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Assassination of Lincoln
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

Sic Semper Tyrannis:

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln


“Before me was a catafalque [platform], on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.' I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since."


Did our sixteenth president have a dream that foretold his death?  Strangely, Abraham Lincoln put a great deal of faith in the power of dreams.  He once wrote a letter to his wife Mary Todd in which he told her to “…put Tad’s pistol away” because he had dreamed about it.  Weeks before his death these dreams continued and at one point he wrote that he found himself”…sailing over a distant sea” as if his soul were leaving his body.  I guess being the president who was Commander in Chief during the greatest loss of American soldiers in US history might bring about morbid thoughts and restless nights.  Not to mention the personal tragedies he suffered that led to the fact that there are no direct descendants of Lincoln alive today.  Also, there were many people who wanted to see the president dead.  One unknown assailant took a shot at Lincoln while the president was riding his horse through a forest.  His trademark stovepipe hat was shot through but Lincoln rode off unscathed. 


Why the hatred?  It would seem that a person whose likeness is found on Mt. Rushmore must have been loved during his day.  This was simply not the case.  The “Rail Splitter,” “Honest Abe,” “The Great Emancipator,” “Mr. You-Shot-My-Freaking-Hat,” had just been re-elected in a landslide.  Most of the armies of the Confederacy were beaten by the time Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9th, 1965.  By the way, the last Confederate general to lay down his arms was actually Brigadier General Stand Watie, a member of the Cherokee Nation, on June 23, 1865.  As president Lincoln pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment freeing the slaves.  This man was so ahead of his time he advocated granting women the right to suffrage (voting) in 1836.  But it was his stand against the rights of states versus the federal government that got people really agitated.  Read into this statement slavery and economic factors and you get the point.  Lincoln embodied change that some southerners and northerners could simply not accept.


One of these individuals was John Wilkes Booth.  Booth was born the illegitimate son of a relatively famous British actor.  Booth took to the stage himself and became a successful Shakespearean actor in his own right.  Booth was quite close to his (also illegitimate) brother and they often acted on stage together but the duo split when Booth began to advocate violence against the north as his brother was pro-union.  Booth, not unlike the president, also had a strange fascination with the supernatural.  He met with a fortune teller once who stated that he “…would be wildly famous but would live a brief life after he shot the president and was eventually cornered in a barn and then shot in the neck.”  Well, the first part of that quote is correct until just after the word life.  Is it illegal to willfully publish an incorrect quote?  We will have our lawyers look into that. 


Booth was a success.  He made the equivalent of $500.000 a year for his performances.  He didn’t have to go off the deep end and he could have lived quite comfortably.  But he began to see himself as a character in one of his performances.  He was fated to be Brutus, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”  He took part in the hanging of abolitionist and fellow nut-job John Brown.  He appeared as a volunteer armed guard because anti-slavers had vowed to stop the hanging.  He was there to see to it that Mr. Serial-Killer-Eyes Brown met his maker.  No seriously, look at a photo of John Brown and tell me he isn’t trying to suck your soul into his eyes.  With the coming of the end of the war, Booth decided he had to do something more drastic.

Ford's Theater

The Conspiracy

The assassination of President Lincoln was part of a broader plot to throw the United States government into chaos, thus buying time for the Confederacy to regroup. Paid for by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the assassins were supposed to carry out a well-timed strike that would kill the three highest officials at the exact same moment. But only Booth managed to carry out his heinous mission. Secretary of State, William Seward was stabbed in his home by Lewis Powell but managed to escape. Thanks to cold feet, Vice President Johnson managed to survive long enough to totally screw up Reconstruction.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

Abe Lincoln

President Lincoln

Lewis Powell

Lewis Powell

William Seward

Secretary of State

William Seward

George Azterodt

George Azterodt

Andrew Johnson

Vice President

Andrew Johnson

Originally that something was a kidnapping attempt.  He and a handful of co-conspirators decided to kidnap the president.  What they would do afterward was unclear but the plan was foiled when the president did not show up at the snatch location on time.  Booth then decided it would be more practical to kill the president and members of his cabinet in order to create the most disruption possible.


