The New York Times
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiraciesby Michael W. Kauffman
It is a tale as familiar as our history primers: A deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned.… See more details below
It is a tale as familiar as our history primers: A deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned. Therein lie all the classic elements of a great thriller. But the untold tale is even more fascinating.
Now, in American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman, one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, takes familiar history to a deeper level, offering an unprecedented, authoritative account of the Lincoln murder conspiracy. Working from a staggering array of archival sources and new research, Kauffman sheds new light on the background and motives of John Wilkes Booth, the mechanics of his plot to topple the Union government, and the trials and fates of the conspirators.
Piece by piece, Kauffman explains and corrects common misperceptions and analyzes the political motivation behind Booth’s plan to unseat Lincoln, in whom the assassin saw a treacherous autocrat, “an American Caesar.” In preparing his study, Kauffman spared no effort getting at the truth: He even lived in Booth’s house, and re-created key parts of Booth’s escape. Thanks to Kauffman’s discoveries, readers will have a new understanding of this defining event in our nation’s history, and they will come to see how public sentiment about Booth at the time of the assassination and ever since has made an accurate account of his actions and motives next to impossible–until now.
In nearly 140years there has been an overwhelming body of literature on the Lincoln assassination, much of it incomplete and oftentimes contradictory. In American Brutus, Kauffman finally makes sense of an incident whose causes and effects reverberate to this day. Provocative, absorbing, utterly cogent, at times controversial, this will become the definitive text on a watershed event in American history.
The New York Times
“In this definitive reinvestigation of the Lincoln assassination, Michael Kauffman has at long last captured the real John Wilkes Booth. Writing with confidence and clarity, Kauffman masterfully cuts through the thicket of conflicting rumors, false stories, and wrong assumptions, that have corrupted many earlier studies. American Brutus is simply the most comprehensive and credible account ever published about the Lincoln assassination. By unmasking Booth’s real motivation while meticulously stripping away a century of accumulated folklore, Kauffman unlocks the mystery of why Lincoln was killed.”
–GERALD POSNER, author of Case Closed and Why America Slept
“In this gripping, often surprising reexamination of America’s most notorious crime, Michael W. Kauffman rescues the Lincoln assassination from the historical waxworks. Combining exhaustive research, computer technology, and a compulsively readable style, Kauffman clears away more than a century of misconceptions. This Booth is a greater actor, and a more cunning monster, than we ever imagined.”
–RICHARD NORTON SMITH, executive director, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.56(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
“By God, then, is John Booth crazy?”
Good friday had never been a well-attended night at the theater, but on that evening, the city of Washington was in a partying mood. On Palm Sunday, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Virginia troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House. Though some forces remained in the field, Lee had been the greatest obstacle on the path to victory. Now that his troops were out of the way, the bloodiest war in America’s history would soon be over, and the celebrations had already begun. Four years to the day after its surrender, Fort Sumter was again under the Stars and Stripes. The flag raising there that day was marked with speeches, music, and prayers of thanks. There were prayers in Washington as well, but a lighter, more carefree atmosphere prevailed. There, buildings were “illuminated” with gas jets configured in the shape of stars, eagles, or words such as “peace” and “victory.” The city’s population, which had ballooned to more than two hundred thousand during the war, had gone crazy. The streets were crawling with silly, drunken revelers—soldiers back from the war, tourists passing through, and all the usual odds and ends—staggering from one bar to another in search of a party and another toast to the military victors. All things considered, maybe this Good Friday 1865 was not such a bad night for the theater after all.
Ford’s Theatre, on Tenth Street, was one of Washington’s leading establishments. It had all the amenities of a first-rate playhouse. Its owner, John T. Ford, presented the finest talent the American stage had to offer. The audience that turned out this night made up a pretty fair cross section of Washington society: clerks, businessmen, politicians, tourists. And of course, there were soldiers. An ever-present part of life in the capital, they came to Ford’s from every camp, fort, and hospital in the area, their dark blue uniforms scattered among the hoopskirts and crinolines. Some wore the light blue of the Veterans’ Reserve Corps, whose members once served in the ranks but were no longer suited for combat or strenuous duty. Here, they mingled comfortably with socialites, power brokers, and people from all walks of life. It was a diverse crowd, but nearly everyone had something in common, which explained, in large measure, the need to be in a house of entertainment on such a holy day: these people had been through hell.
