On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth; the following account of the weeks leading up to the assassination is from Edward Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood, available now from Grove Atlantic.
Saturday morning, March 4, 1865
Lincoln had received warnings that he was in danger many times. Before his first inauguration on March 4, 1861, alerted to plausible evidence of a plot to kill him, Lincoln had scrapped some of his scheduled public appearances and entered Washington secretly, accompanied by Lamon, who was armed with a brace of pistols and a bowie knife. The diversion had earned Lincoln sneers from the opposition press, which excoriated him for skulking into town like a coward. Sobered by that experience, Lincoln decided to ignore the death warnings. In March 1864, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, while painting Lincoln’s face into his grand work, asked the president about rumors of a plot to kidnap him. “Well, even if true, I do not see what the Rebels would gain by killing or getting possession of me. I am but a single individual, and it would not help their cause or make the least difference in the progress of the war. Everything would go right on just the same,” Lincoln replied.
The barrage of menacing letters began when he was propelled into national prominence as the Republicans’ presidential candidate in 1860. “Soon after I was nominated at Chicago, I began to receive letters threatening my life. The first one or two made me a little uncomfortable, but I came at length to look for a regular instalment of this kind of correspondence in every week’s mail, and up to inauguration day I was in constant receipt of such letters. It is no uncommon thing to receive them now; but they have ceased to give me any apprehension.” When Carpenter expressed surprise, Lincoln replied, “Oh, there is nothing like getting used to things!”
The presidential secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay confirmed that “his mail was infested with brutal and vulgar menace, mostly anonymous, the proper expression of vile and cowardly minds.” Some contained crude drawings of Lincoln being hanged. Some were splashed with red ink depicting blood. When John W. Forney—the newspaper editor and Senate secretary who threw the stag party for Andrew Johnson on the eve of his inauguration—was visiting Lincoln in his office in 1865, the president acknowledged that he constantly received death threats. Lincoln simply stuck them into a pigeonhole in his desk. “In that place I have filed eighty just such things as these. I know I am in danger; but I am not going to worry over threats like these,” he said.
Lincoln’s indifference to it all no doubt contributed to his weak security. For much of the war, people could simply walk into the White House, virtually at will, sometimes getting all the way to his personal secretary’s office without being stopped. One tourist from Dubuque, Iowa, pushed her way into a Cabinet meeting, determined to get a look at the president. Lincoln let her in. “Well, in the matter of looking at one another,” the president said, laughing, “I have altogether the advantage.” Oblivious to the notion that he was an open target, Lincoln wandered out of the White House at almost any hour, day or night, and walked “across the lawn to the War Department for a consultation or to seek some news,” journalist William A. Croffut recalled.
The president had a particularly unnerving habit of going to the theater unguarded, accompanied only by Mary or one or two friends. “To-night, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theater,” an exasperated Lamon lectured the president in December 1864. “When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city. And you know, or ought to know, that your life is sought after, and will be taken unless you and your friends are cautious; for you have many enemies within our lines.”
Growing more fearful for Lincoln’s life as the war went on, Lamon asked that four or five men from the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department be assigned to guard the White House. William Crook, who took up the guard position in January 1865, noted that Lincoln accepted the threats stoically. “He believed that if anybody was bad enough to kill him there was nothing on earth to prevent it,” Crook said. Secretary of State William Seward, perhaps Lincoln’s closest adviser, scoffed at reports of assassination plans. In a letter to John Bigelow, the American consul in Paris, he argued that they “furnish no ground for anxiety. Assassination is not an American practice or habit, and one so vicious and desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system.” While a would-be assassin had fired twice at Andrew Jackson three decades earlier—the irascible sixty-seven-year-old Jackson beat him with his cane after both guns misfired, while Congressman Davy Crockett wrestled the man to the ground—no one had ever killed a president.
