John Wilkes Booth was born May 10th, 1838 in Hartford, Maryland. He was the 9th of 10 children of Junius Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. Junius was one of the most famous actors on the American stage (Kimmel, p.33) Junius was eccentric and had many problems with alcohol. John Wilkes Booth attended several private schools, including a boarding school operated by Quakers. He then went on to attend St. Timothy s Hall and Episcopal Military Academy in Maryland. During the 1850 s young Booth became part of the Know-Nothing party in politics (Kimmel, p.55). The Know-Nothing party was formed by American natives who wanted to preserve the country for native-born whites. After his father s death, Booth wanted to be a famous actor like him. When he was 17 years old, Booth made his stage debut in Richard III. Forgetting his lines and cues, the critics ridiculed him. Booth was so upset that two years passed before he returned to the stage (Samples, p.42). In 1857 Booth played Stock in Philadelphia, then later became a member of the Richmond Theater. As his career took off, many people called him the handsomest man in America. He stood 5-8, with jet-black hair, ivory skin, and was lean and athletic. He had an easy charm about him that attracted women. (Stern p.68) Soon Booth was earning around $20,000 a year. He was hailed as the youngest tragedian in the world. (Stern, p.69) For the next several years, Booth starred in Romeo and Juliet, The Apostate, The Marble Heart, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, and Macbeth.
In 1863, President Lincoln saw Booth in the role of Rapheal in the Marble Heart at Fords Theater in the exact same box that he would later be killed in. Booth became extremely interested in politics and was very opinionated. Booth was secretly a spy for the south and joined their Rebel Underground in the winter of 1863. (Kimmel, p.68) He smuggled bandages and medicine to the southern troops. John blamed the country s problems on the president; he hated Lincoln and everything he stood for. (Stern, p.96)
In the late summer of 1864, Booth began making plans to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln. The president would be captured, taken to Richmond, and held in exchange for confederate soldiers in Union prison camps. This would be a way to strengthen the confederate s weakening armies. (Wilson, p.85) Booth recruited a gang of conspirators. Within three months, he had Michael O Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, John Suratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and the immensely strong Lewis Powell alias Lewis Paine. The conspirators would meet at John Suratt s mother Mary Suratt s tavern. Daniel Gleason, who was a discharged army officer, was a clerk at the war department and friends with one of Mary Suratt s boarders, Lewis Weichmann. One day Weichmann told Gleason that he had found an arsenal of guns and knives at the tavern and asked Suratt about it. Suratt told Weichmann that Booth and the others were planning to kidnap the President on Inauguration Day. Gleason and Weichmann found the situation to be serious and decided that the best thing to do would be to tell Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Gleason states that he arranged through his roommate the assistant provost marshal to General Augur the Washington Commander to inform Stanton of the plot. (Hanchett, p.196-197) Secretary Stanton did not take much action into investigating the conspiracy at the Suratt tavern but did increase the guard on Lincoln. No effort was made to arrest the conspirators.
Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending a play at the Campbell Hospital just outside of Washington. This seemed to Booth a good time to kidnap Lincoln. However, at the last minute, Booth learned that the president changed his mind and decided to speak to the 140th Indiana Regiment instead. After this plan fell through, some of the conspirators began to leave Booth. (Wilson, p.120) One of the reasons that Suratt and the others left was because they felt the war was over and that kidnapping Lincoln would do no good.
On April 9th, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox. On April 11th, the President gave his last speech from the White House. Booth, Powell, and Herald were in the audience. Lincoln suggested possible new rights for the blacks, such as the right to vote. Booth became enraged! He said, Now, by God! I ll put him through, that is the last speech he ll ever make. (Stern, p.102) From then on Booth changed the plan from kidnapping to murder. Three days later Booth stopped at Fords Theater to pick up his mail. While there, he heard of Lincoln s plans to attend the night show of Our American Cousin. Booth met with his conspirators one last time and decided that that would be the night to assassinate the president. Powell would assassinate Secretary Seward, Atzerodt would shoot Vice-president Johnson, and Booth would kill Lincoln. All attacks would take place at 10:15 PM. From there they would meet up at the Navy Yard Bridge.
