Walking into the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. is like taking a visceral journey into the past. Not only does it perfectly capture the nostalgia of the 19th century—when the United States was in the midst of grave political dissension—but it remains the backdrop of one of the most infamous moments in American history, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. First built in 1833 as a house of worship, the building was purchased by John T. Ford in 1861 and turned into a theater. It was later destroyed by fire in 1862 and immediately rebuilt, eventually setting the stage for a spectacle so intense, it would shock the nation and close the final chapter on its innocence.
Lincoln’s assassination marked the end of an era, the beginning of a new chapter, and a moment in history when truth was indeed stranger than fiction. It would also reveal a new breed of killer, delusional and tenacious enough to take the course of history into his own trembling hands.
As the story of John Wilkes Booth and his nefarious plot to support the Confederate South unfolded, it became clear the events of that fateful night in the balcony seats of Ford’s Theatre would offer considerably more drama than anything being performed onstage. Playing out like a violent narrative from the wild west, the first assassination of an American president and the motivations of his killer still contains enough surprisingly harrowing details to captivate people’s minds today.
John Wilkes Booth was a Talented Actor and a Ladies’ Man
Forever known as the man who took down one of the nation’s greatest presidents, John Wilkes Booth was a startling anomaly who soon became a dark legend. Despite his role as an assassin, Booth was a surprisingly well-respected figure in the theater and a member of a prominent 19th-century family from Maryland. And he was no slouch either, often considered by those who knew him to be wildly charismatic, funny, and eloquent. Booth’s good looks also made him quite the ladies’ man.
On stage, he was known to be enigmatic, animated, and full of life, often stealing the spotlight from more major players. Critics called him “the handsomest man in America” and a “natural genius.” At 5 feet 8 inches tall, he was lean and athletic with curly black hair—a man with ambition, talent, and great promise. Even more, he was cultured, performing in plays like Hamlet, Lucrezia Borgia, and William Wallace. But in a moment of portentous truth, Booth claimed to love the role of ancient Brutus most—the assassin of an unjust tyrant—who felt his own dark ambitions could only be reached through violence.
Born in 1838 as the ninth of ten children, he was named after a distant relative who was a political agitator and a member of British Parliament. It was perhaps this familial connection to radicalism that gave rise to Booth’s disposition as a Confederate sympathizer and vehement hater of Lincoln and his anti-slavery views.
Either way, Booth strongly opposed abolition and was determined to see the Civil War err on the side of the south. While there were certainly plenty of other sympathizers who felt the same way as Booth, what made him different was how his seemingly normal life as a talented actor and playboy seamlessly gave way to a political passion so great, it would demand the ultimate price.