Guest Author - Donna Johnson
John Wilkes Booth, along with co-conspirators George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell, planned to carry out the assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward during the night of April 14, 1865. The assassins plotted a simultaneous strike at 10 PM.
Booth’s target sat in the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. Along with his wife, Mary; Clara Harris, the daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris and Harris’ fiancé Henry Rathbone, a Major in the Union Army, Lincoln was enjoying a performance of the play “Our American Cousin” at the time Booth planned to act. Unfortunately for the President, John Frederick Parker, the police officer assigned to guard the Presidential Box, abandoned his post during the performance. This left Lincoln vulnerable at just the time Booth calculated would be the best time to strike - after a line in the play guaranteed to provoke the audience’s laughter and therefore cover the sound of the shot.
As actor Harry Hawk delivered the line, Booth stepped into place behind Lincoln. As the audience reacted to the line, Booth fired, striking Lincoln behind the left ear. Mary’s scream upon discovering her husband had been shot drew Rathbone’s attention to Booth. He fought with the assassin, who stabbed Rathbone before jumping from the Presidential Box to the stage.
The spur on one of Booth’s boots snagged the bunting draped around the Presidential Box, altering his leap and causing him to injure his leg upon landing on the stage. Some historians feel Booth actually broke his leg, while others point out that eyewitness accounts of Booth’s escape seem improbable for a man with a broken leg. The latter group feels another type of injury, such as a sprain, may have been more likely. Despite his injury, Booth got to his feet and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” a Latin phrase meaning “Thus always to tyrants.” This phrase was also the state motto of Virginia, one of the Confederate States during the Civil War. The assassin then ran out of the theatre and escaped on horseback before most of the playgoers realized what was happening.
A doctor attending the play rushed to Lincoln’s side, where he found the President barely breathing and unconscious. He quickly realized that Lincoln’s head wound was mortal, as the bullet had come to rest deep within the brain. The autopsy later discovered the projectile behind Lincoln’s right eye. As it was not a question of whether the President would die, but when, the team of attending doctors, now grown to three, had to decide where to take Lincoln to die.
The doctors settled on Petersen House, a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln could not have survived the ride to the White House or a hospital and it was not though proper to allow him to die in the theatre. The doctors carried Lincoln into a room in the boarding house and laid him on the bed. There they kept vigil, along with other physicians and, for a time, Mary. Lincoln died the following morning, April 15th, at 7:22 AM.
Atzerodt backed out of his plan to assassinate Johnson at the last minute, but Powell carried out his attack on Seward, seriously wounding the Secretary of State. Along with stabbing Seward, Powell also wounded two of Seward’s grown children, a medical attendant and a messenger before fleeing the scene.
Booth reached the planned rendezvous point in under an hour, where he only met up with David Herold, the man responsible for leading Powell to Seward’s home and providing a horse nearby for Powell’s escape. The two men would spend several days on the run as the most wanted men in the country.