One could hardly name an event in recent history that someone in this audience had not witnessed. Here were the veterans of Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg; the political warriors who shaped the nation; and the commercial giants of the age. One man had survived the horrors of Andersonville prison, and others had just arrived from Appomattox. This was more than just a “large and fashionable audience”; the people who came to Ford’s Theatre that night had already been eyewitnesses to history. No doubt they were eager to get back to an ordinary life.
The play was Our American Cousin, a popular British comedy from the 1850s. Its humor was derived from the homespun “Yankeeisms” of Asa Trenchard, a backwoods Vermonter, and the physical eccentricities of Lord Dundreary, a self-important British nobleman. The star was Laura Keene, a London native, whose character, Florence Trenchard, believes that her cousin Asa (played by actor Harry Hawk) has just inherited the family fortune. Florence and her British relatives try to stay in Asa’s good graces, but find it difficult to overlook his crass country-boy manners. It is this culture clash that carries the play.
For most of the audience that night, however, Our American Cousin was not the main attraction. A notice in that day’s Evening Star had announced that President Abraham Lincoln and his wife would attend the performance. Their guest would be Ulysses S. Grant, lieutenant general of the army, victor of the recent war, hero of the hour. Their surprise reserva- tion had come in that morning, and it sent Harry Clay Ford, brother of the theater’s owner, on a mad dash to organize a special program. A patriotic song called “Honor to Our Soldiers” was written for the occasion, and Ford sent notices of it to the Evening Star. He even redesigned the evening’s playbill to reflect the new developments. By late afternoon, the reservations were rolling in. A normally dismal night was now showing some promise. By curtain time, at eight o’clock, Ford’s Theatre had a fairly good house.
Abraham Lincoln was famously fond of the theater, and had passed many an evening at Ford’s or its competitor, the National. At Ford’s, he always occupied the same box, on the right side, directly above the stage. It was an oddly shaped space with sharp angles and cramped, narrow corners, accessible only through a narrow passageway just off the balcony. It actually consisted of two boxes, numbered 7 and 8, which were normally divided by a partition. Stagehands set aside the divider and brought in more comfortable furniture to fill the space. For the president, a large walnut rocker, upholstered in burgundy damask, was placed in the corner nearest the door. A matching sofa went along the rear wall of the box, and the third piece, a large, comfortable armchair, was placed in the “upstage” corner, farthest from the door. The box had just enough space for those chairs, plus a small one for Mrs. Lincoln.
American flags were hung on either side, and two more were draped over the front balustrade. The blue standard of the Treasury Guards hung on a staff in the center, just above a gilt-framed portrait of George Washington. The flags added more than just a festive dash of color. They let everyone know where to look for the hero of Appomattox. Make no mistake about it: General Grant, and not Lincoln, was the evening’s chief attraction.
James P. Ferguson was keeping an eye out for the general. Ferguson owned a saloon next door to the theater, and he always made a point of attending when the president was there. But he took a particular interest in Ulysses S. Grant, whom he claimed to have known since boyhood. When Harry Ford told him that Grant was coming, Ferguson bought two tickets for the dress circle, or first balcony, with a clear view into the box directly opposite. With the best seats in the house, “Fergy” brought along his young sweetheart so she could see the general as well.
They were in for a disappointment. General Grant had taken an afternoon train home to Burlington, New Jersey. A young couple came to the theater in his place. The presidential party arrived late, and as they appeared in the dress circle, the audience burst into a long, spontaneous ovation. The president acknowledged the approbation with a smile, then took his seat, partly hidden behind a flag. Miss Clara Harris took a seat at the far side of the box, and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone, sat on the sofa just behind her. Though Grant’s absence was a disappointment, many in the audience assumed he would appear later. Ferguson, for one, kept a lookout for him.
