On the night of April 14, 1865, well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth slipped into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and shot President Abraham Lincoln in the head, mortally wounding him. Booth may have fired the bullet that assassinated the president, but he didn’t act alone.
In his final days, a network of conspirators helped to conceal Booth’s escape from pursuing Union soldiers. The manhunt was one of the biggest in U.S. history, involving nearly 1,000 Union soldiers. Booth eluded capture for almost 2 weeks, but on April 26, 1865, his luck finally ran out.
Booth was a popular celebrity.
By the 1860s, 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth had become one of most popular and recognizable stage actors of the day. He had toured the country, landing leading roles in plays from New Orleans to Chicago and Boston.
Booth’s good looks and charm made him an early American heartthrob. “He is said to be the first actor to have his clothes torn by fans,” says Terry Alford, Professor Emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College and author of the book Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth.
Booth’s popularity made his murderous act all the more shocking. When he fired a bullet at Lincoln, he was the first person in American history to kill a president.
But why’d he do it?
Booth harbored Confederate sympathies.
Booth was a native of Maryland—a slave state that elected to stay in the Union—and he “hated abolitionists and thought they were trying to destroy the country he loved,” says Alford.
At the start of the Civil War, Booth contemplated going to fight for the Confederacy, but his mother talked him out of it. That decision would wear on Booth’s psyche for the next four years.
As defeat looked increasingly likely for the South, Booth reproached himself for his cowardice in not fighting for his beliefs. “The ethical event of his generation was passing him by. He decided in desperation that he had to do something,” says Alford.
In late 1864, Booth and a group of co-conspirators hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln—a move they hoped could save the Confederacy. By April, the plot had turned to murder.
“Booth was reckless by nature. He had raw guts in abundance and decided in desperation to do something for the South while there still was a South to do something for,” says Alford.
What did John Wilkes Booth shout after shooting Lincoln?
After shooting Lincoln, Booth leapt from the president’s box and tumbled onto the stage. Eye witnesses in the theater that night heard him shout, “Sic semper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants!]”
Booth broke his leg in the fall, but that didn’t stop him. He managed to escape the theater through a side exit. In the alley outside the theater, he mounted a horse and rode away, joined by an accomplice named David Herold.
An epic manhunt followed the assassination.
The two rode through the night, arriving around four o’clock in the morning at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd in southern Maryland. Mudd splinted Booth’s broken leg and allowed the pair to rest in his home.
Mudd had been a conspirator in Booth’s earlier plot to kidnap Lincoln, but he didn’t know that Booth killed the president.
The following day, Mudd read the news in the morning paper. Upon realizing he was housing a fugitive, Mudd kicked Booth and Herold out of his home—but he did not turn them in.
By that time, more than 1,000 Union soldiers were searching for Booth and Herold. The bounty for the capture of Booth, Herold, and a third accomplice totaled $100,000.
Booth found refuge in a swamp.
Booth and Herold continued south on horseback. For four days they hid out in Zekiah Swamp, Union soldiers close on their trail. Herold had spent time hunting in the area, according to Alford, so he knew where to hide.
The pair concealed themselves in a dense pine thicket. At times, search parties came so close that Booth and Herold could hear them talking.
An accomplice supplied the fugitives with food, water and newspapers. Many newspapers, even in the South, expressed dismay and sympathy over Lincoln’s assassination. Booth was shocked the papers described him as “a common cutthroat” rather than a hero.
Confederate sympathizers helped Booth and Herold cross the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers into Virginia.
VIDEO: Behind the Assassin
A closer look at why John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Booth met his end on a tobacco farm.
Posing as wounded Confederate soldiers on their way home from the War, Booth and Herold took shelter in a tobacco barn on the Virginia farm of Richard Garrett.
A tip led Union troops to the farm early on the morning of April 26. Booth and Herold were sleeping inside the barn. Herold surrendered, but Booth signaled his intent to fight back.
The troops lit the barn on fire. When Booth finally emerged from the burning barn, Union soldier Boston Corbett shot him in the neck.
Booth was buried in secret.
Booth died of his neck injury a few hours later on the Garrett family’s front porch.
His body was swiftly taken to Washington, D.C., and secretly buried in the city’s Old Penitentiary, where Herold and three other Booth conspirators would later be hanged.
Four years later, President Andrew Johnson returned Booth’s body to his family. Today, John Wilkes Booth is buried in an unmarked grave in the Booth family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.