Hattip for the above video to commenter Greg Mockeridge.
I have never liked Presidents’ Day. Why celebrate loser presidents like Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, non-entities like Millard Fillmore, bad presidents, like Grant, with great presidents like Washington and Lincoln? However, most presidents, for good and ill, have shaped the story of America.
To say that presidents have had a large impact on our history is to merely recite a truism. Presidential assassins, regrettably, have also had a large impact on our history.
On this President’s day we will look at the murderer of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth. The rest of the week we will look at other successful assasins of presidents.
On July 4, 1835 Junius Brutus Booth, founder of the Booth theatrical family, sat down and penned a letter to President Andrew Jackson. Booth and Jackson knew each other and were friends, which makes the letter quite odd indeed. The text of the letter:
To His Excellency, General Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, Washington City,
You damn’d old Scoundrel if you don’t sign the pardon of your fellow men now under sentence of Death, De Ruiz and De Soto, I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping. I wrote to you repeated Cautions so look out or damn you. I’ll have you burnt at the Stake in the City of Washington.
Your Master, Junius Brutus Booth.
You know me! Look out!
Booth was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his day, and he often gave unforgettable performances. However, he was often noted for his off stage escapades, usually fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. I have little doubt that when he penned this missive Booth was quite drunk. De Ruiz and De Soto had been convicted of piracy. Many Americans had asked for clemency for the men. De Soto did receive a Presidential pardon on July 6, 1835 after an interview with De Soto’s wife and defense attorney with Jackson. In 1832 De Soto had saved the lives of 70 Americans aboard the burning ship Minerva in 1831 and that made him a sympathetic figure to the American public and Jackson. De Ruiz and the other men convicted of piracy were hung. Go here for the details of the piracy trial.
And what happened to Booth? Nothing apparently. I assume that Jackson probably laughed off the letter, assuming that his friend was drunk when he wrote it, and in any case threatening to assassinate the president was not a crime in 1835. One fervently wishes that Booth’s son, John Wilkes Booth had merely written a letter threatening to assassinate Lincoln.
Junius Brutus Booth had two families, one in England which he abandoned and one in America. Until he was divorced from his first wife, he could not marry his second wife, by which he had ten children, until the year before his death in 1852. Born in 1838, John Wilkes Booth was the ninth child of the couple. Booth grew up popular and athletic, although not much of a student. At age 17 he followed his father and two of his brothers into the theater. Five years his elder, Edwin Booth always overshadowed his younger brother as an actor, Edwin quickly being acclaimed as the greatest American actor of his generation. This did not lead to jealously between the brothers, John Wilkes Booth swiftly achieving fame and acting in plays with his brother who was generous in his praise of the acting ability of his younger sibling. As the 1850’s came to a close John Wilkes Booth, a man in his early twenties, was earning $20,000.00 a year, the equivalent of half a million dollars today.
In 1874 Asia Booth in a memoir of her brother, that remained unpublished until 1938, recounts a strange event that occurred to Booth while he was a schoolboy and that summed up his life:
One day a gypsy living in the woods near Cockeysville read John’s palm. She said, “Ah, you’ve a bad hand; the lines all cris-cras! It’s full enough of sorrow. Full of trouble. Trouble in plenty, everywhere I look. You’ll break hearts, they’ll be nothing to you. You’ll die young, and leave many to mourn you, many to love you too, but you’ll be rich, generous, and free with your money. You’re born under an unlucky star. You’ve got in your hand a thundering crowd of enemies – not one friend – you’ll make a bad end, and have plenty to love you afterwards. You’ll have a fast life – short, but a grand one. Now, young sir, I’ve never seen a worse hand, and I wish I hadn’t seen it, but every word I’ve told is true by the signs. You’d best turn a missionary or a priest and try to escape it.”
Booth was pro-slavery and as the Civil War raged made no secret of his sympathy for the Confederacy, although he did not head South and enlist in the Confederate Army. (He had promised his mother he would not do so, and by the latter part of the War regarded himself as a coward as a result.) In 1863 he was arrested in Saint Louis after saying that he wished Lincoln and the entire government was in Hell. He was only released after paying a substantial fine and taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. Showing what a different world it was from today, Booth was able to perform in both the Union and the Confederacy, smuggling medical supplies into the South as he did so. Booth’s outspoken support for the Confederacy caused his Union loving brother Edwin to ban him from his house.
