John Wilkes Booth (May 10, 1838–April 26, 1865) was an American actor who is most famous for being the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. A professional and extremely popular stage actor of his day, Booth was a Confederate sympathizer who was dissatisfied by the outcome of the American Civil War.
John Wilkes Booth was born on a farm near Bel Air, Maryland. His parents, Junius Booth and Mary Ann Holmes, were British and had moved to the United States in 1821. Junius was one of the most famous actors on the American stage; after he died in 1852 the poet Walt Whitman wrote, "There went the greatest and by far the most noble Roman of them all."
J. Wilkes Booth (as he was known professionally) made his stage debut at the age of 17 (in August 1855) when he played the Earl of Richmond in Shakespeare's Richard III. In 1858 he became a member of the Richmond Theatre, and his career started to take off. He was referred to in reviews as "the handsomest man in America." He stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, had jet black hair, and was lean and athletic.
In 1859 Booth was present at the execution of John Brown, the abolitionist who had tried to start a slave uprising at Harpers Ferry. He was excited that justice was done, he later wrote in his diary. Booth had joined a militia (the Richmond Greys) just to attend the event and stood near the scaffold with other armed men to guard against any rescue attempt.
In early 1862 Booth was arrested and taken before a provost marshal in St. Louis for making anti-government remarks.
On November 9, 1863, President Lincoln saw Booth playing Raphael in Charles Selby's The Marble Heart at Ford's Theater (Lincoln sat in exactly the same box in which he was later assassinated). Other than that run Booth made only one other acting appearance at Ford's Theater. That occurred on March 18, 1865, when he played Duke Pescara in The Apostate in what was the last appearance of his career.
Booth actually attended Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865 as the invited guest of his secret fiancée Lucy Hale (Lucy's father John Hale was Lincoln's minister to Spain).
Booth headed a loosely-knit band of southern sympathizers in Washington, including from time to time, David Herold, the giant Lewis Paine, George Atzerodt, Edman "Ned" Spangler, Michael O'Laughlin, and John Surratt. The group's plan to kidnap Lincoln, spirit him to Richmond, and exchange him for enough Confederate prisoners to win the war came to naught.
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, shortly after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln was attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.. Booth managed to sneak into Lincoln's booth and shoot him in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer pistol.
Booth then leapt to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and fled to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated the broken leg. Mudd was later sentenced to life at Dry Tortugas Prison, but released early for his efforts in stemming a yellow fever epidemic. Ironically, one of the other plotters and fellow prisoners, whom he took into his care when he returned home, survived him.
Booth was pursued by Union soldiers, and was killed by the eccentric, gelded Sergeant Boston Corbett against orders while trying to elude capture. However, some think that it wasn't Booth killed in the tobacco barn at Garrett's farm, but a lookalike double agent named James William Boyd, and the government went to great pains to cover up the blunder. The Lincoln Conspiracy (ISBN 1568495315) details the assassination, the Boyd plot, and Booth's escape to the swamps.