What If John Wilkes Booth Had Lived?

As President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train wound its way through the northern United States in late April 1865, Americans learned that the two-week manhunt for Lincoln’s assassination abruptly ended when Sergeant Boston Corbett mortally wounded John Wilkes Booth on April 26.

As primary sources in our Remembering Lincoln digital collection show, Americans were divided over whether Booth’s death was the proper ending for the largest manhunt in the country’s history to-date.

Some felt it best that Booth would not face trial. The Illinois Daily State Journal was delighted by the news of Corbett’s deed:

The author of the crime which has clothed the nation in mourning—a crime which all honest men will execrate through all future time—has fallen short of the immortality to which, in the interest of slavery and rebellion, he aspired. He has died the death of a felon and his memory is consigned to eternal infamy. Let the fate of Booth be a warning to traitors through all future time.

Not everyone was happy about Corbett’s actions, though. A sea captain, Joseph Lincoln (no relation to the slain president), wrote on April 27 to his wife from Boston:

To day we have the news that they have got Booths [sic] body which is good. But was in hopes they would have taken him alive.

But why? Why might Lincoln and others want Booth captured alive? After all, it is likely that Booth would have faced a hangman’s noose, as did four of his co-conspirators, and as President James A. Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, would in 1882.

Would a trial of the assassin himself, and not just his co-conspirators, have helped the country come to terms with Lincoln’s death? One cannot say for sure.

While the outcome might have been the same with a likely ruling to put Booth to death, the process would have been different. Booth would have been forced to answer for his crime, publicly. Ultimately, eight conspirators faced a military tribunal. At the time, uncertainty remained about how far the conspiracy against not only Lincoln, but the U.S. government extended. Could we now have a better understanding about the extent of the conspiracy? Did it include Confederate officials, even up the ranks to President Jefferson Davis (as some at the time alleged)? At the time of Booth’s death, federal officials and many others wondered what answers Booth himself might have provided.

At the same time, a trial would have given Booth a public forum to air the beliefs that led him to kill Lincoln. Although according to Booth biographer, Dr. Terry Alford, Booth would not have been allowed to testify under trial rules at the time, the question of what he might have done with that public forum remains.

In the diary he kept while on the run—which you can read here— Booth suggested that he was tempted to return to Washington to “in a measure clear my name, which I feel I can do.” The diary contains further clues as to how he might have justified his actions:

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 cut-throat. 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 hand they extend to me.

What do you think? Should John Wilkes Booth have gone on trial, or was it better that Corbett killed him in that barn?

David McKenzie is Associate Director for Digital Resources in the Education Department at Ford’s Theatre. He also is currently a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater WashingtonThe Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo. Follow him on Twitter @dpmckenzie.