It was Good Friday, April 14, when John Wilkes Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail. (In those days, actors often had their mail forwarded to theaters where they’d be performing, rather than to a hotel or post office box.) He learned that President Lincoln and General Grant were both going to be attending a play there that evening.
Mrs. Lincoln hated Mrs. Grant, so the Grants begged off. Instead, the Lincolns invited Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln’s military aide) and his fiancé, Miss Clara Harris (the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York).
In the early afternoon, Booth returned to Ford’s Theatre. The locks leading from the dress circle (first balcony) to the Presidential Box broke in March 1865, but no one told the stage manager — and so they weren’t repaired. Someone bored a hole into the north door in the box passageway, apparently so that Lincoln’s aides could look through the hole and check on the President without disturbing him. (The hole had been ordered by Harry Clay Ford, the owner’s brother.) Booth found a board backstage, and using his knife cut a notch into the top so that it would fit against the doorknob. He went up to the Presidential Box, and gouged a hole in the floor so that the board would snag against the board and prevent the door from being opened. Not only would this prevent anyone from coming into the box and stopping Booth, but it would prevent anyone from coming to the President’s rescue in a timely fashion. Booth hid the board behind the door, and left.
Lincoln spent most of the day in a Cabinet meeting. Around 4 p.m., he met with some old friends from Illinois. He and Mrs. Lincoln dined at about 6:30 p.m., then went to the theater at about 8:30 p.m. They were late for the show.
The Lincolns, Rathbone, and Harris were accompanied by John F. Parker, Lincoln’s bodyguard and a D.C. policeman. Lincoln disliked military guards, and his wish for a minimal guard was — as usual — honored that night. Parker escorted the party up the stairs to the dress circle, across the rear of the dress circle to stage-right, and down the dark corridor to the Presidential Box.
Laura Keene was starring in "Our American Cousin", a popular comedy about dumb Americans and their snobby English hosts. When Lincoln appeared in his box, the audience broke out in cheers and applause. Keene had arranged for the play to stop at that point and for the orchestra to play "Hail to the Chief." Lincoln sat in a rocker, to his wife’s left. Mrs. Lincoln sat on a regular wooden chair to his right. Miss Harris sat in an armchair to Mrs. Lincoln’s right, and pulled the chair up close to the railing for a better view. Major Rathbone sat on a sofa, which was to Harris’ right and back from the railing. In the corner behind Rathbone was an unused plush armchair and five folded wooden chairs.
Parker sat outside the Presidential box, but for reasons which were never investigated he left his post after a short period of time. This left Lincoln unprotected. The play resumed, and everyone settled in for a night of laughter…
About 9:00 p.m., Booth rode to Ford’s Theatre on his horse. He left it at one of the many stables in the alley in the rear of the theatre, and asked a scenery shifter to go get Edmund Spangler. Spangler was in the stage-right wings, having just shifted some scenery. Spangler crossed behind the set and met Booth at the stage door. Booth then asked the scenery shifter if he could cross behind the stage. The man said no, but he could accompany Booth beneath the stage. There was a narrow, steep set of steps beneath a trap door near the stage door, and the man opened this up and led Booth into the basement. He led Booth up into the stage-right wings, where another narrow, steep set up stairs emerged from another trap door.
Here, Booth seemed to lose his nerve. He passed out of the door into a covered passageway on the south side of the theater, walked toward 10th Street, and then passed through the door into the Star Saloon. There he had a drink or two to steady his nerves.
The closed door to the far left in this image is the door to the covered passageway which Booth exited.
While Booth was gone, Spangler called for Joseph "Peanuts" Burroughs. Peanuts was an African American youth who managed the door Booth had just exited as well as distributed programs out front before shows. Peanuts came over, and Spangler told him to exit the building, go around back, and hold Booth’s horse for a few minutes until Booth came out. Peanuts ran off, and Spangler went back to handling scenery.
Just after 10 p.m., Booth walked into the lobby of Ford’s Theatre. He looked at the big clock hanging over the doors, and then walked past the usher and up to the dress circle. He paused a few minutes in the rear of the dress circle, looking at the play. He was waiting for Act III, Scene 2, in which a huge laugh came. His goal was to assassinate Lincoln during this outburst of screams, laughter, and applause. Booth moved to the passageway door, which remained unguarded. With the lock broken, he was able to enter. He located his board behind the door, and shoved it against the doorknob to prevent anyone from entering the box. Booth crept down the narrow, short passageway, listening for cues from the play.
As the critical "straight" line was said, Booth pushed the door open and stepped behind Lincoln. As the audience howled in laughter, Booth shot Lincoln in the left side of the back of his skull with a single-shot derringer. Major Rathbone leapt to his feet, but Booth pulled out a knife and slashed at him. Booth slit Rathbone’s entire left bicep open from shoulder to elbow. Rathbone attempted to grab Booth, and Booth stabbed him again. Rathbone stumbled and fell.
People down below didn’t even hear the shot. The first anyone knew that anything was wrong was when Mary Lincoln began screaming. Many people assumed this was part of the play somehow. Not more than four or five seconds had passed, when suddenly Booth — whom most people recognized — appeared at the railing in the Presidential Box. He leapt from the railing like the athlete he was.
But Booth had his spurs on so that he could ride his horse and make his getaway. One of his spurs caught against the picture of George Washington which was hung in front of the presidential box, and he began to fall. His spur caught further in the Treasury Guards flag draped in front of the box, and he collapsed on the stage.
The tibia of Booth’s right leg fractured as he landed. Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis!" That was the legendary line from Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar", a line which Brutus hisses as he stabs the dictator Julius Caesar to death. Audience members had no idea what to make of this. The actors and actresses on stage didn’t know what to do. Actor Harry Hawk, playing the male lead in the play, tried to grab at Booth but was unable to stop him and didn’t pursue once he realized Booth had a knife in his hand.
Booth ran across the stage as pandemonium broke out behind him. He slashed at a stage hand, wounding him slightly, and then out the rear door. Booth launched up into the saddle of his horse, and smashed the butt of his knife against Peanuts’ head. The young man was stunned and staggered back.
Booth rode his horse east down Baptist Alley, then made the turn north and emerged on F Street. He rode east down F Street, and then out Pennsylvania Avenue. He crossed the Navy Yard Bridge (where the 11th Street Bridges are today) and then down Good Hope Road and left the city.
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