John Wilkes Booth’s Movements at Ford’s Theatre

It is well known that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in his theater box, jumped to the stage, and escaped out of the back door of Ford’s Theatre.  These hurried moments at Ford’s instigated a massive manhunt that lasted twelve days and ended with the death of the assassin.

The moments that preceded John Wilkes Booth’s firing of his derringer are not as well known.  John Wilkes Booth was intimately familiar with the layout, and people, of Ford’s Theatre.  It was like a second home to him insomuch that he even had his mail delivered to Ford’s when he was in Washington.  This familiarity allowed Booth to move about Ford’s Theatre without arousing suspicion.  What follows is an account of Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre in the time before he shot the president.

Ground Floor of Ford's Theatre and Baptist Alley plan

John Wilkes Booth had a busy day on April 14th.  His preparations to assassinate the President took him to the Herndon House hotel to alert his conspirators, the Kirkwood House hotel to leave a suspicious note for Vice President Johnson, and near Willard’s hotel to give a note to John Mathews which would justify his later actions.  Booth also visited Mary Surratt’s boarding house on H street three times that day.  It was after his third visit, where Mrs. Surratt confirmed she had given John Lloyd the message that parties would be calling for the hidden weapons tonight, that John Wilkes Booth walked to Ford’s Theatre.  He first went into the Star Saloon owned by Peter Taltavul. It was located right next door to Ford’s Theatre.  He briefly drank there with some of the stagehands from Ford’s, including Edman Spangler, since the play for that night, “Our American Cousin“, was at an intermission.  He found himself drinking alone when the men we called to curtain.

From the Star Saloon, Booth made his way to Baptist Alley behind Ford’s Theatre and got his horse, a bay mare, out of her stable. Spangler built the stable for Booth and took care of it for him.  Booth walked his horse to the back door of Ford’s Theatre. At the back door, Booth called for Spangler, who he hoped would hold his horse until he would need it.   Booth was told by another stagehand that Spangler was needed for an upcoming scene change and so Booth waited with his horse.  After the change, Spangler came out and agreed to hold Booth’s horse.  Booth entered the back door of Ford’s.  The current scene of the play left Booth with no room to sneak across.

The back wall of Ford's Theatre from backstage.  When Booth tried to go across here, there was not enough room.

The back wall of Ford’s Theatre from backstage. When Booth tried to go across here, there was not enough room.

Instead, he lifted a trap door and descended a staircase that led under the stage.  This was a T shaped passageway that was used by stagehands to cross the stage underground and for the musicians to reach the orchestra pit.  Booth emerged by ascending another flight of stairs and opening a trap door on the opposite side.

From there, Booth exited a stage door and into a covered alleyway between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon.  He exited the passageway right out onto Tenth St.  Various witnesses put Booth in the theater lobby and at the Star Saloon at different times which makes knowing his precise course impossible.  However, a likely scenario would have Booth entering the lobby of Ford’s Theatre after exiting the alleyway.  He walked past the ticket taker, John Buckingham, who instinctively held out his hand for a ticket until he realized it was Booth.  Buckingham said that Booth entered the theater and stood behind the seats watching the production (and the President’s box) for some time.

As this was going on, Spangler had grown tired of caring for Booth’s horse.  He called for Peanut John, a young man who acted as an errand boy for the theater, to come out and take his place.  With Peanut holding the reigns, Spangler returned to work.

John-Wilkes-Booth-at-Ford's

An animated clip showing, approximately, Booth’s movements at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Booth exited the theater and walked next door to the Star Saloon.  Here he had a glass of whiskey and some water to chase it down.  He also acquired a cigar and began puffing away.  Cigar in mouth, Booth returned to the lobby of Ford’s.   Booth entered the main floor of the theater again and watched the production some more.  Upon exiting, he conversed with Harry Ford who was in the ticket office counting receipts.  Booth placed his half smoked cigar down on the window’s ledge and joked with Ford that no man should disturb his cigar.

As stated before, Booth’s movements are not an exact science.  It is likely that Booth, anxiously passing the time while waiting to strike, repeatedly traveled between Ford’s Theatre and the Star Saloon, attempting to gain courage with every drink.  Eventually, however, Booth realized that it was time to strike.  From the lobby of Ford’s Theatre, Booth ascended the staircase which led him to the balcony level.

Booth crept across the back of the dress circle level.  As he approached closer to the president’s box he stopped and noticed a guard sitting in front of the entryway to the boxes.  He removed his hat, and took out something, probably a calling card, from his pocket.  He then approached the man and presented the card to him.  He was allowed to pass and entered the vestibule with led to the boxes.  Booth closed the door and, using a bar he had hidden there earlier, he wedged the door shut.  The door to Box 8, which was at the end of the passageway, was open.  With his single shot derringer in hand and a large Rio Grande Camp knife at the ready, Booth entered the President’s box through door 8, turned left, and shot Abraham Lincoln in the head at close range.

The Shot 14 National Police Gazette 4-22-1865

Booth cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and dropped the gun.  He raised the knife in his hand as Major Rathbone, one of the President’s guests that night, rushed at him.  Booth tried to stab Rathbone in the chest but Rathbone parried the strike and took it in his left arm instead.  Booth then ran to the front of the box, put his hands on the railing, and leaped over.  He fell almost twelve feet to the stage below.  He landed awkwardly, either due to a last minute grab by Rathbone or his spur catching one of the decorative flags adorning the box.  In a moment he raised himself up and with quick speed made his way across the stage, perhaps pausing briefly at center stage to raise his knife and shout “The South shall be Free!”  Booth ran into the wings and towards the back door he originally entered through.  William Withers, the orchestra director, unknowingly got in his way and Booth pushed him away, cutting his vest in the process.  Booth reached the back door, rushed through it, and shut the door close behind him.

