One of the President’s friends saw the whole scene. He hurried after Booth, who, first withdrew his hunting knife, and then struck him. Then the actor climbed up the balustrade of the box and leapt onto the stage. His spur became caught in one of the flags that adorn the balustrade, and he lost his balance and fell heavily on the planks, breaking the fibula just above the ankle. He had the strength to stand, to wield his knife, then, limping, he ran across the stage and left through the back door of the theatre.
In the seconds that followed it became clear that Lincoln was mortally wounded; his head was slumped on his chest. His wife started screaming. A physician, present in the room, a young Charles Leale, aged twenty-three, rushed forward. A superficial examination allowed him to conclude that the wound was mortal; it was impossible for him to survive. The President fell into unconsciousness.
It was decided to move him to the nearest house, which was William Petersen’s Boarding House, on the other side of the street. He was carried into a bedroom where began a long night of agony. Many doctors come forward to offer their help, as talk of the murder began spread across Washington. A growing crowd began to surround the boarding house … Lincoln’s breathing became weaker. The President would survive for just nine further hours. He died at 7.22 am on April 15, 1865 at the age of just fifty-six.
Meanwhile, Booth, despite his broken fibula, straddled the mare that he had rented in the afternoon. Although the bridges were guarded by soldiers, he succeeded in crossing one of them without arousing the suspicions of the guards. He arrived a little after midnight at the Surattsville tavern which belonged to his accomplices. He there took respite before resuming his flight. At three o’clock in the morning, he received first aid for his broken leg from another sympathizer, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and then continued south. He arrived at Garett farm with an accompanying friend. They both considered there to be their safest place of refuge.
That is, of course, without counting the detectives hot in pursuit. They found their traces easily and, at dawn on April 26th, surrounded the farm with a group soldiers who had joined the chase. They called on Booth, to surrender however he refused. The soldiers set fire to the tobacco fields which surrounded the barn where he had taken refuge. The glow of the flames lit up the building and soldiers to could now clearly see Booth moving inside the building, a gun in his hands. At that moment, Private Boston Corbett aimed his revolver and shot Booth. He collapsed. Several soldiers rushed in and dragged him, still alive, out of the burning barn.
The bullet cut through the actor’s neck. Lying under the porch of the farm, he still had the strength to mumble:
“Tell my mother that I did it for my country… It’s no use”.
While his accomplices are arrested one after the other, Booth’s corpse was brought back to Washington. One may think that there the matter was closed. And yet, the seed of a mystery was sewn here that would slowly grow yet more mysterious. A number of witnesses called to see the body of the assassin claimed not to recognise him. “This corpse is not Booth’s,” they repeated.
So was it not him that the soldiers killed at Garett Farm? Doubt remains … And if the real Booth had indeed managed to disappear, he must have been allowed to escape in order to hide the truth about the assassination of the President.
But why? To cover the tracks of an enormous political conspiracy the roots of which were found among Lincoln’s close collaborators.
The authorities, who wanted to hear nothing of these subversive rumours, claim instead to have managed to find and eliminate the murderous actor. As for his accomplices, after a sensational trial, they are condemned to death by hanging, including Mary Suratt, the owner of the inn where Booth had stopped in his flight. She was the first woman to be executed in the United States.
“I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, Booth jotted down in his diary when he arrived at the Garett farm a few hours before the assault. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment….After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return, wet, cold and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honoured for”.