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Revisiting The Night Abraham Lincoln Was Shot 150 Years Ago


On this day in 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the presidential box at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. He placed a gun behind the head of Abraham Lincoln and pulled the trigger.


One-hundred-fifty years later, Lincoln is remembered as a great president whose life was marked by America's war with itself and whose life came to an end just as peace was at hand.


JAMES SWANSON: Six-hundred thousand Americans had died in the Civil War. That war was finally coming to an end. There'd be no more dying. And Lincoln was filled with joy.

MONTAGNE: Author James Swanson has written about one last shocking death - that of Abraham Lincoln himself. Here's an encore presentation of a visit we paid to Ford's Theater in 2009. We met Swanson there to trace the assassination of President Lincoln. On that spring night in 1865, the city of Washington, D.C., was celebrating.


SWANSON: Cannons, fireworks, torches, parades, people getting drunk in the streets, children running around caring little flags - victory is ours. Richmond has fallen. Amidst all this joy and celebration, there was one man in Washington who was not happy at all, and that was the famous actor John Wilkes Booth.

MONTAGNE: Booth was a Confederate sympathizer who plotted with others to kidnap Lincoln - a plot that had come to nothing. And then, a fateful bit of news came his way.

SWANSON: On the morning of April 14, when he was reading his mail on the front steps of Ford's Theater around noon, he heard the president was coming to the play that night. That's the moment he decided to kill Lincoln.

MONTAGNE: Just hours later, the actors came on stage at Ford's Theater to perform the comedy "Our American Cousin." The president, along with Mrs. Lincoln, was late.

SWANSON: And he came up these stairs with his guests. When he arrived, the audience finally realized the president was here. And so the orchestra broke into a performance of "Hail To The Chief." And the actors suspended the play and made a tribute to Lincoln. And it took this very same route. Booth came, with full view of the stage, full view of the performance, the sound of the theater, the laughter. And then Booth stopped.

MONTAGNE: A well-known, famous actor.

SWANSON: Yes. If Lincoln's box had been guarded properly, he could've said, I'm John Wilkes Booth. I want to greet the president - just the way a famous actor today might be able to greet the president in an important public event.

MONTAGNE: Why wasn't there anyone guarding President Lincoln? This was the end of a terrible civil war. He had enemies.

SWANSON: One of the great mysteries of the assassination story and the whole Civil War is why didn't Lincoln have proper guards? Lincoln was a fatalist. He thought, if someone wants to kill me, nothing can stop them. After he was shot, over a hundred death threats were found in a cubbyhole in his desk. He knew he was a target.


MONTAGNE: So we are standing, looking into the president's box - the very spot, the very seats that Lincoln sat in. This is a little vestibule. It's a private little place.

SWANSON: We're now experiencing just what John Wilkes Booth did. It was in this space, in the dark, that Booth waited, listening to the dialogue from the play. It was like a ticking clock - four actors on stage now, now three, now two. Now only Harry Hawk alone stands on stage, and he's about to say a funny line that's going to cause the whole audience to break out in laughter, which Booth hopes will muffle the sound of his shot.

Booth has in his left hand his bowie knife. In his right hand, he clutches the Derringer pistol. He hears that line. And he levels his right hand and almost touches the back of Lincoln's head with the Derringer pistol and fires.

Everything froze. The box took on a very devilish red color because of the artificial lights, the gas lamps and the smoke, which was voluminous from a black powder weapon. Then one of the Lincolns' two theater guests, Major Rathbone, an Army officer, realized that's a gunshot. He rose up to grapple with Booth. And as soon as Rathbone looked up, he could see that knife coming down to kill him. Rathbone got his arm up just in time to parry the blow but endured a deep cut. Booth sat on that balustrade. He swung one leg over, then the other. He jumped to the stage.

MONTAGNE: He would have to have been skilled because it's pretty far down there.

SWANSON: Yes, it's about an 11-foot drop. Then Booth ran to center stage. This was his final and greatest performance on the American stage. So he raised his bloody dagger in the air, and he cried out the state motto of Virginia, sic semper tyrannis - thus always to tyrants. And then he cried out, the South is avenged. And just as he exited from the stage, he was heard distinctly to say, I have done it. And then he vanished into the wings.

MONTAGNE: With John Wilkes Booth leading what would be a long chase into the countryside, President Lincoln was carried to the street, where a huge crowd had quickly collected.

SWANSON: So they're carrying the president in the middle of this street. He's dying. Thousands of people are standing here. And they don't know what to do with the president of the United States who's just been shot through the head. Then across the street there, the Peterson boarding house, a man came out that front door holding a lamp and said, bring him in here.

MONTAGNE: Down this hall is the room that President Lincoln lay in that night.

SWANSON: The bed was too short, and his legs reached over the end of the bed. The doctor said break the footboard off so the president can lie in the bed. It wouldn't come off. So the president had to be laid diagonally across what became the deathbed.

MONTAGNE: Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 the next morning. James Swanson tells us that John Wilkes Booth had several motives to kill Lincoln - to avenge the defeated South, to inspire the Confederates to keep on fighting and to win for himself fame and glory, which is why 12 days later when he was wounded and trapped by soldiers in a barn...

SWANSON: He performed his end. He was locked in the barn. They were outside. It was dark. He engaged them in Shakespearean dialogue - come on, I'll fight you one by one. He wanted to duel them. Finally, they had enough of it, and they set the barn on fire. The flames were like the stage lights. And they illuminated Booth for the final performance. He walked towards the front of the barn. He was going to walk out the door. And at that moment, one of the soldiers fired at Booth with his pistol. But even then, he wasn't dead. He was dragged to the front porch of the farm. And as the sun rose and shone upon his face, he looked at his hands, and he produced the final benediction, not just his on life but on his assassination and the entire plot. Booth's very last words were useless, useless


MONTAGNE: James Swanson has written several books about Abraham Lincoln's death, including "Manhunt" and "Chasing Lincoln's Killer." President Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater 150 years ago today. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR Mews. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.