At the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had no illusions about the frequent threats to kill him.
On the afternoon of April 14, 1865 – five days after the South surrendered – he told one of his bodyguards, William Crook, “I have perfect confidence in those who are around me, in every one of your men … But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.”
That night, the 56-year-old Lincoln went to see a play at Ford’s Theatre under the watch of a new guard, a D.C. police officer named John Frederick Parker. Parker’s dereliction of duty helped change U.S. history.
Ironically, on this same day, Lincoln signed legislation to create the Secret Service – not to protect the president, but to combat counterfeiting. He was guarded round-the-clock by one member of a four-man security unit.
The 35-year-old Parker was an odd choice for this prestigious assignment. He had a record of unreliability, including drinking and frequenting a “house of ill repute” while on duty, according to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.
Confederate sympathizers were everywhere in the capital. One of them was the famous 26-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth, who that day went to Ford’s Theatre to pick up his mail. The news was that Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses Grant planned to attend that evening’s Good Friday performance of the popular comedy “Our American Cousin.”
Lincoln wasn’t keen about going that night but didn’t want to disappoint the public. Grant and his wife decided to visit their children in New Jersey. So Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, invited Clara Harris and her fiance, Maj. Henry Rathbone, to join them. Parker reported for duty three hours late and was sent ahead to Ford’s Theatre.
The presidential carriage got off to a late start. The play had begun when Lincoln and his party entered the theater well after 8 p.m. They went to a special presidential box above the right side of the stage. The actors stopped, and the crowd stood and cheered as the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief.”
Parker had been provided a chair outside the door to the box in a passageway. But he couldn’t see the play and soon moved into the audience. At intermission, he went to the Star Saloon next door. Whether he returned to the theater is still a mystery.
Booth was in and out of the theater. At a little past 9 p.m., he took a saddled horse to the stage door at the back of the theater and left it there with a stage hand. Then he went to the saloon, where, according to the Washington Star, he tapped impatiently on the bar while calling for “Brandy, brandy, brandy.”
Booth returned to the theater about 10 p.m. while the third act was underway. He made his way to the door to the passageway and went in. He wedged a piece of wood against the door so that it couldn’t be opened from the outside. He moved up the narrow passageway carrying a one-shot Derringer in one hand and a dagger in the other.
Parker’s chair was empty; there was no guard in front of the two doors to the presidential box. Lincoln was sitting in a cushioned rocking chair with his wife on his right. Booth waited for a line in the play that he knew would draw a loud laugh, helping to drown out the sound of a gunshot.
The lone actor on the stage said of a busybody Mrs. Mountchessington: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap!”
With that, at 10:14 p.m., Booth burst into the box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. The president slumped forward, the New York Times reported.
When Rathbone tried to grab the assassin, Booth slashed the major’s arm with his knife, drawing blood. Booth leaped on the front railing, “raised his right hand, flourishing a dagger in theatrical style” and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants), an eye witness wrote in the Washington Star.
As Booth jumped to the stage, one spur caught on a flag, and he landed awkwardly, injuring his right leg. He shouted “The South is revenged” as he ran for the stage door, bumping into the orchestra leader and cutting the musician’s clothing with his dagger. Men rushed forward yelling, “Hang him. Hang him.”
Many people in the audience at first thought the gunshot was part of the play. Then Mary Todd Lincoln screamed.
Poet Walt Whitman was in the audience and later wrote:
“A moment’s hush – a scream – the cry of murder – Mrs. Lincoln leaning out of the box, with ashy cheeks and lips, with involuntary cry, pointing to the retreating figure ‘He has killed the president.’ And still a moment’s strange incredulous suspense – and then the deluge! then that mixture of horror, noises, uncertainty (the sound somewhere back, of a horse’s clattering with speed) …
“And in the midst of all that pandemonium. . .the life blood from those veins the best and sweetest in the land, drops slowly down and death’s ooze already begins its little bubbles on the lips.”
A doctor quickly arrived, but Lincoln was barely alive. Amid Mrs. Lincoln’s “heart rending shrieks,” the president’s long, limp form was carried across the street to the Petersen House, where he died at 7:22 the next morning.
At about the same time Lincoln was shot, two associates of Booth forced their way into the nearby Lafayette Square home of Secretary of State William Seward, and one of them began stabbing him about the head. Seward was saved when his bodyguard stopped the attacker.
A third man was supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson in his room at the Kirkwood House hotel but lost his nerve. Booth had planned to use his knife to also kill Grant.
Booth was on the run. He had hoped the South would rise again. War Secretary Edwin Stanton announced a $100,000 reward (equal to $1.7 million today) for Booth’s capture. Federal soldiers tracked him to a tobacco barn in Fort Royal, Va., on April 26. They set the barn on fire and shot Booth dead when he resisted. In June, a military court convicted eight Booth accomplices, and four were hanged.
Strangely, the disappearing Parker drew scant attention. He was next seen at 6 the following morning at the police station when he tried to book a prostitute. In May, a police board charged him with neglect of duty, but the charges were dismissed without any public explanation.
Parker returned to duty at the White House while Mary Todd Lincoln was still there. The widow angrily accused him of “helping to murder the president,” according to a book by her African American dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley.
Parker claimed he had returned to his seat in the audience, Keckley wrote. He said, “I did not see the assassin enter the box … I did not believe that anyone would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless.”
If Parker had stayed at his post, “I believe President Lincoln might not have been murdered by Booth,” Lincoln’s other bodyguard Crook wrote in his memoir.
Parker never was penalized for having abandoned his post when the president was assassinated, but he was fired in 1868. His offense: sleeping while on duty.
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Ronald G. Shafer is a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of “The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”