Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth dies

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth dies

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John Wilkes Booth is killed when Union soldiers track him down to a Virginia farm 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Twenty-six-year-old Booth was one of the most famous actors in the country when he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on the night of April 14. Booth was a Maryland native and a strong supporter of the Confederacy. As the war entered its final stages, Booth hatched a conspiracy to kidnap the president. He enlisted the aid of several associates, but the opportunity never presented itself. After the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, Booth changed the plan to a simultaneous assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Only Lincoln was actually killed, however. Seward was stabbed by Lewis Paine but survived, while the man assigned to kill Johnson did not carry out his assignment.

READ MORE: Abraham Lincoln's Assassination

After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped to the stage below Lincoln’s box seat. He landed hard, breaking his leg, before escaping to a waiting horse behind the theater. Many in the audience recognized Booth, so the army was soon hot on his trail. Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, made their way across the Anacostia River and headed toward southern Maryland. The pair stopped at Dr. Samuel Mudd’s home, and Mudd treated Booth’s leg. This earned Mudd a life sentence in prison when he was implicated as part of the conspiracy, but the sentence was later commuted. Booth found refuge for several days at the home of Thomas A. Jones, a Confederate agent, before securing a boat to row across the Potomac to Virginia.

After receiving aid from several Confederate sympathizers, Booth’s luck finally ran out. The countryside was swarming with military units looking for Booth, although few shared information since there was a $20,000 reward. While staying at the farm of Richard Garrett, Federal troops arrived on their search but soon rode on. The unsuspecting Garrett allowed his suspicious guests to sleep in his barn, but he instructed his son to lock the barn from the outside to prevent the strangers from stealing his horses. A tip led the Union soldiers back to the Garrett farm, where they discovered Booth and Herold in the barn. Herold came out, but Booth refused. The building was set on fire to flush Booth, but he was shot while still inside. He lived for three hours before gazing at his hands, muttering “Useless, useless,” as he died.

READ MORE: How Did John Wilkes Booth Die?

Lincoln’s Assassination – and Caesar’s

Barry Strauss teaches history and classics at Cornell. He is the author of “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination” (Simon & Schuster: March, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @barrystrauss.

When John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater 150 years ago, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, he saw himself as an actor in a time-honored drama – Brutus stabbing Julius Caesar in the Capitol in Rome on the Ides of March. Via Shakespeare’s famous play, Caesar’s killing inspired the plot against Lincoln – and leaves an uncanny echo today in New York’s Central Park. It’s a strange story about Booth and his family, the first family of the American theater, and their obsession with Brutus. And it’s a cautionary tale about drawing the wrong lessons from history.

Booth was all but fated to compare himself to Brutus. Both his father and a brother were named Junius Brutus Booth Booth himself played Brutus on stage and called it his favorite Shakespearean role. Just a few months before the assassination, in 1864, Booth and his two brothers played in a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City. Booth played the part of Mark Antony, but another stage beckoned.

Booth thought that Lincoln was a tyrant and that he himself was a liberator. Booth’s act was heinous his judgment, skewed, if fitting for a Confederate sympathizer. Everything that Booth thought about Brutus, Caesar and political assassination was wrong. Yet if Booth was a lousy historian he was a faithful student of Shakespeare. The Bard makes Brutus into a noble Roman and downplays the conspirators’ squalid calculations of power and privilege. Nor did Booth consider that Brutus unleashed the dogs of war – against himself.

If Booth misread the lessons of history so did Lincoln. Lincoln thought he was a peacemaker. In his Second Inaugural Address five weeks earlier he called for “charity towards all,” “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” and achieving “a just and lasting peace.” But civil war lights fires that do not die out when the battles end. And the shooting stopped only five days earlier, on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

Like Caesar before him, Lincoln wanted to mingle freely with his fellow citizens. He should have put safety first. Instead he went to Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14 guarded by only one Washington city policeman, and that man had left his post when the assassin struck. Lincoln died the next morning, April 15.

By killing Lincoln, Booth changed history even more than Brutus did. Caesar's assassins did not save the republic. They paved the way for Augustus – a kinder master than Caesar but still a master. Booth deprived the nation of the best hope for racial harmony and reconciliation. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, who replaced Lincoln, was a Southerner, a former slave owner and white supremacist. His disastrous presidency set back the nation for a century and still haunts us today. Yet Booth never intended Johnson to succeed Lincoln. He wanted to disrupt the government by sending fellow conspirators to kill Johnson too as well as Secretary of State William H. Seward. But Seward survived an attack and Johnson’s would-be killer lost his nerve and never struck.

If that is one irony of history here is another. The Booth brothers’ benefit performance of November 1864 successfully raised funds for a statue of Shakespeare. Dedicated in 1870, the statue still stands in New York’s Central Park. Few of those who admire it realize that it is an unwitting monument to political assassination.

And few of those who hear Shakespeare’s stirring lines in Julius Caesar consider how different historical events were from the play. The real tragedy is not the death of Brutus or Caesar but society’s failure to settle differences peacefully, by ballots rather than bullets – or daggers. Poetry inspires us to good deeds and bad. History teaches us the sober and complex truths that we ought to live by.

Machine-Generated Transcript

Below is an AI-generated transcript complete with timecodes. This transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the podcast episode.

Scott Rank 0:12
History isn’t just a bunch of names and dates and facts. It’s the collection of all the stories throughout human history that explained how and why we got here. Welcome to the history unplugged Podcast, where we look at the forgotten, neglected, strange, and even counterfactual stories that made our world what it is. I’m your host, Scott rank.

One of the best known and most infamous events in American history is the Lincoln assassination. The details are pretty well known. Lincoln goes to Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth, the actor assassinates him, he shouts six separate Iran s he’s arrested and that’s it. There are other details that have entered into the lore such as Lincoln had a vision that he was going to be assassinated, or that john Wilkes Booth was connected to officials and officers in the Confederacy. So it was likely a confederate assassination conspiracy. But a lot of those assumptions that have glommed on to the historical event aren’t exactly true. Today I’m speaking with Robert Hutchinson, who’s author of the book, The Lincoln assassination, what really happens, and he takes a look at the case and explores all the events that led up to April 14, 1865. Among the things we discuss in this episode are did the Confederacy have a hand in the assassination plot? Who were the accomplices of John Wilkes Booth? And why did he change the plan from kidnapping to assassination? And why was it so easy for a booth to enter the President’s box at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth was a very famous actor in his day and he was able to get access to Ford’s Theater and he knew all the layout of it because he had performed there many times. So we come around to the thought that John Wilkes Booth is sort of the Derek Zoolander of American history. He is also a person who’s ridiculously good looking, able to access places because he’s a celebrity. And someone wonder was he brainwashed into assassinating Lincoln. So a lot of similarities with Derrick uplander, but also a good reexamination of a historical fact that most people think they know a lot about. But there are always new details to uncover. So I hope you enjoy this discussion with Robert Hutchinson. Bob, welcome to the show.

