His actions sent a nation that was already struggling with itself into further chaos. He thought that he going to be a hero and was doing the South a favor when he pulled that trigger that night at Ford’s Theatre. In the end, John Wilkes Booth plunged himself into a hell that would eventually cost him his life on April 14 of 1865, some six days after the horror of a Civil War that almost tore a nation apart came to an end.

Booth not only acted with malice, some would even say that his actions were premeditated under the laws of the state of Maryland. He not only planned the murder of Abraham Lincoln, he engaged the help of others to try and destory the government of the people, by the people and for the people that his target spoke of in 1863. Booth was sympathetic to the Southern cause, believing that slavery was a right and that Negroes should not be given any rights, let alone be treated as human beings. His plan wasn’t just to kill Lincoln but to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson as well as Secretary of State William H. Seward in a bid to throw the government into chaos and help the Confederacy’s cause. Johnson would be unharmed, while Seward was severely wounded in an attempt to stab him but he managed to recovere from his injuries.

In order to understand Booth, let’s look at his life from childhood to death.

Booth’s father was the noted British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth) and was born in a four-room log house on May 10, 1838, the ninth of ten children in that family. Named in honor of English radical politician John Booth (who was a distant relative), he would live with his mother after she was granted a divorce on grounds of adultery (the older Both was alledged to have an affair with his mistress Mary Ann Holmes). Junius Brutus Booth’s wife, Adelaide Delannoy Booth, was granted a divorce in 1851 on grounds of adultery and Holmes legally wed John Wilkes Booth’s father on May 10, 1851, the youth’s 13th birthday. His home life was somewhat tumultuous as he and his brother Edwin, would eventually be spurred to strive by their father as rivals, for achievement and acclaim — Edwin, a Unionist and John, who would make his famous (or infamous) mark in history several years later. Booth was raised Episcopalian but converted to Roman Catholicism later on in his life.

The young Booth was athletic and popular, becoming skilled at horsemanship and fencing. Education was not his strong suit, as he was a sometimes indifferent student, he attended the Bel Air Academy (now Bel Air High School), where the headmaster described him as “not deficient in intelligence but disinclined to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered him. Each day he rode back and forth from farm to school, taking more interest in what happened along the way than in reaching his classes on time.” From 1850–1851, he attended the Quaker-run Milton Boarding School for Boys located in Sparks, Maryland and later St. Timothy’s Hall, an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland, beginning when he was 13 years old. At the Milton school, students recited such classical works as those by Herodotus, Cicero and Tacitus. Students at St. Timothy’s wore military uniforms and were subject to a regimen of daily formation drills and strict discipline. Booth left school at 14, after his father’s death. While a student at Milton, he encounted a fortune teller who read his palm and pronounced a grim destiny, telling Booth that he would have a grand but short life, doomed to die young and “meeting a bad end.”

The acting bug would eventually catch up to him at age 16 and he had interests in theatre and in politics, becoming a delegate from Bel Air to a rally by the Know Nothing Party for Henry Winter Davis, the anti-immigrant party’s candidate for Congress in the 1854 elections. Aspiring to follow in the footsteps of his father and his actor brothers, Edwin and Junius Brutus, Jr., Booth began practicing elocution daily in the woods around Tudor Hall and studying Shakespeare and at age 17,

Booth made his stage debut on August 14, 1855, in the supporting role of the Earl of Richmond in Richard III at Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre. Some critics called Booth “the handsomest man in America” and a “natural genius” and noted his having an “astonishing memory,” others were mixed in their estimation of his acting. Standing 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m) tall,  with jet-black hair, was lean and athletic, he could almost be compared to George Clooney or Russell Crowe today. Noted Civil War reporter George Alfred Townsend described him as a “muscular, perfect man”, with “curling hair, like a Corinthian capital.”

His stage performances were often characterized by his contemporaries as acrobatic and intensely physical, leaping upon the stage and gesturing with passion. He was an excellent swordsman, although a fellow actor once recalled that he occasionally cut himself with his own sword.

Booth would go on to open the very theatre where he would send the nation into chaos in 1863, on November 9, playing in Charles Selby’s The Marble Heart. In this play, Booth portrayed a Greek sculptor in costume, making marble statues come to life.

At one point during the performance, ledgend has it that Booth was said to have shaken his finger in Lincoln’s direction as he delivered a line of dialogue. Lincoln’s sister-in-law, sitting with him in the same presidential box where he would later be slain, turned to him and said, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” The President replied, “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” On another occasion when Lincoln’s son Tad saw Booth perform, he said the actor thrilled him, prompting Booth to give the President’s youngest son a rose. Booth ignored an invitation to visit Lincoln between acts, however. At that time, the trap was all but set. Booth made his final appearance on stage at Ford’s on March 18, 1865, when he again played Duke Pescara in The Apostate. That was the last that America saw of Booth the actor. Booth the killer would rear its ugly head less than a month later in the same place.

