This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted and written by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.
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“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
That’s the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It’s not Lincoln’s most famous speech, but it’s close, and those last words are as fine as anything he ever wrote or spoke. A month later, the war was over after the surrender at Appomattox.
Lincoln waited two days to speak. He opened, “we meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.”
“Gladness of heart” was something quite different from happiness. Lincoln was looking ahead to the reconstruction of the nation, but it would take place without him.
His would-be assassin, a notable stage actor, was at both speeches, biding his time until the moment arrived on his home turf.
Ford’s Theatre was first constructed in 1833 as the First Baptist Church. In 1859, the structure was abandoned as a place of worship. John T. Ford, a theatre entrepreneur from Baltimore, leased the building in 1861. A church board member predicted a dire fate would fall anyone who turned the former house of worship into a theatre. In 1862, Ford renovated the theatre and performances began, setting in motion events to follow that would shake America to its core.
John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland into a family of prominent stage actors, including his older brother Edwin, the greatest actor of his time. John became a famous actor too and national celebrity in his own right, in fact, Abraham Lincoln, was a big fan. He had seen him previously in a play at Ford’s Theater and had repeatedly invited him, without success, to visit the White House.
Booth was no fan of Lincoln, however, a fact which had eluded the President. During the civil war, he was an outspoken Confederate sympathizer.
In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, then commander of the Union armies, suspended the exchange of prisoners of war with the Confederate Army to increase pressure on the South, who were strapped for men.
Booth decided to get involved. He concocted a plan to kidnap Lincoln, with the goal of holding him hostage until prisoner exchanges resumed. He recruited five men to help — Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt. On March 17, the conspirators planned to abduct Lincoln as he returned from a play at Campbell Military Hospital, but the President changed his plans at the last minute and instead attended a ceremony at the National Hotel. In a strange twist of fate, Booth was living at the National Hotel at the time. Had he not gone to the hospital for the failed kidnap attempt, he might have been successful.
As the war drew toward a conclusion, Booth continued to believe in the Confederate cause and sought a way to salvage it. Meanwhile, he attended Lincoln’s speech at the White House in which he promoted voting rights for blacks. Booth said that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever give. It wasn’t. In fact, Booth also attended Lincoln’s second inaugural in the closing days of the war.
Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln told of a dream he had. One in which he entered the white house to see mourners and a military guard. He asked someone who had died. “The President,” came the response.
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Lincoln told people how happy he felt. He told his cabinet that he had dreamed of being on a “singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore.” A dream, according to Lincoln, he’d before “nearly every great and important event of the War.”
While visiting Ford’s Theatre in daylight to pick up some mail, Booth learned that Lincoln and Grant were to see the play “Our American Cousin” that night. No stranger to the staff and layout of the theater, Booth knew the perfect opportunity to attack Lincoln had presented itself.
The conspirators met at 7 p.m. Booth assigned Lewis Powell to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, with David E. Herold as a guide. Meanwhile, George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel.
Booth planned to shoot Lincoln at point-blank range with his single-shot Deringer, after which he’d stab Grant. The conspirators would simultaneously strike shortly after ten o’clock.
Despite what Booth had heard, General Grant and his wife, Julia had declined the invitation. Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris would accompany the Lincolns. Mary Lincoln had developed a headache and intended to stay home, but Lincoln told her he must attend because newspapers had announced that he would.
The president arrived late to the play, which was haldted for the orchestra to play “Hail to the Chief” for the 1,700 standing spectators. Lincoln sat in a rocking chair that had been selected for him from among the Ford family’s personal furnishings.
Policeman John Frederick Parker was assigned to guard the President’s box. At intermission, he went to a nearby tavern along with Lincoln’s footman and coachman and was not at his post. Navy Surgeon George Brainerd Todd saw Booth arrive, saying: About 10:25 pm, a man came in walking slowly and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in.”
