Friday, April 15, 2016

So let's talk about the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.

John Wilkes Booth was the son of Junius Brutus Wilkes -- one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time, and Americs's greatest Shakespearean actor then or now. John Wilkes Booth made his stage debut in Richmond, Virginia, in 1858, and within two years was America's most celebrated actor. Handsome, with flowing black hair, and an extremely athletic body, he gave bewitching performances. By 1863, he'd appeared as the lead in most of Shakespeare's great dramas, performing on stage in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Booth was strongly supportive of the Confederate cause. He'd attended the hanging of John Brown in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, on December 2, 1859, and he was so strongly pro-Southern that he got booed off stage in New York. He traveled freely throughout the North and South during the Civil War, giving performances.

Booth had a number of contacts with Southern spies and agents. Most people in Maryland were Confederate sympathizers, and the state's borders were practically porous to Southern couriers and smugglers. It's not unsurprising that Booth knew lots of Confederate spies and couriers. The federal government was well aware of the feelings of most Marylanders, and of Booth. But what could they do? They couldn't jail the entire state. What the government did do was keep the worst of the bunch in jail, and keep breaking up the more effective, egregious spy rings, smuggling operations, and courier systems.

Booth became close friends in the summer of 1864 with John Surratt, Jr. Surratt was the son of Mary Surratt, who owned a hotel and tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton) in southern Maryland. It was a well-known rendezvous point for Confederate agents, and Surratt had connections to the highest levels of the Confederate government -- people like CSA President Jefferson Davis, and CSA Secretary of State Judah Benjamin. Booth also became close friends with Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Maryland physician who was also a strong Confederate sympathizer.

In November 1864, Lincoln won re-election as president. On the advice of General Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln also stopped prisoner exchanges. The North and South had routinely engaged in the exchange of tens of thousands of prisoners. This meant that neither side had to pay for the food, housing, and incarceration of prisoners, and instead could put exchanged men back into the field to keep fighting. But the South lacked manpower, and Grant became convinced that prisoner exchanges were helping the Confederacy too much.

An outraged Booth decided to do something about it. He conceived the idea of kidnapping President Lincoln and whisking him off to Richmond. Lincoln would be exchanged once the North agreed to resume prisoner exchanges. Booth recruited John Surratt, Dr. Mudd, and several others -- including Lewis Powell aka Lewis Payne, son of a slave-holding Southern Baptist minister; George Atzerodt, a German Lutheran immigre; David Herold, a failed pharamcist; childhood friend Michael O'Laughlen, a plasterer; Ford's Theatre carpenter Edmund Spangler; and unemployed childhood friend Samuel Arnold -- in this plot. At the time, Lincoln would spend many summer nights and weekends at the Old Soldiers Home in northeast D.C., where it was cooler, there weren't as many mosquitos, and there were breezes. Booth and his friends tried to kidnap Lincoln after a concert held there on March 17, 1865, but Lincoln did not attend the concert.

On April 12, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Booth became convinced that the only way to save the South now was to assassinate Lincoln. He began discussing his plans with his friends, hid guns at the Surratt tavern in Maryland, and more.

It was Good Friday, April 14, when Booth went to Ford's Theatre to pick up his mail. (In those days, actors often had their mail forwarded to theaters where they'd be performing, rather than to a hotel or post office box.) He learned that President Lincoln and General Grant were both going to be attending a play there that evening. Booth immediately met with his co-conspirators. Arnold and O'Laughlen had dropped out of the conspiracy when Lincoln resumed prisoner exchanges after Grant's victory. But the remaining conspirators agreed on a plan to "decapitate" the federal government. Spangler would help Booth at Ford's Theatre, where Booth would kill Lincoln and Grant at the theater that night. Powell would go to U.S. Secretary of State William Seward's home on Lafayette Square and kill him. Atzerodt would go to Kirkwood House hotel and kill Vice President Johnson. Herold would help Booth, Powell, and Atzerodt escape the city on horseback, and they would rendezvous at Mudd's home in Maryland.

