Booth hands his calling card to the president’s footman, Charles Forbes, and enters the vestibule of the box. He hides there, just steps from the president, waiting.
It is one of the great crime stories of all time. On April 14, 1865, in full view of a theatre audience packed to the walls and celebrating the impending end of a brutal war, the President of the United States was assassinated. The murderer was not only seen by all, he was instantly recognizable to most. And he got away.
Today, Abraham Lincoln is remembered by Americans, and people around the world, as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. But the questions surrounding his assassination still fascinate and haunt us.
Who would want to commit such an act? How could they have done it? And, most of all, why?
Most of us know the basic facts of the crime. John Wilkes Booth, a popular 26-year-old actor who was also a Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist, had been plotting for months to abduct Lincoln and give the Confederacy another chance. But three days earlier, hearing the president talk of his plans to bring the nation together—in particular, his plans to grant some African-American men the right to vote—Booth’s plans turned murderous.
On the morning of April 14, Good Friday, he learned Lincoln would attend a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin that night at Ford’s Theatre—a theatre Booth knew very, very well. 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.
When actor Harry Hawk was left alone on stage, to speak the line in the play guaranteed to get the biggest laugh, Booth struck.
Pulling the trigger of his small deringer pistol, he fired a single shot into the president’s head. Lincoln slumped over, never to regain consciousness. Major Rathbone rose to stop Booth, but Booth slashed him across the arm with a knife, then jumped out of the box onto the stage, 12 feet below.
Uncertain whether this was part of the play, the audience heard the actor shout:
Suffering from a broken leg, the athletic Booth limped quickly across the stage, fought his way to the back door, and escaped into the alley, where a horse was waiting. By the time Mrs. Lincoln’s screams were heard from the Box, the assassin was gone.
How could such a thing have taken place—and in Washington, D.C., 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?