Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

At first glance—and second, and third—it is hard to reconcile the puny dimensions of this vest pocket instrument of vengeance with the still reverberating historical consequences of its use. Fashioned from brass and weighing barely eight ounces, John Wilkes Booth’s single shot .44 caliber deringer pistol discharged a ball of lead less than half an inch in diameter. A slow spreading cloud of blue-grey smoke was its immediate signature. Even before the scent of burning gunpowder dissipated on the night of April 14, 1865, however, the course of history was forever altered.


Much more than a life was ended when John Wilkes Booth squeezed the trigger. A new president, devoid of Abraham Lincoln’s moral vision and political talents, determined to have Restoration over Reconstruction, inadvertently squandered the battlefield victory purchased at such a terrible price. As a result, the realization of racial justice was postponed a hundred years—until another southern-born president named Johnson made good on the promise of his martyred predecessor.

Richard Norton Smith is a speechwriter and presidential historian. He is responsible for the conceptualization and writing of the redesigned Ford’s Theatre Museum.