John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth
Born May 10, 1838
Bel Air, Maryland, U.S.A.
Died Apr. 26, 1865 (at age 26)
Port Royal, Virginia, U.S.A.
Infamous for Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Profession Actor
Parents Junius Brutus Booth
and Mary Ann Holmes

John Wilkes Booth is best known for his assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. He was born into a well-known theatrical family on May 10, 1838 in Bel Air, Maryland. He was the ninth child of the actor, Junius Booth, and would eventually become an actor himself. He made his first professional appearance in a production of Richard III in Baltimore when he was just seventeen.

He became a fulltime actor with a Richmond based company that specialized in producing Shakespearian and classical drama. His career saw him touring all over the U.S. He played the part of Raphael in the drama Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre, a performance of which was attended by Lincoln in November 1863.

His father was something of a radical, having emigrated from England to the U.S. with his mistress, and he named John Wilkes after an English radical. Sometime in 1850’s Booth began to take an active interest in politics and he joined the Know Nothing Party, a right-wing group committed to restricting the number of immigrants coming into the U. S.

When Booth’s father arrived in the U.S., he had purchased a 150-acre farm, which was worked by slaves. Booth was an ardent supporter of slavery and was profoundly against emancipation. He supported the Confederate side in the American Civil War, eventually becoming a Confederate secret agent. He held meetings with Clement Clay and Jacob Johnson, the heads of the Confederate Secret Service.

Kidnap Conspiracy

In the summer of 1864, Booth initiated a conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners. No conclusive proof exists that Booth received encouragement or support from leading Confederates, but Booth seems to have been quite open about his intentions, and attempted to persuade many others to join in the conspiracy. It is highly unlikely that Confederate leaders were unaware of his intentions. His idea was to capture Lincoln at his summer residence near the White House, believing that the capture would breathe new life into the Confederate cause.

Following Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864, Booth began investing more time and money in his plot. On March 15 1865, Booth and his fellow conspirators had a meeting at a restaurant not far from Ford’s Theatre to discuss their kidnap plan.

Not long after, Booth learned that Lincoln intended to see a play at the Campbell Hospital near Washington on March 17. He believed this event would provide the perfect opportunity to kidnap the President. He planned to intercept the President’s carriage as it headed to the performance. The plan was foiled when Lincoln cancelled his intended visit.

Booth then decided to try and kidnap Lincoln at the Ford’s Theatre. Having appeared there in his professional role on many occasions, Booth had many friends at the theatre and he tried unsuccessfully to recruit some of these for his kidnap attempt.


Booth escalated his plan to an assassination attempt when it became clear that the Confederates could not continue the Civil War, as a kidnapping would no longer serve any purpose. At this stage, he was motivated solely by his hatred of Lincoln’s campaign to abolish slavery.

On the morning of April 14, Booth learned that Lincoln, accompanied by General Ulysses S. Grant and other government officials, was due to attend a performance at Ford’s Theatre that evening.

Shortly after 10pm, Booth burst into the President’s box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Major Henry Rathbone was in the box and reacted quickly to tackle Booth. The assassin managed to free himself by stabbing the Major and made his escape by leaping from the box onto the stage.

Booth on the Run

He ran from the theater, mounted a horse that was being held for him by one Joseph Burroughs and rode off into the darkness. Together with co-conspirator David Herold, they rode to Surratt’s Tavern, arriving there at midnight. They collected guns and supplies they had stored there earlier and continued south, arriving at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd before dawn.

Booth had an injured leg that required treatment. It is uncertain when or how Booth was injured. It may have been when he jumped from the Presidential box to the stage, or it could have happened later during the escape attempt.
After leaving Mudd’s home, the pair made their way to the house of Samuel Cox, and remained hidden in the woods nearby.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of War put up a massive award of $100,000 for information leading to the capture of Booth and his fellow conspirators, and a huge search operation was launched.

From his journal, we know that Booth knew by April 20 that several of those who had conspired with him to kidnap Lincoln had been arrested. He also wrote of his dismay at the widespread outrage at the killing expressed in many newspapers, especially by those newspapers that were opposed to Lincoln and his policies.

Booth’s Death

On April 24, Booth and Herold arrived at the farm of Richard Garrett. Neither Garrett or his family were aware of the president’s assassination, and they were led to believe that Booth’s name was James W. Boyd, and that he was a former Confederate soldier who had been wounded in the Civil War at the battle of Petersburg.

Investigators were closing in on Booth. Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger, who was a military intelligence officer, learned that Booth was at the Garrett home and a detachment of troops under his command arrived at the house.

They questioned Garrett about the whereabouts of Booth and Herold, and Garrett told them the pair had fled into the woods. However, Garrett’s son told the troops that the men were hiding in the barn.

The soldiers surrounded the barn, and Conger ordered them to surrender, threatening to set fire to the building. Booth refused to come out, but Herold surrendered, after which Conger ordered his men to set fire to the barn.

As the fire raged, Booth was shot and mortally wounded by Sergeant Boston Corbett, in contravention of Conger’s orders that every effort should be made to capture Booth alive. The troops managed to pull the wounded Booth from the burning barn, but he died a few hours later.

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