“There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by another’s death” – William Shakespeare, King John
Shakespeare killed Kings and Princes and lovers and warriors with beauty and artistry. With eternally evocative words as his lethal weapon, the bard snatched literary lives out of pages and off of stages in nearly every play that he penned. Sometimes he killed out of love, sometimes he killed out of hate, sometimes he killed for power or because of weakness or in spite of strength. When Shakespeare killed, however, he did it with purpose and poetry. In Shakespeare’s work, murder wasn’t simply committed – it was composed and performed; and, in the centuries since that work was created, it has been left up to actors to breathe life into scenes of death. A good actor can convince the audience to believe; a great actor can convince himself.
Contrary to what many people believe, John Wilkes Booth was neither the most famous nor the best actor in the United States when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, was probably the greatest actor in the world when he was at his best and when he stayed sober. Of the three sons (all of illegitimate birth) who followed Booth, who died in 1852, into the theater it was his second-oldest, Edwin, who was the most amazing to watch on stage. Edwin traveled the world and not only played all of the parts made famous by his father, but arguably did it better. An Edwin Booth performance was a mesmerizing experience for an theater-goer, and it made him a very wealthy, well-connected man. Junius Jr. was a talented actor, but never quite had his heart completely in the theater, despite his natural abilities. The youngest of the Booth sons, John Wilkes, was determined to be as great as his father and two brothers, but he lacked the talent that seemed instinctive with his father and inherited by his older brothers.
John Wilkes Booth’s determination and ambition, however, drove him to do things on stage that other actors wouldn’t risk. While he wasn’t the most famous or most talented actor in America, John Wilkes was widely considered the most handsome, and women swooned over his appearance, buying stereograph pictures and anything that captured the young actor’s brooding appearance. If John Wilkes couldn’t measure up to his father or his brother’s when reciting his lines, his physicality captivated crowds. Uniquely athletic, Booth would take tremendous risks, performing stunts that stunned audiences and helped hide any defects in his acting ability.
If John Wilkes didn’t play the roles as well as Edwin did, he tackled them with unparalleled energy and was certainly one of the most well-known names in entertainment by the 1860’s. Booth played a multitude of roles, but the role that he felt suited him best – the role that inspired him in so many ways – was that of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Booth saw Brutus in the same light as Marc Antony did in the closing lines of Shakespeare’s masterpiece – a patriot who risked everything to bring down a tyrant, and, as Antony said, “was the noblest Roman of them all”.
The Booths were from Maryland originally, a border state during the Civil War, but the two most visible members of the family – Edwin and John Wilkes – seemed to come from different worlds. Edwin was a Unionist who lived in New York and was a friend to Presidents, Northern politicians, Union soldiers, and captains of industry. John Wilkes was an avowed secessionist and Southern sympathizer. When John Brown was hanged in Virginia in 1858, Booth dressed as a member of a Richmond militia group in order to get a front row seat at the abolitionist’s execution. When the war started in 1861, John Wilkes was open about his support for the states which seceded and formed the Confederate State of America, and his vociferous opinions landed him in trouble in some of the Northern cities that he performed in.
The relationship between Edwin and John Wilkes was never strong, and the younger brother nursed a deep jealousy for the more acclaimed (and more wealthy) Edwin. Their opposing beliefs about the Civil War further endangered their relationship and, at one point, Edwin kicked John Wilkes out of his home in New York when John Wilkes insulted President Abraham Lincoln and praised the Confederacy. At some point, John Wilkes went from a sympathizer to an activist. Booth smuggled medicine to the Southern states and may have been involved in deeper operations as a member of the Confederate Secret Service. Booth’s fame and active career in the theater was helpful, as he was able to travel throughout the country with relative ease.
One thing that is clear about John Wilkes Booth is that he absolutely hated Abraham Lincoln.
The Booths were no strangers to Lincoln. More than anything else, Lincoln loved the theater, particularly Shakespeare, which he often read out loud to guests at the White House. Lincoln had seen Edwin Booth on numerous occasions, and on November 9, 1863 – 10 days before he traveled to Pennsylvania to deliver the Gettysburg Address – the President watched John Wilkes Booth as Raphael in The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre, several blocks from the White House. Lincoln was impressed by Booth’s performance, but one of Lincoln’s companions that night, Mary Clay, daughter of Lincoln’s Minister to Russia, remembered a portentous moment. On several occasions, Booth – playing a villain – uttered his lines with anger while seemingly shaking his finger at President Lincoln. Mary Clay recalls saying to the President, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.“ Lincoln responded, "Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?" Booth reportedly refused an invitation to meet the President after the performance, but after Lincoln’s young son, Tad, watched in awe as Booth energetically performed in another play, the future assassin gave the President’s son a rose.
A performance that Lincoln certainly would have enjoyed seeing took place on November 25, 1864 in Edwin Booth’s Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. In a special benefit, the three sons of Junius Brutus Booth performed together for the first and only time. Edwin, Junius Jr., and John Wilkes teamed up to perform Julius Caesar, with the goal of raising money for a statue of William Shakespeare – a statue that can be found in Central Park today. While Edwin took the plum role of Brutus and Junius Jr. played Cassius, John Wilkes played the role that would become most unlikely in hindsight: Marc Antony. During the performance by the Booth brothers, Confederate agents set fire to buildings around New York City, including one next to Edwin’s theatre. After a momentary panic in the building, the audience was calmed down and the show went on. John Wilkes Booth had few acting roles left in his career, but by this point, he had decided that his final role would be Brutus.
