“I just can’t decide, should I wear the blue taffeta or the gray silk?” “Abe, which one do you think I should wear?” ” Mary, why don’t you wear the gray silk since you have a bonnet to go with it and it is raining outside.” “You are always so practical Abe, okay I’ll wear the gray silk.” ” Woman, I wish you would hurry I do want to be there for the beginning of the play. Remember we still have to stop and pick up Major Rathbone and his fiancé, Sarah Harris.”
In the back of the old Herndon house, another man was getting dressed. He pulled on his black pants and black shirt, then his high black boots with spurs and his black-felt hat. Into his belt, he stuck a dagger and put a derringer inside his shirt. He too wanted to be on time for the opening of the play.
Earlier that day, John Wilkes Booth visited the Ford Theater and learned the president would be attending that night’s performance. He drilled a small hole in the wall of the presidential box. So when you looked through the hole he was staring directly at the president’s chair. Next he constructed a bar across the door. So when it lowered, the box could not be opened from the inside. He left the theater before anyone noticed what he had done
“Abe, look at all the people. They keep shouting, singing and celebrating.” “I do declare, the whole city is having a party.” ” Every man seems to be wearing a black stove pipe hat just like yours, Abe.”” It looks like you don’t need to worry about being reelected now Mr. President” said Major Rathbone. The president replied solemnly saying, “these people have suffered enough and there are difficult days ahead.” Then he smiled and said, “But tonight we celebrate.”
Booth left the Herndon House at about the same time. He blended into the crowds but did not join the celebration, he had something else on his mind. The plan was to eliminate the top three executives of the United States Government. His co-conspirators would kill the Vice President and Secretary of State, but he, John Wilkes Booth, would kill the President.
This was not his first attempt to kill the president. He failed on inauguration day. Then after following the president for several days to learn Mr. Lincoln’s movements, Booth failed in an attempt to kidnap the president. The president failed to appear where Booth thought he would appear. Tonight, with his derringer and dagger for back-up, he did not plan on failing to carry out his plan.
The Lincoln party arrived at the Ford Theater in a light mist and heavy fog. The gaslights surrounding the building cast an eerie yellow glow. The entrance to the theater was empty. The presidential party was late and the thousand or so theater goers lucky enough to have a ticket for that night’s performance were already seated. Harry Ford, owner of the Ford Theater, greeted the president’s party. He congratulated the president, honored the major for his service and fawned over the women.
Inside the theater the president was greeted by an actor wearing a stove top hat and a beard pasted on his face which resembled the president’s. He was their usher and brought out laughter to all four of the late arrivers. The Lincoln look alike ushered the president and his party to the presidential box.
Booth was also late in arriving to the Ford Theater that night. When pushing his way through a crowd of celebrators, one of the celebrants tried to get him to join in the festivities. When Booth refused, the group surrounded him and demanded to know why he was not celebrating. He knew if he revealed his confederate leaning he might be killed. Thinking quickly, he revealed his identity and as a well-known actor most in the crowd had heard of him. He then explained he was running late for a performance. The crowd parted and bid him a good performance. If they had only known what his role was that night.
John Wilkes Booth arrived at the Ford Theater about the same time the president arrived. He did not use the front door, he went around the back where the stage hand, who knew him well, allowed him into the theater. Booth walked over to the stage door and looked out at the audience. The presidential box was still empty, but then he saw the familiar stovepipe hat and bearded face appear. At that same moment the audience of Washington’s elite, senators, dignitaries, judges, generals, and socialites, also saw what Booth saw, and they erupted in a chorus of Hail to the Chief.
Booth decided this was the perfect time for him to sneak upstairs to where the presidential box was located. The commotion from the audience would provide him cover. He was well acquainted with the theater and had no problem finding his way to the presidential box. Booth was elated, the plan was going better than he expected.
Outside the presidential box stood President and Mary Lincoln along with their guests Major Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris. What had happened is that the actor/usher dressed as the president entered the box first. The crowd saw whom they thought was the president and immediately began to salute him in song and a standing ovation. President Lincoln always loved a good joke so he held back his party while the celebration continued for the look alike president.
