By Kay Sluterbeck
J.W. Booth should have stayed with art of acting
From the Palette
At around 10 p.m. the evening of Good Friday, during a point in the play where he knew the audience would be laughing loudly, John Wilkes Booth slipped into Abraham Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer. Major Henry Rathbone was also present in the presidential box. Startled, he lunged at the assassin, and Booth stabbed him.
Booth then jumped to the stage, where he raised his knife and shouted "Sic simper tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants"). Some eyewitnesses noted that he added "I have done it, the South is avenged!" The story goes that Booth injured his leg when his spur snagged a decorative flag as he leaped to the stage. However, eyewitness accounts of Booth’s exit indicate that he was not injured at that point. It is most likely that Booth’s leg was hurt later that night when his high-spirited horse tripped and fell on him during his flight to escape. He may have fabricated the story about catching his spur in the flag so that he would appear more heroic.
After the assassination Booth fled through a stage door to the alley. Accompanied by co-conspirator David Herold, he galloped into southern Maryland toward Virginia. The escape route was planned to take advantage of the predominately Confederate area’s lack of telegraphs and railroads, as well as its dense forests and swampy terrain.
In the pre-dawn hours of April 15, they stooped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd for treatment of Booth’s injured, painful leg. Mudd later testified that Booth said the injury occurred when his horse fell. Then the fugitives rode on.
While hiding in the woods during his flight, Booth was given newspapers by sympathizers. He saw the accounts of Lincoln’s death and the subsequent national mourning, and by April 20 he was aware that some of his co-conspirators were already arrested. Booth, who had expected to be hailed as a hero, was shocked at the depth of public anger against him. Even the anti-Lincoln newspapers condemned the assassination.
In his April 21 journal entry, Booth wrote, "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."
While federal troops combed the woods and swamps for the assassin, mourning gripped the nation. The nine-car funeral train bearing Lincoln’s body made a 13-day journey to Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln would be buried. It traveled through seven states, stopping at numerous locations. In the cities where the train stopped, 1.5 million people viewed Lincoln in his coffin. An additional 30 million people lined the railroad tracks along the 1,662-mile route, holding up signs such as "We mourn our loss" and "The darkest hour in history." As the train rolled along at night, the glare of innumerable torches illuminated hundreds of people kneeling on the ground.
Meanwhile, Booth was hiding out at a Virginia farm owned by Richard H. Garrett. The Garrett family, unaware of the assassination, had been told Booth was "James Boyd," a Confederate soldier trying to return home after being wounded in a battle.
Before dawn on April 26, the soldiers caught up with the fugitives, who were hiding in Garrett’s tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered. Booth, however, refused to surrender, saying "I prefer to come out and fight." The soldiers then set the barn on fire.
The soldiers had orders to take him alive. However, as Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, a sergeant disobeyed orders and shot at him, claiming Booth was raising his pistol to fire. Fatally wounded in the neck and completely paralyzed, Booth was dragged from the barn to the porch of the farmhouse. He died three hours later. At the end, he asked that his hands be raised up to his face where he could see them. He looked at his hands and said "Useless, useless." These were his last words. He was 26 years old.
His body, wrapped in a blanket and tied to the side of an old farm wagon, was taken to Belle Plain, where it was brought aboard the USS Montauk to travel to the Washington Navy Yard for identification and autopsy.
Although there were rumors that a lookalike was killed, allowing Booth to escape, the body was identified as Booth’s by more than ten people who knew him, including his mother, brother and sister as well as his dentist and other acquaintances. Among the identifying features was a tattoo of his initials on his left hand.
The neck vertebrae removed during the autopsy are still on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. Booth was buried in his family’s gravesite in an unmarked grave.
When Booth committed his terrible deed, he had no thought of monetary gain. He was acting out of self-sacrificing but completely fanatical devotion to a cause he thought was vitally important. In the process he destroyed himself and grievously wounded the nation he thought he was helping.