John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)

Born Bel Air, Maryland

Charles DeForest Fredericks, c. 1863
Albumen silver print

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the rapt audience included John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor known for his striking looks and celebrated acting family. One month later, Booth would become far more famous as the man who assassinated the president.


Born into a Maryland family divided on the issue of secession, Booth had long nursed a deep resentment toward Northern authority and Lincoln in particular. In 1864, Booth called him “the tool of the North, to crush out, or try to crush out slavery, by robbery, rapine, slaughter, and bought armies. . . a false president yearning for a kingly succession.” Booth marketed himself as “the Youngest Tragedian in the World,” and that spring, his actions would raise matters of honor, patriotism, pride, and as much high drama as any play in which he had performed.


On April 14, 1865, Booth shot the president during a performance of Our American Cousin, starring Laura Keene, at Ford’s Theatre. Booth escaped, but was run down and killed in a barn in southeastern Maryland on April 26. Aside from the shock of the assassination, the impact of Lincoln’s death on the subsequent policies of reconstruction and reunion is one of the great “what if” questions in American history.

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