clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was shot. Historians still argue over what happened next.

An illustration depicting Booth jumping to the stage.
An illustration depicting Booth jumping to the stage.
Ed Vebell/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Thanks to movies and TV, we all think we have a clear picture of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: John Wilkes Booth shot the president 150 years ago, on April 14, 1865, around 10 pm. He did it during the Ford's Theatre showing of Our American Cousin, and then jumped from Lincoln's box onto the stage after shouting, "Sic semper tyrannis."

But that picture of Lincoln's assassination is just that: a picture, and not necessarily the truth. Even when we consult the records of the many people who saw it happen, it's hard to know exactly what really occurred at Ford's Theatre that night.

Scholars have been debating it for decades, and there's no resolution in sight.

Historians agree that Booth shot Lincoln and got to the stage...

An illustration depicts Booth jumping to the stage.

An illustration depicts Booth jumping to the stage. (Kean Collection/Staff)

Around 10 that night, a well-known laugh line was uttered by an actor in the play: "You sockdologizing old man-trap!" Booth, who had snuck into Lincoln's box and hid, waiting to strike, used the pause in action to shoot Lincoln. He then slashed Henry Rathbone, who was also in the Lincoln's box, with a knife.

We know that Booth then dropped his gun and somehow moved from the box to the stage. In the ensuing confusion, he fled out the back to an exit, where a horse was waiting for him.

Booth had to jump from Lincoln's box because he'd barricaded all the other exits. We know that because after Booth fled, it took help a long time for help to reach the presidential box. Only after a struggle did rescuers successfully remove a wooden bar blocking the door from the inside.

That much we know, but the rest of the story is much more difficult to confirm. As Michael W. Kaufman estimates in American Brutus, there were probably around 1,000 people in the theater that night, so there were many eyewitness reports of the assassination. But many of those accounts differ.

No one can agree on exactly how Booth got away

Booth fleeing the stage. (MPI/Stringer)

Booth fleeing the stage. (MPI/Stringer/Getty Images)

Booth claims he jumped off the balcony after shooting Lincoln. But the jump from Lincoln's box to the stage was probably about 12 feet — the height of a basketball hoop, including the backboard. And it's not clear exactly how Booth did it.

Here, historians differ: in Decapitating the Union, John Fazio argues that a jump would have been too treacherous, and he believes Booth didn't leap but rather lowered himself down from Lincoln's box on a flagstaff. Author Michael Kaufman actually replicated the jump himself, as he describes on his website, using a 12-foot ladder next to the box. (He wasn't injured.)

For his part, Booth claimed he broke his leg in the jump. His diary entry reads, "I shouted Sic Semper before I fired. In jumping I broke my leg." Fazio likewise argues that Booth fractured his fibula during the fall.

But others dispute even that. In John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, W. C. Jameson cites compelling evidence that Booth was actually fine. More than a dozen people saw Booth running toward the side of the stage, and few of them described him limping in pain. One witness said Booth "ran with lightning speed across the stage" (though some other witnesses said they saw him proceed "in anguish"). Those who argue Booth didn't injure his leg at Ford's Theatre believe he later fell off a horse or twisted his leg in a stirrup. At least one doctor swore in court that Booth said his horse fell on him. We may never know which account was true.

We also don't know what Booth shouted

It's even unclear when, or if, Booth actually shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants"). As Jameson notes, not a single witness heard Booth utter the words before shooting Lincoln (though, conceivably, they might not have been listening for it). Other reports say he shouted it after reaching the stage. Still others say Rathbone heard Booth shout "Freedom," but not "Sic semper tyrannis." This, too, may always be a mystery.

And we don't know how Booth escaped a room full of witnesses

An illustration of Booth fleeing the theatre. (MPI/Getty Images)

An illustration of Booth fleeing the theater. (MPI/Getty Images)

When you list the circumstances, Booth's escape sounds incredibly improbable. He managed to escape a theater full of hundreds of witnesses, many of them soldiers, after killing the president in clear view. Yet somehow, it happened.

The best theory is that Booth benefited from the audience's shock. Some people thought he was desperate for attention, or that his feat was part of the play. Because his escape was so rapid, he was out the door before the large audience even understood Lincoln had been shot. (Booth also had a reputation as an athletic and gymnastics-inclined performer —for a routine scene in Macbeth, he decided to jump off a high mound of rocks.)

Some people did realize what Booth had done, but they didn't react quickly enough. Major Joseph B. Stewart leapt from his seat to the stage, but he was too late. He grabbed for the reins on Booth's horse, but missed, and Booth fled.

All we do know is that the assassination changed the course of history

As a result, we're left to theorize exactly what America would have been like had Lincoln continued his presidency. Though some viewed him as likely to be soft on the Confederacy, we don't know how he would have treated the South. (Instead, we do know that Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, was possibly even more lenient.) We also can only guess how Reconstruction would have been fully implemented when Lincoln saw the obstacles for himself. And, finally, we have no idea what Lincoln's legacy would have been if it included the difficult task of rebuilding the United States.

Like the assassination itself, everything is a theory at best. The picture of Lincoln's assassination is crystal clear; the actual facts, however, will always be murky.

Further reading: The 6 most surprising reactions to Abraham Lincoln's death

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.