Robert Hutchinson 2:17
Thanks for having me on Scott.

Scott Rank 2:19
Well, I love learning things that I didn’t know about someone who is very well researched, and Abraham Lincoln probably fits in that category better than anyone else. And the Lincoln assassination is interesting because I think a lot of people would think that they’re familiar with the basic story. Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth, enters, shouts sic semper tyrannis, and then he runs off and he’s captured, but what initially keyed you into the idea that there was something else to the story of the Lincoln assassination?

Robert Hutchinson 2:48
Well, one of the reasons I wrote this particular book, we’re going to launch the what really happens series, which is trying to sort through key events in history that have a lot of different versions of what has And people don’t know exactly actually what happened. And, and so the goal of this series is to retail in a simple way or in a clear way and sort of a journalistic way what, as far as the best as we can determine what really happened without conjectures and theories and things like that. And what really kind of drove me and the editors as well to the Lincoln assassination is how similar to our own time, the the the atmosphere around it actually was. It was a time of obviously, bitter polarization in American politics. And the same parties were operative back then that our operative today was the Republicans and the Democrats. And, you know, the rancor and the vitriol that was directed towards Lincoln is somewhat similar to some of the rancor and vitriol that’s directed to the current presidents in the last couple administrations. So that was really Kind of first drew me to the story. And then when I learned more about it and really dug in deeply, I realized the whole backstory to the whole assassination that most people don’t know about the whole plan to kidnap Lincoln and the whole sort of attempt to help save the south through this dramatic act. I don’t think people quite realize that what Booth was trying to do was to give the South a fighting chance by basically bringing down the US government in a dramatic way, either through kidnapping Lincoln or then in the end through assassinating him. That’s basically what would you agree to it?

Scott Rank 4:39
Something else with the world of America, right? In the Civil War, during this period with an intense polarization? I think in the opening of your book, you mentioned that with the blockade of the Confederacy, and the Gulf of Mexico, their union shipment who sometimes come ashore, something I had absolutely no idea about, and they’re interacting with. Confederates, what are other little touch points like this that you think color this world right before the assassination?

Robert Hutchinson 5:06
Well, yeah, that really amazed me. You know, I guess in my sort of ignorance, I kind of imagined that this we were at war. So I imagined that the lines were fairly hard. And I never quite realized how porous the border was with the Confederacy and how people move back and forth, relatively easily civilians, especially. I mean, there’s a great story that I talked about in my book, one of the actresses, who was at Ford theater was actually from the south and she had gone north to Washington to beg for the life of her little brother who had been caught, excuse me, him, who’d been caught as a courier was about to be executed. And she like people were allowed to go see Lincoln personally ordinary people could meet him one day a week and make their case for whatever they wanted to make whatever they needed, and she begged For the life of her brother and as Lincoln usually did, especially with younger soldiers, you know, he spared the boy’s life. And from then on even though, this woman was a dedicated son of a daughter of the South in support of the Confederacy, she was a huge Lincoln fan because he, saved the life of her little brother and she was on stage. That night. When Lincoln was assassinated, she actually not at a greeting to the booth from the stage, he knew her and his kind of raised his chin a little, and she, you know, she did a little silent greeting with her eyes that she recognized her song. And so that’s just one of the little personal stories that you kind of discovery when you’re doing a project like this. And I never quite realized how much the people who support the Confederacy in the Union interacted especially in Washington DC and that’s what you really learned is that Booth was this rabid hater of Lincoln and was known as such, but he had friends who, including all of his own family members who supported the union supported the North. And many of the people he worked with the dead so people had to learn to live together, even though they were in a war with one another. So we think our political passions are heated. Just kind of imagine what that might must have been like when you have relatives on either side of the divide were being killed in a war and yet you have to interact with people on the opposite side of your political outlook. I just find that astonishing.

Scott Rank 7:42
Something like that with porous borders that I had heard was that Custer attended the wedding of a confederate during the war while he was in his union uniform, but I always just took that to show another example of how unconventional Custer is but that’s an example that in a war there are always porous borders when dealing with millions of people like the soccer match in World War One between the two sides.

Robert Hutchinson 8:06
Right. But you know, I never really kind of thought of that, you know, in American terms. But yeah, it was very much like that. So I think that’s kind of important for people today, to think about. And that’s why the story I think is relevant is we have our political disagreements, but the political disagreements during the Civil War were quite a bit more intense and had a lot more serious consequences.

Scott Rank 8:28
So that’s an example of something mistaken that people would believe about this era or about the assassination. Were there any others that you came across as you were getting into this?

Robert Hutchinson 8:38
Well, one of the fun things about researching a book like this, you read a lot of books, right? Soon you start seeing the same stories appear. The same anecdotes because people retell the same things. But what people don’t realize with the Lincoln assassination, in particular, is the story did sort of grow on the telling. Most stories do grow in the time but Lincoln’s assassination grew in Italian as well. And some of these things that were said or keep being passed on. And one of the fun things, when you do a book like this, is you go back and you read the original sources or the eyewitness testimony of the people that were actually on hand at the time. And sometimes there are some divergences between the kind of the conventionally accepted views of what actually happened and what the people who were actually there, say, and sorting through all that. And that’s really basically you have to read my book to see that because I do talk about that. But sorting through that sort of like, what’s the American history textbook version of what happened versus what did the eyewitnesses who actually saw it or were involved with it actually say, isn’t always the same? And that was fun. So one of the examples I like to use is the whole idea that Lincoln, in almost every book, you read, you read that Lincoln had a premonition, he had a dream, Lincoln paid close attention to his dreams, and he talked about them a lot and so on. In a lot of books, you’ll read that Lincoln had this dream, where he woke up and he went downstairs in the White House. And he saw himself lying in, in the state in an in a casket. And that’s why he knew he was going to be killed as he had this premonition he had this, this kind of prophetic dream. The problem is, is that this story originated about 30 or 40 years after his death by one guy. One us Marshal who we call this 30 years later, in a book, wrote that he had been told this by Lincoln, none of Lincoln’s family or friends knew anything about this. He didn’t tell his wife this story, didn’t tell any of his sons. He didn’t tell any of his secretaries. No one else remembered this. And most historians today think that this was a false memory that this Marshal kind of, he didn’t invent it maybe consciously but you know, kind of, in his own mind, he was something like in that said, grew into that. And so that’s why it’s nice to go back to can kind of look at the original sources and try and sort through things. And that’s what this book tries to do is sort out some of these urban legends that have kind of grown up over time. And it’s very interesting, actually.