By ten-fifteen, Our American Cousin had progressed to the second scene of the third act. Asa Trenchard had just told a woman named Mrs. Mountchessington that he hadn’t inherited a fortune after all, as everyone thought, and the character (played by Helen Muzzy) had a change of heart about the marriage she had hoped to arrange between Asa and her daughter Augusta.
asa (to Augusta): You crave affection, you do. Now I’ve no fortune, but I’m biling over with affections, which I’m ready to pour out to all of you, like apple sass over roast pork.
mrs. mountchessington: Mr. Trenchard, you will please recollect you are addressing my daughter, and in my presence.
asa: Yes, I’m offering her my heart and hand just as she wants them, with nothing in ’em.
The president’s guests seemed to enjoy the play. Miss Harris had been the Lincolns’ guest here before. Major Rathbone, of the 12th U.S. Infantry, was not quite so familiar to them. He had commanded a company under Burnside at Antietam and Fredericksburg. More recently, he had served as the head of disbursing for the Provost Marshal General’s bureau. Henry and Clara had known each other since childhood, when her widowed father married his widowed mother.
Mary Todd Lincoln seemed especially pleased to make a public appearance that night. Sitting next to the president, she looked radiant in her flowered dress. She seemed to be enjoying a rare moment of happiness, her mind unburdened, for now, by personal loss and suffering. One lady in the audience noticed that Mrs. Lincoln smiled a great deal, and often glanced over at her husband.
The years had weighed heavily on Abraham Lincoln, and an occasional night out gave him a much-needed diversion. But even the theater did not free him from the weight of his duties. Twice he was interrupted by the delivery of messages. Charles Forbes, the White House messenger, brought one dispatch, then took a seat outside the entrance to the box. A newspaper reporter named Hanscom brought the other. Neither message seemed to require an immediate response, and the president settled quietly back in his rocking chair, head propped in his hand, looking lost in thought.
Though Lincoln was hidden from view most of the time, he occasionally leaned over the box railing to look down into the audience. That is how Isaac Jacquette, in the dress circle, got his first look at him. It was halfway into the play, and a woman sitting nearby remarked that she had never seen the president before. A man whispered that she might see him now, as he was leaning forward. Every time he came into view, the president stole the show.
On the far side of the dress circle, James Ferguson, still watching for General Grant, had borrowed his girlfriend’s opera glasses for a closer view. He noticed a dark-haired man with a large black mustache walking toward the box from the rear of the dress circle. It was the actor John Wilkes Booth—as usual, immaculately dressed and groomed. Ferguson watched Booth inch his way past a clump of people who had moved their chairs against the wall for a better look at the stage. Booth then stopped near the entrance to Lincoln’s box and stood there for a moment, hat in hand, looking around.
On stage, Augusta Mountchessington realized she’d been wasting her time with the American cousin. She left the room in disgust, and her mother turned to Asa. “I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone, will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.” She stormed off stage right, away from the president’s box. Now alone on the stage, Trenchard said, half to himself, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap!”
The actor Harry Hawk had turned to follow the lady off stage when he was startled by a loud pop. Spinning around, he saw a commotion up in the president’s box. A man in black made a quick jerking movement, then stepped out of the shadows, his face glowing eerily from the stage lights below. The man stood there, wrapped in a veil of smoke, and hissed out the words “Sic semper tyrannis!” Then he suddenly vaulted over the balustrade and dropped to the stage more than twelve feet below. Landing slightly off balance, he rose to his full height, then raised a gleaming dagger triumphantly over his head. “The South shall be free!” he cried. With that he dashed straight toward Hawk, who turned and fled in terror. The man disappeared into the wings.
In the box office next to the lobby, Harry Ford was tallying receipts while ticket agents Joseph Sessford and Thomas Raybold talked with Laura Keene’s manager. They all heard the gunshot, and Ford looked up from his tally. “That was not in the piece,” he said. The men exchanged puzzled glances, then made a dash for the window that looked out toward the stage. Ford reached it just in time to see a man rising to his feet with a knife in his hand. He looked familiar, but before Harry Ford could even form the words, Joe Sessford spoke for him. “By God, then, is John Booth crazy?”
John Booth. To those who knew him, this dramatic interruption did not make sense. Booth’s late father had been known for his antics on stage and off, but his son had always tried to live that down. He had led a decent life, traveled in good society, and made a respectable name for himself. He was a longtime friend of the Fords, and disrupting one of their productions was entirely out of character for him. To Sessford, it smelled like a cheap stunt, nothing more serious than that.