Lincoln loved to escape the intense pressures of the White House when he could. In hot weather, he regularly departed the stifling mansion late in the afternoon to stay overnight at a cottage on the breezy, sloping green grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a retirement home for veterans just outside the city. For Seward, that mere fact confirmed there was no cause for alarm. “He goes to and fro from that place on horseback, night and morning, unguarded. I go there unattended at all hours, by daylight and moonlight, by starlight and without any light,” the secretary of state wrote.
All the same, Mary Lincoln fretted about her husband’s safety, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assigned a cavalry guard to accompany him to and from the cottage, while a permanent detachment of armed guards oversaw the house. Lincoln complained that “he and Mrs. Lincoln couldn’t hear themselves talk for the clatter of their sabres and spurs”—and, given that so many of the guards were new soldiers, “he was more afraid of being shot by the accidental discharge of one of their carbines or revolvers, than of any attempt on his life.” A drummer boy named Harry M. Kieffer, serving with the guards at the Soldiers’ Home, noted that Lincoln liked to take off on his own, just as he had this Inauguration Day. “Often did I see him enter his carriage before the hour appointed for his morning departure for the White House, and drive away in haste, as if to escape from the irksome escort of a dozen cavalry-men, whose duty it was to guard his carriage between our camp and the city.” When the escort arrived, ten or fifteen minutes later, and it “found that the carriage had already gone, wasn’t there a clattering of hoofs and a rattling of scabbards as they dashed out past the gate and down the road to overtake the great and good President,” Kieffer wrote with amusement.
Lincoln’s trips back and forth were so regular that Whitman often paused to watch him go by. “I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town,” the poet wrote.
Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easygoing gray horse, is dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man. A lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men, in their yellow-striped jackets. They are generally going at a slow trot, as that is the pace set them by the one they wait upon. The sabres and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortège as it trots towards Lafayette square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes.
Like others, Whitman worried that the president was taking needless risks. “The reb cavalry come quite near us, dash in & steal wagon trains, &c—It would be funny if they should come some night to the President’s country house, (soldier’s home,) where he goes out to sleep every night—it is in the same direction as their saucy raid last Sunday,” Walt wrote, on July 30, 1863, to his mother. “I really think it would be safer for him just now to stop at the White House, but I expect he is too proud to abandon the former custom.” For all of Seward’s absence of concern, the possibility of Lincoln’s abduction or killing seemed plain enough to journalist Noah Brooks, who noted: “To my unsophisticated judgment nothing seems easier than a sudden cavalry raid from the Maryland side of the fortifications, past the few small forts, to seize the President of the United States, lug him from his ‘chased couch,’ and carry him off as a hostage worth having.” That, indeed, was one of John Wilkes Booth’s plans.
One night in August 1864, around eleven o’clock, Lincoln, deep in thought, was traveling to the cottage alone on his horse, “jogging along at a slow gait,” when a gun went off, and a bullet whizzed near the president’s ear. The horse, panicked, bolted. “At a break-neck speed we soon arrived in a haven of safety,” Lincoln recounted to Lamon, noting he lost his hat. “I was left in doubt whether death was more desirable from being thrown from a runaway federal horse, or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired by a disloyal bushwacker in the middle of the night,” Lincoln laughed. A private on duty named John W. Nichols confirmed the incident, recalling that he heard a shot at 11pm and saw Lincoln, bareheaded, dash up to the gate on horseback soon thereafter. Nichols and a corporal investigated. At the intersection of the driveway and the main road, they found the president’s silk hat—with a bullet hole through the crown. “The shot had been fired upward, and it was evident that the person who fired the shot had secreted himself close by the roadside,” Nichols said.
The next day Nichols handed President Lincoln his hat and pointed out the hole. “He remarked rather unconcernedly, that it was put there by some foolish gunner and was not intended for him.” Nonetheless, Lincoln admonished the soldiers to keep the matter secret. “We felt confident that it was an attempt to kill him, and a well nigh successful one, too. The affair was, of course, kept quiet in compliance with the President’s request,” Nichols recalled. “After that the President never rode alone.”
