"Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away….With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
As Lincoln spoke, one observer, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a free black woman, standing a few steps from the president, remarked that the lamplight made him “stand out boldly in the darkness.” The perfect target. “What an easy matter would it be to kill the president as he stands there! He could be shot down from the crowd,” she whispered, “and no one would be able to tell who fired the shot.”
Twenty-six years old, impossibly vain, an extremely talented actor, and a star member of a celebrated theatrical family, John Wilkes Booth was willing to throw away fame, wealth, and a promising future for the cause of the Confederacy. […] Handsome and appealing, he was instantly recognizable to thousands of fans in both the North and South. His physical beauty astonished all who saw him. A fellow actor described his eyes as being "like living jewels." Booth's passions included fine clothing, Southern honor, good manners, beautiful women, and the romance of lost causes.
At this supreme moment, the people cheered the man who, after a shaky start in office, learned how to command armies, brought down slavery, and became a most eloquent and moving speaker. And as he promised he would, he had saved the Union. Lincoln stood in the box and bowed to the audience.
The comic line spoken by Harry Hawk, "You sockdologizing old mantrap," was followed by an explosion of laughter from the audience. The black powder charge exploded and spit the bullet toward Lincoln’s head. The muzzle flash lighted the box for a moment like a miniature lightning bolt. Had Booth succeeded?
Booth scrambled to center stage, turned to the audience, and stood up straight. Though every second was precious to his escape, he knew that this was his last appearance on the American stage. This would be the performance he would be remembered for. All eyes were on him. He stood still, paused to build suspense, and thrust his bloody dagger victoriously into the air. The gas stage lights shone on the shiny blade now stained with blood. "Sic semper tyrannis!" he thundered. It was the state motto of Virginia: "Thus always to tyrants." Then Booth shouted, "The South is avenged!"
The sergeant and Augustus wrestled Powell into the hall and into the bright gaslight. Powell and Augustus, their faces inches apart, fixed their eyes on each other. Then Powell spoke. In an intense but calm voice, the assassin confided to Augustus, as though trying to persuade him, the strangest thing: “I’m mad. I’m mad!”
All Atzerodt had to do was knock on his door and the moment Johnson opened it, plunge the knife into his chest or shoot him dead. Compared with the challenges that faced Booth and Powell, Atzerodt had the easiest job of all. But that night, Johnson escaped death. Atzerodt could not do it. He drank in the hotel lobby, and the more he drank, the worse the plan sounded. He did not knock on Andrew Johnson's door. He left the bar and walked out. Abandoning his mission, Atzerodt got on his horse and rode away. He wasn't sure what to do next.
Laura Keene knelt beside Lincoln, lifted his head, and rested it in her lap. Bloodstains and tiny bits of gray matter from Lincoln’s brain oozed on to the cream-colored silk fabric, spreading and adding color to the frock's bright and festive red, yellow, green, and blue floral pattern. Laura Keene cherished the blood-and-brain speckled dress she wore this terrible night. In the days ahead, people begged to see the dress, to handle it and marvel at the stains on it. The dress vanished long ago, but miraculously a few small pieces—five treasured swatches—survived. Long ago the stains, once red, faded to a rust-colored pale brown.
Within a few minutes of the assassination, the news began spreading, first by word of mouth from Ford's, then by messenger. It traveled no faster than a man could run on foot or ride on horseback. Between 10:30 and 11:00 P.M., more than fifteen hundred people spilled out from the theater onto the streets. They fanned out in all directions, like an unpaid army of newsboys shouting, "Extra!"
Stanton knew that if any person in Washington deserved a precious lock of the martyr’s hair, it was Mary Jane Welles. She later framed the cherished relic with dried flowers that had decorated Abraham Lincoln’s coffin at the White House funeral. Stanton gazed down at his fallen chief and wept.
The nation could hardly bury its martyred Father Abraham with a lead ball lodged in his brain. They cut it out, marked it as evidence, and preserved it for history. His blood, according to a newspaper report, was drained from his corpse by an embalmer, transferred to glass jars, and preserved. When they were finished, Mary Todd Lincoln sent a request: Please cut off a lock of his hair for her.
When Jones went to the Confederate capital, Richmond, at the beginning of April 1865 to collect the money owed him by the Confederacy, he discovered that the army had evacuated the city and he went unpaid. He lost $2,300 owed to him for three years of service, along with all the money he had invested in Confederate bonds at the beginning of the war. All this meant Jones needed as much money as he could lay his hands on.
Traveling light had served him well in the first part of his escape, but left him unprepared for this unanticipated phase of his journey. He left Washington wearing the equivalent of a modern-day business suit, unsuitable for camping out. Without a change of clothing, his garments quickly became dirty, ruining a key element of Booth's trademark, winning style—his beautifully dressed, well-groomed appearance. He and Herold could not bathe or wash clothes and, unshaven, they looked and smelled worse each day. They looked like the fugitives they were. Their looks might even jeopardize their ability to receive a proper reception at the fine Virginia households they planned to call on across the river.
Whatever papers Booth read, they all condemned him for his heinous act. Even worse, Booth saw the beginning of a change in how Abraham Lincoln was viewed by America. Lincoln was transformed from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into a martyr and hero. Stories reported in the papers condemned Booth by name in the most unforgiving, vicious language.
As Jones grabbed the stern of the boat and shoved it off, a grateful Booth thrust a fistful of Union greenbacks at Jones. Jones refused the gesture, saying that he had not helped him for money. Under protest, he agreed to accept just eighteen dollars, the price he had paid for the boat.
While Booth and Herold tarried, the government pursued them with new energy. The evidence gathered at Mudd’s farm, plus alleged sightings of the fugitives southwest of his farm, suggested that the assassins were making for Virginia. They knew Booth was lame, on crutches. They knew he had shaven off his mustache. Horse-mounted couriers and telegraph wires were alive all day with instructions to troops to enlist the help of fishermen and others on the river to capture the fugitives.
Young John Garrett, back from an errand at a neighboring farm, reported that the U.S. government was offering a $140,000 reward for Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The family discussed the assassination with Booth, speculating on why the murderer did it. The actor, still masquerading as a Confederate soldier commented on his own crime and analyzed for the Garretts the motives of Lincoln’s killer!
He had already committed the most daring public murder in American history. Indeed, he had performed it, fully staged before an audience at Ford's Theatre. Tonight he would script his own end with a performance that equaled his triumph at Ford's.
Booth decided it was better to die than be taken back to Washington to face justice. He did not wish to bear the spectacle of a trial that would put him on public display for the amusement of the press and curiosity seekers. Nor did he wish to endure the rituals of a hanging: being bound and blindfolded, parading past his own coffin and open grave, climbing the steps of the scaffold. The shameful death of a common criminal was not for him. It was far better to perish here.
Another hunt, the one for reward money, began before Booth's corpse had even cooled. With Booth dead, and his chief accomplices under arrest, awaiting trial, it was time to cash in. Hundreds of manhunters rushed to claim a portion of the $100,000 reward offered by the War Department. Tipsters with the slightest connection to the twelve-day search for Lincoln's killer tried to get their piece of the reward.