The actor did his part well when he realized what was happening. He stood in the front of the box and raised his arms in salute to the adoring crowd below. This brought more cheers and cries for a speech. Just at that time the male lead for that night’s performance, Harry Hawk realized it was not Lincoln but his friend dressed as Lincoln. Hawk stepped forward and said, in perfect imitation of the president. “This reminds me of a story.”
The audience was laughing and the president was now eager to take his seat and reveal his joke. But just then John Wilkes Booth appeared around the corner in the corridor. Booth had no idea that the president was not in his box, he was totally unaware of the joke. When he saw the presidential party, he stopped, frozen as a statue. President Lincoln did see him and as a frequent theater goer immediately recognized the actor.
The President walked over to John Wilkes Booth and shook his hand, inviting him to join their party in the presidential box for the performance. For the first time in the actor’s life he was speechless. Here he was shaking the hand of the one man, on earth, he most detested. Before he could mutter a reply, he was being ushered into the presidential box and seated next to Major Rathbone who sat next to the president.
Adding to his discomfort was the reaction of the audience when they realized the joke which was just played on them. The Lincoln look alike actor took a sweeping bow and saluted the real president who stood grinning at the front of the box. The audience sang another chorus of Hail to the Chief. By the time the play, Our American Cousin, began the audience was well prepared for a night of comedy.
The president settled back in his cane-bottomed chair ready to put the affairs of state on hold for the night. He was eager for a relaxing evening after so many months of bitter contention. He turned to his new companion, John Wilkes Booth and inquired about the play. Booth knew the play well since he had played the leading role often. He found himself in conversation with his nemesis about the comedic lines coming up in the play.
Between him and the president was the Major who was quite a formidable man. He was nearly twice Booth’s size and bulk and next to the president made the tall thin man look positively undernourished. Booth was seething but he could not let onto his real mission. He would bide his time and wait until the major moved out of the way so he would have a clear shot at the president and then make his planned exit.
Mary sat with her hand in her husband’s hand thoroughly enjoying the play. This was a perfect evening and she could think of nothing that could come and destroy the happiness she felt. The play was reaching its climax. Harry Hawk had just been scorned by the girl he sought to marry. Her mother had insulted him as a “social boor.” As the women exited, Hawk cried out his hilarious line: “Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sockdolgizing old mantrap” and just then the door of the presidential box burst open.
John Parker, the president’s guard was standing there, his face was ashen and he shouted at the president, “Steward has been murdered.” The audience heard the shout and went into an uproar. “Steward has been murdered” they repeated. There was pushing and yelling, creating hysteria as the people who had lived on edge for so long panicked. The audience fearing a general massacre ran for the exits. Booth was momentarily paralyzed.
When he regained his senses, his first thought was for his own survival. The drifter Lewis Powell, who as the report stated, succeeded in his part of the assignation plan would surely give Booth up if he was to be caught. Pinkerton officers were ushering the president out of the box while the major escorted and protected the women. Booth could not carry out his own part of the plan now. He needed to escape and quickly.
In his panic he jumped over the railing and caught his spur on the American flag hung under the box. He crashed onto the stage and broke his shinbone. In shock, his fellow actor Henry Hawk ran to him but Booth jumped up yelling, “Sic semper tyrannis”-thus always to tyrants. He limped out the back door.
The president rushed to his office where he was met by Secretary of War Stanton. Stanton had taken charge and was bringing calm to the chaos. He informed the president that Steward was not killed only stabbed. Seems that when Steward had been injured in a carriage accident earlier the doctors wired his jaw and the wires prevented the knife from slicing his throat.
The would be assassin was in custody and talking. There were two other suspects at large. The president was shocked to hear that John Wilkes Booth was one and decided to keep that news from his wife Mary. Booth was found hiding in a pile of garbage behind a Dr. Mudd’s home. The third conspirator, a German immigrant by the name of George Azerot was also captured putting an end to this threat.
President Lincoln set out to heal the wounds of a fractured nation. He often said this was harder work than conducting the war, however more gratifying. Throughout his second and third terms as president he received cooperation from congress. The former confederacy was welcomed back into the union and rebuilt.
The president traveled to the southern states often and became a beloved figure throughout the former confederacy. He was admired for his wisdom, compassion, patience, willingness to compromise, and most of all his good humor.