On the morning of April 14, 1865 (Good Friday), actor John Wilkes Booth learned President Abraham Lincoln would attend a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin that night at Ford’s Theatre—a theatre Booth frequently performed at. He realized his moment had arrived.
By 10:15 that evening, the comedy was well into its last act. In the Presidential Box, President and Mrs. Lincoln and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, laughed at the show along with the audience—not knowing that Booth was just outside the door.
- How could such a thing have taken place—and in Washington, the fortified capital of the nation? How did Booth gain such access to the theatre?
- Why didn’t Lincoln’s security people stop him?
- Was it a lone act or part of a larger conspiracy?
- And, when all was said and done, what was the outcome—for those involved in the crime, for their victims, for the nation and even for Ford’s Theatre?
Conduct your own investigation below! As you look at the evidence, consider:
- How does this evidence match—or not—with other evidence? Who gave the testimony?
- What might the person’s motives be for saying what they did?
- When did this person give the testimony? Was it soon after the event? Much later? How might that affect what they said?
John Wilkes Booth, a popular 26-year-old actor who was also a Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist, had been plotting for months to abduct Lincoln and give the Confederacy another chance. But three days earlier, hearing the president talk of his plans to bring the nation together—in particular, Lincoln’s plans to grant some African-American men the right to vote—Booth’s plans turned murderous.
Activity for Students
An activity for students—based on the content of this webpage—to complete on their own without requiring the assistance of a teacher or adult.
The Events of April 14th
Lincoln Carried Across the Street
Explore the Evidence
A Night at the Theatre
The night of April 14th, 1865, attendees of Ford’s Theatre expected to see a regular performance of Our American Cousin. Little did they know that what they would see that night would change the course of American history.
After John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, he dropped his deringer pistol. What should happen to the weapon has been a question ever since.
Coffin Tools & Frame
S.S. Elder, a welder in Springfield, Illinois, was given the duty of sealing President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin before his burial on May 4, 1865.
High-resolution images of the clothing President Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated.
Material Evidence: Dr. Mudd
Dr. Samuel Mudd claimed not to recognize the two men who appeared at his home the morning of April 15, 1865.
Material Evidence: John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth’s escape from Washington lasted 12 days. See what he had with him during his journey.
Material Evidence: Powell & Atzerodt
George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell were assigned with the assassinations of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, respectively.
Lincoln’s Life Masks
These two extraordinary life masks—made but five years apart—record with painful precision the grueling physical toll the Civil War exacted on Abraham Lincoln.
A pillow from Willie Clark’s bed at the Petersen House is now a priceless relic. On it, you can see the blood of President Abraham Lincoln.
Sanitary Commission Quilt
When it was auctioned off at the Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia in 1864, this patriotic quilt may have raised a few hundred dollars. Today the signatures it bears makes it a priceless Who’s Who of Civil War history.
For seven weeks in May and June 1865, the nation’s attention was fixed on the third floor of Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary. There, seven men and one woman were on trial for their lives.
Treasury Guard Flag
When John Wilkes Booth leaped from the Ford’s Theatre Presidential Box after he shot President Abraham Lincoln, the spur of his boot caught on a U.S. Treasury Guards flag adorning the box
History of Ford’s Theatre
Explore how the building went from theatre to office building to museum to working theatre again.
What should happen to a site where a violent event like Lincoln’s assassination takes place? Since 1865, people have answered that question many different ways.
Are you looking to teach the Lincoln assassination?
Investigating the Assassination
How did investigators learn what happened and why?
Before John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, he had been plotting some kind of drastic action for months.
Protect Our History
Give to Ford's Theatre and help us share the stories that shaped a nation.