Ford Theatre's Infamous History
The theatre where Abraham Lincoln was killed - April 14, 1865

John Wilkes Booth - "Assassin"

John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865 while Lincoln attended a play.

John Wilkes Booth

The name John Wilkes Booth conjures up thoughts of a killer. Booth killed Abraham Lincoln, a man who is perhaps the greatest United States president in history. However, J. Wilkes Booth (as he was known professionally) led a very prominent life as an actor in the years preceding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This period of his life is often forgotten or overlooked.

The Booth family name in the nineteenth century was strongly identified with the American theater scene; there was no greater name among American actors at that time. Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. came to the United States from England in 1821 and established the Booth name upon the American stage. He left his legacy to be continued by his sons Edwin, John Wilkes, and Junius Brutus, Jr.

All but one of the Booth children were born out of wedlock. John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in a log house. The family home was on property near Bel Air, Maryland, twenty-five miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Elder brother Edwin supervised his younger brother's upbringing. Later Edwin and older sister Asia would write about their eccentric brother's behavior.

Francis Wilson, who wrote a biography of Booth in 1929, stated that Booth opened his stage career in 1855 at the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore and began performing on a regular basis two years later. Once Booth embarked upon his acting career, he wanted the comparisons between himself and his late father to cease.

It was a common practice of theater companies to retain actors who would complement a touring, star figure. Booth eventually became one the star figures with stock companies for one- and two-week engagements. Often a different play was performed each night, requiring Booth to stay up studying his new role until dawn when he would rise and make his way to the theatre for rehearsal.

Booth began his stock theatre appearances in 1857 at Weatley's Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia (the center for theater in the U.S. at that time). According to one biographer, Booth studied intently in Philadelphia, but author Gordon Samples writes that Booth's lack of confidence did not help his theatrical career.

William S. Fredericks, the acting and stage manager at the Arch Street Theatre, said the new actor did not show promise as a great actor. This negative opinion was also held by other Philadelphia company actors. They said Booth, who was 19, had no future as an actor.

In September of 1858 Booth moved to Richmond, Virginia for a season of stock at the old Marshall Theatre. He became more confident as an actor and was popular with his audiences. At the same time, Booth became more enamored with the southern way of life, which helped to refine his southern political views. Booth also attended many important social functions in Richmond.

Booth briefly left the Richmond Theatre Company in 1859. He joined the Richmond Grays, gaining his only official military experience. He enlisted on November 20, 1859 with the sole intention of witnessing the December hanging of the fiery abolitionist John Brown in Charles Town, Virginia. Soon after witnessing Brown's hanging, Booth left for Richmond where he was discharged.

During the Civil War, Booth said he promised his mother that he would not join the Confederate army. Booth, however, did undertake some action to support the Confederacy. According to some reports, Booth was actively engaged in smuggling medical supplies to Confederate forces in 1864.

Many people who came in contact with Booth mentioned the magnetism and power of his eyes. Sir Charles Wyndham, a fine comedian who witnessed the acting exploits of both Booth and his brother Edwin, wrote that Booth's "... eyes were striking features, but when his emotions were aroused they were like living jewels. Flames shot from them."

Booth was frequently seen in the company of many women, and in one passage author Samples wrote that Booth often "lounged" in the arms of Ellen Starr, who was in Washington at the time of the Lincoln assassination. Miss Starr was but one of many. In 1861, actress Henrietta Irving slashed Booth in the face with a knife; Irving had erupted into a jealous rage when she learned that Booth had no intentions of marrying her.

After Booth was killed, five photographs of female friends were found on his person. One of these pictures was of his betrothed Lucy Hale, the daughter of Senator John P. Hale. Ironically, Senator Hale was a prominent Republican abolitionist.

After leaving the stage in May of 1864, Booth went to western Pennsylvania to concentrate entirely upon oil investments. Booth had formed an oil company in 1863 with his acting friends John Ellsler, Thomas Y. Mears and George Pauncell. It was appropriately called the Dramatic Oil Company. Impatient with his lack of immediate financial success, Booth gave up his oil interests in the autumn of 1864. He turned most of his investment over to his brother Junius and friend, Joseph H. Simonds.

In October of 1864 Booth traveled to Montreal. He conducted a number of meetings with men associated with the Confederacy. The record is unclear as to what exactly transpired. By mid-November Booth checked into the National Hotel in Washington. Booth carried with him a letter of introduction from the Confederates, with whom he had conferred, addressed to Dr. William Queen of Charles County, Maryland. This letter led Booth to meet with Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in November of 1864.

