Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Over the Edge

"...The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

Julius Caesar

Headlines on April 10, 1865, splashed the celebratory words sea to sea: WAR IS ENDED. To the North, it was splendid news. To the South, it was bittersweet their cause was lost, but they had borne the brunt of ruin and poverty and death. They were thankful if their sons, brothers and fathers were coming home alive. To a few the news brought resentment. To Wilkes it brought rage.

To avoid being bottlenecked in crumbling Richmond, General Lee had made a vainglorious attempt to sidestep the surrounding Union Army besieging Richmond. For a week, Northern General Ulysses S. Grant pursued closely. Then, near the little village of Appomattox, Va., he lassoed the fox. Unable to retreat, Lee surrendered.

Washington turned out to party. Makeshift torchlight parades of well-wishers, banner carriers and streamer throwers sprouted at street corners; brass bands played patriotic songs well into the wee hours. No one slept. There was laughter and there was tintinnabulation. The great locomotives on the B&O line whistled as they cut through the city; barges on the Potomac tooted shrill horns. On the White House grounds the frenzy reached a delightful high when President Lincoln appeared in an upstairs window to greet the crowds that formed outside. Wilkes remained with co-conspirator Lewis Paine behind the mob and scowled, "That is the last speech he will ever make."

Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)
Abraham Lincoln
(Library of Congress)

During the war, whenever pressure overwhelmed, President Lincoln would escape with his wife to one of Washingtons two central playhouses, Fords or Grovers. Some considered this behavior irreverent in the wake of a shooting war. But, no one criticized him now that the conflict had ended. He had aged terribly in four years, the pain of worry scarring his features, so when it was announced on Friday, April 14, that he would attend Fords Theatre to see the celebrated comedy, Our American Cousin, the nation considered his respite well earned. Tonight, Lincoln would rest.

Wilkes learned of the Presidents coming when he stopped at Fords at noon to pick up his mail, where he kept a post box. He noticed carpenters preparing Box 7 with the usual regalia and understood what that meant. He raced out to find his brigands.

Arnold and OLaughlen, he learned, had returned to Baltimore, disinterested in further enterprise. John Surratt was nowhere to be seen. (Actually, he was in Canada on a final mission for the Underground.) Wilkes was able to locate Paine, David Herold and George Atzerodt to prepare them for an evening they had not expected.

His plan was spontaneous, it was bloody, and it was hellish. Comparing them to soldiers who must avenge their stricken South, he assigned each of them a human target to kill that night one of a "senate of butchers" most responsible for the Souths defeat. Paine would slay Secretary of State William H. Seward who was at home bed-ridden after a carriage accident days earlier; he would make an easy prey. David Herolds quarry was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton who, Wilkes said, never went out nights. And Atzerodts target was Vice President Andrew Johnson, who resided at the Kirkwood House, where the German was also staying.

But Wilkes chose for himself the starring role as the Brutus of this play, the man who would take the life of the dictator. He would bring down the Colossus of Rhodes at last.



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