- 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
It was about nine thirty when Booth rode into the alley behind Ford’s Theatre. With “Peanuts,” a messenger boy, holding his mare’s bridle and the horse already stamping in protest, he entered the back door and asked if he could cross the stage. He was told no, the dairy scene was playing, which took the full depth. In a few moments he went down under the stage and through a special stage door to another alley that led to the front of the theatre. The ticket seller, John Buckingham, saw him leaving and entering the theatre lobby five times. Booth seemed very nervous. He took hold of two of Buckingham’s fingers and asked him the time. Buckingham told him there was a clock in the lobby. It was after ten. When Buckingham went into the saloon next door for a drink, Booth was there drinking brandy. At about ten fifteen Booth went into the back of the house and stood looking at the audience. Then he walked up the stairs leading to the dress circle, humming a tune. He was still wearing his dark slouch hat and riding clothes—high boots and spurs. Hc approached John Parker, the special policeman who was supposed to be sitting outside the door of the President’s box but who had gone down into one of the dress circle seats to watch the play. Booth tapped a card out from his card case, showed it to Parker, and a moment later entered the outer door of the little hall leading to the presidential box and closed it behind him. He barred the door so that no one could follow. In the narrow darkness between the doors he drew his pistol. Then he opened the second door and stepped into the box directly behind President Lincoln.
It was an instant in history the world would never forget. Lincoln was leaning forward, looking over the rail down into the audience, when the tiny derringer pistol was fired just behind his head. The enormous handmade lead bullet struck the President behind the left ear, flattened out as it drove through his skull, tunnelled into the brain, and came to rest behind the right eye.
For a split second no one spoke, no one moved. Mrs. Lincoln and Clara Harris sat frozen in their seats. A dense smoke enveloped the President and curled upward; suddenly the assassin appeared within the smoke, as though materialized by some demon magician.
President Lincoln threw up his right arm at the impact of the shot and Mrs. Lincoln instinctively caught him around the neck, struggling to keep him upright. Now Rathbone lunged out of his seat and grabbed at Booth’s arm. Booth had dropped the pistol and was brandishing a dagger which he tried to plunge into Rathbone’s chest. The Major knocked the knife upward with his arm, and received a two-inch-deep slash just above the elbow.
Now, as Booth vaulted over the railing of the box, Rathbone clutched at him again and felt clothes tear as Booth wrenched himself free and leapt the twelve feet down to the stage. As he dropped, his spur caught in the Treasury flag draped on the railing of the box, and the off-balance landing shattered a small bone above his left ankle. “Stop that man!” Rabone cried. Clara Harris screamed, “Stop that man, won’t somebody stop that man!” Then Mrs. Lincoln was leaning over the box and shrieking, “Help! Help!” followed by a series of words that made no sense at all—gibberish, insane sounds that filled the stunned theatre. Standing on the stage all alone, Harry Hawk saw Booth coming for him, brandishing a large knife and calling out “Sic semper tyrannis!” —“Thus shall it ever be for tyrants!” Hawk turned and fled terrified into the wings and up a flight of stairs. Booth charged backstage and toward the back door. There was orchestra leader William Withers, and Booth slashed out at him and cut his clothes. A moment later Booth was outside, knocking over “Peanuts,” who was still patiently holding the reins of his horse, kicking the boy to the ground, clumsily throwing himself onto the horse, which for a moment circled crazily in the alleyway, and then setting off at n gallop into the night.
“Hang him!” The shouts began from the audience. “Hang him!” Up in the box Clara Harris was screaming down for someone to bring water, and now there was pounding on the outer door, which Booth had barred shut. Rathbone, dripping blood from his arm, rushed to open it, to admit the world to the tragedy.
Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, twenty-three, by coincidence an avid student of gunshot wounds, was seated in the dress circle only forty feet away from the President’s box. For a moment after the shot he sat transfixed as a man jumped from the box onto the stage, the knife in his hand shining like a diamond in the gaslight. Then, gathering his wits, Leale hurtled over the seats and got to the door of the box just as the bar was being removed inside by Rathbone, who showed Leale his bleeding arm and begged for help. The Doctor quickly saw that the real help was needed by the President. He was Ixjing supported now in his chair by Mrs. Lincoln, who cried, “Uh, Doctor, do what you can for my dear husband! Is he dead? Can he recover?”