It is said, that upon his arrival at Fords Theater, a customer told Booth that he ll never be the actor his father was. Booth replied, when I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America (Bishop p.96)
Booth walked up the steps to the Presidents Box. Nobody questioned him because he was a regular at the theater and was always walking around. During a funny moment in the play, while the crowd was laughing, Booth crept up behind Lincoln and shot him in the back of the head at point blank range. Major Henry Rathbone, who was accompanying President Lincoln and his wife, began to wrestle Booth. Booth pulled out a knife and stabbed Rathbone in the arm. After the struggle, Booth leapt to the stage, which was approxemently 11 feet below the box, and broke his leg in the process. Waving his knife in the air, people thought they heard him yell Sic Semper Tyrannis which is Latin for Thus be it ever to tyrants. He went through the back door, jumped on his horse, and escaped.
When Booth rode to the Navy Yard Bridge a guard, by the name of Silas Cobb, stopped him. Cobb told Booth that no one was allowed to pass after 9:00. Being 10:30, Booth told Cobb that he had business in the city and was unaware of the rule. Cobb believed he was just an innocent businessman and had lost track of time so let him pass. While all of this happened, Secretary of War Stanton ordered all routes out of Washington closed. All of the routes were blocked except for the Navy Yard Bridge, the most logical route Booth would take.
Booth met up with Herald 11 miles south of Fords Theater and arrived at Mary Surratt s tavern. There they picked up guns and alcohol to ease the pain of Booth s leg. At that time, Booth did not know that Powell only injured, and did not kill Seward, while Atzerodt had made no attempt at all to kill Johnson. Booth needed medical attention to his leg so they went to Dr. Samuel Mudd for help. Mudd set Booth s leg at his house.
Booth and Herald rode along the Zekiah Swamp. Soon they came upon a black man by the name if Oswald Swann. Booth asked if the man knew the way to Samuel Cox farm and the man got a horse and led them in the right direction. Cox was a southern sympathizer and was known for helping confederates. It looked to Swann as if Cox was giving Booth directions and he left to go back to his home in the swamp. Booth and Herald rode on, and the next morning Cox followed them and found the two men lying in a ditch, Booth in pain. Cox helped Booth back on his horse and rode with them close to a tributary of the Potomac River. After returning home, Cox sent word to his foster brother Thomas A. Jones that he needed to see him immediately. Cox told Jones that Lincoln s assassin and a companion were hiding in the swamp and needed transportation to get across the river.
Meanwhile the hunt for Booth was on. Over $100,000 was being offered for the capture of Booth and his accomplices. Oddly, Stanton s press releases did not even mention Booth s name during the early part of the manhunt. This was despite the fact that was identified as the assassin almost immediately. It was not until April 15 that Stanton formally identified Booth as the murderer, and even then the information was kept quiet. This writer does not believe that Stanton wanted Booth captured, or he would have broadcast his name all over the country. Stanton was in no hurry to capture Booth or to inform the country of his identity. Fifteen minutes after the shooting of President Lincoln all the telegraph wires in the city of Washington went dead. Historians are convinced that Major Thomas Eckert knew enough about the telegraph system to make it inoperable. Eckert was the Assistant Secretary of War and Stanton s right hand man. When Eckert was asked about the telegraph wires he said that he was too busy to look into it. Sabotage was suspected, but no investigations into this event took place. (Hanchett, p.174)
Jones helped Booth and Herold into a boat to sail across the river. Jones gave Booth directions to Machodac Creek. He told them that nearby there was a house and the women there, Mrs. Quesenberry, would hide them. Once they got there the woman then told Booth and Herold of a man named Dr. Stewart who would give them refuge and supplies. Stewert gave them no help but told them to sleep at his black slave s cabin. The slave sent them off in the morning, and on the road they met a couple of confederate soldiers that told them the way to Garrett s Farm. Union soldiers were after them. They tried to find refuge in a tobacco barn at Garrett s Farm. When the Union Cavalry finally caught up to them, they surrounded the barn. The soldiers ordered Booth and Herald to surrender or they would set the barn on fire. Herold surrendered but Booth was still stubborn. The Union troops lit the barn on fire and one soldier by the name of Bostan Corbett went against orders to take him alive and shot him through a hole in the wall. The bullet hit Booth in the neck severing his spinal column. The soldiers dragged him out onto the front porch while Booth pleaded for some water. Lt. Luther B. Baker told someone to get a doctor immediately. A short time later, Dr. Urquhart arrived and tried to get Booth to drink but Booth could not swallow. Minutes later, the man on the front porch looked around at all the faces hovering over him and begged them to kill him, but no one moved. (Jameson, p.100) John Wilkes Booth died on Wednesday, April 26, 1864. Or did he?
