Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

MONDAY, APRIL 10, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

NIGHT

Booth’s Washington residence is the National Hotel, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth. Just around the corner is James Pumphrey’s stable, where he often rents a horse. The actor feels perfectly at home at Pumphrey’s, for the owner is also known to be a Confederate sympathizer. Now, well past eight, and with no streetlights beyond the city limits, the night is far too dark for a ride into the country. But a half-drunk Booth needs to get on a horse now—right now—and gallop through Washington, D.C., reassuring himself that he has a way out of the city after putting a bullet in Abraham Lincoln.

I am the man who will end Abraham Lincoln’s life. That thought motivates Booth as he walks. He returns to the idea over and over again. He is thrilled by the notion, not bothered in the least by his ability to make the mental jump from the passive violence of kidnapping to cold-blooded murder. I will kill the president of the United States.

Booth ruminates without remorse. Of course, killing a man is immoral. Even Booth knows that.

This is wartime. Killing the enemy is no more illegal than capturing him.

The actor thinks of Lincoln’s second inaugural and how he stood so close to Lincoln on that day. I could have shot him then, if I had wished.

Booth regrets the lost opportunity, then sets it aside. There will be another chance—and this time he will stand even closer, so close he can’t miss. So close he will see the life drain from Lincoln’s eyes.

It occurs to him that no American president has ever been assassinated. I will be the first man to ever kill a president. He is now even more dazzled by his own violent plan.

The United States is just three months shy of being eighty-nine years old. There are thirty-six states in the Union, thanks to Nevada’s recent admission. Lincoln is the sixteenth president. Two have passed away from illness while in office. None of them, as Booth well knows, has died by someone else’s hand. If successful in his assassination attempt, the actor will achieve the lasting recognition he has always craved.

For a nation founded by rebellion and torn open by a civil war, the citizens of the United States have been remarkably nonviolent when confronted with politicians they despise. Only one American president was the target of an assassin. And that was Andrew Jackson, the man whose politics sowed the seeds of Confederate rebellion thirty years earlier.

Jackson was leaving a funeral in the Capitol Building on January 30, 1835, when a British expatriate fired at him twice. Unfortunately for the mentally unbalanced Richard Lawrence, who believed himself to be the king of England, both his pistols misfired. The bullets never left the chamber. Congressman Davy Crockett wrestled Lawrence to the ground and disarmed him, even as Jackson beat the would-be assassin with his cane.

Jackson was also the first and only American president to suffer bodily harm at the hands of a citizen, when a sailor discharged from the navy for embezzlement punched Jackson at a public ceremony in 1833. Robert Randolph fled the scene. Jackson, ever the warrior, refused to press charges.

These are the only acts of presidential insurrection in the nation’s entire history. The American people are unique in that their considerable political passion is expressed at the ballot box, not through violence directed at their leaders, whom they can vote out of office. If judged only by this yardstick, the Democratic experiment undertaken by Americans four score and nine years ago seems to be working.

Maybe this is why Lincoln rides his horse alone through Washington or stands fearlessly on the top deck of a ship in a combat zone. The president tries to convince himself that assassination is not part of the American character, saying, “I can’t believe that anyone has shot, or will deliberately shoot at me with the purpose of killing me.”

A wider look at human history suggests otherwise. Tribal societies murdered their leaders long before the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was slain by his advisers in 1324 B.C. Stabbing and beating were the earliest methods of assassination. The Moabite king Eglon was disemboweled in his chambers, his girth so vast that the killer lost the knife in the folds of his fat. Over time, well-known historical figures such as Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) and perhaps even Alexander himself were assassinated. And politically motivated killing was not limited to Europe or the Middle East—records show that assassination had long been practiced in India, Africa, and China.

And then, of course, there was Julius Caesar, the victim of the most famous assassination in history. The Roman ruler was stabbed twenty-three times by members of the Roman Senate. Of the two stab wounds to his chest, one was the blow that killed him. The killing took place during a lunar cycle known as the ides, fulfilling a prophecy by a local soothsayer.

The truth is that Lincoln, despite what he says, secretly believes he will die in office. He is by far the most despised and reviled president in American history. His closest friend and security adviser, the barrel-chested Ward Hill Lamon, preaches regularly to Lincoln about the need for improved security measures. More tangibly, there is a packet nestled in a small cubby of Lincoln’s upright desk. It is marked, quite simply, “Assassination.” Inside are more than eighty death threats. Every morning, sitting in his office to conduct affairs of state, Lincoln’s eyes cannot help but see those letters. “God damn your god damned old hellfire god damned soul to hell,” reads one letter. “God damn you and your god damned family’s god damned hellfired god damned soul to hell.”

“The first one or two made me a little uncomfortable,” Lincoln has admitted to an artist who came to paint his portrait, “but they have ceased to give me any apprehension.

“I know I am in danger, but I am not going to worry over little things like these.”

Rather than dwell on death, Lincoln prefers to live life on his own terms. “If I am killed I can die but once,” he is fond of saying, “but to live in constant dread is to die over and over again.”

While the war still raged he told the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Whichever way the war ends, I have the impression that I shall not last long after it is over.”

A small number of assassins are delusional or impulsive killers, but on the whole, the successful assassin stalks his target, planning every detail of the crime. This means knowing the victim’s habits, schedule, nuances, and security detail. Only then can the two most complex and dangerous tasks be successfully executed.

The first involves the shooting—and in 1865 it must be a shooting, because there is little likelihood of getting close enough to stab a major political figure. The assassin must figure out the when and where (a large crowd is ideal); determine how to get in and out of the building or ceremony; and choose the perfect weapon.

Second is the escape. A successful assassin is a murderer. A perfect assassination, however, means getting away from the scene of the murder without being caught. This is even more of a long shot than the crime itself. Plenty of men in those large crowds will want to play the hero. They will tackle and subdue the assailant without fear for their own lives. And even if an assassin eludes those crowds, he must escape the city in which it takes place, and then the country, until arriving at some foreign location of true refuge.

As Booth strolls to Pumphrey’s, he carries a map in his coat pocket showing the location of General Joe Johnston and his Confederate holdouts, who are hiding in North Carolina. Booth knows the map by heart. He can pinpoint the precise route Johnston must take to evade the Federal troops and reignite the war. To Booth, the map is much more than a detailed depiction of contours and boundaries. It is also a glimmer of hope, reminding him that the noble cause is alive and well, and why he must do what he must do.

His mind wanders to his buggy, of all things. Booth bought it to transport Lincoln after the kidnapping. Now it serves no purpose. Booth makes a mental note to put the buggy up for sale. But in an instant, his thoughts revert back to President Lincoln, who now has only five days to live.

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