In the alley, Booth shouted at Peanut John to, “Give me the horse!”  Booth knocked Peanut away using the butt of his knife and a firm kick.  He swiftly mounted the horse and put spurs to her.  She dashed down Baptist Alley.  Booth turned her northward and exited out onto F Street.  He would soon escape D.C. via the Navy Yard bridge and America’s largest manhunt would begin.

References:
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas A. Bogar
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre by George Olszewski
American Brutus by Michael W. Kauffman
The Art Loux Archive

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6 thoughts on “John Wilkes Booth’s Movements at Ford’s Theatre

  1. Laurie Verge

    Dave,

    I agree that Booth visited the Surratt boardinghouse twice on the day of the assassination, but I place both visits earlier in the day. What is your source to confirm that he visited there sometime after 8 pm, when Mrs. Surratt and Weichmann had finally returned from Surrattsville?

    • Laurie,

      In Weichmann’s book he states that Booth stopped by the boarding house at around 9 pm on the night of the assassination. It’s on page 174 of his book.

      Dave

  2. Laurie Verge

    Wow – somewhere along the line I never picked up on that. I remember about him having a late dinner with Mrs. Surratt and then his statements about her acting strangely (which others didn’t seem to notice). The only caller that night that I picked up on was Mr. Kirby delivering a paper or mail. Thanks for edumacating me, as John Brennan would say.

    • John C. Fazio

      Dave and Laurie:

      Further confirmation of Booth’s late-night visit to the boardinghouse comes in the form of a statement from, I believe it was Anna Surratt (though it may have been Nora Fitzpatrick or one of the other female boarders), who said something like “And to think the assassin was just here in our home last night before he…etc..” I will see if I can dig it out tomorrow with greater precision. Weichmann refers to this statement on p. 174, but the note is not specific. According to my reading of the evidence, therefore, Booth made three trips to the boardinghouse on the 14th, and this, too, is Weichmann’s conclusion, also given on p. 174.

      Further, Laurie, with respect to your comment about no one else commenting on Mary’s excitable condition that day, please refer to Smoot’s memoir in which he says that when he visited her on the 14th “she was in a state of feverish excitement” , which “caused me alarm” (p. 8), statements which dovetail exactly with Weichmann’s impression.

      Further, Dave, Booth did not grow tired of holding Booth’s horse.He told Booth when he accepted the assignment that he was too busy to hold the horse, that he was needed in the theater to shift scenes and that he would therefore have to sub-delegate the task. Booth registered no objection to this. He simply entered the theater, leaving Spangler to handle the matter. “Peanuts”, too, objected (to Spangler) to the sub-delegation of the task, saying he was need up front, but Spangler told him to hold the horse anyway and that he would take responsibility for any consequences. This is one of the many things that could have gone wrong for Booth that night, but didn’t. He was lucky. It is a mistake to think he had everything perfectly planned and would have succeeded even without luck. Rathbone came within an inch of stopping him. There were many in and around the theater to help him if he needed it. He didn’t.

      Further, Dave, Booth possibly did not give Forbes his carte de visite BY ITSELF. It would not have guaranteed entry and he needed a guarantee. The guarantee could have came in the form of one of the President’s many authorization cards, signed by him (forged by the Secret Service, of course), such as the card he had earlier in the evening given to Congressman Ashmun, authorizing his entry to the White House the following morning. Booth’s card hypothetically could have read: Please allow Mr. john Wilkes Booth to join me in the presidential box this evening. —-A. Lincoln. Even with this card and I.D. as Booth, Forbes resisted somewhat before relenting, according to Dr. Charles Leale, an eyewitness. Both Stoddard’s and Nicolay’s later writings support this theory re Forbes.

      Further, Dave, Booth’s declamations are a matter of dispute. There is substantial evidence that there was more to the same than you indicate, but this reply is already too long.

      Lastly, I do not think he jumped 12 feet. He was too smart for that. He clambered down the wall using a flagstaff for support and then hung from the floor of the box, reducing the final drop by his height. Even descending this way, he fractured his fibula because of the awkward landing occasioned by the snag of his spur, which was torn loose.

      The foregoing represents my opinions, based on the weight of the evidence as I have it.

      John

  3. Rich smyth

    Overwhelmingly the eyewitness accounts have Booth leaping, not clambering from the box.

  4. John C. Fazio

    Rich:

    Thank you for your input. The reason why some eyewitnesses described it as “leaping” is because it all happened in a few seconds and it is easier to describe a swift descent as a leap than as something more structured. The more careful observers, however, said this:

    Hawk:

    “(I) saw him jump from the staff and drop to the stage”. (Hawk was closer to him than anyone.)

    Kent:

    “…swinging himself down partly by the curtains and partly jumping.”

    Richards:

    “…let himself down by the aid of the flagstaff to the center of the stage, dropping or leaping some four or five feet before reaching the floor.”

    Taylor: “…neither did he jump from the box full height with arms outspread and upstretched, as we often see him in illustrations. On the contrary, he placed both hands upon the rail of the box and swung himself over in that manner, thereby lessening the fall by the distance of his own height.”

    Maynard: “…slid down from the front of the box onto the stage.”

    Owen: “…clambered down the side of the box.”

    DeMotte: “…holding to the front (of the box) with his hands, lowered himself to the stage floor.”

    John

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