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States: General History and Description >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Abraham Lincoln's Administration, 1861-1865
nationally acclaimed Shakespearian actor who gained even more fame as the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth was born on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland, on May 10, 1838, the ninth of ten children born to Junius Brutus Booth, a well-known actor, and and Mary Ann Holmes. He attended the Bel Air Academy, where he was described as an intelligent but disinterested student, and then the Quaker-run Milton Boarding School for Boys in Sparks, Maryland, and, lastly, St. Timothy's Hall, an Episcopal military acaemy in Cantonsville, Maryland. He left school following his father's death in 1852 and spent the next few years working a farm near his birth home before deciding to pursue an acting career.
Booth made his acting debut in August of 1855, playing the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare's Richard III at the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore. He subsequently worked for a year at a Philadelphia theater before moving to the Marshall Theatre in Richmond, Virginia. After finishing the 18591860 theatre season in Richmond, he embarked on his first national tour as a leading actor, and by the time he made his New York debut in 1862, as the lead in Richard III, he had gained national acclaim as a Shakespearean actor.
On November 9, 1863, Booth played the role of Raphael in The Marble Heart at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. One of the men in the audience that night was President Abraham Lincoln; it was the only time Booth ever performed in front of Lincoln.
On November 25, 1864, Booth performed for the only time with his two brothers, Edwin and Junius, in a single engagement production of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. He made the final appearance of his acting career at Ford's on March 18, 1865, when he played Duke Pescara in The Apostate.
Although both of Booth's parents were immigrants from Britain, he himself became a supporter of the Know-Nothing Party, which aimed to limit further immigration into the United States.
An ardent supporter of slavery, Booth was rehearsing at the Richmond theatre when he abruptly left to join a volunteer militia company heading to Charles Town, Virginia, to witness the hanging of John Brown, who had been captured while attempting to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Although his family was from Maryland and owned slaves, its members were divided between Union and Confederate. While Edwin Booth refused to perform in any state which claimed ties to the Confederacy, John Booth was a very vocal supporter of the South. In 1862, Jon Wilkes Booth was arrested in St. Louis for making anti-government remarks. He was freed after taking an oath of allegiance to the Union and paying a substantial fine. And, because he performed in both Northern and Southern states during most of the Civil War, Booth was able to smuggle quinine to the South; it has also been suggested, but never conclusively proven, that he occassionally acted as a spy for the Confederacy.
Kidnapping Plot, Assassination and Aftermath
By the summer of 1864 Booth had stopped touring and begun working on a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him at Richmond until exchanging him for Confederate prisoners-of-war. On March 15, 1865, he and a group of supporters -- Michael O'Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, Lewis Powell, John Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt -- met at Gautier's Restaurant, about three blocks from Ford's Theatre, and discussed the plan. When the conspirators learned that Lincoln was scheduled to attend a matinee performance of Still Waters Run Deep at Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of Washington on March 17th, they decided their best option was to intercept his carriage en route. The plan was foiled, however, when Lincoln changed his schedule at the last minute and decided to speak to the 140th Indiana Regiment instead.
Booth's kidnapping plot became an assassination plot following the fall of Richmond. His resolve was strengthened when, on April 11, 1865, he attended a speech by Lincoln in which the President pledged to pursue voting rights for blacks. He tried to convince his co-conspirators to kill several high-ranking officials while he took care of the President, but few of them wanted anything to do with the plot.
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Booth learned that President and Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant would be attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre that evening. He immediately made arrangements with livery stable owner James W. Pumphrey for a getaway horse and an escape route and then informed Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt of his intention to kill Lincoln that night. Powell was assigned to assassinate Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Atzerodt to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. Herold would assist in their escape into Virginia.
Booth arrived at Ford's Theatre around 10:15 pm and, because he was well known by the staff, was allowed entry through a lobby door leading to the presidential box. Knowing the play quite well, he timed his entry into the box to coincide with a line that always drew great laughs from the audience, allowing him to burst in and shoot Lincoln without anyone hearing him. After firing the fatal shot, Booth briefly struggled with Lincoln's aide, Major Henry Rathbone, who was slashed with a knife before catching a piece of Booth's clothing as Booth leapt over the railing. Rathbone's grab was enough to cause Booth to fall to the stage and badly fracture his leg. Despite the injury, Booth was able to make it out the back door of the theatre, where he mounted a horse being held for him by Joseph Burroughs and fled into the darkness.
Booth managed to elude authorities for twelve days before he and Herold were discovered to be hiding at Richard Garrett's tobacco farm, about 60 miles south of Washington near Port Royal, Virginia. Union cavalry caught up with them there on April 27th, at about 2:00 in the morning, and found them hiding in the barn. Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger announced that he would set fire to the barn if the men did not surrender within five minutes. Harold ultimately surrendered, but Booth refused. Conger did indeed set the barn ablaze, but Booth still refused to come out. Despite orders to take Booth alive, Sergeant Boston Corbett thought he saw Booth running toward the barn door with his rifle and chose to shoot. Corbett's single shot entered Booth's neck, paralyzing him instantly. Booth was still alive when soldiers dragged him out of the burning barn, but he died sometime around 7: 00 am.
Booth never married, but he did have many lady friends, and at least two romantic interests. In the spring of 1864, he met a 16-year-old Boston girl named Isabel Sumner. The two exchanged photographs and letters, and he gave her a ring with a pearl, but the romance does not appear to have lasted beyond that summer. Sometime in late-1864 or early-1865, Booth began a serious romance with Lucy Lambert Hale, daughter of John Parker Hale, a former abolitionist Senator from New Hampshire who had been named Lincoln's minister to Spain. The two attended Lincoln;s second inauguration together, and Booth was seen with Lucy on the morning of the assassination.
This page was last updated on February 03, 2017.