“For John Wilkes Booth, sweeping, grand gestures were a way of life. It was how he navigated his way through this world. The bigger and bolder, the better.” —Jesse Johnson, who portrayed Booth in “Killing Lincoln”

Americans tend to think of assassins as mentally-unbalanced individuals, who kill—or try to kill—for reasons that make little or no sense. There is John Hinckley, who put a bullet into Ronald Reagan’s chest in an attempt to impress the object of his romantic obsession, actress Jodie Foster; then there is the disappointed office-seeker, Charles Guiteau, murderer of President James A. Garfield; Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the follower of Charles Manson who took a shot at Gerald Ford; and the erratic and simple-minded Lee Harvey Oswald, who (despite wild conspiracy theories to the contrary) fired the fatal shot that killed President John F. Kennedy.

John Wilkes Booth is often mistakenly lumped into this category. Remembered by most simply as a pro-Southern actor embittered by the Confederacy’s impending defeat, his killing of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater is thought to have been the act of an irrational man, as it supposedly doomed whatever hope the South held out for a lenient peace settlement. There is little doubt, however, that Booth was a sane man, whose motivation for killing Lincoln was rooted in his sincere belief that the North’s president was a tyrant who, like Caesar, deserved death at the hands of a Brutus, and whose death might yet change the course of the war he had unjustly inaugurated.

John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland in 1838 to the famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth, and his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes. John Wilkes’ father was named after the famous assassin of Julius Caesar, and indeed the family had a tradition of naming sons after heroes who had opposed tyrants and kings. Booth himself was named after the English radical politician, John Wilkes, and he had an uncle named Algernon Sidney Booth, after the Whig theorist who was executed for treason against Charles I. If resistance to tyranny was not literally in their blood, it was at least ingrained into the very souls of the Booth men.

John Wilkes and two older brothers—Edwin and Junius Brutus, Jr.—followed their father into the world of acting. Edwin was the greatest thespian of the trio, rivaling even the fame of his successful father. Whereas Booth père was histrionic on stage and unstable off it (being a conspicuous alcoholic), Edwin was renowned for his understated, realistic public portrayals and his gentleness of manner in private. John Wilkes was, in contrast, temperamental, and known more for his superior good looks and his physical acting—he more than once received real wounds while participating in on-stage fights—than for his dramatic performances (though it must be said that his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III was legendary). He may well have also shared the alcoholism of his father, making him a temperamental and at times unsteady man. A letter of January 2, 1864, in which Booth describes to a friend an incidence of how his “old luck returned to hunt me down,” gives credence to this possibility:

“And then after giving my boy my flask to keep for me, I started for a run and made the river (four miles) on foot. I run without a stop, all the way. I then found my boy had lost that treasured flask. I had to pay five dollars for a bare-backed horse to hunt for it. I returned within sight of the Fort, and judge of my dismay upon arriving to see a waggon just crushing my best friend, but I kissed him in his last moments by pressing the snow to my lips, over which he had spilled his noble blood.”

As the war between North and South dragged on, John became ever more preoccupied with the Southern cause, and he and Edwin—who had been rivals for their father’s attention and then as actors—became political rivals. Edwin was a backer of the Northern war effort and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln; John Wilkes was a partisan of the Confederate cause and despised Lincoln. Sibling rivalry dovetailed with political differences to create a wedge between the brothers. Indeed, author Nora Titone sees the fraternal competition for a father’s approval and a nation’s acclaim as the primary motivating force that compelled John Wilkes eventually to kill Lincoln. In this interpretation, John, the inferior actor, burned with the desire to somehow outdo his brother on stage. Though this rivalry no doubt simmered between the brothers, it is doubtful, as Ms. Titone claims, that John turned to thoughts of kidnapping and killing Lincoln primarily in order to win fame greater than that of Edwin. Booth’s own writing indicates clearly that the main motivation for his conspiracy plans was an intense hatred of the American president: “Our country owed all her troubles to him,” Booth wrote in his diary after the assassination, “and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”

John Wilkes, Edwin, and Junius Brutus Booth

On November 14, 1864, some sort of violent plan to seize or kill Lincoln was likely already on John Wilkes Booth’s mind. On that day he wrote a letter to a friend, the son of a Maryland innkeeper, about an item that Booth had inadvertently left behind with a mutual acquaintance, and which he hoped his friend could retrieve: “You know what I had to take from my carpet-bag. It’s not worth more than $15, but I will give him $20 rather than lose it, as it has saved my life two or three times. He had left the city if you would be kind enough to get it from him and send it to me. I will reimburse you for any outlay. And will never forget you.” This was very likely the famous Derringer pistol that Booth would bring with him to Ford’s Theater the fateful night of April 14, 1865.

