Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

10:15 P.M.

John Wilkes Booth takes a bold step out of the shadows, Deringer clutched in his right fist and knife in his left. He extends his arm and aims for the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head. No one sees him. No one knows he is there.

Booth squeezes the trigger. Unlike the crazed Richard Lawrence, whose pistols misfired when he attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson, Booth feels his gun kick. The ball launches down the barrel as the audience guffaws at the play. Abraham Lincoln has chosen this precise moment to lean forward and turn his head to the left for another long look down into the audience. A half second later, he would have been leaning so far forward that the ball would have missed his skull completely. But the president is not so lucky. The man who has worried and fretted and bullied America back from the brink of disaster, holding fast to his faith in the Union at a time when lesser men argued that it should be dissolved, feels a split second snap of pain—and then nothing at all.

“The ball entered through the occipital bone about one inch to the left of the median line and just above the left lateral sinus, which it opened,” the autopsy will read. “It then penetrated the dura matter, passed through the left posterior lobe of the cerebrum, entered the left lateral ventricle and lodged in the white matter of the cerebrum just above the anterior portion of the left corpus striatum.”

The president’s calvarium—or skullcap—will be removed with a saw. A surgeon will probe the exposed brain before slicing into it with a scalpel, using the path of coagulated blood to trace the trajectory of the ball. This will show that the ball entered behind the left ear and traveled diagonally across the brain, coming to rest above the right eye.

Yet the autopsy will be inconclusive. Four different doctors will examine the body. Each will have a different conclusion about what happened once the sphere of Britannia metal poked a neat round hole in Lincoln’s skull and then pushed fragments of that bone deep into Lincoln’s brain as it traveled precisely seven and a half inches before plowing to a stop in the dense gray matter.

At ten-fifteen on the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln slumps forward in his rocking chair. Mary Lincoln, lost in the play until this very instant, stops laughing. Major Henry Reed Rathbone snaps his head around at the sound of gunfire—a sound he knows all too well from the battlefield. He’s had his back to the door, but in an instant he’s on his feet, striking a defensive pose.

John Wilkes Booth drops the Deringer and switches the knife to his right hand. Just in time, for Major Rathbone sets aside his own safety and vaults across the small space. Booth raises the knife to shoulder level and brings it down in a hacking motion. Rathbone throws his left arm up in a defensive reflex and instantly feels the knife cut straight down through skin and biceps to the bone.

Booth moves quickly. He steps to the front of the box, ignoring a stricken Mary Lincoln. “Freedom!” he bellows down to the audience, though in all the laughter and the growing confusion as to why the cast has added the sound of gunfire to the scene, his words are barely heard. Harry Hawk stands alone on stage, staring up at the state box with growing concern.

Booth hurls his body over the railing. Up until this point, he has performed every single aspect of the assassination perfectly. But now he misjudges the thickness of the massive United States flag decorating the front of the box. He means to hold on to the railing with one hand as he vaults, throwing his feet up and over the edge, then landing on the stage like a conquering hero.

This sort of leap is actually his specialty. Booth is famous among the theatrical community for his unrehearsed gymnastics, sometimes inserting jumps and drops into Shakespeare plays on a whim. During one memorable performance of Macbeth, his fall to the stage was several feet longer than the fall from the state box.

But Booth’s right spur gets tangled in the flag’s folds. Instead of a gallant two-footed landing on the stage, Booth topples heavily from the state box. He drops to the boards awkwardly, left foot and two hands braced in a bumbling attempt to catch his fall.

The fibula of Booth’s lower left leg, a small bone that bears little weight, snaps two inches above the ankle. The fracture is complete, dividing the bone into two neat pieces. If not for the tightness of Booth’s boot, which forms an immediate splint, the bone would poke through the skin.

Now Booth lies on the stage in front of a nearly packed house. His leg is broken. He holds a blood-smeared dagger in his right hand. The sound of gunfire has just ricocheted around Ford’s. Major Rathbone is bleeding profusely from a severe stab wound. And just above him, slumped forward as if very drunk or very asleep, the president of the United States is unconscious.

Yet still nobody knows what happened. James Ford steps out of the box office and thinks Booth is pulling some crazy stunt to get attention. Observers in the audience have heard the pop and are amazed by the sudden appearance of a famous matinee idol making a cameo on the stage right before their very eyes—perhaps adding some comical whimsy to this very special evening. Harry Hawk still holds center stage, his head turned toward Booth, wondering why in the world he would intrude on the performance.

Time stops for a second—but only one.

Then the assassin takes charge. “Booth dragged himself up on one knee,” Hawk will later remember, “and was slashing that long knife around him like one who was crazy. It was then, I am sure, I heard him say, ‘The South shall be free!’ I recognized Booth as he regained his feet and came toward me, waving his knife. I did not know what he had done or what his purpose might be. I did simply what any man would have done—I ran.”

Booth scurries to his feet and limps off the stage, “with a motion,” observes one spectator, “like the hopping of a bull frog.”

“Stop that man!” Major Rathbone screams from above.

“Won’t somebody please stop that man!” Clara Harris echoes.

“What is the matter?” cries a voice from the audience.

“The president has been shot!” she shouts back.

The reverie is shattered, and with it all the joy of Washington’s postwar celebration. The theater explodes in confusion. In an instant, the audience is on its feet. It is a scene of utter chaos, “a hell of all hells.” Men climb up and over the seats, some fleeing toward the exits while others race to the stage, hoping to climb up into the box and be part of the action. Women faint. Children are trapped in the panic. “Water!” some yell, tending to the collapsed.

A former congressman yells something far more pointed: “Hang the scoundrel!”

Meanwhile, Booth passes within inches of leading lady Laura Keene as he limps off the stage. William Withers, the orchestra leader with whom he had a drink just hours earlier, stands between Booth and the stage door. Withers is paralyzed with fear, but Booth assumes he is intentionally blocking the way and slashes at him, “the sharp blade ripping through the collar of my coat, penetrating my vest and under garments, and inflicting a flesh wound in my neck,” Withers will later testify.

Only one man is bold enough to give chase. Set carpenter Jake Ritterspaugh and Booth reach the stage door at the very same time. Booth thrusts the knife blade at him. Ritterspaugh leaps back. And in that instant, Booth is gone, squeezing through the door and hauling himself up into the saddle.

Rather than give Peanut John the shiny nickel the boy had hoped for, Booth kicks him hard and bludgeons him with the butt of his knife.

“He kicked me! He kicked me!” the boy moans, falling to the ground.

At the same instant, yet another spontaneous torchlight parade blocks Booth’s getaway on Tenth Street. He swerves into the alley, spurs his horse down the cobblestones dividing two large brick buildings, and then turns onto F Street, completely avoiding the procession.

In an instant, John Wilkes Booth disappears into the night.

Editorial illustrations depicting the assassination of President Lincoln

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