It is well known that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in his theater box, jumped to the stage, and escaped out of the back door of Ford’s Theatre. These hurried moments at Ford’s instigated a massive manhunt that lasted twelve days and ended with the death of the assassin.
The moments that preceded John Wilkes Booth’s firing of his derringer are not as well known. John Wilkes Booth was intimately familiar with the layout, and people, of Ford’s Theatre. It was like a second home to him insomuch that he even had his mail delivered to Ford’s when he was in Washington. This familiarity allowed Booth to move about Ford’s Theatre without arousing suspicion. What follows is an account of Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre in the time before he shot the president.
John Wilkes Booth had a busy day on April 14th. His preparations to assassinate the President took him to the Herndon House hotel to alert his conspirators, the Kirkwood House hotel to leave a suspicious note for Vice President Johnson, and near Willard’s hotel to give a note to John Mathews which would justify his later actions. Booth also visited Mary Surratt’s boarding house on H street three times that day. It was after his third visit, where Mrs. Surratt confirmed she had given John Lloyd the message that parties would be calling for the hidden weapons tonight, that John Wilkes Booth walked to Ford’s Theatre. He first went into the Star Saloon owned by Peter Taltavul. It was located right next door to Ford’s Theatre. He briefly drank there with some of the stagehands from Ford’s, including Edman Spangler, since the play for that night, “Our American Cousin“, was at an intermission. He found himself drinking alone when the men we called to curtain.
From the Star Saloon, Booth made his way to Baptist Alley behind Ford’s Theatre and got his horse, a bay mare, out of her stable. Spangler built the stable for Booth and took care of it for him. Booth walked his horse to the back door of Ford’s Theatre. At the back door, Booth called for Spangler, who he hoped would hold his horse until he would need it. Booth was told by another stagehand that Spangler was needed for an upcoming scene change and so Booth waited with his horse. After the change, Spangler came out and agreed to hold Booth’s horse. Booth entered the back door of Ford’s. The current scene of the play left Booth with no room to sneak across.
Instead, he lifted a trap door and descended a staircase that led under the stage. This was a T shaped passageway that was used by stagehands to cross the stage underground and for the musicians to reach the orchestra pit. Booth emerged by ascending another flight of stairs and opening a trap door on the opposite side.
From there, Booth exited a stage door and into a covered alleyway between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon. He exited the passageway right out onto Tenth St. Various witnesses put Booth in the theater lobby and at the Star Saloon at different times which makes knowing his precise course impossible. However, a likely scenario would have Booth entering the lobby of Ford’s Theatre after exiting the alleyway. He walked past the ticket taker, John Buckingham, who instinctively held out his hand for a ticket until he realized it was Booth. Buckingham said that Booth entered the theater and stood behind the seats watching the production (and the President’s box) for some time.
As this was going on, Spangler had grown tired of caring for Booth’s horse. He called for Peanut John, a young man who acted as an errand boy for the theater, to come out and take his place. With Peanut holding the reigns, Spangler returned to work.
Booth exited the theater and walked next door to the Star Saloon. Here he had a glass of whiskey and some water to chase it down. He also acquired a cigar and began puffing away. Cigar in mouth, Booth returned to the lobby of Ford’s. Booth entered the main floor of the theater again and watched the production some more. Upon exiting, he conversed with Harry Ford who was in the ticket office counting receipts. Booth placed his half smoked cigar down on the window’s ledge and joked with Ford that no man should disturb his cigar.
As stated before, Booth’s movements are not an exact science. It is likely that Booth, anxiously passing the time while waiting to strike, repeatedly traveled between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon, attempting to gain courage with every drink. Eventually, however, Booth realized that it was time to strike. From the lobby of Ford’s Theatre, Booth ascended the staircase which led him to the balcony level.
Booth crept across the back of the dress circle level. As he approached closer to the president’s box he stopped and noticed a guard sitting in front of the entryway to the boxes. He removed his hat, and took out something, probably a calling card, from his pocket. He then approached the man and presented the card to him. He was allowed to pass and entered the vestibule with led to the boxes. Booth closed the door and, using a bar he had hidden there earlier, he wedged the door shut. The door to Box 8, which was at the end of the passageway, was open. With his single shot derringer in hand and a large Rio Grande Camp knife at the ready, Booth entered the President’s box through door 8, turned left, and shot Abraham Lincoln in the head at close range.
Booth cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and dropped the gun. He raised the knife in his hand as Major Rathbone, one of the President’s guests that night, rushed at him. Booth tried to stab Rathbone in the chest but Rathbone parried the strike and took it in his left arm instead. Booth then ran to the front of the box, put his hands on the railing, and leaped over. He fell almost twelve feet to the stage below. He landed awkwardly, either due to a last minute grab by Rathbone or his spur catching one of the decorative flags adorning the box. In a moment he raised himself up and with quick speed made his way across the stage, perhaps pausing briefly at center stage to raise his knife and shout “The South shall be Free!” Booth ran into the wings and towards the back door he originally entered through. William Withers, the orchestra director, unknowingly got in his way and Booth pushed him away, cutting his vest in the process. Booth reached the back door, rushed through it, and shut the door close behind him.
In the alley, Booth shouted at Peanut John to, “Give me the horse!” Booth knocked Peanut away using the butt of his knife and a firm kick. He swiftly mounted the horse and put spurs to her. She dashed down Baptist Alley. Booth turned her northward and exited out onto F Street. He would soon escape D.C. via the Navy Yard bridge and America’s largest manhunt would begin.