• 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.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    November 1864: Booth Originally Planned To Capture Lincoln

    Slaying Abraham Lincoln was not Booth's original plan. After Lincoln was re-elected president in 1864, Booth and his compatriots hoped to capture Lincoln and trade him for Confederate POWs. They first planned to grab Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, lowering him from his box to the stage with ropes. A second plot involved intercepting Lincoln in March 1865 while he was traveling, but the president's schedule changed.

    With the conflict winding down and Union victory inevitable, Booth decided to take more drastic action.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    April 14, 1865: Booth Shot Lincoln In Ford's Theatre

    Booth's plan was for a group of men to take out four key Union officials on the same night: President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General Ulysses Grant. The organizers believed this would throw the Union into chaos, allowing the defeated Confederacy to reorganize and take Washington.

    It wasn't until later that Booth learned every attempt but his own had failed; he was too focused on his mission. Using connections he had developed over the years as an actor, he got access to the presidential box on April 14, 1865, during a performance of Our American Cousin. No one noticed the handsome young actor enter the box, pull out his derringer, and point it at the back of Lincoln's head.

    Booth shot Lincoln at 10:15 pm. Immediately after, he rushed past onlookers, intending to jump from the balcony to the stage. On his way, Army officer Henry Rathbone tried to stop him. After sinking his knife into Rathbone's shoulder, Booth leaped from the presidential box, landing awkwardly and seemingly breaking his leg.

    There was confusion in the audience, with some bystanders saying they thought it was all part of the play until they heard Mary Todd Lincoln screaming. Onstage, Booth yelled, "Sic semper tyrannis" (Thus always to tyrants), which was the state motto of Virginia. It was also famously associated with Brutus, the man who did away with Julius Caesar. Booth had played the character onstage and might have felt a kinship with Brutus.

  • April 14, 1865: Booth Narrowly Escaped From Washington, DC

    With Abraham Lincoln lifeless, the theater in an uproar, and Union troops around every corner, Booth had to get out of Washington as quickly as possible. One of his co-conspirators had placed a horse at the stage door. Booth mounted it and rode down to the Navy Yard Bridge, which led from Washington to Maryland.

    After almost being stopped at the bridge by a guard, Booth continued and met up with David Herold, another member of the group. Together, they rode to Surratt's Tavern in Surrattsville, MD (now called Clinton), where the proprietors had agreed to hide supplies for the two of them.

    On the night of April 14, they rode away from the tavern, heavily armed.

  • April 15, 1865: A Doctor Treated Booth's Broken Leg

    Booth and David Herold arrived at the Maryland home of Dr. Samuel Mudd by 4 am on April 15. Mudd was a physician in a town with well-known Confederate sympathies, although it's unclear whether he knew exactly who these two men were or what they had done; he later proclaimed his innocence but was sent to prison anyway. 

    Mudd set Booth's broken leg and sent him to rest for a few hours. While Booth was lying in bed in Maryland, Lincoln was lying in bed in Washington as the attending physician pronounced him officially perished.

    When Booth rose, the fugitives continued riding. They got lost near Zekiah Swamp before paying a nearby farmer for help in getting to "Rich Hill," the home of Confederate sympathizer Samuel Cox. The distances were vast, and Booth could not travel as fast as he would have liked due to his leg. It was 1 am by the time they reached Rich Hill.