Scott Rank 11:13
Right? It’s easy to mythologize somebody like Lincoln or Washington. If it were a less beloved president like Millard Fillmore, not that many people are mythologizing him and are willing to take him at face value. Or maybe they’re I apologize to the Millard Fillmore fans out there in the audience, right. I suppose it’s good to set up things like that the common mythology and the things that people believe so what are some of the sacred cows or the major myths of the assassination?

Robert Hutchinson 11:40
Well, what I think people think is that Booth was just a lunatic or some people think that you know, this was a southern conspiracy and so on, and that actually a lot of serious historians and scholars are some of them at least think that. But as I said, when you begin researching, you realize there was a whole backstory to this and that book wasn’t crazy. He was kind of a lunatic in one sense. But what he really wanted to do was to kidnap Lincoln and get him down to the south to hold him, hostage, to release Confederate soldiers that were being held in Union prisons. Towards the end of the war. The South was desperate for soldiers. And General Grant stopped the practice which had been common up to that of releasing prisoners of war because he got tired of being shot at by fellows that they just let go two weeks earlier. So they went right back into the fight. And grant said This is crazy. We’re letting these people go and they’re going right back in the fight and killing us again. So we’re going to end this so he stopped prisoner exchanges. And so booth had this sort of crazy idea, but it was just realistic enough that it got enough people involved, to Lincoln used to travel about on its own at least, sometimes occasionally used to ride as an on the course from soldiers home to his office in Washington during the summer, and he’d be seen with minimal security out and about Washington. And one time he actually had Well, I’ll get to that in a second he had his hat shot off. And so and so booth said, you know, the Confederacy or the beachside has been mounting raids to try and free their prisoners of war from the other side’s prisons, it would be a whole lot simpler, and might be much more effective if we just kidnapped Lincoln on one of his nightly rides, and then spirited off to Richmond to the south, and held him, hostage, demanding the release of all Confederate prisoners. And this sort of crazy plan. got the attention of enough Confederate agents and so on in around Washington, that he had a small group Between 25 and as many as perhaps 50 people who were involved in this conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln. And most people don’t know that, or at least they don’t know very much about it, and how they spent months and months and months trying to set up this kidnapping. And eventually, when the whole when the war was lost, and the whole war was about to be lost, and the whole purpose of doing that was now moot. Most of the people that the serious people, the people that actually had some something to contribute, dropped out of the conspiracy dropped out of a plot. So in the end, Booth was left with only two or three ragged impoverished men who would do whatever he said because he paid them or they thought he would pay him to pay them. And those are the men were left him to the end and then it became clear in the last couple of days that link that booth had no intention of kidnapping Lincoln, and but realize that he was just going to shoot him. It was easier. And that’s actually how it came about. And so I don’t think most people know that whole backstory of how to it was actually a pretty elaborate plot to try and kidnap Lincoln when he was out riding. And that raises the whole question of what was the security light coming? I mean, we’re used to presidents having helicopter gunships fly over them when they travel in their motorcades and so on. And Lincoln actually did travel about with pretty minimal security by any modern understanding of it. He did have military escorts a lot of the times but a lot of times he didn’t. And it wasn’t until a year about a year before his death that he was writing out again towards forest home and up and a marksman took a shot at him and shot his famous hat off his head and there was no more writing about himself after that. So the booth didn’t really know that he didn’t know a lot of stuff. He didn’t have very good intelligence. And from that point on, Lincoln was almost always accompanied by at least a couple of soldiers and military escort.

Scott Rank 16:12
Well, that gets us into the interesting world of both Confederate conspiracies and John Wilkes Booth. Let me start with John Wilkes Booth and then talk about Confederate conspiracy theories. I spoke with another author on this podcast and he mentioned that John Wilkes Booth was the most famous actor of his day. He was the George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber, whatever your generation is, he was that very famous in theater, very much a ladies man and he pinned what john Wilkes Booth did on syphilis. He said that the way that he behaved up to the time of the assassination was uncharacteristic compared to his earlier life. So it was almost a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario. So I’m curious in this aspect too, and then that also opens us up to the world of Confederate conspiracies where they tried to assassinate or kidnap Lincoln at the very beginning of the war. They have other attempts. And when does john Wilkes Booth enter this world? Because for a famous actor to be caught into this plot, it sounds like the movies uplander where a male model is yes. I’m glad you recognize that because I mentioned that the other guests and he didn’t know the movie, so I was heartbroken.

Robert Hutchinson 17:27
Well, I have kids. So yeah, that’s a lot of stuff to go into. First of all, I don’t buy the syphilis story. I mean, I could see why somebody might say that because actually, Booth was a little bit Madcap his entire life. I mean, his mother was worried about him. Always. She was scared that something would happen to her beloved child because he was known for his impetuous behavior and for doing dangerous stunts and things like that. He was a reckless guy. And what’s amazing about booth is he was very beloved he was it wasn’t just that he was the most famous actor in America, he, that’s a bit of a stretch. He was competing. He was like, you know, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, one of those guys were a couple of people that were trying to be the most famous actor. He probably made about $500,000 a year in his acting at the time, which was in our terms, which was a good salary. He was doing very, very well. He was famous, and people loved him. He was considered one of the kindest, nicest people even after the assassination. His friends continued to speak to sing his praises. And what a great fellow he was when it was very dangerous to do that. I mean, they were talking about the assassin of the president united states. And yet they said out loud that he was one of the nicest guys they’ve ever met. He was kind of children and animals and all that stuff. And they just couldn’t believe you do this. And yet in he was always a person of political passions. He was always extremist. He always said whatever was on his mind. If If I have a theory of what he was, I would say we would call him today may be bipolar, you know, he a lot of actors allegedly are afflicted with bipolar disease, they can be afflicted with a mania, you know, kind of depression and then mania. And that’s what was more fit what Booth was like, he was a manic person that would get these crazy ideas and, and run with them and, and, but he was intensely loyal. He did have friends who were supporters of the Union who took him in stride and, and so on. So he has a very, very interesting character. And what I love about doing history and stuff and going back is you can read some of his thoughts. I mean, he, there is the collective writings of John Wilkes Booth are available, and he was a horrible speller. And, but he did write down his thoughts He did write a kind of a political manifesto a couple of years before the assassination and which became the basis of a manifesto that he had released on the, to his to an actor friend on the day of the assassination that was never published, it was burned, because the guy knew it might implicate him. So he was scared to death when he actually read it after the assassination. So he burned it. He burned this Manifesto, just like assassins do today where they publish their manifestos on Facebook. Booth had this manifesto and explanation of what he was about to do that he wanted to be printed in the newspaper. And this fellow agreed to get it to the editors he didn’t know it was in it. And when after the assassination, he read it and just scared to death. He thought it was you’d be arrested and implicated as part of the conspiracy and maybe hung so he burned it. Actually, in the Peterson guesthouse, we’re Lincoln was dying downstairs. And in that manifesto was, he claimed to be able to remember later from memory. And it was very similar to a published account of another manifesto that was found among boosts effects a couple of years after his death. And that was published in the newspapers and only modified slightly. So anyway, he was an extreme fellow from the very beginning, but much Beloved. And so I don’t think you we could simply say it was a result of syphilis or something like that. He was part of his personality that he had grown up and was always like that,