But even surrounded by others, the president would never be perfectly safe from a determined assassin. As the presidential carriage passed Booth, the Philadelphia Inquirer later reported, the actor turned from his friend without a farewell and hurried away. He intended to get inside the Capitol.
Saturday afternoon, March 4, 1865
The man in charge of the inauguration festivities, 63-year-old Benjamin Brown French, was exhausted by noon. Five years earlier, he had been spry enough to play the increasingly popular game of baseball, until he injured a tendon in his left leg while running. Now he had an expanding waistline, thinning white hair, graying, bristling sideburns, and deep rings under his eyes. He was weary, plagued by headaches and toothaches, and utterly fed up with the high life in Washington.
The previous Saturday, French had felt duty-bound to attend Mary Lincoln’s dull reception at the White House from 1 to 3 pm, then rush off to the party at the home of Kate Sprague and her father, Chief Justice Chase, which, though unquestionably “a very brilliant affair,” was still just an irksome social responsibility. “Really I shall rejoice when Lent begins, for I am tired of gaiety,” French confessed in his diary. He feared “the Inauguration and the Ball will about use me up.” During the week since, as the US commissioner of public buildings, he had been giving “all the aid in my power to perfecting the arrangements” of this day’s inauguration ceremony. He had been on his feet since dawn, handling myriad details. The wild windstorm and drenching rain of the morning had added to his stress, forcing on French the decision of whether to keep Lincoln indoors, disappointing tens of thousands of visitors, or to risk sending him out into the elements.
During a shower that morning, workers had hastily removed all the chairs from the temporary wooden platform outdoors where the swearing-in was to take place. “The hopes of the crowd again sunk,” a reporter noted. Then patches of blue sky appeared in the west. “As the important time approached, the chairs were returned to their place on the platform—all eyes brightened, and were anxiously turned to the East front of the Capitol.”
For the inauguration, French would need a ceremonial table up on the wooden platform to hold a tumbler of water for the president. He had one specially made, 30 inches high by 20 inches wide by 12 inches deep, with leftover iron parts from the construction of the Capitol’s spectacular new dome. Its foot was fashioned from one of the leaflike parts of the inner dome, inverted; its pillar was one of the balusters of the iron railing around the opening of the eye of the dome; its top a square piece cut from the thin iron panels used, all painted white. “It is unique, and there probably will never be another like it in the world,” French enthused. Lincoln would stand behind it when taking the oath—fragments of the Capitol bonded together, one more symbol of a country whose broken parts the president would somehow have to reunite. French told the president that he would give the table “to him to take to Illinois as a memento of the Capitol, when he should retire from the Presidency.”
At half past noon Saturday, French was focused on getting the key players of the inauguration from the Senate chamber out to the platform and into the seats arrayed behind that table. It was chaos. Senator Henry B. Anthony of Rhode Island had been forced leave Mrs. Lincoln in the gallery while taking his oath of office down on the floor, handing over the responsibility of escorting her outside to Senator James Harlan of Iowa. But they got caught behind the mob that rushed from the Senate chamber and stuffed the hallways, and Harlan could not get Mrs. Lincoln into her assigned seat until her husband’s speech and oath were over. The First Lady seemed an afterthought on this gala day. But she was not alone, as the Times of London reported: “Every one was left to shift for himself, and the members of the Corps Diplomatique, with all their fine feathers and uniforms, sashes and ribands, stars and crosses, fared no better than the common crowd, and were left to fight their way into or out of the mass, as it best pleased them. Most of them were so displeased at the want of arrangement, or the want of courtesy, whichever it might have been, that they made no attempt to follow the President, and consequently took no part in the great celebration of the day.”
