33335 - John Wilkes Booth; 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' - Assassin of Lincoln [LC-DIG-ggbain-33335]
John Wilkes Booth, at the start of the war, was just a few months shy of his 23rd birthday. Born in Maryland in 1838, he was the 9th of 10 children. Booth followed his father and brothers onto the stage. He began earning a living at acting by the age of 17. He was successful; earning more than $20,000 per year by the start of the war. He was considered perhaps not as talented as his brothers, but was immensely popular due to his charm and good looks.
Booth’s sympathies were always with the South. When John Brown had been tried for his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Booth volunteered for the Richmond Grays that had been sent to guard against any potential attempt to rescue Brown. Booth was in Uniform for his beloved South 18 months prior to the start of any fighting. When the war did break out, he made a promise to his mother not to enlist. Booth spent the war receiving public acclaim on stage and condemning both the North and Lincoln off stage.
Maryland, as a slave holding state, had many residents that wished to secede. It was, however, one of four slave states that remained in the Union. The other remaining states were Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. Many people in Maryland were outraged when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus (requiring a person to be charged with a crime to be held in prison) and subsequently imprisoned many local and state officials that opposed the Union. This action kept Maryland from seceding. But Booth, along with many people in Maryland, as well as some judges on the Supreme Court, felt this action was unconstitutional.
In November 1863, Booth performed at Ford’s theatre with Lincoln in attendance. During the play he delivered an accusatory line of dialogue, by pointing at Lincoln, who was just a few feet away in the presidential box, which was at the edge of the stage. During another performance, Lincoln’s son Tad, who was 10 or 11 at the time, saw Booth perform and was thrilled when Booth presented him with a rose.
By the time of Lincoln’s re-election, Booth could see that there was no hope for the South and blamed everything on Lincoln. Booth attended the 2nd inauguration and reported that he had an excellent chance to kill the President if he had wished. Originally, Booth planned to kidnap Lincoln and use him as exchange for Confederate prisoners being held in the North. He felt that this act would result in the North bringing the war to an end and recognizing the Confederacy. On March 17th, 1865 he heard of Lincoln’s intention to attend a play near the Soldiers Home. His plans were thwarted when Lincoln’s schedule changed at the last minute.
With Lee’s surrender on April 12th, Booth proclaimed that he was done with the stage. He considered himself a failure and coward for not having served in the Confederacy. Booth increasingly focused his outrage on Lincoln. Booth was blaming Lincoln for all manner of things. He was envisioning Lincoln becoming some type of 19th Century American Monarch. Within a week, he saw his answer. That Friday, John Ford told him that the Lincolns and Grants were to attend the theatre that night. While Grant would later change his schedule, Lincoln did not. Booth quickly gathered his conspirators from his failed kidnap attempt. They planned to kill President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward.
Booth believed by causing the death of the President, along with the two officials next in line of succession, he would overcome his self-stigmatized role of coward and the South would take advantage of the ensuing chaos to rise up again. In the end, however, only he succeeded in killing his target. Seward was severely wounded but survived and the attack on Johnson was abandoned. Booth managed to escape. He became the focus of the largest manhunt in U.S. history until he was killed on April 26th, just 11 days after Lincoln. While much admired in the South today for his courage, he was shunned and hated at the time, for fear of Northern retribution.