evening of Good Friday, during a point in the play where he knew the audience would be laughing loudly, John Wilkes Booth slipped into Abraham Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer.  Major Henry Rathbone was also present in the presidential box.  Startled, he lunged at the assassin, and Booth stabbed him. 

     Booth then jumped to the stage, where he raised his knife and shouted “Sic simper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”).  Some eyewitnesses noted that he added “I have done it, the South is avenged!”  The story goes that Booth injured his leg when his spur snagged a decorative flag as he leaped to the stage.  However, eyewitness accounts of Booth’s exit indicate that he was not injured at that point.  It is most likely that Booth’s leg was hurt later that night when his high-spirited horse tripped and fell on him during his flight to escape. He may have fabricated the story about catching his spur in the flag so that he would appear more heroic. 

     After the assassination Booth fled through a stage door to the alley.  Accompanied by co-conspirator David Herold, he galloped into southern Maryland toward Virginia.  The escape route was planned to take advantage of the predominately Confederate area’s lack of telegraphs and railroads, as well as its dense forests and swampy terrain. 

     In the pre-dawn hours of April 15, they stooped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd for treatment of Booth’s injured, painful leg.  Mudd later testified that Booth said the injury occurred when his horse fell.  Then the fugitives rode on. 

     While hiding in the woods during his flight, Booth was given newspapers by sympathizers.  He saw the accounts of Lincoln’s death and the subsequent national mourning, and by April 20 he was aware that some of his co-conspirators were already arrested.  Booth, who had expected to be hailed as a hero, was shocked at the depth of public anger against him.  Even the anti-Lincoln newspapers condemned the assassination.

     In his April 21 journal entry, Booth wrote, “For six months we had worked to capture.  But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done.  I struck boldly, and not as the papers say.  I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”

     While federal troops combed the woods and swamps for the assassin, mourning gripped the nation.  The nine-car funeral train bearing Lincoln’s body made a 13-day journey to Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln would be buried.  It traveled through seven states, stopping at numerous locations.  In the cities where the train stopped, 1.5 million people viewed Lincoln in his coffin.  An additional 30 million people lined the railroad tracks along the 1,662-mile route, holding up signs such as “We mourn our loss” and “The darkest hour in history.”  As the train rolled along at night, the glare of innumerable torches illuminated hundreds of people kneeling on the ground. 

     Meanwhile, Booth was hiding out at a Virginia farm owned by Richard H. Garrett.  The Garrett family, unaware of the assassination, had been told Booth was “James Boyd,” a Confederate soldier trying to return home after being wounded in a battle.




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