- "That means nigger citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through."
- —John Willkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth was born on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland, about 25 miles from Baltimore. He was born on May 10, 1838. He was the ninth of ten children of Junius Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. John's parents were British and had moved to the United States in 1821. In addition to the farm at Bel Air (where the Booth family had slaves), the family also owned a home on North Exeter Street in Baltimore where the colder months of the year were spent. Junius was one of the most famous actors on the American stage although he was an eccentric personality who had problems with alcohol and spells of madness. As a young man John attended several private schools including a boarding school operated by Quakers at Cockeysville.
As a teenager Booth attended St. Timothy's Hall, an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland. During the 1850's young Booth apparently became a Know-Nothing in politics. The Know-Nothing Party was formed by American nativists who wanted to preserve the country for native-born white citizens.
Booth eventually left school after his father died in 1852. He spent several years working at the farm near Bel Air. However, according to his sister, Asia Booth Clarke, Booth's dreams went beyond working at a farm. His goal was to be a famous actor like his father had been.
In August, 1855, when he was only 17 years old, Booth made his stage debut as the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare's Richard III. Two years passed before he made another appearance on stage. In 1857 Booth played stock in Philadelphia, but he frequently missed cues and forgot his lines. He persevered, however, and came of age in 1858 as a member of the Richmond Theatre. It was in Richmond where he truly became enamored with the Southern people and way of life. As his career gained momentum, many called him "the handsomest man in America." He stood 5-8, had jet black hair, ivory skin, and was lean and athletic. He had an easy charm about him that attracted women.
John Wilkes Booth worked as an actor at Ford's Theather in Washington, D.C. He was the lead in some of William Shakespeare's most famous works. Additionally, he was a racist and a supporter of slavery.
He was also present at the hanging of John Brown in 1859.
Adult life and early crimes
In late 1860, Booth had been initiated in the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore.
He hated Abraham Lincoln who represented everything Booth was against. Booth blamed Lincoln for all the South's ills. He wanted revenge.
He 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 had became so fed up, that it eventually led him to murder.
The President on April 14, 1865 on Good Friday attended a play entitled "Our American Cousin" at Ford’s Theatre and Booth stalked him. Between 10:15 and 10:30 pm, actor Harry Hawk stood alone onstage. He was putting on a wonderful preformance: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal - you sockdologizing old mantrap!" And right then, the audience laughed and Booth opened the door to the president's box. He had earlier took out a knife and gouged a hole in the door where he looked upon the profile of Abraham Lincoln as the president watched the play. As the audience laughed, Booth took out a pistol, and aimed his pistol at the back of Lincoln's head at near point-blank range. Booth pulled the trigger. Lincoln was laughing at this line when he was shot; Lincoln immediately lost consciousness, but he passed into unconsciousness with laughter and a smile on his face; Katherine M. Evans, a young actress in the play, who was offstage in Ford's green room when Lincoln was shot, rushed on the stage after Booth's exit, and said; "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.) 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.
DeathAfter being on the run for twelve days, 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.
John Wilkes Booth's body was buried in a storage room at the old Arsenal Penitentiary, then in a warehouse and finally interred in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, four years after his death.
- 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".