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Assassination of Lincoln

Forensic Science Guide: The Assassination of Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the 16th President of the United States of America. He served as President from 1861-1865, during the time of a war triggered by secession and state determination of slavery: the U.S. Civil War. For when Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, seven pro-slavery states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Hostilities between the North and South grew into a full-blown Civil War when an additional four states left the Union. President Lincoln saw both secession and slavery as illegal and contrary to U.S. Federal law and the spirit of the Union.

President Lincoln’s pro-Union stance, leadership and control of the Union Army was seen by the Confederates as their greatest threat. As a result, a group of four Confederate conspirators plotted to destroy the powerhouse of the Union through the assassination of three of its topmost leaders, which included President Lincoln. On the night of April 14, 1865, he was fatally shot and died on the morning of April 15, 1865.

Additional General Resources on President Abraham Lincoln


Confederate Conspiracy: From Abduction to Assassination

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by the famous actor and Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth with the help of several co-conspirators was part of a greater plan to undertake a simultaneous quadruple assassination: President Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Although Booth’s initial plan was to merely kidnap President Lincoln and use him as a bargaining chip to speed up the release of Confederate prisoners-of-war, that plan turned to one of multiple assassinations after Booth heard President Lincoln’s black suffrage endorsement speech on April 11, 1865. It was believed that these simultaneous assassinations would serve to cut off the head of the Union Army in order to destroy the Union, save the Confederacy, stop attempts to render slavery illegal, and turn the nearly finished Civil War.

Booth had recruited the following individuals to assist him in his plan to regain Confederate control of the United States: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell (also known as “Lewis Paine”), Edman Spangler, and John (son) and Mary (mother) Surratt. Of these four planned assassinations, only President Lincoln’s life was taken; the rest of the quadruple assassinations failed. General Grant was not to be found at the theatre by Booth. Co-conspirator Lewis Powell only managed to injure Secretary of State William H. Seward, and co-conspirator George Atzerodt fled instead of making an attempt on Vice President Andrew Johnson’s life. Allegedly co-conspirator Michael O’Laughlen had followed General Grant and Mrs. Grant to Union Station and had boarded their train bound for Philadelphia. However, this planned attack failed since the private train of the Grants had been locked and guarded by train porters.


Lincoln’s Assassination

On the evening of April 14, 1865, just five days after the surrender of Confederate Army of Virginia General Robert E. Lee to Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln was attending a comedic theatrical performance in the Presidential Box by Laura Keene entitled Our American Cousin with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Also in the theatre’s Presidential Box, which was really two corner boxes combined by way of the removal of the dividing wall, was Major Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. The newspapers had reported that General Grant would attend with his wife, but in reality the Grants were invited but declined the invitation, supposedly because Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Julia Grant were not getting along at the time. Booth’s original plan was to shoot President Lincoln and stab General Grant.

President Lincoln and his party arrived to the play late, at approximately 9:00 p.m. President Lincoln’s bodyguard that night was unfortunately an incompetent Washington police officer by the name of John Frederick Parker. Officer Parker arrived at his post to relieve the shift of the current Presidential bodyguard three hours late, at 7:00 p.m. Once The Lincoln party was seated in the Presidential Box, instead of keeping his place seated outside the door of the box, Parker instead decided to watch the play in the first gallery. At intermission, he joined Lincoln’s coachman and footman for drinks at the Star Saloon, located next door to the theatre.

At approximately 10:00 p.m., Booth (ironically) left the Star Saloon, entered the theatre, and stood outside the Presidential Booth, next to the bodyguard’s vacant chair. Booth knew this play well and waited for the right moment to strike: at a point in the play where raucous laughter from the audience was anticipated that would muffle the fatal bullet to be fired at President Lincoln.

That moment came not long after 10:15 p.m., when President Lincoln was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range by Booth. Although the theatre’s laughter at the play did muffle the shot somewhat, the screams from Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris, and the shouting and repeated attempts by Major Rathbone to apprehend Booth did not. Booth stabbed Major Rathbone in the arm with his knife, and then jumped off the sill of the box onto the stage before Rathbone could grab Booth. In the process of jumping, Booth’s riding boot spur caught the Treasury Flag that decorated the box. As a result, Booth fractured his left fibula when he hit the stage. Conflicting reports then state he waved his knife at the audience (some of whom were trying to get to him) and either shouted the Latin phrase and Virginia State motto of Sic simper tyrannis! (Thus always to tyrants!) or “The South is avenged!” He then ran across the stage and out of the theatre, where he assaulted the holder of Booth’s horse, a man by the name of “Peanuts” Burroughs, as he jumped on the horse and rode away to meet up with his conspirators at the boarding house of Mary Surratt in Surrattsville, Maryland before planning to head to the Deep South.

Panic immediately swept through Ford’s Theatre. Two doctors on the premises initially aided the wounded President Lincoln: Dr. Charles Leale and Dr. Charles Sabin Taft. Dr. Leale had to wait while Major Rathbone removed the brace from the notch in the door that Booth had carved earlier in the day and locked behind him when he entered the box. Dr. Taft had to be lifted from the crowd over the balcony to get to the President. Upon examination, it became apparent that the bullet had entered behind the President’s left ear and had lodged behind his right eye. His wound was a fatal one. President Lincoln was moved to a bedroom at William Petersen’s Boarding House across the street from Ford’s Theatre (he was so tall he had to be laid lengthwise on the bed). Within nine hours he was dead: President Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on the morning of April 15, 1865 at 56 years old.