But something far more ominous was unfolding in the bedlam. As Lincoln and his party passed through the Capitol rotunda at the head of a surging mob, French happened to see a man jump from the crowd into the procession behind the president, seemingly determined to get close to Lincoln. French called out in alarm to a Capitol officer standing nearby, Lieutenant John W. Westfall. The officer grabbed the man by the arm, stopping him, “when he began to wrangle & show fight,” French recounted to his son, Francis, on April 24. French hurried over to the struggling man and told him he must fall back. The young man protested that he had every right to be there, and “looked very fierce & angry that we would not let him go on.” He was handsome, with the diction of an educated man, and he did possess a signed pass for the inaugural events. “He asserted his right so strenuously, that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know & I said to Westfall ‘let him go,’” French recalled. While French and Westfall were questioning the man, Lincoln kept on walking, oblivious to the altercation. He passed through the door of the east portico and onto the platform. French had to turn his attention there.
Six weeks later, Westfall heard a gentleman recount that John Wilkes Booth “was in the crowd that day, & broke into the line & he saw a police man [grab] hold of him keeping him back.” Remembering the half-crazed man he had seized by the arm, Westfall came to French and asked him whether he recalled the incident. “I told him I did,” French wrote, “& should know the man again were I to see him.” When French looked closely at a photograph of Booth that had been distributed by the authorities, “I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him & fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken.”
Some historians would come to question this memory, but Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s loyal bodyguard, was certain that Booth intended to follow the president outside and strike him down in front of tens of thousands at the inauguration—the perfect stage for an actor who yearned for historic fame and wished to demonstrate that the freedom-loving men of America would not endure tyranny. The setting might well have appealed to a man who had notably played the Shakespearean role of Marcus Brutus, the self-proclaimed defender of the Roman republic who assassinated the dictator Julius Caesar in the capital.
“A tragedy was planned for that day which has no parallel in the history of criminal audacity,” Lamon insisted. “Its consummation would have been immeasurably more tragical than the awful scene witnessed at Ford’s Theater on the memorable 14th of April following.” Given the immense crowds gathered for the event, Lamon reflected, it was “amazing that any human being could have seriously entertained the thought of assassinating Mr. Lincoln in the presence of such a concourse of citizens. And yet there was such a man in that assemblage. He was there for the single purpose of murdering the illustrious leader who for the second time was about to assume the burden of the Presidency. That man was John Wilkes Booth.”
Several officers working that day later testified that they witnessed the scuffle. John Plants, stationed with French at the east door of the rotunda, swore in an affidavit that he saw Westfall seize a man “who seemed to be greatly excited.” Policeman Charles J. Cleary, also in the rotunda, had “seen Booth often and states positively that the stranger who broke through the line on that occasion was no other person.” Policeman William J. Belshan testified that “a severe struggle ensued” when Westfall seized Booth: “The east door was closed; assistance came to Westfall and the stranger was forced back into the crowd. The conduct of this man was much talked about by those who witnessed it.” Calling Booth’s plan one of “phenomenal audacity, Lamon later declared: “So frenzied was the assassin that he determined, if possible, to take the President’s life at the certain sacrifice of his own; for nothing can be more certain than this, that the murder of Mr. Lincoln on that public occasion, in the presence of such a vast concourse of admiring citizens, would have been instantly avenged. The infuriated populace would have torn the assassin to pieces, and this the desperate man doubtless knew.”
Long before Lamon publicly advanced this idea, French was privately certain that assassination was exactly Booth’s plan. “My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President & assassinate him, & in the confusion escape into the crowd again & get away,” French wrote in his April 24 letter. “But, by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest, & had some errand, or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward.” If police had dragged Booth away and searched him, they might have found a murder weapon, a hidden knife or derringer. He might have been arrested, tried, and imprisoned. Instead, after the altercation, the actor was evidently able to safely melt into the mob that was flooding out the rotunda’s east door and onto the steps of the Capitol, near the platform where Lincoln was to make his speech.
