1865: Shots are fired at Ford’s Theatre. The US Civil War was coming to a close with the Union troops bringing a victory. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops five days earlier effectively ending the War. The proclamation to end the war was still in the future, but close at hand and was signed on May 9. Because news was not instantaneous, the last shots of the War were fired on June 22. Easter was two days hence and on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife went to see Our American Cousin being presented at Ford’s Theatre.
It was thought that General Ulysses S Grant and his wife would be joining the President and Mrs. Lincoln in the booth, but the two women were not on good terms. Others were issued an invitation and declined. The box was filled with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. Lincoln had been plagued by bad dreams and had wished to stay away from the theater that night, but he had promised his wife an outing and they left to enjoy an evening out. The party arrived late but settled into the Presidential Box. The performance was stopped briefly while the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief” and the audience gave Lincoln a standing ovation. The theater was full with about 1,700 people watching the play.
The box was to have been guarded by a policeman, John Frederick Parker. Parker left during the intermission and went to nearby tavern with Lincoln’s footman and coachman. He was not at his post when John Wilkes Booth entered the box. Booth was a famous actor and may have been able to persuade the policeman even if he had been present, but without impedance, he was able to enter and then barricaded the first door from the inside. Booth had never starred in Our American Cousin, but knew the play and waited for the precise moment when the funniest line was delivered. He opened the second door and fired a shot into the laughing President’s head behind his left ear. The bullet traversed the brain and exited just above his right eye. The President slumped, Mary caught him and screamed.
Rathbone, having heard the shot, attempted to catch Booth. The two men struggled and Booth dropped his gun to the floor and drew a knife with which he stabbed his opponent in the arm. Rathbone was able to recover and again tried to capture the assailant. Rathbone grabbed at Booth as he attempted to vault over the Box wall to the stage below. Because of the interference, Booth’s boot caught and when he landed, he broke his leg. Booth held the bloody knife over his head as he made his way from the theater. Lincoln never regained consciousness and died the next day. Booth was killed while trying to elude capture on April 26.
Mary Todd Lincoln: What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so? (as she held his hand)
Abraham Lincoln: She won’t think anything about it. (his last words)
Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. – John Wilkes Booth diary entry for April 14, 1865
About 10:25 pm, a man came in and walked slowly along the side on which the “Pres” box was and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. 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. – eyewitness account by Dr. George Brainerd Todd
I am a slow walker, but I never walk back. – Abraham Lincoln