- Historic Sites
Had there been a Warren Commission exactly a century ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot, its report might have read like the somber, moving, and impressively researched book from which the following narrative is taken
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
If Abraham Lincoln had been given time to turn around in his rocking chair, he would have recognized his assassin instantly. Twenty-six-year-old John Wilkes Booth was one of the country’s promising actors, though no one expected him to come near the genius of his father, Junius Brutus Booth, or his incomparable brother, Edwin. Lincoln had seen him perform, seen that handsome, pale face, the thick raven hair, the deep-set eyes, black as ink and filled with a strange, wild fire. Only a few months before, the President had been at Ford’s Theatre in his usual box watching Booth play the part of a villain; whenever the Maryland actor had had anything ugly and threatening to say, he had stepped up near the presidential box, shaken his finger toward Lincoln, and said the lines directly to him. “He looks as if he meant that for you,” the President’s companion said, and Lincoln replied, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?
For six months Booth had been working on plans to kidnap Lincoln with the hand of conspirators he had gathered together—among them a Maryland coach painter and blockade-runner, an unstable twenty-three-year-old drugstore derk, and a former Confederate soldier. At first they had planned to spirit Lincoln away to Richmond and demand that all Southern prisoners he freed and the war ended. One scheme was to throw Lincoln from a theatre box to the stage below, rush him out the back door, and drive him away, tied up, before the audience knew what had happened. On March 4, during Lincoln’s second inauguration, Booth and his men had been in the crowd quite close to the President, and had had a perfect opportunity to strike. Later in March the conspirators had surrounded and stopped the President’s carriage, only to find another man inside. By April, Booth had decided that kidnapping would not do, that Lincoln must die. “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of His punishment,” Booth wrote in his diary.
At eleven thirty on the morning of April 14 the actor arrived at Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail, and learned of the President’s planned attendance that evening. He seemed casual as he sat down on the theatre steps to read his letter, but everyone who saw him from that moment on noticed that he was deathly pale—thought he looked sick. He left soon to begin a day of frenzied preparation.
No one has ever pinpointed the hour at which Booth stole back into the theatre, made a hole in the wall lor a bar to jam the door in the corridor leading to the President’s box, and bored a peephole in the door to the box itself, grinding through the wood with a large iron-handled gimlet, then using a penknife to enlarge the hole to the size of a finger. Through it he had a deadeye view of the back of the rocking chair.
Dressed in high silk hat and dark suit, he went straight from the theatre to Pumphrey's Livery Stable. There he hired a swift little bay mare with a white star on her forehead and black tail and mane, saying he would call for her about four. At the appointed time Booth returned, now wearing a soft dark hat and high riding boots. Pumphrey warned him not to tie the mare if he left her; he must get someone to hold her, for she was high-spirited and would break her halter. Booth mentioned that he was going to Grover’s Theatre to write a letter, that he intended stopping for a drink somewhere, and indicated that he might take a pleasure ride.
Instead of going to Grover’s, Booth went to the National Hotel, where he was staying, to do his writing and walked into the office there, looking for privacy it seemed. He appeared dazed and asked the clerk in charge, Mr. Merrick, what year it was. Merrick said surely he was joking, and Booth said no, he wasn’t. On Pennsylvania Avenue at about four thirty Booth met John Matthews, a fellow actor who was playing the part of an attorney in Our American Cousin, handed Matthews the letter he had just written, and asked him to give it to the editor of the National Intelligencer the following clay. Ten minutes later he spotted a carriage with General and Mrs. Grant in it proceeding to the station on their way to New Jersey. Booth galloped after the carriage and made them uncomfortable by peering into it.
Sometime that afternoon—the clerk did not remember exactly when—Booth appeared at the desk of the Kirkwood House with a card, addressed to no one, on which was written, “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” The clerk thought he heard Booth say the name Johnson, and he put the card into the box of Vice President Andrew Johnson’s private secretary.
At six thirty that evening Booth had supper at the National Hotel. At about eight he met his accomplices at the Herndon House and went over the plans for them to kill Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson that eveninar.