Today, Ford's Theatre is quiet -- as are the famous stages on Broadway and elsewhere in the country. The place was buzzing on April 14, 1865, however. The featured play that evening was a three-act farce, "Our American Cousin," starring popular actress Laura Keene. Five years ago, when I wrote about the events of that fateful day, Ford's Theatre was hosting a sold-out performance of "Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration."
On the last full day of his life, Abraham Lincoln had breakfast with his family before attending a three-hour Cabinet meeting. The president's inner circle, joined by Ulysses Grant, discussed how to reincorporate the defeated Southern states into the Union. Just before the meeting began, Lincoln sent word to Ford's Theatre that he'd be attending that night's show. Grant and his wife, Julia, declined the president's invitation to come along, as they would be taking an afternoon train to New Jersey to visit their son.
Mary Todd Lincoln found another couple to join them: Army Maj. Henry R. Rathbone and his young fiancée, Clara Harris, the daughter of a New York senator. At 3 p.m., his workday over, the president took the first lady on a promised carriage ride. Their destination: the Washington Navy Yard. Once there, the commander-in-chief inspected a metal-hulled ship, the USS Montauk.
Mary Lincoln was struck by her husband's mood. You seem almost joyous, she told him. I am cheerful, he acknowledged, telling his wife that it felt to him for the first time that the Civil War was truly over. It had been three years since the death of their beloved little boy Willie and Lincoln told his wife that they must find a way to happy. They discussed their future: Lincoln wanted to travel to California and other places in the West he'd never seen. It was Good Friday, so his thoughts drifted to visiting the Holy Land. They talked about buying a farm back in Illinois with Lincoln, then only 56, resuming his law career.
Mary laughed, telling her husband that he was almost startling her with his happy outlook. "I have never felt better in my life," he responded.
* * *
The Lincoln party was a bit late to the theater on April 14, 1865 -- the play has already started -- but when the First Couple entered their box, the crowd stood and applauded. The actors on stage paused and the house orchestra broke into "Hail to the Chief."
As they took their seats, the Lincolns continued their playful behavior toward one another from earlier in the day. The president and first lady were on a date. A crowd of appreciative Americans were on it with them. When actor Harry Hawk, the male lead in the play, improvised one of his lines to acknowledge them -- "This reminds me of a story, as Mr. Lincoln used to say" -- the audience laughed appreciably and Mary nestled close to her husband.
"What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so," Mary Lincoln said coyly.
"She won't think anything about it," President Lincoln replied with a smile.
Waiting in Ford's Theatre, however, was another actor, even better known than Harry Hawk -- a man with hatred in his heart and a pistol in his pocket.
At the dawn of the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth was on his way to becoming perhaps the greatest stage actor this nation had yet produced. It was a title often bestowed on his father, Junius Brutus Booth. John's older brother, Edwin, had gone into acting too, and become a star who was both respected and well-liked. "Johnny" Booth, as he was known, was a different kind of cat. Handsome and flamboyant, he was passionate and sometimes prone to overacting. But he always gave theatergoers their money's worth, and he would be mobbed by well-wishers at the end of shows. Those who knew him couldn't always tell where his imagination began and reality left off.
The performing arts took an inevitable hit when the Civil War began; what drama could compare to the real-life tragedy writ large across the American landscape? Booth's passion for acting seemed to wane as well. As with other Americans, his attention was diverted.
Although he would not serve as a Confederate regular, Booth was in Richmond at the time of John Brown's 1859 raid and he answered the call for volunteers to prevent Brown's escape. He was then 21 years old. Abolition was an abhorrent cause to Booth -- a racist and white supremacist -- but he couldn't help but be mesmerized by the messianic raider willing to forfeit his life for his beliefs.
Where did such a misguided and grandiose personality come from? (I mean Booth's, not Brown's.) No one knows for certain, but there are two things to contemplate about his family. The first is that the phrase "brother against brother" -- often invoked to describe the Civil War -- literally applied in this case. Edwin had moved to New York and made his name in the theaters of the North. His younger brother had stayed in the South, mostly Virginia, which he considered the pinnacle of civilization.
Their father's strange middle name is also a clue, perhaps, and a disturbing foreshadowing.
"Brutus, of course, was the character who assassinated Caesar," notes historian Terry Alford, author of a Booth biography. "And if you look both in the play of Shakespeare and in the writings of the historians of ancient Rome, Brutus was a character as noble as Caesar, as well-regarded as Caesar, whose patriotism and decency were unquestioned."
Certainly, that is how John Wilkes Booth viewed himself. In his inflamed mind, the Caesar of his time -- the tyrant -- was Abraham Lincoln. "John Wilkes Booth felt he had to justify why he wasn't a soldier on the front lines," writes James L. Swanson, author of the definitive book of the Lincoln assassination. "Why didn't he volunteer? Why wasn't he fighting?" Answering his own questions, Swanson adds, "Booth thought his resources, his talent and skill could be put to better use."
He began accepting minor assignments for the Confederate Underground, a loose network of Southern spies living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But that was merely a sideshow. Booth had conjured up a desperate gambit. He'd kidnap Lincoln -- right out of Ford's Theatre, he told his confederates -- and spirit him down to Richmond. The North would ransom the president for thousands of Confederate prisoners, and these fighters would lift Southern spirits while bolstering their military ranks and sapping the Union Army's will to fight.
It was an absurd idea in a city crawling with tens of thousands of Union soldiers, and was derided by his fellow conspirators as madness. But by April 14, 1865, desperation was part of Booth's makeup. Madness, too, perhaps. That morning he went to Ford's Theatre to pick up his mail, which was held for him there. It was then that someone told him, "President Lincoln is coming tonight."
Booth left in a hurry, a witness later reported. He checked on his horse, made sure his gun was loaded, returned to carve a peep hole into the door of the president's box, and rounded up his band of misfits to give them their marching orders.
He vowed that he would kill Lincoln during the play that night. Booth instructed a co-conspirator named Lewis Powell that his role was to murder William Seward in his bed, where the secretary of state was recuperating from a serious carriage accident. Vice President Andrew Johnson was also targeted. The South would be avenged.
It was a last-minute, half-baked plot that surely should have failed, except that the president of the United States had, in essence, no security detail. The president's playful reassurances to his wife -- that the young couple beside them in the box wouldn't mind their public displays of affection -- were the last words Abraham Lincoln ever spoke.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.