« PreviousContinue »
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do t He said, and so went shriven to his fateUnknowing went, that generous heart and true.
Even while he spoke the slayer lay in wait, And when the morning opened Heaven's gate There passed the whitest soul a nation knew.
Henceforth all thoughts of pardon are too late;
Have murdered MERCY. Now alone shall stand
What words they murmur-Fetter not HER HAND!
Edmund C. Stedman.
THE ASSASSINATION AND LAST MOMENTS OF THE PRESIDENT.
Friday, the fourteenth day of April, will ever stand a memorable day in the American annals. Without reflecting on its being a day set apart in many Christian denominations to commemorate in prayer and recollection the death of the Saviour, it had been at first announced as a day for public rejoicing, for it was the anniversary of the evacuation of Fort Sumter by Major Anderson, that opening scene of the terrible civil war, which now seemed closed. Grant's generalship had driven Lee from Richmond and forced him to surrender, while Sherman, who had succeeded to his Western army, had driven Johnson back, scattered his army when under Hood, and swept around through Georgia and South Carolina into North Carolina, near enough to visit Grant. The war was over, and General Anderson on this eventful day, amid the thunder of cannon and the thundering cheers of loyal hearts, had again raised his flag over the ruins of Sumter.
President Lincoln was already planning ways of peace. The pseudo Confederacy, as an organization, was gone. Its last great army was at bay. The reduction of the national army, the diminution of the heavy expenditures, the restoration of the Southern States, the healing up of the wounds of the terrible strife, such were the thoughts and cares of the great and good man when he was suddenly cut down by the hand of a cowardly assassin, who struck from behind, for it has been well said, that no one could have looked Abraham Lincoln in the face and done the deed.
For success in the accomplishment of the deadly purpose, for the ease with which the crime was perpetrated and the
murderer's escape effected, the act is almost without a parallel. In the presence of hundreds, the chief of a great nation was murdered in an instant, and for a long time no trace of the recognized assassin could be found, although he must have galloped in the dead hour of night past officers and sentries apparently unquestioned and unchecked.
A plot, the whole extent and ramifications of which are not yet made known, had long been formed to assassinate the President and the prominent members of the Cabinet. Originating apparently in the Confederate government, this act, with others, such as the attempt to fire New York, the St. Alban's raid, the seizure of vessels on the lakes and at sea, was confided to an association of army officers, who when sent on these errands were said to be on detached service. There is direct proof of Booth's actual consultation with officers known to belong to this organization, during Lee's retreat from Gettysburg. The assassination of the President was a thing so commonly talked of in the South that it excited at last no surprise, and one of the Southern papers actually offered a reward for the assassination of the President, Vice-President, and Secretary of State.
The documents already come to light show that a previous attempt to take the life of Mr. Lincoln, by poison, was made, but failed. Then parties were sent and employed to do the work surely. To John Wilkes Booth, lured apparently by a high reward, the great act was committed.
The threats of assassination had at first induced care on the
part of the authorities. At the time of the first inauguration steps were taken to prevent the consummation of any such nefarious design. Gradually, however, these threats were treated lightly, and less precautions were taken. Warning had been conveyed to Mr. Seward on the day that an accident laid him a sufferer on his bed of pain, but without inducing any unusual caution or watchfulness.
The visit of the President to Richmond, where he walked unattended, had seemed to some too rash, and friends remonstrated against his thus imperilling a life on which all America had a claim. On the very day of his death he wrote to General Van Alen: "I intend to adopt the advice of my friends and use due precaution."
But the time and place of the terrible crime were at last decided upon by the band of hired assassins. One of the chief theatres of Washington was directed by John T. Ford, who had placed the State Box, as it was called, at the disposal of President Lincoln. Mr. Ford seems to have been no party to the plot, although from his former association with the riotous class of Baltimore suspicion may have been at first excited.
The 14th was to be the benefit of Miss Laura Keene, and the President with General Grant and other prominent men had been invited and were expected to be present. Whether this invitation was part of the plot or merely furnished the opportunity remains to be seen. Be that as it may, the theatre was prepared for the fearful deed.
The private box adjoined the dress circle, and had two doors, as it was at times by a partition converted into two boxes: these doors opened into a dark passage, closed by a door at the end of the dress circle. During the day, or previously, John Wilkes Booth, or his accomplice, Spangler, the stage car penter, had bored gimlet holes in the box doors, enlarged by a pen-knife on the inside sufficiently to enable him to survey the position of the parties within at the moment of action. The hasps of the locks, which were on the inside of the box doors had been weakened by partly withdrawing the screws, so that a man could easily press them open, if locked.
These were not the only preparations. The very arrangement of the chairs and sofa in the box was evidently part of the plan, and the work of Booth or a confederate among those employed in the theatre. It gave an unobstructed passage from the door to the President, throwing the others at a considerable distance from him, and in positions not to observe an entrance. Mr. Lincoln's chair was placed in the front corner of the box, furthest from the stage; that of Mrs. Lincoln was more remote from the front, and just by the column in the centre. The other chair and a sofa were placed at the side nearest the stage, leaving the centre of the box clear for the assassin's operations, and enabling him to enter unseen. They had also provided a board to prevent the passage door from being opened from the outside in case any attempt was to follow him, and they had made a secret niche in the opposite wall to receive the end of the board not braced against the
door. For the criminal act Booth selected a small silver mounted Derringer pistol and a bowie knife. He had long shown a nicked bullet with which he declared that he intended to kill the President, and during a recent visit to Boston spent much of his time at the pistol gallery of Floyd and Edwards, on Chapman Place, practising firing behind his neck, between his legs, and in many strange and awkward positions. For his escape he had no less carefully provided. He took a stable in the alley in the rear of the theatre, and on the afternoon of Friday hired of James Pumphrey a fine bay mare, and taking it to the stable employed Spangler, the stage carpenter, to watch it. It was saddled and ready to mount, as he had ordered the bridle not to be taken off; he put his horse in charge of Spangler, who promised to give him all aiċ in his power, and who prepared the scenes so that he could readily reach the back door. Of this door Spangler took charge, relieving the boy who was sent to hold Booth's horse during the performance.
An illegitimate son of the celebrated English actor Booth, John Wilkes had inherited a small share of his father's talent and more than his madness. His wild and dissipated life, his unsteadiness and low associations, had lost him the countenance of most of his friends, but no importance was attached to his boasts and threats. In Washington, however, from his dress and manners he was received into social circles from which his life should have excluded him for ever. He was, therefore, a man as little likely to excite suspicion as anyone that could have been selected.
The assassin spent most of Friday in a very excited manner, drinking frequently at the bar of a saloon next-door to the theatre. During the afternoon, he called at the Kirkwood House, where Vice-President Johnson resided, and sent up a card, with these words:
"I don't wish to disturb you, but would be glad to have an interview.
"J. WILKES BOOTH."
Mr. Johnson was fortunately not within, and to this, probably, owes his life. It seems strange that Booth should have