On April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died from a gunshot wound inflicted by John Wilkes Booth the night before. Most of us know how the general story goes—Lincoln and his wife, Mary, were attending a show at Ford’s Theatre when Booth pulled the trigger and ran out of the building. However, most of us aren’t intimately familiar with the play-by-play of events leading up to and following the moment in which Lincoln was fatally shot. What were these smaller details of Lincoln’s final hours?
UPK author Kathryn Canavan supplies them in the forthcoming title Lincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President. For your reading pleasure, below is Chapter 10, “Booth’s End Game,” in which the Lincolns enter the theatre to much fanfare.
When the green Lincoln carriage pulled up at Ford’s, footman Charles Forbes swung down to the wooden carriage platform. He tugged at the door handle, causing a set of steps to spring forward. Fred Petersen watched from the other side of the street as Mr. Lincoln and Mary alighted first, then Miss Harris and Major Rathbone. There’s no way of knowing whether neighbors on either side of Petersen’s boardinghouse were also watching. The owners of both houses, like many of the actors and musicians at Ford’s, were reportedly secesh.
When the two couples walked through the fourth arched door at around nine p.m., the play was already in progress. The gilt braid and buttons of the army and navy filled the seats. Veterans of almost every major skirmish had come to Ford’s to celebrate with President Lincoln and General Grant. As he walked past the lobby clock and ascended the stairs to the dress circle, Mr. Lincoln carried his size 7⅛ black silk top hat, made by local haberdasher J. Y. Davis, the one with the thin silk mourning band buckled over the standard hat band in remembrance of eleven-year-old Willie. If the president put a hand in the pocket of his Brooks Brothers suit as he walked up the stairs, his fingers might have brushed any one of nine items he was carrying, including his ivory-handled pocketknife, an oversized monogrammed handkerchief, his soft brown leather wallet with a five-dollar Confederate note and nine newspaper clippings inside, and two pair of eyeglasses, one mended with a piece of string. Mr. Lincoln had been wearing reading glasses for almost eight years. He was forty-eight when he bought his first pair at a jewelry store for 37½ cents. Mrs. Lincoln, whose cataracts may have already been affecting her sight, carried the small black leather case that held her opera glasses.
Led by sixteen-year-old doorman Edmund Schreiner, the foursome probably crossed the dress circle as quietly as possible, but their arrival might have been broadcast by the metal hobnails in the heels of the president’s black leather boots. When the audience members, like dominoes first touching, each became aware that the Lincolns were heading for the presidential box, heads swiveled, and waving and howling broke out in every corner of the building. Then the blare and crash of the orchestra interrupted actress May Hart’s lines. Witnesses disagree whether the full orchestra broke into “Hail to the Chief” or Handel’s more sedate “Hail the Conquering Hero Comes.” Either way, the timbre of the orchestra was fully met by hundreds of war veterans cheering hysterically, letting out their pent-up feelings of admiration for the man who had led them through four harrowing years. With the trumpets still blaring and the drums sounding, Captain Joseph R. Findley thought that surely such a reception was rarely given to any man. Cast members came out from the wings to watch the president. Rows of theatergoers glanced around for General Grant and were disappointed, but nonetheless, the hysteria didn’t stop for five solid minutes.
From his balcony seat, Captain Oliver Gatch noticed that Mr. Lincoln walked slowly, his great body bent forward and his shoulders wearing a noticeable stoop. His high silk hat was in his left hand. In response to the deafening ovation coming from every part of the house, the president smiled a sad smile. His delighted wife curtsied several times.
May Hart tried to remember her lines as she stood at the stage’s edge with Laura Keene, staring over the footlights into the dress circle, where the Lincolns, Major Rathbone, and Miss Harris were proceeding to their box. Hart, like Captain Gatch, noticed that Mr. Lincoln’s tall figure was bent, and the sadness on his face seemed out of place on such a gala evening.
The crowd continued its wild cheering as the Lincolns stepped into the box. President Lincoln leaned in front of the lace curtains that screened the box from audience view and acknowledged the applause with a dignified bow, bringing the fanfare to a hush. The president signaled Ned Emerson, who was on stage at that moment, to go on with the play. Then he stepped in back of the curtains and seated himself out of sight. “How sociable it seems, like one family sitting around their parlor fire,” Miss Julia Shepherd thought to herself as she watched from her seat in the dress circle.
At about the same time, Louis Carland walked through the side door from Ford’s to Taltavul’s. The costume maker looked to his right and caught a glimpse of John Wilkes Booth’s back as the actor strolled out the canopied front door. He looked to his left and saw Taltavul wiping the lower end of the bar. He supposed Booth had just finished a drink.
Booth’s fateful end game had begun.