• Eldon Callaway

Behind Lincoln's Assassination 4) To Apprehend Booth


In this second to last segment, we will look to the assassination itself and Booth's escape.


At 9:30pm, John Wilkes Booth arrived at Ford's Theatre on horseback. After a discussion with Edward Spangler about holding his mare, Spangler managed to have someone else watch the unruly horse while he worked. Booth slipped into Lincoln's box at/around 10 pm, closing the door with the jury-rigged lock so no one would be able to enter quickly.



Inside the booth with the Lincoln's was Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance' Clara Harris. Booth took aim, shooting the President in the back of the head with a .41 caliber Deringer pistol. In his attempt to escape, Major Rathbone lunged to apprehend him, receiving a stab wound. Booth then jumped from the box to the stage, shouting with knife raised "Sic semper tyrannis," attributed to Brutus at Caesar's assassination meaning "Thus always to tyrants" in Latin. It is also the state motto of Virginia. Some accounts have Booth also saying "I have done it, the South is avenged!"


While popular belief is that Booth injured his leg when his spur snagged on a decorative U.S. Treasury Guard flag, as some witnesses reported, Historian Michael W. Kauffman believes his leg was not broken until his horse tripped and fell on him later in his flight to escape. As many witnesses claimed he had hurriedly left the stage, it is not unlikely that Booth's ability to exaggerate, could have been to portray his actions as heroic. Either way, Booth fled by a stage door to the alley where his horse was waiting for him by the unfortunate Joseph Burroughs.

Accompanied by David Herold, Booth escaped into southern Maryland using sparsely settled routes lacking telegraphs and railroads. His avenue of escape was also predominant with Confederate sympathizers. Stopping at Surratt's Tavern long enough to obtain stored guns and equipment left earlier in the year as part of a previous kidnap plot, they continued southward, stopping just before dawn on April 15 at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd for Booth's injured leg.



At 4 am he following day, Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Samuel Cox. While they hid in the woods nearby, Cox contacted his foster brother Thomas A. Jones, a Confederate agent in charge of spy operations in southern Maryland since 1862. By this time, the War Department had been advertising a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Booth and any accomplices (current 2020 USD $1.67 million).


With Federal troops searching southern Maryland rural area woods and swamps, Booth lay in hiding for an opportunity to cross the Potomac River into Virginia. He read daily accounts of national mourning in the newspapers brought to him by Jones, with himself called an "accursed devil," "monster," "madman," among others. Booth could not understand the lack of public sympathy for his actions, especially in the anti-Lincoln newspapers.


While mourners viewed Lincoln's remains as the funeral train steamed into Harrisburg at 8:20 pm, Booth and Herold made their escape across the Potomac in a boat provided by Jones. Even with a compass given to them, they mistakenly navigated upriver to a bend in the broad Potomac River landing again in Maryland instead of Virginia on April 22. They were lucky that Herold knew the area well from frequent hunting trips there, realizing their error when Herold recognized a nearby farm belonging to a Confederate sympathizer. The farmer connected them with Colonel John J. Hughes, his son-in-law, who provided them with food and a place to hide until nightfall when they would make another attempt to row across to Virginia.



Reaching Virginia before dawn on April 23 near Machodoc Creek, they made contact with Thomas Harbin, previously brought in on one of Booth's kidnap plots, who supplied them with a boat from another Confederate agent, William Bryant. Making their way across the Rappahannock River, they were led to Richard H. Garrett's farm a couple miles south of Port Royal, Virginia, by former private in the 9th Virginia Cavalry, William S. Jett on April 24. The Garretts, unaware of Lincoln's assassination due to the collapse of Confederate news, were introduced to Booth as a Confederate solder, James W. Boyd, wounded in the battle of Petersburg now returning home.



Union soldiers commanded by Everton Conger tracked down William Jett, interrogated him and learned of Booth's location at the Garrett farm. On April 26, before dawn, they caught up with the fugitives who were hiding in Garrett's tobacco barn. David Herold surrendered readily, but Booth refused Conger's demands. "I prefer to come out and fight," he said. The barn was set on fire and while Booth moved about inside the blazing barn, Sergeant Boston Corbett managed to shoot him in the neck. Corbett says he took the shot because the fugitive "raised his pistol to shoot" at them. Conger's report recommended Corbett be punished for disobeying orders to take Booth alive.


Fatally wounded, Booth was dragged to the porch of Garrett's farmhouse where he died three hours later, aged 26. The bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him. In the moments before death, he was reported to have whispered, "Tell my mother I died for my country." He requested his hands be raised so he could see them and uttered "Useless, useless," and died as dawn was breaking.




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