Little Bits of History

John Wilkes Booth

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 26, 2013
John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

April 26, 1865: A 26-year-old actor dies. The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861 with shots fired on Fort Sumter. It ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. With more than 1,000,000 Americans dead or wounded, the young nation needed a respite. Instead, the newly forged peace was shaken when President Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14. He died the next day. Union cavalry tracked down John Wilkes Booth in Virginia, where he was shot.

Booth came from a family of actors and was a popular and nationally ranked thespian. He was a Confederate sympathizer. Early in the war, prisoners of war were exchanged and soldiers could once again join ranks and continue fighting. This procedure was unilaterally halted by General Grant. The South desperately needed more fighting men and the halt of the exchanges was debilitating. Booth planned to kidnap Lincoln and hold him as a hostage to effect a POW exchange. On April 11, 1865, Booth attended a Lincoln speech in which the President stated his intention to grant the vote to the newly emancipated slaves. Booth’s plan changed.

The new plan was to totally disrupt the government. The Lincolns were to attend the Ford’s Theatre’s production of Our American Cousins. Booth entered the theater without question (he had often performed there). Shortly after 10 PM he entered the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Booth stabbed another patron as he made his escape by jumping from the box. Booth fell heavily and broke his leg but managed to flee. At the same time, Lewis Powell was to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Seward was wounded, but survived. George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Jackson, but chickened out.

Booth fled and eventually met up with another member of his gang, David Herold. They retrieved weapons and other supplies. Booth’s leg needed attention and the two went to Dr. Samuel Mudd, an acquaintance of Booth’s. By month’s end, the conspirators were arrested. So was the doctor and the man who held Booth’s horse on April 14. Their trial lasted seven weeks and 366 witnesses testified. All were found guilty. Four were sentenced to death. Dr. Mudd and two others were given life in prison. Spangler, the stagehand, was sentenced to six years in prison. Mudd, Spangler, and Samuel Arnold were pardoned by President Johnson in February 1869.

“Of the Seven Wonders of the World, can you imagine how famous a man might be who could pull down the Colossus of Rhodes?” – John Wilkes Booth, age 10

“Fame, I must have fame!” – John Wilkes Booth

“This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same stand-point, as held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.” – John Wilkes Booth

“Tell my mother I died for my country. I did what I thought was best.” – John Wilkes Booth

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838 in Bel Air, Maryland. He was the ninth of ten children. His father was a Shakespearean actor who had emigrated from England. He was named after a distant relative John Wilkes, a radical politician. Booth senior had brought his mistress with him when moving from England and in 1851, Mrs. Booth divorced her philandering husband. He then married his mistress on his son’s 13th birthday. As a child, John was athletic and popular. He was a lackadaisical student but was described as being “not deficient in intelligence” by the headmaster. While still a teenager, he met a Gypsy fortune teller who predicted that he would have great, but short, life and said he would die young and “meeting a bad end.” By the age of 16, John was interested in both politics and theater.

Also on this day: Chernobyl – In 1986 there is a nuclear disaster in the Chernobyl power plant.
Tanzania – In 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged.
Police – In 1933, the Gestapo was formed.

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