Lincoln stepped out from the Capitol building, the first to appear on the wet planks of the walkway. “The appearance of the tall form produced an instantaneous effect,” one reporter recounted. “The whole color of the vast mass of humanity which was gathered around the east end of the capitol was changed and transfixed as if by a magician’s wand.” Somber for the last hour, the tens of thousands were suddenly “all crying at once, and cheering for the man of the people’s choice. The excitement and enthusiasm seemed likely never to subside.” A “thunder of shouts, hand-clappings and wild hurrahs rent the air,” wrote Adolphe Pineton, the Marquis de Chambrun, following close behind Lincoln. The U.S. Marine Band, which featured Antonio Sousa on trombone, father of the future “March King,” John Philip Sousa, brayed out “Hail to the Chief.” People everywhere waved flags, tossed hats into the air, flapped handkerchiefs, laughed and roared. Stretching out before Lincoln was a “sea of heads, tossing and surging, as far as the eye could reach, among the budding foliage of the park opposite,” Noah Brooks wrote.
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth returned to Washington by steamer on April 9, and that night learned that Robert E. Lee had surrendered the forces of the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Grant followed the lead of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in acting with charity, not malice, permitting the soldiers to take their guns and horses home so that they could start life anew. The Army of the Potomac showed deep respect for its defeated foes. Returned to his home in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass joined in another celebration over the surrender. Firefighters rang the city hall bell from 11 pm until 2 am.
On the evening of April 11, Booth joined the crowds thronging the White House, in a Washington lit up in celebration. Lincoln spoke from a window, a halo of light silhouetting his figure. He discussed reconstruction in rather tedious detail, dropping each page to the ground after he finished reading it. Touching on the explosive issue of civil rights for former slaves, he revealed he favored states’ conferring voting rights “on the very intelligent and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.” “That means nigger citizenship,” Booth seethed to his friend David Herold, according to Herold’s defense counsel, Frederick Stone. “Now, by God! I’ll put him through.” When they caught up with Lewis Powell, another member of the conspiracy, Booth vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make.”
On April 14, Booth checked his mail at Ford’s Theatre, and opened a four-page letter. Reading to himself, he laughed out loud and shook his head. “The damned woman,” he was heard to remark. At Ford’s, he learned that President and Mrs. Lincoln intended to attend the show there that night, something that the theater’s managers proudly advertised in a broadside.“We must both be more cheerful in the future—between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have both been very miserable.”
The flag-raising ceremony at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor that War Secretary Edwin Stanton had arranged took place that day, ex-governor John Clifford among the many dignitaries in attendance. It was on this lovely sunny afternoon, with a light breeze blowing from the east, that preacher Henry Ward Beecher—no believer in charity for all and malice toward none after such evil had been unleashed—denounced “the ambitious, educated, plotting leaders of the South,” and promised that God would punish them severely for shedding an “ocean of blood.”
At 5 pm, the Lincolns took a carriage ride to the navy yard. Lincoln startled Mary with his unusual cheerfulness, she recalled six months later. “We must both be more cheerful in the future—between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have both been very miserable,” he told her. They clambered aboard the USS Montauk anchored there, “going all over her, accompanied by us all,” wrote navy surgeon George B. Todd, in a letter to his brother. “Both seemed very happy, and so expressed themselves,—glad that this war was over, or so near its end, and then drove back to the White House.”
