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John Wilkes Booth Didn't Act Alone: The Conspiracy to Kill Lincoln

J W Booth
John Wilkes Booth went down in history as the killer of President Abraham Lincoln, but the plot that ended Lincoln's life was a vast conspiracy that went far beyond Booth himself. Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln attended a performance of the comedy "Our American Cousin," accompanied by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in addition to a young U.S. Army officer, Maj. Henry R. Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris.

It seemed like a perfect night for the president to relax. Just five days before, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and two days after that, Lincoln had given a speech to a crowd of ex-slaves to celebrate the Union victory in the Civil War. Union forces had occupied Fort Sumpter, the site where the hostilities began in 1861, and houses and public buildings in Washington were illuminated with candles in celebration.

But instead, the night turned into a national tragedy. Sometime after 10 p.m., a 26-year-old Maryland-born actor named John Wilkes Booth — whom Lincoln had once seen perform in another play at Ford's — managed to slip into the president's box and point a Derringer pistol at the back of Lincoln's head. Booth fired a single shot that mortally wounded Lincoln, though he didn't die until the next morning. Booth then dropped the pistol, stabbed Maj. Rathbone in the arm, and then jumped over the box's railing to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, as this account of the killing from the FBI website details.

Booth, who shouted the Latin phrase "Sic semper tyrannis" — "thus always to tyrants" — the motto of Virginia, to the shocked audience, managed to escape from the theater, despite his injury. But 12 days later, he was cornered in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, by a force of Union soldiers, who lit the structure on fire in an attempt to force Booth out and capture him. But instead, the assassin was shot by a Union Sergeant named Boston Corbett, who explained to frustrated government investigators that God had told him to do it. Booth died seven hours later.

But Booth hadn't acted alone. Instead, the actor had been joined in the plot by a group of Confederate sympathizers,  whose intention was to somehow stave off the demise of the Confederacy and slavery by killing the Union's leadership. Four of Booth's fellow plotters — George Atzerodt, David Herold, Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell — were put on trial and executed. Several others were sentenced to prison for their roles in the event.

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Who Were the Plotters?

Booth and his co-conspirators originally didn't intend to assassinate Lincoln. Instead, their original goal was to kidnap and hold him hostage. In March 1865, when Booth got a tip that Lincoln would be visiting a military hospital, the group hastily planned to stop his carriage on the way back, overpower the president and his driver, and spirit them away to a hiding place in southern Maryland. But after the Union captured Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, in early April, the plotters' intentions became murderous.

Here are the four main members of the plot, who were executed in 1865:

Mary Surratt
Mary Surratt owned the boarding house where the conspiracy was hatched.
Wikipedia

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Mary Surratt

The offspring of a Maryland slave-owning family, Surratt owned a boarding house in Washington where the conspirators met to plan. "Mother, widow, businesswoman and a deeply pious Catholic, Mary Surratt seemed an unlikely assassin's accomplice," as Kate Clifford Larson wrote in a 2011 biography of Surratt. But as a Confederate sympathizer, she turned her boarding house into a safehouse for Confederate secret agents — including her son, John, who worked as a courier for the rebels, and helped recruit men to join in Booth's cabal.

She was arrested soon after Lincoln's shooting. Her role in the plot remains murky, but the Military Commission that tried the plotters found her guilty of conspiracy and sentenced her to death.

On July 7, 1865, she was hanged, and became the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.

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Lewis Powell

Payne
Lewis Thornton Powell viciously attacked Secretary of State William Seward on the night of the assassination.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty

A native of Alabama, Powell joined the Confederate army and was captured by Union forces after being wounded at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He escaped from a military hospital and went back to the South to fight some more, before coming back north in January 1865, ostensibly as a deserter. After signing a loyalty oath to the Union, he lived in Baltimore for a while, before he met John Surratt though another Confederate operative and was recruited to join Booth.

When the plot evolved from kidnapping to assassination, Powell was assigned to kill Secretary of State William Seward. On the same night that Lincoln was shot, Powell showed up at Seward's home, pretending to be a courier delivering medicine to him, and tried to stab him to death before he was pulled away by Seward's bodyguard.

Powell was arrested at Surratt's boarding home, and tried alongside the other conspirators, and hanged July 7, 1865, according to his profile on the UMKC law school's Famous Trials website.

