Born: May 10, 1838
Bel Air, Maryland
Died: April 26, 1865
Port Royal, Virginia
American assassin and actor
One of the most promising American actors of his time, John Wilkes Booth was a vocal supporter of the South during the Civil War (1861–65) and was the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).
John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland, the son of Junius Brutus Booth, an actor, and Mary Ann Holmes. He was a spoiled child whose education was limited because of his failure to attend school regularly. His father was often on the road, appearing in plays in other parts of the country, and he died when Booth was only fourteen years old.
Booth was very handsome and charming, and he decided while still in his teens to become an actor like his father and his brother Edwin. Although he sometimes refused to learn his lines and was unwilling to work very hard at acting, he had natural talent that made him popular in performances of the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616), especially in Richmond, Virginia. In 1860, the year Lincoln was elected president, Booth became more popular as he played to approving audiences across the country. It seemed that he would soon be famous.
Unlike the rest of his family, John Wilkes Booth had always been a supporter of the South. He believed the Civil War was necessary to maintain Southern freedom. Booth resented the Northern position that slavery had to be outlawed. He attended the execution of John Brown (1800–1859), one of the most famous abolitionists (opponents of slavery) in history. Booth wrote that he considered abolitionists to be "traitors" and that they deserved the same fate as Brown.
When a breathing problem in 1863 forced Booth to leave the stage for a while, he began to work on a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and deliver him to Richmond. He may have intended to use the president in an exchange to secure the release of some Confederate (Southern) prisoners. It is not known whether this was all Booth's idea or if he was acting on the orders of someone else. He enlisted six other Confederate supporters in the scheme. In March 1865 they planned to capture Lincoln near Washington, D.C., but the president failed to appear. Booth's anger over the mission's failure is believed to have led to his decision to assassinate Lincoln.
Booth learned at noon on April 14 that Lincoln would attend a performance of a play called Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington that evening. Vice President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) and Secretary of State William Seward (1801–1872) were also supposed to be killed, but the other members of Booth's gang failed to carry out these murders. Booth went to the theater in the afternoon and fixed the door of the president's private box so that he would be able to get in later. At about ten o'clock Booth entered the theater, shot Lincoln, and jumped to the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis! (Latin for 'Thus ever to tyrants!') The South is avenged!" Lincoln died the next morning.
Booth had broken a leg when he jumped to the stage after the shooting. The pain slowed him down as he tried to make his escape, and he and another suspect were forced to seek medical help. A doctor named Samuel Mudd treated Booth's leg and fed the two men. For several days they tried to cross the Potomac River, and when they finally succeeded, they traveled to the farm of Richard Garrett, south of the Rappahannock River. Pursuers found them in Garrett's barn on April 26. When Booth refused to give himself up, the barn was set on fire. His figure was seen briefly just as a shot was fired. Although one of the pursuers claimed to have shot Booth, it is unclear whether he was killed or committed suicide.
Booth's pro-South friends were quickly rounded up and put on trial. Four of them were sentenced to death. Mudd and two others received life sentences. One of these men died in 1867; the other man and Mudd were both pardoned (allowed to go free and not serve the sentences for the crimes of which they had been convicted) in 1869. John Wilkes Booth, the leader of the group, will be forever remembered for his twisted vision of patriotism. He never understood the horror caused by his act, and he died with these last words: "Tell Mother … I died for my country."
Otfinoski, Steven. John Wilkes Booth and the Civil War. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1999.