We all know that Booth snuck up to his attended victim and shot him in the head. We all know that Lincoln died of his wounds without regaining conciousness and in front of his wife. Strongly opposed to the end of slavery and being forced to live under Union law, Booth chose not to listen to his better angels. When the Civil War started and almost turned the nation into the house divided that Lincoln not only feared but loathed, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union. In Booth’s native Maryland, the slaveholding portion of the population favored joining the Confederate States of America and Maryland had threatened secession, which would have left the Federal capital of Washington, D.C., an indefensible enclave within the Confederacy, his target Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imposing martial law in Baltimore and portions of the state, ordering the imprisonment of pro-secession Maryland political leaders at Ft. McHenry and stationed Federal troops in Baltimore. Although Maryland remained in the Union, 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.

His family did not share his disdain for Lincoln, remaining loyal to the United States and as the Civil War went on, Booth increasingly quarreled with his brother Edwin, who declined to make stage appearances in the South and refused to listen to his brother’s fiercely partisan denunciations of the North and Lincoln. In early 1863, Booth was arrested in St. Louis while on a theatre tour, when he was heard saying he “wished the President and the whole damned government would go to hell.” He would be charged with making “treasonous” remarks against the government, he was released when he took an oath of allegiance to the Union and paid a substantial fine.

Two months before the shooting in February 1865, Cupid eventually struck Booth, who became infatuated with Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of U.S. Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire and they became secretly engaged when Booth received his mother’s blessing for their marriage plans. “You have so often been dead in love,” his mother counseled Booth in a letter, “be well assured she is really and truly devoted to you.” Booth composed a handwritten Valentine card for his fiancée on February 13, expressing his “adoration.” She was unaware of Booth’s deep antipathy towards President Lincoln.

With the election of 1864 looming and the South losing badly, Booth’s rage towards the President, whom Booth blamed for the war and all the South’s troubles came to a head. He had promised his mother at the outbreak of war that he would not enlist as a soldier, increasingly chafed at not fighting for the South and wrote to her, “I have begun to deem myself a coward and to despise my own existence.” He began to formulate plans to kidnap Lincoln from his summer residence at the Old Soldiers Home, three miles from the White House and to smuggle him across the Potomac River into Richmond. Once in Confederate hands, Lincoln would be exchanged for the release of Confederate Army prisoners of war held captive in Northern prisons. Booth in his own sick and twisted mind reasoned that this could bring the war to an end by emboldening opposition to the war in the North or forcing Union recognition of the Confederate government. Lincoln wins the 1864 election in a landslide and this sets him off even more and he gathered a group of like-minded sympathizers to his side, devoting increasing energy and money to his kidnap plot. He assembled a loose-knit band of Southern sympathizers, including David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne or Paine) and John Surratt, a rebel agent. They began to meet routinely at the boarding house of Surratt’s mother, Mrs. Mary Surratt.

By this time, Booth was arguing so vehemently with his older, pro-Union brother Edwin about Lincoln and the war that Edwin finally told him he was no longer welcome at his New York home. Booth also railed against Lincoln in conversations with his sister Asia, saying, “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.” As the Confederacy’s defeat became more certain in 1865, Booth decried the end of slavery and Lincoln’s election to a second term, “making himself a king,” the actor fumed, in “wild tirades,” his sister recalled.

Booth attended Lincoln’s second inauguration on March 4 as the invited guest of his secret fiancée, Lucy Hale. In the crowd below were Powell, Atzerodt and Herold. There was no attempt to assassinate Lincoln during the inauguration. Later, however, Booth remarked about his “excellent chance … to kill the President, if I had wished. He was biding his time, waiting for the moment to strike, like Judas betraying Christ.

The war had come to an end. A nation was in tatters and ready to move on to being a nation again. The South, battered, bloodied, beaten, had come back to the union and would be treated fairly and kindly. Reconstruction was coming and the terms were going to be somewhat fair, although some would think of them as harsh. Slaves would be free and cities that were destroyed by fire and warfare would eventually rise up from their ashes like the Phoenix (which is the symbol for the city of Atlanta). It was Good Friday of 1865, two days before Easter. Lincoln was finally enjoying the peace that he had prayed for and was looking forward to ending his presidency, looking forward to spending time with his wife Mary Todd (they had even discussed taking a trip to Europe) and going back to Springfield to practice law.