It was no secret that Lincoln was attending Ford's Theatre that night. The early afternoon newspapers carried the news, and around 6 p.m. barrels of burning tar were placed on nearby streets as boy-criers went around yelling for soldiers to come see the President. Even so, it wasn't a full house that night. Mrs. Grant didn't like Mrs. Lincoln, and Grant faked a migraine so that he and the missus didn't have to go. The Lincolns attended the theater that night with Major Henry Rathbone (Lincoln's military aide) and his fiancé, Miss Clara Harris (the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York).

In the early afternoon, Booth returned to Ford's Theatre. The locks leading from the dress circle to the Presidential Box had been broken in March 1865, but no one had told the stage manager -- and so they weren't repaired. Already, someone had bored a whole into the north door in the box passageway, with the idea that Lincoln's aides could look through the hole and check on the President without disturbing him. (The hole had been ordered by Harry Clay Ford, the owner's brother.) Booth found a board backstage, and using his knife cut a notch into the top so that it would fit against the doorknob. He went up to the Presidential Box, and gouged a hole in the floor so that the board would snag against the board and prevent the door from being opened. Not only would this prevent anyone from coming into the box and stopping Booth, but it would prevent anyone from coming to the President's rescue in a timely fashion. Booth hid the board behind the door, and left.

The VIP boxes were always draped with heavy yellow silk curtains, and lace curtains. Wooden chairs were the usual seating in them, but Ford decided that Lincoln deserved better. The partition inside the box was removed to give the Lincolns more space. A wooden rocker, two plush red velvet stuffed chairs, and a plush red velvet stuffed sofa were placed in box, along with six regular wooden chairs. Two American flags were put on poles and set in armatures on either side of the box. Flag bunting was also hung in drapery loops from the railing. A picture of George Washington was affixed to the support in the center of the box, and hung between the folds of bunting. A Treasury Guards flag was hung from a pole over this picture.

Lincoln spent most of the day in a Cabinet meeting. Around 4 p.m., he met with some old friends from Illinois. He and Mrs. Lincoln dined at about 6:30 p.m., then went to the theater at about 8:30 p.m. They were late for the show.

The Lincolns, Rathbone, and Harris were accompanied by John F. Parker, Lincoln's bodyguard. Lincoln had a long dislike for military guards, and his wish for a minimal guard was -- as usual -- honored that night. Parker escorted the party up the stairs to the dress circle, across the rear of the dress circle to stage-right, and down the dark corridor to the Presidential Box.

Laura Keene was starring in Our American Cousin, a popular comedy about dumb Americans and their snobby English hosts. When Lincoln appeared in his box, the audience broke out in cheers and applause. Keene had arranged for the play to stop at that point, and for the orchestra to play "Hail to the Chief." Lincoln sat in the rocker, to his wife's left. He was mostly hidden from the audience's view. Mrs. Lincoln sat on a regular wooden chair to his right. Miss Harris sat in an armchair to Mrs. Lincoln's right, and pulled the chair up close to the railing for a better view. Major Rathbone sat on the sofa, which was to Harris' right and back from the railing. In the corner behind Rathbone was the unused plush armchair and five folded wooden chairs.

Parker sat outside the Presidential box, but for reasons which were never investigated he left his post after a short period of time. This left Lincoln unprotected. The play resumed, and everyone settled in for a night of laughter...

About 9:00 p.m., Booth rode to Ford's Theatre on his horse. He left it at the stable in the rear of the theatre, and asked a scenery shifter to go get Edmund Spangler. Spangler was in the stage-right wings, having just shifted some scenery. Spangler crossed behind the set and met Booth at the stage door. Booth then asked the scenery shifter if he could cross behind the stage. The man said no, but he could accompany Booth beneath the stage. There was a narrow, steep set of steps beneath a trap door near the stage door, and the man opened this up and led Booth into the basement. He led Booth up into the stage-right wings, where another narrow, steep set up stairs emerged from another trap door.

