The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one of the last major events in the American Civil War, took place on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln was shot while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with his wife and two guests.
Contrary to the information Booth read in the newspaper, General and Mrs. Grant had declined the invitation to see the play with the Lincolns, as Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant did not like each other. Several other people were invited to join them, until finally Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris (daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris) accepted the invitation.
"What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?" The president replied, "She won't think anything about it". Those were the last words ever spoken by Abraham Lincoln. It was about 10:15 p.m.
The box was supposed to be guarded by a policeman named John Frederick Parker who, by all accounts, was a curious choice for a bodyguard. During the intermission, Parker went to a nearby tavern with Lincoln's footman and coachman. It is unclear whether he ever returned to the theatre, but he was certainly not at his post when Booth entered the box.
Booth knew the play, and waited for the right moment, one where actor Harry Hawk would be onstage as "cousin Asa", where there would be laughter to muffle the sound of a gunshot, when Hawk said to the insufferable Mrs Mountchessington, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!" Booth raced forward and shot the president in the back of the head. Lincoln slumped over in his rocking chair, unconscious. Mary reached out and caught him, then screamed.
Rathbone jumped from his seat and tried to prevent Booth from escaping, but Booth stabbed the Major violently in the arm with a knife. Rathbone quickly recovered and tried to grab Booth as he was preparing to jump from the sill of the box. Booth again stabbed at Rathbone, and then attempted to vault over the rail and down to the stage. His riding spur caught on the Treasury flag decorating the box, Booth jumped on the stage and landed awkwardly on his left foot, fracturing his left fibula just above the ankle. He raised himself up and, holding a knife over his head, yelled, "Sic semper tyrannis!" the Latin Virginia state motto, meaning "Thus always to tyrants."
Other accounts state that he also uttered "The South is avenged!" He then ran across the stage, and went out the door onto the horse he had waiting outside. Some of the men in the audience chased after him, but failed to catch him. Booth struck "Peanuts" Burroughs in the forehead with the handle of his knife, leaped onto the horse, kicked Burroughs in the face with his good leg, and rode away. He headed toward the Navy Yard Bridge to meet up with Herold and Powell.
Mary Lincoln's and Clara Harris' screams and Rathbone's cries of "Stop that man!" caused the audience to understand that this was not part of the show, and pandemonium broke out in Ford's Theatre. Dr. Charles Leale, a young Army surgeon on liberty for the night and attending the play, made his way through the crowd to the door at the rear of the Presidential box. It would not open. Finally Rathbone saw a notch carved in the door and a wooden brace jammed there to hold the door shut. Booth had carved the notch there earlier in the day and noiselessly put the brace up against the door after entering the box to kill Lincoln. Rathbone shouted to Leale, who stepped back from the door, allowing Rathbone to remove the brace and open the door.
Leale entered the box to find Rathbone bleeding profusely from a deep gash that ran the length of his upper left arm. Nonetheless, he passed Rathbone by and stepped forward to find Lincoln slumped forward in his chair, held up by Mary, who was sobbing. Lincoln had no pulse and Leale believed him to be dead. Leale lowered the President to the floor. A second doctor in the audience, Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, was lifted bodily from the stage over the railing and into the box. Taft and Leale cut away Lincoln's blood-stained collar and opened his shirt, and Leale, feeling around by hand, discovered the bullet hole in the back of the head by the left ear. Leale removed a clot of blood in the wound and Lincoln's breathing improved. Still, Leale knew it made no difference: "His wound is mortal. It is impossible for him to recover."
Leale, Taft, and another doctor from the audience, Dr. Albert King, quickly consulted and decided that while the President must be moved, a bumpy carriage ride across town to the White House was out of the question. After briefly considering Peter Taltavull's Star Saloon next door, they chose to carry Lincoln across the street and find a house. The three doctors and some soldiers who had been in the audience carried the President out the front entrance of Ford's. Across the street, a man was holding a lantern and calling "Bring him in here! Bring him in here!" The man was Henry Safford, a boarder at William Petersen's boarding house opposite Ford's. The men carried Lincoln into the boarding house and into the first-floor bedroom, where they laid him diagonally on the bed because he was too tall to lie straight.
A vigil began at the Petersen House. The three physicians already in attendance were joined by Surgeon General of the United States Army Dr. Joseph K. Barnes, Dr. Charles Henry Crane, Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, and Dr. Robert K. Stone. Crane was a Major and Barnes' assistant. Stone was Lincoln's personal physician. Robert Lincoln, who had stayed home, arrived at the Petersen House after being told of the shooting at about midnight. Tad Lincoln, who had attended Grover's Theater to see Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, was not allowed to go to the Peterson House. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton came and took charge of the scene. Mary Lincoln was so unhinged by the experience of the assassination that Stanton ordered her out of the room by shouting, "Take that woman out of here and do not let her in here again!"
While Mary Lincoln sobbed in the front parlor, Stanton set up shop in the rear parlor, effectively running the United States government for several hours, sending and receiving telegrams, taking reports from witnesses, and issuing orders for the pursuit of Booth. Nothing more could be done for President Lincoln. At 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died. He was 56 years old. Mary Lincoln was not present at the time of his death.
The crowd around the bed knelt for a prayer, and when they were finished, Stanton said "Now he belongs to the ages". There is some disagreement among historians as to Stanton's words after Lincoln died. All agree that he began "Now he belongs to the..." with some stating he said "ages" while others believe he said "angels".