Dark star

John Wilkes Booth was a southern man,
Born of an actor in Maryland.
Bound for fortune on a gas-lit stage,
Bound to die at a tender age.
From Washington to Baltimore,
He played the bills and he slept with whores,
And he burned inside with a hatred deep
For the man who caused the South to weep.
~ Tony Rice, "John Wilkes Booth"

John Wilkes Booth (May 10th, 1838 - April 26th, 1865) was an actor and fanatic to the South who assassinated the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln

Early Life

John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10th, 1838 on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland, about 25 miles from Baltimore. He was the ninth of ten children of Junius Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. John's parents were British and had moved to the United States in 1821. In addition to the farm at Bel Air (where the Booth family had slaves), the family also owned a home on North Exeter Street in Baltimore where the colder months of the year were spent. Junius was one of the most famous actors on the American stage although he was an eccentric person who had problems with alcohol and spells of madness. As a young man, John attended several private schools including a boarding school operated by Quakers at Cockeysville.

As a teenager Booth attended St. Timothy's Hall, an Episcopal military academy in Catonsville, Maryland. During the 1850's young Booth apparently became a Know-Nothing in politics. The Know-Nothing Party was formed by American nativists who wanted to preserve the country for native-born white citizens.

Booth eventually left school after his father died in 1852. He spent several years working at the farm near Bel Air. However, according to his sister, Asia Booth Clarke, Booth's dreams went beyond working at a farm. His goal was to be a famous actor like his father had been.

In August 1855, when he was only 17 years old, Booth made his stage debut as the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare's Richard III. Two years passed before he made another appearance on stage. In 1857 Booth played stock in Philadelphia, but he frequently missed cues and forgot his lines. He persevered, however, and came of age in 1858 as a member of the Richmond Theatre. It was in Richmond where he truly became enamored with the Southern people and way of life. As his career gained momentum, many called him "the handsomest man in America." He stood 5-8, had jet black hair, ivory skin, and was lean and athletic. He had an easy charm about him that attracted women.

John Wilkes Booth worked as an actor at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. He was the lead in some of William Shakespeare's most famous works. Additionally, he was a racist and a supporter of slavery.

He was also present at the hanging of John Brown in 1859.

Adult life and Lincoln assassination

In late 1860, Booth had been initiated in the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle in Baltimore.

He hated Abraham Lincoln who represented everything Booth was against. Booth blamed Lincoln for all the South's ills. He wanted revenge.

He originally planned on kidnapping the President and holding him for ransom. However, on April 11th, 1865, two days after Lee's army surrendered to Grant, Booth attended a speech at the White House in which Lincoln promoted voting rights for blacks; he became so fed up, that it eventually led him to murder. "That is the last speech he will ever give!" Booth said.

After learning that President Lincoln would attend Ford's Theater, Booth made arrangements of the plans for an assassination, including renting a horse from James Pumphrey and gave Mary Surrat a package, which contains binoculars.

That evening, at 8:45, Booth and his henchmen were at a final meeting about the plans to save the South. He told Lewis Powell to kill State Secretary William Seward, who was confined to bed at his house while David Herold guides Powell out of the city to the Navy Yard Bridge. Booth also told Atzerodt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood House, where Booth dropped the letter. The only change in the plan is that Booth won't attend 'Aladdin' at Grover's Theater, instead, he will kill Lincoln at Ford's Theater during the play, 'Our American Cousin'.

Once the Lincolns and their substitute guests arrived at Ford's Theater, Booth arrived one hour later in the back of the theater sometime after 9:30 P.M. After spending time in the saloon, he re-entered Ford's Theatre through the front door. Making his way to the box, he saw that John Parker went to the saloon. The person standing by the door that led to the box was Lincoln's usher, Charles Forbes. Once he handed Forbes a card, Booth enters the hallway, barricaded the door, and waits for the biggest laugh line of the play. At the seconds between 10:14 P.M. and 10:15 P.M., as Booth opened the door to the state box, actor Harry Hawk stood alone onstage. He was putting on a wonderful performance: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal - you sockdologizing old mantrap!"

As the audience laughed, Booth took out a pistol and aimed his pistol at the back of Lincoln's head at near point-blank range. Booth pulled the trigger. Lincoln was laughing at this line when he was shot; Lincoln immediately lost consciousness, but he passed into unconsciousness with laughter and a smile on his face; Katherine M. Evans, a young actress in the play, who was offstage in Ford's green room when Lincoln was shot, rushed on the stage after Booth's exit, and said; "I looked and saw President Lincoln unconscious, his head dropping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face".

Lincoln's guest in the box, Major Henry Rathbone lept to his feet and grabbed John Wilkes Booth and Booth dropped his pistol. They struggled and fought, but Booth pulled out the knife and stabbed Rathbone near his shoulder before pushing him against the wall. Booth then turned to jump from the balcony and Rathbone sat up and grabbed onto Booth's coat causing him to dangle over the balcony, Booth landed awkwardly on the stage. He yelled "Sic Semper Tyrannis!" (Thus always to tyrants.)  He escaped across the stage just when Rathbone shouted "Stop that man!" and exited out the side door. On his way, he bumped into William Withers, Jr., the orchestra leader, and Booth stabbed at Withers with the knife. Upon leaving the building, Booth approached the horse he had waiting outside. Booth struck Joseph "Peanuts" (also called "Peanut Johnny") Burroughs, who was holding Booth's horse in the forehead with the handle of his knife, leaped onto the horse, apparently also kicking Burroughs in the chest with his good leg and rode away.

