April 14, 1865 — The President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, sat in the Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!” said an actor playing in “Our American Cousin” for the guests of the theater. President Lincoln laughed at the line, his eyes fixed on stage. Just then, a figure approached him, pulled out a Philadelphia Deringer and shot him in the head, behind the left ear. Lincoln would fight for his life, though doctors were certain he would not make it. He died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning; to this effect, Maunsell Bradhurst Field wrote the New York Times and told of his passing:
For several hours the breathing above described continued regularly, and apparently without pain or consciousness. But about 7 o’clock a change occurred, and the breathing, which had been continuous, was interrupted at intervals. These intervals became more frequent and of longer duration, and the breathing more feeble. Several times the interval was so long that we thought him dead, and the surgeon applied his finger to the pulse, evidently to ascertain if such was the fact. But it was not till 22 minutes past 7 o’clock in the morning that the flame flickered out. There was no apparent suffering, no convulsive action, no rattling of the throat, none of the ordinary premonitory symptoms of death. Death in this case was a mere cessation of breathing.”
John Wilkes Booth was already something of a theater celebrity before he murdered the President of the United States, but it was the assassination that would forever etch his name among the infamous killers of history. He was as staunch, outspoken sympathizer of the Confederacy, but it would only be a matter of days until the Civil War would officially end and so his brazen attempt to help the Confederates did little to perpetuate his cause.
Booth had actually initially planned on kidnapping Lincoln and taking him back to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. He and his co-conspirators aimed to use the president as a bargaining chip so the Union would resume exchanging prisoners with the south. The Confederacy was on its last leg, and men like Booth were getting desperate. When the plan to kidnap Lincoln went sideways, Booth improvised and carried out the assassination instead.
After a dramatic pursuit that lasted almost two weeks, Booth was apprehended. He was shot and killed by Boston Corbett, a Union soldier, on April 24, 1865. Corbett later said,
I aimed at his body. I did not want to kill him….I think he stooped to pick up something just as I fired. That may probably account for his receiving the ball in the head. [W]hen the assassin lay at my feet, a wounded man, and I saw the bullet had taken effect about an inch back of the ear, and I remembered that Mr. Lincoln was wounded about the same part of the head, I said: ‘What a God we have…God avenged Abraham Lincoln.'”
Featured image: This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. | AP Photo/Library of Congress