Scott Rank 21:38
to look at the Confederacy. I think I heard somewhere that there was an earlier assassination plot against Lincoln. Are they always planning this? Do they have Confederate commando teams that are the seal team six of the Confederacy thinking, how can we NAB Lincoln?

Robert Hutchinson 21:54
Well, that’s another part of the backstory that people don’t realize that the Confederacy did. Look into At least kidnapping Lincoln. And that’s why some of the people that advocate like the historian Edward steers, and so on I advocate that the Confederacy was involved in this is because there’s evidence that they did look into it. There was a confederate agent who went to Washington to case the place basically, to see if it was feasible. And he concluded that there was no way to do it, that Lincoln had this is a professional, you know, intelligence officer and he concluded that Lincoln was too well guarded, that they couldn’t pull it off. And see that’s the thing is, John Wilkes Booth was a maniac actor with delusions of grandeur who wanted to do something for his for the South. He had no military training at all, except for one brief stint in Virginia militia for two weeks where he you know, it was more of a lark than anything. He had no training any of his co-conspirators had really any military or intelligence training at the end? Some of the early conspiracies, the kidnapping plot had some but so this guy really didn’t know what he was doing. So when the professional aid intelligence agents of the Confederacy looked into kidnapping Lincoln, they decided it wasn’t feasible. But there was some truth to the fact that things got much nastier. Towards the end of the war. There were atrocities on both sides. There was something called the dog grenade raid. I don’t know if you know about that. Where they were the union was going to attempt to free some prisoners of war being held in Confederate prisons. And there was this raid that was going to, to go into Richmond, and one of the leaders of the raid, the fellow named Dogon was over Dogon was shot and when they got his body they found on it orders that seemed to suggest that They were to go into the Capitol and kill Jefferson Davis, which at the time was considered a violation of the laws of war. I’m not an expert in military law. So I am the law of warfare. So I can’t debate whether actually was a violation of the laws of war, but it was taken that way. And they, they took photographs of these documents, the Confederacy, they sent them to newspapers all over the country, it was a big deal. And as a result, guerrilla rays and more. I don’t know more desperate measures began to be taken on both sides. There were atrocities on both sides. the Confederacy decided to, to engage in the first act that we know of biological warfare, in that they tried to ship some blankets with smallpox on them into To the north, and things like that. So once the doctrine raid happened, the kind of chivalry aspect of the Civil War was set aside and things got to be much more ruthless in a sense. So that kind of fuels some of the Confederate confederacy conspiracy theories that the Confederacy was involved. I don’t think they were because it was such an at the end. It was Keystone cops time these guys. John Wilkes Booth in his and his Madcap band of followers is four or five. impoverish fellows who are following Him, they would show up to kidnap Lincoln, and he wouldn’t even be there. Their intelligence was so bad. They clearly didn’t know what they were doing. If the Confederacy really was involved, I think it would have been a much more professional operation, and it would have been much more successful than it was. So that’s my personal belief.

Scott Rank 25:57
You’re right, and it doesn’t make sense to choose John Wilkes Booth. Unless we truly are operating on Zoolander logic that actors and models can enter exclusive places, but that falls into dumb conspiracy theories like I’ve heard that. Well, Bruce Lee didn’t really die. He went to be an undercover cop with the Hong Kong Police. And I thought, yes, you would choose the most famous actor on earth for undercover work. That makes a lot of sense.

Robert Hutchinson 26:21
Yes, yes. Well, that’s true. But you know, I mean,

the reason these conspiracy theories have some followers often is because there’s a kernel of truth and some of them there were Confederate agents that were among booth earliest team of kidnappers, John Serrat, Jr. was an actual career. There were a couple of other people that were had said, Yes, they’ll help with the plot to kidnap Lincoln, who were actual Honest to God, agents of the Confederacy. But it doesn’t, it appears that they were just kind of helping out a little bit and they weren’t actually actually under orders from Richmond, as they say, as they would say, and that’s kind of my take what I’ve been able to sort out from reading these first-hand accounts.

Scott Rank 27:09
Well, I’m curious about this group that does follow John Wilkes Booth. And who are they? What reasons they have to join him to be led by someone who has no ability whatsoever to execute something like this? And does the objective change? Because I think you mentioned a change from kidnapping to the assassination. So why did it change? And what was this group like?

Robert Hutchinson 27:32
Well, as I said, there were actually two components to the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln. At first, Booth was able to convince a few serious legitimate people to join him like John Serrat, who was a courier and a couple of other people. So there was a bigger conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln and they thought it was a crazy plan, but my god, it just might work. And these were desperate times, and if they actually could NAB Lincoln on one of his nightly jobs around Washington, See on his horse, it was plausible, at least in the earliest stages that they might be able to negotiate some sort of prisoner release or something like that. It was a crazy plan. But they were a desperate man at this time and they thought, you know, is at least worth exploring. But very quickly that sort of, after so many false attempts and false promises, and when it became increasingly clear that John Wilkes Booth had no idea what he was doing, the serious people dropped out. And he was only left with a handful of, as I said, desperate people who just needed money. And, like George azurite, and so on, who was an impoverished German immigrant and, and what, at that point, these people just were loyal to him because he, he was rich and famous, and they would do whatever he said, and he told them that they would get hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, they’d become wealthier beyond their imaginations because he lied. I think in my opinion, he lied and promised them there’d be this big reward from the Confederacy when the Confederacy wasn’t actually actively involved at all. But that’s how he kept the handful of people with Him until the end by promising big financial rewards, and because they were they were desperately impoverished people who literally didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. In the earlier stages, though, there were some more serious Confederate sympathizers who were involved. As for when did Booth decide to kill Lincoln? That is a big question. And some people say that he did not have that intention until as late as April 11 or so. When Lincoln made a speech on at the White House late at night about how about voting rights for free to African slaves. slaves, African American slaves. And supposedly at that point, Booth said that that’s it, he was going to do a man. But he hinted at this earlier at a meeting of his some of his Confederates at a restaurant a month or two earlier. And they all made it clear they would have no part in the murder. And most of them dropped out at that point when they realized that Booth was even thinking about shooting the president. Most of these people had futures and lives. And they didn’t want anything to do with the assassination. And they just simply said, we’re out. If you plan on shooting him, we’re out. And that’s when he was left with only a few. And he had, he had given hands earlier that that was at least on the back of his mind that if he couldn’t pull off the assassination. I mean, if he couldn’t pull off the kidnapping, he could always just shoot Blinken, because he got close enough to Lincoln on a couple of occasions that he knew he could do it. So That, that is always a big issue. When did he decide? He may have decided, you know, actually made up his mind only a couple of days, you know where he was going to do it, but I think he had it in the back of his mind for at least a few months before that.

