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[Thus... Always... Tyrants!]
Booth, seconds after shooting Lincoln

John Wilkes Booth was an assassin, Confederate actor, and stalker who murdered Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Booth was known to be a Confederate sympathizer and believed that killing Lincoln would help avenge the South. While Booth was successful in killing the 16th President, his plans to avenge the South backfired when he was murdered by Boston Corbett on April 26, 1865, just two weeks after Lincoln’s assassination.



John Wilkes Booth.

John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838, in Bel Air, Maryland, the illegitimate son of British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and his mistress Mary Ann Holmes. Booth followed in his father's footsteps and became an actor. As a young boy, John Wilkes Booth was athletic and popular. He became skilled at horsemanship and fencing. Booth attended the Bel Air Academy, where the headmaster described Booth as "[n]ot deficient in intelligence, but disinclined to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered him". From 1850–1851, Booth attended the Milton Boarding School for Boys in Sparks, Maryland, which was run by Quakers. Later, he attended St. Timothy's Hall, an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland when he was 13 years old. He left a year later after his father's death. While he was still attending the Milton Boarding School, a Gypsy fortune-teller read his palm and predicted a grim destiny for Booth, telling him that he would have a grand but short life, doomed to die young and "meeting a bad end". On August 14, 1855, in the supporting role of the Earl of Richmond in Richard III at Baltimore's Charles Street Theatre, Booth became an actor.

While Booth was starring in Albany, New York on April 12, 1861, the Civil War broke out between the United States and the Confederate States of America. Booth was a quick supporter of the Confederacy, calling their cause "heroic". Local citizens were so enraged that they demanded him being banned from stage for making "treasonable statements". Albany's drama critics just gave him rave reviews. One called him a genius, praising his acting for "never fail[ing] to delight with his masterly impressions". On December 2, 1859, Booth attended the hanging of John Brown, executed for leading a raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). As an anti-abolitionist Booth joined the Richmond Grays, a volunteer militia of 1,500 men traveling to Charles Town for Brown's hanging, preventing anyone from rescuing Brown from being hanged. After Civil War broke out, many pro-secession people of Maryland allied with the Confederacy. In response to this, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed martial law in Baltimore and other areas of Maryland, imprisoning pro-secession Maryland political leaders and stationing Federal troops in Baltimore. Newspaper editorials and many Marylanders, including Booth, agreed with Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's decision in Ex parte Merryman that Lincoln's actions were unconstitutional.

Planning, Assassinations, and Death

"I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence."

Lewis Powell

Lewis Powell.

In 1864, the Confederacy's chances of survival was becoming slim. Booth was angered by the thought of Abraham Lincoln being re-elected for President in the 1864 election. After U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant made the decision to stop the exchange of prisoners of war, Booth recruited Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt in a plot to abduct President Lincoln, deliver him to Confederate Army, and hold him hostage unless the Union agreed to release all Confederate POWs from Federal and military prisons. On March 17, 1865, however, Booth learned that President Lincoln would be attending a performance of the play Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital near Soldier's Home. Booth assembled his team on a stretch of road near the Soldier's Home in their attempt to abduct Lincoln en route to the hospital. However, their plan went astray as the president did not appear at the Soldier's Home. Booth later learned that Lincoln had changed his plans at the last moment, attending a reception and giving a speech at the National Hotel in Washington. Coincidentally, Booth was residing in the same hotel. On April 11, 1865, Booth was in the crowd outside the White House when Lincoln gave a speech from his window. Booth declared that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever make in his life. On April 12, 1865, Booth heard that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia to General Grant. Booth told Louis J. Weichmann that he was done with the stage and that the only play he wanted to perform in was Venice Preserv'd, which was about an assassination plot. With Lee's surrender and Union occupation for Richmond, abducting Lincoln was no longer an option, and his goals were changed to the assassination.

George Atzerodt

George Atzerodt.

