John Wilkes Booth – Actor to Assassin

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth loved acting but was even more passionate about his politics, which would lead to one of the darkest days in American History and the loss of a beloved President.

Born May 10, 1838, into the prominent Booth family of Maryland, he was the ninth of ten children whose father was Junius Booth, a famous and eccentric actor. Junius, who was estranged from his wife in England, came to the U.S. with his mistress, John’s mother Mary Ann Holmes in 1821. Junius wouldn’t officially marry Holmes until John’s 13th birthday in 1851.

John was athletic and popular as a boy and was skilled in horsemanship and fencing. About the time his father was making him legitimate by marrying Holmes, John was attending an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland. However, he would leave school at age 14 after his father’s death.

A couple of years later, at age 16 Booth gained interest in the theatre as well as politics.  Looking to follow in the acting footsteps of his father and older brothers Edwin and Junius Jr., John began practicing formal speaking daily and studied Shakespeare.  He also became a young delegate to a rally for the ‘Know-Nothing Party’ anti-immigrant candidate Henry Winter Davis in his congressional run of 1854.

By the time he was 17 he made his own stage debut in Baltimore, appearing in Richard III.  His performance did not go well, but he kept at it, acting at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre, a frequent stage for the Booth’s.  In 1857 he joined the stock company of the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, PA and played a full season.  By 1858 he was a stock company actor at the Richmond Theatre in Virginia and performed in 83 plays that year.  Reportedly his favorite role was that of Shakespeare’s Brutus, the slayer of a tyrant.

With his athletic build and romantic personal attraction, Booth was a hit with the ladies, and toward the end of the 1850s, he was already becoming famous and wealthy, earning $20,000 a year.  All during this time, Booth kept active in politics, and as an ardent supporter of slavery joined a Virginia Company that aided in the capture of John Brown after his raid at Harpers Ferry.  Booth was an eyewitness to Brown’s execution.

In 1860, Booth’s acting career took him on a tour of the deep south where he was widely acclaimed. At the same time, his anger toward the newly elected President, Abraham Lincoln, grew, and after the Civil War began in 1861, he would smuggle medicines to the Confederacy during his travels. Booth’s hatred for the Union and Lincoln was not shared by his entire family, and John wound up feuding with his brother Edwin, who refused to make stage appearances in the south.

Booth was also outspoken about his admiration for the South, which did not play well with audiences in New York, with some citizens calling for his arrest for treasonable statements. This did not seem to hamper reviews from critics, however, who continued to play him up as “the most promising young actor on the American stage”.

In 1863, Booth was arrested in St. Louis while on tour after he was heard saying he wished the President and the whole government would go to hell.  He was charged with treasonous remarks against the government but was released after taking an oath of allegiance to the Union and paying a substantial fine. Later that year, family friend John T. Ford opened Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and John was one of the first leading men to appear on the stage.  During a performance attended by President Lincoln, Booth is said to have shaken his finger at the President as he delivered a line of dialogue.

In November of 1864, Booth would perform for the only time with both his actor brothers, Edwin and Junius Jr., in a single benefit performance of Julius Caesar in New York. This time he played Mark Anthony with his brother Edwin playing Brutus, in a performance acclaimed at the time as being the greatest theatrical event in New York history. The proceeds from the event paid for a statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park, which still stands today.

John Wilkes Booth and brothers Edwin and Junius in the play Julius Caesar in 1864

John Wilkes Booth and brothers Edwin and Junius in the play Julius Caesar in 1864

That same month President Lincoln was re-elected, filling Booth with more rage. Leading up to the election, Booth wrote in a letter to his mother “I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence”.  In fact, Booth had already begun to formulate plans to kidnap Lincoln and smuggle him to Richmond.  Booths plans called for the President to be exchanged for Confederate prisoners, and in Booth’s mind, help bring the war to an end by emboldening opposition to the war in the North, or forcing Union recognition of the Confederate government.

While no exact proof exists that Booth was acting as a Confederate Spy, some historians insist he was, pointing to a trip Booth made in October of 1864 to Montreal, then a center for clandestine Confederate activity.  He reportedly spent 10 days in the city, staying for a time at St. Lawrence Hall, a known rendezvous point for the Confederate Secret Service.

Lincoln won re-election on a platform advocating the abolishment of slavery through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which prompted Booth to devote increasing energy and resources into his plan.  He brought into the plot Southern sympathizers including David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Lewis Payne) and John Surratt, a rebel agent.  John also began fighting more with his brother Edwin, who finally told him he was no longer welcome at his home in New York.  Of Lincoln, Booth would tell his sister Asia “That man’s appearance, his pedigree, his coarse low jokes and anecdotes, his vulgar similes, and his policy are a disgrace to the seat he holds. He is made the tool of the North, to crush out slavery.” Asia would write later that as a Union victory became more certain in 1865, Booth would go into wild tirades over Lincoln.

