LINDSAY: This choice episode of History Daily originally aired on April 14th, 2022.
It’s evening on April 14th, 1865 in Washington DC.
A handsome young man with jet-black hair hurries through the lobby of a downtown theater. This evening’s show, the hit comedy Our American Cousin, has already started, and the young man can hear laughter coming from the packed auditorium…
He climbs the stairs leading to the upper levels of the theater. Coming to a door marked ‘Dress Circle”... the young man steps inside.
In the dark, packed auditorium, all eyes are fixed on the brightly lit stage. No one notices the handsome young man as he silently makes his way to a door that leads to a private box.
He flashes a smile as he approaches the hulking, bearded guard sitting outside. He pulls out a calling card with his name printed on it – but the guard already knows who he is. This young man, John Wilkes Booth, is one of the most famous actors in America.
Not wanting to disturb the performance… the guard lets Booth through the door into a small vestibule.
Inside, Booth quickly and silently bars the door behind him. He turns to find yet another door, this one unguarded. Next, Booth pulls out a small pistol and a dagger and waits for his cue.
Booth knows tonight’s play well. He knows which lines get the biggest laughs. He waits a moment or two and listens…
When the play’s biggest laugh line hits, Booth creeps through the door into the private box. Sitting in front of him, the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln laughs heartily along with his wife and guests. But none of them notice Booth… who raises his pistol to the back of the President’s head.
Abraham Lincoln is the first President assassinated in US History. His death will come near the end of the American Civil War when the forces of the rebel Confederacy are on the verge of total defeat. But even after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, the actor John Wilkes Booth refuses to give up. Instead, he plots and executes a brazen act of political violence.
And soon, an investigation into his crime will be underway, and the true depth of his conspiracy against the government will be revealed. The authorities will learn that Booth did not act alone and that Lincoln was not his only target. In this moment of crisis, the government will launch the largest manhunt in US History; an unprecedented search that began when Booth pulled the trigger at Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 14th, 1865: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Act One: The Plot to Kill Lincoln
It’s March 4th, 1865, a month before President Lincoln is shot at Ford’s Theater.
Crowds stream along the unpaved roads of Washington DC. It’s a dreary, wet morning, and thousands of visitors trudge through ankle-deep mud on their way to the Capitol Building. They’ve come to Washington for the second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. And among the crowd is the young actor, John Wilkes Booth.
Acting is in Booth’s blood; his father and two older brothers are also well-known performers. And when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Booth remained in the north and continued his acting career. But unlike his father and brothers, he was vocal in his support for the Southern Confederacy, and the institution of slavery.
But by early 1865, the Union Armies are nearing victory over the rebels in the south. Additionally, the newly re-elected President Abraham Lincoln has promised to end slavery in America, calling for passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. But Booth holds strong convictions in opposition to these goals and gathers a group of like-minded conspirators to hatch a plot to kidnap the President. But the plot fails to materialize.
Now, Booth has come to Washington to witness the inauguration of the man he calls a tyrant. In front of the Capitol Building, Booth watches from the crowd as Lincoln takes the oath of office. Lincoln then turns to address the people with a short but memorable speech that includes these now-immortal words:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace…”
Booth doesn’t join the cheers of the crowd around him. Later, he writes in his diary: “What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on inauguration day!”
In the wake of Lincoln’s speech, Booth is seething with rage. The Confederacy is all but beaten. Slavery is abolished by the House of Representatives and Senate. And Lincoln seems poised to push for citizenship for newly freed slaves. In Booth’s mind, this is an apocalypse. He decides to take matters into his own hands. And soon, he and his conspirators abandon their plan to kidnap the President, and instead, plot something even more drastic – to kill not only Abraham Lincoln but also his Secretary of State and Vice-President, all on one night.
Booth is confident his plan will work if he can find the perfect moment to strike. That opportunity comes on April 14th, 1865, when Booth learns the President will be attending a play at Ford’s Theater. Booth knows the building well having performed there several times himself. He is also certain his celebrity will give him unhindered access, and he is certain he can get close enough to the President to do the deed.
