April 14, 1865 began like most days for President Lincoln. He had slept reasonably well, although still slightly shaken by the nightmare that he'd had just two weeks earlier. In that dream, as he related it, he had fallen asleep, only to be wakened by subdued sobbing. Unable to locate the source of the crying, he passed from room to room in the White House. Finally, he entered the East Room, where he was shocked to see a catafalque, upon which rested a body in funeral attire. Soldiers surrounded the body, acting as Honor Guards. The face of the corpse was not visible, but a crowd of mourners stood around the catafalque, weeping softly. "Who has died in the White House?" he had asked, to which one of the mourners had replied, "The President. He has been killed by an assassin!" The sobbing immediately grew more intense, waking Lincoln. He had told his wife, Mary Todd, that he was still bothered by the dream.
Over breakfast he talked with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and sons Tad and Robert about more pleasant things. Mary indicated to her husband that she thought she'd like to see Our American Cousin that evening, a play at Ford's Theater. She asked the President to ask General Ulysses Grant and his wife to accompany them.
Following breakfast, Lincoln went to his office where he met with visitors throughout the day. One of his visitors was the newly appointed Minister to Spain, John P. Hale. Hale's daughter was engaged to the well known actor John Wilkes Booth.
A messenger was dispatched to the theater to reserve the President's Box for the evening performance. While the messenger was gone, Lincoln began a cabinet meeting. General Grant had been asked to sit in, and the meeting focused on the President's reconstruction plan.
The meeting lasted nearly three hours, at the end of which General Grant told Lincoln that he and his wife had already made plans to visit their children that evening and would be unable to go to the theater. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his wife were then asked, but they, too, could not attend.
By 4:00 p.m. the President's work day was finished, and he and Mary Todd decided to take a carriage ride before getting ready to go to the theater. Mary told her husband that Clara Harris and her fiancee, Major Henry Rathbone, had agreed to go with the Lincolns to Ford's Theater that evening.
Ford's Theater (photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
Just as Lincoln was ready to leave for the theater that evening, former Congressman George Ashmun arrived to speak to the president. Although he had no appointment, Lincoln decided to meet with him anyway. When it became apparent that the play would begin before they arrived, Lincoln called an end to the meeting, arranging for Ashmun to return the following morning to conclude their business. That meeting was not to be.
President and Mrs. Lincoln stepped into their carriage and began the short journey to the theater, picking up Clara Harris and Major Rathbone along the way. A light mist was falling, and the fog was rolling in from the Potomac. As Lincoln had feared, the play had already begun when the party arrived at Ford's Theater, but as they entered the President's Box, the play halted and the audience applauded in respect as the orchestra played Hail to the Chief.
John Parker, a Washington police officer who had been assigned as Lincoln's bodyguard for the evening, met the President just as he was entering the box. Parker, who did not have a very good record as a policeman, took his seat outside the box. However, he found that he could not see the stage, so he left his post to find better seating. Unbelievably, Parker then left the theater at intermission with Lincoln's footman and coachman. The three went to a saloon next to the theater for a drink. It is not known if Parker returned to the theater any more that evening.
With or without Parker present, the play resumed. At approximately 10:15 p.m. the door to the President's Box was opened quietly. John Wilkes Booth slipped into the box from behind the President, who was intently watching the play. Pulling out his derringer, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head at point blank range, then stabbed Rathbone before he could react.
Jumping more than 10 feet to the stage, Booth is said to have shouted, "Sic Semper Tyrannis!" (Translation: Thus always to tyrants). Landing awkwardly on the stage, Booth broke his left fibula. Despite his injury, Booth took advantage of the shock and confusion of those in the theater and limped outside to a waiting horse.
Elsewhere, Lewis Paine was stabbing Secretary of State Seward, inflicting serious but non-fatal wounds. George Atzerodt, however, lost his courage and failed to carry out his part of the plot, the killing of Vice President Johnson.
Back in the theater, 23-year old Dr. Charles Augustus Leale and Dr. Charles Sabin Taft rushed to the fallen President's side. Mary Todd had thrown herself across the prone body of her husband and Leale lifted her gently off. Lincoln was lowered to the floor by several soldiers and the two doctors began treatment. Shortly into the examination, Leale said softly, "His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him to recover." Mary Todd Lincoln, seated on a nearby couch, sobbed almost imperceptibly: Her husband's dream had been prophetic.
The doctors decided that the President should be moved from the theater, and the soldiers carried their Commander in Chief out to the street. Major Rathbone, bleeding from his knife wound, followed with Clara Harris and Mrs. Lincoln. From the nearby Peterson House, a shout came, "Bring him in here!"
Lincoln was taken inside and carried to a room rented by William Clark, who was not at home. Too tall to fit into the bed, Lincoln was placed diagonally across. His pulse was weak, his breathing heavy. Mary Todd Lincoln wandered in and out of the room all night, checking on him. She was comforted by son Robert, who had rushed from the White House when he heard the news. Youngest son Tad, who had been at another theater, had been taken back to the White House to wait.
Leale compassionately held Lincoln's hand throughout the night knowing that, in the unlikely event that the mortally wounded President did regain consciousness, the nature of his wound was such that he would be blind. Leale said later that he just wanted the President to know that somebody was there with him.
In the back parlor, just a few feet from where Lincoln lay, Secretary of War Stanton took over, issuing orders for the arrest of Booth. Interrogation of eyewitness was begun immediately.
At 7:22 the next morning, Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, took his last breath. Stanton is reported to have said, "Now he belongs to the ages." A lock of Lincoln's hair was cut at Mary Todd Lincoln's request.
Lincoln's body was placed in a temporary coffin, draped with an American flag, and taken to the White House a few hours after his death, where an autopsy was performed. He was then prepared for public viewing.
By 10:00 a.m. Vice President Johnson had been administered the oath of office by Salmon P. Chase, and the nation had a 17th President.
Tragedy would follow the players in this drama. Mrs. Lincoln was so devasted by the murder that she remained bedridden in the White House for more than a month, unable to leave even to attend her husband's funeral. In 1875 she would be committed to an asylum, and she died in 1882.
Henry Rathbone and William Seward both would recover from their wounds. Rathbone and Clara Harris eventually married, but Rathbone killed her in 1883. Rathbone himself was to die in 1911, an inmate of an insane asylum.
William Peterson, owner of the house in which Lincoln died, committed suicide on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution in 1871.
When the guilty parties had been brought to trial and sentenced, two Senators, Preston King and James Lane, kept Mary Surratt's lawyers from seeing President Johnson to ask for her sentence to be reduced. Both King and Lane would eventually commit suicide.
Even the Surratt House, where the plot to kill the President was born, was not spared from a harsh fate. In 1929, at the height of Prohibition, the house was raided by federal officers for violating the prohibition laws. The house was padlocked.
John Parker, Lincoln's bodyguard that fateful night, would be charged with neglect of duty just a few weeks after the assassination. The charges would be dismissed a month later. Mrs. Lincoln would forever blame Parker for her husband's murder. Parker, however, may not have been as guilty as some would say. Lincoln had often gone to the theater with no bodyguard at all, and he was known to have a cavalier attitude toward his own safety. Some have suggested that Lincon himself may have told Parker to find a good seat and enjoy the play.
William Crook, Lincoln's White House bodyguard, reported that Lincoln had told him on the day of the assassination, "There are men who want to take my life. And I have no doubt they will do it. . . If it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it."
Lincoln's death is believed to have ended any hope of reuniting the country without any rancor. The bitterness which followed the war is still felt by many today.
The Assassination of Lincoln