Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

8:00 P.M.

As Lincoln is bidding farewell to William Crook, Booth is gobbling down a quick dinner in the National Hotel’s dining room. Food, sleep, and adrenaline have him feeling sober once more. Our American Cousin starts at eight, and his plan will go into action shortly after ten P.M. If all goes well, any residual effects of the afternoon’s alcohol will have worn off by then. In fact, Booth is feeling so good that he starts drinking again. What he is about to do is very grave, indeed. Liquid courage will make sure he doesn’t get stage fright and miss his cue.

That cue is simple: there is a moment in the third act when the actor Harry Hawk, playing the part of Asa Trenchard, is the only person on stage. He utters a line that never fails to make the audience convulse with laughter. “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh?” he says to the character of the busybody, Mrs. Mountchessington, who has insulted him before exiting the stage. “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

The instant that the punch line hits home and the Ford’s audience explodes, Booth will kill Lincoln. If everything goes according to plan, he will already be concealed inside the state box. All he needs to do is pull out his Deringer and fire. Booth will toss the pistol aside after shooting Lincoln, then use his Bowie knife to battle his way out, if cornered.

His plan is to keep moving forward at all times—forward from the back wall of the box, forward to Lincoln’s rocking chair, forward up and over the railing and then down onto the stage, forward to the backstage door, forward to Maryland, and then forward all the way to Mexico, exile, and safety.

But Booth will stop for an instant in the midst of all that rapid movement. The actor in him cannot resist the chance to utter one last bold line from center stage. After leaping from the balcony Booth will stand tall and, in his best elocution, announce, “Sic semper tyrannis”: Thus always to tyrants.

The Latin phrase is meant to sound smart, the sort of profound parting words that will echo down the corridors of history. He has stolen it, truth be told, from the state of Virginia. It is the commonwealth’s motto.

No matter. The words are perfect.

Booth plans to have another last-minute rendezvous with his co-conspirators at eight P.M. He returns to his room and polishes his Deringer, then slips a single ball into the barrel. The gun goes into his pocket. Into his waistband goes the Bowie knife in its sheath. Outside he can hear Washington coming to life once again, with still more of the endless postwar parties, bonfires, and street corner sing-alongs that annoy him no end.

Booth packs a small bag with a makeup pencil, false beard, false mustache, wig, and a plaid muffler. As he is about to leave the hotel on his deadly errand, he realizes that his accomplices might be in need of firearms. So he slips a pair of revolvers into the bag. Their firepower far exceeds the Deringer’s.

And yet what Booth leaves behind is just as powerful: among the personal effects that authorities will later find are a broken comb, tobacco, embroidered slippers, and one very telling scrap of paper. On it are written the keys to top-secret coded Confederate messages that link him with Jefferson Davis’s office in Richmond and with the million-dollar gold fund in Montreal. Finally, Booth leaves behind a valise filled with damning evidence that implicates John Surratt and, by extension, his mother, Mary.

Booth could have destroyed these items, but such is his malevolence that if he is ever apprehended or killed, he wants everyone else to go down as well. He also wants to show the world that he, Booth, was the mastermind behind killing Abraham Lincoln.

He walks downstairs and slides his key across the front desk. “Are you going to Ford’s tonight?” he asks George W. Bunker, the clerk on duty.

“No,” comes the reply.

“You ought to go,” Booth says with a wink on his way out the door. “There is going to be some splendid acting.”

Booth laughs at his own joke as he steps into the night air. Washington is covered in a fine mist, giving the streetlights and the Capitol dome a ghostly appearance. Booth feels like he is viewing the city through frosted glass.

He trots his horse over to Ford’s. Once again he examines his escape route, then slides down from the saddle and ties the mare to a hitching post. He steps into a nearby tavern, where he runs into Ford’s orchestra director, William Withers Jr., who’s having a last quick drink before the eight P.M. curtain. They talk shop, the conversation veering toward mutual friends in the theater. Withers mentions Booth’s late father. When Booth suggests that he is the better actor of the two, Withers laughingly shoots back that Booth will never be as talented as his father.

Booth’s face hardens, but he manages a thin smile. Focusing his gaze on Withers, he utters the truest sentence he will ever speak: “When I leave the stage I will be the most talked about man in America.”

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