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David Herold

The son of a clerk at the Navy store in Washington, he was private school classmate of John Surratt, who introduced him to Booth. On the night of the Lincoln assassination, Herold assisted the injured Booth in escaping, eventually guiding him to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth for his broken leg. He travelled with Booth throughout the countyside after the assassination, dodging searchers until the night in late April when he was cornered by Union forces. But unlike Booth, Herold surrendered.

At trial, his lawyer tried to convince the military commission that he was a simple-minded man who had been manipulated by Booth. But they didn't buy it, and he was executed alongside the others July 7, 1865, according to his profile on the UMKC law school's Famous Trials website.

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George Atzerodt

A native of Germany, Azterodt was a boatman who smuggled Confederate spies into southern Maryland. After being recruited by Booth, he was assigned to kill vice president Andrew Johnson. But as this profile from PBS.org describes, Azterodt lost his nerve and instead went drinking at a hotel bar.

George A. Atzerodt
George A. Atzerodt spent the night of the assassination in a bar.
Library of Congress

Nevertheless, he was tried as a conspirator and executed July 7, 1865, along with the other three. Atzerodt uttered his last words as the trap door dropped, "May we all meet in the other world. God take me now."

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Other Key Figures

Several others accused of roles in the conspiracy were also sentenced to prison, one of the most well known being Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who had treated Booth's leg as he fled through the countryside after the assassination. Mudd was pardoned in 1869 after he used his medical skills to save the lives of prison guards and other convicts suffering from yellow fever at Fort Jefferson, off the island of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, where he had been sent to serve out his sentence. Mudd was only 49 years old when he died of pneumonia Jan. 10, 1883.

Another key figure in the conspiracy, John Surratt, who was the son of conspirator Mary Surratt, fled to Canada to avoid capture, and eventually made his way across the ocean to Alexandria, Egypt, where he was arrested by U.S. authorities in November 1866. But after he was returned to the U.S. his trial in a civilian court resulted in a hung jury. He died in 1916 at age 72, according to this profile on the University of Richmond website.

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Was There an Even Bigger Conspiracy? Rumors Persist

In the more than 150 years since Lincoln's assassination, many have found it hard to believe that Booth — acting in concert with few fellow Confederate sympathizers — could have pulled off the monstrous crime of killing the hero who saved the Union. Instead, almost immediately after the news broke of Lincoln's death, rumors began swirling of a more far-reaching plot that possibly included culprits ranging from high-ranking officials in the Confederate government and European bankers to Lincoln's own vice president, Andrew Johnson.

"No President had been assassinated up to that point and the idea that an actor and his ragtag co-conspirators could pull it off seemed unlikely to many," explains David Goldfield via email. He's the Robert Lee Bailey professor of history at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and author of the 2011 book "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation." "A major crime required a major plot."

Some suspected that the plot had to be the work of full-fledged agents of the Confederacy's Secret Service Bureau, operating at the behest of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

But Goldfield, who wrote an article on Lincoln conspiracy theories for the Ford's Theatre website describes another, darker conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic overtones. It revolved around the Rothschilds, a German banking family who had provided large loans to the Confederacy, and Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, who happened to be Jewish. Next to Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee, Benjamin was "probably the most influential person in the Confederate States of America," says Goldfield.

Conspirators hanging
The crowd of onlookers at the Old Arsenal penitentiary departs after the hanging of the four convicted Lincoln conspirators, July 7, 1865.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The idea of an international Jewish conspiracy against Lincoln resonated among some in the early Republican Party, which included some who'd been involved in the Know Nothing Party, a movent that opposed immigration, particularly of Roman Catholics and Jews, according to Goldfield.

"Add to the mix the fact that Edwin Stanton had allegedly made several anti-Semitic remarks and that he was among the leading figures in the post-assassination investigation," Goldfield says. As a result, "It seemed to some that Lincoln's assassination was a Jewish conspiracy and, more particularly, an effort to derail the Union war effort so the Rothschilds could get their money back. Of course, if that was the case, then Booth and company waited too long, because Lee had already surrendered by the time Lincoln was assassinated."

Additionally, if some foreign conspirators really had been involved, there were more logical suspects. "The British and the French had motivation to weaken the U.S., a potential rival," Goldfield says.

While there aren't any serious questions about who actually killed Lincoln, Goldfield says, there are enough loose ends to continue to intrigue the conspiracy-minded. "There has always been speculation as to where Lincoln's guard was that night at Ford's Theatre," he explains. "Had they been at their posts, they certainly would have stopped Booth from opening the door to Lincoln's box. But historians generally attribute that to dereliction of duty rather than the soldiers being accomplices."

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