While Lincoln was basking in his glory but not gloating over the losses that the South had suffered, a fuming and enraged Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to get his mail. While he was there, he was told by John Ford’s brother that President and Mrs. Lincoln accompanied by General and Mrs.

Ulysses S. Grant would be attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre that evening. He immediately set about making plans for the assassination, which included making arrangements with livery stable owner James W. Pumphrey for a getaway horse and an escape route. Booth informed Powell, Herold and Atzerodt of his intention to kill Lincoln. He assigned Powell to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward and Atzerodt to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. Herold would assist in their escape into Virginia. The plan was now in place. The spider was waiting for the fly to come into hisweb.

By targeting Lincoln and his two immediate successors to the presidency, Booth seems to have intended to decapitate the Union government and throw it into a state of panic and confusion. The possibility of assassinating the Union Army’s commanding general as well was foiled when Grant declined the theatre invitation at his wife’s insistence. Instead, the Grants departed Washington by train that evening for a visit to relatives in New Jersey. Booth had hoped that the assassinations would create sufficient chaos within the Union that the Confederate government could reorganize and continue the war if one Confederate army remained in the field or, that failing, to avenge the South’s defeat. In his 2005 analysis of Lincoln’s assassination, Thomas Goodrich wrote, “All the elements in Booth’s nature came together at once – his hatred of tyranny, his love of liberty, his passion for the stage, his sense of drama and his lifelong quest to become immortal.” A nation weary of war, death, starvation, food shoratges and pestilence that would have made the wandering of the Children of Israel in the desert for 40 years look like a trip to Disney World was now in motion and there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it.

Booth knew his killing field well and had free access to all parts of the theater, even having his mail sent there. He bored a spyhole into the door of the presidential box earlier that day, the assassin could check that his intended victim had made it to the play and observe the box’s occupants. That evening, at around 10 p.m., as the play progressed, John Wilkes Booth slipped into Lincoln’s box and shot him in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer. Booth’s escape was almost thwarted by Major Henry Rathbone, who was present in the Presidential box with Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln. Booth stabbed Rathbone when the startled officer lunged at him. Rathbone’s fiancée, Clara Harris, who was also present in the box, was unhurt.

Booth then jumped from the President’s box to the stage, where he raised his knife and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,” attributed to Brutus at Caesar’s assassination and the Virginia state motto), while others said he added, “I have done it, the South is avenged!” Various accounts state that Booth injured his leg when his spur snagged a decorative U.S. Treasury Guard flag while leaping to the stage. Historian Michael W. Kauffman questioned this legend in his book, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, writing in 2004 that eyewitness accounts of Booth’s hurried stage exit made it unlikely that his leg was broken then. Kauffman contends that Booth was injured later that night during his flight to escape when his horse tripped and fell on him, calling Booth’s claim to the contrary an exaggeration to portray his own actions as heroic. A president was dead, the first to die at the hands of a killer while in office.

The fleeing assassin galloped into southern Maryland, accompanied by David Herold, having planned his escape route to take advantage of the sparsely settled area’s lack of telegraphs and railroads, along with its predominantly Confederate sympathies. He thought that the area’s dense forests and swampy terrain of Zekiah Swamp made it ideal for an escape route into rural Virginia. At midnight, Booth and Herold arrived at Surratt’s Tavern on the Brandywine Pike, 9 miles from Washington, where they had stored guns and equipment earlier in the year as part of the kidnap plot.

The fugitives then continued southward, stopping before dawn on April 15 at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, St. Catharine, 25 miles (40 km) from Washington, for treatment of Booth’s injured leg. Mudd later said that Booth told him the injury occurred when his horse fell. The next day, Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Samuel Cox around 4 a.m. As the two fugitives hid in the woods nearby, Cox contacted Thomas A. Jones, his foster brother and a Confederate agent in charge of spy operations in the southern Maryland area since 1862. By order of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the War Department advertised a $100,000 reward ($1.54 million in today’s money) for information leading to the arrest of Booth and his accomplices and Federal troops were dispatched to search southern Maryland extensively, following tips reported by Federal intelligence agents to Colonel Lafayette Baker. Keep in mind that in 1865 there was no Twitter, YouTube or Facebook, let alone America’s Most Wanted.

Of the three men that were scheduled to die Booth was the only one of the assassins to succeed. Powell was able to stab Seward, who was bedridden as a result of an earlier carriage accident; although badly wounded, Seward survived. Atzerodt lost his nerve and spent the evening drinking, never making an attempt on Johnson’s life.

