On 14 April 1865, an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth entered Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, not to perform but to murder the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.


The events of that infamous assassination and the subsequent hunt for Booth and his fellow conspirators are in the spotlight again as the focus of a seven-part drama, Manhunt, streaming on Apple TV+ from 15 March.

The drama is based on James L Swanson’s bestselling 2007 book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer and stars Hamish Linklater as Lincoln; Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, the man who zealously headed the manhunt; and Anthony Boyle (last seen in Masters of the Air) as Booth.

Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in a dark room, looking straight ahead in Manhunt
Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth. (Images by Apple TV+)

Who was John Wilkes Booth?

Born the ninth of 10 children on 10 May 1838 in Maryland, John Wilkes Booth grew up in an acting family. His father Junius Brutus Booth had come to the US from England with his mistress Mary Ann Holmes and established an esteemed career as a Shakespearean star, and was followed in the career by Wilkes Booth’s older brothers Edwin, best known for a long run as Hamlet, and Junius Brutus Jr.

Booth took to the stage himself while still a teenager and was soon earning rave reviews thanks to his energetic performances and smouldering good looks. By the end of the 1850s, he had risen to be one of the country’s most promising leading actors.

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John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Away from the stage, Booth became increasingly outspoken in his political views. What began with an association with an anti-immigration party, the Know Nothings, intensified into vociferous support for slavery and hatred towards abolitionists.

He briefly joined up with a militia in Virginia in 1859 just so he could watch the hanging of abolitionist John Brown, who had led a raid of the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry in the hope of inciting a slave revolt.

Why did John Wilkes Booth kill Abraham Lincoln?

In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election with the anti-slavery Republican Party, and became the 16th president of the United States. By April of the following year, seven southern states had seceded – later joined by four more – and the American Civil War had begun.

Ideologically, Booth was on the side of the Confederate States of America in the South, fighting to preserve their slave-based economy. While his state of Maryland remained in the Union, it straddled the Mason-Dixon Line (the symbolic border between North and South).

Robert E Lee surrenders to Union general Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox
Things came to a head after 9 April 1865, when Confederate commander Robert E Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox. (Image by Getty Images)

If it was not for a promise to his mother not to fight, Booth would likely have enlisted in the Confederate army. Instead, he carried on acting as the war raged.

Yet his lack of action festered in his mind over the years, especially as the North gained momentum. Fuelling his frustrations was a deep loathing for Lincoln. The president had started the war, in his eyes, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South; and, following his re-election in 1864, pushing through the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery altogether.

To Booth, he was a tyrant that needed to be stopped.

Forming a small band of Confederate conspirators, Booth believed he could save the Confederacy by kidnapping Lincoln. None of these plans went anywhere, leading the increasingly desperate Booth to turn his sights from abduction to assassination.

Things came to a head after 9 April 1865, when Confederate commander Robert E Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox, signalling the effective end of the war. A couple of days later, Lincoln spoke from the White House balcony addressing the difficulties of rebuilding the nation and voicing support of limited black suffrage.

An infuriated Booth was in the crowd and declared afterwards, “That is the last speech he will ever make.”

How did John Wilkes Booth assassinate Abraham Lincoln?

On 14 April 1865, having known peace for just five days, Lincoln planned to spend the evening with his wife in Ford’s Theatre watching the farcical comedy, Our American Cousin. Booth saw his opportunity.

He had acted in that theatre – in fact, Lincoln had seen Booth on that stage in 1863 – so he knew his way around, and his celebrity status should help gain access to the presidential box. Killing the president was only part of the plan, though.

An illustration showing John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln
An illustration showing John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC in 1865. (Image by Getty Images)

At the same time that Booth would be shooting Lincoln, another conspirator named Lewis Powell would kill the Secretary of State William Seward, while a third attack by George Atzerodt would eliminate Vice President Andrew Johnson.

The victorious Grant should have been a fourth target, as he was supposed to be sitting with the president at the theatre, but he pulled out since his wife did not get on with the First Lady, Mary Lincoln. In place of the Grants, the socialite Clara Harris and her fiancé, Major Henry Rathbone of the Union army, were invited.

So it was that during the third act, after 10pm, Booth crept into the box. He had not been stopped: the president’s bodyguard, John Frederick Parker, was absent, having gone to a tavern during the intermission – for which he went unpunished.

Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 calibre derringer pistol, timed to coincide with a big laugh in the play to drown out the bang. Rathbone instantly intervened and Booth slashed at him with a knife, breaking free long enough to jump from the box down to the stage. It is believed that this was when Booth broke his leg that night.

John Wilkes Booth jumping from the president's box
It's believed that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of president Abraham Lincoln, broke his leg when jumping to the theatre stage from the box. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Why did John Wilkes Booth yell, “Sic semper tyrannis”?

