The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Abraham Lincoln's Last Day

By Blue Ridge Institute - Ferrum College

Issue: May, 1990

Editor's Note... This article is based upon the research that R. Rex Stephenson, playwright/director of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, is doing for his new play, "The Conspiracy." The drama will commemorate the 125th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln and the trial of those accused of his murder. The play will premier at Ferrum College, Ferrum, Virginia during the last two weeks of July, 1990.

On April 14, 1865, one hundred twenty five years ago, President Abraham Lincoln awoke for the last time. He rose from his bed recalling his dream from the preceding night; he was in a great ship moving quickly toward a vague distant shoreline. It was the same dream Lincoln had had before every event of the Civil War. He told his Cabinet later that day about the dream and commented, "We shall, judging from the past, have great news today."

Lincoln did have good reason for optimism this Good Friday morn, for five days before, Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House; Sherman was beginning surrender negotiations with the last sizable Confederate force and Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet were fleeing south. The War that had cost more than 620,000 lives was for all practical purposes, over.

The four year conflict had also taken its toll on Lincoln, his face was worn and tired, and he had lost more than twenty pounds. He went straight to his office for an hour of work; for while the citizens of Washington celebrated the victory, Lincoln knew his most monumental task lay ahead: How to unite a nation? He left his office after an hour of work to join Mrs. Lincoln for breakfast; son Robert, who just returned from active duty, and twelve year old Todd, were also present. Robert showed his father a portrait of Robert E. Lee, the President studied the picture a minute and then replied, "It is a good face."

After breakfast, he granted interviews for two hours. Anyone from Senator to stable boy was allowed to visit the President. Aides had often tried to persuade Lincoln that time spent with ordinary citizens was a strain and a waste of time, but Lincoln shunned their pleas believing that everyone had the right to speak to their President. At 11:00, Lincoln held a Cabinet meeting, in which General Grant was in attendance. He asked Grant if he and his wife would like to accompany him to see the 1,000th production of Our American Cousin starring Laura Keene. Lincoln told him that he was going to please his wife. Grant accepted.

Earlier that morning, the manager's of Ford's and Grover's Theatres had invited Lincoln to attend their Good Friday performances and suggested he bring Grant. They would prepare the "State Box." Lincoln accepted both invitations but sent son Todd and some of his friends to Grover's Theatre where "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp," was playing.

At 11:30 on this eventful day, James Ford, brother of the owner of Ford's Theatre, received word from the White House that the Lincolns and Grants had accepted Ford's invitation to attend the play. Arriving shortly after was a twenty six year old actor, John Wilkes Booth, coming to pick up his mail. While not in the cast of "Our American Cousin," Booth often performed at Ford's Theatre and used it as a permanent mailing address. He sat down in a door sill to read his mail but was interrupted by Henry Ford, who informed him that the Lincolns and Grants would be attending the performance that evening. Booth rose, stuck the letters in his pocket and quickly left. Ford later observed, "As a man with an idea."

This man with an idea was a popular matinee idol who had the good fortune of being born into one of America's leading theatrical families. While Booth was considered the handsomest actor in the United States, he was never to achieve the kind of fame other members of his family had. John Wilkes' success came from high action melodramas while his father and brothers were noted for their classical roles.

Booth left Ford's Theatre and went to two different stables to arrange for horses to be used later in the day. He then went to the Surratt boarding house inquiring for John Surratt, a well known Confederate spy and courier. Mrs. Surratt told Booth her son was in Canada, (he was actually scouting a Confederate Prison Camp in Elmira, NY) and she informed Booth that she was about to leave for Surrattsville on personal business. Booth later made his escape through this small village in Maryland.

Sometime after 3 p.m. Booth visited Lewis Paine and then went to the Kirkwood House to find George Atzerodt. Atzerodt was not in, but Booth left him a note and then went to the bar for a drink. He then did a most curious thing; he left an additional note for Vice-president Andrew Johnson, who also resided at the same hotel. Booth wrote, "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" and signed his name. The vice-president and Booth were well acquainted as they both had kept sister mistresses in Nashville before Johnson became vice-president. Everyone, save Johnson, that Booth visited that afternoon would later be implicated in the assassination of Lincoln.

