Booth, John Wilkes

Booth, John Wilkes wĭlks [key], 1838–65, American actor, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, b. near Bel Air, Md.; son of Junius Brutus Booth and brother of Edwin Booth. He made his stage debut at the age of 17 in Baltimore. He later toured widely, winning acclaim mainly for his swordplay and physical effectiveness in Shakespearean roles, rather than for his weak acting ability. Unlike the rest of his family, Booth was an ardent Confederate sympathizer. He had joined (1859) the Virginia militia company that guarded John Brown on his way to execution and falsely claimed to have aided in his capture, but Booth did not enter Confederate service in the Civil War. Instead, he continued with his theatrical career in the North. For some six months in 1864–65 Booth laid plans to abduct the president and carry him to Richmond, a scheme that was frustrated when Lincoln failed to appear (Mar. 20, 1865) at the spot where Booth and his six fellow conspirators lay in wait.

On Good Friday, Apr. 14, 1865, Booth, having learned that Lincoln planned to attend Laura Keene's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington on that evening, plotted the simultaneous assassination of the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lewis Thornton Powell, who called himself Payne, guided by David E. Herold, seriously wounded Seward and three others at Seward's house. George A. Atzerodt, assigned to Johnson, lost his nerve. The main act the egomaniacal Booth reserved for himself. His crime was committed shortly after 10 p.m., when he entered the presidential box unobserved, shot Lincoln, and vaulted to the stage (breaking his left leg in the process) shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” [thus always to tyrants] “The South is avenged!” He then went behind the scenes and down the back stairs to a waiting horse upon which he made his escape. Not until Apr. 26, after a hysterical two-week search by the army and secret service forces, was he discovered, hiding in a barn on Garrett's farm near Bowling Green, Caroline co., Va. The barn was set afire and Booth was either shot by his pursuers or shot himself rather than surrender. Although it has been said that no dead body was ever more definitely identified, the myth—completely unsupported by evidence—that Booth escaped has persisted. For the fate of others involved, see Surratt, Mary Eugenia.

See memoir by his sister, Asia Booth Clarke (1930, repr. 1971, 1996); biographies by R. G. and K. O. Gutman (1979) and G. Samples (1982); M. W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004); N. Titone, My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth (2010).

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