John Wilkes Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland, on 10th May, 1838. He was the ninth of ten children born to the famous actor, Junius Brutus Booth.
Booth made his acting debut at the age of seventeen in Baltimore. He toured throughout America and soon became one of America's leading actors and was especially acclaimed for the work he did with the Shakespearean company that was based in Richmond.
Although Booth had a deep hatred for President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, he did not join the Confederate Army on the outbreak of the American Civil War. Instead he worked as a secret agent and also helped to smuggle medical supplies from the North to the Confederate forces in the South. As a touring actor Booth had the perfect cover for this work.
In 1864 Booth devised a scheme to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in Washington. The plan was to take Lincoln to Richmond and hold him until he could be exchanged for Confederate Army prisoners of war. Others involved in the plot included Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, John Surratt, David Herold, Michael O'Laughlin and Samuel Arnold. Booth decided to carry out the deed on 17th March, 1865 when Lincoln was planning to attend a play at the Seventh Street Hospital that was situated on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnap attempt was abandoned when Lincoln decided at the last moment to cancel his visit.
On 9th April, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later Booth attended a public meeting in Washington where he heard Abraham Lincoln make a speech where he explained his views that voting rights should be granted to some African Americans. Booth was furious and decided to assassinate the president before he could carry out these plans.
Booth persuaded most of the people who had been involved in the kidnap plot to join him in his plan. Booth discovered that on 14th April, Abraham Lincoln was planning to attend the evening performance of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre in Washington. Booth decided he would assassinate Lincoln while George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. All attacks would take place at approximately 10.15 p.m. that night.
Booth, armed with a derringer pistol and a hunting knife, arrived at the theatre at about 9.30 p.m. John Burroughs, a boy who worked at the theatre, was asked to hold his horse while he went to a nearby saloon for a drink. He entered Ford's Theatre soon after 10.00 p.m. and made his way to the State Box. John Parker, Lincoln's bodyguard from the Metropolitan Police Force, had left his position outside the State Box to get a drink. Inside was Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Lincoln, and two friends, Major Henry Rathbone and his future wife, Clara Harris.
At 10.15 p.m. Booth entered the State Box and shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. When Rathbone attempted to grab Booth he was slashed with the hunting knife. Booth then jumped about 11 feet onto the stage below. He landed badly and snapped the fibula bone in his left leg just above the ankle. Booth waving his hunting knife at the audience, hobbled outside and got on his horse and rode out of the city.
Meanwhile Lewis Powell had attacked William Seward in his house. Although badly wounded, he survived. George Atzerodt, lost his nerve, and never made his assassination attempt on Andrew Johnson. The plan was for the conspirators to meet at the boarding house owned by Mary Surratt in Surrattsville, Maryland. After a brief stop to pick up supplies Booth and David Herold left and headed for the Deep South.
At 4.00 a.m. Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Booth's broken leg. With the help of other sympathizers they reached Port Royal, Virginia, on the morning of 26th April. They hid in a barn owned by Richard Garrett. However, federal troops arrived soon afterwards and the men were ordered to surrender.
David Herold came out of the barn but Booth refused and so the barn was set on fire. While this was happening one of the soldiers, Sergeant Boston Corbett, found a large crack in the barn and was able to shoot Booth in the back. His body was dragged from the barn and after being searched the soldiers recovered his leather bound diary. The bullet had punctured his spinal cord and he died in great agony two hours later.
On 29th June, 1865 Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and Samuel Arnold were found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy to murder Lincoln. Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold were hanged at Washington Penitentiary on 7th July, 1865. Surratt, who was expected to be reprieved, was the first woman in American history to be executed.