President Abraham Lincoln is shot in the head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis! (Ever thus to tyrants!) The South is avenged,” as he jumped onto the stage and fled on horseback. Lincoln died the next morning.
Booth was a well-regarded actor who was particularly loved in the South before the Civil War. During the war, he stayed in the North and became increasingly bitter when audiences weren’t as enamored of him as they were in Dixie. Along with friends Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin, and John Surratt, Booth conspired to kidnap Lincoln and deliver him to the South.
On March 17, along with George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Paine, the group met in a Washington bar to plot the abduction of the president three days later. However, when the president changed his plans, the scheme was scuttled. Shortly afterward, the South surrendered to the Union and the conspirators altered their plan. They decided to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward on the same evening.
When April 14 came around, Atzerodt backed out of his part to kill Johnson. Upset, Booth went to drink at a saloon near Ford’s Theatre. At about 10 p.m. he walked into the theater and up to the president’s box. Lincoln’s guard, John Parker, was not there because he had gotten bored with the play, Our American Cousin, and left his post to get a beer. Booth easily slipped in and shot the president in the back of the head. The president’s friend, Major Rathbone, attempted to grab Booth but was slashed by Booth’s knife. Booth injured his leg badly when he jumped to the stage to escape, but he managed to hobble outside to his horse.
Meanwhile, Lewis Paine forced his way into William Seward’s house and stabbed the secretary of state several times before fleeing. Booth rode to Virginia with David Herold and stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who placed splints on Booth’s legs. They hid in a barn on Richard Garrett’s farm as thousands of Union troops combed the area looking for them. The other conspirators were captured, except for John Surratt, who fled to Canada.
When the troops finally caught up with Booth and Herold on April 26, they gave them the option of surrendering before the barn was burned down. Herold decided to surrender, but Booth remained in the barn as it went up in flames. Booth was then shot and killed in the burning barn by Corporal Boston Corbett. On July 7, George Atzerodt, Lewis Paine, David Herold, and John Surratt’s mother, Mary, were hanged in Washington. The execution of Mary Surratt is believed by some to have been a miscarriage of justice. Although there was proof of Surratt’s involvement in the original abduction conspiracy,it is clear that her deeds were minor compared to those of the others who were executed.
Her son John was eventually tracked down in Egypt and brought back to trial, but he managed, with the help of clever lawyers, to win an acquittal.