Booth began putting together an operation, purportedly with Dr. Mudd and others, to capture the President and transport him to Richmond. By capturing Lincoln they expected to force the federal government to return Confederate prisoners of war who were confined in Union prisons and then return them to fight Union forces.

Ford Theatre

After nearly five months of intense planning, the attempt to capture the president took place on March 17, 1865. Mr. Lincoln, however, disappointed the would-be captors by changing his plans. Instead of visiting a hospital outside Washington, President Lincoln attended a luncheon at the National Hotel. This was the hotel Booth used as his temporary home while in Washington, DC. Two weeks later, the long Union siege of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia ended. The Union Army marched in and Confederate forces under General Lee moved west. One week later, on April 9, 1865 General Lee was forced by General Grant to surrender. These Confederate failures, along with the failure of Booth's capture plot, apparently gave Booth the incentive to carry out his final fatal plan. Five days after General Lee's surrender, Booth assassinated Mr. Lincoln inside Ford's Theatre.

John Wilkes Booth died at approximately sunrise on Wednesday, April 26, 1865, on the porch of Richard Garrett's house near Port Royal, Virginia. He was shot through the neck by Sergeant Boston Corbett. As Dr. Edward Steers, Jr. writes in The Escape & Capture of John Wilkes Booth, "All the evidence to date suggests that he (Corbett) was in the right position at the right time, and he acted from the belief that he was doing exactly what was expected of a soldier facing the enemy." At approximately 8:30 a.m. Booth's remains were sewn up in a horse blanket and placed on a wide plank that served as a stretcher. An old market wagon was obtained nearby, and the body was placed in the wagon, and the body was taken to Belle Plain. There it was hoisted up the side and swung upon the deck of a steamer named the John S. Ide and transported up the Potomac River to Alexandria where it was transferred to a government tugboat. The tugboat carried the remains of Abraham Lincoln's assassin to the Washington Navy Yard, and the corpse was placed aboard the monitor Montauk at 1:45 A.M. on Thursday, April 27.

This sketch appeared in Harper's Weekly on May 13, 1865

Once aboard the Montauk, Booth's remains were laid out on an improvised bier (a rough carpenter's bench). The horse blanket was removed, and a tarpaulin was placed over the body. A number of witnesses were called to identify the body.

Within a short time, several people who knew Booth personally positively identified the body, which was haggard from 12 days of riding, rowing, and hiding in underbrush. One of these people was Dr. John Frederick May. Some time before the assassination, Dr. May removed a large fibroid tumor from Booth's neck. Dr. May found a scar from his operation on the corpse's neck exactly where it should have been. Booth's dentist, Dr. William Merrill, who had filled two teeth for Booth shortly before the assassination, pried open the corpse's mouth and positively identified his fillings. Charles Dawson, the clerk at the National Hotel where Booth was staying, examined the remains, saying "I distinctly recognize it as the body of J. Wilkes Booth - first, from the general appearance, next, from the India-ink letters, 'J.W.B.,' on his wrist, which I had very frequently noticed, and then by a Scar on the neck. I also recognize the vest as that of J. Wilkes Booth." (As a boy Booth had his initials indelibly tattooed on the back of his left hand between his thumb and forefinger). Seaton Munroe, a prominent Washington attorney who knew Booth, viewed the body and said that he "was very familiar with his (Booth's) face and distinctly recognize it." Alexander Gardner, a well-known Washington photographer, and his assistant, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, were also among those called to the Montauk to identify Booth's corpse.

John Wilkes Booth's autopsy was performed aboard the Montauk by Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes and Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward.

On April 27, 1865, Dr. Barnes wrote the following account to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:


I have the honor to report that in compliance with your orders, assisted by Dr. Woodward, USA, I made at 2 p.m. this day, a postmortem examination of the body of J. Wilkes Booth, lying on board the Monitor Montauk off the Navy Yard.

The left leg and foot were encased in an appliance of splints and bandages, upon the removal of which, a fracture of the fibula (small bone of the leg) 3 inches above the ankle joint, accompanied by considerable ecchymosis, was discovered.

