The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 4, 2013

A question of ... why?

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— Lee Harvey Oswald. Charles J. Guiteau. Leon Czolgosz. Richard Lawrence. John Schrank. Giuseppe Zangara. Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola. Lynette Fromme. John Hinkley Jr.

These infamous yet noteworthy names from American history share an erstwhile notoriety thankfully few have sought to attain.

The first three were successful in assassinating Presidents John F. Kennedy, James Garfield and William McKinley. The others, in order, attempted to kill Presidents Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — and were not.

Missing from this list of nefarious characters is perhaps the most well-known assassin in U.S. history, who shot and killed one of the most famous presidents to ever reside in the White House — Abraham Lincoln.

John Wilkes Booth was born in a four-room log house in spring of 1838, the ninth of 10 children. His parents were the noted British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth and his mistress, Mary Ann Holmes, who came from England in 1821 and purchased a farm in northeast Maryland.

Young John Wilkes, who had been fiercely proud of his illustrious family name, had seen it somewhat besmirched when it was revealed his father had failed to divorce his first wife, and had eloped with the youth’s mother.

After military school, young John Wilkes followed his older brothers, Junius Booth Jr. and Edwin Booth, into the acting profession, debuting on stage in Shakespeare’s Richard III in the Charles Street Theatre in Baltimore.

He moved to Richmond, Va., and his theater work cast him as a man of dark good looks, an almost acrobatic stage presence and extreme popularity with women.

It is said John Wilkes, just like many Marylanders in a border slave state, was shocked by John Brown’s bloody raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., witnessing his hanging in 1859.

Just like most successful and potential presidential assassins, we will never know what was in his mind or propelled him to his fateful actions in April 1865.

Perhaps he was moved to hatred of Lincoln when the president declared martial law in Maryland shortly after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter in spring of 1861, an action Lincoln employed to keep the state from seceding from the Union.

But John Wilkes had promised his mother he would never enlist in the Confederate Army, and continued his stage acting, drawing impressive crowds and critical acclaim from St. Louis to Boston.

Ironically, Lincoln and wife Mary Todd witnessed a Booth performance in November 1863, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

An unsuccessful business venture wiped out John Wilkes’ savings, and he began to hatch a plot to kidnap the president, while falling further into debt and his acting career waning.

He attended Lincoln’s second inaugural in March 1864, accompanied by his secret financeé, Lucy Hale. In another ironic twist of history, she was the daughter of an anti-slavery senator from New Hampshire.

John Wilkes made his final stage performance before a packed house at Ford’s Theatre March 28, 1865, as the Confederacy’s battlefield fortunes crumbled from Virginia to Texas.

Still a strong advocate of slavery, John Wilkes attended another Lincoln speech two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. In that address, Lincoln is said to have infuriated John Wilkes, when the president suggested he would pursue voting rights for black people.

All the while, John Wilkes had been in conspiratorial mode with a number of Southern sympathizers, and the hoped-for Lincoln kidnapping plan originally was thought to have been hatched to trade the president for Confederate prisoners of war.

That plan then morphed in the mind of John Wilkes Booth into an assassination attempt, that included killing Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward — effectively severing the head and continuity of the United States government.

“Now, by God, I’ll put him through,” Booth had told a co-conspirator, after hearing Lincoln’s words on seeking voting rights for former slaves.

History shows that on the evening of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth took a small single-shot cap-and-ball pistol into Ford’s Theatre, where he was widely known and far from out of place. The assassin shot the 16th president in the back of the head as he sat with Mary Todd, watching “Our American Cousin,” less than a week after Lee’s surrender had all but ended the American Civil War.

Jumping from Lincoln’s theatre box onto the stage and breaking his leg, the most notorious presidential assassin in American history escaped, only to be hunted down and shot by a Union soldier in a barn on a Virginia farm.

As he lay dying, John Wilkes Booth, looking at his hands, uttered his last — “Useless, useless” — and burned his named onto the pages of American history.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid