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Morton: Reliving President Lincoln’s assassination

On this day (April 15) in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died some nine hours after being shot by Confederate sympathizer but mentally unstable actor John Wilkes Booth while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington.

This became the first of four “successful” assassinations of an American president – the others being James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963. There have 11 known unsuccessful assassination attempts on U.S. presidents.

Early in the day of the fatal shooting (Good Friday, April 14 – the fourth anniversary of the surrender of Fort Sumter), it had been widely announced in the press that the president and his wife, Mary, would be attending the play and invited Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, to accompany them to the evening performance at Ford’s Theater.

But when the Grants, claiming they had to visit their children, declined the invitation, the Lincolns invited Miss Clara Harris and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone, who graciously accepted.

The presidential party arrived at the theater around 8:30 p.m., a little after the play had started. When the presidential party was spied entering its balcony box, the play was interrupted and the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief” as the audience clapped and cheered. Thereupon, Lincoln stepped to the box rail to acknowledge the applause.

Upon resumption of the show, the president and his wife were seen to be listening intently to the play’s satirical dialogue about an American hayseed traveling in England. At 10:10 p.m., Booth, who was well known by the theater stage hands, was allowed in, where he presented his business card to Lincoln’s footman (bodyguard?) Charles Forbes, who let the actor into the box’s anteroom.

At 10:15 p.m., Booth entered the box and shot Lincoln behind the left ear, smashing the bones behind both eyes.

One lady in the audience was later reported to have said: “It was while every one’s attention was fastened upon the stage that a pistol shot was heard, causing every one to jump and look up at the president’s box merely because that was the direction of the sound, and supposing it to be a part of the performance, we all looked again upon the stage, when a man suddenly vaulted over the railing of the box, turned back and then leaped to the stage, striking on his heels and falling backward, but recovered himself in an instant and started across the stage to behind the scene,” shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”).

A doctor in the audience (Dr. Charles Leale) hurried up to the presidential box to find Lincoln unconscious.

“He appeared dead, ”the doctor observed. “His eyes were closed, and his head fallen forward.”

Amid the confusion and bedlam at the theater, Lincoln’s body was carried across Tenth Street to the modest home of German tailor William Peterson, where it was placed in a small rear bedroom. By 11 p.m., Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and several doctors arrived to assess Lincoln’s condition.

Welles later reported that he found that Lincoln’s “features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour. ... After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.”

Stanton, for his part, immediately took charge, sending out orders and interviewing eyewitnesses to the shooting. Early the next morning (April 15), the hysterical Mary Lincoln was allowed in to see her dying husband.

“Love,” she is reported to have said, “live but one moment to speak to me once.”

At 7:22 a.m., Lincoln died, without ever having gained consciousness, whereupon Stanton was heard to famously remark, “Now he belongs to the ages.”       

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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