US President Abraham Lincoln was the third American president to die in office , and the first of four presidents to be assassinated. The other three were James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John F. Kennedy (1963). Lincoln’s death came in the closing days of the American Civil War, and a day after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, an American stage actor.
Booth was the 9th of 10 children born to the actor Junius Brutus Booth. John Wilkes Booth was outspoken in his advocacy of slavery and his hatred of Lincoln.
The original plan of Booth and his small group of conspirators was to kidnap Lincoln, and they later agreed to murder him as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Booth had found out that Abraham Lincoln was going to to attend an evening performance of the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in the capital. Booth quickly assembled his band and assigned each member his task, including the murder of Secretary of State William Seward. He himself would kill Lincoln. About 6:00 PM Booth entered the deserted theatre, where he tampered with the outer door of the presidential box so that it could be jammed shut from the inside. He returned during the play’s third act to find Lincoln and his guests were unguarded.
Booth shot President Lincoln once in the back of the head. Lincoln’s death the next morning completed Booth’s piece of the plot. Seward, severely wounded, recovered, whereas Vice President Johnson was never attacked. Booth fled on horseback to Southern Maryland on his horse called Peanuts. A reward of $100,000 was issued for his capture. Also rewards of $50,000 and $25,000 for some of Booth’s conspirators.
On April 26, Federal troops arrived at a farm in Virginia, just south of the Rappahannock River, where Booth was hiding in a tobacco barn. Herold gave himself up before the barn was set afire, but Booth refused to surrender. After being shot, a bullet had pierced three vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him. In his dying moments, he reportedly whispered, “Tell my mother I died for my country”. Booth was carried to the porch of the farmhouse, where he subsequently died. The body was identified by a doctor who had operated on Booth the year before, and it was then secretly buried, though four years later it was reinterred.
Booth’s conspirators were Lewis Powell and David Herold, who were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt, who was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson. By simultaneously eliminating the top three people in the administration, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to disrupt the United States government.
In the turmoil that followed the assassination, scores of suspected accomplices were arrested and thrown into prison. Anyone discovered to have had anything to do with the assassination or even the slightest contact with Booth or Herold on their flight were put behind bars. Among the imprisoned were Louis J. Weichmann, a boarder in Mrs. Surratt’s house; Booth’s brother Junius (playing in Cincinnati at the time of the assassination); theater owner John T. Ford, who was incarcerated for 40 days; James Pumphrey, the Washington livery stable owner from whom Booth hired his horse; John M. Lloyd, the innkeeper who rented Mrs. Surratt’s Maryland tavern and gave Booth and Herold carbines, rope, and whiskey the night of April 14; and Samuel Cox and Thomas A. Jones, who helped Booth and Herold escape across the Potomac.
All of those listed above and more were rounded up, imprisoned, and released. Ultimately, the suspects were narrowed down to just eight prisoners (seven men and one woman): Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler (a Ford’s stagehand who had given Booth’s horse to “Peanuts” Burroughs to hold), and Mary Surratt.
On June 29, 1865, the Military Commission met in secret session to begin its review of the evidence in the seven-week long trial. A guilty verdict could come with a majority vote of the nine-member commission; death sentences required the votes of six members. The next day, it reached its verdicts. The Commission found seven of the prisoners guilty of at least one of the conspiracy charges. Four of the prisoners: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold were sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until he [or she] be dead”. Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd and Michael O’Laughlen were sentenced to “hard labor for life, at such place at the President shall direct”, Edman Spangler received a six-year sentence. The next day General Hartrandft informed the prisoners of their sentences. He told the four condemned prisoners that they would hang on July 7,1865.
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