Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
John Wilkes Booth: Biographical Facts
- Birth Name: John Wilkes Booth
- Date of Birth: 10 May 1838
- Place of Birth: Bel Air, Maryland
- Date of Death: 26 April 1865 (26 Years of Age)
- Cause of Death: Gunshot Wound
- Burial Place: Green Mount Cemetery (Located in Baltimore, Maryland)
- Father: Junius Brutus Booth (British Shakespearean Actor)
- Mother: Mary Ann Holmes
- Sibling(s): Edwin Booth, Asia Booth, Junius Brutus Booth Junior, Frederick Booth, Amelia Booth, Rosalie Booth, Henry Byron Booth, Joseph Adrian Booth.
- Nicknames/Other Names: J.B. Wilkes
- Occupation(s): Actor
- Best Known For: Assassination of American President, Abraham Lincoln; Confederate Sympathizer
- John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland (1838) to a prominent theatrical family. His father, Junius Brutus Booth was a popular Shakespearean actor. Booth was one of ten children (ninth in birth order). Following in his father’s footsteps, Booth became a prominent actor himself in later years. At the age of seventeen, Booth made his debut as an actor in Baltimore, and later performed in numerous Shakespearean plays, just like his father. By the 1860s, Booth was extremely wealthy as a result of his success.
- Booth was a Confederate sympathizer and was strongly opposed to Abraham Lincoln and his anti-slavery positions. Booth maintained these views throughout the duration of the American Civil War, and continued to support the Confederate cause, even after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. Booth, along with his colleagues, believed that a Confederate victory was still attainable, given the fact that Southern General, Joseph E. Johnston, was still locked in battle with the Union Army after Lee’s surrender. To achieve a complete victory over the North, Booth and his co-conspirators began to plot out a course to kill Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward.
- Booth’s original plan was to kidnap President Lincoln. After listening to Lincoln give a speech in 1865 regarding his desire to grant suffrage to all slaves, Booth and his co-conspirators quickly changed their mind and decided that assassination was their best course of action. On the evening of 14 April 1865, Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending Laura Keene’s performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater (in Washington) that same day. The conspirators quickly put their plot into motion, with the hopes of killing not only Lincoln, but also Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward.
- At about ten o’clock on the evening of 14 April 1865, Booth entered Ford’s theater. After blocking off Lincoln’s door, Booth entered the Presidential box, shot Lincoln in the back of the head, and jumped down to the stage (breaking his leg in the process). Upon landing on stage, Booth reportedly shouted “Sic semper tyrannis! (Thus ever to tyrants) The South is avenged!” Booth then exited the theater, and fled with a fellow conspirator on horseback away from the city. The plot to kill Johnson and Seward proved unsuccessful, however.
- Booth remained on the run for nearly two weeks, seeking aid from Southern sympathizers along his trek south. Doctor Samuel Mudd is one of the most well-known individuals to have helped booth, as he helped to set his leg and provided them with food and provisions. However, after finally crossing the Potomac River on 26 April 1865, Booth found himself surrounded by federal troops at Richard H. Garret’s barn, just south of the Rappahannock River. After refusing to surrender, the barn was quickly set ablaze. Upon exiting the barn, Booth was quickly shot (it remains uncertain if this shot was self-inflicted or from one of the soldiers present), and died shortly after. Booth’s co-conspirators were later rounded up by federal authorities and tried. Four of the conspirators were executed; Dr. Samuel Mudd received a life sentence, along with Booth’s two other accomplices. One of the conspirators, along with Mudd, were later pardoned by President Johnson in 1869.
- After suffering a fatal gunshot, John Wilkes Booth reportedly told the individuals present to “tell mother…I died for my country.”
- It has long been said that Booth had his fortune told by a fortune-teller in earlier life. Reportedly, the fortune-teller told Booth that he would have a short, grand life; albeit, one that would end badly.
- Booth also had a younger brother by the name of Edwin who would later become a famous actor.
- In October of 1859, Booth joined the Richmond Grays (a militia unit) near Harpers Ferry, just so he could attend the execution of John Brown (the famous abolitionist that led an attack on Harpers Ferry). Although Booth was greatly pleased with the death of Brown, he also admired Brown’s courage in facing death. Some historians believe that Brown’s execution may have served as an inspiration for Booth’s later decision to assassinate Lincoln.
- General Ulysses Grant was supposed to be in attendance at Ford’s theater on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. However, Grant declined the President’s offer to join him on the grounds that he wished to travel with his wife to New Jersey that night.
- Secretary of State Seward was nearly killed by assassin Lewis Powell after being stabbed multiple times in the neck. However, historians credit Seward’s metal surgical collar with saving the Secretary of State (Seward was bedridden and was recovering from a carriage accident the night of his attack).
- Following the assassination of President Lincoln, the nation experienced an outpouring of emotional grief. Thousands of mourners gathered to view Lincoln’s body as he was carried on special trains across the North. Even prominent individuals in the South, including General Robert E. Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston were shocked and appalled by Lincoln’s assassination, describing the act as both disgraceful and regretful.
- After numerous autopsies, Booth’s body was shipped to numerous locations, including the Washington Arsenal. After nearly four years, his body was finally released to the Booth family, where he was buried at the family plot located in Green Mount Cemetery (Baltimore, Maryland).
“For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”
— John Wilkes Booth
Quotes by Booth
- “I have too great a soul to die like a criminal.”
- “Tell mother, tell mother, I died for my country.”
- “I do not wish to shed a drop of blood, but I must fight the course. Tis all that’s left of me.”
- “For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”
In closing, the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth remains one of the most famous stories of American history. Booth’s radicalism and hate serve as stark reminders to the social and political divisions that marked the Civil War period. Just as peace seemed to be falling over the United States, following years of brutal warfare, Booth’s actions once again plummeted the nation into grief and despair. Many questions remain unanswered about Booth and his plot; in particular, questions about his escape and the aid he received during his trek south. Only time will tell what new information can be gleaned about the life and legacy of John Wilkes Booth.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Alford, Terry. Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Bates, Finis L. The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Independently Published, 1907.
Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York, New York: Random House, 2004.
Steers, Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
Wikipedia contributors, "John Wilkes Booth," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Wilkes_Booth&oldid=884915422 (accessed March 14, 2019).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Robert M. Wallace on October 01, 2019:
I have always felt that John Wilkes Booth escaped capture, and reading/researching a Great deal lately I now more than ever--believe that he most assuredly did evade capture and lived another 38 years. I realize that sits me firmly in the " Conspiracy " section; my retort to those who consider me and many others as being delusional, nut jobs and 100% out of our minds--I challenge those who are in the power and legitimate to do so. . .DO The DNA on those remnants of bone that are in that one museum, purportedly those fragments taken from corpse of the man ' allegedly ' : John Wilkes Booth, and compare them to the remains of his brother Edwin. I say " Do that DNA test and prove to us all that we are delusional; then, as Nate Orlowek has declared--" Then I will admit my error "! ! !
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on March 16, 2019:
@Pamela Thank you so much! Yeah, Booth was a unique character, for sure!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 15, 2019:
This is so interesting. I learned several new facts about Booth.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on March 15, 2019:
Thank you Eric! Yeah, I have always found John Wilkes Booth to be a fascinating individual. Even though he was from the North, he maintained loyalty towards the South and Confederate cause. Always found that to be really strange.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 14, 2019:
Very interesting. I learned a lot.