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Lincoln’s Assassination

On the morning of April 14, Good Friday, actor John Wilkes Booth learned President Abraham Lincoln would attend a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin that night at Ford’s Theatre—a theatre Booth frequently performed at. He realized his moment had arrived.

By 10:15 that evening, the comedy was well into its last act. In the Presidential Box, President and Mrs. Lincoln and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, laughed at the show along with the audience—not knowing that Booth was just outside the door.

  • How could such a thing have taken place—and in Washington, the fortified capital of the nation? How did Booth gain such access to the theatre? 
  • Why didn’t Lincoln’s security people stop him? 
  • Was it a lone act or part of a larger conspiracy? 
  • And, when all was said and done, what was the outcome—for those involved in the crime, for their victims, for the nation and even for Ford’s Theatre?

Conduct your own investigation below!

Consider the evidence. How do statements from different witnesses match up? Is there a difference between statements from 1865 and those from many years—even decades—later? What can the physical evidence tell you?

Lincoln Carried Across The Street

Carl Bersch was sitting on a balcony sketching a torchlight parade when he saw soldiers carry President Abraham Lincoln out of Ford’s Theatre and into the Petersen House. Later in 1865, he painted a fanciful version of what he saw.

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A Sign of Celebration

U.S. flags were hanging throughout Washington in celebration of the end of war. At Ford’s Theatre, the President’s Box was decorated with both an American flag and a U.S. Treasury Flag. After the assassination, this symbol reminded American citizens of the leader they had lost.

A Theatre is No Place For a President

Soldiers carried the president out onto Tenth Street, hoping to return him home to die in peace with loved ones surrounding him, as was the Victorian ideal. The above image shows the theatre draped in mourning and protected by armed guards after the assassination.

A State of Panic

Panicked and shocked citizens poured out of the theatre, unaware if the president’s assassination was a sign of an impending Confederate attack on Washington. That confusion spread across the country, as this proclamation shows.

Unpaved Roads

A bumpy ride from the theatre to the White House could mean immediate death for the president. Doctors agreed they should take Lincoln to a nearby location instead. The above image shows the dirt road outside of Ford’s Theatre.

Bird’s-eye View

Like Carl Bersch, some eyewitnesses peered down from their balconies or windows at the chaos playing out on Tenth Street. This image shows the Petersen House and other nearby homes.

“Bring Him Here!”

Henry Safford, who lived in the Petersen boarding house across the street, encouraged the group carrying Lincoln to bring the President into an empty room there.

The Torchlight Parade

A torchlight parade celebrating Lee’s surrender passed by the theatre as the Lincolns were inside. This parade prompted Carl Bersch to sketch what soon became a scene of tragedy on Tenth Street.