On the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln indulged in a rare night out to attend the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Timing his entry with that of one of the play’s biggest laugh lines (“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”), actor John Wilkes Booth entered the President’s box and shot him in the back of the head. Major Henry Rathbone, who had accompanied the Lincolns to the play, attempted to subdue Booth and was badly wounded in the process. After stabbing Rathbone, Booth leaped from the box onto the stage and shouted Virginia’s state motto: “Sic simper tyrannis” – “thus always to tyrants.” Despite breaking his leg in his dramatic leap, Booth managed to escape the theater and fled the scene on his horse. Within two weeks, Booth was discovered and shot by Union soldiers.
Though Confederate supporter Booth had a long-simmering hatred of the President, he was spurred into action by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant and then President Lincoln’s speech shortly thereafter in which the President suggested that he supported voting rights for slaves. Booth had formerly been involved in a plot to kidnap the President and called upon his co-conspirators Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David E. Herold to assist him in a plot to the kill the President and other significant Union leaders. Each of these men, along with Mary Surratt, a boardinghouse owner accused of aiding with the group, were later found guilty of conspiring to assassinate the president and were hanged on July 7, 1865, in D.C.
PBS’s American Experience documents the Lincoln assassination, including the plot and conspiracy leading up to the event. Their full, detailed presentation of the affair offers a more complex tale than many history books, which often imply that Booth was a failed actor who operated alone. As one of the historians in the documentary states, many people hated the president and some of them even wanted him dead, Booth was just the one who took it too far – and acted.
If you are looking for a more concise recounting of the assassination, you can check out this five-minute video, although the clip mainly focuses on Booth and only briefly skirts over the co-conspirators.