Video Tour of Ford’s Theatre: The Assassination

They didn’t have a celebrity culture in
the 1860s’ like we do today- there was no television, no movies, no
Twitter, but if if there was a celebrity in that era, John Wilkes Booth would have been one of
them. He came from one of the most famous acting families in America. He, himself, was a popular actor in his
late twenties who was widely known. He was handsome, and he was important, and he had
been in plays that the president, himself, had seen before. On Friday, April 14th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was
having what was a normal day for a celebrity like him. He began by meeting with his girlfriend,
a woman who was probably his secret fiance, and then he went to get a haircut,
and then he came to the theater, here, to collect his mail, and while he was here that morning, he
heard that there were plans for the president to show up that night at Our
American Cousin, the play that was being featured, and he decided then that he was
going to take his secret identity, the one that none of the people in the
theaters like this one knew about, that he was a Confederate spy and a courier,
and that he had been engaged in a conspiracy plot first to kidnap the
president, and now to kill him and other leaders of the government. He decided to set that plot into motion.
So, he spent the rest of the day furiously preparing the details. He rented a horse, he met with the other
co-conspirators, he reminded them of the plan to assassinate the president, the
vice president and the Secretary of State almost simultaneously. He figured out that there would be a
scene in the third act of the play where there would be a lot of laughter. It would
happen about 10:15 at night. He came back to the theater, he looked over the passageway outside
the state box where the president and his guests would be. It seems that he
probably drilled a hole into that passageway so that he could see into the box
better, and he prepared to barricade himself into it after what he thought would be a
fight with one of the presidential guards. And then, the play unfolded. The
president and his guests arrived late. Booth came even later. He knew when he wanted
to strike, but he was admitted to the box relatively easily. The people in this
balcony who would have seen him wouldn’t have been surprised at all- he was a famous actor. The presidential servant, who was seated
outside the box, had no problem admitting someone as popular or well known as John
Wilkes Booth. And, it turned out that the police detective, who was supposed to be
inside the box, wasn’t there at all. He had gone over to a nearby tavern to get
a drink. There was no secret service back then-
they didn’t have an expectation that presidents would be guarded in that way,
and he wasn’t. The president was essentially unprotected that night. And
Booth waited. He waited until about 10:15 when Harry Hawke, that lone actor on the
stage, delivered the line that led the audience out here to erupt in laughter.
And then, Booth stepped forward into the box with his single shot Derringer, and
he released a 44 caliber bullet into the president’s head. Mary Lincoln screamed. There was a tussle
with Henry Rathbone, the president’s guest. Booth slashed Rathbone with his
knife. Blood spurted everywhere. And then, Booth leapt from the box about 11 feet to
the stage, probably breaking his leg. Harry Hawke was frightened and fled, but
people in the audience out here were confused. They didn’t actually know what
was going on. It seems that Booth shouted out to them Sic
Semper Tyrannis, “thus always to tyrants.” He thought of
himself as a Brutus who was slaying a Caesar. He thought of Lincoln as a dictator who
would ruin the country, and he was avenging, in his perspective,
democracy itself. And then, Booth fled out of the theater into the alley where an
unwitting boy was holding his horse, and he got on that horse, and he fled from
the city over the Navy Yard bridge, the only bridge that wasn’t being
protected properly that night, and what began next was a 12-day manhunt: the most
gripping and dramatic in American history.


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