It is a sad irony of history that the man revered as probably the greatest president of the United States was destined to die in circumstances oddly akin to a popular Victorian theatre production. John Wilkes Booth, an actor, shocked America when he murdered Abraham Lincoln in a planned execution-style hit.
Fresh from the triumph of the Civil War in 1865 - the Confederate surrender had come less than a week before - Lincoln was in a private box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington with his wife Mary, watching the hit show Our American Cousin, when Booth entered. Despite the depth of feeling among Southerners against Lincoln, and the obvious danger to him, the presidential box was temporarily unguarded, and Booth placed a derringer pistol to the back of Lincoln’s head and fired a shot.
Amid uproar in the crowded theatre, the assailant mounted the railing and leapt down onto the stage, ran through scenery backstage and out onto the street, and escaped at a gallop on horseback. At the same time, in another act of the conspiracy, the ailing Secretary of State, William Seward, was stabbed in his sickbed by another would-be assassin, although he survived. Lincoln himself lived through the night, but died the following morning, much to the anguish of his people. Less than two weeks later Booth was cornered in a barn in Virginia and shot dead. The other conspirators were executed.
Born in 1809, and raised in a Kentucky log cabin, Lincoln became a self-educated lawyer, reforming politician and president. Lincoln popularly typified emergent America. A stirring orator, he first spoke out against slavery in the 1850s, and his resolve against it became ever firmer and more passionate. He found himself on a collision course with the slave-owning states of the South, which ignited into Civil War soon after his inauguration in 1861. Despite some Confederate successes, the North’s superior wealth, technology and infrastructure made victory virtually inevitable, and by the time of Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, the end loomed for the Confederates. It had hardly formally surrendered when, early on the evening of Good Friday 14 April 1865, Lincoln and his wife set off for Ford’s Theatre.
Although generally viewed as conspiratorial act of revenge by beaten and embittered elements of the South, there are numerous other theories about the assassination, ranging from the possibly plausible to the bizarre.
These include that Vice President (and later President) Andrew Jackson was behind it (Lincoln’s widow believed as much, describing Jackson as a “miserable inebriate”) that it was a conspiracy of bankers opposed to Lincoln’s economic policies, and that it was the Vatican.
These and more have all been raised and investigated in a welter of new books in recent decades, as Lincoln and his death once again became the subject of national fascination for Americans. Inevitably, even more fervid accounts exist online. The most likely explanation remains that while he sat in his seat watching a play on stage, Lincoln was shot in cold blood by an embittered rebel without a cause.
From my book Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths.
“I believe we must adjourn the meeting to some other place.”
- last words of Scottish economist Adam Smith, died 1790