Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Wilkes Booth: The Story of Abraham Lincoln's Murderer


"Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself."

Henry VIII

Lincoln had had a dream that haunted him his last several days on earth. In the dream, he had awakened to hear sounds of sobbing in the White House. He followed the noise to the East Room. "There I met with a sickening surprise," he told Ward Lamon, a friend. "Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse. Who is dead in the White House? I demanded of one of the soldiers.

Derringer used to shoot Lincoln (National Park Service)
Derringer used to shoot Lincoln
(National Park Service)

The President, was his answer. He was killed by an assassin.

At about 9:30 p.m. the evening of April 14, that assassin sauntered into the Star Saloon next door to Fords Theatre and ordered a shot of whisky. Peter Taltavul, the establishments owner, thought it curious that Wilkes, a habitual brandy drinker, should suddenly order whisky. Nevermind that, Wilkes smiled. Do you plan on seeing the show tonight? You ought to. Youll see some damn fine acting! With that, he checked the wall clock and left.

The Presidents carriage was parked on 10th Street outside the theatre; Forbes the coachman dozed in the drivers seat. A slight drizzle dampened the streets. Once inside the foyer, Wilkes checked the time again: three-quarters to ten. He nodded at ticket taker John Buckingham and ascended the stairs to the dress circle. From within the auditorium he could hear muffled echoes of stage dialogue. He recognized the lines he knew so well. He knew Our American Cousin; he knew that in Act III, Scene 2 at any moment now only one actor would be left alone onstage. That would be his cue.

Across Washington, the other conspirators synchronized their timepieces. Their plan was to strike all at once, to throw the city into confusion, thus making their egress from the city more possible. In Lafayette Square, adjacent to the Seward home, Paine checked his tools of trade: a revolver and a Bowie knife. A few blocks away, David Herold shivered in a fine mist that sent chills through him there in the gloom of Stantons yard. He gulped, panic tightening his throat. George Atzerodt was drunk. He had no intention of killing anyone. When he discovered his bottle was empty, he left the Kirkwood House in search of the nearest tavern. Damn the Vice President.

Within Box 7, the Lincolns and their evenings guests Major Henry Rathbone and his imper, Clara Harris were immersed in the zany goings-on below the balustrade. Lincoln leaned over in his rocker toward the stage and was roaring. Beside him, wife Mary was pleased just to watch her husband finally at ease. Their backs were toward the box door. No one detected their visitor now standing behind them, his hand reaching inside his coat.

It was now time to fell the Colossus of Rhodes. Fifteen feet below, comedian Harry Hawk stood mid-stage, the entire platform his, still howling retorts in the direction of the other characters who had just exited stage right. The house was in stitches.

Wilkes did what he always enjoyed. He stole the scene. In one movement, he drew his derringer, fired a leaden ball into Lincolns skull, and threw a leg over the balustrade to jump. Major Rathbone, half-realizing what had happened, grappled at the intruder, then recoiled when a dagger slashed his arm.

But the majors action had thrown Wilkes off balance so that, in thrusting himself from the railing, one boot spur tangled with a decorative government flag hanging there. Instead of taking the graceful leap intended, his body twisted sideways until it dropped, deadweight, onto the stage. Harry Hawk turned around at the noise, stunned. The spectators twittered...what is this? What does this have to do with the scenario? Isnt that J. Wilkes Booth?

Something was wrong with his left leg. Wilkes sensed it immediately. The ankle ached like the devil, and it didnt want to support him. Nevertheless, the actor he was, he found time to deliver his line...a phrase actually, the motto of the State of Virginia...Sic imper Tyrannis! Latin for Thus may it be ever to tyrants! He turned his back on his last audience and hobbled past an opened-mouthed backstage crew until he reached the alley door where his bay roan waited.

It wasnt until he was gone that the realization of what had happened seeped in. It came in the form of Mary Lincolns scream for help.

President's box at Ford Theater
President's box at Ford


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