OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The Murder of President Lincoln page 3

Pages: 1 2 <3>

At the White House there was a surprise awaiting them. Some old friends from Springfield were there - Richard Oglesby, a boyhood companion, among them. The president was delighted. It seemed just like old times, -and nothing would satisfy him but that they should all go to his office, where he read to them extracts from one of his favourite books of humour. He loved reading these things; he laughed just as heartily as his auditors - and for this little while he recaptured, during the last hours of his life, the pleasures he had known long ago. The dinner-gong rang, but Lincoln read on. It sounded again, and again, until, at last, there came a message from Mrs. Lincoln. A simple message that housewives all over the world send to their husbands - he must come at once or the dinner would be spoiled - and had he forgotten he was going to the theatre?

In response to this "ultimatum" Lincoln went to his dinner. He didn't feel much like going to the theatre, he would much rather have gone on with the reunion. But it was his duty. It was to be a performance of Our American Cousin, in which Laura Keene played a star part. The manager had advertised the presence of the "President and his Lady," as well as of General Grant, the "Hero of Appomattox." Earlier in the day a Secret Service man had tried to warn the president and General Grant, that he had heard rumours of assassins. Lincoln laughed at the threats; but went. Grant, though he probably paid no more attention to them than his president, departed for New Jersey to see his children. No one thought assassination could be possible.

So they went to the theatre. Just before they left the White House a petition for a Southern prisoner who was prepared to take the oath of allegiance, and who asked for his discharge from captivity, was handed to the president. He wrote upon it, "Let it be done." This was his last and final act of clemency. They found the theatre full, as it might well be, on such a gala night. America did not keep Good Friday so seduously as did countries across the Atlantic. The play they were to see was one which later became much more famous than it was in those days, by the introduction of a character called Lord Dundreary, whose whiskers still hold a place in the nomenclature of both nations.

Now it is necessary to go back to the afternoon of that day and to meet the man whose shot killed the president and might have upset a peace. He was a man called Booth. He was a member of a famous family of actors - his brother at that time was playing the title role in Hamlet in a Boston theatre; but this man, John Wilkes Booth, was a disgrace to the family and always had been. He had played in melodrama, and during the war he had played in melodrama of his own. He considered himself a supporter of the South; when the war was over, inflamed by brandy and an exaggerated sense of his own importance, he considered himself the enemy of the man who had defeated the South.

While Mr. Lincoln was making plans to re-establish and rebuild America, John Wilkes Booth was plotting with others of his kidney to destroy his work. His mind was obviously unbalanced, as were the minds of most of his associates. He fancied himself a modern Brutus with a mission to kill the oppressor. Later, after the crime, when he was, as it would have been said at a later date, "on the run," he did not deplore the murder but only the fact that he had not been lauded as a Brutus or a Gassius who had rid the world of a tyrant.

In cellars and underground cafes the plot was hatched. The killing would be not only that of the president but of members of his Cabinet. Thus, on the night of the theatre outrage there occurred another. William Seward, a republican leader, was attacked in his house by a boy of gigantic stature who stabbed him five times. He did not die, however. Later the boy, a woman and another man were hanged after a trial by court martial. On the afternoon of April 14, while Lincoln was driving around with his wife, Booth, who knew well the inside of the theatre, had been busy.

The presidential box, a stage box, had two doors, an outer and an inner. Booth that afternoon bored a hole through the inner door, and fashioned a wedge of wood so that he could fasten from the inside the outer one. He displayed the cunning of a madman. Then he arranged that a horse should be waiting for him outside the stage door - and his preparations for death were complete.

The president, Mrs. Lincoln, Major Henry R. Rathbone, and his fiancee, Miss Harris, daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York, were the occupants of the box. Over the front, and trailing down almost on to the stage, was the flag of the Union - a flag which was to play a great part in the subsequent proceedings. The party was received with cheers; outside the theatre there were cheering crowds, too. The play went on and then, at about ten o'clock, there came a man to the outer door of the box. It was Booth. He told the attendant stationed there that he had a message for the president; an important message which he expected. Amazingly the attendant let him in, and then began stark drama. Booth looked through the peep-hole he had made; he saw the back of the president's head nearest to him.

He pushed open the inner door and entered the box. Major Rathbone saw him coming and jumped up, but he was too late. The assassin fired a shot from his pistol into the back of the president's head - the bullet passed through the brain and came to rest below the eye - and then with a knife he held in the other hand he slashed at Major Rathbone, wounding him in the arm. The box was a stage box, as has been said, and the assassin realised that it would be easy for him to vault on to the stage. He had, remember, made fast the outer door. But he reckoned without the flag of the Union which hung below the box. One of his spurs caught in its folds, and he was thrown violently on to the stage, fracturing a small bone in the leg between the knee and the ankle.