Later that day, Booth meets with the other plotters at a boarding house in Washington to finalize their plans. Booth will go to the theater and kill Lincoln. A former Confederate soldier named Lewis Payne will go to the house of Secretary of State William Seward and murder him, while a third man, George Atzerodt, will attack Vice-President Andrew Johnson at the Washington hotel where he’s staying. After their meeting, the conspirators go their separate ways and get ready to put their plan into action.
On the night of April 14th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth marches into Ford’s Theater in Washington.
He quickly makes his way to the private box where Lincoln is watching a play and shoots the President in the back of the head from point-blank range. At the crack of the gunshot, the young soldier sitting beside Lincoln leaps to his feet. And as the wounded President slumps over in his chair, Major Henry Rathbone throws himself at John Wilkes Booth.
Booth drops his pistol – a single shot Derringer – and lashes out at Rathbone with his dagger. He slashes the Major down his arm and leaps onto the railing of the private box. But as Booth prepares to jump, the injured Rathbone grabs for him again. Booth leaps, but he's thrown off balance and gets his leg gets tangled in the American flag that decorates the private box. He lands on the stage below with a painful thud, grievously injuring his ankle.
As the confused audience looks on, Booth hobbles across the stage, brandishing his bloodied knife and screaming at the top of his voice: “I’ve done it! The South is avenged!” Then he also calls out the Latin motto of the Confederate state of Virginia “Sic semper tyrannis”, “Thus always to tyrants”.
But as Booth makes his escape from Ford’s Theater, across the city, the rest of his conspiracy is falling apart.
Lewis Payne successfully forces his way into the bedroom of Secretary of State Seward and stabs him repeatedly in the face and neck – but he fails to strike a fatal blow before fleeing.
The third would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, fails to muster the courage to do his part. And instead of killing the Vice-President, he starts drinking at a hotel bar and spends the rest of the night wandering streets of Washington.
By then, the dying Abraham Lincoln has been carried from the private box at Ford’s Theater to the bedroom of a nearby house, and the hunt for his assassin is underway.
Act Two: Death of a President
It’s early morning on April 15th, 1865 in Washington DC.
Thousands of people stand vigil outside a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater.
In a narrow bedroom at the back of the building, lying on a blood-stained bed is Abraham Lincoln. The President’s face is swollen and discolored, his breathing slow and labored.
All around him are doctors and members of his cabinet. The dark-suited men are silent and serious. They know the President is dying.
After the 56-year-old leader of the Union was shot by John Wilkes Booth, two doctors in the audience at the theater rushed to the private box. They found Lincoln still in his seat, his head leaning to the right as his sobbing wife Mary held him in her arms. The doctors quickly established that the President’s wound was likely fatal. Realizing Lincoln was too weak to survive a carriage journey back to the White House, the doctors decided to find somewhere closer for the President to pass his final hours.
Crowds had already gathered on the street outside as Lincoln was brought out of the theater; and by torchlight, in gently falling rain, carried the president across the muddy street to the Petersen Boarding House.
They settled him in one empty room in the building. Lincoln was so tall, they had to lay him diagonally across the small bed. For the next eight hours, a stream of doctors, politicians, journalists, and family came to pay their respects, hoping for one last word from the President. But he never regains consciousness.
Early on the morning of April 15th, Abraham Lincoln passes away. The men in the tiny boarding house room kneel in prayer. All are silent except for the muffled cries of the President’s wife coming from the parlor next door.
Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, speaks first, saying: “Now he belongs to the ages”.
Across the city, Vice-President Andrew Johnson will soon be sworn in as America’s new leader. But for these few hours at least, it’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who’s in charge of the government and the search for Lincoln’s killer. Stanton orders a lockdown in the city. He halts all rail traffic to the south and mobilizes thousands of troops for the manhunt. But assassin John Wilkes Booth has already slipped the net.
It's April 21st, 1865, six days after the death of Abraham Lincoln, Booth creeps through the swampy woods of southern Maryland. He ducks down among the thick undergrowth, flattening his weary body against the mud. He can hear Federal soldiers nearby, cursing as they hack their way through the woods.
