Among those planning to be in attendance the night President Lincoln went to the theater was the well known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Before the Civil War Booth had been a member of the Know-Nothing Party, a political organization formed to preserve the country for native-born white citizens. Long a Southern sympathizer, he blamed Lincoln for the problems in the South.
Booth, who went professionally by the name of J. Wilkes Booth, came from a strong theater background. The Booth family was well known throughout America for its participation in the theater. Booth's father was Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., a famous actor. His brothers were Junius Brutus, Jr. and Edwin, both also actors.
The assassin, John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth, said by his brother and a sister, Asia, to be eccentric, strived to escape his father's shadow. He studied his lines faithfully, and he worked hard. Still, he felt that others saw him as Junius Booth's son, something he hated.
In 1859 he had volunteered to serve in the Richmond Grays, not because he felt any particular draw to the military, however. He joined with the intent of witnessing the hanging of John Brown, shortly after which he left the Grays. He did identify with the Confederate cause, however, and there are reports that he was engaged in smuggling medical supplies to the Confederacy late in the war.
In the last months of 1864 Booth recruited a number of others who felt as he did, and the group hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln. Once Lincoln was in hand, he would be held as a hostage for the release of thousands of Confederate prisoners of war.
Joining Booth in the bizarre plot were Mary Surratt, a widow who ran the boardinghouse where most of the planning took place, and her son John, a Confederate spy and agent. Others in the band of conspirators were Confederate agent George Atzerodt, deserters Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Loughlin, and a young man named David Herold. Herold was a local boy who knew the surounding countryside well. His job would be to help the conspirators escape. One other person was said to be a part of the plot, an assertion that has not been proven but which carries interesting implications. That man was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who would play a major role in Booth's later escape.
On March 17, 1865 the plan was to take place. All the months of preparation, however, were in vain. Lincoln was to have been captured while on his way to Campbell Hospital outside Washington. As the would-be kidnappers lay in wait along the road, however, the President changed his plans and attended a luncheon at the National Hotel instead. Ironically, it was the same hotel Booth stayed in while in Washington. There are unconfirmed reports that the kidnappers actually did stop a carriage that day but were chagrined to learn that it carried Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Whether this actually happened or not is debatable, and appears unlikely.
With the failure of the plot, John Surratt decided he wanted nothing more to do with it. Dropping out, he left the area. Another malcontent, Lewis (Powell) Paine, then joined the group.
Before the kidnapping plot could be revised, however, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army and the war was over. There would no longer be talk of kidnapping the President. Now, he would have to be killed!
Clandestine meetings took place at the Surratt House. Meeting as a group or just a few at a time, the plot took shape. Booth would kill the President, Atzerodt would murder Vice-President Andrew Johnson, and Paine would do the same to Secretary of State William Seward. It would take coordination and planning, perhaps with a dash of luck thrown in, but if they succeeded they would be heroes in the South, Booth concluded.
On April 11, President Lincoln gave his last speech. Booth, Herold, and Paine were in the audience to hear Lincoln discuss his plans for Reconstruction, which included new rights for blacks. The speech was said to have enraged Booth, who reportedly said, "That is the last speech he will ever make."
The plan was in place. All that was needed now was the opporunity. That opportunity would come the evening of April 14, 1865 in a small theater on Tenth Street in Washington, DC.
The Assassination of Lincoln