Shortly after 10 p.m. on April 14, 1865, while attending a special performance of the comedy, Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot. That night, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, accompanied him at Ford’s Theater, a 28-year-old officer named Major Henry R. Rathbone and Rathbone’s fiancée, Clara Harris. After the play was in progress, a figure with a drawn derringer pistol stepped into the presidential box, aimed, and fired. As President Lincoln slumped forward in his seat, John Wilkes Booth dropped the pistol and waved a dagger. Major Rathbone lunged at him, slashed his arm, and forced the killer to the railing. Booth then leaped from the balcony, caught the spur of his left boot on a flag draped over the rail, and shattered a bone in his leg on landing. Though injured, he escaped through the back door and disappeared into the night on horseback. A doctor in the audience immediately went upstairs to the box. The bullet had entered Lincoln’s left ear and lodged behind his right eye. He was paralyzed and barely breathing. Lincoln was then carried across the street to Petersen’s Boarding House. Despite his best efforts, the doctors’ attempt to save the president failed, and nine hours later, Lincoln died at 7:22 am on April 15.
At almost the same moment Booth fired the fatal shot, his accomplice, Lewis Paine, attacked Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. Seward lay in bed, recovering from a carriage accident. Paine entered the mansion, claiming to have a delivery of medicine from the Secretary’s doctor. Seward’s son, Frederick, was brutally beaten while trying to keep Paine from his father’s door. Paine slashed the Secretary’s throat twice, then fought past Seward’s son Augustus, an attending hospital corps veteran and a State Department messenger.
Paine escaped into the night, believing his deed was complete. However, a metal surgical collar saved Seward from certain death. The Secretary lived another seven years, retained his seat with the Johnson administration, and purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867.
There were at least four conspirators in addition to Booth involved in the mayhem. Booth was shot and captured while hiding in a barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, and died on April 26, 1865. Four co-conspirators, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Mary Surratt, were hanged at the gallows of the Old Penitentiary, on the site of present-day Fort McNair, on July 7, 1865.
Lincoln was the first president assassinated in U.S. history. Why did Booth do it? He thought it would aid the South, which had just surrendered to Federal forces. It had nearly the opposite effect, ending Lincoln’s plans for a rather generous peace.
The whole country grieved the death of President Lincoln. As the nine-car funeral train carried President Lincoln home for burial in Springfield, Illinois, people showed up at train stations all along the way to pay their respects. What do you know about the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln? Ask your family.
Timeline – 1865:
March 17 – A plot hatched by John Wilkes Booth to kidnap President Lincoln is aborted when the President fails to make a scheduled trip to a soldiers’ hospital. The possibility of political assassination increasingly enters the mind of the bitter and restless Booth.
April 14 – While attending an evening performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre, the President is shot by John Wilkes Booth. After a medical examination by Dr. Charles Leale, Lincoln’s body is carried to a bedroom in the nearby Petersen House. Booth and his accomplice David Herold escape Washington into southern Maryland.
Confined to a sickbed at his home on Lafayette Square, Secretary of State William Seward is nearly killed from a vicious knife attack administered by co-conspirator Lewis Paine. George Atzerodt fails to follow through on a plan to assassinate Vice President Johnson.
April 15 – President Lincoln dies at 7:22 a.m. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton remarks at his bedside, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Having broken his right fibula while jumping to the stage at Ford’s Theatre, Booth stops at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd near Bryantown, Maryland, to have his leg splinted and bandaged.
April 21 – Lincoln’s body departs Washington in a nine-car funeral train. The 1,700-mile trip back to Illinois would essentially be over the same tracks that carried the then President-elect east in 1861. Along the route, the cities holding funeral processions include Philadelphia, New York City, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago.
April 26 – Booth and Herold are apprehended in a tobacco barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, by a cavalry detachment under the command of Lieutenant Edward Doherty. After Herold gives himself up, Booth is shot and killed by Corporal Boston Corbett.
May 4 – Abraham Lincoln’s body is finally laid to rest in a tomb at Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.
May 10 – An army military commission is convened to try Mrs. Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, Edman Spangler, Michael O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, and Dr. Samuel Mudd for their parts in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Surratt, Herold, Paine, and Atzerodt will eventually be given the death penalty while the remaining defendants are imprisoned.
July 7 – George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Paine, and Mary Surratt are executed by hanging at the Old Penitentiary in Washington for their part in the assassination conspiracy.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
John Wilkes Booth – Actor to Assassin
Abraham Lincoln – Standing as a Hero
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