His appearance on the stage caused consternation amongst the actors; they stood huddled together, unable to do anything at all, for in a moment the man was on his feet again. In his hand he brandished a bloodstained knife - the blood of Major Rathbone, and for a second he stood there while he shouted, "Sic semper tyrannus" the motto of the State of Virginia, meaning literally, "Ever so to tyrants." Then with a last cry of, "The South is avenged!" he rushed off the stage. Outside the theatre a horse was waiting for him; he climbed into the saddle as well as his broken leg would allow him to, and rode off.

Meanwhile, in the theatre there was pandemonium. Major Rathbone, despite his wound, rushed to the outer door, only to find it fastened. Eventually he managed to get it open. A squad of soldiers with fixed bayonets rushed into the theatre - the theatre where the curtain had not yet fallen on the play, because the attendants were too startled to lower it; but had fallen upon the life and the career of the great president.

He lay there, slumped back in his chair, blood oozing from the wound in his head. They carried him out; they did not know where to take him, until a resident who lived on the opposite side of the street offered his room and his bed as a temporary hospital. They laid him on the bed, but because he was so tall his body had to lay aslant. There he remained, unconscious, having spoken no word, until seven twenty-five the next morning, when, his wife by his side as she had watched all night, he "gave his blessed part to heaven, and slept in peace."

When the news of the passing of the president reached the people there was a scene of sorrow which surpassed in intensity the scenes of joy which had heralded, a few short hours ago, the end of the war. Decorations were taken down, hidden surreptitiously beneath cloaks, and bands of crepe took their place. The death of Abraham Lincoln went far to unite the war-divided States of America. Even his enemies united with his friends in expressing horror at this crime. Whatever the brandy-fuddled mind of Booth had hoped to achieve it failed in its purpose. He slew the only sincere friend of the South - the man who was preaching the doctrine of "forgive and forget" - and by that shot he did more to unite discordant elements than he can ever have known.

For eleven days Booth passed a miserable existence, hunted from place to place. A surgeon who did not know him set his broken bone; he lived as a hunted animal lives, always fearing to hear the cry of the pack behind him. On April 25 the end came for John Wilkes Booth. A squadron of cavalry traced him to a barn in the State of Virginia. They surrounded it but he refused to come out - so they set fire to it. One of them, Boston Corbett, acting against orders, thrust his musket through a crevice in the burning barn, and fired. Whether he killed Booth, or whether Booth killed himself, no one can know. He was brought out with a bullet through the brain - just as his victim had had - and like his victim he lived until the following morning.

Not infrequently, perhaps, have the greatest words of great men been forgotten, and the least important of their utterances been preserved. It was not so with Lincoln. The greatest words he ever spoke have become almost a byword in the English-speaking tongue. He was at Gettysburg, in the middle of the Civil War, and he was present at the dedication of the National Cemetery on the battlefield. It was on the nineteenth of November, 1863. He said:

"We are met on a great battlefield of the war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the Nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause to which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

, The body of the dead president lay in state at the Capitol where thousands of American citizens - those who had been his foes as well as those who were his friends - filed past in silent homage. Then, on April 20, the funeral train started out for Springfield. It halted at many of the largest cities on the way, where again huge crowds paid tribute to a great man. Among them were negroes - slaves to whom he had given their freedom - and as they approached the bier where he lay, reverently, tears streamed down their cheeks.

Through Baltimore, New York, Chicago, the body of the president went on its last journey. Cities he had known, where his memory was still the memory of a virile, living man. 'And so, at last, to Springfield where he had spent so many happy days of his life - and so many that were not happy. They buried him at Oak Ridge, a lofty eminence commanding a view of the surrounding country he had known so well in life.

On October 15, 1875, an imposing monument was dedicated to his memory. It was of white marble, with a life-size statue of Lincoln in bronze, and four bronze groups at the corners, representing the four branches of the Service - infantry, cavalry, artillery and navy. The house at Springfield, together with many personal momentoes of his father, was given to the State of Illinois by his surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

On the wind-swept ridge lies Abraham Lincoln. His is a fitting epitaph - "He laboured not in vain."

<<< Previous page <<<
Pages: 1 2 <3>

Pictures for The Murder of President Lincoln page 3

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About