This Day in History: The assassination of Abraham Lincoln

On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln passes away. He had been shot by an assassin the day before.

The President had decided to spend his Good Friday evening at a comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. It had been only 5 days since General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively bringing the Civil War to a close. As the President watched the show from his box, an assassin burst through the door and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, then dropped his pistol and began waving a dagger in the air.

Another occupant of the box, Major Henry R. Rathbone, lunged for Booth and forced him toward the railing. Booth slashed Rathbone in the arm and leapt from the box shouting “Sic semper Tyrannis! The South is avenged!” His boot caught on a flag as he jumped, and his leg was broken when he landed. Despite his injury, Booth managed to flee the scene.

In the meantime, a doctor in the audience had made it upstairs to Lincoln’s box. The bullet had lodged behind the President’s right eye. Lincoln was carried, barely breathing, across the street to a boardinghouse. One of Lincoln’s cabinet members later wrote of the President’s last moments, which occurred early on April 15:

“A little before seven I went into the room . . . . The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well, but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner.”

The President passed away at 7:22 a.m.

You may or may not know that Booth had co-conspirators who were trying to assassinate other members of Lincoln’s administration. One accomplice, Lewis Powell (a.k.a. Lewis Payne), attacked the Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, on the same night that Lincoln was shot. Seward was at home recovering from a carriage accident. Powell talked his way into the house and slashed Seward’s throat. He left, believing that he’d killed Seward. However, Seward was wearing a metal surgical collar—the collar saved his life.

Booth and his co-conspirators also intended to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant. The General perhaps saved his own life by an earlier, innocent decision: He had changed his mind about attending Ford’s Theatre with the President.

In the end, four of Booth’s co-conspirators were captured, convicted, and hanged for their crimes. One of them, Mary Surratt, became the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government. A few others were imprisoned for their involvement. For his part, Booth was discovered hiding in a barn in Virginia two weeks after he assassinated Lincoln. He was mortally wounded during the attempt to capture him.

The conspirators had mostly failed in their objectives. But it wasn’t enough. For the first time in American history, a President had been assassinated.