“Here’s our pioneer”
We near the conclusion of our series about the assassins of Assassins as we are putting the finishing touches on our production that opens this Friday!
John Wilkes Booth
Assassinated President Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth was a secessionist, actor and the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.
Hailing from the famous Booth theatrical family, John, along his brothers Edwin and Junius, followed in the footsteps of their father as popular theater actors through the 1850s and 60s.
John was a sensation on the stage, becoming known for his energetic, hilarious performances and good looks. He was a huge hit with the ladies, receiving fan mail almost constantly.
A Plot To Kidnap Lincoln
Booth held deep pro-slavery convictions even before the Civil War, evidenced by his attendance at the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown. But as the conflict between North and South began in earnest in 1860, Booth made fiery public statements and hardened private sentiments against the Union.
While his star rose in the acting world, he gathered a group of conspirators and hatched a plot to end the war by kidnapping Lincoln. As his family relationships fell apart over his extreme views, he corresponded secretly with Confederate Intelligence.
After news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Booth became enraged and dispensed with the kidnapping plan. He was now resolved to kill the President.
Sic Semper Tyrannis
Booth’s conspiracy was re-engineered. The goal was now to kill the top-ranking members of the Union government- President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward.
Booth made his move while Lincoln attended a performance at Ford’s Theater, where the actor was a familiar face and free to roam the premises. He snuck into the President’s box during a performance of the play Our American Cousin and shot him in the back of the head with a pistol, soon after jumping down onto the stage where he shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, Latin for “thus always to tyrants”. He made his escape into the night, aided by a compatriot waiting in the stables with a horse.
A Shocked Nation
There is simply no modern equivalent to this gruesome and bloody event, especially given the odd clash of public figures. A young heartthrob actor taking aim at a President would have been just as wild back then as it would be now. Imagine Timothée Chalamet taking aim at the Head of State during a screening of Frozen. That’s how crazy it was.
Thousands upon thousands of mourners filled the streets as Booth attempted to escape into the marshes of the South. Booth’s co-conspirators had failed. Secretary Seward was injured but alive, and the man sent to kill Vice President Johnson had gotten cold feet.
Newspapers of all persuasions decried the senseless violence and cowardice of John Wilkes Booth, though some observed that the oh-so-shocked editorial sentiments of pro-South papers didn’t exactly ring true after so many years of propagandizing and fear-mongering about Lincoln and abolition.
Union authorities tracked Booth down at Garrett Farm in Virginia, where he had supposedly lied about his identity in order to stay with a local family. After surrounding him in a barn, he refused to surrender to Union forces, and they set the building ablaze. As the building began to burn, he moved around inside, allowing a Union Soldier to shoot him. He was removed from the burning building, mortally wounded. Dramatic to the end, Booth looked at his hands and muttered “Useless, useless” before he died.
For Further Research:
- Watch this YouTube video lecture from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: The Life of John Wilkes Booth
- From the History Channel: Timeline of Lincoln’s Assassination
Meet our Booth – Jay Dysart
Jay portrays John Wilkes Booth in Landmark’s production of Assassins. Audiences will recognize Jay from some of his previous appearances at Landmark as Andrews in Titanic, Frollo in Hunchback, Professor Bhaer in Little Women, and Orin Scrivello DDS in Little Shop of Horrors.