On April 26, 1865, after a near two-week manhunt, federal cavalry troopers finally caught up with John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.
Booth had been the brains behind the conspiracy to not only murder the president, but likewise kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Johnson's would-be assassin failed to find his courage and walked away from his assignment while the man assigned to murder Seward only succeeded in wounding his target, who was then recovering from a carriage accident.
Only Booth succeeded in his task and disappeared into the night shortly after the gruesome deed. As Lincoln lay dying from a gunshot wound to the back of his head, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge of the manhunt and vowed to find the cowardly assassin.
Soon after, the U.S. government offered $50,000 for the assassin and $25,000 for any of his fellow conspirators. Historian Harry Hansen notes that many believed Booth had acted with the sanction of the remains of the Confederate government.
“The hysteria that swept the country,” Hansen writes, “also led the government to offer $100,000 for the arrest of (Confederate President) Jefferson Davis.” President Andrew Johnson then asserted that the United States military had evidence that Davis and other Confederate leaders had planned the assassination.
That was not the case. Confederate leaders had no knowledge of the plot, and Booth, the true architect of the scheme, began to make his escape to the South. One problem plagued his journey, however: a broken leg. The day after the assassination Booth made his way to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, about 25 miles south of Washington.
Booth told Mudd that his broken leg was the result of a riding accident, and the doctor set his bone as best he could. Fearing that either news of the assassination or cavalry patrols might reach Mudd's home, Booth elected to move on quickly despite the pain that riding caused.
The next few days saw Booth moving southward, often hiding in the woods of Maryland and Virginia and hoping he could successfully elude the patrols looking for him.
Booth's diary entry for April 21 is heavy with self-pity and self-exculpation: “After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet, cold and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat. ... If the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness.”
Union cavalry troopers caught up with Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, at the Garrett farm in Caroline County, Va., on April 26. First Lt. E.P. Doherty ordered his 25 troopers to surround the barn in which Booth and Herold were hiding. As Herold threw up his hands and surrendered, Sgt. Boston Corbett could see Booth through a crack in the boards of the barn. Fearing Booth was about to fire into the ranks of his fellow cavalrymen, Corbett shot Lincoln's assassin.
As historian Jay Winik writes, “Booth fell to the ground, face first, then pitched over. He was still breathing. But barely. The bullet had cut through the right side of the assassin's neck, severing his spinal cord. He was paralyzed. And dying.”
The barn, set ablaze in the chaos, began to crumble and the troopers pulled Booth from the flames and put him on the farmhouse's front porch. A doctor was fetched from a local town, but announced that there was nothing he could do.
Surviving only two-and-a-half hours after he was shot, Booth's last request was to see his hands. When lifted to his sight, he only stared down at them and muttered, “Useless ... useless.”
So ended the life of John Wilkes Booth, America's most notorious assassin.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the "History Challenge" iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]