At 2 am this morning, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln succumbed to the gunshot wound inflicted on him by the actor John Wilkes Booth during a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. The American Civil War had ended just days earlier, and given Booth’s allegiance with the Confederacy as a staunch anti-abolitionist, Lincoln’s death was seen essentially as the last casualty of the war. According to legend, War Secretary Edwin Stanton marked the moment with the line, “Now he belongs to the ages,” which seems prescient given how Lincoln always finishes first or second in polls about what president is people’s favourite, or most influential.
Lincoln wasn’t the first U.S. President to die in office, but he was the first one assassinated, an act that was doubly shocking for the fact that it was so very public and for its startling timing. Lincoln wasn’t the last president to fell by an assassin’s bullet, but his leadership during the single biggest threat to American sovereignty in its history, and the fact that he “left the stage” before having to truly dig into the difficulties of reconstruction and reconciliation, made him all the more legendary. Who knows what a second Lincoln term in office might have looked like? I doubt the reinstatement of the Union would have been much easier with the man who presided over, what remains, America’s biggest blood bath still in the presidency, but still, what more could have a great thinker, and a great orator like Lincoln have given us? We’ll never know.
Here’s how the New York Times first covered the events on April 15, 1865 in the form of a press release issued by the War Department:
President Lincoln Shot by an Assassin
The Deed Done at Ford’s Theatre Last Night
THE ACT OF A DESPERATE REBEL
The President Still Alive at Last Accounts.
No Hopes Entertained of His Recovery.
Attempted Assassination of Secretary Seward.
DETAILS OF THE DREADFUL TRAGEDY.
War Department, Washington April 15, 1:30 A.M. – Maj. Gen. Dis.: This evening at about 9:30 P.M. at Ford’s Theatre, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Mr. Harris, and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin, who suddenly entered the box and appeared behind the President.
The assassin then leaped upon the stage, brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theatre.
The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.
About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. Sewards’ apartments, and under the pretence of having a prescription, was shown to the Secretary’s sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed, and inflicted two or three stabs on the throat and two on the face. It is hoped the wounds may not be mortal. My apprehension is that they will prove fatal.
The nurse alarmed Mr. Frederick Seward, who was in an adjoining room, and hastened to the door of his father’s room, when he met the assassin, who inflicted upon him one or more dangerous wounds. The recovery of Frederick Seward is doubtful.
It is not probable that the President will live throughout the night.
Gen. Grant and wife were advertised to be at the theatre this evening, but he started to Burlington at 6 o’clock this evening.
At a Cabinet meeting at which Gen. Grant was present, the subject of the state of the country and the prospect of a speedy peace was discussed. The President was very cheerful and hopeful, and spoke very kindly of Gen. Lee and others of the Confederacy, and of the establishment of government in Virginia.
All the members of the Cabinet except Mr. Seward are now in attendance upon the President.
I have seen Mr. Seward, but he and Frederick were both unconscious.
Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.