On April 14th, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was seated in the presidential box above the audience at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., with his wife for a performance of Our American Cousin.
An actor and Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth climbed the stairs with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other, stepped forward and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. After slashing the arm of a man who tried to intervene, Booth jumped down onto the stage, screamed, “Sic semper tyrannis,” which is Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,” and fled the scene.
Booth was familiar with the layout of Ford’s Theatre since he had attended a dress rehearsal the day before.
Many audience members thought the action was part of the story until they saw Mary Lincoln frantically waving. “They have shot the president!” she cried. “They have shot the president!”
Two doctors attempted to help Lincoln, and moved him to the Petersen boardinghouse across the street. He died there at around 7:20 A.M. the following day.
President Lincoln’s assassination shocked a nation still reeling from years of turmoil during the Civil War.
Five days before Lincoln was killed, General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac, effectively ending the war.
Booth and his coconspirators, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold, planned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson — which they believed would throw the government into a state of chaos. But the plot failed when Powell only managed to wound Seward, and Atzerodt did not go through with his part of the plan.
Though police interviewed many witnesses after Lincoln’s death, some questions remain.
Lincoln’s bodyguard John Parker left his position to watch the play, and then he went to the saloon next door, where Booth was also reportedly drinking, for intermission. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Parker’s exact location during the assassination remains a mystery.
Booth’s exact words following the shooting have also been debated. While most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout, “Sic semper tyrannis!” others claimed that he only yelled, “Sic semper!” while others reportedly heard him say “I have done it!”
No one really knows what drove Booth, a well-known and successful actor of his time, to want to murder the President. Although he was known as a “fanatical Southern partisan,” according the The Daily Beast, it’s not known why he thought killing Lincoln would be beneficial to his beloved South.
Booth managed to escape the nation’s capital on horseback, but was captured by Union soldiers on April 26. He was hiding in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, along with David Herold.
Herold surrendered, but Booth refused and was shot by a Union soldier named Boston Corbett after the barn was set on fire. Eight other conspirators or suspects were tried and convicted, and four were hanged.
Main photo: Abraham Lincoln, November 8, 1863 [Alexander Garnder/Public Domain]