An Evening at Ford’s Theatre
John Wilkes Booth was a popular young scion of America’s foremost theatrical family. While he had no part in Our American Cousin, Booth was desperate to play a role in the drama of the great Civil War, which was now rushing to conclusion. Back in 1864, the Maryland-born racist had concocted a plot to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war. That plan came to nothing, and now, with surrender in the air, there was no point in simply kidnapping Lincoln. Booth wanted raw vengeance. He conspired with a small band of followers, George A. Atzerodt, David Herold, and a former Confederate soldier called Lewis Paine (real name Louis Thornton Powell). They plotted to murder Lincoln and also kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
On April 14, Atzerodt backed out of his assignment to kill Johnson. In the meantime, Herold held Paine’s horse while Paine broke into Seward’s residence. He stabbed and clubbed Seward, an aged man who was recuperating from injuries suffered in a carriage accident. It was a bloody scene: Seward, his son Augustus, and his daughter Fanny were all injured, as were a State Department messenger and a male nurse. Yet none of them died.
Booth was more efficient. Booth simply walked into the theater, entered the president’s box, raised his derringer, and pointed it between Abraham Lincoln’s left ear and spine. fie squeezed off a single shot. Booth leaped from the box onto the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”—Thus ever to tyrants. But Booth’s right spur had caught on the Treasury Regiment banner festooning the box, and he landed, full force, on his left foot, which broke just above the instep. Booth limped across the stage and made a clean getaway into Maryland and then Virginia. He was not found until April 26, when he was cornered in a barn near Fredericksburg. Union soldiers set fire to the barn, then, seeing the actor’s form silhouetted by the flames, one of the soldiers (a sergeant named Boston Corbett claimed credit) fired a shot that fatally wounded Booth.