Once through the door, Booth barricaded it by wedging it with a brace he had prepared. A second door led to Lincoln’s box.
Booth knew the play by heart and waited to time his shot with one of the best lines of the play, one which was sure to get a loud laugh. He opened the door, stepped forward, and shot from behind with a derringer while Lincoln was laughing.
Lincoln slumped over in his chair and then fell backward. Rathbone turned to see Booth standing in gunsmoke and jumped from his seat wrestling the pistol away. Booth drew a knife and stabbed him in the left forearm. Booth jumped 12 feet from the box to the stage. His riding spur became caught on the flag decorating the box, causing him to land awkwardly on his left foot. He began to cross the stage, and many in the audience thought it was part of the play.
Booth held his bloody knife over his head, and yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus!,” a phrase Marcus Brutus utters after killing Julius Ceasar. It means “thus always to tyrants.” He followed it in English with “The South is avenged!”
Booth ran across the stage and exited through a side door, stabbing the orchestra leader on the way. He escaped on a horse he had waiting in the alleyway.
Army surgeon Charles Leale was in attendance that night, and after the commotion, he drove through the crowd to Lincoln’s box but couldn’t open the door. Rathbone noticed and removed the wooden brace Booth used to jam it shut.
Leale found Lincoln with his head in Mary’s arms. “His eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous,” “he said. Thinking Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale shifted him to the floor. Meanwhile, another physician, Charles Sabin Taft, was lifted from the stage into the box.
After Taft and Leale opened Lincoln’s shirt and found no stab wound, they found the gunshot wound. The bullet was too deep to be removed, but they were able to dislodge a clot, after which Lincoln’s breathing improved. They decided that Lincoln must be moved, but a carriage ride to the White House was too dangerous. They took the President to one of the houses across the road, that of tailor William Petersen. It rained as soldiers carried Lincoln into the street. In Petersen’s first-floor bedroom, the exceptionally tall Lincoln was laid diagonally on the bed.
More physicians arrived, all agreeing that the wound was mortal. Throughout the night, as the hemorrhage continued, they removed blood clots to relieve pressure on the brain. Eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln arrived sometime after midnight but twelve-year-old Tad Lincoln was kept away.
Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. According to Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, at the moment of Lincoln’s death, “a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features.”
Ten days prior, Secretary of State William H. Seward had been thrown from his carriage, suffering a concussion, a broken jaw, and a broken arm. On the night of the assassination, he was confined to bed at his home in Lafayette Park. As Booth was making his way to the Ford Theatre, David Herold was guiding Lewis Powell to Seward’s house. One of Seward’s servants answered the door and Powell told him he had medicine from Seward’s physician, and that his instructions were to personally show him how to take it. Powell was admitted and made his way up the stairs. At the top of the staircase he was stopped by Seward’s son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward, who, suspicious, said his father was asleep. Daughter Fanny emerged from a room and said, “Fred, Father is awake now” – revealing to Powell where Sewards location. Powell turned as if to start downstairs but suddenly drew his revolver. He aimed at Frederick’s forehead and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. He knocked Frederick unconscious with it, instead.
Powell then went in the room and stabbed at Seward’s face and neck, but the splint doctors had fitted to his broken jaw prevented the blade from penetrating deeply, saving his life. Seward’s son Augustus and Sergeant George F. Robinson, a soldier assigned to the home, were alerted by Fanny’s screams and rushed into the bedroom. Both received stab wounds struggling with Powell. As Augustus went for a pistol, Powell ran toward the door, where he encountered a State Department messenger and stabbed him in the back. He then ran down the stairs and out the door. Once outside, he exclaimed, “I’m mad! I’m mad!”. Whether that was a code to alert Herold, or an attempt to frighten pedestrians outside remains unclear, regardless, by the time Powell made his way out of the house, Herold had already ran off, leaving him to find his own way in an unfamiliar city.