After the Cabinet meeting and some appointments including one with Vice-president Johnson, Lincoln took Mrs. Lincoln for a drive, guarded only by William Crook, a former Washington policeman. Lincoln told Crook that afternoon, "I believe there are men who want to take my life. And I have no doubt they will do so." Mrs. Lincoln also had ominous thoughts about the 14th, comparing it to the day their thirteen year old son, Willie, died. Lincoln, then did a most unusual thing, at 5 p.m. he went to the War Department to ask for a bodyguard, to accompany him to Ford's Theatre. Lincoln normally shied away from protection to the point where he even tried to forbid the soldiers guarding the White House to be armed. However, on April 14th, Lincoln asked his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton to assign Major Eckert, head of the Telegraph Office, to be his bodyguard that evening. Stanton refused claiming that Eckert had too much work to do. Since Crook was now off duty and Eckert was unavailable, John Parker was assigned to guard the President. Parker was an incompetent policeman who had been in trouble with the Metropolitan Police Force almost since his joining. On 14 different occasions, charges ranging from sleeping on the job to residing in a brothel had been lodged against him. However, it was Mrs. Lincoln who requested Parker's assignment to the White House.

After dinner Lincoln met with several Congressmen, until Mrs. Lincoln interrupted the meeting to remind the President it was time to go to the theatre. She also told the President that Grant had sent his regrets citing a need to leave Washington that evening in order to visit his children.

Around 4:30 p.m. Booth rode to Grover's Theatre where he consumed a "large quantity of brandy" and wrote a letter to the newspaper editor. Booth gave the letter to an actor and asked him to post it the next day; however, the actor destroyed the letter without ever reading it. About 6 p.m. Booth returned to Ford's Theatre and placed his horse in a shed near the theatre. He then presented a bottle of whiskey to the actors and stagehands at the theatre.

While the actors and stagehands were enjoying Booth's whiskey, he probably slipped away to do some clandestine work in the box that the Lincolns were to occupy. The passage way that led to the "Presidential Box" had a notch cut into the plaster, so that a wooden makeshift bar could secure the corridor door from the inside. This makeshift lock prevented anyone from entering the hallway that led to the Presidential Box. Also a small peephole was bored into the door that opened into Lincolns' box, and the screws were loosened to prevent this door from being locked. When Booth left the theatre has never been discovered, but around 7 p.m. he was seen entering the dining room of the National Hotel.

At 8:30 p.m. the Lincolns arrived at Ford's Theatre, accompanied by Major Rathbone and his girlfriend. The play was already in progress, but when Lincoln entered the Presidential Box, the audience rose and cheered and the orchestra played "Hail to the Chief."

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., Booth entered the Star Saloon, a bar that was attached to Ford's Theatre. Here Booth drank and visited with the bartender, leaving several times to enter the lobby of the theatre.

Approximately 10:05 p.m., Booth entered the theatre and made his way unobserved to the Presidential Box. Lincoln's bodyguard, Parker, had wandered off somewhere; he may actually have been in the Star Saloon drinking. Booth placed the bar on the outer door and peered into the box, seeing Lincoln directly in front of him and Major Rathbone on a sofa to the right.

At this point in the play, actor Harry Hawk, alone occupied the stage, and when he delivered the punch line of his monologue, the audience roared with laughter. At 10:10 p.m., with the laughter to cover his movement, Booth entered the Presidential Box and fired a .44 caliber derringer at the back of Lincoln's head.

The audience was somewhat confused, thinking the shot may have been part of the play. But then Booth leapt onto the stage, and the actor Hawk, dashed into the wings.

Booth stopped midstage to shout, "Sic semper tyranntis - Thus be it ever to tyrants," Brutus' excuse for assassinating imperial Caesar, and a lady's scream pierced the theatre: Mrs. Lincoln discovered the severity of the President's injury. By this time, Booth was out of the theatre and all in all, probably no more than 90 seconds have passed since the brass derringer immeasurably changed the course of American history.

At this time, a very strange event occurred - all telegraph lines (more than 20) save one at the War Department, went dead. This stroke of unparalleled luck helped Booth; no account of the assassination or description of the assassin could be telegraphed to the world. No reason for the malfunction was ever explained and as mysteriously as the lines went dead, just as mysteriously they returned to perfect working order two hours later.

A Dr. Lee made his way into the box and gave the President artificial respiration. When brandy arrived, actress Laura Keene, held Lincoln's bleeding head in her lap so a small quantity of the liquid could be poured into his mouth. At 10:45 p.m., it began to rain and shortly after, Secretary of War Stanton took charge of the government. He ordered Mrs. Lincoln removed from the dying President's bedside and had Laura Keene arrested. No one, however, pursued Booth, even though he had given his real name to the guard at the Navy Yard Bridge. At 22 minutes, 10 seconds past 7 a.m., on April 15, Lincoln's heart stopped. Americans awoke to a different nation.