“Now he belongs to the ages”: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Photograph portrait of John Wilks Booth and poster readeing "$100,000 Dollar Reward"
Left: John Wilkes Booth / By Charles DeForest Fredricks / Albumen silver print, c. 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Right: One Hundred Thousand Dollar Reward /John H. Surratt, John Wilkes Booth, and David E. Herold
  / Unidentified Artist / Printed Broadside with albumen silver prints, 1865 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Is there a more famous bad play than My American Cousin, the comedy that Abraham Lincoln was watching at Ford’s Theatre when John Wilkes Booth assassinated him? Written in 1858, it was a creaky farce that followed a time-honored script: the awkward but honest American amongst bumbling English aristocrats. The real attraction on the night was English actress and star Laura Keene.

Booth, himself a fine actor from a famous family of actors, knew the play, as he knew the layout of Ford’s Theatre. Whatever one must say about the evil malignancy of Booth’s intention to commit murder, his obsessive hatreds, and the consequences of his act, on the night he performed superbly, both stage-managing and acting in the drama of his own making.

Having decided to kill Lincoln, probably after hearing the president speak on April 11, he galvanized his co-conspirators into action. His intention was to decapitate the government: he would kill Lincoln while others killed both Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Booth reconnoitered the theater, drilling a spy hole in the door to the presidential box, fashioning a block to hold the door shut once he had entered the box, and arranging to have his horse held in an alley next to the theater. Booth had every intention of escaping southward after the murder.

Armed with a knife and a single-shot derringer that fired a large ball, Booth crept into the presidential box after the play had resumed following the celebration of the presidential party’s arrival. He timed his shot to perfection, shooting the president in the back of the head just as laughter—which covered the sound of his pistol—erupted following one of the play’s biggest laugh lines: “Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

Having fired, Booth slashed his knife at Colonel Henry Rathbone, a guest in the box with his wife, and leapt down to the stage shouting as he jumped. Opinions differed, but the consensus is that he uttered the Virginia state motto, Sic semper tyrannis (Thus Always to Tyrants). A bone snapped in his leg when he landed, but he scrambled out of the theater, retrieved his horse, and headed to the southeast, escaping into Maryland.

Chaos erupted at the theater once everyone realized what had happened. Amid the hysteria and confusion, several doctors pushed their way into the presidential box and attempted to minister to the mortally wounded president. As he lay dying, events took a turn for the macabre: Laura Keene forced her way into the box and insisted that she cradle the president in her arms. Incredibly, this was allowed, and for several minutes she rocked the president in her arms, creating a bizarre pieta on the floor of the box; she would later display her blood-spattered dress as an attraction.

The doctors and hangers-on behaved little better: already relic- and souvenir-hunters were sniffing around the presidential body. One of the doctors preserved small fragments of the president’s skull, hair was snipped from the presidential head, and bits were taken of his clothing and bedclothes from the room where Lincoln died, across the street from the theater. Already Lincoln, still living, was becoming the object of veneration and remembrance, some of it tasteless by any standard.

Booth’s fellow conspirators did not succeed as well as their leader. Lewis Powell managed to severely wound Seward, who was saved by the heavy neck brace he was wearing after a carriage accident. Those tasked with killing Andrew Johnson simply lost their nerve and ran away. The conspirators were quickly rounded up because they were identified as associates of Booth (who was himself identified immediately at the theater), left an easily followed trail of evidence, and simply waited to be captured. But Booth kept his nerve and got away with accomplice David Herold. He escaped capture until April 26, when he was cornered and shot in a Virginia barn.

Lincoln finally expired at 7:21 on the morning of April 15. Mary was disconsolate and overwrought, she had been kept away from the dying president by the doctors, who found her out of control. She sequestered herself in her bedroom at the White House, absenting herself from the funeral arrangements except to insist that her husband be buried in Springfield, Illinois, not Washington. The transport of Lincoln’s body to Springfield became a national ritual of grief as the coffin was unloaded and displayed in major cities along the way. Thousands lined up for hours to view the carefully embalmed body of the president, an act of secular grief that had religious overtones. As with the relic-taking, Lincoln was already being transformed from a living, historical figure to an American saint.  As Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages” or alternatively, “Now he belongs to the angels.”

History was giving way to myth through the presentation of the body and his martyrdom—a martyrdom that occurred at the very moment of his triumph. African Americans, who were grateful for Lincoln’s evolution on the issue of freedom and citizenship and rightly feared that the loss of Lincoln boded badly for them, were vocal in their sense of loss. The South worried that the assassination would bring down renewed violence on it out of vengeance and retribution. 

Lincoln was not universally mourned in both the South and the North, although individuals who applauded Booth’s actions generally had the good sense to keep quiet. Most interestingly, among the most radical abolitionists, including many Republican officeholders, there evolved a curious justification of the assassination. Distrusting Lincoln’s commitment to abolition, they came close to justifying the act as the closing of one chapter and the opening of another.

Lincoln, in other words, had done his work to win the war and preserve the Union. Fate had now intervened to remove him from history’s stage to be replaced by a leader who would give full civic and social equality to the freemen. As the presidency of Andrew Johnson and the course of Reconstruction would demonstrate, they would be proved  spectacularly wrong, as they had been consistently wrong about the character and abilities of Abraham Lincoln. 

—David C. Ward, Senior Historian, National Portrait Gallery