President Abraham Lincoln is shot in the head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865. 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.
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Booth, who remained in the North during the war despite his Confederate sympathies, initially plotted to capture President Lincoln and take him to Richmond, the Confederate capital. However, on March 20, 1865, the day of the planned kidnapping, the president failed to appear at the spot where Booth and his six fellow conspirators lay in wait. Two weeks later, Richmond fell to Union forces. In April, with Confederate armies near collapse across the South, Booth hatched a desperate plan to save the Confederacy.
Learning that Lincoln was to attend Laura Keene’s acclaimed performance in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater on April 14, Booth plotted the simultaneous assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. By murdering the president and two of his possible successors, Booth and his conspirators hoped to throw the U.S. government into a paralyzing disarray.
On the evening of April 14, conspirator Lewis T. Powell burst into Secretary of State Seward’s home, seriously wounding him and three others, while George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Vice President Johnson, lost his nerve and fled.
Meanwhile, just after 10 p.m., Booth entered Lincoln’s private theater box unnoticed, and shot the president with a single bullet in the back of his head. Although Booth had broken his left leg jumping from Lincoln’s box, he succeeded in escaping Washington.
The president, mortally wounded, was carried to a cheap lodging house opposite Ford’s Theater. About 7:22 a.m. the next morning, he died—the first U.S. president to be assassinated.
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 Powell, 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 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 Powell 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 Powell, 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.