There is much controversy on whether the man who died in that tobacco barn was really John Wilkes Booth. Found on the body were the following items; a pocket knife, two pistols, an ammunition box, a compass, a handkerchief, a pipe, some tobacco, a small amount of money and a leather diary book. The signet ring, always worn by John Wilkes Booth, was not found. Clearly in pain, the wounded man muttered, Kill me…kill me. Baker looked at him and said, No, Booth. In later testimony, Baker stated, When I said Booth, he seemed surprised, opened his eyes wide, and looked about. (Jameson, p.166) There is some circumstantial evidence that suggests it was not John Wilkes Booth at all, but James William Boyd, a Captain in the Confederate Army and a spy.
During his capture, Herold made one statement to Judge Advocate General Holt. The statement was never released and Herold was not allowed to speak in court and be interviewed. During questioning by Holt, Herold said that he crossed the Navy Yard Bridge in the afternoon, not the evening. Herold also claimed he was not with Booth when Booth went to Dr. Mudd s house. It should be noted that David Herold never identified his dead companion as Booth but rather insisted his name was Boyd. Also, the body has been identified as having a long, bushy, red mustache when Booth s was black and that he had shaved it off at Mudd s house only eleven days earlier. When Lt. Baker found out about this he quickly rode back to Garret s farm where the tobacco barn was and asked Mr. Garrett if he had any idea who the man was. Garrett insisted that the man introduced himself as Captain J.W. Boyd of the Confederate army.
The body was in fact, officially identified as John Wilkes Booth. No one is certain who identified the body, but it is known that none of the committee had been personally acquainted with Booth. None of his relatives or friends were asked to participate. Dr. May, who examined the body, stated that the body found was much older than 26(Booth s age); Boyd being 43. This body was freckled and still had a mustache even though Booth had been reported as shaving his. Booth was able to eat two meals a day when Thomas Jones brought him food, but this body looked starved. A Lawyer who was present at the examination, Seaton Munroe wrote that it had no mustache. Could May and Monroe even have examined the same body? Furthermore, May observed that the right leg was broken, but Booth broke his left leg. Neither leg had the splint that Dr. Mudd provided. May s testimony said that that body was indeed Booth s, but there is speculation that the testimony was altered because several of the original words and sentences were crossed out and new ones were written above.
To this day, nobody knows for sure if Booth really died in that tobacco barn. This writer believes he did not and the wrong person was killed to cover up a conspiracy. Nobody will know if John Wilkes Booth acted alone or was acting in a greater conspiracy then we think, but a few questions made this writer think. What if Stanton listened to Gleason and Weichmann, and took action to arrest the conspirators before anything could happen? What if Lincoln was never assassinated and he led America into Reconstruction? What would the U.S. be like today?