Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 14, 1865: President Lincoln Assassinated

150 years ago tonight President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C.
Ford's Theatre following the assassination.
Friday, April 14, 1865 was Good Friday, the president was attending a performance of Our American Cousin with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln and a young couple, Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, when at approximately 10:15 PM John Wilkes Booth crept into the president's box and shot him in the head with a small caliber derringer.  Wilkes Booth dropped the pistol and drew out a large knife, grappled with Major Rathbone, slashing him in the arm, then leaped 12 feet to the stage below. In the process of leaping from the box, Booth's spur caught the flag  draping the front of the box, he landed awkwardly upon the stage, breaking the tibia in his left leg. Booth may or may not have exclaimed "Sic semper tyrannis" while standing mid-stage, accounts vary, he did make his way to the stage door, slashing at William Withers, cutting his coat and knocking him to the floor. After Booth exited the theatre, he climbed upon his horse and galloped down the alleyway and into the night. Most in the theatre were somewhat confused, until a blood curdling scream from Mary Lincoln was heard.
Currier & Ives print from the Library of Congress.
Booth leaping from box, Currier & Ives print, from the National Archives.
Photo taken after the assassination.

Meanwhile in another part of town A pair of conspirators approached the home of Secretary of State William Seward. A couple weeks earlier Seward was seriously injured in a carriage accident. One of the conspirators, David Herold, waited outside while his confederate, Lewis Thornton Powell (aka Lewis Wood, Lewis Paine, Lewis Payne) rang the front bell. The door was answered by William Bell, Paine claimed he had medicine for Seward from Dr. Verdi. Bell sensing something was amiss, refused admission, Powell pushed passed him, encountered the secretary's son, Fredrick who argued with Powell and was struck on the head twice with Powell's pistol butt, fracturing his skull. Powell then struck nurse George Robinson on the forehead with the butt of his knife before entering Seward's room. Here he slashed Seward several times, Seward having presence of mind to roll off the bed, before Powell fled down the stairs and into the street. Meanwhile Bell was yelling "murder, murder" from a window, causing Herold to flee. Powell looking for his accomplice mounted his horse and wandered away into the night. A short while later all telegraph service went dead, causing a great panic among government officials as news of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward spread throughout the town.
Currier & Ives print, from the National Archives.

Back at Ford's Theatre pandemonium reigned as people made their way to the president's box, Lincoln's wound was examined and it was decided he was too badly injured to take back to the White House. Instead he was carried across the street to the home of William Peterson, and laid upon a bed there. Lincoln hung on through the night before expiring at 7:22 AM the following morning, Saturday, April 15, 1865.
Currier & Ives print from the National Archives.
The Peterson House.

Another conspirator, George Atzerodt who was assigned the task of assassinating Vice President Andrew Johnson got cold feet and never carried out his part of the heinous scheme.

In his flight from the monumental city, Booth crossed the Anacostia Creek via the Navy Yard Bridge at about 10:30, shortly thereafter David Herold also crossed the bridge and met up with Booth. They both went to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, another conspirator. At Mudd's house Booth had his broken leg set and would enjoy a brief respite in his flight. Mudd would later deny ever knowing Booth, which turned out to be a lie. Booth and Herold would be hunted "like dogs" over the ensuing days, shunned by all who knew their true identity. They were finally cornered at Richard Garrett's farm near Port Royal Virginia where Booth was killed and Herold captured on April 26, 1865.

The others in the conspiracy were: Mrs Mary Surratt, brought Booth's binoculars to John Lloyd's tavern on the afternoon of the assassination and who hosted meetings of the conspirators. That afternoon she told Lloyd to have whiskey and "the shooting irons" ready. Earlier John Surratt had left a pair of carbines with Lloyd, which were hidden in the tavern.
John Harrison Surratt, who was involved in an earlier scheme to kidnap the president, and whose exact whereabouts the night of the assassination remain murky. 
Dr Samuel Mudd who set Booth's broken leg and aided in his escape.
Edward (Ned) Spangler, who helped Booth escape from the theatre by blocking the exit of those who chased after the murderer, striking Jacob Ritterspaugh, and who was supposed to shut off the lights when he heard the shot. He was unable to do so when William Withers inadvertently blocked his path to the lighting controls.
Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlin who were both involved in the earlier kidnap plot.
Booth Wanted poster.
Cleveland mayor George Senter's proclamation, from the Western Reserve Historical Society.
New York Herald, April 15, 1865
Cleveland Morning Leader, April 15, 1865.

In Cleveland the city was plunged into grief when word of the heinous act reached town early on the morning of April 15. The city which had joyously celebrated Lee's surrender for the past several days was plunged into gloom. Most rebel sympathizers would keep a low profile., however several traitors who were foolish enough to be gleeful at news of Lincoln's death received their just rewards. J. J. Husband a prominent local architect was quoted as saying, "You had your day of rejoicing, now I have mine," and "Lincoln's death was a damned small loss." Husband was chased to the roof of Fogg's Store where he was thrown through a skylight. He left town shortly thereafter. His name was chiseled of the cornerstones of all buildings it appeared on. James Griffith, a Copperhead from Hamilton County was seriously beaten by a mob after he was heard to say "Lincoln was a damned son of a bitch, and ought to have been shot long ago." Another unnamed man was also beaten in the street. (See page 4 of the Cleveland Morning Leader, April 17, 1865).

The Federal Government cast a wide net in the search for the conspirators, arresting and detaining anyone who had anything whatsoever to do with Wilkes Booth, the Surratt house and Ford's Theatre. until things were sorted out. The conspirators were put on trial before a military tribunal starting on May 9, 1865. Mrs Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt were all convicted and executed on July 9. Dr Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlin, all received life sentences, later commuted by President Andrew Johnson (O'Laughlin died in prison from yellow fever). Edward Spangler received a six year sentence. John Surratt was later captured in Rome, his trial in 1867  resulted in a hung jury, he wasn't retried.

President Lincoln was laid to rest in Springfield Illinois on May 4, 1865.

Mary Todd Lincoln would return to Illinois where her mental condition would deteriorate, she was placed in an asylum for several years. She passed away at her sisters house on July 16, 1882.

Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (his step-sister) were married on July 11, 1867. Rathbone was appointed Consul to the Province of Hanover (Germany) in 1882, despite suffering from mental instability. On December 23, 1883 he attacked his children, killing Clara in the process. Rathbone was declared insane and sent to an asylum where he died on August 14, 1911. The bloodstained dress that Clara wore that infamous night was kept at the family home in Albany NY. She later had the closet walled off after claiming she saw Lincoln's ghost. In 1910 their eldest son, Henry Riggs Rathbone burned the dress, claiming it had brought the family nothing but misery.

William Seward would recover and continue to serve as Secretary of State until March 1869, in 1867 he purchased Alaska from the Russian government. Seward would pass away on October 10, 1872.

Ford's Theatre was seized by the Federal Government, later buying it from John Ford in 1866. The theatre was converted to government office space. On June 9, 1893 the floors collapsed killing 22 and injuring 68 workers. The building was later used as a government warehouse until 1933, then as a Lincoln museum. The building was turned back into a theatre in 1968, which it is used for today. 

The Peterson House was purchased by the Federal Government in 1933 and has been a historic site and museum since then.

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