On the night of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth crept into the presidential box at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. with one intention: to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Shooting him in the back of the head at point-blank range, the famous actor succeeded, inflicting a mortal wound that would take Lincoln's life the following morning. The first murder of an American president in the nation's history, it came just one week after Confederate general Robert E. Lee's surrender ended America's convulsive four-year civil war.
Booth, a fanatically pro-Confederate sympathizer, had been stalking Lincoln for the good part of a year. Six weeks earlier, he had stood less 100 feet away from the president at his second inauguration. On April 11, Booth attended a Lincoln speech, reacting angrily to the president's suggestion that he might pursue voting rights for Black Americans.
Three nights later, he acted on that anger at Ford's Theatre.
Given the momentousness of the crime, it's no wonder that artifacts from that fateful night, and the immediate aftermath, have been preserved in museums large and small. The relics, which range from solemn to macabre, lend an enduring immediacy to one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history.
1. The murder weapon
For a gun that had such a huge impact on American history, the weapon fired by John Wilkes Booth is surprisingly diminutive. Fashioned from brass, the derringer pistol weighs barely 8 ounces. The gun, which discharged a single .44-caliber lead ball, was easily concealed by Booth but accurate only at close range. Since he had only a single shot as ammunition, Booth had only one chance to kill the president. The pistol is on standing display in Washington, D.C., at Ford’s Theatre.
2. The deadly shot
The lead ball that entered below Lincoln’s left ear and lodged behind his right eye was recovered by Dr. Edward Curtis during an autopsy performed in a White House guest room. As the surgeon removed the president’s brain from his skull, the lead ball clattered into an empty white china basin. Curtis described it as “a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.” The bullet is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, along with fragments of Lincoln’s skull and Curtis’s sleeve cuffs stained with the president’s blood.
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3. Lincoln’s rocking chair
After the president arrived at Ford’s Theatre and acknowledged the audience, he rested his gangly frame in a high-backed, walnut rocking chair upholstered in a plush red fabric. An unsuspecting Lincoln sat in this chair as Booth quietly approached from behind and fired his shot into the back of the president’s head. After the murder, authorities removed the chair from the theater as evidence. The widow of theater co-owner Harry Ford reclaimed the chair from the Smithsonian Institution in 1929, and automotive tycoon Henry Ford—no relation—bought it at auction. He purchased the piece for his new museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where he housed it in a transplanted Illinois courthouse building in which Lincoln practiced law in the 1840s.
4. Lincoln’s deathbed
After the shooting at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln was carried across the street and placed on a bed in the back room of William Petersen’s boardinghouse. The lanky president couldn’t fit on the bed, so he had to be laid diagonally across it. Lincoln died in the bed at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. The president’s deathbed is part of the collection of the Chicago History Museum.
5. A piece of the assassin
Among the quirky curiosities in the eclectic collection of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum are President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor, Albert Einstein’s brain and a specimen from Booth’s body. The fragment, floating in a glass jar, was taken from Booth’s corpse during an autopsy conducted on the assassin aboard the ironclad USS Montauk docked at the Washington Navy Yard. A label on the jar says the specimen is from Booth’s thorax, although there is speculation it could be a piece of his vertebra.
6. Booth’s calling card
Hours before the assassination, Booth visited the Kirkwood House hotel where Vice President Andrew Johnson resided and scribbled on a calling card: “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” Historians have long debated as to why Booth mysteriously left the note for the vice president, who was also targeted for assassination that night by a co-conspirator of Booth’s who ultimately lost his nerve. The card is in the collection of the U.S. National Archives.
7. Lincoln’s carriage
The Lincolns and their guests, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, arrived at Ford’s Theatre in an open carriage that was believed to have been gifted to the president in late 1864. Robert Todd Lincoln inherited the vehicle after his father’s death and later sold it to a New York doctor who used it to make house calls. Wagon and carriage manufacturer Clement Studebaker purchased it in 1889. The vehicle is part of the presidential carriage collection of the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.
8. Lincoln’s catafalque
To prepare for Lincoln’s body to lie in state beneath the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, workers hastily constructed a catafalque of rough pine boards on which to support the casket. Since 1865 the same platform, covered in black cloth, has been used for all those who have lain in the state in the Capitol Rotunda, including the three other slain American presidents—James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. The catafalque, which has also been used in the Supreme Court building to honor deceased justices, resides in a specially constructed display in the Capitol Visitor Center.