In their festive mood, the Lincolns had made plans to attend a “celebrated eccentric comedy” (as Ford’s broadside put it) that night, Our American Cousin, by British playwright Tom Taylor, the story of a crude but shrewd and honest American who gets the better of a snobby and dim-witted English nobleman. While Lincoln had invited the Grants—the victorious president joined by the victorious general would create quite a public stir—they declined the invitation. The night before, Grant had accompanied Mrs. Lincoln on a ride through the city to marvel at the brilliantly illuminated buildings and fireworks in celebration of Lee’s surrender. The mercurial First Lady was irritated by the wild cheers for the general rather than her husband, behavior that Grant found unsettling. He was happy when his wife, Julia, who “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln,” insisted that they decline the invitation and set off immediately for Burlington, New Jersey, on the Delaware River near Philadelphia, where the couple, with their children, hoped to enjoy a brief respite from the war. Two young friends of the Lincoln family agreed to attend instead: Clara Harris, daughter of New York senator Ira Harris, and her stepbrother and fiancé, Colonel Henry Rathbone. They had stood near the First Couple during the mobbed reception at the White House on the evening of the inauguration.
The play was already underway when the party arrived. Some seventeen hundred people, joyful over the virtual end of the war, rose in a standing ovation when they saw Lincoln enter the presidential box, perched to the right above the stage. Professor Withers’s orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and when the applause faded, the play resumed. After 10 pm, Booth, concealing a small single-shot derringer and a large bowie knife, mounted the steps of Ford’s Theatre to the dress circle. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s guard that night, Washington police officer John Parker, was not known for his attention to detail and devotion to duty.
He had been reprimanded previously for falling asleep on a streetcar during his beat, using intemperate language, extorting prostitutes, and being drunk on duty, among other offenses that had cost him neither his job nor a posting at the White House, a mark of the lax standards of both police work and presidential security during that era. On that night at Ford’s, expecting no trouble, he had left his seat outside the presidential box, according to several witnesses. Indeed, earlier in the evening, while the Lincolns enjoyed the play, Parker stepped out for a quick drink at the bar next door with the president’s coachman, Francis Burke, and his messenger, Charles Forbes.
By the time Booth arrived that night, the messenger was back in the theater, biding his time near the presidential box should his services be required. There were two doors: one leading from the general audience to a narrow vestibule, and another opening to the box itself. According to eyewitness Helen Du Barry, Booth claimed he had a communication for the president, showed Forbes an official envelope, and pulled from his pocket and presented to him “a card with the name of a Senator written on it.” The calling card of an esteemed US senator might have persuaded Lincoln’s messenger that nothing was amiss with the visitor. “The watch stepped aside & the assassin entered,” Du Barry recounted in a letter to her mother two days later. It is thus possible that Booth’s love affair with John Hale’s daughter gained him admittance not only to the second inauguration, but also to the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre.
One theatergoer taking in the play from a seat not far from the box was the navy surgeon who had greeted the president a few hours earlier. Dr. Todd heard a man say, “There’s Booth,” and turned his head to see the actor. “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,” the surgeon wrote to his brother the next day, while the memory was fresh.
The play was nearing one of the moments when the crowd’s laughter was loudest. In act 3, scene 2, a pushy English mother who has tried to pair her daughter off with the boorish American, Asa Trenchard, in the mistaken belief that he possesses a rich inheritance, stiffly responds to his rudeness after the truth emerges that he is not wealthy after all: “I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.” Like Groucho Marx, Trenchard delights the audience by puncturing her pomposity with the kind of bluntness that elites found deplorable: “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 man-trap.”
As the audience roared, Booth aimed his small pistol at the back of the president’s head, pulled the trigger, and sent a ball into Abraham Lincoln’s brain, plunging him into unconsciousness. When Rathbone leapt up to stop him, Booth slashed his arm with the bowie knife. The famous actor, noted for his acrobatic performances, leapt to the stage, awkwardly this time, catching a spur on the bunting decorating the box. Many saw him shake his fist and heard him shout Sic semper tyrannis— “Thus always to tyrants,” the motto of his beloved Virginia, home of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. He left the stage before the audience could even comprehend what had happened.