George Atzerodt, meanwhile, had rented a room directly above Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood House in Washington. Carrying a gun and knife, he went to the bar downstairs, where he tried to get his courage up. He eventually became drunk and wandered off through the streets.
Within half an hour of the shooting, Booth crossed the Navy Yard Bridge into Maryland where an army sentry questioned him about his late-night travel. Although it was forbidden for civilians to cross the bridge after 9 pm, the sentry let him through. David Herold went across the same bridge less than an hour later. After retrieving weapons and supplies they had stored away, Herold and Booth went to the home of Samuel A. Mudd, a local doctor, who splinted the leg Booth had broken jumping from the presidential box.
After a day at Mudd’s house, Booth and Herold hired a local man to guide them to Samuel Cox’s house. Cox took them to Thomas Jones, who hid them in a swamp for five days until they could cross the Potomac River. On the afternoon of April 24th, they arrived at a tobacco farm in King George County, Virginia. Booth told the owner he was a wounded Confederate soldier.
The hunt for the conspirators quickly became the largest in U.S. history, involving thousands of federal troops, who tracked them to the farm.
Booth and Herold were sleeping on April 26th when soldiers surrounded the barn, then threatened to set fire to it. Herold surrendered, but Booth cried out, “I will not be taken alive!” The soldiers set fire to the barn sending Booth scrambling for the back door with a rifle and pistol.
Sergeant Boston Corbett crept up behind the barn and shot Booth in the back of the head, almost exactly where he shot Lincoln. He died on the porch of the farm two hours later.
The remaining conspirators were arrested by month’s end – except for John Surratt, who fled to Quebec then Europe until a friend from his school days recognized him in there in early 1866 and alerted the U.S. government. He was finally captured in Egypt in November 1866.
Mourners lined up seven abreast for a mile to view Lincoln in his walnut casket in the black-draped East Room of the White House. Special trains brought thousands from other cities, some of whom slept on the Capitol’s lawn. Hundreds of thousands watched the funeral procession, and millions more lined the 1,700-mile route of the train that took Lincoln’s remains to Springfield, Illinois.
Following the assassination, the government appropriated the theater, with Congress paying Ford $88,000 in compensation. An order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement. Between 1866 and 1887, the theater was taken over by the U.S. military and served as a facility for the War Department with records kept on the first floor, the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office on the second floor, and the Army Medical Museum on the third. In 1887, the building exclusively became a clerk’s office for the War Department, when the medical departments moved out.
On June 9, 1893, the front part of the building collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring another 68. This led some to believe the facility was cursed. The building was repaired and used as a government warehouse until 1911.
A Lincoln museum opened on the first floor of the theater building in 1932, and in the following year, it was transferred to the new National Park Service.
In 1964, Congress approved funds for the building’s complete restoration, which began that year and was completed in 1968. Ford’s theater became a venue for live entertainment again. Vice President Hubert Humphrey dedicated the restored theater at a gala performance.
The theater was again renovated during the 2000s. The re-opening ceremony was on February 11, 2009, to commemorate Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The event featured President Barack Obama, Katie Couric, Kelsey Grammer, James Earl Jones, Ben Vereen, the President’s Own Marine Band, Broadway star Audra McDonald and more.
The Ford’s Theatre Museum beneath the theater contains Lincoln artifacts, including some related to the assassination, like the Derringer pistol used to carry out the shooting, Booth’s diary, the original door to Lincoln’s theater box, and the blood-stained pillow from the President’s deathbed.
Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is open every day except for Thanksgiving Day and December 25. Tickets are free and required for entry. The theatre is an active performing arts venue, and there are times when it is closed for matinees, rehearsals and special events. In most cases, the museum and Petersen House, where Lincoln died, will remain open even if the theater is closed for performances.
A performance is another opportunity to see the historic theater. Regular runs of exceptional quality plays and musicals can be attended by anyone willing to purchase a ticket. The presidential box is never occupied.
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