Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Case of John Wilkes Booth

Everyone knows who John Wilkes Booth was, or if they don't they should. He was the guy who shot President Lincoln in the back of the head at Ford's Theatre, jumped onto the stage after doing so, yelled, "Sic semper tyrannis" (Latin for "Thus always to tyrants"), and supposedly followed it up by exclaiming, "I have done it! The South is avenged!" He then high-tailed it to Virginia, dragging along an accomplice by the name of David Herold. It took the Union cavalry eleven days to track him down in a tobacco barn, but when they finally did, they set fire to it, and one soldier named Sergeant Boston Corbett shot the assassin, even though he had been ordered to bring Booth in alive.

Very strange things happened in accordance with this event. On November 9, 1863, President Lincoln attended a play in Washington D.C. entitled The Marble Heart. Among the cast was none other than John Wilkes Booth. The actor, who had plotted to kidnap Lincoln prior to the war's end, was photographed in the crowd that attended Lincoln's second inauguration.

After the assassination took place, it seems a curse was placed on many of the people who were involved. Dr. Mudd, who tended the actor's broken leg, was incarcerated for four years before being freed, due to his lifesaving efforts during the prison's yellow fever epidemic. He died at the age of 49, and is buried in the cemetery of the church where he first met John Wilkes Booth. Mary Todd Lincoln went bonkers, and eventually ended up living in a single room with a money belt around her waist, where she packed and unpacked her 64 crates of clothing until her death. Judge Holt, who sentenced the conspirators to hang, became a recluse as well, no doubt because he couldn't deal with the guilt of sentencing Mary Surratt, who many thought was innocent. Major Rathbone and his fiance, Clara, who were in the presidential box with Lincoln the night he was shot, got married, but sadly, on Christmas Day 1883, he shot her to death. Sergeant Corbett lost his marbles, also. He pulled a gun on two boys in Kansas, and was committed to the Topeka insane asylum. But in 1888, he escaped, and was never heard from again. And the Lincoln's oldest son, Robert, believed whole-heartedly that he was cursed. In 1881, while he was with President James Garfield, an assassin attacked and killed the president. Then in 1901, the same thing happened, only this time it was President William McKinley.

But what about John Wilkes Booth? He was a very popular actor at the time, and some think he killed Lincoln for his own notoriety. His brother, Edwin, who was a famous actor, too, received permission from Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Lincoln, to bury his brother in an unmarked grave in the family plot in Baltimore. Prior to that, the killer's body had been buried under the floor of the Old Penitentiary's dining room. But for years, speculation circulated about John Wilkes Booth actual death. Some swore the body was that of another man because the wrong leg was broken, the scars didn't match up, etc. A conspiracy theory arose, and some believed that the man who had been buried was a prop: that the real John Wilkes Booth had escaped. Years after the assassination, people reported seeing him out West, in Europe, and in Japan. In 1994, the court ruled against exhuming the body to determine if it really was John Wilkes Booth who was buried there.

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