Nearly everyone was slow to catch on. People in the audience thought something new had been added for the president’s appearance. Some wondered if a piece of the set had collapsed, and one audience member even thought a pistol shot had been incorporated into the script. John F. Sleichman, a scene shifter, was standing backstage with James L. Maddox, the property man, when they heard the shot. Sleichman figured a part of the president’s box must have collapsed. But when he told Maddox, the property man stepped into position for a look. What he saw instead was John Wilkes Booth darting across the stage with a knife.
A piercing scream came from the president’s box, and in an instant everyone knew. To Isaac Jacquette, in the dress circle, that scream was like a slap in the face. A murder had been committed right in front of him, and neither he nor anyone else had done a thing about it. Edwin Bates, a businessman from Vermont, thought it was fear that froze everyone in their seats. “The actors seemed no more to comprehend the matter than the audience,” he wrote that night. “Or they might perhaps [have] stopped the man as he ran right past them[.] If [only] they had not been intimidated by his dagger.” In fact, the audience was full of men in uniform, and dozens of them were armed. One would have thought that after four years of war, somebody in the house would have recognized the sound of gunfire. But the element of surprise worked against them. A moment of hesitation was all the killer needed. As Charles Addison Sanford, a young student, put it: “Everybody was confounded & paralyzed . . . no one comprehended the moment. . . . Then all rose up trying to recover themselves—imagining anxiously what it meant & if the President had been assassinated. It was an awful moment.”
Major Joseph B. Stewart was the first to react. Stewart, sitting in the front row, had just turned to say something to his sister when he heard the shot. He couldn’t tell where the sound had come from, but looking around, he caught a glimpse of a man in black dropping to the stage. The knife in his hand told the story. At six feet five, Stewart might easily have overpowered the assassin, but he never got the chance. By the time he bounded onto the stage, the killer had already vanished into the wings. Stewart followed, but his path to the back door was blocked by a couple of bewildered actors who had wandered into the dark passageway. By the time he got outside, all he saw was the faint silhouette of a man struggling with a horse. Stewart took a swipe at the reins, but the man gained control of the animal, then turned it around and galloped into the darkness.
Like a slow-burning flame, awareness of the shooting built momentum as it swept through the house, and the audience, at first at a low simmer, started to boil. A murder had just been committed in front of them all, and the killer had strode right past them. He had taunted them, and had gotten away with it. In minutes, the stage swarmed with people—men leaping over the orchestra pit, kicking over chairs, and clambering over one another to reach the president’s box. Shock and indignation were etched on every visage. Even the veterans had tears streaming down their faces. Some, looking into the box, could see a look of horror frozen on Mrs. Lincoln’s face. She let out another shriek, then swooned and fell out of view. Other women in the audience fainted as well.
Saloon owner James P. Ferguson, on the far side of the first balcony, had recognized the man in black as John Wilkes Booth. Ferguson was sure that Booth stared right at him as he ran across the stage. Was he to have been another victim? Not taking any chances, he pushed his female companion to the floor, shielding her behind the balcony railing. As Booth darted across the stage beneath them, they heard him whisper, “I have done it!”
The assassin may have gotten away, but certainly not by intimidation. Many of those present had faced far greater dangers than a man with a knife. Lt. John J. Toffey of the 10th V.R.C., for example, was one of those who froze when Booth ran by. Once, while serving with the 33rd New Jersey Infantry, Toffey had launched a ferocious assault on the enemy that would earn him a gunshot wound in the hip and (eventually) a Medal of Honor. Yet in Ford’s Theatre, all he could do was stare vacantly as the killer fled. Self-reproach ate at him. “I had a Revolver with me,” he wrote, “and would to God I had presence of mind enough at the time the man jumped down to have shot him. Several other officers had revolvers but the thing was done so quick that there was hardly time to draw them and shoot.”