Here, Booth seemed to lose his nerve. He passed out of the door into the covered passageway on the south side of the theater, walked toward 10th Street, and then passed through the door into the Star Saloon.

While Booth was gone, Spangler called for Joseph "Peanuts" Burroughs. Peanuts was an African American youth who managed the door Booth had just exited as well as distributed programs out front before shows. Peanuts came over, and Spangler told him to exit the building, go around back, and hold Booth's horse for a few minutes until Booth came out. Peanuts ran off, and Spangler went back to handling scenery.

Just after 10 p.m., Booth walked into the lobby of Ford's Theatre. He looked at the big clock hanging over the doors, and then walked past the usher to the dress circle. He paused a few minutes in the rear of the dress circle, looking at the play. He was waiting for Act III, Scene 2, in which a huge laugh came. His goal was to assassinate Lincoln during this outburst of screams, laughter, and applause. Booth moved to the passageway door, which remained unguarded. With the lock broken, he was able to enter. He located his board behind the door, and shoved it against the doorknob to prevent anyone from entering the box. Booth crept down the narrow, short passageway, listening for cues from the play.

As the critical "straight" line was said, Booth pushed the door open and stepped behind Lincoln. As the audience howled in laughter, Booth shot Lincoln in the left side of the back of his skull with a single-shot derringer. Major Rathbone leapt to his feet, but Booth pulled out a knife and slashed at him. Booth slit Rathbone's entire left bicep open from shoulder to elbow. Rathbone attempted to grab Booth, and Booth stabbed him again. Rathbone stumbled and fell.

People down below didn't even hear the shot. The first anyone knew that anything was wrong was when Mary Lincoln began screaming. Many people assumed this was part of the play somehow. Not more than four or five seconds had passed, when suddenly Booth -- whom most people recognized -- appeared at the railing in the Presidential Box. He leapt from the railing like the athlete he was. But Booth had his spurs on so that he could ride his horse and make his getaway. One of his spurs caught against the picture of Washington, and he began to fall. His spur caught further in the Treasury Guards flag, and he collapsed on the stage. As he landed, his spur slashed a hole in the green felt carpeting which covered the front of the stage.

The tibia of Booth's right leg was fractured. Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis!" That was the legendary line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a line which Brutus hisses as he stabs the dictator Julius Caesar to death. Audience members had no idea what to make of this. The actors and actresses on stage didn't know what to do. Actor Harry Hawk, playing the male lead in the play, tried to grab at Booth but was unable to stop him and didn't pursue once he realized Booth had a knife in his hands.

Booth ran across the stage as pandemonium broke out behind him. He slashed at a stage hand, wounding him slightly, and then out the rear door. Booth launched up into the saddle of his horse, and smashed the butt of his knife against Peanuts Burrough's head. The young man was stunned and staggered back. Booth rode his horse east down Baptist Alley, then made the turn north and emerged on F Street. He rode east down F Street, and then out Pennsylvania Avenue. He crossed the Navy Yard Bridge (where the 11th Street Bridges are today) and then down Good Hope Road and left the city.

Meanwhile, Powell and Herold had gone to the Seward house. Ten days before, Seward had been severely injured in a carriage accident. He suffered a concussion, broken jaw, and broken right arm, and was wearing an iron brace around his neck to keep his neck bones safe. Powell crept into the house, but was surprised by military nurse. Powell stabbed him, and rushed to Seward's bedroom. He tried to stab Seward in the throat, but the brace saved his life. Seward's two adult sons rushed into the room, and Powell stabbed them both. Powell rushed from the house, and stabbed a military messenger who was just arriving. He fled with Herold. But Herold's horse was faster, and Powell's horse bucked and threw him. Herold had no idea he'd lost Powell until it was too late: He had to keep going, to risk capture. Herold met up with Booth at the Surratt tavern. They traveled to Mudd's house, where Mudd fixed Booth's leg. They managed to get as far south as Port Royal, Virginia. But U.S. Army troops were hot on their trail. Herold surrendered. Booth refused to surrender, and a trigger-happy U.S. soldier shot him in the neck. He died two hours later, paralyzed and hissing in pain. Powell hid in a cemetery for three days, then went back to the Surratt boardinghouse. He had the horrible luck of arriving just as Mary Surratt herself was being arrested for complicity in the crime. He was arrested, too.