Ironically, Edwin Booth saved the life of Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln in late 1864 or early 1865. Lincoln recalled the incident in 1909:
The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.
The incident was recalled by the Chicago Tribune immediately after the assassination of Lincoln, to remind its readers that Edwin Booth had nothing to do with the murder of Lincoln by his brother:
And here it is only thoughtful and honest to say that the Union cause has had no stronger and more generous supporter than Mr. Edwin Booth. From the commencement he has been earnestly and actively solicitous for the triumph of our arms and the welfare of our soldiers. An incident — a trifle in itself — may be recalled at this moment when the profound monotony of grief overwhelms us. Not a month since, Mr. Edwin Booth was proceeding to Washington. At Trenton there was a general scramble to reach the cars, which had started leaving many behind in the refreshment saloon. Mr. Edwin Booth was preceded by a gentleman whose foot slipped as he was stepping upon the platform, and who would have fallen at once beneath the wheels had not Mr. Edwin Booth’s arm sustained him. The gentleman remarked that he had a narrow escape of his life, and was thankful to his preserver. It was Robert Lincoln, the son of that great, good man who now lies dead before our blistered eyes, and whose name we cannot mention without choking.
Edwin Booth, so far as we know, only cast one vote for President during his life. That was in 1864 when he voted for Abraham Lincoln.
Since the fall of 1864 John Wilkes Booth along with others had been plotting against Lincoln. Booth had an unexplained trip to Montreal in 1864. It is tempting to suspect that he got in contact with Confederate intelligence operatives active in Canada, but no evidence has been found linking Booth to Confederate intelligence then or later.
Initially Booth and his co-conspirators had planned to kidnap Lincoln and smuggle him South and trade him for Confederate prisoners of war. They gathered on March 17, 1865 to do so when Lincoln was en route to a play but Lincoln unknowingly foiled the plot by changing his plans. Booth and his band awaited another opportunity.
On Friday April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln and his wife planned to go to Ford’s Theater in the evening. But first, Lincoln had a day of work ahead of him, which included a cabinet meeting.
Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, made this notation in his diary regarding the cabinet meeting that occurred at noon:
‘I had,’ the President remarked, ‘this strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon. I think it must be from Sherman. My thoughts are in that direction, as are most of yours.’
Judging from his melodramatic “Sic, Semper Tyrannis!” at Ford’s Theater after murdering Lincoln, Booth perceived his role of assassin as being his greatest role, a chance to play in real life a doomed Romantic hero, an avenger of a wronged people. The last twelve days of his life, as he eluded capture, must have been disappointing for him, as the newspapers he read, including those who had been highly critical of Lincoln, universally condemned his action. Perhaps he perceived that instead of being a hero, he was fated to be cast as a minor villain, remembered solely due to his slaying of a great hero. Booth wrote in his diary, “With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”
His last stand in a burning barn on April 26, 1865 lacked the heroic drama he sought, Booth being shot in the neck and paralyzed. Dragged from the barn and lingering for three hours his last words perhaps summed up Booth’s verdict on his final performance: “Useless, useless.”
Certainly useless if the goal of Booth was to resurrect the dead Confederacy. If his effort was motivated by a desire to impact history, he certainly succeeded in that. With Lincoln gone, Andrew Johnson was now President, a man who had none of Lincoln’s political ability and none of his stature. Lincoln may not have succeeded in his conflicting goals of bringing the former Confederate states back into the Union while protecting the civil rights of the freed slaves, but Johnson, a Democrat confronting a Congress controlled by the Republicans, and regarded by Democrats as a renegade, was certain to fail and fail he did, with disastrous long lasting consequences for the nation. It was sung by Union troops during the War that John Brown’s soul went marching on. Certainly the soul of John Wilkes Booth was marching on as Reconstruction embittered generations of Southerners and as blacks were reduced to fifth class citizens by the white state governments that came after Reconstruction.
Edwin Booth buried his brother in an unmarked grave in the family plot in 1869, after years of attempts by him to get his brother’s body from the government. He did what little he could to repair the damage caused by his brother, including paying for the barn that was burned down when his brother was captured. No man could begin to repair the larger damage that John Wilkes Booth wrought to the nation with one bullet.