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The Death of Abraham Lincoln

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The death of Abraham Lincoln was not a natural one, but was brought on by an assassin's bullet. He died on 15 April, 1865, six days after the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant, having served his second term of office for only 42 days.

In the history of America, few people received quite the reception Lincoln did at his death. Thousands watched his train pass by after his death. His sacrifice for his nation only added to his mythical nature.

The Assassin

John Wilkes Booth was born on 10 May, 1838, in Maryland, a slave state, in a family full of good actors. His father, Junius Booth was a great Shakespearian actor of Britain and the United States, though he had troubles with insanity and alcoholism.

He attended an Episcopal military academy in Maryland, and became associated with the ‘Know-Nothing’ Party, which was formed to protect American white citizens born in the US against immigrants. His studies were interrupted as his father died, and he returned home to the family’s farm. He found his life boring, and wanted fame, like his father had achieved.

He took up acting when he was 17 years old, in ‘Richard III’. Two years later, he became an actor in Philadelphia, and the next year went to Richmond, Virginia, where his career took off. In a more southern part of the country, John came to love the southern way of life.

In 1860, the year that Lincoln was elected to the Presidency, Booth’s career shot off as he became relatively well known as a good actor for tragedies, especially those of Shakespeare. In 1863 he made 12 appearances at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, and on 9 November, while he was playing the villain in 'The Marble Heart', President Lincoln was in attendance. A woman who accompanied Lincoln remembers that when Booth’s character made threats, he would be close to Lincoln and point at him.

In the summer of 1864, Booth started with plans to kidnap President Abe Lincoln, and exchange him for captured Confederate soldiers - to bolster the dying southern army. He recruited six accomplices, and they plotted together in Washington. Booth found that Lincoln would be attending a play on 17 March, 1865, and he decided he would attempt a kidnapping then. However, luckily for himself, Lincoln decided not to attend the play. When General Lee surrendered his Confederate army to General Grant on 9 April, it meant the end of the war. Obviously, then, the prisoners of war that Booth wanted to exchange for Lincoln would not be useful.

Booth revised his plan to simply kill Lincoln. He had come close enough to shoot Lincoln during his inaugural address, and gained determination after a speech hinting he would help blacks gain voting rights. On 14 April, Booth went to Vice President Andrew Johnson's home and sent a note to ask if he was home. He hoped to implicate Johnson in the plot to assassinate Lincoln.

The Scene in Ford’s Theatre

President Lincoln was chatting pleasantly with the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the White House on the evening of 14 April, 1865. At about 8:00 PM, his wife Mary Todd came into the room and said ’Well, Mr Lincoln are you going to the theatre with me or not?’ Lincoln did not want to go to the theatre, but he knew that the audience and the people who were accompanying would be expecting him, so he went instead of letting them down. His bodyguard, Colonel Lamon had gone on an errand for Lincoln, but not before advising the President not to go to the theatre while he was gone. Lincoln was not worried about assassination, though he should have been.

At 8:40, Lincoln and his company reached Ford’s Theater. The audience was a wealthy group of people, who would generally be reserved, but when Lincoln walked up into his balcony, the crowd cheered enthusiastically, because of the satisfactory end of the Civil War. Lincoln paused and bowed to the audience and continued to the box.

The Presidential box was really two boxes that were made into one by taking away the common wall. The outside of the box was draped with flags, as it still is today. It was situated to the right of the stage, literally over one end. The President sat in the front, with the best view. Mary Todd was in attendance, and so were two others. Miss Harris was the daughter of a Senator from New York, and was accompanied by her future husband Major Rathbone.

The curtain went up, and the British play ‘Our American Cousin’ was played out. The audience seemed to enjoy it, as did Lincoln. During the third act, John Wilkes Booth began moving about the theatre. The proprietor saw this and thought this was strange, but not enough to stop him.