Booth has been on the run for almost a week. He had a horse ready for him in the alleyway behind Ford’s Theater and in the chaos that followed the shooting, he made his escape. Outside the city, he met with one of his fellow conspirators: David Herold. Together, the pair rode south throughout the night. Twenty miles outside Washington, they stopped at the home of a doctor who treated Booth's leg before he and David Herold continued their journey south.
By then, the well-known Booth had been identified as Lincoln’s killer and Federal Agents have been combing the woods and swamps of Maryland hot on his trail. But with the help of a Confederate agent, Booth, and Herold were able to hide and wait for the opportunity to cross the nearby Potomac River into the state of Virginia, where support for the Confederacy was widespread.
Each day, the Confederate agent brought the fugitives food, whiskey, and newspapers. Booth was keen to read about his exploits – he thought himself a hero and that there were many more who hated the President like he did. But instead, what he discovered in print was that most think of him as a monster and a madman.
Booth was furious. In his journal, he wrote: “I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hand they extend to me”.
The Federal troops searching the Maryland swamps don’t find Booth. Instead, a few days later, the Confederate agent secures the fugitives a small boat. And at nightfall on April 22nd, Booth and his fellow conspirator David Herold, finally, cross the river into Virginia.
But they will be tracked there by Federal troops and soon, the manhunt will climax in a final showdown at a Virginia farm, where John Wilkes Booth will meet his fateful end.
Act Three: Catching the Killers
It’s before dawn on April 26th, 1865, in Port Royal, Virginia; twelve days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
In the darkness of a tobacco barn, John Wilkes Booth blinks awake. He can hear dogs outside barking in the night and then, the unmistakable thundering sound of horses approaching. Lying next to Booth, still asleep, is his co-conspirator, David Herold. Booth shakes him awake to deliver the bad news: they’ve been found.
After crossing the Potomac into Virginia, Booth, and Herold make contact with Confederate agents who provided horses for their continued journey. On April 24th, the two fugitives reached the property of a local farming family. Booth lied about who he was – and told them he was a wounded Confederate soldier trying to get home. The farmers gave him and Herold shelter in their tobacco barn.
But by then, the soldiers of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment were close on Booth’s heels. They captured one of the Confederate agents who had helped Booth and under questioning, the man gave up the location of the fleeing assassin and his cohort.
So early on the morning of April 26th, a column of Union cavalry thundered down the road toward the farm.
In the tobacco barn, David Herold panics and urges Booth to surrender. But the actor refuses, saying “I will suffer death first.” By now, the Union troops have them surrounded. The commanding officer shouts an ultimatum: Give up – or they’ll torch the barn.
Herold soon scurries outside and is taken into custody. But Booth remains stubborn. He keeps hidden within the darkest reaches of the barn. So the soldiers set bar ablaze.
For Booth, surrender is out of the question. But so is suicide. He wants a heroic death. So as the heady fumes of burning tobacco choke the air, he readies his weapons for what he hopes is a glorious last stand.
But as Booth limps towards the barn door, one of the cavalrymen, a sergeant named Boston Corbett, fires his rifle. The bullet catches Booth in the neck and he stumbles to the ground. Union soldiers rush into the burning barn to pull him out. Their orders were to take him alive, but Booth’s wound will be fatal. The men drag him to the porch of the farmhouse. And there, as the light of dawn creeps over the surrounding fields, Abraham Lincoln's assassin expires.
Eight of Booth's conspirators will be caught and put on trial. Four of them will be executed, including David Herold as well as Lewis Payne and George Atzerodt, the two men who were meant to kill Lincoln’s Secretary of State and Vice President.
Booth’s plot may have succeeded in taking Abraham Lincoln’s life. But it failed to resurrect the Confederate cause as Booth intended. Two weeks after the assassin’s death, the new President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, declares that the long, and bloody American Civil War is finally over. But of all the casualties of that destructive conflict, none was mourned so widely or remembered with such pride as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth on April 14th, 1865.
Next on History Daily. April 17th, 1975. Cambodia falls to the Khmer Rouge after the radical communist insurgency captures the nation’s capital.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.