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Abe Lincoln

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is one of the seminal events in United States history.

Lincoln has been memorialized numerous times in sculpture. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Lincoln has been memorialized numerous times in sculpture.

Abe Lincoln

Abe Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. According to the Library of Congress, Mr. Lincoln was killed while enjoying a comedy performance inside the Ford's Theater. With one shot, Mr. Booth shocked the nation, seriously delayed the progression of civil rights and revealed a conspiracy that is still pondered and discussed today.

The Assassin: John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth was born into a large family as the ninth of ten children. With acting skills inherited from his father, Booth appeared in his first play at 17. While acting with a Shakespearian company, he traveled all over the country. According to a biography by the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, ironically, two years prior to his death, the president attended a play in which Booth was an actor.

Ten to 15 years prior to the assassination, Booth joined a secretive, political group called the Know-Nothing Party. It was aptly-named because when asked questions about their policies, members simply responded with, "I know nothing." Being a Southern sympathizer and a staunch supporter of slavery, he also worked as a Confederate secret agent during the Civil War. His twisted plans against Lincoln began to take shape in 1864 with his idea to kidnap the president. The kidnapping never materialized and the conspiracy was thought to have taken a darker turn after Booth was angered by Lincoln's support of black suffrage.

The Plot: From Kidnapping to Assassination

Booth plotted against the president for several years and had six co-conspirators in the kidnapping plot. When those plots didn't unfold and Booth moved on to the assassination planning, he lost the support of most of his original cohorts and he had to try to sell his idea to others. His desire was to kill the president, the vice-president, the secretary of state, and, it has been rumored, General Grant.

He managed to gain the support of at least four others and this resulted in not only the assassination of President Lincoln, but also a simultaneous and unsuccessful attempt on the life of Secretary of State, William Henry Seward.

The Act: Assassination of Abe Lincoln

According to History.com, Booth and his pals wanted to cause chaos within the U.S. government with the loss of its leaders. The night of the shooting, the president and his wife were joined by an army officer named Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, a U.S. senator's daughter named Clara Harris. They were situated in a booth above the stage, unaware of the dark plot in motion. After showing some sort of card or credentials to one of the president's aides, the assassin was given access to the president's booth. At 10:15 p.m., as the president was leaning forward to watch the show, Booth slipped in behind him, pulled out his .44-caliber single-shot derringer and put a single bullet into the back of the president's head.

Understandably, there was a lot of confusion following the shooting and it there were different accounts from witnesses. Booth supposedly yelled as he pulled the trigger saying, according to one, "Revenge for the South!" and according to another, "Freedom." The young officer Rathbone managed to grab Booth, but was injured with a knife wielded by the assassin. Booth leaped over the railing, breaking his leg during his landing on the stage. As he rose, he called out, Sic semper tyrannus! which means, "Death to tyrants." Despite his injury, he managed to escape the theater with the help of his co-conspirators and went into hiding.

The Aftermath: The State of the Nation

On April 15, 1865, the president of the United States, who was the champion for so many, took his last breath and was declared dead. Word spread quickly and the nation was thrown into mourning.

After the loss of this remarkable president, much of the social progress he had made was lost. With racism running rampant, Reconstruction was doomed to failure. The Jim Crow system took over and African-Americans, who had left the bonds of slavery, became shackled to the oppression of being thought of and treated as underclass. Perhaps if the president had lived and been allowed to finish out his term, African-American U.S. history would have taken a completely different turn. However, it would be another 100 years following the death of the first American president to support black suffrage for nonwhite Americans to fully receive the right to vote free of the laws put into place to hinder their participation.

As for the assassin and his murderous co-conspirators, they were all captured on April 26, 1865. John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed. The other four, Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, David Herold and Mary Surratt were hanged on July 7, 1865.

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