On April 14, 1865, disgruntled actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, snuck into an upper-level box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and fired a bullet into the brain of President Abraham Lincoln. Having thus fatally wounded the “Great Emancipator,” Booth dramatically leapt down to the stage below and made his escape out a back door. Yet he could not count the evening as a total success. Just blocks away, his co-conspirators were failing in a bid to similarly assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. A century and a half later, found out how Johnson and Seward escaped Lincoln’s fate.
Around the time of Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864, Booth began scheming against the president, whom he loathed for being anti-slavery and for making war against the South. At first, the well-known actor hoped to kidnap Lincoln, bring him to Richmond and exchange him for Confederate prisoners-of-war. However, the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865, and the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee a few days later prompted him to consider even more drastic action. On the night of April 14, a mere two hours before heading inside Ford’s Theatre, Booth met at a boardinghouse with three accomplices—Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt—and unveiled his new plan: assassination. Promising to take care of Lincoln himself, he allegedly assigned Secretary of State Seward to Powell and Herold and Vice President Johnson to Atzerodt. Booth may have also wanted to kill Ulysses S. Grant, but the top Union general had skipped town earlier in the day.
Powell, 20, a former Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg; Herold, 22, a pharmacist’s assistant; and Atzerodt, 29, a German-born carriage painter, had all been privy to the kidnapping plot (along with a handful of other Confederate agents and sympathizers). Now, despite some doubts voiced at the meeting by Atzerodt, the threesome left Booth fully intending to commit murder, prosecutors would later assert. Arriving at Seward’s residence within a stone’s throw of the White House, Powell rang the doorbell claiming to have a prescription for the secretary of state, who was bedridden, recuperating from a carriage accident. A servant let him in and reached out to accept the medicine, but Powell said he was under strict orders to deliver it personally. He then began pushing his way upstairs, arguing with both the servant and one of Seward’s sons who had come out to investigate the commotion. When the son refused to let him advance any further, Powell pretended to retreat but then whipped out his pistol and pulled the trigger. Luckily for the son, it misfired, but unluckily for him, Powell turned it into a blunt weapon, clubbing him on the head so severely that he fell into a temporary coma.
Powell next turned his attention to Seward’s bodyguard, slashing at him with a knife and pushing him to the floor. Only Seward’s daughter, who had inadvertently revealed her father’s location to Powell, now stood between him and his target. Maneuvering past her easily, the would-be assassin jumped on the secretary of state’s bed and began stabbing wildly downward, cutting open his cheek and neck. Before he could inflict a deathblow, however, the bodyguard and another of Seward’s sons pulled him off and wrestled him out of the room. Shouting “I’m mad, I’m mad!” Powell sliced away at both of them with his blade. Eventually tiring of the struggle, he ran downstairs and out of the house, giving one last stab to the back of a defenseless State Department messenger—his fifth victim, all of whom would live. Herold was supposed to be outside, waiting to guide him to safety, but had been scared off by the wild screams emanating from the house. Without his cohort, Powell quickly became lost. Some historians speculate that he ended up spending the night in a nearby cemetery.
Meanwhile, as Powell and Booth carried out their bloody rampage, Atzerodt sat at the bar of the Kirkwood House, where he had foolishly rented a room in his own name, hoping to imbibe some liquid courage. This 5-story hotel, located a short walk from both Ford’s Theatre and Seward’s residence, had intermittently hosted Johnson since just before his vice presidential inauguration that March. Alone and unguarded in his suite, the VP was a sitting duck. Yet Atzerodt, though armed with a gun and a knife, could not bring himself to knock on the door. Instead, he went outside and began drunkenly wandering around the city, finally checking into another hotel at around 2 a.m. He then pawned his gun the next morning and set out for the home of his cousin in Maryland, unaware that investigators had already found a second gun and knife in his room at the Kirkwood House, as well as a bankbook belonging to Booth. Upon being arrested on April 20, Atzerodt confessed to his role in the plot and informed on his co-conspirators.
By that time, Powell had also been taken into custody, having shown up at the boardinghouse of Mary Surratt, a Booth confidant, with a pickaxe and bloodstains on his sleeves. Herold lasted a bit longer on the lam. Meeting up with Booth in Maryland, the two managed to evade a massive federal manhunt for 12 days prior to being tracked down at a Virginia farmhouse. Booth was shot to death there, whereas Herold surrendered unharmed. Yet the reprieve was only temporary. A military tribunal found him guilty, and on July 7 he was hanged, along with Surratt, Atzerodt and Powell.