• Weird History

A Timeline Of The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth

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.

  • April 20-21, 1865: Booth And Herold Got Lost On The Potomac River And Ended Up Back In Maryland Instead Of Virginia

    At long last, Thomas Jones, after learning that soldiers in search of Booth had left the area, came to Booth and David Herold to tell them they had a chance to make their exit. They set out at dusk on April 20, six days after the fateful event.

    The Potomac River was 3.5 miles away by foot, and it's likely they moved even slower due to Booth's still-recovering leg. When they eventually reached the water, Booth tried to pay Jones for his services, but he refused. Instead, Jones put the two men on a small skiff and sent them off onto the Potomac.

    For the second time, the two men became hopelessly lost. They had planned to land the boat at Machodoc Creek in Virginia, but it was a foggy night and they ended up instead at Nanjemoy Creek in Maryland.

    Booth and Herold went to a farm near Nanjemoy Creek and managed to get some provisions before returning to the skiff. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, they did nothing. Perhaps Booth's leg was acting up, or they heard rumors of Union patrols nearby. But for the night of April 21, they remained on the boat at Nanjemoy, not escaping via the Potomac as planned.

  • Photo: Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    April 22, 1865: Booth And Herold Were Almost Caught By Union Soldiers

    On April 22, Booth and David Herold waited for night to fall before leaving by boat on the Potomac. It was another foggy night, and while they may have initially cursed their bad luck, it ended up working in their favor. Booth's diary records show they nearly crossed the path of a Union gunboat patrolling the river. But the escapees managed to stay out of the way of the ship and continued rowing late into the night.

    By this point, the Union was closing in on Booth and his associates. Dr. Samuel Mudd's house was surrounded by troops and everyone at Surratt's Tavern had been detained. The authorities knew Booth was trying to get to Virginia, and the roads were full of Union soldiers.

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

    April 23, 1865: Booth And Herold Landed In Virginia And Were Denied Shelter By Several People

    Booth and David Herold finally landed in Virginia early in the morning of April 23. They quickly made contact with Elizabeth Queensbury, a sympathizer. After feeding the men, she sent them on to Dr. Richard Stuart a little farther south. When Stuart realized who they were, he kicked them out, and they made their way to the cabin of William Lucas, a free Black man.

    Like Stuart, Lucas refused to let them spend the night. This incensed Booth, who accosted Lucas with a knife (the same one used on Henry Rathbone) and made the man and his family spend the night on the porch. 

  • April 24, 1865: Booth And Herold Arrived At Richard Garrett's Farm And Convinced Him They Were Soldiers

    After taking over the home of William Lucas, Booth and David Herold forced Lucas's son to take them to Port Charles, where a former Confederate soldier, Willie Jett, had prepared a house for them. The house in question was occupied by two unmarried women, however, and the men agreed it would be improper for them to stay there.

    They continued, eventually coming to a house owned by Richard Garrett on April 24. Booth managed to convince Garrett that he and Herold were soldiers and Booth's broken leg was obtained during duty. Garrett seemed to believe him and, for the first time in a week, Booth had a real bed on which to sleep.