In fact, nobody even drew, and though a few men did make a rush for the back door, for a variety of reasons they went no farther. James S. Knox and E. D. Wray were among those who ran to the stage. Wray made a detour to pick something up off the stage, and others stopped when they heard a woman say, “They’ll get him” or “They’ve got him”—nobody was sure which. Only a few actually went out the back door, and the only person they found there was a frightened young boy, who said that Mr. Booth had struck him on the head with something as he mounted his horse.
In the president’s box, Mrs. Lincoln clutched her husband, pleading with him to open his eyes, to say something, to let her know that he would be all right. Major Rathbone stood a few feet away, bleeding and in pain. Rathbone had not seen Booth enter the box. He heard the shot, and the next instant turned to see the assassin lunging at him with a knife. He sprang to his feet, but managed only to deflect the blow, taking a deep cut in the arm. He was the only man close enough to have prevented the assassination, but he didn’t have the chance.
A pounding noise brought Rathbone to his senses. People were trying to reach the box, but could not even get into the passageway leading to it. Apparently the outer door was blocked. Rathbone rushed to help. Fumbling for the door handle, he discovered that one end of a wooden bar had been placed against the door and the other end jammed into the plaster of the opposite wall. The killer had barricaded himself in with the Lincolns and their guests—for how long, he did not know. A few blows dislodged the board, and the door flew inward, flooding the narrow space with people. One of them was Dr. Charles A. Leale, who pushed his way in to see the president.
In the dress circle, Isaac Jacquette went numb. All he remembered saying was “Oh, God! The President is murdered!” followed by pandemonium. A few seats to his right, Captain Theodore McGowan looked down and saw “a heaving, hoarse-sounding sea of men.” Helen DuBarry said that even strong men were sobbing. Some were completely overcome, as much from frustration as grief. A rumor went around that Booth had been captured, and cries of “Hang him!” tore through the crowd. That was the first of many such false alarms, and each was followed by louder shouts for revenge. This time, one man stood on a chair and shouted, “Take out the ladies and hang him here on the spot!”
Laura Keene tried to restore order. Stepping up to the footlights, the actress called, “Order, gentlemen!” But her words were swallowed up in the din of a thousand voices. Jim Maddox thought she was asking for water, and he ran to the green room to get some. When he returned with four tumblers and a pitcher, Miss Keene had disappeared into the crowd.
Some of the men talked of mounting a pursuit. Stewart and others were sure the assassin had gone down the alley, then turned north toward F Street. After that, his direction was anybody’s guess. But even if they knew where he was headed, catching up with him would not be easy. Booth already had a long lead, and it would take some time for anyone to get a horse saddled and on the road.
While the men felt embarrassed that Booth had gotten away, the women were simply terrified. “It was the coolest, most cold-blooded deed ever heard, read, or dreamed of,” wrote Sarah Hamlin Batchelder. Hours after the shooting, Sarah was still trying to find the right words for what she had witnessed:
“It certainly unnerved me. My own shadow . . . would have startled me. . . . This is terrible, awful horrible, nothing can describe the intense feeling of fear & dread of more to come and none can judge in the least degree its depth save those who witnessed the horrible scenes.”
Lt. John T. Bolton, 7th V.R.C., managed to get into the president’s box. As officer of the day for the provost guards, Bolton had come into town to check soldiers’ passes. Ford’s was to be his last stop for the night, and after looking around, he had settled in to watch the play. Booth’s shot startled him back into action. Unable to push through the aisles, he vaulted over seats to get to the stage. By then the assassin was gone, so he turned his attention upward. The president’s box was getting crowded, and nobody seemed to be in charge. With help from a couple of bystanders, Bolton pulled himself up and over the balustrade.
The place was jammed to suffocation, and Henry Rathbone was beginning to panic. He recognized Captain McGowan in the crowd, and asked him to keep anyone else from entering—unless, of course, they were surgeons. Dr. Leale was already attending to the president. Only twenty-three years old, Charles Leale had earned his medical degree just six weeks before. Yet he never hesitated. He called for medicinal brandy and water, then began an examination of the patient. Mr. Lincoln still sat in his rocker, locked in the arms of his wife. Unresponsive, he appeared to be comatose. Mrs. Lincoln pleaded, “Oh, doctor, do what you can for my dear husband. Do what you can for him.” Leale assured her he would do all he could, but at this point he wasn’t even sure how or where the president had been wounded. He remembered the knife in the assailant’s hand and assumed the president had been stabbed. At first glance, though, no cuts were apparent.
