Abraham Lincoln had been on John Wilkes Booth's mind for months before he decided to shoot him at close range in a darkened theater on April 14, 1865. Around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864, Booth began scheming against the president, whom he loathed for his anti-slavery stance and for waging 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.
And the president wasn't his only target.
On the night of April 14, a mere two hours before heading inside Ford’s Theatre, Booth met at a boarding house 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 William Seward to Powell and Herold and Vice President Andrew Johnson to Atzerodt. Booth may have also wanted to kill Ulysses S. Grant, whom Lincoln had invited to the theater that night, but the top Union general had left Washington 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.
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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, who was supposed to be outside waiting to guide him to safety, was 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.
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Meanwhile, as Powell and Booth carried out their bloody rampage, Atzerodt sat at the bar of the Kirkwood House, a five-story hotel located a short walk from both Ford’s Theatre and Seward’s residence. Atzerodt, who had foolishly rented a room there in his own name, was hoping to imbibe some liquid courage before going upstairs to kill Vice President Johnson, who stayed there intermittently since his vice presidential inauguration. That night, Johnson was alone and unguarded in his suite—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. After 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.
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