Scott Rank 31:15
So it sounds like the hangers-on at the end were Poncho v as to as Don Quixote.

Robert Hutchinson 31:20
Yes, very much.

Scott Rank 31:21
One other thing too. Were there any details of his story that really stuck out to you of booths bumbling and competence to be able to do something like this, where he’s suggesting something that shows he is way out of his depth here?

Robert Hutchinson 31:35
Well, he was obsessed with the idea of kidnapping Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. He had this idea for theater, which I think was always his primary or a favorite place to do it. I mean, they were considering at the last minute, they didn’t know if, where Lincoln was actually going to be if he’s going to be at the National Theatre, or he’s going to be at Ford’s Theater. So you know, Booth is going to improvise but his preferred place Was Ford’s Theater. He knew it very, very well. It was known as a is sympathetic to the Confederacy. The actors there and the people were considered Confederate sympathizers. So that was really preferred. And he had this idea. He had this, this, this fantasy, that, that during a play, somebody could hit the gas lights, and then they could jump Lincoln in the booth because Lincoln often did go to the theater, either by himself or just with one guest. And he had minimal security when he went to the theater, just police bodyguards, and I’ll get to that in a second why there weren’t any police bodyguards guarding Lincoln. And so it wasn’t all that crazy that he’d be by himself. But then booth thought, you know, they could waylay Lincoln. Bind him. Somehow lift him down onto the stage and then out the back door, the theater and then be carried away in a carriage but you know, Because he just liked the idea of like, turn, I think was the acronym, the idea of turning off all the lights, and then kidnapping the President and the lights come back on and, and he’s gone. And it’s just the drama of it without, you know, thinking about that half the people in the audience were soldiers carrying guns that never quite occurred to him that it might not be very practical. And he asked a couple of different people if they would mind. There’s one actor in New York that he approached, would you come to the theater in Dallas, the gas, the gas lights for me? And this guy said, Are you nuts? No way. So that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. And he absolutely refused and booth got testy with them and basically kind of threatened him and said, you know, you better keep your mouth shut and I’ve got a gun and you know, he actually threatened the guy. But this was how insane he was his he had these like fantasies. And that was one of them that they could kidnap Lincoln and Lincoln In the board’s theater and in, turn off the lights, and then we’ll come out and then the lights would come back on and the President is gone. So like a movie script, right? So he thought more like an actor than like an intelligence officer intelligence agents. Oh,

Scott Rank 34:14
yeah, another Zealander similarity. Yes, this comes down to the main point that he was bumbling. He was ineffective. He had no idea what he was doing. But he succeeded. And I think that’s why he can be so Miss analyzed because many could project onto him this intelligence because since he was successful, ergo he must have successfully put together a plan and must have been intelligent enough to do it, but he wasn’t. So How on earth did he succeed?

Robert Hutchinson 34:41
He succeeded because it was kind of a perfect combination of things happens that smooth his way. First of all, Lincoln did have absolutely minimal security by modern standards. When he went to the theater, he was supposed to have police bodyguards, the police bodyguard assigned for that night was a guy named John Parker. He was a notorious drunk, and he left his station he was supposed to be guarding the president. But once Lincoln was safely in the presidential box, he went to watch the play. And then he disappeared into the saloon, as did many of the people watching the play. And actually a lot of the actors as well, they would go to the saloon at every intermission, and john Parker disappeared into the night and didn’t know Lincoln was assassinated until he showed up in the metro Washington police station at midnight, with a prostitute that he had under arrest. And he didn’t even realize that is the person who’s supposed to be gardening had been shot. And inexplicably, this guy remained a presidential bodyguard for a couple more years until finally he was caught drunk on duty one too many times and was dismissed. So the security around Lincoln was extremely lacked by our standards during the day he when he went about he was accompanied by a military escort. And they were capable, but he would go out to things like the theater With only a single bodyguard, and this bodyguard this one particular bodyguard just wasn’t there. Also, Booth knew Ford’s Theater like the back of his hand he had been. He had acted on the stage. He had sat in the presidential booth box himself and watch plays. He was friends with everybody there. Everybody knew him. He was trusted. He could go anywhere he wanted. You know, he had the run of the place. So he was able to succeed because of that combination of factors that everybody let him go wherever he wanted. He was that night. In fact, two other messengers had come to the presidential box right before and had been allowed in. Lincoln had a kind of a valid or an assistant who was guarding the door sitting outside the door. He wasn’t a bodyguard. He was just kind of his helper, and he was standing outside and he led to it Other people come including one reporter who had a message for the President. They let them in. They came out, you know, nothing happened. So when booth showed up, this fellow did challenge booth to say, you know, this presidential boxer you’re not allowed in, Booth produces a card, perhaps the card of his Fiat, his alleged fiance’s father, who was a senator Hale and said, I have news for the President. And because he had this pretext, the guy has had let two other people in just 15 minutes before said fine, you can go in and see him. So that combination of kind of factors made it possible for this fellow who actually didn’t know what he was doing really, to successfully assassinate the president united states.

Scott Rank 37:46
But yeah, it’s a perfect storm. But after that, there’s the largest man in US history at that point. But he’s able to evade capture for two weeks and he can’t even walk well at that point. So after blundering into success this time, he does pretty well on the run when he can’t run. How does he do it?

