It’s the evening of April 14, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln is sitting with his beloved wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in their private box at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. The happy couple are engrossed in the performance of Our American Cousin – but fate has other plans. At 10:15 p.m., a gunman named John Wilkes Booth will creep up behind the president and shoot him in the back of his skull. This much most of us know, of course, but what did Lincoln say right before he died? His final words to Mary have been fiercely contested throughout the years, and the truth is astonishing.
On the heels of victory
Lincoln’s assassination actually came hot on the heels of a great victory. The devastating American Civil War had ended only five days earlier. After the Battle of Appomattox Court House, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. And Booth — the gunman — was a known Confederate sympathizer. So his assassination of Lincoln was part of a three-pronged attack on the U.S. government and was seemingly intended to resuscitate the cause.
Booth had stayed in the north during the conflict, despite the fact that the Confederacy was based in the south. He’d actually pursued his acting career while the war raged for four bloody years. But after Lee surrendered his army, Booth — who’d previously hatched a failed plan to kidnap Lincoln — conspired to commit a far more devastating act.
It didn't go as planned
So when Booth discovered that the Lincolns would be attending the theater that fateful night, he put his plan into action. He also enlisted co-conspirators to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson — and these two assassinations should have happened as the actor pulled the trigger on Lincoln. See, Booth apparently believed that the murders of the president and his two potential successors would likely throw the country into chaos.
He had a locational advantage
Booth felt that Lincoln’s presence in the theater gave him a unique opportunity to get close to him. He had actually performed there several times himself and was therefore familiar with the layout of the building. The actor was also known to the staff and apparently used his connections to gain easier access to Lincoln’s private box.
That evening, Lincoln and his wife were in their box above the stage with army officer Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris. who was New York senator Ira Harris’ daughter. However, Lincoln and his group had arrived late to the theater. So in response, the orchestra momentarily halted proceedings to play “Hail to the Chief,” and all 1,700 patrons got to their feet to applaud.
Security dropped their guard
But the president wasn’t without security at the event. In fact, a police officer named John Frederick Parker had been assigned the duty of protecting the president’s private box. During the play’s intermission, however, the officer accompanied Lincoln’s coachman and footman to a local watering hole. This left the box unguarded — meaning Booth was able to slip in easily and bar the door behind him to prevent anyone from escaping.
He waited for a loud moment
Booth knew the play well, and he timed his attack to coincide with a particularly funny line uttered by actor Harry Hawk. Lincoln was reportedly laughing when Booth snuck up behind him and shot him behind his left ear. The actor used a single-shot .44-caliber derringer pistol, and the bullet passed through Lincoln’s brain — fracturing both orbital plates.
The immediate aftermath
Rathbone turned to see Booth standing over the fallen president and immediately rushed him. But the young army officer was stabbed in the left forearm in the struggle. Booth then jumped the 12-foot drop from the box to the stage, landing badly and hurting his left foot in the process.
Booth's message to the crowd
The actor then reportedly held his bloody knife above his head and addressed the audience. At this point, most of the people in attendance thought the commotion was simply part of the performance. It’s generally accepted that Booth yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” This is the Virginia state motto and means, “Thus always to tyrants!”
The assassin then ran across the stage toward an exit door, stabbing the orchestra leader William Withers Jr. en route. And after Booth escaped from the theater, he mounted a horse that he had positioned in the alleyway ahead of time. He rode off into the Washington night and soon became the subject of an exhaustive manhunt.
Booth’s motivation for slaying the president may still seem unclear, but it was firmly rooted in the role Lincoln played during the American Civil War. You see, the infamous murder can be traced back to the president’s actions during the conflict — and one in particular set Booth on edge.
The conflict played out between two opposing forces known as the Union and the Confederacy. Union referred to the United States of America — or more specifically, the 20 free states and four border ones where slavery was either illegal or in the process of being phased out. And these regions included Washington, D.C., New York, California, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Conversely, the Confederate States of America was formed by the seven states in the lower south of the country whose inhabitants largely didn’t want slavery to be abolished. So as a result, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana seceded from the union and became an unrecognized republic. And in particular, the Confederacy believed slavery was threatened by then-presidential candidate Lincoln. He had run on a platform opposing its expansion into the western part of the country, you see.
