Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


10:00 P.M.

The third act is under way. Soon the play will be over, and Lincoln can get back to the White House. Meanwhile, the unheated state box has gotten chilly. Abraham Lincoln drops Mary’s hand as he rises to put on his overcoat, tailored in a black wool specially for his oversized frame by Brooks Brothers. The silk lining is decorated with an eagle clutching a banner in its beak. The words on the streamer are Lincoln’s unspoken manifesto, and every time he slips on the coat he is reminded of his mission. “One country, one destiny,” it reads, quite simply.

Sitting back down in the horsehair rocker, Lincoln shifts his gaze from the performers directly below him. He pushes back the privacy curtain, then leans forward over the railing to look down and to the left, at the audience.

Lincoln lets go of the curtain and returns his attention to Our American Cousin.

It is seven minutes after ten. At the exact same moment, John Wilkes Booth strolls through the front door of Ford’s—heart racing, whiskey on his breath, skin clammy to the touch. He is desperately trying to appear calm and cool. Always a man of manners, Booth takes off his hat and holds it with one hand. When ticket taker John Buckingham makes a joke of letting him in for free, “courtesy of the house,” Booth notices the bulge in Buckingham’s lip and asks if he has any extra tobacco. Like so many other minor theater employees, Buckingham is in awe of Booth’s celebrity. Not only does he hand over a small plug of tobacco, he also summons the courage to ask if he might introduce Booth to some close friends who happen to be at the show. “Later,” Booth promises with a wink.

Buckingham notes the deathly pallor on Booth’s face and how incredibly nervous the normally nonchalant actor seems to be. As Booth walks off, Buckingham’s fellow Ford’s employee John Sessford points out that Booth has been in and out of the theater all day. “Wonder what he’s up to?” Sessford mutters to Buckingham. They watch as Booth climbs the staircase to the dress circle, which accesses the hallway to the state box. But neither man thinks Booth’s unusual behavior merits closer scrutiny. They watch him disappear up the stairs and then once again return their attention to the front door and to the patrons late in returning from intermission.

At the top of the stairs, Booth enters the dress circle lobby. He is now inside the darkened theater, standing directly behind the seats of the second-level audience. He hums softly to himself to calm his nerves. In hopes of increasing the theater’s capacity for this special performance, Ford’s management has placed extra chairs in this corridor, and now Booth walks past two Union officers sitting in those seats. They recognize the famous actor and then turn their focus back to the play. They make no move to stop him, because they have no reason to.

Booth approaches the door leading into the state box. It is attended by a White House messenger but not a pistol-packing bodyguard. He sees the chair where John Parker should be sitting and breathes a sigh of relief that the bodyguard is still in the saloon. Handing the messenger one of his calling cards, Booth steps through the doorway without a question.

In the theater below, a young girl who came to the theater hoping to see Lincoln has spent the night staring up at the state box, waiting for him to show his face. Now she is awed by the sight of John Wilkes Booth, the famous and dashing actor, standing in the shadows above her. At the same time, her heart leaps as Lincoln moves his gaze from the stage to the audience, once again poking his head out over the railing. Finally, with the play almost over, she has seen the president! She turns to the man next to her, Taltavul’s owner, Jim Ferguson, and grins at her good fortune.

She turns to get another glimpse of Booth, but by then he has already pushed through the door and now stands in the darkened hallway leading into the state box. He is completely alone. If he wants, he can go back out the door and get on with his life as if nothing has happened. The letter boasting of his deed has not yet been sent. Other than the other members of the conspiracy, no one will be the wiser. But if he walks forward down the hallway, then through the rear door of Lincoln’s box, his life will change forever.

Booth has a head full of whiskey and a heart full of hate. He thinks of the Confederate cause and Lincoln’s promise to give slaves the vote. And then Booth remembers that no one can put a stop to it but him. He is the one man who can, and will, make a difference. There will be no going back.

Earlier that day Booth spied a wooden music stand in the state box. He now jams it into the side of the door leading to the corridor. The music stand has become a dead bolt, and Booth double-checks to make sure it is lodged firmly against the wooden door frame. This seals the door shut from the inside. When he is done, the door might as well be locked, so perfect is his blockade. It’s impossible to push open from the other side. No one in the theater can get in to stop him.

Booth then creeps down the hallway. Booth’s second act of preparation that afternoon was using a pen knife to carve a very small peephole in the back wall of the state box. Now he looks through that hole to get a better view of the president.

As Booth already knows, the state box is shaped like a parallelogram. The walls to the left and right of Lincoln slant inward. Booth sees that Clara Harris and Major Rathbone sit along the wall to his far right, at an angle to the stage, and the Lincolns sit along the railing. The Lincolns look out directly onto the stage, while Clara and her beau must turn their heads slightly to the right to see the show—if they look directly forward they will be gazing at Mary and Abraham Lincoln in profile.

But it is not their view of Lincoln that matters. What matters is that Booth, through the peephole, is staring right at the back of Lincoln’s head. He can hear the players down below, knowing that in a few short lines Harry Hawk’s character Asa Trenchard will be alone, delivering his “sockdologizing old man-trap” line.

That line is Booth’s cue—and just ten seconds away.

Booth presses his black hat back down onto his head, then removes the loaded Deringer from his coat pocket and grasps it in his right fist. With his left hand, he slides the long, razor-sharp Bowie knife from its sheath.

Booth takes a deep breath and softly pushes the door open with his knife hand. The box is dimly lit from the footlights down below. He can see only faces. No one knows he’s there. He presses his body against the wall, careful to stay in the shadows while awaiting his cue. Abraham Lincoln’s head pokes over the top of his rocking chair, just four short feet in front of Booth; then once again he looks down and to the left, at the audience.

“You sockdologizing old man-trap” booms out through the theater.

The audience explodes in laughter.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!