This Day in History: The hunt for John Wilkes Booth

On this day in 1865, John Wilkes Booth is shot and killed on a farm in Virginia. Did you ever wonder what happened to him in the days after he’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln?

Booth’s infamous attack on Lincoln occurred as the President watched a comedy at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday. Partway through the show, Booth burst into the box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He soon leapt out of the box toward the stage, yelling “Sic semper Tyrannis! The South is avenged!” Booth reportedly broke his leg, but still managed to flee the scene. He’d arranged for a getaway horse, and he used it to flee the city. (See earlier post.)

The assassin left behind a theater full of stunned eyewitnesses—and a mortally wounded President.

Interestingly, as Booth fled the city, he basically told a sentry who he was and where he was going. The sentry was guarding a bridge, unaware that the President had been shot. He let Booth pass. Not too long afterwards, he let Booth’s accomplice pass, too. At least that accomplice, David Herold, had the good sense not to use his real name at the checkpoint?

Herold and Booth met up and headed to Surratt Tavern, about a dozen miles from Ford’s Theatre. They needed a place to regroup. How much did Mary Surratt know? She would later claim her innocence, but that didn’t stop her from being convicted as an accomplice. She was hanged in July 1865—the first woman ever executed by the federal government.

The fugitives made their next stop at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s leg. He later claimed that he didn’t recognize Booth, who claimed that the leg broke when his horse fell. Once Booth had been treated, the two men spent most of the next several days hiding in a thicket. They finally crossed the Potomac into Virginia on April 22.

Booth had expected a hero’s welcome once he returned to Confederate territory. He must have been surprised when he didn’t receive it? Instead, Booth and Herold found that most Virginians didn’t want to be associated with the outlaws. The two men finally found refuge on the farm of a man named Richard Garrett. The Garretts would later claim that they didn’t know who Booth was.

In the meantime, Union Lt. Edward Doherty had been dispatched to find the assassin. He tracked Booth to Virginia and found him hiding in the Garrett’s barn. Doherty had Booth and Herold surrounded, and he ordered them to surrender.

According to Doherty’s account, Herold complied, but Booth refused. Instead, Booth threatened to “put a bullet through you.” Matters seem to have moved swiftly after that. One of the Union soldiers tried to run Booth out by setting the barn on fire. Another claimed that he saw Booth pulling a gun, so he shot him.

In a twist of irony, as Doherty later described, “the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln.”

Booth hung on for a few hours, but he soon passed away.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that this standard account of Booth’s flight is occasionally disputed. Some claim that Booth survived and that a look-alike was killed. Others question what the Garretts knew or what Dr. Mudd knew. Some wonder whether Booth was really pulling a gun when he was shot. Did the Union soldier simply execute Booth on the spot? Some even wonder whether Booth was truly the mastermind of these events.

We may never truly know.

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