He wasn't an abolitionist
Yes, although Lincoln was not an abolitionist, he did believe that slavery was morally wrong and questioned the protections it had been awarded in the Constitution of the United States. And in a three-hour speech in 1854 Lincoln admitted that he didn’t know precisely what the right course of action was regarding slavery.
Lincoln wasn't a champion for equality
In 1858 — during a debate with his opponent Stephen Douglas in the Illinois race for the U.S. Senate — Lincoln was accused of supporting “negro equality.” And according to History.com, the future president responded, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Furthermore, he went on to argue that African-Americans shouldn’t have the right to vote, hold office, serve on juries or marry white people.
But he was against slavery
Lincoln did believe, however, that African-Americans had the right to improve their societal position through hard work and enjoy the benefits of their labor. And according to the future president, as slavery made this kind of advancement in society impossible, the institution was morally wrong.
Lincoln's views changed over time
But Lincoln’s views regarding racial equality would grow and evolve over the course of his time in office. On April 11, 1865, for instance — the date of the last speech that he ever gave — he argued that any black man who had served the Union during the Civil War should be granted the right to vote. And this stance seemingly indicates that the president’s position had changed somewhat from the Senate debate seven years earlier.
Lincoln’s position on race has been viewed differently by successive generations, too. After all, even though he successfully freed the slaves, he still held some opinions that many today would consider to be problematic. In 2009 The Root’s editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. argued that the president held some surprisingly liberal opinions for that period, though. He said, “By the standards of his time, Lincoln’s views on race and equality were progressive and truly changed minds, policy and — most importantly — hearts for years to come.”
Famous actor turned assassin
But what of Lincoln’s assassin? Well, Booth came from a prominent family of actors in Maryland. His father, Junius Brutus, and his brothers, Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr., all worked in the trade, and Booth followed in their footsteps. And by the end of the 1850s, he was a genuinely wealthy and famous actor — earning the equivalent of around $570,000 today.
He was poorly received in the North
Before the American Civil War began, in fact, Booth was held in high esteem as an actor in the southern states. However, during the conflict, he chose to remain in the north and reportedly grew angry when audiences didn’t react to him as well as they had back home. Booth held strong political views, too, as he had a fiercely outspoken hatred of abolitionists and Lincoln — a loathing that even some members of his family didn’t share.
The Booth Brothers were at odds
For instance, Booth apparently didn’t see eye to eye with his brother Edwin during the war. Edwin did not share his siblings’ public support of slavery, for one, and he even refused to perform in their native south. But Booth’s condemnation of the Union was so severe that he was arrested in St. Louis in 1863 and charged with “treasonous” remarks. This came, according to several reports, after he was heard saying he wished that “the president and the whole damn government would go to hell.”
So these extreme differences in political opinion meant that eventually Edwin told Booth that he was not welcome in his home anymore. Yes, apparently the actor’s hatred of Lincoln had only become more intense over time. And according to Asia Booth Clarke’s book John Wilkes Booth: A Sister's Memoir, he had told her, “That man’s appearance… and his policy are a disgrace to the seat he holds. He is made the tool of the north to crush out slavery.”
Lincoln was Booth's fan
In a cruel twist of fate, though, President Lincoln may have actually been a fan of Booth. It was known that the president had watched him perform in several plays. And fellow actor Frank Mordaunt even corroborated a claim that Lincoln had invited Booth to visit him at the White House. But the actor reportedly turned down the invitation, and according to the website Civil War Saga, he apparently told his friends, “I would rather have the applause of a negro to that of the president.”
His last day
Yet as Lincoln was doubtless unaware of how April 14 would end, he had begun the day with a cabinet meeting. The topics were the treatment of the defeated Confederate leaders as well as the nature of any economic aid that was to be offered to the south. And the president then had lunch with his wife, Mary Todd, before engaging in more meetings — including one with a former slave called Nancy Bushrod. Afterwards, Lincoln indulged in an afternoon carriage ride with his spouse.
Later that night, the Lincolns’ carriage picked up army officer Rathbone and his fiancé Harris at her father’s home, and the four subsequently made their way to the theater. After the stirring rendition of “Hail to the Chief,” everyone took their seats, and Mary apparently flirted with her husband as she held his hand. And according to Stephen Mansfield’s book Lincoln’s Battle with God, she asked, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?”
