The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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Podcast Transcript

On the evening of April 14, 1865, the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was shot while attending a play in Washington DC.

The assassination wasn’t a random act. It had been planned, multiple people were involved in the conspiracy, and the scope of the plot was much larger than just killing the president.

The weeks after the assassination saw the greatest outpouring of grief the country had ever experienced and one of the largest manhunts.

Learn more about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, how it happened, and its aftermath on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Civil War was by far the most traumatic and important in American history. 

After years of fighting, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, when General Lee finally surrendered on April 9, 1865, everyone thought that the war was finally over. 

However, it wasn’t quite over. There were embittered Southerners who were intent on seeking vengeance if they couldn’t have victory. 

The plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln began with such Southerners in March of 1865. 

The war was not going well for the South, and everyone knew it. Up until this point, the North and the South would regularly exchange prisoners of war. However, in March, the head of the Union Army of the Potomac, Ulysses S. Grant, decided to stop prisoner transfers to starve the Confederacy of men. 

This angered one man in particular, a well-known 26-year-old stage actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth. 

Most of you simply know of Booth as President Lincoln’s assassin. However, at the time, he was a celebrity. This is really important because this fact is almost totally forgotten. He came from a Maryland family of actors, and by 1865, John Wilkes Booth was famous in his own right. 

Fame was different in the 19th century as there was no mass media, but he was someone that almost everyone would have known of. He traveled extensively, performing in theaters around the country. Supposedly, he was the first actor to be mobbed by fans to tear off parts of his clothes. 

An interesting aside is that President Lincoln supposedly saw Booth perform in 1863 at Ford’s Theater, greatly admired him as an actor, and supposedly attempted to invite him to the White House.

Booth assembled a group consisting mostly of former Confederate soldiers and other like-minded Confederate sympathizers. The group consisted of Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt. They also received help from Surratt’s mother, Mary Surratt. 

Booth’s plan was to kidnap Lincoln and use him in exchange for Confederate prisoners. The Plan was to grab him as he came home from a play on March 17, but Lincoln changed his schedule at the last minute and, oddly enough, attended a ceremony at the hotel that Booth was staying at. 

After the kidnapping plot was foiled, things went downhill for the Confederacy quickly, ending with the surrender of Robert E. Lee on April 9. 

Booth, angered by the loss of the war and Lincoln’s plan to allow emancipated slaves the right to vote, vowed to kill the President. 

The plan was hastily thrown together. He woke up at midnight on the 14th and wrote his mother a letter. In it, he said, “Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done.”

At noon, he went to Ford’s theater to pick up his fan mail and found out that the President was going to be there that evening for a performance of the play “Our American Cousin.”

As he knew the layout of Ford’s Theater well, he figured this would be his best opportunity. 

He assembled his group from the previous kidnapping plot that evening at Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington.

His plan was far bigger than just killing the president. He also wanted to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and the Secretary of State William Seward.  George Atzerodt was assigned to kill Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood Hotel. 

Lewis Powell and David Herold were given the assignment to kill Seward at his home. 

Lincoln originally had invited General Grant to attend the play with him. However, his wife had recently had a spat with Mary Todd Lincoln and declined to attend.

He had a hard time getting anyone to join him and his wife in the booth. He invited Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax, and even his son Robert Todd Lincoln. Eventually, Clara Harris, the daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, accepted his invitation.

The president and his party arrived late and missed the start of the performance. When they arrived, there was a break in the show so the in house orchestra could play Hail to the Chief.  The 1700 people in attendance rose to acknowledge the arrival of the President. 

He was seated in a rocking chair that was an heirloom of the Ford family that owned the theater. 

Lincoln had a footman by the name of William H. Crook, who was not in attendance that evening, and a self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, who was also absent that evening as Lincoln sent him to Richmond, Virginia.

The only guard on duty was a policeman named John Frederick Parker. During intermission, Parker went to a nearby tavern with Lincoln’s valet and coachman, leaving the presidential box totally unprotected. Oddly enough, Booth was at the same tavern waiting for his moment. 

Booth was the only member of the conspiracy that was able to get access to the president. Because he was a well-known presence in the theater, no one would question his presence in the building. 

At 10:10 pm, Booth entered the theater through the front door and made his way to the Presidential box. Not only was he not stopped, he supposedly gave his card to the president’s valet.

He went through the doors to enter a waiting room, and there he blocked the door from the inside. 

Knowing the play well, he waited for one of the funniest lines of the show, “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”.