By the time of the Winter Garden Theatre benefit featuring the Booth brothers, John Wilkes had already been conspiring to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in order to trade the President for a significant amount of Confederate soldiers in Union POW camps and was often meeting with his fellow conspirators such as Lewis Powell, John Surratt, David Herold, George Azterodt, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen at Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington, D.C. When Lincoln was sworn in for his second term on March 4, 1865, Booth and some of his conspirators were in the crowd and can be seen in a photo of the Inaugural stand at the Capitol as Lincoln gave his Inaugural Address. Over the next two weeks, the conspirators looked for an opportunity to kidnap the President and hopefully turn the tide for the Confederacy.
On March 17, 1865, Booth and his gang planned to launch their operation when President Lincoln traveled to the Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Unfortunately for Booth, Lincoln’s plans changed and the abduction plot fell through. The next night, Booth gave his final acting performance, as Duke Pescara in The Apostate, at Ford’s Theatre.
"I have no words;
My voice is in my sword” – William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Everything changed for John Wilkes Booth on April 9, 1865, as news reached Washington that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Two nights later, Booth was in a crowd celebrating at the White House and became enraged when he heard President Lincoln suggest in an extemporaneous speech that blacks would be given the right to vote. That fury multiplied when Lincoln said, “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it…I now request the band to favor me with its performance…[for] it is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again." Booth took Lincoln’s words as an almost personal affront. The abduction plan was off the table, but Booth instantly realized that he would kill Lincoln. In his mind, he would be Brutus slaying the tyrant Caesar.
We know what happened next. Shakespeare killed with beauty and poetry – deadly, 400-year-old lines that elicit timeless emotions. There was no beauty in what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. President Lincoln sat in his box watching Our American Cousin. Booth slipped into the theatre – his famous face a passport for entry. The actor crept into the room behind the President. The crowd laughed at a line delivered on stage and a shot rang out. A .44 caliber lead ball slammed into the back of Lincoln’s head. Skull fragments carried by the the bullet sliced through the President’s brain. Lincoln slumped forward, almost certainly brain dead already. Booth brandished a dagger and slashed Lincoln’s guest in the Presidential box, Major Henry Rathbone, and performed one last leap on to the stage – one last acrobatic move to stun an audience. However, in an unusual move for Booth, he stumbled, caught a leg in the flags draped in front of Lincoln’s box, and landed awkwardly. Booth’s tibula cracked and he limped off the stage, dragging his broken leg behind him. With fire in his eyes, the youngest member of the Booth acting family turned to the crowd, and with one last act of stagecraft yelled "Sic Semper Tyrannis!”. The line wasn’t part of a play; it was Virginia’s state motto and it meant “Thus Always To Tyrants”. Some witnesses remember hearing Booth add, “The South is avenged!”.
Lincoln was carried across the street and his 6’4” frame was laid diagonally on a bed in William A. Petersen’s boarding house. The powerfully-built President survived longer than most humans would survive a point-blank gunshot wound to the back of the head – even with today’s medical advancements. At 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Lincoln stopped breathing, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered the famous words, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”
Over the next 10 days, John Wilkes Booth rode through the war-torn countryside of Maryland and Virginia. Shooting pain from his broken leg made every step and every breath excruciating, even after the injury was set by Dr. Samuel Mudd. With his fellow conspirator David Herold, Booth hid from the biggest manhunt in American History, as bloodthirsty Union troops, many just back from the battlefields of the Civil War, chased the man who killed the President that guided them through that crisis.
For 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth, there was a deeper pain. It wasn’t just the broken leg or the hunger or the exhaustion of evading an entire army. It wasn’t the lifelong envy of his more successful older brother, or the fact that his fellow conspirators failed in their assignments as Booth accomplished his. For Booth, who idolized Brutus and saw himself as the Southern, if not American version of Caesar’s assassin, the pain was due to the fact that he wasn’t being celebrated for removing a “tyrant”. John Wilkes Booth was used to seeing his name on posters that advertised his appearance, but now, his name was on wanted posters offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. Even the South mourned the loss of Lincoln, who looked forward to a gentle reconciliation and reconstruction with the former Confederate States. Booth’s assassination wasn’t seen as a heroic act against a raging tyrant. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America that Booth so deeply supported would later say that “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
Instead of Brutus, Booth was seen as one of the murderers of the the Scottish king Duncan, who told Macbeth:
“I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Hath so incens’d that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world”
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” – William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In his final days, as he was being hunted down in the woods of Virginia, and before he was cornered in a burning barn and shot to death, Booth came to the bitter realization that the assassination didn’t lead him to the glory he had always sought. As always, though, John Wilkes Booth felt that it wasn’t his fault – that it was the world that let him down. On the run, before he was killed, Booth scrawled a few lines in a diary that was found on him when the Union troops finally caught up to him on April 26, 1865:
“Until today nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country. The night before the deed I wrote a long article and left it for one of the editors of the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings…
After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for? What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so…
Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Thought I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name – which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God’s will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal…”
“O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Cornered in a barn on Pat Garrett’s tobacco farm in Port Royal, Virginia, John Wilkes Booth refused to surrender to the Union troops who had been hunting him for twelve days, even after the soldiers set fire to the barn and Booth’s co-conspirator, David Herold, gave himself up. Limping around in the burning barn, a bullet fired by a Union soldier sliced through Booth’s neck, paralyzing the assassin. Soldiers dragged him from the barn, but the wound was mortal. In the moments before he died, Booth asked to see his own hands because the bullet through his spinal cord had robbed him of the ability to move on his own. When a soldier lifted Booth’s hands to his face, the 26-year-old actor who killed Abraham Lincoln mumbled his final words: “Useless! Useless!”