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The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a plot by John Wilkes Booth and three co-conspirators assigned to simultaneously eliminating the top three people in the administration, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to sever the continuity of the United States government.
Booth's co-conspirators were Lewis Powell and David Herold, who were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt who was tasked to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. By simultaneously eliminating the top three people in the administration, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to sever the continuity of the United States government.
Lincoln was shot while watching the play Our American Cousin with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.. He died early the next morning. The rest of the conspirators' plot failed; Powell only managed to wound Seward, while Atzerodt, Johnson's would-be assassin, lost his nerve and fled. The funeral and burial of Abraham Lincoln was a period of national mourning.
Members of the plot
- Samuel Arnold (kidnapping plot)
- George Atzerodt (assassination plot)
- John Wilkes Booth (President Lincoln's assassin)
- David Herold (assassination plot)
- Michael O'Laughlen (kidnapping plot)
- Lewis Powell (assassination plot)
- Edmund Spangler (kidnapping plot)
- John Surratt (kidnapping plot)
- Mary Surratt (assassination plot)
Attack on Lincoln
President Lincoln awoke the morning of April 14th, in a pleasant mood. Robert E. Lee had surrendered several days before to Ulysses Grant, and now the President was awaiting word from North Carolina on the surrender of Joseph E. Johnston. The morning papers carried the announcement that the President and his wife would be attending the comedy, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater that evening with General Grant and his wife.
At 11 o'clock that morning, Lincoln held a meeting with Grant and the Cabinet. Following the conference, Grant gave his regrets that he and his wife could no longer attend the play that evening. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton pleaded with the President not to go out at night, fearful that some rebel might try to shoot him in the street. At lunch the President told his wife the news about the Grants. Disappointed, the Lincolns nonetheless decided to maintain their announced plans and asked Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, to join them.
Arriving after the play had started, the two couples swept up the stairs and into their seats. The box door was closed, but not locked. As the play progressed, police guard John Parker, a notorious drinker, left his post in the hallway leading to the box and went to a saloon next door for a drink. During the third act, the President and Mrs. Lincoln drew closer together, holding hands while enjoying the play.
When Actor Harry Hawk said his now infamous line, Lincoln was laughing at this line when he was shot. Katherine M. Evans, a young actress in the play, who was offstage when Lincoln was shot but rushed onstage after Booth's exit stated "I looked and saw President Lincoln unconscious, his head dropping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face".
Lincoln's guest in the box, Major Henry Rathbone lept to his feet and grabbed John Wilkes Booth and Booth dropped his pistol. They struggled and fought, but Booth pulled out the knife and stabbed Rathbone near his shoulder before pushing him against the wall. Booth then turned to jump from the balcony and Rathbone sat up and grabbed onto Booth's coat causing him to dangle over the balcony, Booth fell down to the stage, breaking his leg. He yelled "Sic semper tyrannis!" (Thus always to tyrants.) However, there are different “earwitness” accounts of what he said. While most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout “Sic semper tyrannis!”, others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled “Sic semper!” Some didn’t recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin. Some witnesses state that he also yelled "The South's is avenged!" Others thought they heard him say "Revenge for the South!" or "The South shall be free!" Two said Booth yelled "I have done it!" He than escaped across the stage just when Rathbone shouted "Stop that man!" and exited out the side door. On his way, he bumped into William Withers, Jr., the orchestra leader, and Booth stabbed at Withers with the knife. Upon leaving the building, Booth approached the horse he had waiting outside. Booth struck Joseph "Peanuts" (also called "Peanut Johnny") Burroughs, who was holding Booth's horse in the forehead with the handle of his knife, leaped onto the horse, apparently also kicking Burroughs in the chest with his good leg and rode away.
An army surgeon saw that Lincoln's wound was mortal. The President was taken across the street from the theater to the Petersen House, where he remained in a coma for nine hours before dying early the next morning. Rathbone recovered from his wounds but his mental state deteriorated in the years following Lincoln's death as he anguished over his perceived inability to thwart the assassination attempt. His mental decline culminated in his murdering his wife, Clara Harris (who was also in the box with Lincoln) on December 23, 1883, fatally shooting her then stabbing her several times. After he killed Clara, Rathbone attempted to kill himself. When the police arrived, the bleeding Rathbone claimed there were people hiding behind the pictures on the wall. The couple's children, who were also almost killed by their father, were taken to live with their uncle, William Harris, in the United States. Rathbone spent the rest of his life in the asylum for the criminally insane. It was as if John Willkes Booth contunued to kill way beyond that fateful evening.
Attack on Seward
Booth eventually was cornered at a farm. Booth refused to surrender. After a short firefight, a sergeant named Boston Corbett crept up behind the barn and shot Booth, severing his spinal cord with the bullet wound being in "the back of the head about an inch below the spot where his [Booth's] shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln". Booth was carried out onto the steps of the barn. A soldier poured water into his mouth, which Booth immediatly spatting out, unable to swallow. Booth told the soldier: "Tell my mother I die for my country." In agony, unable to move his limbs, he asked a soldier to lift his hands before his face. His last words were "Useless, useless." when he asked for his hands to be raised to his face. Booth died two hours afterwards.
- Lincoln watched Booth perform in numerous plays, including one called the Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre on November 9, 1863. Lincoln enjoyed Booth’s performance so much he sent a note backstage inviting him to the White House so they could meet. Booth refused the invation, later telling his friends “I would rather have the applause of a Negro to that of the president!” According to actor Frank Mourdant; "Lincoln was an admirer of the man who assassinated him. I know that, for he said to me one day that there was a young actor over in Ford’s Theater whom he desired to meet, but that the actor had on one pretext or another avoided any invitations to visit the White House. That actor was John Wilkes Booth."
- Approximately seven hours before shooting the president, Booth dropped by the Washington hotel which was Vice-President Andrew Johnson's residence. Upon learning from the desk clerk that neither Johnson nor his private secretary, William A. Browning, was in the hotel, Booth wrote the following note: "Don't wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth." Browning testified before the military court that he found the note in his box later that afternoon.
Did Johnson and Booth know each other? In the 1997 publication "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me" The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper it is stated on p. 146 that Booth had previously met Johnson in Nashville in February, 1864. At the time Booth was appearing in the newly opened Wood's Theatre. Also, author Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907) made the claim that while Johnson was military governor of Tennessee, he and Booth kept a couple of sisters as mistresses and oftentimes were seen in each other's company. Lincoln had essentially ignored Johnson after Johnson's embarrassing behavior on Inauguration Day. Mary Todd Lincoln felt Johnson was involved in her husband's assassination. On March 15, 1866, she wrote to her friend, Sally Orne: "...that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband's death - Why, was that card of Booth's, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed - I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man... As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..."Some members of Congress also thought Johnson was involved and a special Assassination Committee was established to investigate any evidence linking Johnson to Lincoln's death. Nothing suspicious was ever found by the committee; yet a belief by some Americans that Johnson was somehow involved with Booth continued for many years.
- Some researchers have speculated that John Wilkes Booth had a double named James William Boyd died in Booth's place and that John Wilkes Booth committed suicide in 1903 in Enid, Oklahoma, under the alias "David E. George".
- Booth originally planned on kidnapping the President and holding him for ransom. However, on April 11, 1865, two days after Lee's army surrendered to Grant, Booth attended a speech at the White House in which Lincoln promoted voting rights for blacks; he became so fed up, that it eventually led him to murder.