On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth fired one bullet into the back of President Abraham Lincoln’s head inside Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The president died the next morning. On the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, explore 10 surprising facts about one of the most infamous moments in American history.
Booth initially planned to kidnap Lincoln.
After meeting with Confederate spies in the summer of 1864, Booth spearheaded a plot to abduct Lincoln, bring him to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and use him as a bargaining chip to secure the release of rebel prisoners. On March 17, 1865, Booth and his fellow conspirators hid along a country road in Washington, D.C., intending to commandeer the presidential carriage that was scheduled to carry Lincoln to a matinee performance of a play at Campbell Hospital to benefit wounded soldiers. Lincoln, however, had a change of plans and never showed. Booth soon had a change of plans as well. After the fall of Richmond and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he decided to kill, rather than kidnap, Lincoln.
Ulysses S. Grant was originally scheduled to be at Lincoln’s side.
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Just days after accepting Lee’s surrender, the Union general accepted Lincoln’s invitation to attend “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. The general’s wife, however, had recently been the victim of Mary Todd Lincoln’s acid tongue and wanted no part of a night on the town with the first lady. Grant backed out, citing the couple’s desire to travel to New Jersey to see their children. Lincoln had a surprisingly difficult time finding a replacement. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax and even son Robert Todd Lincoln turned down the tickets before Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, accepted.
Lincoln’s murder was part of a larger plot to decapitate the government.
Booth and his conspirators plotted to not only kill Lincoln, but Grant, Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Grant’s unexpected departure removed him as a target, and George Atzerodt lost his nerve and failed to follow through on his assignment to slay Johnson at his residence in the Kirkwood House hotel. At the same time Booth shot Lincoln, Lewis Powell stormed Seward’s house and repeatedly stabbed the cabinet member, who was bedridden after a near-fatal carriage accident. Seward somehow survived the savage attack.
The lives of the Lincolns’ guests at Ford’s Theatre ended in tragedy as well.
After shooting Lincoln, Booth slashed Rathbone’s left arm from his elbow to his shoulder. Rathbone recovered from the stab wounds but not from the trauma of that night. After marrying Harris—who also happened to be his stepsister—in 1867, he grew increasingly erratic and perhaps suffered from post-traumatic stress. Two days before Christmas in 1883, he fatally shot and stabbed his wife before stabbing himself repeatedly in a suicide attempt. Once again, however, he survived the knife wounds. Rathbone lived out the remaining three decades of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane. (The fourth member of the presidential box on the night of the assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln, was herself institutionalized in 1875.)
Lincoln’s death was not universally mourned in the North.
As Martha Hodes recounts in her book “Mourning Lincoln,” some Northerners who thought Lincoln too dictatorial and some Radical Republicans who thought him too lenient toward the Confederacy welcomed news of his assassination. After a meeting of Radical Republicans hours after the shooting, Indiana Congressman George Julian recorded in his diary that the “universal feeling among radical men here is that his death is a godsend.” Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler wrote to his wife that God had permitted Lincoln to live only “as long as he was useful and then substituted a better man (Johnson) to finish the work.”
Mary Todd Lincoln thought the vice president was involved in the conspiracy.
VIDEO: The Assassination of Lincoln John Wilkes Booth had unobstructed access to President Lincoln on the night of his assassination at Ford’s Theater.
Hours before shooting Lincoln, Booth had mysteriously called on Johnson at the Kirkwood House and left a handwritten calling card that read: “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” The first lady, as she wrote to a friend, believed “that miserable inebriate Johnson had cognizance of my husband’s death. Why was that card of Booth’s found in his box? Some acquaintance certainly existed.” Atzerodt’s failure to attack the vice president was even seen by some as proof of Johnson’s complicity.
Lincoln and Booth had a previous encounter at Ford’s Theatre.
On November 9, 1863, the Lincolns watched a performance of “The Marble Heart” starring John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. Mary Clay, one of the Lincoln’s guests, recounted after the assassination that “twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln’s face.” After Booth gestured menacingly toward the president a third time, Clay said, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” The president replied, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?”
Lincoln’s deathbed quickly became a tourist attraction.
In the hours after Lincoln died in the back bedroom of William Petersen’s boardinghouse across the street from Ford’s Theatre, souvenir hunters ransacked the property and snatched numerous relics of the martyred president. Deciding to cash in himself, Petersen began to charge admission to the hundreds of curiosity-seekers who came each day to see Lincoln’s bloody deathbed, which incredibly continued to be slept in by tenant William Clark each night. Petersen fell into financial difficulty in 1871 and died after being found on the lawn of the Smithsonian Institution following an opium overdose.
Robert Todd Lincoln was in close proximity to two other presidential assassinations.
Sixteen years after being bedside for his father’s death, Robert Todd Lincoln was serving as President James A. Garfield’s secretary of war when he witnessed Charles Guiteau fire two gunshots that mortally wounded the chief executive inside a Washington, D.C., train station. On September 6, 1901, Lincoln arrived in Buffalo to attend the Pan-American Expo at the invitation of William McKinley only to learn that the president had just been shot. Lincoln visited McKinley’s bedside several times before the president ultimately succumbed to his wounds.
Another deadly tragedy struck Ford’s Theatre during the funeral of Booth’s brother.
When John T. Ford attempted to reopen Ford’s Theater to performances on July 10, 1865, Stanton, who was “opposed to its ever being again used as a place of public amusement,” dispatched heavily armed soldiers to prevent the show from going on. The federal government eventually purchased Ford’s Theatre for $100,000, gutted the auditorium and converted the building into war department offices. On June 9, 1893, at the precise moment when funeral services for Edwin Booth began inside New York’s Church of the Transfiguration, three floors of Ford’s Theatre collapsed into the basement and killed 22 federal workers.
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