After the line was delivered and the president was laughing, he entered the presidential box and fired his Philadelphia Deringer pistol at point blank behind the president’s head.  The bullet entered behind the president’s left ear, went through his brain, and lodged near the front of his skull.

He did not die instantly.

Major Henry Rathbone rose and began to fight Booth, which resulted in him getting stabbed in the arm. 

Booth fled from the presidential box by jumping out the front and onto the stage, which was a drop of 12 feet or about 4 meters. The spur on Booth’s boot was caught in a flag draping the box, which caused him to land awkwardly on the stage.

The audience initially thought that this was part of the performance. However, they heard the cries of those in the presidential box shouting, “Stop that man!”

There was disagreement amongst audience members as to what Booth said when he landed on the stage. Many say he said Sic semper tyrannis!, the motto of Virginia, which is traditionally credited to Brutus after the assassination of Julius Caesar. 

Some also believe he said, “The South is avenged!”

He struggled with the orchestra leader, stabbing him, and fled the theater on a horse he had waiting outside.

The other men who were assigned to the other targets that evening failed in their tasks. 

George Atzerodt, who was supposed to shoot the Vice President, chickened out and got drunk. 

Lewis Powell managed to enter the home of William Seward. Seward had been seriously injured the week before in a carriage accident and was recuperating at home. Powell suffered a pistol misfire but managed to make it into Seward’s bedroom, stabbing him several times before fleeing. 

As for the president, now morally wounded, he was taken across the street to the closest house because it was thought a trip to the White House was too dangerous given his condition. The home was that of a tailor by the name of William Petersen. 

Lincoln managed to hold on for several hours until expiring at 7:22 am on April 15 with his wife Mary at his side. 

Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President by the Chief Justice sometime after 10 am.

With the president dead, the focus now was on finding and capturing the assassin. Given the dramatic and highly public exit made by Booth, there was no doubt as to who the killer was. 

The manhunt was one of the largest in history. It was personally led by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. 

Given the high profile of John Wilkes Booth, it wasn’t difficult to piece together who his accomplices were. 

Rewards were offered for the capture of Booth and his associates. The price on Booth’s head was $50,000, the equivalent of about a million dollars today. 

Booth had fled into Maryland and wound up at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated his leg. Mudd had no part in the conspiracy but got caught up in it because he treated Booth. 

Hundreds of law enforcement officials began following up on every known contact of the conspirators. Hundreds of people were put into custody for even having the slightest contact with the conspirators. 

Booth fled into Virginia, still injured, with the noose tightening around his neck. On April 26, 12 days after the assassination, he was at a farm owned by a tobacco farmer named Richard Garrett. He was hiding with David Herold, who was assigned to kill Secretary Seward. 

The Barn where Booth was holed up was surrounded by the 16th New York Cavalry. He was ordered to come out, or the barn would be burned down. He shouted back that he would never be taken alive. 

When he attempted to sneak out the back, he was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett and died about two hours later. 

Almost all of the people who were arrested as part of the manhunt were later released. In the end, eight people were brought to trial in association with the assassination. Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt and Edmund Spangler.

The eight were tried by a military tribunal appointed by President Johnson. There was debate about if a military tribunal had jurisdiction or if a civil court should have conducted it. In the end, the fact that the accused were enemy combatants won the argument. 

The trial lasted seven weeks, and 366 witnesses were called. The nine-member tribunal required a simple majority to render a verdict and two-thirds of the members for a death sentence. 

All eight of the accused were found guilty. Three of the conspirators were sentenced to life in prison, and one was sentenced to six years. 

Four of the conspirators were sentenced to death: Mary Surratt, Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt. 

All four were executed by hanging on July 7 in Washington. Mary Surratt was the first woman executed in American history. 

As for Lincoln, his funeral and burial was a process that lasted three weeks and stretched from Washington to Illinois. 

After lying in state in Washington, his casket was loaded onto a train on April 21 that headed towards his home in Springfield, Illinois. 

The train traveled a total of 1,654 miles or 2,662 kilometers through seven states. In major cities, the train would stop for procession through the city and for mourners to pay respects while the president lay in state. 

Hundreds of thousands of people lined the train track, and at no point did the train ever travel more than 20 miles per hour. 

He was finally interred on May 4 at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. In the years since, the tomb has been expanded to include a 117-foot or 36-meter-tall granite obelisk, as well as several bronze statues. 

After the assassination, the US Government purchased Ford’s Theater, and a law was passed that prevented it from being used as a place of public amusement.

Having led the country through a civil war, Abraham Lincoln is widely considered to be the greatest president in US history. As such, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln goes down as one of the most somber moments in American History.