Booth went through a corridor to the entrance of Lincoln’s box, barricading the entrance to the corridor behind him. A man who was supposed to guard it told him he couldn’t enter, but Booth said, with some charm, that Lincoln had sent for him and that he was a senator. Booth certainly didn’t look dangerous, in fact he was well dressed and handsome, so it may be forgivable that the attendant believed him. He was allowed to enter.

Major Rathbone noticed his interest, and politely asked ‘Are you aware sir, upon whom you are intruding? This is the President’s Box and no one is admitted’. The intruder said nothing, and just looked around. He spotted Lincoln, who was somewhat interested in the distraction. He left the box.

Booth looked through a hole he had previously bored in the door, and looked at the people inside. He drew two weapons, a dagger and a revolver, and quietly re-entered the box. He quickly leveled his gun out at the back of the President’s head, and fired at him, just as the funniest line of the play was said (and the loudest laugh was made). This happened very quietly, and most of the audience did not notice the event at first. Lincoln’s neck stopped supporting his head, and it fell to his chest - without a scream or cry.

No one seemed to know what had happened at first. Major Rathbone had seemed to understand, and grabbed at Booth, but was cut with the assassin’s dagger for it. Rathbone threw Booth off balance though, as he jumped out of the box (a fair distance for jumping even if you’ve got perfect balance) onto the stage. A flag that draped the box caught him, and soon after reaching the ground he found that he had a broken leg. As he limped across the stage, he yelled ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis!’ (Latin for ‘Thus always to tyrants’, and the state motto of Virginia).

Booth left the theatre through the back stage, and wasn’t stopped by the confused stage hands, the panicked actors, or anyone for that matter. A theatre employee had been told to hold his horse at a certain place, and so Booth mounted it and began his escape to the south.

Booth had stolen the scene.

Lincoln’s Death

Mary Todd screamed at the mortal injury of her husband. There was a panic. Lincoln couldn’t speak, and he never did again. But he was living, and breathing as Booth left. Surgeons were called to help him, but they realised that nothing could be done. He was taken outside, and as a man who owned a hotel across the street heard what had happened, he offered his own bedroom to Lincoln in the hotel. It was a small room, and the hotel was not particularly good, but it was rather fitting of Lincoln, who was born on the dirt floor of a one room log cabin and loved the common people.

Throughout the night, men important to Lincoln and to the government passed through to pay their respects. Mary Todd had to be given a drug to calm down.

Lincoln died at 7:22 AM on April 15. In the room were several members of his family, his pastor, and several other people. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who basically took over the government after Lincoln was shot and before the new president was inaugurated, said 'Now he belongs to the angels', but revised his statement later to say 'Now he belongs to the ages'.

Booth’s Escape

I am 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, I am looked upon as a common cut-throat. My action was purer than either of theirs... 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 yet now behold the cold hand they extend me... I bless the entire world. Have never harmed or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so...
-From John Wilkes Booth’s Diary

Booth rode to the Navy Yard Bridge to meet his coconspirator David Herold at around midnight. Their plan was to protect themselves by going into the south, where they believed people would protect them and that public sympathy would be for them. At about 4:00 AM, they stopped at the home of Dr Samuel Mudd, and Booth received some limited treatment for his broken leg.

They continued south in a network of homes of southern sympathizers (sort of like a reverse Underground Railroad). Sometimes they travelled incognito as Confederate soldiers on their way home. On 26 April, they stopped at a farm in Virginia belonging to a Mr Garrett, and slept in a small tobacco house.

Meanwhile, the Federal government had sent the 16th New York Cavalry out to follow Booth’s path and capture him alive. After about two weeks of pursuit, they traced him to Garrett’s Farm while he was asleep there. The owner of the farm told them that he had given the tobacco shed to two ex-Confederate soldiers, and that one of them used a crutch to walk. They knew that they had found him.

The army told Booth and Herold to come out, but Booth refused. Herold appeared to argue with Booth for a while, and surrendered. The soldiers decided to set fire to the shed to force Booth out. The fire allowed them to see the silhouette of Booth, and they saw that he had some guns. One soldier named Boston Corbett shot him through a crack in the shed, probably out of nervousness, though he claimed it was to keep him from harming more people.

