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

By Al Perrotta Published on April 26, 2015

The final scene of John Wilkes Booth’s brief career played out on the farm of Richard H. Garrett 150 years ago this weekend. It would be a death scene. But the blood was real. The pain was real. On stage, Booth did not mind suffering. A century before Method Acting and Marlon Brando, Booth had been pushing American theater toward realism, performing with a physicality and intensity previously unseen.

However, on that porch deep in the Virginia countryside, the dying actor faced a cold agony harsher than any critic. Booth had gone to Ford’s Theater on April 14 playing the role of Shakespeare’s Brutus. He would be the heroic slayer of a tyrant. Instead, he was departing the public stage as the hated murderer of a benevolent leader.

John Wilkes Booth looked on his hands, and uttered his final words:  “Useless, useless.”

It had been twelve days since Booth had assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Setting the Stage

Good Friday, April 14, 1865: Although his blood was boiling over the loss of the Confederacy, John Wilkes Booth did not start his day intending to kill the President. The actor was only stopping by Ford’s Theater to pick up his mail. But when he heard Lincoln, an avid theater buff, was going to be attending the evening’s performance of Our American Cousin, Booth sprang into action. He rounded up several of his conspirators from an earlier plot to kidnap Lincoln and assigned them their tasks.

Booth himself returned to Ford’s Theater that afternoon to notch a peep hole in the inner door leading to the President’s box and make other arrangements for that evening. No one would find Booth’s lurking about suspicious. He was a familiar face at Ford’s, not only performing there often, but maintaining friendships with the owner and his fellow actors. Lincoln himself enjoyed Booth in a Ford’s Theater performance of The Marble Heart just days before delivering the Gettysburg Address.

Booth brothers-200

John Wilkes Booth, left, with brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr. in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar. Booth would play the role of Brutus.

Theater was in Booth’s blood. His father was Junius Brutus Booth, the most acclaimed American actor of the 19th Century. His brother Edwin was rapidly approaching a similar status. Brother Junius, Jr. was also renowned. For all the later talk of Booth being jealous of their fame, John Wilkes would not even perform under his own name when he first hit the boards so as not to risk tarnishing the Booth name.

That would quickly change. By the start of the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth had not only become one of the most popular actors in America he was earning reviews any actor would envy. Even brother Edwin would write, “He had the genius of our father, and was much more gifted than I.” Moreover, the hypnotically handsome 26-year-old was a bona fide heartthrob, a star, the Johnny Depp of his day. His photographs were selling faster than anyone else’s in America … except for Abe Lincoln.

The Tragedy Played at Ford’s

Oh, Lincoln. As the Civil War proceeded, Booth was drawn deeper and deeper into the Confederate cause, and into a deeper loathing of Lincoln. In his eyes, Lincoln was a modern Julius Caesar, an oppressive tyrant grabbing more and more power for himself. Power he would continue to grab after the war. And what must be the fate of tyrants?

The terrible irony is Lincoln was already calling for a gentle reconciliation with the former Confederate states, pitting him against those demanding harsh retribution for the Rebellion. In a sense, with the war over, Lincoln would be the South’s best friend. What’s more, he could have used an ally like a popular Confederate-sympathizing actor to help “bind the nation’s wounds.”

It’s no stretch to believe Abraham Lincoln would have warmly welcomed John Wilkes Booth into his box at Ford’s.

Which makes what happens next all the more awful.Handsome Booth-200

Booth had timed his attack with precision. Our American Cousin was a British farce, and Booth knew where its laughs were the loudest. He worked his way up the stairs, hugging the wall toward the President’s box. White House messenger Charles Forbes was outside the door. Booth showed him a card. Of course Forbes let Booth pass. Why not? It was the John Wilkes Booth.

Booth entered, and awaited a raucous punch line from actor Harry Hawk. “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!”

The theater erupted in laughter. Booth stepped toward Lincoln and fired a single shot into the back of his head.

With his dagger he lashed at Lincoln’s guest, Major Henry Rathbone, then made the 12-foot leap to the stage.

Booth turned to the audience, lifted the bloody dagger, and delivered the words of Brutus after his killing of Caesar, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” — “Thus always to tyrants!”

The audience at first was confused. “That’s John Wilkes Booth! Is this part of the play?”

By the time Mary Todd Lincoln’s horrific shrieks gave the answer, John Wilkes Booth had made his final exit from the stage of Ford’s Theater.

In Part Two, Booth’s plot takes an unexpected turn, and he faces a dramatic end in the barn at Garrett’s Farm.

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