Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Shooting of Abraham Lincoln

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On this day in 1865 - Good Friday - US President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot during a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, by John Wilkes Booth; his killing was part of a larger plot to also kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Only Booth was successful; Lewis Powell's attack on Seward resulted in a subsequent facial disfigurement for the statesman (not yet famous for the Alaska Purchase and still recovering from a near-fatal carriage accident nine days earlier), and George Atzerodt lost the nerve he'd been attempting to gain by getting drunk, meaning the Vice-President alone was spared the cabal's larcenous attentions.

The plot had originally involved the kidnap of the 16th President in order to hold him captive in the South until the Union Government resumed prisoner exchanges, upon which the badly understaffed Confederate Army relied. Booth, one of the most famous actors of his day and a noted Confederate sympathizer, changed his mind after attending a speech given by Lincoln outside the White House in which the President announced he planned to give blacks the right to vote. 'That is the last speech he will ever give,' he said to his companion and fellow conspirator David Herold, as they passed out through the gates in the direction of Lafayette Square, now with murder on their minds.

After pardoning Confederate spy George S.E. Vaughn at the behest of Missouri senator John B. Henderson, Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln made their way to the theatre, and were joined in the Presidential Box by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris. Since they'd arrived after the curtain had gone up, the play was halted briefly to acknowledge their entrance; seeing as the Confederacy had only just surrendered, the reception they received was fulsome in its enthusiasm. Lincoln didn't enjoy being fussed over, so they soon enough took their seats; as the play resumed, Booth emerged from the neighbouring Star Saloon and made his way silently up the stairs and into the vestibule behind their box, brandishing both a deringer and a knife.

Having barred the vestibule door from the inside with a music stand he waited, listening for his cue. Booth had timed his shot so that it would be covered by the great laugh a certain line always got. The line came - 'you sockdologizing old mantrap' - followed by the laugh, at which time Booth fired one shot into the back of the President's head, causing it to loll forward. Rathbone rose and grabbed Booth by the coat, at which time Booth slashed at him with the knife, wounding Rathbone.

That's when Booth leapt onto the stage; having caught one of his spurs in the bunting adorning the box, he landed awkwardly, breaking his left leg just above the ankle. Many in the audience, who hadn't heard the shot, seemed confused by what was going on. 'Sic semper tyrannis' Booth shouted from centre stage. 'The South is avenged.' Then he dashed off, running into the alley behind the theatre and there mounted his waiting horse. The assassin had already melted into the night when Clara Harris called out 'He has shot the President!' The stunned crowd of 1500 erupted in pandemonium; among members of the audience only the distinguished veteran and lawyer Joseph B. Stewart - at 6-foot-5 said to be the tallest man in Washington - attempted to chase Booth, but was unsuccessful.

A doctor named Charles Leale rushed to aid the wounded President, forcing his way through the throng who were already vowing to burn the theatre to the ground. The play's star Laura Keene fled from the stage, where her efforts to calm the crowd had proven futile; once inside the box she cradled the President's head in her lap, soaking her handkerchief in his blood as she sobbed. Following a peremptory examination and subsequent diagnosis of a massive, fatal head wound, the quick thinking Leale - formerly an Army surgeon and still just 23 years old - decided he could not let the President die on the floor of a theatre. Even still, a five or six block journey to the White House over rutted dirt roads would surely hasten his death. With the aid of Drs. Charles Taft and Albert King and several soldiers Lincoln was carried across 10th Street to Petersen's Boarding House, where a lodger named Henry Safford showed them in.

Lincoln lingered there in a ground floor bedroom, unconscious, for nine hours, not dying until just after 7:22 the next morning, April 15th; among his attendants on that long night was Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, a Canadian-educated black. Despite a broken leg, Booth evaded capture for 12 days, but was eventually cornered and himself killed on April 26th when a tobacco barn in which he was hiding at Garrett's Farm near Bowling Green, Virginia, was set ablaze; in the ensuing chaos a Union soldier named Boston Corbett shot Booth in the neck, paralyzing him following which he was dragged from the inferno. His last words, spoken three hours later on the farmhouse porch, were 'Useless, useless...'

Booth's co-conspirators - Mary Suratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt - were all hanged at Old Arsenal Penitentiary in July 1865 for their part in the conspiracy; Mary Suratt became the first woman in American history to be given such a sentence. Mary Todd Lincoln died at home in July 1882, having spent three months of 1875 in an insane asylum. In December 1883 Major Rathbone - then US Consul to Hanover - murdered his wife of sixteen years, Clara Harris, following which he was institutionalized until his death in August 1911.

The events of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and its aftermath are thrillingly retold in James L. Swanson's book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer.
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Seumas Gagne said...

I remember so clearly my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial. I arrived in the city late at night - it was my first visit - and a friend who lived there for many years took me for a walking tour in the sweltering 11pm night. He snuck me around the back of the memorial so I wouldn't recognize it until we rounded a certain corner and BANG. It was completely amazing. I stood for an hour on my aching feet, sweating and reading all of Lincoln's words carved on the walls.

I thought to myself "there's nobody left like him" He stood up to centuries of tradition and said "no more - this is wrong and always has been - it ends here"

There's nobody left like that.

Seumas Gagne said...

A year and a few days later, I'm less certain that there's no hope for our country. Maybe.