Booth and his conspirators made a plan to decapitate or severely cripple the Union government by assassinating its three head political leaders, President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. On April 14, 1865, at the same time when Lincoln was having a meeting with his cabinet members (except William Seward) Booth was about to pick up his mail at Ford’s Theater when he learned that the president would attend Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater instead of Aladdin at Grover’s Theater, as Booth originally planned on April 13. Later that night, at 8:45 pm, Booth and his conspirators were having a final discussion of the finalized plot. One hour after the President, his wife and two substitute guests arrived at Ford’s Theater, Booth arrived at the back of the theater. But because he arrived early, he takes his time drinking at the saloon next to Ford’s Theater. Ironically, a police officer named John Parker, who left the Lincolns and their two substitute guests unguarded, was also in the saloon, along with Lincoln’s valet and coachman. Then at 10 minutes after 10 pm, all of the conspirators went into action. Across town, George Atzerodt, the would-be assassin of Vice President Andrew Johnson, lost his nerve, got drunk, and left the Kirkwood Hotel, rather than attempting to kill Johnson. Meanwhile, Lewis Powell was assigned to assassinate the Seward at his mansion. After arguing with the African American waiter, Powell went inside the mansion and came up the stairs, where he argued with Frederick W. Seward, the Secretary of State's son. He attempted to shoot him, but the gun misfired. Bludgeoning the lad, Powell burst into Seward's room and stabbed him. On the way out of the mansion, he stabbed the other son, the doctor, and a State Department clerk, leaving five men injured in the house. Seward's splint was the only thing that prevented the blade from penetrating his jugular vein. Five men survived the vicious attack. At the same time, Booth went through the front door of Ford’s Theater, where he snuck into the box and waited. Then at 10:15 pm, he successfully managed to mortally wound President Lincoln and also stabbed Major Henry Rathbone during his escape. Jumping off the balcony, he landed on the stage, allegedly spraining his left ankle when one of his spurs got caught on a flag. Raising his bloodied knife, Booth yelled "Sic Semper Tyrannis!", Latin for "Thus Always to Tyrants". Some have speculated that he said "Sic Semper Tyrannis! The South is avenged!" before making his escape out of the back of the theater, where he jumped on his waiting horse and escape from Washington D.C., using the Navy Yard Bridge, just a half hour after the shooting. Following this, Lincoln was attended by several doctors who were at Ford’s Theater before being carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he died at 7:22 am in the morning of April 15. Booth and all of his co-conspirators escaped, but were eventually hunted down and captured within several days. Two weeks after the assassination, Booth was tracked down at a barn in Port Royal, Virginia by Union troops, and was eventually killed by Union Sergeant Boston Corbett after engaging in a gunfight with Union troops. Eight conspirators were tried and four were executed. Mary Surratt, the civilian mother of John Surratt, who was still unaccounted for, was tried in a military trial and found guilty on thin evidence; she was later executed. Most modern historians dispute her guilt.

Mary Surratt

Mary Surratt, the mother of John Surratt and an alleged co-conspirator.

While no one denies that Booth fired the shot that killed Lincoln, many conspiracy theorists have stated that Booth and his conspirators were unable to carry out the attack by themselves or didn't come up with the plan. Some have speculated that plot was orchestrated at the highest levels of the Confederate government. One possible motivation for the Confederate government ordering the assassination was retaliation for the Dahlgren Raid. In 1864, Union troops, led by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, had attempted to burn Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. The raid was stopped by Confederate cavalry. After being shot and killed, Dahlgren was discovered with papers detailing the raid on his body by 13-year old scavenger. The papers eventually reached the desk of President Davis, who, along with the Southern public, was outraged. The chivalrous President Davis viewed kidnapping and assassination as breaches of the gentlemanly conduct of war. However, many have said that the Dahlgren Raid was the final straw, so he had Booth and his conspirators assassinate Lincoln as both an act of revenge for the Dahlgren Raid and a last ditch effort to save the Confederacy. There were also witness accounts of Booth running across the stage without being hindered by his leg injury, supporting a theory proposed by Michael Kauffman that Booth did not break his leg from the fall from the banister, instead of from a fall off of his horse as he fled the theater. Some claims have also been made that Booth escaped, and another man who resembled him was instead the one killed.

Modus Operandi

Booth planned to have his targets killed almost simultaneously around 10:15 pm. At Ford’s Theater, Booth killed Lincoln with one shot to the head fired by a single-shot Philadelphia Derringer. He then assaulted Major Henry Rathbone in the left arm with a knife, which he intended to use on General Ulysses Grant. His co-conspirator Lewis Powell attempted to shoot his victims with a revolver, but the gun misfired so he used the gun to bludgeon Frederick Seward before stabbing William Seward, Augustus, Dr. Robinson, and a State Department clerk with a knife. Five men survived the attack. Atzerodt would've either shot or stabbed Johnson, at 10:15 pm as suggested by Booth, but he did not attack.

Known Victims

Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln.

Henry Rathbone

Major Henry Rathbone.

All of the following were attacked on the April 14, 1865 assassination plot

Personal Victims

  • The Ford’s Theatre attack:
    • Abraham Lincoln, 56 (16th President of the United States; stalked for an unspecified amount of time; later shot in the back of the head at point-blank range; died the next morning)
    • Major Henry Rathbone, 27 (attempted, but survived; was non-fatally stabbed in the left forearm)
    • General Ulysses Grant, 43 (intended to stab)
    • Joseph "Peanuts" Borroughs (incidental; struck in the forehead with the handle of a knife, then assaulted; survived)

Victims by Proxy

  • The attack at the Seward home by Lewis Powell:
    • Frederick William Seward, 34 (attempted, but survived; attempted to shoot, then non-fatally bludgeoned)
    • William H. Seward, 63 (U.S. Secretary of State and Frederick's father; attempted, but survived; was non-fatally stabbed)
    • Augustus H. Seward, 39 (Seward’s other son; attempted, but survived; attempted, but survived; was non-fatally stabbed)
    • George F. Robinson, 33 (Doctor of William Seward; attempted, but survived; was non-fatally stabbed)
    • Emerick Hansell, 48, (State Department clerk; attempted, but survived; was non-fatally stabbed)
  • Andrew Johnson, 56 (current U.S. Vice President to Lincoln; intended, but George Atzerodt failed to attack him)

On Criminal Minds

  • Season One
    • "L.D.S.K." - Booth's was one of several mugshots shown of famous assassins and other killers.
    • "Somebody's Watching" - Booth was mentioned again as an example of a Type 1 assassin, meaning he was politically motivated.