Robert Hutchinson 38:05
That’s right. He absolutely did. And again, he had the luck of the devil for a while. He happened upon a serious Confederate agent who actually knew what he was doing. And this fellow out of just loyalty to the cause he refused to take any money aside from the boat. The amount of money I think it was $20 or $18 the only money he would accept from Booth at the end of all this was the amount for the boat that Booth was going to take off in he refused any financial gain. He did it entirely out of loyalty the south to hide booth, and he basically said, Look, you have no way of getting out of here. This largest man out in history, you know, there’s no way you can flee and get away and he recommended that booth simply hide in plain sight and look Lie down in a wet pine thicket. And when the soldiers were scanning, we’re going house to house every farmhouse and looking for these for Booth in his and his co-conspirator. They, he said no, just lie in this thicket, and I’ll bring you food every day. And and and then eventually they’ll move on. And that’s exactly what happened. So Booth was cold and miserable, lying in this outdoors in it without a fire in this wooded thicket of trees, while Confederate soldiers raced down roads searching for him and went to every farmhouse in the area. He would have been caught if he hadn’t followed this guy’s advice and just hidden in plain sight for two weeks with his leg and he could, he couldn’t walk by that point he had his broken leg set, but it was and set very well and he didn’t have crutches or anything he could barely walk. So he just went to ground and waited until the to the Union soldiers finally decided they finally eventually got a report whether it was false that he had been seen in Virginia and so they left Maryland and that’s when he tried to get up getaway by taking a boat across the Potomac, but that’s the only reason he was able to stay at large for two weeks because this guy paid him for it outdoors in a pint ticket.

The Lincoln Assassination: Did John Wilkes Booth Act Alone Or Was it a Confederacy-Ordered Hit‪?‬ History Unplugged Podcast

Everyone thinks they know what happened at the Lincoln assassination… but do they? After 150 years, a multitude of unsolved mysteries and urban legends still surround the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Today's guest is Robert Hutchinson, author of the book "What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination." He takes a new look at the case and explores what really happened at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. In those final weeks of the Civil War, Washington was boiling over with animosity and recriminations.

Among the questions Hutchinson explores are:
• Did the Confederacy have a hand in the assassination plot?
• Who were John Wilkes Booth’s secret accomplices, and why did he change the
plan from kidnapping to assassination?
• Why was it so easy for Booth to enter the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre?

Everyone thinks they know what happened at the Lincoln assassination… but do they? After 150 years, a multitude of unsolved mysteries and urban legends still surround the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Today's guest is Robert Hutchinson, author of the book "What Really Happened: The Lincoln Assassination." He takes a new look at the case and explores what really happened at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. In those final weeks of the Civil War, Washington was boiling over with animosity and recriminations.

Among the questions Hutchinson explores are:
• Did the Confederacy have a hand in the assassination plot?
• Who were John Wilkes Booth’s secret accomplices, and why did he change the
plan from kidnapping to assassination?
• Why was it so easy for Booth to enter the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre?

The Death of John Wilkes Booth

The man who killed Abraham Lincoln was shot dead on 26 April, 1865.

Born in 1838 in the state of Maryland, President Lincoln’s assassin was christened in honour of the English radical John Wilkes. A handsome young actor, he was a fanatical supporter of the South in the Civil War and of the institution of slavery. Booth had often performed at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC and was well known there. On April 14th, 1865 he heard that Lincoln would attend a play there that evening. He promptly decided to murder the president, assigning a fellow-conspirator called George Azerodt to kill the vice-president, Andrew Johnson, and another, Lewis Powell, to kill William Seward, the secretary of state.

Booth rode to the theatre armed with a pistol, went into the president’s box and fired a single shot into the back of Lincoln’s head. He leapt down from the box onto the stage and escaped in the uproar to an alley outside where his horse was being held for him. Booth and a co-conspirator called David Herold rode away together and fled south into Maryland, hiding in the woods and presently crossing into Virginia. Meanwhile, George Azerodt had made no attempt to kill the vice-president, but Lewis Powell had attacked and injured William Seward.

By April 24th Booth and Herold had reached Port Royal in Virginia, almost 90 miles south of Washington. The war department had offered a reward of $100,000 (worth more than $1.5 million today) for information leading to the arrest of Booth and his accomplices and federal troops were searching for them. The fugitives took refuge at the farm of a man called Richard H. Garrett, who apparently knew nothing of what had happened and let them sleep in one of his barns.

A band of soldiers arrived at the farm in the early hours of April 26th and surrounded the barn. Herold surrendered to them, but Booth defied them and they set the barn on fire. One of them saw Booth raise his gun to shoot – or said he did – and fired at him. Mortally wounded, he was dragged to the farmhouse where he died, after saying ‘Tell Mother I died for my country’.

The body was taken to Washington and buried. Herold, Azerodt and Powell were hanged along with Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner, while others involved were sentenced to life imprisonment. Booth’s corpse was later returned to his family and buried in 1869 in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Baltimore. For years there were those who fantasised that the whole story was a lie and that Booth had escaped and was still alive somewhere, but there seems no doubt whatever that it was Booth’s body that was buried in Baltimore. He was just 26 when he died.

The whole thing might have been a failed Confederate plot

It's no secret that Booth wasn't the only man with evil intentions on April 14, 1865. As History elaborated, his buddies George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell were supposed to snuff out the vice president and secretary of state. Prior to that, the treasonous trio and a fourth man, David Herod, wanted to kidnap Lincoln. And before that, Booth discussed abducting the president with Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlin, and John Surratt. But even with this sizable cast of conspirators, it's generally accepted that Booth pursued Lincoln because he loved the South and was loonier than a toon.

In 1985 a retired CIA officer, a Department of Defense analyst, and a former Department of Labor official put forth an alternative account. Drawing from contextual evidence and a series of unearthed documents, they concluded that Booth was recruited to kidnap or kill Lincoln in a last-ditch effort to force at least a draw once the Civil War seemed unwinnable for the South.

Obviously, the surrender of Robert E. Lee rendered this mission pointless, but it's not like Lee could have emailed Booth about aborting the mission. The idea isn't without flaws, like the fact that Booth was an actor who lacked military training. However, the researchers cogently showed that the Confederacy was extremely fond of covert operations. Furthermore, Booth's main henchman and co-conspirator, John Surratt, was a card-carrying Confederate spy.

The Death of Booth

Booth had made his escape, but to his surprise, he wasn’t being cheerfully celebrated like he thought he would be. Many people supported the South, but many more supported Lincoln. And Lincoln’s assassination only helped further the respect people had for him. So, now Booth was on the run, and being pursued by the largest manhunt the country had ever seen up to that point.

