One of the most well – known political assassinations in history is that of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head during a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. Most people know that this took place five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House which basically ended the Civil War, but not everyone knows a whole lot about Booth himself.
John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland on May 10th, 1838 and was the ninth of ten children to Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes, who were British and had immigrated to the United States in 1821. Junius was one of the most famous actors on stage of his time, but was also regarded as a drunk. He would die when Booth was 14 years old. All evidence points to Booth having lived a happy childhood, receiving education in a few schools, but was said to never take full advantage of the opportunities presented to him. In 1851, Booth attended St. Timothy’s Military Academy near Baltimore. There he would meet Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, who would be involved with Booth’s plans later.
The Booth family had many people who were actors, and John was no exception. He decided to follow his father’s footsteps and made his debut in Baltimore in August of 1855. He was 17 at the time. His first role was the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Booth had natural talent, and some of his most popular performances were in Shakespearean plays. In 1858 he joined the Richmond Theater, and received a major career boost. Interestingly enough, Booth heard about the famous abolitionist John Brown while preparing for a play in Richmond, Virginia. Brown had attempted to raid the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, hoping to start a slave revolt, but failed. After hearing about his guilty verdict, Booth went to Charles town, bought a militia uniform, and attended Brown’s execution.
Members of the Booth family had different perspectives when it came to topics such as slavery. Booth himself was an avid supporter of the South and the institution slavery (No shocker, since he would assassinate the man who “ended” it) and felt that it was necessary to maintain the South’s freedom. Booth and Lincoln crossed paths a few times before his assassination. On November 9th, 1863, Lincoln watched a play that Booth performed in, playing as Raphael in Charles Selby’s The Marble Heart, which was at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln was also sitting in the same box that he would be assassinated in two years later. At one point during the play, Booth vehemently shook his finger at Lincoln while delivering his lines, and Lincoln asked to meet Booth after the play, however Booth refused. Since the Booth family had been friends with John T. Ford, the owner of the theater for a long time, Booth was always in and out, even if he was not performing there. Booth would also show up to Lincoln’s second inaugural address on April 11th, 1865. A now very famous photograph was taken which can be seen here:
Booth would recruit his two old friends from St. Timothy’s, and plan to kidnap Lincoln in return for the freeing of thousands of Confederate prisoners of war. At this point Booth had become tied with the Confederate Secret Service, which was why he had intended to do this. On March 20, 1865, Lincoln and his co – conspirators waited for Lincoln to show up at the planned destination in Richmond, where they would kidnap him, however he did not show up, and Richmond would be overtaken by Union forces two weeks later. Later, Booth found out about Lincoln’s plans to attend a play at Ford’s Theater on April 14th, named “Our American Cousin”. Booth planned for the simultaneous assassinations of Lincoln, along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and William Seward, which would through the government into a chaotic, disorganized state. Booth would only succeed in assassinating Lincoln, which he did at 10:15 P.M., forever etching his name into history. An important note, however is that Lincoln would not be pronounced dead until 7:22 A.M. Booth remained on the run with an accomplice named David Herold until April 26th, where Union troops surrounded a barn where they both were hiding out. They set fire to the barn, and Herold surrendered but Booth did not, and was later shot in the neck by a sergeant, and died three hours later.
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