Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States was assassinated 150 years ago while on a trip to the theatre. Here Dr Jennifer L. Weber, associate professor at the University of Kansas and an expert on the subject of Lincoln, gives a synopsis of the event and a glimpse into the mindset of his assassin.
On 11 April 1865, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, President Abraham Lincoln stood on the White House balcony and made a few remarks to a crowd that had gathered in celebration below. Lincoln alluded to a new plan for reconstruction, one that included voting rights for some African Americans.
Among those in the crowd was John Wilkes Booth, a successful stage actor and member of the well-known Booth theatrical family. Born in Maryland, he was a Confederate sympathiser and white supremacist, though he never fought in the war. Upon hearing Lincoln’s new plan, Booth turned to a friend and said: ‘That mean nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.’
And with that, his months-long plan to kidnap the president and take him to Richmond turned into an assassination plot, one that involved killing the president, vice president, and secretary of state in a single night. Booth’s object was to decapitate the American government.
His opportunity came quickly. On the night of 14 April, Lincoln and his wife were to attend ‘Our American Cousin’, a comedy play being performed at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The Lincolns and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, arrived late and took their seats.
While the play unfolded, Lincoln’s bodyguard abandoned his post in the hallway to get a drink across the street. Booth crept up the stairs and waited for a laugh line: one character calling another ‘a sockdologising old man-trap’, which the actor delivered about 10.15. As Lincoln and the audience roared with laughter, Booth stepped into the president’s box and shot him behind the left ear with a .44-caliber derringer. The gun was six inches from Lincoln’s head.
Mary Lincoln screamed; chaos ensued. Rathbone tried to stop Booth, who slashed the major’s arm with a dagger. Booth leaped from the box onto the stage below, catching his left spur in the bunting hung over the rail. His awkward landing broke Booth’s leg. He yelled, ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’ (‘thus ever to tyrants’), then limped off the stage and out the back door to a waiting horse. He was hunted by Federal troops for 12 days before being found, and killed, in a Virginia barn.
At Ford’s, meantime, a young army doctor raced into the Lincolns’ box and found the president slumped in his chair, paralysed, and struggling to breathe. Soldiers carried Lincoln across Tenth Street to a boarding house, where they installed him in a bed so small that they had to lay the 6-foot-4-inch president diagonally across it. The surgeon general arrived at the scene, along with Vice President Andrew Johnson (spared an attempt on his life by a Booth co-conspirator who got drunk and lost his courage) and much of Lincoln’s cabinet, save for Secretary of State William Seward, who was stabbed nearly to death that night by a third Booth colleague. It was Good Friday.
Mrs. Lincoln, overcome with grief, was led from the room while the men waited for Lincoln’s death that the surgeon general deemed certain to come that night. Lincoln survived the night, but died at 07.22 the next morning. The morning after that, Easter Sunday, ministers across the North stood in their pulpits and compared Lincoln to Jesus. He was, they said, the American Christ – one who gave his life that his nation should live.
Dr Jennifer L. Weber is an associate professor at the University of Kansas in the United States. Her expertise is in Civil War studies. She is the author of Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Oxford, 2006) and is currently working on a book about the impact of conscription on the Union.