He first had to have his leg mended, which he did in Maryland. The doctor who treated him was later convicted of conspiracy. As were many of the conspirators who had assisted Booth, most of which were put to death by hanging. Including the mother of one of the conspirators.

Booth finally found himself trapped in a barn by pursuers with another Southern sympathiser. They were offered the choice to surrender, but Booth declined. The other sympathiser did, leaving Booth alone in the barn, which was then set on fire. The men could see Booth battling with the flames through the cracks in the barn and then eventually heard a gunshot. It is mostly accepted that Booth shot himself. His body was removed from the barn and secretly buried. There are some doubts that the man killed was actually Booth, but there is not much evidence to support this.

As I said earlier, some presidents are only known for one or two things. But if Abraham Lincoln is only known for abolishing slavery, and dying because he served and did the best he could for his country, then I suppose that is a pretty good legacy. The true tragedy here is John Wilkes Booth feeling like killing Lincoln was his only choice. It was a choice he made for himself, not truly for his country. And it did nothing for the South’s cause. It did nothing for any single American. All it ended up being was a completely senseless death of a great man who helped so many people. And that is what’s truly unfortunate.

The Mystery of Lincoln’s Assassin

John Wilkes Booth was a fanatical Southerner, but he was neither stupid nor demonstrably crazy. So what turned the handsome, successful actor into America’s most famous murderer?

Malcolm Jones

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Nothing had ever so immediately affected the people of the United States quite like the death of Abraham Lincoln. When his funeral train traveled from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, 7 million people, roughly one-fifth of the country’s population, watched it pass.

It was one of the first of those mass culture moments when everyone gets the news in real time. Grief and anger were instantaneous across the country. In the Library of America’s President Lincoln Assassinated!!, a history of the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath told through documents of the time, you find an outpouring of sermons, speeches, poems, essays, and letters by everyone from Whitman and Emerson to Queen Victoria. Gradually, while plowing through that fulsome 19th-century prose, it dawns on you that this is the nation’s first celebrity murder, where both victim and assailant were known across the country.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the Lincoln assassination was how many people were familiar with the president’s murderer.

Even in the rogue’s gallery of people who have tried to kill a president, John Wilkes Booth still gets top billing. A member of the Booth acting clan—the Barrymores of the 19th century—he was a popular actor both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, appearing in theaters as far west as Leavenworth, Kansas.

When news of Lincoln’s assassination spread throughout Washington on Friday night and Saturday morning that April 150 years ago, people speaking of it referred to his killer as “the actor Booth.” No other identification was necessary.

To this day, Booth has fascinated historians and the general public alike, because he, more than any other assassin, wreaked such havoc on the nation’s history.

But there is another reason: Unlike his fellow killers, Booth was not demonstrably insane and he was certainly no marginalized nobody. On the contrary, he was a celebrity—an astonishingly handsome and successful actor.

If anything, our fascination with this strange man has only grown with time. Even Stephen Sondheim gave Booth a memorable musical soliloquy in his eerily unsettling musical Assassins.

In the last few years, there have been at least two bestsellers about the Lincoln assassination, one of them of dubious accuracy (Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, written with Martin Dugard, and the other an example of popular narrative history at its best (James L. Swanson’s Manhunt).

Curiously, though, there has never been a full-length biography of Booth by a reputable historian, until now. Terry Alford’s Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth takes Lincoln’s killer from cradle to grave and along the way charts the life of one of the strangest Americans ever to draw breath.

Reading Alford, you begin to understand why no one has taken up this task before, because Booth, through no fault of Alford’s, never really adds up. There is no doubt that he was a fanatical Southern partisan. So how did he not realize that killing Lincoln would be devastating for the South he claimed to love? Even the most fire-breathing Confederates had no illusions on that score.

Nor was he stupid or crazy. There was nothing in his past, aside from a childhood predilection for slaughtering cats, that so much as hinted at his fate. The dashing actor had far more friends than enemies, was almost too lucky in romance (the photographs of no fewer than five sweethearts were found on his corpse), and was respected and successful as a performer. (Another, smaller problem for Alford: There is no way to know how good an actor Booth may have been, as we have nothing but the reviews and the personal reminiscences of his contemporaries to go by but he certainly had his share of acclaim, especially for a man whose acting career ended in his mid-20s.)

Alford floats the thesis that Booth’s immersion in the characters he played on stage convinced him that he, like Brutus, was slaying a tyrant (he was a big Charlotte Corday fan, too). But as the author notes in his next paragraph, no other actor followed Booth’s path or operated under a similar delusion.

Perhaps it was because he had given his word to his mother not to fight in the war and then spent its duration fretting that he was a coward stuck on the sidelines of the greatest drama of his time. Perhaps he decided that a rash and foolish action was better than none at all.

All we know is that near the end of the war, Booth decided to kidnap the president and spirit him off to Richmond. To that end he enlisted a motley gang of co-conspirators. The idea was to capture Lincoln as he rode through Washington. But there was no telling when the president would be guarded. It would have been far easier, many have observed, to simply walk into what was then a woefully insecure White House and kill Lincoln in his office.

The kidnapping plot fell through and the war ended, forcing Booth to change his plans. He would murder Lincoln. But the time and place seem to have been chosen on the spur of the moment. Only on the morning of April 14 did Booth learn that Lincoln would be attending Ford’s Theater that night. After assigning the (ultimately unsuccessful) murders of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward to his henchmen, Booth went off to the theater armed only with a single-shot derringer and a Bowie knife. Those arms proved more than sufficient.

After shooting Lincoln and stabbing Major Henry Rathbone, Booth escaped the theater and the city, slowed only by a broken leg, an injury suffered when he jumped from the presidential box to the stage. He spent 12 days on the run before federal troops cornered him in a tobacco barn in Virginia and shot him dead.

If there is a moment in Alford’s book where you might feel a twinge of sympathy for Booth, it is in these last pages, when the rude welcome he received from Southerners finally dispelled his delusion that the South would acclaim him a hero. He spent his final days an outcast, even in the South, and he knew it.

But will we ever know him? Alford gives us a closer look than we have ever had before, but when you put the biography down, Booth is an even greater mystery than he was when you started reading. All that can be said in the end is that he was the wrong man at the wrong time, an infamous, undying riddle. If there are people in our history who we wish had never lived, Booth tops that list.

John Wilkes Booth

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth became the first person to assassinate an American president when he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theater in Washington. An unsuccessful attempt had been made on Andrew Jackson 30 years before in 1835, and Lincoln had himself been the subject of an earlier assassination attempt by an unknown assailant in August 1864. The assassination of Lincoln was planned and carried out by the well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth, as part of a larger conspiracy in a bid to revive the Confederate cause.