They dragged him out, and saw that the bullet had found Booth’s neck. Booth, the tragic actor, then said a few sad words, ’Tell my mother I did it for my country... useless... useless...’ He died a few hours later.

The Conspiracy

Booth and six other men had planned the killing. It was meant to include three other high level people in the government. General Ulysses S Grant was meant to be attending the theatre with Lincoln that night, and would have been killed at the same time as Lincoln, but altered his travel arrangements. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State was badly wounded while he was in his bed (on the same night as Lincoln was killed) by one of Booth’s accomplices. Andrew Johnson was meant to be a target, but did not end up having his life threatened as his intended assassin got scared.

Four men were hung for their involvement in the conspiracy, and four were given life sentences in jail, including the doctor who mended John Wilkes Booth’s leg. One of the four died in jail, but the remaining three received pardons from President Johnson later.


Booth had planned this because he thought that the death of these four men - each crucial to the preservation of the Union - would be able to somehow help the Confederacy survive. This did not happen, and probably would not have happened. If Lincoln and Johnson were both killed, the logical choice for the Presidency would have been the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, who was Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Wade was a leading member of the Radical Republicans, who favoured a very harsh treatment of the south during Reconstruction. If Booth’s plan had turned out, and the south did not win independence (which was virtually impossible, since the military power of the south was greatly diminished and the Union had a clear military superiority) then the south would have been at the mercy of a vengeful political party.

The way that the conspiracy turned out, with only Lincoln dead, left Vice President Andrew Johnson as President, and in charge of the reconstruction of the south, and how it was treated. It is doubtless that Lincoln would have been the kindest to the south during Reconstruction, and would have been able to work with a Congress filled with Radical Republicans. Johnson was a moderate, like Lincoln, and tried to execute the slain President’s ideas as best he could, though somewhat more harshly. However, Johnson was unable to push Lincoln’s ideas through an uncooperative Congress, which almost uniformly hated him.

It is difficult to say why Booth initiated the conspiracy, but there were three possible reasons.

  • To ignite the Confederacy to War again. This was nearly impossible, with the south having been destroyed by war, in infrastructure, money and armies.

  • To get Johnson into office. Andrew Johnson was a southerner, so it possible that he thought a southerner in the White House would be more sympathetic to the South in reconstruction (of course, this brings into question by Johnson was a target for the conspiracy, but this may be answered with the fact that no attempt was made to kill him).

  • Simply to kill Lincoln. Booth believed Lincoln was a tyrant, so he may have killed him to avenge the south, or because he believed tyrants should be killed (hence ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’). The south would have been better off with Lincoln in office1, so avenging the south was obviously not a good idea. If it was simply to kill Lincoln, who was in his mind tyrant, then Booth accomplished his task, but helped immortalize Lincoln as a martyr and actually inspired public sympathy for the ‘tyrant’ and against the assassin.

The most important questions to answer immediately after an assassination are ‘Who?’, ‘Where?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’. But the largest question in this case is ’Why?’. If any of the three above reasons are correct, then the entire assassination, from Booth’s perspective was, to put it in his own words, Useless... useless.


The Union was only allowed to celebrate its victory of the Civil War for six days, before Lincoln died and the atmosphere changed to one of grief and sadness. Lincoln had many enemies, but in death, his policies were not remembered, but rather his selflessness, honesty and devotion to the office. If one didn’t know better, one could assume that everyone in the north had always been a supporter of him. Even some Ex-Confederates and southerners praised Lincoln. Some held no grudge to the man, having gone to war more on duty than principle.

On 19 April, the first funeral of Lincoln took place in the White House. The body was transported to the Capitol and his coffin sat in the Rotunda for display the next day. After this, his body was put on a long train for a journey to Springfield, Illinois. In many cases, mourners lined the railroad tracks for miles as Lincoln’s train went past. He was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, and then later in a magnificent tomb there when it was completed in 1874.

Further Reading

1Several ex-Confederates admitted that the south lost a friend when Lincoln was killed.

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