150 Years Ago: The Dramatic Death of John Wilkes Booth, Part Two

By Al Perrotta Published on April 27, 2015

150 years ago this past Sunday, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of the President, was cornered and killed. As was presented in Part One, he had shot Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday at Ford’s Theater during a performance of the British farce Our American Cousin. There was no question of his guilt. His face and fame were such that many in the audience initially thought his leap to the stage was part of the play. Booth was indeed playing a role, but one of his own making. However, the story would not turn out as he planned.

The Escape

After fleeing Ford’s Theater on horse, Booth raced toward Maryland. He should have been stopped at the Navy Yard Bridge by the Army sentry. It was past curfew, but Booth, only minutes after killing the President, convinced his audience of one that nothing was amiss and was allowed to pass.

He met up with accomplice David Herold and rode toward Surrattsville. By the time the pair arrived at the Surratt Tavern, Booth was in excruciating pain from a broken left leg. Booth’s diary and the history books tell us he broke the leg during his jump to the stage. However, biographer Michael Kauffman argues otherwise.

Kauffman discovered that not a single witness at Ford’s mentioned Booth landing awkwardly, or dragging his leg, until after publication of the diary. Initial statements describe Booth as “rushing” or “running.” Booth himself told the tavern-keeper and Dr. Samuel Mudd his horse had fallen, and the break itself — a fibula snapped straight across about two inches above the ankle — was more consistent with an equestrian injury than a leap from a height. 

It’s no “leap” to think the hero-minded actor re-wrote his big scene. Catching your foot in Old Glory while jumping from the perch of the President is far more dramatic than, oh, falling off your horse.

Surratt House Museum[1]

The Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland. John Wilkes Booth stopped here on his flight from Washington after the assassination of Lincoln. For her alleged role in the conspiracy, tavern owner Mary Surratt would become the first woman executed by the Federal government.

The Booths React

News of the assassination reached brother Junius Booth in Cincinnati, where he’d just finished a performance of The Merchant of Venice. As Kauffman writes in American Brutus:

Terrified of mob violence, he barricaded himself in his hotel room, pacing the floor and pulling at his hair “like a man deranged.” He told a reporter if John Wilkes were really the killer, then no Booth could ever appear on stage again.

Edwin Booth was in Boston, appearing in Don Casear de Bazan. He awoke to learn of the events at Ford’s. Friends suggested that perhaps John Wilkes wasn’t the assassin. But Edwin knew better. Again, Kauffman: “The athletic leap to the stage; the flourish of the dagger; the cry of “Sic semper tyrannis!” — in style and spirit, it was all so much like John Wilkes Booth.”

Edwin, though known to be a strong Union supporter, joined Junius in fearing the fate that might befall the Booth family. He wrote a public note:

While mourning, in common with all other loyal hearts, the death of the President, I am oppressed by a private woe not to be expressed in words. But whatever calamity may befall me and mine, my country, one and indivisible, has my warmest devotion.

Stuck in the swamps of Maryland, John Wilkes Booth was also writing, trying to defend his actions and make noble his murderous deed. “Our country owed all her troubles to (Lincoln),” he wrote in his diary. “The country is no longer what it was.” Booth was merely “God’s instrument.”

Booth Reward Poster - 200

His planned escape was not going well. The broken leg slowed him down. As did the unexpected lack of assistance from Confederate sympathizers and operatives along the Confederate spy route through Southern Maryland. To Booth’s shock and dismay, he was being shunned.

The play had taken an unexpected turn. Lincoln was revealed as the martyred hero, while Booth was cast as a cowardly villain. 

On April 21st, Booth complained:

After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every mans hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat. …

This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so. And it’s with him, to damn or bless me.”

Days before he had been God’s instrument. Now he was raising the possibility of God’s judgment. Declaring himself “too great a soul to die like a criminal,” Booth offered a prayer. “Oh may he, may he spare me that and let me die bravely.”

Booth’s Final Scene

John Wilkes Booth was unique among the actors of his day. He was not afraid to perform new works, or improvise new lines in cherished classics. His spontaneous one-man shows at the National Hotel in Washington helped create what we now know as theater-in-the-round. He was a leading pioneer in the use of special effects. 

Now, far from the footlights of Philadelphia, Boston and New York, before an audience of soldiers on a mission to bring him to justice, Booth would create his final scene. It was the morning of April 26. 

The 16th New York Calvary, under the charge of Lieutenant Edward Doherty, had finally caught up with John Wilkes Booth and accomplice David Herold near Port Royal, Virginia at the farm of Richard H. Garrett.

Booth and Herold were sleeping in Garrett’s barn, and awoke to discover the barn was surrounded.

The stage was now set; the dialogue as dramatic as any Booth had ever played.   Lt. Doherty presents the scene:

I … summoned the inmates of the building to surrender.

After some delay Booth said, “For whom do you take me?”

I replied, “It doesn’t make any difference. Come out.”

He said, “I am a cripple and alone.”

I said, “I know who is with you, and you had better surrender.”

He replied, “I may be taken by my friends, but not by my foes.”

I said, “If you don’t come out, I’ll burn the building.” I directed a corporal to pile up some hay in a crack in the wall of the barn and set the building on fire.

As the corporal was picking up the hay and brush Booth said, “If you come back here I will put a bullet through you.”

I then motioned to the corporal to desist, and decided to wait for daylight and then to enter the barn by both doors and over power the assassins.

Booth then said in a drawling voice. “Oh Captain! There is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad.”

I replied, “You had better follow his example and come out.”

His answer was, “No, I have not made up my mind; but draw your men up fifty paces off and give me a chance for my life.”

I told him I had not come to fight; that I had fifty men, and could take him.

Then he said, “Well, my brave boys, prepare me a stretcher, and place another stain on our glorious banner.”

The barn was set ablaze. Herold did surrender. Not so Booth. The flames reached the rafters. Soldiers watching through cracks in the barn described Booth as a trapped animal, eyes darting around, seeking some manner of escape. He apparently made the decision to fight his way out. He dropped his crutch, shuffled toward the door.

Sgt. Boston Corbett peering through a slat in the barn saw Booth raise his carbine. Corbett fired.

Booth instantly went limp, shot through the neck. He was dragged to the front porch of the Garrett house.

A doctor summoned from Port Royal examined the wound. It was fatal. Over the ensuing hours Booth would slowly suffocate.

In his final moments, he asked Lt. Doherty to lift his hands. Booth looked upon them. “Useless,” he said. “Useless.”

At 7 p.m., the assassin breathed his last.

Booth death - 200

Epilogue

John Wilkes Booth had fame, acclaim and fortune. He’d been an actor of spellbinding power and originality. Even John T. Ford, who lost his theater, livelihood and nearly his freedom because of Booth, said, “Doubtless he would have been the greatest actor of his time had he lived.”

But that’s all forgotten with his heinous act of murder. 

Booth had seen himself as Shakspeare’s Brutus. Ironically, just five months earlier, Booth appeared in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar with Edwin and Junius. It was the first and only time the brothers had shared a stage. However, instead of Brutus, he took on the role of Mark Anthony. The lines would prove prophetic:

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones.

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