The cause of death was a gun shot wound in the neck - the ball entering just behind the sterno-cleido muscle - 2 1/2 inches above the clavicle - passing through the bony bridge of fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae - severing the spinal chord (sic) and passing out through the body of the sterno-cleido of right side, 3 inches above the clavicle.

Paralysis of the entire body was immediate, and all the horrors of consciousness of suffering and death must have been present to the assassin during the two hours he lingered.

Dr. Woodward wrote the following detailed account of the autopsy:

Case JWB: Was killed April 26, 1865, by a conoidal pistol ball, fired at the distance of a few yards, from a cavalry revolver. The missile perforated the base of the right lamina of the 4th lumbar vertebra, fracturing it longitudinally and separating it by a fissure from the spinous process, at the same time fracturing the 5th vertebra through its pedicle, and involving that transverse process. The projectile then transversed the spinal canal almost horizontally but with a slight inclination downward and backward, perforating the cord, which was found much torn and discolored with blood. The ball then shattered the bases of the left 4th and 5th laminae, driving bony fragments among the muscles, and made its exit at the left side of the neck, nearly opposite the point of entrance. It avoided the 2nd and 3rd cervical nerves. These facts were determined at autopsy, which was made on April 28. Immediately after the reception of the injury, there was very general paralysis. The phrenic nerves performed their function, but the respiration was diaphragmatic, of course, labored and slow. Deglutition was impracticable, and one or two attempts at articulation were unintelligible. Death, from asphyxia, took place about two hours after the reception of the injury.

Abraham Lincoln
The 16th President of the United States

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. When Abe was a boy, he lived in a log cabin that his father built after cutting down the trees himself.

Young Abe read books by firelight and drew with charcoal on a shovel. Abe's family was poor. Often he went barefoot because he didn't have shoes to wear.

When Abraham Lincoln grew up, he studied hard and became a lawyer. Then he was elected to be a law-maker. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States.

Presidential Memorial

The images of four United States presidents are carved on a big mountain to serve as a memorial. Can you name the presidents, the mountain, the sculptor, and the state in which this mountain is located?

Mount Rushmore stands at the gateway to the West and was built to embody the spirit of the foundation, preservation, and expansion of the United States. There is no greater monument to American expansionists' efforts to tame the wild and rugged terrain of the West. It took 14 years for sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his crew to carve 60-foot-tall faces of four U.S. presidents - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln - into a wall of exposed granite. The faces tower over a setting of pine, spruce, birch, and aspen on 5,725-foot Mount Rushmore located in South Dakota.

The following was found on the Mount Rushmore government web site:

The sheer size of the mountain carving on Mount Rushmore evokes a sense of awe in those who view it. We are also amazed when we see ourselves in the faces of the presidents. The four presidents carved in stone represent all Americans. They represent our courage, dreams, freedom and greatness.

The birth of our nation was guided by the vision and courage of George Washington. Thomas Jefferson always had dreams of a greater, more perfect nation, first in the words of the Declaration of Independence and later in the expansion of our nation through the Louisiana Purchase. Preservation of the union was paramount to Abraham Lincoln, a nation where all men were free and equal. At the turn of the Twentieth Century Theodore Roosevelt envisioned a great nation, a leader on the world stage, our nation was changing from a rural republic to a world power. The ideals of these presidents laid a foundation for the United States of America as solid as the rock from which their figures were carved.

Each president possessed great skills and leadership of the brand our nation needed for the times they represent. We all can look into their faces and gain inspiration and strength from these four great men and ourselves.

Interesting Facts:

Mount Rushmore Memorial Monument was started in the 1920s. It took 14 years for sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his crew to carve the four 60-foot-tall faces. The Washington head was formally dedicated in 1930, followed by Jefferson in 1936, Lincoln in 1937 and Roosevelt in 1939. Borglum died in March 1941; the final dedication was not held until 50 years later. Son, Lincoln Borglum supervised the completion of the heads. Carving stopped in October 1941, on the eve of our entry into World War II. Gutzon Borglum himself might have commented that the time had come to defend the principles Mount Rushmore preserved in stone.

Mount Rushmore represents the largest work of art on earth. Each face is 60 feet high, compared to the head on the Statue of Liberty, which is 17 feet tall. The presidents' noses are 20 feet long, each mouth is 18 feet wide, and each eye is 11 feet across. Had they been carved to their toes, the figures would have been 465 feet tall.

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(Archive - Week of April 10, 2005)

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