Just down Tenth Street, Sergeant John F. Drill was in charge of the detective desk at police headquarters. So far, this Friday night had been relatively quiet. A thirty-five-year-old prostitute had been brought in for attacking a man. A forty-year-old man had been bailed out after assaulting another man with a pistol. Considering how dense, drunk, and noisy the celebrations had been, the level of violence had stayed remarkably low. Though drunken soldiers occasionally got out of hand, that was a problem for military authorities. Civilian police had had nothing to complain about. Until now.
A rumbling sound wafted down from Ford’s Theatre, but Drill paid little attention. He was used to strange noises at night. In this quiet neighborhood, the still night air carried all kinds of sounds from the theater half a block up the street. Martial music, the clash of arms, and the roar of an audience were nothing to get excited about, especially when the windows were open. Then suddenly A. C. Richards, superintendent of the force, burst through the front door. James Ferguson and James Maddox followed. They could hardly get a word out between gasps for air. Richards fired off questions. Who did it? How did he get out of the theater? With a quick enough response, they might still capture him. Messengers were sent out, and the entire force was put on alert.
Back in the theater, the press of the crowd was getting out of hand as onlookers pushed toward the stage for a better view of the box. Looking down on them, Lieutenant Bolton now ordered everyone to disperse. But the audience had worked itself into a frenzy, and nobody paid much attention to the provost guards officer. Dr. Charles S. Taft, a surgeon for the Signal Corps, saw that his wife, Sarah, was in danger of being crushed against the wall of the orchestra pit. He managed to boost her onto the stage, where at least she would have room to breathe. Her friend Annie Wright was forced to improvise. Annie’s husband, John, was the stage manager at Ford’s, and she was anxious about his safety. She tried to pull herself up with a bass viol from the orchestra pit, but a couple of failed attempts left her straddling the instrument in a painful and awkward position.
The crush had Lue Porterfield in a panic. A petite young woman, Lue lacked the size and strength needed to push her way through the crowd. She was about to fall underfoot when a large man appeared out of the audience and lifted her up over the footlights. Actor E. A. Emerson, seeing her on the stage, thought she was about to faint. He took her in his arms and fanned her with his Lord Dundreary wig. In less grim circumstances, the scene would have been comical.
Dr. Charles Taft was torn by indecision. His distraught wife wanted desperately to go home, but he was a surgeon and someone in the box was calling for help. He couldn’t just walk away. Taft found Annie Wright and asked her to look after Sarah. Then he looked up at the box, and a man asked, “Do you want to get up there?” Taft nodded, and Daniel Beekman offered him a boost.
Far too many people were in the box already. Actress Laura Keene was there, and a young obstetrician named Albert Freeman Africanus King had also pushed his way in. Like young Dr. Leale, King had just received his medical degree. When Dr. Taft finally pulled himself up over the railing, he found that he was the senior man in attendance, although he was only thirty.
Dr. Leale was still searching for the wound. He knew he didn’t have much time. The president was in a state of paralysis. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was labored. The doctor could find no pulse, and though he needed to examine the patient, he couldn’t do so in such a tight space. So with the help of a few soldiers, he lifted Mr. Lincoln out of his rocking chair and laid him on the floor. As he did so, he noticed a small clot of blood on the president’s coat near one of the shoulders. Leale thought he had found the area of the wound, but when he tried to look at the president’s neck, he found that the tie was too tight. He struggled to loosen it, and one of the men huddling over him suggested he just cut it off. He handed Leale a penknife.
Leale pulled off the president’s coat and peeled back his shirt. But even with the shoulders and chest exposed, he could find no knife wounds. Fanning his fingers through the president’s hair, at last he found something. On the back of the head, a little to the left of center, was a bullet hole. The tissues around it had swelled, and a clot had formed in the opening. Leale pulled his hand away, and the wound bled. As it did, the president began to breathe more freely.