According to accounts, Booth stood on the stage and yelled “Sic semper tyrannis”, meaning ‘thus always to tyrants’. The phrase was both the Virigina state motto and something commonly associated with Brutus, a chief conspirator in the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

Booth was also heard shouting “The South is avenged!”, before escaping out the theatre’s side door and onto a horse waiting for him.

Did Abraham Lincoln die instantly?

Despite being shot in the head, Lincoln was still alive. However, he never regained consciousness. Initially treated by a doctor in the audience, he was then carried across the street to the house of William Petersen, where members of his family, including a devastated and overwrought Mary, and the cabinet held an all-night vigil. He died at 7.22am the next morning.

As for the other parts of the conspiracy, while Powell succeeded in stabbing Seward multiple times in the face and neck, the Secretary of State survived thanks to the splint he was wearing following a recent carriage accident.

William H Seward
Secretary of State William H Seward was also a target that night. He was stabbed in the neck by a co-conspirator. (Photo by Matthew Brady/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Atzerodt never attacked Andrew Johnson, who became president following Lincoln’s death and led the US into the Reconstruction era.

How was John Wilkes Booth caught?

Booth met up with another accomplice, David Herold, and fled into rural Maryland. On the way, they picked up weapons left at a tavern owned by Mary Surratt (who regularly hosted conspiratorial meetings), and had Booth’s leg treated by a doctor named Samuel Mudd.

Both Surratt and Mudd would be arrested and tried as conspirators, although the level of their involvement remains a hotly debated issue. Afterward, the doctor became forever associated with the phrase, ‘your name is mud’ (though this phrase existed long before Mudd’s trial).

What followed was a massive manhunt for Booth, with thousands of Union troops searching for anyone involved in the president’s death. Dozens of people were arrested initially, and an astonishing $100,000 reward put on Booth’s head.

A broadside for the capture of John Wilkes Booth, John Surratt, and David Herold
A broadside for the capture of John Wilkes Booth, John Surratt, and David Herold. An astonishing $100,000 reward put on Booth’s head. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

For days, Booth and Herold hid in a pine thicket near Zekiah Swamp before they crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. All the while, Booth kept a diary, in which he wrote how the US “owed all her troubles” to Lincoln and that “God simply made me the instrument of his punishment”.

Yet he expressed dismay that the assassination was not being celebrated as widely as he thought it would. Rather than a hero or saviour of the nation, the press vilified him as a “common cutthroat”.

After 12 days on the run, Booth and Herold were holed up in a tobacco barn belonging to a Virginia farmer, Richard Garrett, having told him that they were Confederate soldiers on their way home after the war. Hot on their trail, however, were the troops of the 16th New York Cavalry led by Edward Doherty and a pair of detectives, Luther Baker and Everton Conger.

How did John Wilkes Booth die?

In the early hours of 26 April, the pursuers – ordered to bring the conspirators in alive – called out to Booth and Herold to surrender. The latter did so, much to Booth’s chagrin – who refused to give himself up and stalled for time.

Eventually, those outside lost patience and set the barn alight. As Booth scrambled inside, a sergeant named Boston Corbett advanced, poked his rifle through the slats of the barn and shot the presidential assassin in the neck, paralysing him. Corbett later claimed that he saw Booth readying his weapons.

The barn where Union forces caught up with Booth and Herold was set alight
The barn where Union forces caught up with Booth and Herold was set alight. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Corbett would be initially arrested and court-martialled. To many in the US, however, he was, as a newspaper put it, “one of the World’s great avengers”. He was discharged and given a portion of the reward money.

What were John Wilkes Booth’s last words?

Carried out of the burning barn, Booth managed to say, “Tell my mother I die for my country”. Yet these were not to be his last words, as he lingered for hours in such agonising pain that he often called out to the soldiers to “kill me”.

When the end finally came, he asked for his hands to be raised in front of his face and, looking at them, he muttered “useless, useless” before dying.

There has been much speculation to the meaning of those words: was he simply in shock at the uselessness of his now-paralysed body? Or was he referring to his useless attempt, symbolised by his hands with a president’s blood on them, to save the Confederacy?

Booth died on 26 April, at the time that Lincoln’s body was in the middle of a funeral procession through American cities, visited by millions of mourners.

Where is John Wilkes Booth’s grave?

Booth’s body – confirmed by Dr John Frederick May and identified by an operation scar and a tattoo of his initials on his wrist – was taken back to Washington DC and secretly buried at a military prison. It would be in the same place that four other conspirators were hanged.

In all, eight conspirators faced trial at a military tribunal. Herold, Powell, Atzerodt and Surratt (the first woman executed by the United States government) met their fates at the end of a rope; three others were given life sentences, although two were later pardoned, with a third dying in prison before he could be pardoned; and one sentenced to six years of hard labour.

Green Mount Cemetery
Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. (Image by Getty Images)

In 1869, Booth’s body was exhumed and re-buried at the family plot in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. Today, the unmarked stone believed to be his grave is often seen covered in a mound of pennies left by visitors. On one side of each coin is the face of Lincoln.



Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.