As fate would have it, Booth came upon some interesting information while he was picking up his mail at Ford’s Theater, a place he often performed.  The president was going to be there that night, April 15th, 1865.  The plan was quickly set into motion to kill the president, vice president and the secretary of state.  Booth made his way behind the area the president would be located and actually drilled a hole in the wall so he could watch his victim and then and he waited.  His compatriots were not successful.  A gentleman named Powell was tasked with killing W.H. Seward the Secretary of State.  Seward was in bed ill but proved a difficult target and wrestled with Powell until help arrived.  Seward was stabbed in the process but survived.  Mr. Atzerodt was supposed to kill Andrew Johnson but instead found it much easier to get drunk and never bothered to carry out his part of the scheme.


Booth was not going to miss his mark.  When the Lincoln’s arrived, Booth was able to situate himself so he could ascend the stairs to the area where Lincoln was seated, unnoticed.  He waited until a humorous part in the play filled the house with laughter to make his move, the .44 Derringer pistol in one hand and a knife in the other.  He appeared just behind the president before anyone noticed and fired the weapon within inches of the president’s head.  The .44 ball entered the skull at approximately 600 fps (409 mph) and lodged itself just on the inside of the president’s ocular cavity.  He hit the floor never to regain consciousness.  Booth then attacked the stunned bodyguard, Major Henry Rathbone, with his knife.  According to witnesses Booth jumped from the balcony, catching his spur on the flag bunting that had been hastily added to the décor.  The snagged spur caused Booth to land heavily on his left leg and it broke.  He stood up and like the actor he was yelled, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”  And then he “ran” for the getaway horse.  This has always bothered me.  He had a broken leg and an empty pistol.  Why not tackle him and be a hero?  Nope, everyone just sat there. 


A physician named Dr. Charles Leale was the first to respond to the fallen head of state.  This is part of the description of his examination of the president.


“I commenced to examine his head and soon passed my fingers over a large firm clot of blood situated about one inch below the superior curved line of the occipital bone.  The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball, and found that it had entered the encephalon.  As soon as I removed my finger a slight oozing of blood followed and his breathing became more regular and less stertorous [it means noisy and labored, I Googled it so you do not have to].


I suggest not sticking your finger into a bullet wound to clear out the coagula but I added that description as a wonderful introduction to the world of nineteenth-century medicine.  The president was pronounced dead at 7:20 am the next morning.


One of the largest nation-wide manhunts for the assassin began.  Booth had stopped by a certain Dr. Mudd to have his leg set.  The Hippocratic Oath following doctor was given life in prison for his efforts (later commuted by Andrew Johnson).  Booth escaped to Virginia and was on the run for twelve days.  He was surprised at the outpouring of sadness for the fallen president and was shocked at the hatred aimed at him.  He might have been impressed by the reward offered for his group’s capture ($100,000 or $1.5 million today).  Booth was finally cornered in a farm by Union troops.  He was ordered to surrender but apparently used some flowery theater-like lines to state that he refused whereupon he was shot by an overly critical soldier.


Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train made the thirteen-day journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, IL and people lined the tracks to catch a glimpse of their fallen leader.   By the time it was over 7 million people or about 20% of the population of America had viewed the solemn procession.  The surviving conspirators were rounded up, including the owner of the boarding house where they had held their meetings, Mary Surratt.  A military tribunal sentenced four to be hanged including Surratt, the first female hanged by the Federal Government.  A fun fact about the English language: A dog can be hung but a human is hanged.


Interestingly, when Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train headed toward Illinois the coffin was escorted by Willie Lincoln.  The son of the slain president had died in 1962 and his body was disinterred and traveled with the president’s casket to be buried next to him in the family plot.

Mary Surratt owned the Maryland boarding house where the conspirators fled. For her role in the plot, Surratt became infamous as the first woman hanged in U.S. History

The rocking chair that Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot can be viewed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. If you're into that kind of macabre stuff. 

lincoln assassination wanted poster
Mary Surratt

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