Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Assassination Of Lincoln: Plotters Strike With Decidedly Mixed Results

Shortly after 10 on the evening of April 14, 1865, the simultaneous assassinations of the president of the United States and two possible successors as plotted by John Wilkes Booth were to be carried out, throwing the government into disarray and giving hope to a Confederacy on its last legs.

Booth was to murder Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant at the theater, while George Atzerodt was to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson at his hotel, while Lewis Powell, with help from David Herold, was to murder Secretary of State William Seward at his residence. They then were to meet up at the Navy Yard Bridge over the Potomac and escape to Virginia and the welcoming embrace of the South.

* * * * *
As it turned out, Grant and his wife turned down the Lincolns' invitation to join them at Ford's Theater on 10th Street Northwest for a performance of Our American Cousin. Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris accepted in their stead.

Booth, who was a familiar face at Ford's, knew the play well and waited for the moment when actor Harry Hawk would be onstage alone. There would be laughter to muffle the sound of a gunshot as Hawk declared, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!"

The assassin entered the narrow hallway between Lincoln's box and the balcony, barricaded the door from the inside, rushed forward and shot the president in the back of the head. Lincoln slumped over in his rocking chair, unconscious. Rathbone jumped from his seat and tried to prevent Booth from escaping, but Booth stabbed the major in the arm with a knife.

Rathbone tried to grab Booth as he was preparing to jump from the sill of the box. Booth again stabbed at Rathbone, and then attempted to vault over the rail and down onto the stage. His riding spur caught on the Treasury flag decorating the box, and Booth landed awkwardly on his left foot, fracturing his left fibula just above the ankle, which would prove to be a factor in his undoing.

Booth raised himself up and holding the knife over his head yelled, "Sic semper tyrannis," the Virginia state motto meaning "Thus always to tyrants."

He then ran across the stage, and went out the stage door to the horse he had left waiting. Some of the men in the audience chased after him, but failed to catch him.

* * * * *
Seward would seem to have been easy prey.

The secretary of state was bedridden at his home in Lafayette Park near the White House because of an accident on April 5 in which he was thrown from his carriage, suffering a concussion, a broken jaw and broken right arm.

Powell, armed with a heavy Whitney revolver and a silver-handled bowie knife, was guided to Seward's house by Herold. He knocked at the front door and William Bell, Seward's butler, answered. Powell told Bell that he had medicine for Seward from a doctor and that he was to personally deliver and show Seward how to take it.

The butler admitted Powell, who made his way up the stairs to Seward's third floor bedroom, but he was approached by Seward's son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick Seward. Powell told him the same story but the son became suspicious and told him that his father was asleep.

Hearing voices in the hall, Seward's daughter Fanny opened the door to Seward's room and said, "Fred, father is awake now," revealing to Powell where Seward was located.

Powell started down the stairs when he suddenly turned around and drew his revolver, pointing it at Frederick's forehead. He pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. Panicking, Powell smashed the gun over Frederick's head continuously until Frederick collapsed. Powell ran to Seward's bed and stabbed him repeatedly in the face and neck. The third blow sliced open Seward's cheek, but a neck brace that he was wearing because of his broken jaw prevented the blade from penetrating his jugular.

Herold, hearing Fanny's screaming, became frightened and abandoned Powell. Meanwhile, Seward had rolled off the bed and onto the floor because of the force of the blows and could not be reached by Powell.

Sergeant George Robinson, an attending nurse, and Seward's son Augustus were awakened and tried to drive Powell away. He stabbed them and an arriving messenger as well as he fled the house, exclaiming "I'm mad! I'm mad!" He untied his horse from the tree where Herold left it and galloped off alone.

Seward's wounds were ugly, but he survived the attacks and continued as secretary of state.

* * * * *
Atzerodt was to go to the Vice President Johnson's room at the Kirkwood House Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street and kill him.

Atzerodt arrived at the hotel armed with a gun and knife but first went to the bar. He soon got drunk and wandered out onto the street. Nervous, he tossed his knife away, made his way to the Pennsylvania House Hotel where he checked into a room and fell asleep.

In a footnote, Booth had stopped by the Pennsylvania House earlier in the day and left a note for Johnson that read "I don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth."

This message has been interpreted in different ways throughout the years, the most likely being that Booth had anticipated that Atzerodt would get cold feet and tried to use the message to implicate Johnson in the conspiracy.

* * * * *
Meanwhile, pandemonium had broken out at Ford's Theatre as the audience realized that President Lincoln had been shot.

Charles Leale,
a young Army surgeon who was in the audience, rush to the president's box to find Rathbone bleeding profusely from a deep gash that ran the length of his upper left arm. Nonetheless, he passed Rathbone by and stepped forward to find Lincoln slumped forward in his rocking chair and being held up by Mary Todd Lincoln.

Lincoln had no pulse and Leale believed him to be dead, although that was not yet the case. He lowered the president to the floor while a second doctor in the audience, Charles Sabin Taft, was lifted from the stage over the railing and into the box. The doctors cut away Lincoln's blood-stained collar and opened his shirt. Leale, feeling around by hand, discovered the bullet hole in the back of the head by the left ear. The doctor removed a clot of blood in the wound and Lincoln's breathing became noticeable.

But Leale knew that this respite was temporary, remarking "His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him to recover."

Leale, Taft, and Albert King, a third doctor from the audience, quickly consulted and decided that while the president must be moved, a bumpy carriage ride across town to the White House was out of the question. With the help of several soldiers, they carried Lincoln across the street to find a house and, encouraged by Henry Safford, a resident of William Petersen's boarding house, carried him into a first-floor bedroom where they laid him diagonally on the bed because he was too tall to lie straight.

As Lincoln's wife sat weeping in the front parlor, the three physicians were soon joined by several notables, including Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, Robert K. Stone, Lincoln's personal physician, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Lincoln's sons Robert and Tad.

Stanton set up an office in the rear parlor where he effectively ran the government for several hours, sending and receiving telegrams, taking reports from witnesses and issuing orders for the pursuit of Booth.

Nothing more could be done for the president.

At 7:22 a.m. on April 15, Lincoln died, aged 56 years, 2 months and 3 days. The crowd around the bed knelt for a prayer, and when they were finished, Stanton said "Now he belongs to the ages."

IMAGES (From top to bottom): The scene of Lincoln's death, although in reality the room was smaller; Alexander Gardener's "Cracked Plate Lincoln," famous because the bullet that killed him followed the path of the crack in the plate of a photo taken two months before his assassination; John Wilkes Booth; Seward's son stops Lewis Powell; Powell; George Atzerodt; The house where Lincoln died; Lincoln death mask.

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