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?

John Wilkes Booth. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19233.
Booth. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19233.

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.

Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old mantrap!

Actor Harry Hawk, delivering the laugh line of Our American Cousin
Actor Harry Hawk. Courtesy Harvard Theatre Collection.
Harry Hawk. Harvard Theatre Collection.

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:

Sic semper tyrannis!” [Thus always to tyrants!] The South is avenged!

John Wilkes Booth
Depiction of John Wilkes Booth escaping.
Depiction of John Wilkes Booth escaping. 

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?

Conduct your own investigation, beginning below!

An Overnight Vigil on 10th Street

Where should one take a dying president?

That dilemma faced the doctors who made it into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre. Dr. Charles Leale knew Lincoln would not survive, and many people at the time felt a theatre—an uncouth place in 1865—was no place for a president to die.

Why not just take him to the White House?

The White House was only six blocks away—but Washington’s streets were not paved. A bumpy carriage ride might kill Lincoln immediately.

Soldiers carried Lincoln down the stairs of the theatre, and out onto 10th Street.

Where to go from there?

Standing on a stoop across the street, Henry Safford had heard the commotion. He knew that Willie Clark, a fellow boarder at the Petersen family’s house, was out for the night—and his room vacant. 

Bring Him in Here!

Henry Safford to the soldiers carrying Lincoln.

At Safford’s direction, the soldiers carried Lincoln into the house and laid him in Clark’s bed.

Doctors tended to Lincoln in that back room, trying to make him as comfortable as they could.

But that was not the only business to tend to. The government needed to find out what was happening—and fast.

Were there other targets? How far did the conspiracy go? 

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived and set about figuring out the answers to those questions. He interrogated witnesses to the assassination. Quickly he learned that Booth had carried out the act.

James Tanner, a War Department clerk and disabled soldier who lived next door, wrote down the witness statements.

Outside, thousands of people crowded onto 10th Street and kept vigil through the night. Were the people who came in and out of the Petersen House suspects? 

Mary Lincoln initially remained with the president, but Stanton, horrified by her cries, ordered her to the front parlor. She only occasionally returned to see her husband.

Would Lincoln awaken and speak some last words?

More than 40 people came in and out of the room, hoping to hear the president's famed wit and wisdom one final time, but in vain.

Harpers Weekly imagePresident Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Mary Lincoln was not in the room with him.

Soldiers quickly removed his body to the White House for an autopsy and to prepare for a funeral.

But the story was far from over. Where had Booth gone? What about others involved in the conspiracy? Where should Lincoln be buried?

Continue the investigation below!