That February Booth became secretly engaged to Lucy Hale, the daughter of U.S. Senator John Hale of New Hampshire.  Unaware of his deep hatred for Lincoln, Hale invited John to Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4.  His co-conspirators were also in the crowd, but no attempt was made against the President.  Later Booth would remark about his excellent chance to kill the President if he had wished. An attempt to kidnap Lincoln later that month failed when the President’s plans changed, taking him away from a stretch of road where Booth and his men were waiting.

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, Booth’s kidnapping plan was mute. He reportedly told a friend of John Surratt that he was done with acting and that the only play he wanted to present was Venice Preserv’d. Though the meaning was lost to Surratt’s friend, the play he referred to was about an assassination plot.

On on the morning of Good Friday, April 14, while Booth was at Ford’s Theatre getting his mail, John Ford’s brother told him that Lincoln and his wife, along with General and Mrs. Ulysses Grant, would be attending the play “Our American Cousin” that evening.  Booth immediately gathered his co-conspirators with plans of not only assassinating the President, but also General Grant, Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson.  His hope was to throw the Union into chaos by decapitating the Government, thus allowing the Confederate government to re-organize, or at the least avenge the South’s defeat.

The Assassination of President Lincoln, by Currier and Ives, 1865

The Assassination of President Lincoln, by Currier and Ives, 1865

Booth’s plan came together that evening, with his cohorts assigned to kill Seward and Johnson, while he would go to Ford’s theatre to kill the President and General Grant. Lewis Powell went to take out Seward, who was bedridden as the result of a carriage accident.  Powell stabbed Seward, but the Secretary of State would survive.  Meanwhile, Atzerodt, who was to assassinate Vice President Johnson, lost his nerve and wound up drinking all night, never making an attempt. General Grant changed his plans and would not attend the play with the President that night, instead of leaving Washington D.C. to visit relatives in New Jersey. However, the President and First Lady kept their plans for the Ford Theatre, which Booth had full access to due to his relationship with John Ford.

Around 10 p.m. that evening, as the play progressed, Booth slipped into the theatre’s Presidential Box and shot the President in the back of the head. Major Henry Rathborne, who was with the President, lunged at Booth, but John stabbed him, then jumped from the box to the stage and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis”, which is Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”. Booth fled the stage through a door to the alley where a getaway horse was waiting, and at some point injured his leg. Booth would later say that it was during his jump to the stage, however, others say he was injured during his escape when the horse tripped and fell on him.  Regardless, Booth, along with David Herold, made for southern Maryland in route to rural Virginia.

John Wilkes Booth Wanted Poster

John Wilkes Booth Wanted Poster

After stopping at Surratt’s Tavern where they had stored guns and equipment during their kidnapping plot, the fugitives continued on to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Booth’s leg fracture in the early morning of April 15.  That same morning, shortly after 7 a.m., President Lincoln died.

The next day Booth and Herold made their way to the home of Samuel Cox and hid in the woods while Cox contacted his foster brother and Confederate agent Thomas Jones.  By this time Federal troops were searching southern Maryland, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton advertised a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Booth and his accomplices.

As Booth and Herold waited in the Maryland woods, some of the co-conspirators where captured, including Mary Surratt, mother of John Surratt, Lewis Powell, along with Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, whom Booth had earlier recruited as underground operators for the Confederacy. John was aware of their arrests as he was brought newspapers every day by Jones.  He was dismayed how even anti-Lincoln newspapers showed little sympathy for him.

On April 21, Booth and Herold decided it was time to cross the Potomac River into Virginia.  After a failed attempt that landed them back in Maryland, they finally made it on April 23.  Provided with horses by another Confederate agent, the pair found refuge at Richard H. Garrett’s farm just south of Port Royal on April 24.  The Garrett’s were told that Booth was James Boyd, a Confederate soldier who was returning home, and they were unaware of the President’s assassination.

The pair were tracked there by Federal Soldiers and, on the morning of April 26, were found hiding in Garrett’s barn.  Herold surrendered, but Booth refused.  After the soldiers set the barn ablaze, Booth was moving about in the barn and was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett, who says Booth had raised his pistol at him.  Booth was fatally wounded in the neck and dragged from the barn to Garrett’s porch where he died three hours later. His body was identified by a doctor who had operated on Booth the year before and was secretly buried, then re-interred four years later.  Despite many theories that Booth actually escaped, there is no acceptable evidence to support the rumors.

Eight others were implicated in the assassination and were tried by a military tribunal in Washington D.C., all of them being found guilty on June 30, 1865. Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, Mary Surratt and David Herold were executed on July 7. Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen were sentenced to life in prison. While O’Laughlen died of yellow fever in 1867, the others were eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.

©Dave Alexander /Legends of America, updated January 2018.


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