As Booth ran with basically the mark of Cain on his head, Americans that fought on both sides of the war now joined to mourn a leader that some disagreed with but respected. Thousands of mourners arriving on special trains jammed Washington for the next day’s funeral, sleeping on hotel floors and even resorted to blankets spread outdoors on the capital’s lawn. Prominent abolitionist leader and orator Frederick Douglass called the assassination an “unspeakable calamity” for African Americans and great indignation was directed towards Booth as the assassin’s identity was telegraphed across the nation. Newspapers called him an “accursed devil,” “monster,” “madman,” and a “wretched fiend.” Historian Dorothy Kunhardt wrote: “Almost every family who kept a photograph album on the parlor table owned a likeness of John Wilkes Booth of the famous Booth family of actors. After the assassination Northerners slid the Booth card out of their albums: some threw it away, some burned it, some crumpled it angrily.”

By April 20, almost a week later, Booth was aware that some of his co-conspirators were already arrested: Mary Surratt, Powell (or Paine), Arnold and O’Laughlen. Booth was surprised to find little public sympathy for his action, especially from those anti-Lincoln newspapers that had previously excoriated the President in life. As news of the assassination reached the far corners of the nation, indignation was aroused against Lincoln’s critics, whom many blamed for encouraging Booth to act.

The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized: “Booth has simply carried out what … secession politicians and journalists have been for years expressing in words … who have denounced the President as a ‘tyrant,’ a ‘despot,’ a ‘usurper,’ hinted at and virtually recommended.”  Booth wrote of his dismay in a journal entry on April 21, as he awaited nightfall before crossing the Potomac River into Virginia: “For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”

As Booth was cowering with a price on his head, the nine-car funeral train bearing Lincoln’s body departed Washington on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, arriving at Baltimore’s Camden Station at 10 a.m., the first stop on a 13-day journey to Springfield, Illinois, its final destination. As the funeral train slowly made its way westward through seven states, stopping en route at Harrisburg; Philadelphia; Trenton; New York; Albany; Buffalo; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati and Indianapolis during the following days, about 7 million people lined the railroad tracks along the 1,662-mile (2,675 km) route, holding aloft signs with legends such as “We mourn our loss,” “He lives in the hearts of his people” and “The darkest hour in history.”

Instead of reaching Virginia, however, Booth and his partner mistakenly navigated upriver to a bend in the broad Potomac River, coming ashore again in Maryland on April 22. The 23-year-old Herold knew the area well, having frequently hunted there and recognized a nearby farm as belonging to a Confederate sympathizer. The farmer led them to his son-in-law, Colonel John J. Hughes, who provided the fugitives with food and a hideout until nightfall, for a second attempt to row across the river to Virginia. Booth wrote in his diary, “With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.” The pair finally reached the Virginia shore near Machodoc Creek before dawn on April 23. There, they made contact with Thomas Harbin, whom Booth had previously brought into his erstwhile kidnapping plot. Harbin took Booth and Herold to another Confederate agent in the area, William Bryant, who supplied them with horses.

Not all were grief-stricken, however. In New York City, a man was attacked by an enraged crowd when he shouted, “It served Old Abe right!” after hearing the news of Lincoln’s death. Elsewhere in the South, Lincoln was hated in death as in life and Booth was viewed as a hero as many rejoiced at news of his deed. Other Southerners feared that a vengeful North would exact a terrible retribution upon the defeated former Confederate states. “Instead of being a great Southern hero, his deed was considered the worst possible tragedy that could have befallen the South as well as the North,” wrote Kunhardt.

Booth and Herold eventually arrived at the Booth and Herold arrived at the Garretts’ farm, located on the road to Bowling Green, around 3 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Because Confederate mail delivery had ceased with the collapse of the Confederate government, he explained, the Garretts were unaware of Lincoln’s assassination. After having dinner with the Garretts that evening, Booth learned of the surrender of Johnston’s army. The last Confederate armed force of any size, its capitulation meant that the Civil War was unquestionably over and Booth’s attempt to save the Confederacy by Lincoln’s assassination had failed. The Garretts also finally learned of Lincoln’s death and the substantial reward for Booth’s capture. Booth, said Garrett, displayed no reaction, other than to ask if the family would turn in the fugitive should they have the opportunity. Still not aware of their guest’s true identity, one of the older Garrett sons averred that they might, if only because they needed the money. The next day, Booth told the Garretts he intended to reach Mexico, drawing a route on a map of theirs.

However, biographer Theodore Roscoe said of Garrett’s account, “Almost nothing written or testified in respect to the doings of the fugitives at Garrett’s farm can be taken at face value. Nobody knows exactly what Booth said to the Garretts or they to him.”

