John Wilkes Booth's Three Plots Against Lincoln

Library of Congress
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On this day 152 years ago, John Wilkes Booth entered Abraham Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre, raised his Derringer, and shot the president in the back of the head.

It was actually Booth’s third plot against Lincoln. In August 1864, Booth recruited two longtime friends, Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen, to help him kidnap the president. The abduction, he reasoned, would force the Union to free certain Confederate prisoners. 

Their first plan, according to Lincoln author David Donald, was to attack Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theatre on January 18, then tie him up and lower him down from the balcony to make a quick getaway. They didn’t get a chance to test this asinine plan because Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute, opting to stay at home instead of going to the theater on a stormy night.

By Lincoln’s second inauguration in March, Booth was able to get increasingly closer to his target. In fact, he and his would-be accomplices were able to attend the inauguration as personal guests of Senator John Parker Hale’s daughter, Lucy—who also happened to be Booth’s girlfriend. During the day’s events, Booth got close enough to lunge at Lincoln and had to be restrained by police. Though he explained that he had simply stumbled, Booth later mused, “What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day!”

In mid-March, Booth met with six men to discuss the second kidnap attempt, which was to occur while the president would be attending a performance of the play Still Waters Run Deep at a hospital. Again, the men were thwarted when Lincoln decided to stay in town. Though Booth had apparently been considering assassination as an alternative to kidnapping for some time, Lincoln’s April 11 speech pushed him over the edge. After the president voiced his intention to allow educated African Americans and all black veterans to vote, Booth declared that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever give. Sadly, he was right. After two failed kidnapping attempts, the third time was a charm for John Wilkes Booth.