On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln awoke in his room at the White House at seven o’clock, as usual. It promised to be a glorious, spring day.
In the parks and gardens, the scent of the lilacs permeate throughout the garden, the willows shade the banks of the Potomac River with their great branches. Before breakfast, Lincoln went down into his office and sat down to work behind his mahogany table. At eight o’clock, he joined his wife and their two surviving sons for breakfast. During the course of the conversation, Mary Lincoln announced to her husband that she had tickets for the Grover Theatre that evening, but that she would really much prefer to go to the Ford Theatre to see “Our American Cousin”, a comedy that is said to make the whole capital laugh. You should go on down to the Ford Theatre to see “Our American Cousin!” decided the President.
At eight o’clock on that same day, young John Wilkes Booth opened his eyes in room 228 of the Washington National Hotel. He had been born twenty-seven years earlier, to Julius Booth, one of the most famous actors on the American stage. The son followed in the footsteps of his father. Still a teenager, he went onto the stage to play in Shakespeare’s Richard III. The brilliance of his career was confirmed to him during triumphal tours which took place throughout the country, with the luxuries that announce great success: women and fortune. This handsome young man undoubtedly had charisma and a gaze that melted the hearts of women.
Early in his life, a young gipsy read his palm: “You will break many a heart and you also have in your hand a host of enemies. Not a single friend. You will come to a bad end. However, after that you will come to be loved by a great many people. You will have a fast, short life, but a great life … I have never seen a worse hand … “. The War of Secession deeply affected Booth. He became sympathetic to the cause of the south and was even arrested for making anti-government statements in public. He had to promise his mother never to join the southern army. It was said that he sent medical supplies to the Southerners by quite illegal means, yet this was never proven. These minor transgressions did not compromise his career: two months earlier he had once again forced his way onto the stage in Washington in the role of the Duke of Pescara in Apostate.
At nine o’clock, Booth, ready to go, left the hotel, dressed in a dark suit and a silk top hat. He donned a pair of pale gloves, threw a light coat over his arm as a precaution and supported himself on an elegant cane. He then visited his fiancée, Lucy Hale. He certainly collected mistresses, and yet decided to marry this senator’s daughter, and perhaps even to abandon his high flying life for her. He loved her.
A few hours later, at the White House, President Lincoln received the father of the very same Lucy, Senator John Hale, who had just been appointed US ambassador to Spain. At eleven o’clock, Lincoln entered the meeting room and declared the Council of Ministers open. The issue discussed during the long session which ensued was the situation in the South. The president expressed his desire to help these states, which had been enemies of the North for years, to recover as quickly as possible; economically, socially, and in terms of human loss, because he knew this to be the true price of victory. Despite the objections of some of his ministers, a consensus was eventually secured. The victorious North would assist the vanquished South.
At the same time, the handsome actor John Wilkes Booth was arriving at the Ford Theatre to collect the mail that he had had sent there. He met with the owner, Henry Clay Ford, whom he knew well. The latter informed him that this very evening the President and Mrs Lincoln would attend the dramatization of Our American cousin. From the theatre, Booth went to the stables on 224 C Street. He hired a roan mare and informed the stable master that he would return to pick it up at four o’clock. At exactly four o’clock Booth arrived at the Pumphrey stables and took delivery of the mare.
A short time later, at about five o’clock, the President and Mary Lincoln came out of the White House by car for their usual walk. During this moment of relaxation, Abraham Lincoln announced to his wife that when his second term was over, he would like to visit Europe, and perhaps push on to the Middle East to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
As for Booth, he was once more at the Ford Theatre where he invited several of the members of staff to have a drink at the nearby Star Saloon owned by Peter Taltavull.
At 7 pm, President Lincoln received the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Colfax, and announced that he had decided not to convene an extraordinary session to discuss the reconstruction of the South, but that he would instead act by decree.
At the same time, Booth was getting changed in his hotel room. He wore a black, freshly ironed, suit and mid-height boots with new spurs. He then grabbed a black hat, put away his diary, and took a compass, a small pistol – a single shot 44 mm– and slipped into his belt a long hunting knife.
Shortly after eight o’clock, Abraham Lincoln finished his work. He was late. Wearing a black frock coat and white gloves, the President and Madame, who wore a black and white evening dress, went out through the main porch and got into their car.
Soon, night began to fall, cool and foggy. On the way, they made a detour to pick up two friends, before arriving at the theatre. It was now half past eight, and the play had already begun. The attendant received the President and led him with his entourage to the official box. At the entrance, the actors stopped and the orchestra began to play Hail to the chief! The spectators stood up to applaud. The President sat at the back of the box and the actors resumed their roles. During the intermission, Lincoln, his wife and friends stayed in the box but the bodyguard, John Parker, took the opportunity to have a drink at Taltavul’s Star Saloon.
Booth went into a nearby bar. An old regular of the theatre recognised him and insolently declared “You will never be the actor that your father was …”
“When I leave the stage, I shall be the most famous man in all of America!” retorted the young actor. At ten o’clock the second act of “Our American Cousin” began. Mary Lincoln moved her armchair closer to her husband’s and took his hand in hers. Although they had been married for almost thirty years, they still loved each other as much as they ever had.
At ten minutes past seven, Booth entered the theatre. He climbed the stairs to the circle on the first floor and saw before his eyes the white door he was looking for: Charles Ford, the footman of the President, was standing guard. The actor handed him a card, and the valet let him through. Cautiously, Booth opened the door and entered the small sitting-room immersed in the darkness behind the box. He closed the door behind him. Yet more silently, he opened the next door connecting the small sitting-room with the presidential box. It was ten fifteen. Booth, who knows the room by heart, knows also that it is at this precise moment the actor Harry Hawk is giving the reply:
” I am aware that you are not used to the manners of good society
– Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal! ”
The audience burst out laughing, as Booth had anticipated. He withdrew his revolver from out of his pocket, placed it behind Lincoln’s left ear and pulled the trigger. Due to the great laughter of the audience, no one heard the shot. As he fired he cried “Sic semper tyrannis!” .