The couple's final jokes
Mansfield added that Lincoln’s wife Mary had something of a reputation for being fiercely jealous. She would apparently scream at any woman who dared to walk near her husband, for instance. But this jealousy seemingly didn’t rear its head in the theater, and Lincoln apparently replied, “Why, she will think nothing of it.”
Lincoln's last words
For many years, these were traditionally believed to have been Lincoln’s last words. But in 1882 a friend of the family named Reverend N.M. Miner claimed that Mary had told him her husband’s final words were quite different. Miner wrote about this revelation in a lecture entitled “Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln.”
Making future plans
And Mansfield wrote that Lincoln told his wife that following the war they would “not return immediately to Springfield.” This is no doubt a reference to where the family had lived before he became president: Springfield, Illinois. According to the author, Lincoln continued, “We will go abroad among strangers where I can rest.” He then leaned in closely to Mary and whispered his next words.
The bullet fired
“We will visit the Holy Land,” Lincoln apparently declared. “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.” The bullet fired by Booth then did its terrible work, and Lincoln subsequently succumbed to his injuries the next morning at 7:22 a.m.
Some cast doubts
In his book, Mansfield acknowledged that these final words — which allude to a deep faith — are often not included in works concerning Lincoln’s assassination. The author said, “It is natural that some should doubt. Schoolchildren do not learn them as they do the other facts of Lincoln’s life.”
The reason for omission
Mansfield then argued that Lincoln’s last words are likely omitted from most historical accounts because of the hesitancy of scholars to declare him to be a religious man. He added, “Lincoln was, after all, a religious oddity. He never joined a church. In fact, he went through periods in his life when he was openly anti-religion — even anti-God.”
Myth or history?
And the author went on, “Surely, critics will say, to insist that these words are true, or that they are any reflection of Lincoln’s faith, is part of a religious re-working of his life — part of a misguided attempt by the pious to refashion him into a gleaming religious icon of some imagined national religion.” Mansfield continued, “Surely this is the fruit of bad research and pitiful scholarship: more myth than history.”
Scholars say it's valid
Mansfield also argued that prominent Lincoln scholars over the years have attested to the validity of these words — in spite of criticism. After all, it was the president’s wife herself who had apparently relayed the words to Reverend Miner. And as a result, prominent Lincoln scholars such as Allen C. Guelzo, Wayne Temple and Doris Kearns Goodwin apparently regard them as the truth.
Implications if true
Dr. James Cornelius is the curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, and he has referred to Mary’s account of her husband’s last words. He said, “We believe [them] to be substantiated.” Perhaps this really was the last thing that Lincoln said. And, if this is true, it highlights his complicated views regarding religion.
Handling the tragedy
But what happened in the aftermath of Lincoln uttering his last words and passing away the next morning? Well, his body was put in a temporary casket that was draped in the American flag. The cadaver was then taken by armed escort to the White House. Here, an autopsy was conducted, and Mary reportedly requested that a lock of her husband’s hair be removed for her to keep.
A nation in mourning
The nation went into mourning, too. By the end of the day of Lincoln’s death, for instance, flags all across the country were flying at half-mast and businesses shut down. And when his body was taken by train to Springfield, Illinois, tens of thousands stood by the railroad route — waiting to pay their final respects to the fallen president.
People disapproved of Mary's grieving
Lincoln was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery alongside his son William Wallace Lincoln, who had died of typhoid fever three years earlier. And Mary, for her part, was apparently so consumed by grief after losing her husband that she retreated to her bed for weeks. She didn’t attend the funeral and was soon looked down upon by society due to her vocal mourning.
The First Lady was ostracized
Unfortunately for Mary, women of her high position in society were expected to maintain their composure in public — even during times of grief. Instead of suppressing her emotions, however, Mary displayed them for all to see. A number of modern scholars now believe that she may have been bipolar, but her contemporaries simply ostracized her.
Booth's last stand
As for John Wilkes Booth, he was found hiding in a Maryland barn after a 12-day manhunt. But he remained inside, even after Union soldiers set the structure on fire to draw him out. Booth was eventually shot in the neck and dragged into the open — where he died three hours later. Four of his co-conspirators were later hanged, too, for their involvement in Lincoln’s assassination. Sadly, because of Booth’s actions, the president never got to see Jerusalem — and we’ll never know what actually greeted him upon his death.