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John Wilkes Booth: History & Facts

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses John Wilkes Booth, one of the most notorious assassins in United States history. Learn more about Booth's life and his plot to kill Abraham Lincoln before you test your knowledge with a quiz.

John Wilkes Booth
john wilkes booth

Booth the Actor

John Wilkes Booth was born into one of the most famous acting families in the United States on May 10, 1838. His father was Junius Brutus Booth, a British actor and stage manager. Junius had ten children and three of them became actors. John was a good actor but by all accounts, he was not as good as his father or his brother, Edwin. He had a difficult time accepting that Edwin was in greater demand and he had to be content with minor acting roles. John's fortunes changed in 1859 when he joined a stock company that performed the plays of William Shakespeare. The company toured the Deep South in 1860 and Booth received excellent reviews. It was also during this time that he became a strong supporter of the South's belief that slavery should not only remain legal, but should also expand to the West as new states entered the Union.

Booth the Confederate

In 1859, Booth joined the same Virginia militia that captured John Brown, an abolitionist who unsuccessfully tried to steal federal weapons in Harper's Ferry and lead an armed slave revolt. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860, many Southern states responded by seceding from the country. Eleven states from the South left the Union to form the Confederate States of America in 1861. Booth shared their hatred for Abraham Lincoln. Confederates viewed Lincoln as a threat to their way of life. Booth did not join the Confederate Army in its fight against the North in the Civil War, but he did smuggle medical supplies from the North to give to Confederate troops. As his hatred for Lincoln grew, Booth developed a plan to destroy the U.S. federal government.

The Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln

Booth's first plan did not involve killing Lincoln. He wanted to kidnap him and hold him for ransom in Richmond, Virginia. Booth intended to exchange Lincoln for Confederate prisoners of war. Booth did not create this plan alone. Several people conspired with him to try to kidnap the president from a hospital in Washington, D.C., in March 1865. Lincoln was scheduled to attend a play there, but when he changed his plans at the last minute, Booth's plan fell apart. However, he saw another chance to get to Lincoln when he learned that the president would be attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington on April 14th. Booth had just heard Lincoln give a speech about a Constitutional amendment giving African Americans voting rights. He thought that if he killed Lincoln first, he could prevent that from happening.

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