On this day, April 14, 1866, most of the country was still learning that just five days earlier General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his troops at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Historically, the surrender interests me; the fact that my great-great-grandfather was there interests me even more.
By the evening of April 14, I’m sure Lincoln had to be feeling pretty good about the future of the country and I’m sure was looking for nothing more than a relaxing evening when he agreed to attend a production of Our American Cousin starring Laura Keene at Ford’s Theater, located just seven blocks from the White House.
It has always been rumored that it was Mrs. Lincoln who insisted upon attending the play but regardless, witnesses reported that the President arrived in excellent spirits, laughing aloud during the humorous parts of the production from the upper box that he, his wife, and several others occupied.
Just as an aside here, it is worth noting that John Wilkes Booth was a very well-known actor of the day, and both of the Lincolns had attended his performances.
It was at approximately 10:15 p.m. that actor John Wilkes Booth slipped unnoticed into the theatre box and fired a single shot into the back of the President’s head. Booth then turned to flee with army officer Henry Rathbone (who also occupied the box) leaping to restrain him. Stabbing the young man, Booth lept over the side of the box, jumping to the stage below and breaking his leg in the process. Rathbone was seriously injured.
John Wilkes Booth was able to flee from Ford’s Theatre, everyone assuming that he was part of the show until the screams from Mrs. Lincoln told them differently. President Lincoln was carried from the theatre with doctors ordering that he be placed upon the nearest bed, a hysterical Mrs. Lincoln following along behind. Today that home is a tourist site called simply the Petersen house.
Neither Mary Todd Lincoln nor Major Rathbone ever recovered emotionally from the trauma. Mrs. Lincoln lived out the remainder of her life in seclusion, dying in 1882. Henry Rathbone went on to marry his fiancee and the couple had three children before he killed her in 1883. He lived out the rest of his life in an institution for the insane in Germany.
The death of the President usually overrides these facts as well as the rest of the story in most history classrooms today; however, killing Lincoln was not all there was to Booth’s plan. The actor had also put in motion a plan whereby George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Lewis Paine would assassinate Secretary of State William Seward.
Atzerodt did not attack Johnson, but Paine went to Seward’s home and stabbed him in his bed where he lay sick. Seward eventually recovered from his wounds.
As for the end of John Wilkes Booth…well, that depends on who tells the story. The official account claims that he was discovered holed up inside a barn in northern Virginia twelve days after the shooting. However, the folks in Granbury, Texas believe that was not the case at all. In fact, historians in both Glen Rose and Granbury believe that John Wilkes Booth actually made it to Texas where he lived out his live under the name of John St. Helen.
“The mystery of John St. Helen has been featured on two popular television series: 20/20 and Unsolved Mysteries. In addition it is the subject of an original Granbury Opera House production called The Myth and the Mummy.”
Who knows? I suppose stranger things have happened, don’t you?