Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lincoln's Last Night

John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln was actually one of three elements in the planned attack on April 14, 1865. One of Booth’s co-conspirators, Lewis Powell, assaulted the home of Secretary of State William Seward with a pistol and a silver Bowie knife. He bluffed his way past the doorman, but was confronted with Seward's oldest son on the staircase leading up to the bedroom level. His pistol misfired, so he clubbed Frederick Seward over the head with it. With Frederick unconscious on the floor and his pistol now hopelessly inoperative, Powell continued up the stairs with his knife drawn. Powell discovered which was Seward's, and in the next few minutes he slashed several others - Seward's younger son Augustus, a bodyguard, a messenger, Seward’s daughter, and Seward himself, none fatally - with his knife. His “getaway driver” had panicked and left, so Powell was left to his own devices to find a way out of the city; as he was unfamiliar with Washington, DC, he got lost in the streets, where detectives found him hours later.

The third conspirator, George Atzerodt, was supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but lost his nerve and went to get drunk instead.

Booth himself, a well-known youngest member of a famous acting family, scouted on Ford's Theater hours in advance and planned his attack meticulously. Upon learning that Lincoln was to attend the play that night, he chose the theater, with which he was very familiar, as the perfect site. He carved a peephole in the door to the Presidential Box and rigged up a way to jam it shut once he was inside. After the play had begun, Lincoln's normal bodyguard, John Parker, had left the area, but Lincoln's valet Charles Forbes, greeted and spoke briefly with Booth, as they had both recognized each other. Booth went otherwise unopposed into the Box, where he shot Lincoln at about 10:15.

As it turns out, both men who attacked John Wilkes Booth ended up going insane. Henry Rathbone (left), President Lincoln’s guest in the Presidential Box of Ford’s Theater, grabbed at Booth before the assassin lept out of the box; he and his family moved to Germany, where he killed his wife, attempted to kill his sons and himself, and was eventually committed to an asylum there. After escaping the theater, Booth fled south and was eventually cornered in a barn at a Virginia tobacco farm; Boston Corbett (right), the soldier who fatally shot Booth, was committed to the Topeka (Kansas) Asylum. As Corbett was a milliner, mercury poisoning - a problem in hat-making in those days, and source of the phrase “mad as a hatter” - was likely the cause of his problems.

Links and Sources:
"Lincoln Assassinated!" by Prof. Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., in Flagpole Magazine, April 20, 2005.
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, by James Swanson, Harper Collins, 2006.
Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Edward Steers, University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
Image of Lewis Powell was taken by Alexander Gardner on board the US monitor Saugus, shortly after his capture in 1865, and is from the Library of Congress.
Image of assassination from Granger Art on Demand.
Image of Henry Rathbone courtesy of the Lincoln Museum, Fort Wayne, Indiana; image of Boston Corbett from


  1. I'll argue with your source about the hatter phrase. It appears as early as the 1820s.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. You're right. I miswrote it, intending to say it was the mercury poisoning in hats that's the cause, not Corbett himself. Changing!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.