While Mary screamed and wept, a 23-year-old army surgeon named Charles A. Leale made it into the box. Leale, who oversaw the wounded commissioned officers’ ward at the Army’s general hospital at Armory Square, ascertained the president had been shot in the head and mortally wounded. Two other doctors joined Leale. They all concluded Lincoln could not survive a trip to the White House. Some on the scene were concerned that a president should not die in a theater, a place that many religious Americans still considered unrespectable. With the help of several soldiers, men lifted Lincoln up, forced their way through the crowd, and carried him across the street to a boardinghouse owned by a German immigrant tailor named William Petersen. Lincoln was laid on a bed in the first floor’s back room, at an angle because of his height.
A month earlier, Ford’s callboy William Ferguson, delivering parts for actors to memorize, had seen Booth stretched out “lazily” on that very bed, “a pipe in his mouth, his handsome hair disheveled,” during a visit to fellow actors Charles Warwick and John Mathews, who had rented the room.
As Booth struck at the theater, one of his co-conspirators, Lewis Powell, gained access to William Seward’s house and brutally stabbed the secretary of state, who was recovering from a bad carriage accident and lay helpless in bed. Fearing an organized attempt to decapitate the government, War Secretary Stanton raced to the Petersen house and, as was his wont, immediately took charge. At one point during the night, Dr. Leale recalled, the First Lady “sprang up suddenly with a piercing cry and fell fainting to the floor.” Stanton entered the back room and issued a stern order: “Take that woman out and do not let her in again.” Mary Lincoln never saw her husband alive again.
Benjamin Brown French, who had ordered the Capitol closed in the emergency, rushed to the house to lend any assistance he could. “I took Mrs. Lincoln by the hand, and she made some exclamation indicating the deepest agony of mind. I also shook hands with Robert, who was crying audibly,” Brown wrote the next day in his diary. Before Lincoln passed away, Stanton had already launched an investigation. Louis J. Weichmann would finally spill his guts to the authorities, saving his life by telling everything he knew. John Surratt would flee the country. Mary Surratt would be hanged for running the boardinghouse where Booth and his associates gathered.
Shortly after Lincoln died that morning, John P. Hale met privately with the next president, Andrew Johnson, at his room in Kirkwood House. “It was of a strictly confidential character,” Hale told the press, insisting he had “no right to communicate what passed between them.” For the record, the ambassador declared his strong confidence in Johnson’s leadership. The two may well have discussed keeping the Hale name out of the probe of the assassination. Strangely, Lucy—who surely had extensive knowledge of Booth’s activities leading up to the tragedy—would be left out of the investigation entirely. So too would Charles Forbes, who had evidently let Booth pass into the presidential box on the strength of Hale’s calling card.
Salmon P. Chase arrived at Johnson’s hotel. The chief justice, who still dreamed of becoming president, administered the oath of office to another man for the second time in six weeks. Hale was among the elite group of eleven men in Johnson’s room watching this moment in American history. The former tailor from Tennessee—drunk before the gathered dignitaries on March 4, prompting prayers from even the administration’s enemies that Lincoln would survive his term—was subdued this day. “All were deeply impressed by the solemnity of the occasion,” said a wire account sent to the nation’s newspapers.
Johnson offered a few humble words this time. “I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me,” the new president said, adding that he did not yet know what policies he would pursue. He addressed Hale and the others in the room that morning. “I shall ask and rely upon you and others in carrying the government through its present perils. I feel in making this request that it will be heartily responded to by you and all other patriots and lovers of the rights and interests of a free people.” Booth’s act had replaced the shrewd and careful Lincoln with an impulsive man far less sympathetic to the plight of black Americans and far less attuned to the difficult work of balancing factions and easing along change. The result would be political overreaching by congressional Republicans, a fierce reaction by Southern whites, and brutal oppression of African Americans for the next century—a bitter tragedy for the United States after all it had sacrificed. Of all the tragic what-ifs of American history, the loss of Lincoln’s political touch in dealing with the terrible challenges of reconstruction must rank at the top.
From Edward Achorn’s Every Drop of Blood, available now from Grove Atlantic. Copyright 2020, Edward Achorn.