At Ford's Theatre, Lincoln's Death Revisited To mark the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, NPR spoke with historian James Swanson about the final moments of Lincoln's life and about his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. They toured Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C, where Lincoln was shot in 1865.
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At Ford's Theatre, Lincoln's Death Revisited

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At Ford's Theatre, Lincoln's Death Revisited

At Ford's Theatre, Lincoln's Death Revisited

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I: I was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. Two hundred years later, Lincoln is remembered as a great president whose life was marked by America's war with itself, and whose death came just as peace was at hand.

JAMES SWANSON: Six hundred thousand Americans had died in the Civil War. That war was finally coming to an end. There would be no more dying. And Lincoln was filled with joy.

: Author James Swanson has written about one last shocking death: that of Abraham Lincoln himself. We joined Swanson at Ford's Theatre in Washington to follow the story of Lincoln's assassination. In the spring of 1865, the city was celebrating.

SWANSON: Cannons, fireworks, torches, parades, people getting drunk in the streets, children running around carrying little flags: Victory is ours, Richmond has fallen. Amidst all this joy and celebration there was one man in Washington who was not happy at all, and that was the famous actor John Wilkes Booth.

: Booth was a Confederate sympathizer who had plotted with others to kidnap Lincoln - a plot that had come to nothing. And then a fateful bit of news came his way.

SWANSON: On the morning of April 14th, when he was reading his mail on the front steps of Ford's Theatre, around noon he heard the president was coming to the play that night. That's the moment he decided to kill Lincoln.

: Just hours later, the actors came onstage at Ford's Theatre to perform the comedy "Our American Cousin". The president along with Mrs. Lincoln was late.

SWANSON: And he came up these stairs with his guests. When he arrived, the audience finally realized the president was here, and so the orchestra broke into a performance of "Hail To The Chief" and the actress suspended the play and made a tribute to Lincoln. And it's up this very same route Booth came. With full view of the stage, full view of the performance, the sound of the theater, the laughter - and then Booth stopped.

: A well-known, famous actor.

SWANSON: Yes, yes. If Lincoln's box had been guarded properly, he could have said, I'm John Wilkes Booth - I want to greet the president, just the way a famous actor today might be able to greet the president at an important public event.

: Why wasn't there anyone guarding President Lincoln? This was the end of the terrible Civil War. He had enemies.

SWANSON: One of the great mysteries of the assassination story and the whole Civil War is, why didn't Lincoln have proper guards? Lincoln was a fatalist. He thought if someone wants to kill me, nothing can stop them. After he was shot, over 100 death threats were found in a cubbyhole in his desk. He knew he was a target.


: So we're standing looking into the president's box, the very spot, the very seat that Lincoln sat in. This is a little vestibule. It's a private little place.

SWANSON: We're now experiencing just what John Wilkes Booth did. It was in this space in the dark that Booth waited, listening to the dialogue from the play. It was like a ticking clock, four actors onstage now, now three, now two. Now only Harry Hawk alone stands onstage and he's about to say a funny line that's going to cause the whole audience to break out in laughter, which Booth hopes will muffle the sound of his shot. Booth has in his left hand his bowie knife. In his right hand he clutches the derringer pistol. He hears that line, and he levels his right hand and almost touches the back of Lincoln's head with the derringer pistol, and fires.

Everything froze. The box took on a very devilish red color because of the artificial lights, the gas lamps and the smoke, which was voluminous from a black powder weapon. Then one of Lincoln's two theater guests, Major Rathbone, an Army officer, realized that's a gunshot. He rose up to grapple with Booth, and as soon as Rathbone looked up, he could see that knife coming down to kill him. Rathbone got his arm up just in time to parry the blow, but endured a deep cut. Booth sat on that balustrade. He swung one leg over, then the other. He jumped to the stage.

: He would have to have been skilled. It was pretty far down there.

SWANSON: Yeah, it's about an 11-foot drop. Then Booth ran to center stage. This was his final and greatest performance on the American stage. So he raised his bloody dagger in the air and he cried out the state motto of Virginia, Sic semper tyrannis - thus always to tyrants. And then he cried out, The South is avenged! And just as he exited from the stage, he was heard distinctly to say, I have done it! And then he vanished into the wings.

: With John Wilkes Booth leading what would be a long chase into the countryside, President Lincoln was carried to the street, where a huge crowd had quickly collected.

SWANSON: So they're carrying the president in the middle of this street - he's dying - thousands of people are standing here, and they don't know what to do with the president of the United States, who has just been shot through the head. Then across the street there, at the Petersen Boarding House, a man came out that front door holding a lamp and said, Bring him in here.

: Down this hall is the room that President Lincoln lay in that night.

SWANSON: The bed was too short, and his legs reached over the end of the bed. The doctor said, Break the footboard off so the president can lie in the bed. It wouldn't come off, so the president had to be laid diagonally across what became the deathbed.

: Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 the next morning. James Swanson tells us that John Wilkes Booth had several motives to kill Lincoln: to avenge the defeated South, to inspire the Confederates to keep on fighting, and to win for himself fame and glory. Which is why 12 days later, when he was wounded and trapped by soldiers in a barn...

SWANSON: He performed his end. He was locked in the barn. They were outside. It was dark. He engaged them in Shakespearean dialogue: Come on, I'll fight you one by one. He wanted to duel them. Finally they had enough of it and they set the barn on fire. The flames were like the stage lights and they illuminated Booth for the final performance. He walked towards the front of the barn. He was going to walk out of the door, and at that moment one of the soldiers fired at Booth with this pistol, but even then he wasn't dead. He was dragged to the front porch of the farm and as the sun rose and shone up on his face he looked at his hand and he produced the final benediction, not just on his life but on his assassination and the entire plot. Booth's very last words were: Useless, useless.


: James Swanson has written two books on this historic assassination. "Manhunt" and "Chasing Lincoln's Killer." You can find pictures from those books at

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