The Fate of the Co-Conspirators

Booth and his co-conspirators never made it to the Deep South. After getting his broken leg attended to by Confederate sympathizer Dr. Samuel Mudd, at around 2:00 a.m. on the morning of April 26, 1865, he and Herold hid in a barn owned by Richard Garrett in Port Royal, Virginia. However, the federal troops were in close pursuit and reached them soon after, demanding their surrender. Herold obliged, but Booth refused. The federal troops in the form of the 16th New York Cavalry set the barn on fire to drive him out, and one of the federal troops by the name of Sergeant Boston Corbett shot Booth in the back of the neck. Dragged from the burning barn, the bullet had pierced his spinal cord at his 3rd, 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae and Booth died a painful death within two hours.

On June 29, 1865 Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edman Spangler, and Mary Surratt were found guilty by a military tribunal as co-conspirators in the plot to murder President Lincoln. On July 7, 1865, Surratt, Powell, Atzerodt and Herold were hanged at the Washington Penitentiary. Arnold, Mudd, O’Laughlen, and Spangler were imprisoned at Fort Jefferson. On September 19, 1867, O’Laughlen fell victim to the prison’s yellow fever outbreak and died on September 23, 1867. In the spring of 1869, Arnold, Mudd, and Spangler were pardoned and released from prison. Surratt’s execution was controversial, in part due to the fact that she was the first woman in American history to be executed. Her son, John, fled to Canada once he had heard news of President Lincoln’s assassination. After the execution of his mother, he headed for Europe, where he was discovered, arrested, and returned to the United States. His civil trial ended in a hung jury, the federal government dropped all charges against him, and he was released from custody in 1868.

Additional Resources on the Confederate Conspiracy and Lincoln’s Assassination

The Assassin and Weapon


John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) was born in Bel Air, Maryland, as the ninth child of ten children to Mary Ann Holmes and actor Junius Brutus Booth. A spoiled, petulant child who did not like to work hard, Booth was also handsome and charming. Like his father (who died when Booth was only 14 years old) and brother Edwin, Booth chose a career in acting. By the time of the Civil War, Booth’s fame was growing as an actor, in particular as a Shakespearean actor. Unlike the rest of his family, Booth was an avidly outspoken supporter of the South and its Confederates, and viewed abolitionists as traitors. Thus Booth’s kidnapping plot of President Lincoln turned into one of assassination when President Lincoln’s plan to follow through with abolitionism and black suffrage became evident.

Booth’s assassination weapon was the Philadelphia Deringer, first invented by Henry Deringer in 1825. This small, 6-inch in length pistol, which is currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum (it was found on the floor of the Presidential Box), had a .44 caliber single shot with a short 2 ½ inch barrel and a percussion cap action mechanism. The bullet that killed President Lincoln was a .41 caliber bullet with a muzzle velocity of approximately 400 feet per second.

As a result, to ensure his assassination attempt would be successful, a shot at close-range to a vital part of the body was critical to his success. In the close quarters of the Presidential Booth at Ford’s Theatre with a gunshot wound to the head, Booth accomplished both of these requirements.

Additional Resources on Booth and his Weapon


Grand Conspiracy Theories and Their Validity


Although the details revealed above represent the general current consensus as to the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination, other variant versions of the conspiracy theory exist. For example, in his book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? Otto Eisenschiml postulates the theory that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was the mastermind behind President Lincoln’s assassination, rather than a simple plot by Booth and his co-conspirators.

Eisenschiml notes that he could not fathom General Grant refusing such an invite from President Lincoln to attend the theatrical performance that night without an order. Given that General Grant only took orders from the President and the Secretary of War, he asserts that the latter ordered General Grant not to attend. He then goes on to hypothesize that the Secretary of War left one escape route unguarded – the one Booth took – and that he had the conspirators hooded and/or placed in isolation so as to not implicate anyone else.

Aside from the Booth and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton theories, a few additional theories, termed “grand theories” exist: that the assassination was part of a greater Confederate plot; that a conspiracy of international bankers was behind the assassination; and that anti-Lincoln Northerners were in fact behind the assassination. A couple of “lesser theories” also exist, although they are even less credible: that Vice President Andrew Johnson was aligned with Booth and that the Roman Catholic Church was led the assassination.

Such theories have thus fallen into disrepute based on the reasoning that Mudd, O’Laughlen, and Spangler would have had numerous opportunities to reveal additional co-conspirators within the upper echelons of the Union ranks. Further, doing so would not only serve as bargaining chips for them that could have led to an earlier release, but would also no doubt give them great pleasure to see such highly-esteemed Union leaders fall from grace in the eyes of the Northerners. Of course, the counter theory would be that these co-conspirators could have hoped for a second attack and/or that their loyalty was so great as to keep their secrets silenced. The reality is, the absolute truth will never be known.


Additional Resources on Other Conspiracy Theories and Their Validity