Political Assassinations: Abraham Lincoln
In this blog, I discuss Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders. Carrel Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, will publish the book in August 2017.
Chapter 1 discusses Abraham Lincoln. The assassination of America’s sixteenth president is one of the most infamous crimes in the nation’s history. Lincoln’s assailant, John Wilkes Booth, had been part of a long-simmering conspiracy to kidnap or possibly kill the president and other high-ranking federal officials as a patriotic service to the Southern Confederacy. It is possible the conspiracy might have dissolved, its goals never coming to fruition, but for Booth’s insistence that Lincoln pay for his sins.
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the young actor ambushed the president as Lincoln watched a play, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theatre in downtown Washington, D.C. Sneaking up behind his chair as Lincoln sat in the presidential box, Booth fired a bullet point blank into the president’s head. Afterward, the assassin leapt from the rostrum, dramatically proclaiming, “Sic semper tyrannis” (“thus ever to tyrants”) before escaping through the back door. A grievously wounded Lincoln slumped in his chair until a group of onlookers carried his enormous frame across the street to a boarding house. He died at 7:22 the following morning, having never regained consciousness.
The nation was stunned at the news of the president’s dramatic death. It was a Greek tragedy sprung to life: On the eve of a mighty victory, Lincoln’s life had been brutally snatched away by a vicious miscreant who probably had acted on orders from Jefferson Davis and his dastardly band of ruffians. Although a link between Booth and top Confederate leaders was never demonstrated, the timing of the Confederacy’s collapse and the death of the president aroused suspicion among many Americans who believed in the existence of nefarious plots. It was little wonder that the conspirators in Booth’s plot—the so-called “vindictive clique of villains”—were dispatched to the gallows with unprecedented haste.
Booth’s motives remain controversial. Some observers have characterized him as a Type 2 killer. According to this view, Booth was primarily a vain, egocentric nobody with little control over his emotions. Because he could not compete with his more famous father and brothers, the young actor initiated a bold crime that would eclipse their fame forever. Killing Abraham Lincoln would ensure that the name “John Wilkes Booth” lived on in the pages of history.
The problem with this theory is that it presupposes that John Wilkes Booth was a non-entity seeking to transform himself into a well-known public figure. Killing the president of the United States presumably would complete such a transformation. Yet Booth was a young, handsome, charismatic public figure in his own right. He was still in his twenties. If he had not yet attained the same level of fame as his family members, who were famous actors, he had many years left to prove himself. Type 2 killers frequently act owing to feelings of rejection and worthlessness in their lives. Taking the life of a public figure enhances their stature. John Wilkes Booth already enjoyed a level of prominence unknown to all but a handful of Americans.
Although Booth undoubtedly understood that assassinating the president would make him even famous than he already was, he appeared to act primarily for political motives. If this is the case, he was a classic Type 1 assassin. After the Confederate States of America suffered a series of battlefield defeats and President Lincoln was reelected in 1864, Booth became increasingly despondent. The Southland that he loved so much was imperiled. He held Abraham Lincoln personally responsible for the wretched state of affairs in the South. Killing the tyrannical president might alleviate the suffering of southerners and improve the prospects for a negotiated settlement to resolve differences between the North and the South. Even if it was too late to affect the outcome of the war, shooting Lincoln was the most effective way of punishing the loathsome creature.
Booth believed that history would judge him kindly. He was sadly mistaken. Generations of Americans have come to revere the historical memory of Abraham Lincoln. They entertain a far different opinion of John Wilkes Booth. For the overwhelming majority of Americans as well as citizens throughout the world, Booth remains one of the most reviled miscreants in the nation’s history.