Lieutenant Bolton stood to the side, awaiting orders. The crowd showed no signs of calming down. Though they should probably leave the building, Bolton alone was powerless to make them do that. Curiosity outweighed their fear, and even with the threat of a stampede, many refused to leave unless someone forced them out.
Dr. Charles Taft quickly took in the situation. From the look of things, a couple of soldiers were preparing to carry the president back to the White House. Taft didn’t think Lincoln could survive such a trip, even in a carriage. He announced that he was an army surgeon, and in his professional opinion, the president should be taken someplace close by—perhaps the nearest house. Dr. Leale concurred, then briefed Taft on the patient’s injury. Such a wound, Dr. Taft said, would have to be mortal. Though Leale had already said as much, the older man had paid little attention; he didn’t realize that the man who spoke to him was also a doctor. Nevertheless, Leale still had the soldiers’ attention. He gave the signal, and six men lifted the president’s limp, unwieldy form. As they carried him out of the box, someone noticed Mr. Lincoln’s coat lying in the corner. Some papers had fallen out of the pockets, and at Dr. Leale’s suggestion, they were handed over to Captain Edwin Bedee, 12th New Hampshire Infantry, who happened to be standing in the box.
Witnesses flooded into the police station faster than anyone could deal with them. A sense of urgency forced detectives to dispense with formalities, and consequently, little of what anybody said was put in writing. Still, it is not hard to imagine the drift of the investigation. Police asked the usual questions—What was he wearing? Which way did he go?—and witnesses bickered over the details. On stage, actor Harry Hawk had been in a better position than anyone else to have observed what happened; yet of all the eyewitnesses interviewed, nobody remembered the shooting quite the way he did. He was the only one who recalled hearing Booth say, “Sic semper tyrannis!” while still in the box; others thought Booth had first jumped to the stage. A few had also understood Booth to say, “Revenge for the South!” Hawk was the only eyewitness who heard “The South shall be free!”
As they talked to police, and to one another, eyewitnesses found it difficult to make sense of their fragmented memories. Not everyone had heard a gunshot, but all agreed that Booth had flashed a knife. Everyone had seen him leap to the stage, and most remembered seeing him land slightly off balance. A few had heard the sound of tearing fabric, and assumed he had torn his clothes in the jump. But Ferguson, sitting across from the Lincolns’ box, was sure Booth had caught his spur in the blue flag; he even saw it fall to the stage in tatters. Nobody else reported anything of the kind. These differences would not have surprised investigators. In cases such as this, confusion and contradiction are the rule, not the exception. But fortunately for police, the identity of the assassin was not in dispute. John Wilkes Booth was a well-known figure in Washington, especially at Ford’s Theatre.
If any one person stood out among eyewitnesses, it was James P. Ferguson. A tall, wiry man of thirty-five, “Fergy” had an adventurous past and a thirst for notoriety. He relished the unique opportunity to tell this story. He swore out a statement for the police, repeated his story for the War Department, and sought out newspaper reporters, to whom he gave interviews. His chief claim was that he knew the assassin and was the only person looking at him when he fired the shot. Little wonder that Jim Ferguson was so much in demand.
At police headquarters, Superintendent A. C. Richards tried to bring order to the maelstrom of witnesses. Nehemiah Miller, the police justice, came over to take their sworn statements while detectives listened and jotted down ideas. They took a special interest in Booth’s movements around the theater that day. He had been in and out of Ford’s all afternoon, they learned, and had made a few trips to the neighboring restaurants as well. Almost everyone on the crew knew him and enjoyed his company. He took them to lunch, bought them drinks, and generally made them feel at ease. He always treated the crew as equals, and not many stars did that.
Jim Maddox said that Booth had not been around much until the previous Christmas. That’s when he had started coming to Ford’s regularly. Booth had said that he was in the oil business and wanted to hire a clerk. He also needed a stable for his horse. Maddox found him one in Baptist Alley, about sixty yards down from the back door of the theater. It was actually a shed, twenty by thirty feet, and Mary Ann Davis, a widow living on E Street, rented it to Booth for five dollars a month. Ned Spangler fixed it up to accommodate a buggy, and Booth had been using it ever since. Some of the theater people looked after the horse and ran other errands for Booth as well. Until Friday night, nobody thought anything of it.
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