Weird History
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A Timeline Of The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth

Updated September 23, 2021 40.5k views15 items

On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC. Much has been written about Booth's motivations: that he was a Confederate sympathizer, or suffering from professional jealousy, or simply wanted attention. Regardless, when Booth left Ford's Theatre that night, he had indelibly changed the course of history, slaying a man now considered one of the nation's greatest presidents.

In the weeks, months, and years following the event, the nation grappled with the consequences of Booth's actions. But for Booth himself, the results were much more immediate. In John Wilkes Booth's final days, he ran. He ran for 13 days, from Ford's Theatre all the way to a small farm near Port Royal, VA. The search to find him was one of the biggest manhunts in history, with 10,000 federal troops involved. 

It's hard to say what kind of future Booth thought he had, or what he thought might happen to him if he were caught. But for nearly a fortnight days, from April 14-26, America held its breath and followed the thrilling hunt for the man who had slain President Lincoln.

  • Photo: Unknown/Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    April 16, 1865: Confederate Sympathizer Samuel Cox Hid Booth And Herold In A Pine Thicket

    Samuel Cox received Booth and David Herold warily when they arrived at his house on April 16. While Cox supported their cause, he also knew the danger he was exposing himself to in sheltering them. So, he sent them to a nearby pine thicket at the edge of his property where they could wait for the opportunity to cross the Potomac into Virginia.

    Booth spent the day fuming that they weren't allowed in Cox's house and adjusting to the uncomfortable pine thicket. It was Easter Sunday.

    Meanwhile, around 1,000 Union soldiers had been mobilized in the search for Booth, and the bounty for the group was up to $100,000, the equivalent of about $1.5 million today.

  • Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    April 17, 1865: Booth Was Surprised To Learn People Weren't Praising Him

    On April 17, Booth and David Herold continued to hide in the pine thicket; they stayed there for four days total. Occasionally, Thomas Jones, a friend of Samuel Cox, visited them and brought the two food, drink, and newspapers.

    Booth was particularly curious to see how the world was reacting to his "heroic" act. When he saw himself roundly condemned as a coward and villain, it shocked him. In planning it, he had genuinely thought of himself as a tragic hero, like Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

    A few days later, Booth wrote in his diary:

    I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made [William] Tell a hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.

  • Photo: Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    April 18, 1865: While Hiding In The Pine Thicket, Booth Wrote In His Journal

    On the third day in the pine thicket, April 18, Booth and David Herold grew restless. They had good reason to remain hidden, though, as it is estimated that at one point a column of Union soldiers passed within 600 feet of their hideout.

    Spooked by the huge hunt and worried that the horses the two men were hiding with were making too much noise, Herold silenced the animals.

    Booth may have been writing in his red leather diary at that moment. It's unclear when he began keeping the journal, but it remains the only firsthand account of his thought process during this period. In it, he railed against the "persecution" he was facing and seemed genuinely surprised he was not being treated as a hero.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    April 19, 1865: While Soldiers Searched For Booth, Lincoln's Procession Began

    On April 19, Booth and David Herold drank whiskey and continued to lay low. Not far away, the country gathered to mourn Abraham Lincoln. In Washington, DC, enormous crowds came to watch the procession as Lincoln's body was carried to the rotunda of the Capitol building. Once there, a small, private service was held for a few select mourners.

    The next day, the rotunda was opened to the public, allowing citizens to see their president one last time. The day after that, Lincoln's body was placed aboard a special train, and Mary Todd Lincoln accompanied it to Springfield, IL, for the interment.