An army surgeon named Charles Leale saw that Lincoln's wound was mortal as he attended him. The President was taken across the street from the theater to the Petersen House, where he remained in a coma for eight hours before dying early the next morning. Rathbone recovered from his wounds, but his mental state deteriorated in the years following Lincoln's death as he anguished over his perceived inability to thwart the assassination attempt. His mental decline culminated in murdering his wife, Clara Harris (who was also in the box with Lincoln) on December 23rd, 1883; fatally shooting her then stabbing her several times. After he killed Clara, Rathbone attempted to kill himself. When the police arrived, the bleeding Rathbone claimed there were people hiding behind the pictures on the wall. The couple's children, who were also almost killed by their father, were taken to live with their uncle, William Harris, in the United States. Rathbone spent the rest of his life in the asylum for the criminally insane. 


Booth's Grave

After being on the run for twelve days, Booth eventually was cornered at a farm. Booth refused to surrender. After a short firefight, a sergeant named Boston Corbett crept up behind the barn and shot Booth, severing his spinal cord with the bullet wound being in "the back of the head about an inch below the spot where his [Booth's] shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln". Booth was carried out onto the steps of the barn. A soldier poured water into his mouth, which Booth immediately spatting out, unable to swallow. Booth told the soldier: "Tell my mother I die for my country." In agony, unable to move his limbs, he asked a soldier to lift his hands before his face. His last words were "Useless, useless." when he asked for his hands to be raised to his face. 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth died at 7:29 A.M on April 26, 1865.

John Wilkes Booth's body was buried in a storage room at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, then in a warehouse and finally interred in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, four years after his death.


  • Lincoln watched Booth perform in numerous plays, including one called the Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre on November 9, 1863. Lincoln enjoyed Booth’s performance so much he sent a note backstage inviting him to the White House so they could meet. Booth refused the invitation, later telling his friends “I would rather have the applause of a Negro to that of the president!” According to actor Frank Mourdant; "Lincoln was an admirer of the man who assassinated him. I know that, for he said to me one day that there was a young actor over in Ford’s Theater whom he desired to meet, but that the actor had on one pretext or another avoided any invitations to visit the White House. That actor was John Wilkes Booth."
  • John Wilkes Booth also had hired his Conspirators to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and State Secretary William Seward, which they both failed. At around 10:10 P.M., the same time that Booth made his way to the box and waited for his moment to strike, Lewis Powell (known as Lewis Payne) invaded the home of Seward, who was recovering from his carriage accident which he broked his jaw. Powell then attacked Seward, his sons, and the mail nurse. Meanwhile, George Adzerodt, another conspirator of Booth, was supposed to kill Johnson at the Kirkwood House, but decided to get drunk and fled to his cousin's home.
  • Approximately seven hours before shooting the president, Booth dropped by the Washington hotel which was Vice-President Andrew Johnson's residence. Upon learning from the desk clerk that neither Johnson nor his private secretary, William A. Browning, was in the hotel, Booth wrote the following note: "Don't wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth." Browning testified before the military court that he found the note in his box later that afternoon. Did Johnson and Booth know each other? In the 1997 publication "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me" The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper it is stated on p. 146 that Booth had previously met Johnson in Nashville in February 1864. At the time Booth was appearing in the newly opened Wood's Theatre. Also, author Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907) made the claim that while Johnson was military governor of Tennessee, he and Booth kept a couple of sisters as mistresses and oftentimes were seen in each other's company.  Lincoln had essentially ignored Johnson after Johnson's embarrassing behavior on Inauguration Day. Mary Todd Lincoln felt Johnson was involved in her husband's assassination. On March 15th, 1866, she wrote to her friend, Sally Orne: "...that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband's death - Why, was that card of Booth's, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed - I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man... As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this..." Some members of Congress also thought Johnson was involved and a special Assassination Committee was established to investigate any evidence linking Johnson to Lincoln's death. Nothing suspicious was ever found by the committee, yet a belief by some Americans that Johnson was somehow involved with Booth continued for many years. 
  • Some theorists have speculated that John Wilkes Booth had a double named James William Boyd died in Booth's place and that John Wilkes Booth committed suicide in 1903 in Enid, Oklahoma, under the alias "John St. Helen".
  • Some theorists claimed that John Wilkes Booth broke his left leg while jumping off of his horse and not on stage.
  • There are different “eyewitness” accounts of what he said. While most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” in the box and not on stage, others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled “Sic Semper!” Some didn’t recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin. Some witnesses state that he also yelled: "The South's is avenged!" Others thought they heard him say "Revenge for the South!" or "The South shall be free!" Two said Booth yelled, "I have done it!"
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