Before dawn on April 26, the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett’s tobacco barn. The end was drawing near for Booth, who had now become the most hated person in America, prior to Casey Anthony. David Herold surrendered but Booth refused Conger’s demand to surrender, saying “I prefer to come out and fight”; the soldiers then set the barn on fire. As Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him. According to Corbett’s later account, he fired at Booth because the fugitive “raised his pistol to shoot” at them. Conger’s report to Stanton, however, stated that Corbett shot Booth “without order, pretext or excuse” and recommended that Corbett be punished for disobeying orders to take Booth alive. Booth, fatally wounded in the neck, was dragged from the barn to the porch of Garrett’s farmhouse, where he died three hours later, aged 26. The bullet pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from just below the sternum down.  In his dying moments, he reportedly whispered, “Tell my mother I died for my country.” Asking that his hands be raised to his face so he could see them, Booth uttered his last words, “Useless, useless,” dying as dawn was breaking. In Booth’s pockets were found a compass, a candle, pictures of five women (actresses Alice Grey, Helen Western, Effie Germon, Fannie Brown and Booth’s fiancée Lucy Hale) and his diary, where he had written of Lincoln’s death, “Our country owed all her troubles to him and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”

Shortly after Booth’s death, his brother Edwin wrote to his sister Asia, “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world.” The letter Booth’s letter was seized along with other family papers at Asia’s house by Federal troops and published by The New York Times while the manhunt was underway. The letter, almost a manifesto, explained his reasons for plotting against Lincoln. In it he said, “I have ever held the South was right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln, four years ago, spoke plainly war upon Southern rights and institutions.” The institution of “African slavery,” he had written, “is one of the greatest blessings that God has ever bestowed upon a favored nation” and Lincoln’s policy was one of “total annihilation.”

His actions were anything BUT heroic. Cowardly, yes. Heroic? Not even close. The actions of a madman, enraged with anger and hate, sent an already beaten and weary South into further depths of despair. When they signed the surrender agreement, they thought that things were going to be easy. Now things were about to get much worse. Someone was going to pay for this and if they couldn’t get Booth in a courtroom, then Georgia and the rest of the South was going to howl, to paraphrase William Sherman. John Wilkes Booth became a fugitive, on the run like O.J. in that white Ford Bronco. He had fled the jurisdiction of the state of Maryland and could have easily been charged with first-degree murder under the laws of that commonwealth today.

He planned the murder, he enlisted the aid of others, he carried out the deed in cold blood. John wilkes Booth’s actions made Judas look like a petty thief (in fact, he was a thief).

Booth believed in a cause that was dilusional at best. Booth hatched a plan that was so evil and hideous that even Satan would cringe at its very utterance. Booth died the same way his victim did, without facing justice and dying alone. Booth thought in his sick mind that he would be hailed a hero. This was not the case. Booth died a coward and if he had faced justice today, he would have probably been found guilty of one count of first degree murder and probably sentenced to death.

Booth heroic? No. Booth a savior of the South? Not likely. Booth a cold-blooded psychopath? Yes. Freud would have written volumes on him. Heroes get hospitals, schools, parks, streets, stadiums and office buidlings named for them. You see a lot of Lincoln schools, roads, hospitals, et al. You don’t see many Booth hospitals. Cowards don’t get honored, they get jeered and scorned.

In the end, John Wilkes Booth could have been the Russell Crowe or George Clooney of his day. His views toward Lincoln and the Civil War which dragged the nation into chaos for four years of bloodshed and turmoil, while deemed strange by some, were his and he had every right as a citizen to express those rights. What he did not have the right to do was kill a president and try to destroy a government and flee jurisdiction. Those actions were that of a coward, not a hero and he died as a coward alone, shot in a tobacco barn among strangers.

150 years ago on April 14th (which will be on the second Tuesday after Easter), the nation will pause and reflect on what happened that night at Ford’s Theatre.

They will hail Lincoln a hero for his work to bring a nation back together and vilify his killer. While John Wilkes Booth deserves our scorn (and rightfully so), he is unfortunately a part of history that cannot be erased and no matter how hard we scrub or say “out, out, damned spot!” as Lady Macbeth said, we are stuck with him.  His heirs now bear the shame of a family name that could have brought joy and entertainment to the world. Instead, he unleashed a plot that was premeditated, planned to the fullest of detail with one thing missing.

John Wilkes Booth was a sociopath.

John Wilkes Booth was a narcissist who lived in his own world and played by his own rules.

In the end, both of those qualities made him the most hated man on the face of the Earth since Judas Iscariot.

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