Lincoln was shot while watching the play Our American Cousin with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Using a .44 caliber derringer pistol—a small, easily concealed handgun—Booth fired a single shot (timed so that that the audience’s laughter would mask the report) into Lincoln’s brain at point-blank range before jumping to the stage and escaping into the night. After a two-week manhunt, Federal troops cornered Booth in a barn in Maryland, where a Union soldier shot him in the neck. Booth died two hours later.

John Wilkes Booth Motive
On April 11, 1865, two days after Lee's army surrendered to Grant, Booth attended a speech at the White House in which Lincoln supported the idea of enfranchising the former slaves. Furiously provoked, Booth decided on assassination and is quoted as saying to Lewis Powell:

“That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

"Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment"

What did John Wilkes Booth say after he killed Lincoln?
President Abraham Lincoln is shot in the head at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis! (Ever thus to tyrants!) The South is avenged,” as he jumped onto the stage and fled on horseback.

What happened to John Wilkes Booth?
John Wilkes Booth is killed when Union soldiers track him down to a Virginia farm 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Twenty-six-year-old Booth was one of the most famous actors in the country when he shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., on the night of April 14.

How many brothers and sisters did John Wilkes Booth have?
John Wilkes Booth was born on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland, about 25 miles from Baltimore. His birth date was May 10, 1838. He was the ninth of ten children of Junius Booth and Mary Ann Holmes.

John Wilkes Booth quotes
“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.”

“Tell mother, tell mother, I died for my country. useless. useless.”

Who Was John Wilkes Booth Before He Became Lincoln's Assassin?

John Wilkes Booth was the son of prominent, wealthy actors. He, too, became an actor and was so popular, he was one of the first to have his clothes ripped off by fans. Hulton Archive/Getty hide caption

John Wilkes Booth was the son of prominent, wealthy actors. He, too, became an actor and was so popular, he was one of the first to have his clothes ripped off by fans.

John Wilkes Booth was the man who pulled the trigger, capping off a coordinated plot to murder President Abraham Lincoln.

But historian Terry Alford, an expert on all things Booth, says that there's much more to Booth's life. His new biography, Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, delves deep into his life — before Booth went down in history as the man who assassinated a president.

Booth was born into a prominent family of actors. According to Alford, he had good looks and an exceptional acting range, playing both dark roles as bad guys and softer roles such as Romeo. By 1865, the 26-year-old was a headliner on the American stage. As Alford tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, Booth was the first actor known to have "had his clothes torn by fans."

"When he was coming out of a theater in Boston, the manager had to come back and tell people, 'Back up, let him out, just let him walk to his hotel.' "

Alford says it's interesting that, "over the years, as people felt free to talk about Booth, and while they shrank away from what he did, they didn't really shrink from him. They remembered things about him like courtesies and acts of heroism."

"One time onstage, he saved a young woman whose dress caught on fire," he says, "a young actress who had wandered too close to the gas footlights."

Booth was not a madman, according to Alford. In fact, he was politically motivated to assassinate Lincoln.

"John Wilkes Booth was one of those people who thought the best country in the history of the world was the United States as it existed before the Civil War," Alford says. "And then when Lincoln came along, he was changing that in fundamental ways."

"John Wilkes Booth was one of those people who thought the best country in the history of the world was the United States as it existed before the Civil War. And then when Lincoln came along, he was changing that in fundamental ways."

Those ideological differences include increasing the power of the federal government and emancipating the slaves, both things Booth was vehemently against. He was angered that the government instituted an income tax and the military draft, and that the government occasionally suspended habeas corpus, a legal protection against unlawful imprisonment. All these things, Alford says, agitated Booth.

"But Booth brought to that agitation an extremism, the passion almost of a fanatic," Alford says. "And it was very dangerous, as we find out."

Booth's opposition to Lincoln's policies persuaded him to fight with the Confederate army during the Civil War. But, according to Alford, his mother was a widow and had already lost four of her children. So she pleaded for him to stay clear of the war. Booth agreed.

"But he felt like a slacker," Alford says. "He even uses the word 'coward' to describe himself because, as an actor, he played a hero onstage but really wasn't one."

One of the people closest to Booth was his older sister, Asia Booth Clarke. After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Asia and her family went into exile in England. There she wrote a secret memoir about her brother, but it wasn't published until 1938. Alford wrote the forward in the latest edition. In her memoir, Clarke recalls a time where a psychic predicted John Wilkes' Booth's untimely death.

Today in History: Assassin John Wilkes Booth is Killed (1865)

On April 14, 1865, just a few days after the official end to the American Civil War, Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth entered Ford&rsquos Theatre in Washington, D.C. and assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

As it turned out, Booth was but just one piece in a grand conspiracy that, had all gone to plan, would have left the nation without a President, a Vice President, or a Secretary of State (the order of succession in those days, as the 25th amendment had not yet been passed). Booth was the only member of his little group to actually succeed in his dastardly plot.

Barn where Booth was shot. The Civil War Mag

Booth escaped Washington D.C. after shooting Lincoln, even with a broken leg. He stopped for several days at the home of Samuel Mudd. Mudd, a physician, set the leg that Booth had broken when he jumped from the view box to the stage after shooting Lincoln in the back of the head.

After leaving Mudd&rsquos home, Booth stayed for several days with a Confederate agent by the name of Thomas A. Jones. He was then able to acquire a boat in order to row across the Potomac River to Virginia.

By this time, soldiers and law enforcement officials were swarming the countryside looking for Booth. A $20,000 reward was offered for his capture. According to historical reports, the search was fairly disorganized because the soldiers weren&rsquot sharing information, each hoping to take home the money if they could capture Booth.

After several days moving between homes of Confederate agents and sympathizers, soldiers finally caught up with Booth. On April 26, 1865, the assassin was staying at the home of Richard Garrett. Union troops actually bypassed the farm after questioning Garrett, but then returned a few hours later, where they found Booth and one of his accomplices in Garrett&rsquos barn.

Booth was shot while still hiding in that barn. The soldiers set fire to the barn in hopes that the smoke would drive him out, but it failed. One of the soldiers was able to shoot Booth through a window, supposedly, and the rest is history. Booth died three hours later, muttering the words &ldquouseless, useless.&rdquo

White House

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln remains one of America&rsquos great tragedies. Only four Presidents in the history of the US have been assassinated. The security around the President was much tighter from then on, as you might expect. The ramifications of the assassination were felt for years, as the government and the country tried to heal from years of bloody battle and political strife.

Watch the video: Abraham Lincoln 1863