It is rather amazing that so little is known about basic aspects of the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- like a definitive answer as to whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, how many shots were fired and what his motivation was -- while there is virtually no aspect of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a century earlier that remains a mystery.
The original plan of John Wilkes Booth and his seven co-conspirators was to kidnap Lincoln, take him south and hold him hostage until Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of the Union armies, resumed the prisoner-of-war exchanges that he had suspended in March 1864, cutting off badly needed reinforcements for the beleaguered Confederate Army.
Booth, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, matinee idol and racist who was a month shy of his 27th birthday, had become an initiate of the Knights of the Golden Circle in 1860, a pro-slavery secret society that promoted the interests of the Southern U.S. and after the Civil War became the Ku Klux Klan.
On March 4, 1865, Booth attended Lincoln's second inauguration as the guest of his secret fiancée Lucy Hale, the daughter of John P. Hale, who would soon become U.S. ambassador to Spain. Booth remarked afterwards, "What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the president on Inauguration Day!"
On March 17, Booth told his co-conspirators that Lincoln would be attending a play, Still Waters Run Deep, at Campbell Military Hospital outside of Washington and they planned to ambush him on the way back to the White House. But after going to check on Lincoln, Booth learned that he had instead attended a ceremony honoring Union officers from Indiana at the National Hotel, which ironically was where Booth was living.* * * * *Prior to his assassination, Lincoln had a prescient dream that he related to personal friend and bodygurd Ward Hill Lamon:
"About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. . . . Before me was a catafalque on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.' "
Although Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his government were in flight, Booth continued to believe in his cause and he moved forward with a plan to murder Lincoln and Grant himself, have George Atzerodt kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Lewis Powell kill Secretary of State William Seward with the assistance of David Herold.
Booth, it was said later, had no enemies, but he loathed Lincoln. By masterminding the simultaneous assassination of the three highest ranking Union officials, including two possible successors to the president, he hoped to throw the government into disarray, and gave orders for the co-conspirators to strike simultaneously shortly after 10 on the evening of April 14.Lying awake in his bed at the National Hotel earlier in the day, he wrote his mother that all was well, but that he was "in haste" and noted in his diary that "Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done."
Lincoln, meanwhile, was in an upbeat mood because of the Union victories and told people how happy he was, but was scolded by wife Mary Todd who was concerned that saying such things out loud was bad luck. He convened his Cabinet later in the day and met with Johnson for the first time since he had taken the vice presidential oath in a drunken stupor on Inauguration Day.
Visiting Ford's Theater about noon to pick up his mail, Booth confirmed that the president and Grant would be attending a performance of Our American Cousin that night. The actor knew they layout of the theater intimately having performed many times there.
The assassin then went to the boarding house of Mary Surratt and and asked her to deliver a package for him at her tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland and have ready the guns and ammunition that he had previously told her to store there.
At 7 that night, he met one last time with Atzerodt, Powell and Herold, telling them that he would shoot the president with a .44-caliber single-shot derringer and stab the general with a knife. Atzerodt, however, gold cold feet and said he had agreed to kidnap the vice president and not kill him. Booth replied that it was he far too involved in the plot and it was far too late for him to back out.
Lincoln and First Lady arrived at the theater after the play had begun because the president had been delayed at the White House, where in his last official act as president he agreed to pardon a man thrice convicted of espionage for the Confederacy and had been sentenced to die. The couple was led to the presidential box, where Lincoln sat down in a rocking chair on the left-hand side. The show was briefly stopped to acknowledge their presence and they were applauded by the standing-room-only audience.
Booth arrived at the back door of Ford's Theatre a short while later where he handed the reins of his horse over to stagehand Edmund Spangler, who may or may not have been a co-conspirator. Spangler was busy and asked Joseph Burroughs, known as "Peanuts" for the snacks he once sold in the theater, to hold the horse. As a sometime actor at the theatre, Booth was well known there and knew his way around. Shortly before 10:15, he entered a narrow hallway between Lincoln's box and the balcony and barricaded the door.
At that point, Mrs. Lincoln whispered to her husband, who was holding her hand, "What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?"
They were the last words spoken by Abraham Lincoln.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): John Wilkes Booth; George Atzerodt and Andrew Johnson; Lewis Powell and William Seward; Mary Suratt and her boarding house; Edmund Spangler; Ford's Theater; Henry Rathbone; Presidential box.