A mere eleven days after writing this letter, the three Booth fils appeared in a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. (Proceeds from the performance went to the creation of a statue of William Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park.) John played Mark Antony, Edwin portrayed Brutus, and Junius was Cassius. During this period, John was already orchestrating a plot to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners of war. The kidnap plan again is indicative of Booth’s mental sanity. Unlike, say, the scheme of the radical John Brown, who thought the actions of his ragtag band of abolitionists might incite a national slave uprising, Booth’s plan was a rational one with a decent chance of success. Writer Michael W. Kauffman in American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies sees John as a brilliant and devious manipulator of men, who was able to exercise control over slow-witted men like George Atzerodt, David Herold, and Lewis Powell into participating in his scheme to apprehend Lincoln.

Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the main Confederate Army on April 9, 1865, caused Booth to change his plan from one of kidnapping Lincoln to killing him. Though it is impossible to know what exactly transpired in Booth’s mind, a desire for revenge surely combined with a desperate, eleventh-hour attempt to save the Confederate cause. Often forgotten is that Booth planned not only to kill Lincoln by his own hand, but to have his cohorts kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, thereby decapitating the United States government and throwing it into confusion. Unfortunately for Booth, Atzerodt—charged with murdering Johnson—lost his nerve and got drunk, while Powell succeeded only in severely injuring Seward (who was already bed-ridden from a carriage accident).

Booth, however, was successful in carrying out his end of the bargain, fatally shooting Lincoln in the back of the head while the president, Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, watched the play, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. After committing the deed, the actor leapt out of the president’s box to the stage below, holding up the knife he had used to stab Rathbone, and shouting in supremely dramatic fashion, “Sic Semper Tyrannis! The South is avenged!”* The younger Booth had at last topped his elder brother on the stage. The conductor of the Ford’s Theater orchestra would later claim to have overheard Booth proclaim during the play’s intermission, prior to the assassination, “When I leave the stage for good, I will be the most talked about man in America.”

From Booth’s own diary, we know that the actor envisioned himself as a modern-day Brutus, the righteous executioner of the judge of history, who yet hoped to preserve American liberty despite the lateness of the hour:

For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done…. With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone.

Author Kauffman seems to believe that the conspiracy to kill Lincoln was orchestrated by John Wilkes Booth alone. Other researchers, however, think that Booth was to some degree a “patsy”—to use another presidential assassin’s term of a hundred years later—of higher powers. Author Edward Steers, Jr. argues that the Confederate government orchestrated the assassination. In Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Steers suggests that the plot was a response to an alleged plan by Union forces to kill Jefferson Davis and high-ranking Confederate officials. In March 1864, Union cavalry under Ulric Dahlgren conducted a raid to free Union prisoners of war held in Richmond. Confederate forces foiled the raid, however, and Dahlgren—the son of Union admiral James A. Dahlgren—was killed. On his body were discovered papers in his own hand detailing elements of the mission, including the murder of Davis and his cabinet. Steers argues that in response, the Confederate government raised the “black flag” of unrestrained warfare, launching schemes to terrorize the Northern populace and demoralize the Union cause. These efforts were directed by a group of Confederate agents in Canada and included the spreading of yellow fever throughout Northern cities, the poisoning of New York City’s water supply, and, finally, the assassination of Lincoln, Johnson, and Seward.

The full truth about Booth’s conspiracy may never be known. Booth himself was killed twelve days after the assassination, shot in the neck as he holed up in a Virginia barn with his companion Herold. A military tribunal quickly tried, convicted, and hanged Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt, the owner of the boardinghouse where Booth and the conspirators met. Many of the witnesses in the trial surely perjured themselves under pressure from the United States government. It is also unknown whether evidence was suppressed or destroyed at the direction of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who oversaw both the investigation of the Booth conspiracies and the trial itself.

Whether he was the puppet-master of the plot to kill Lincoln or the agent of Confederate authorities, John Wilkes Booth was no wild-eyed madman. His was not on a suicide mission; rather, he had devised an escape plan whereby he would make his way across the Potomac River into Virginia, into what he assumed would be the welcoming arms of his Southern compatriots. Though vain and manipulative, John Wilkes Booth was an idealist whose deep-seated belief in the righteousness of the Confederate cause and the guilt of Abraham Lincoln led him to commit what has indeed gone down as one of the most spectacular dramatic acts in American history.

*Witnesses differ greatly on many of the details of the assassination, including Booth’s words as he landed on stage. Nearly all, however, agree that he shouted something akin to this in triumph.

The only full biography of John Wilkes Booth is Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford. 

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The featured image and the image of the Booth brothers are both in the public domain, and both are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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