(WWLP) – April 14 marks a very grim anniversary in American history: 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the next morning in what was the first successful assassination attempt on a U.S. President.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth approached the presidential box at Ford’s Theater, where President and Mrs. Lincoln were watching the comic play “Our American Cousin.” Knowing the play, Booth chose to wait until a particular line in which he hoped the audience’s laughter would prevent them from hearing the sound of his gunshot. After the audience (including Lincoln) began laughing, Booth went up to the president and shot him in the head at point-blank range.
Booth struggled briefly with Major Henry Rathbone, who was with the president in the box, but he managed to get away, and leapt off the balcony, breaking his leg in the process. He is widely reported to have shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants) as he landed, though this has been disputed.
The assassin then ran into the orchestra leader at Ford’s as he tried to make his escape, and he stabbed him with a knife he was carrying. He was able to get out of the building, and escaped on a horse. A massive manhunt followed for days, and Booth moved from house to house across difficult terrain through the Maryland and Virginia countryside, before he was finally shot during a standoff with pursuing soldiers at Garrett’s Farm in Virginia. Booth died hours later.
Following his shooting, Lincoln was brought to a home across the street, after it was determined that a trip back to the White House would be ill-advised. Physicians attended to the wounded president through the night, but he succumbed to his injuries after 7:00 the following morning.
The Lincoln assassination was part of a larger plot designed to reinvigorate the Confederate cause at the very end of the Civil War. It came just days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, and before the surrender of General Joseph Johnston to General William T. Sherman. Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward were also targeted in the plot, but the man who was supposed to kill Johnson got drunk and fell asleep. Seward’s would-be assassin managed to get into the secretary’s bedroom and stabbed him in the face, though guards, and members of Seward’s family fought him off, and he ultimately ran away.
The Lincoln assassination shook a nation that was in the very earliest phases of recovering from the Civil War. Though it was not the first attempt on a president’s life (an 1835 assassination attempt against President Andrew Jackson failed,) it was the first time that a president was actually killed by an assassin. Three other presidents: James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963 would all die as a result of assassins’ bullets.