Day to remember
Lincoln’s last night at the theater
At approximately 10:17 p.m., stage actor Harry Hawk was alone on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865, delivering what was considered one of the funniest lines of the play, “Our American Cousin,” attended by President Abraham Lincoln, wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and two guests.
“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!” was delivered just after actress Helen Muzzy left the stage. Raucous laughter began permeating the theater; Lincoln was laughing as well when he was shot by D.C.’s most famous stage actor,
John Wilkes Booth.
Booth, the Brad
Pitt of his time, crept into the private box where Lincoln and his guests were seated and shot Lincoln point-blank in the back of his head. Booth was very familiar with the play and when the best lines were to be uttered, so was able to use the audience response to cover up the sound of his derringer. Lincoln’s head nodded and never moved. Mary Todd, sitting in the chair next to him, glanced over and thought he had fallen asleep.
Only five days earlier, Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox courthouse in Virginia. Lincoln was tired and stressed from the war between states and needed relaxation. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Mary Todd Lincoln who convinced her husband they needed to go out and unwind during this strenuous time. It was Lincoln’s idea.
Earlier that day at a Cabinet meeting, Lincoln asked Grant if he and his wife Julia would like to attend the play at Ford’s that evening. Grant begged off, saying they needed to return by train to their home in New Jersey.
After Grant turned down the invitation, Mary Todd suggested they invite Clara Harris and her fiancé Henry Rathbone, a 28-year-old major in the Union army. Harris, daughter of New York Sen. Ira Harris, a good friend of the Lincolns, eagerly accepted.
Leaving the White House by carriage, the Lincolns’ coachman stopped to pick up Rathbone and Harris. The party arrived 20 minutes after the play had started. At their arrival, the play stopped, and the audience and actors on the stage acknowledged their late arrival. The house band struck up “Hail to the Chief.”
Once seated, the Lincoln party settled down for the continuation of the play. About 10:17 p.m., Hawk uttered that hilarious comeback to actress Muzzy as she exited the stage. Various firsthand accounts have it at 10:14 p.m. to 10:20 p.m. Pocket watches were popular then, having been commercially available five years earlier. As laughter ensued at Hawk’s line, a shot rang out in the theatre, and a cloud of blue smoke wafted over the presidential box.
Immediately, Major Rathbone leapt from the settee he and Harris were sharing and confronted Booth, who was standing behind the president and Mrs. Lincoln. Booth held a dagger high with his left hand and plunged it into Rathbone’s right arm, to the bone. Rathbone had almost caught and subdued the assassin, but let go while reeling from the pain. Booth then approached the railing of the box and leapt to the stage 12 feet below. Landing in a crouched position, Booth rose to his feet and approached the front of the stage facing the audience, who were confused by the co-mingling of laughter with the sound of a gunshot, and proclaimed “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” Latin for “thus always to tyrants.”
Early accounts from witnesses claim that Booth broke his leg after jumping to the stage; however, other accounts stated he strode off stage upright and wasn’t limping. We do know that by the time Booth was discovered hiding out in a tobacco barn 12 days after this dramatic exit and was shot by Union soldier Sgt. Boston Corbett, Booth had sustained a broken fibula. However, according to the diary Booth had on him at the time of his death, he was injured when his horse threw him off while on his getaway from the theater that night, and he suffered for 12 days.
Booth had a chance to surrender, but chose not to. It would be out of character for him to swing from the gallows. His ego wouldn’t allow it. Better to go out fighting, he thought.
The 16th president of the United States was the first to be assassinated. A total of eight conspirators were indicted, with four of them sentenced to death by hanging, including the first woman executed by the U.S. government.
Vice President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as president shortly after Lincoln was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. April 15. Johnson’s term did not end well. Radical Republicans in Congress denounced Johnson’s lenient policies regarding reconstruction of the South. Johnson was the first president to face impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Grant later became the 18th president, and some historians have painted him as being one of the worst presidents in history. Grant died penniless in 1885.
April 14, 1865, is indeed a sad day to remember, but it also is a reminder of one of America’s greatest presidents.