George Atzerodt spent the night drinking in a bar, lost his nerve, and never made any attempt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. He was picked up by police a day later, since he was a known friend of Booth's.

Dr. Charles Leale, a newly-anointed U.S. Army surgeon, was sitting in the dress circle when he saw Booth leap from the box onto the stage. As Rathbone screamed for help, Leale tried to open the door. But Booth's wooden board prevented it. Leale banged on the door for several minutes as Mrs. Lincoln and Miss Harris screamed, and Rathbone kept yelling for help. Finally, Rathbone got up, staggered down the passageway, and found the board jamming the door closed. He kicked it loose, and Leale burst in.

Almost 10 minutes had passed. Leale reached President Lincoln and found him not breathing. Believing Lincoln had been stabbed, he searched all over for his body for a wound. Realizing Lincoln was bleeding from the skull, Leale quickly found the bullet's entry wound. Leale dislodged a huge blood clot from the wound, and suddenly Lincoln began breathing again. Leale looked into the President's eyes. His faced was bruised around the eyes, because the shock of the bullet entering the skull had fractured the bones around the eye socket. Lincoln's left eye was dilated and protruding. His right eye was enlarged, but responding to light.

Leale look up at Rathbone and Mrs. Lincoln. "His wound is mortal," he said. "It is impossible for him to recover."

Dr. Charles Taft, another physician attending the play that night, was lifted up to the box. Another physician, Dr. Albert King, managed to push his way into the box from the dress circle. Lincoln's right eye became dilated, too. Leale, Taft, and King realized Lincoln might die in a place of entertainment. He and some other men decided to rush him into the street. The White House was four blocks away, but they dared not take him there for fear he'd die in the street. Massive numbers of people -- some of them theater patrons, others soldiers who'd rushed to Ford's once the alarm was sounded, some of them people out for a stroll or rushing to see what happened -- were jamming the street in front of the theater. Meanwhile, Henry Safford -- a man who rented a room in the William Peterson house across the street -- had rushed out with a lantern to see what the commotion was. Safford ordered the soldiers and doctors to bring Lincoln into the Peterson house.

Abraham Lincoln never regained consciousness. His breathing became irregular around 2 a.m., and Leale and the others knew death was coming soon. Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m.

Military guards were immediately posted in front of the theatre. No one had access to it except by direct order of the U.S. Amry Judge Advocate's Office. Theatre employees regularly slept in the theater's north addition, but after a few days these were sealed and no one allowed inside. Fortunately, master photographer Mathew Brady was permitted to photograph the interior of Ford's Theatre a few days after Lincoln's death. Brady's photographs constitute one of the most important documentary sources about Lincoln's assassination and about Ford's Theatre we have today. To prepare for the trial of the conspirators, the Judge Advocate's Office drew plans of the stage, all scenery and props, the contents and decorations of the Presidential Box, and much more. This, too, added immeasurably to our understanding of the assassination.

Powell, Atzerodt, Mary Surratt, and David Herold were tried, found guilty of conspiracy, and hanged on July 7, 1865. Mudd, Spangler, O'Laughlen and Herold were given life sentences. (Amazingly, their sentences were commuted after just four years and they were set free.)

John Ford received permission to reopen the theatre on July 7, 1865. He scheduled a performance for the evening of July 10, 1865, and sold more than 200 tickets. But after an anonymous letter threatened to burn the theater down if it ever opened, the Judge Advocate closed Ford's Theatre for good. Soldiers stood guard over it for several weeks, and the federal government took it over.

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