Lincoln’s Killer: Who was he before Lincoln’s assassination?

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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7 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Killer: Who was he before Lincoln’s assassination?

  1. Wow, it’s amazing how little I knew of the man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Your post delivered a great, concise and detailed back-story behind John Wilkes Booth; the most surprising part to me was how Booth and Lincoln actually meet/encounter each other multiple times before the assassination was even planned, let alone fulfilled. Great job on your post.

  2. First of all, the sentence that started with “On March 20, 1865…” I think you meant Booth and his co-conspirators, not Lincoln. Second, I really liked how you looked in the story of John Wilkes Booth. I never thought that he was someone bad just because he assassinated Lincoln but at the same time, I’ve never known much about him. Most people would probably say he was a criminal because he killed the president but I think that during that time and age, there is no right or wrong. There is just what you believe in and acting on what you believe. Around the time of the Civil War, people were arguing over whether slavery was right or wrong and both sides had a lot of valid evidence to back their claim. As such, there is also no saying whether the people on each side were right or wrong meaning though we see it as “wrong” now, back then, Booth was acting on what he believed in so he was neither right nor wrong.

  3. I admire the approach you took in your blog post. History books and the common media tend to demonize people like Booth. I believe it is important to understand the background of assassins because it can so often explain their mindset for justifying their actions. I am blown away by the fact that Booth and Lincoln crossed paths previously and even more at Booth’s initial attempt at kidnapping Lincoln. I find it interesting that his father’s name was Junius Brutus; the name of Julius Ceasar’s assassin also happened to be Junius Brutus. The correlation is quite amazing. Your post was a great lens to view through the life of one of the most famous assassins in history. Well done.

  4. I really like this post. Most people don’t look much into Booth’s past and life before the assassination, writing him off as just some crazy guy. Learning his background was really interesting, and puts more character to a name we all know. Good job!

  5. I find this intriguing. It is cool how Booth is probably no stranger to anyone involved (including Lincoln). I like how you go more in depth into his life. For most people, when they hear that he killed Lincoln, they want to know no more, but I personally think it is great to look into one’s life more than one act. Very Good!

  6. I’ve never known much about Booth other than the fact that he assassinated Lincoln, but I have never really bothered to learn more about him. It was definitely interesting to hear more about his life before “etching his name into history.” People hardly ever elaborate when it comes to people like Booth. Instead they just focus on the “heroes.” I’m glad someone chose to write about him because it gives us more to associate with him than just Lincoln’s assassination.

  7. I found your post very interesting because people often forget that there is more to a person’s life than the one action that he or she took that made them infamous. I enjoyed learning more about Booth, especially how Lincoln had attended one of Booth’s plays earlier. I also wonder if anyone else noticed that Booth shook his finger at Lincoln while Lincoln was watching him perform in the The Marble Heart.

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