History says Presidential Assassin John Wilkes Booth broke his leg as he made the jump from the President’s Box to the stage, claiming Booth’s spur was caught on the red, white, and blue flag that draped the front of the area where the Lincoln party sat. In the 21st century, however, historiography must go toe-to-toe with forensic history.
Upon a closer examination of primary sources, including letters from both Booth and the doctor who treated him, there is now a greater possibility of creating doubt over when Booth actually broke his leg: was it as he landed on the stage at Ford’s Theatre, or later in the evening as he raced away from the scene of the crime?
President Lincoln, his wife Mary, and two guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, were late arriving at the theatre for the start of the play. The Lincoln party made its way to the Presidential Box, on the right-hand side of and elevated from the stage. Unbeknown to any of them, a man by the name of John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor was approaching the Presidential Box as well.
|In 1968, Ford's Theatre officially reopened as a national historic site and theatre producing live performances.|
John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838, near Bel Air, Maryland. Booth was the second youngest of ten children. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a famous actor and was eccentric, with a reputation for heavy drinking. John and his siblings were raised on a farm, which was worked by the family’s slaves. As a child, Booth attended the Milton Boarding School for Boys and later St. Timothy’s Hall. To those who knew him, it seemed only natural that he would follow in his father’s footsteps by being on stage.
As Booth neared the Presidential Box, Charles Forbes, a personal assistant to the President, stopped him. Booth calmly showed Forbes something, but what exactly is unknown.
He was allowed to pass, where he entered the Presidential Box as quietly as he could and wedged a piece of wood between the door and the wall. This would prevent anyone from entering.
Booth then crept up behind Abraham Lincoln and raised his pistol to the back of the President’s head. He shot at point-blank range, and then sprang toward the front of the box. But before Booth could make good his escape, Major Rathbone sprang from his seat and was able to get a momentary grasp on Booth. Booth began slashing at Rathbone with a large knife he had also carried into the Presidential Box. Major Rathbone received a bone-deep wound to his left arm and fell to the floor, bleeding copiously. Booth was then able to break free. He jumped over the railing of the Presidential Box and landed on the main stage.
In his diary, Booth recorded his thoughts and descriptions of that night.
The Text of John Wilkes Booth's diary is as follows:
"Until today nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country's wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country. The night before the deed I wrote a long article and left it for one of the editors of the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings. He or the gov'r-After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country's but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong, except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so. I have only heard of what has been done (except what I did myself), and it fills me with horror. God, try and forgive me, and bless my mother. Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name - which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God's will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may He, may He spare me that, and let me die bravely. I bless the entire world. Have never hated or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so, and it's with Him to damn or bless me. As for this brave boy with me, who often prays (yes, before and since) with a true and sincere heart - was it crime in him? If so, why can he pray the same?I do not wish to shed a drop of blood, but 'I must fight the course.' Tis all that's left to me."
NOTE: While Booth and Lincoln were not personally acquainted, Lincoln had seen Booth at Ford's Theatre in 1863. After the assassination, actor Frank Mordaunt wrote that Lincoln, who apparently harbored no suspicions about Booth, admired the actor and had repeatedly invited him (without success) to visit the White House.
To better illustrate some possible discrepancies among versions of events, these should be examined one claim at a time. Once in the Presidential Box—just before Booth pulled the trigger—he wrote, “I shouted "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (Latin phrase meaning "thus always to tyrants") before I fired.” There are several witnesses that claim not to have heard anything before the shot was fired, including those in the box with the President. One eyewitness, James P. Ferguson, was located in the Dress Circle of the theatre. Ferguson claimed that Booth yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis” after firing the shot and jumping out of the box.
Therefore, according to Ferguson, it was while on stage that Booth yelled out and not while in the Presidential Box. Another eyewitness confirmed Ferguson’s account. Samuel Koontz also claims to have seen Booth as he was running across the stage, exclaiming "Sic Semper Tyrannis.”
Booth then made the claim, “in jumping broke my leg” when he leaped from the Presidential Box to the stage. But did he? This claim by Booth is also different from what eyewitnesses’ saw. The first witness, Lieutenant A.M.S. Crawford of the Volunteer Reserve Corps, was also seated in the Dress Circle part of the theatre. Crawford stated that on the night of the assassination, “I saw him [Booth] as he ran across the stage.” Actor Harry Hawk, who was on the stage when Booth jumped, observed Booth, “as he was rushing towards me with a dagger” in his hand. There were other people in the theatre that night who also claim to have seen Booth run, not limp, across the stage. These witnesses included William Withers, Sheldon P. McIntyre, John Downing Jr, Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, Major General B.F. Butler and Samuel Koontz, who was mentioned above. These people made statements that, after landing on the stage, John Wilkes Booth ran out of the theatre. None of them described Booth limping or seeming to be in the slightest bit of pain.
First Eyewitness Accounts
The first eyewitness accounts of Lincoln’s assassination are considered to be the most
accurate as they were taken while still fresh in people’s memories. I have isolated the
accounts focusing on Booth’s reaction after he jumped to the stage. Thirteen people described
Booth as either running or rushing for the exit. Some even stated that he sprang to his
feet after jumping to the stage. Others said he “came across the stage” or “fled behind the
NOT ONE PERSON MENTIONED HE LIMPED OR FAVORED HIS LEG AFTER JUMPING.
Lieutenant A.M.S Crawford – “I saw him as he RAN across the stage”Harry Hawk – “as he was RUSHING towards me with a dagger”James P. Ferguson – “as he came across the stage”Basset – “RAN across the stage”Edwin Bates – “RUSHED RAPIDLY across the stage”Frederick A. Sawyer – “RAN with lightning speed across the stage”Jason S. Knox – “RUSHED across the stage”Harry Hawk (in a letter to his parents) – “RAN towards me”Helen DuBarry – “as he crossed the stage”Julie Adeline Shepherd – “RUSHES through the scenery”Spencer Bronson – “and RAPIDLY left the stage”Major General Butler – “RAN to the opposite side of the stage”Dr. Charles Sabin Taft – “Springing quickly to his feet with the suppleness of an athlete,” “RAPID stage stride”Samuel Koontz – “RUNNING across the stage”John Downing Jr. – “striding across the stage”G.B. Todd – “fled behind the scenes”Sheldon P. McIntyre – “SPRANG to his feet," “RAN across the stage”
The account of the man who held Booth’s horse outside the back door to Ford’s Theatre should be examined as well. His name was Joseph “Peanuts” Burroughs, and he was a stagehand at Ford’s Theatre. Ned Spangler, another stagehand and one of the men involved in the plan to kill the President, gave him the job of holding Booth’s horse. Spangler was later arrested and charged with conspiracy. Initially, Spangler held Booth’s horse but was called to do some work during the play. Spangler asked Burroughs to take over holding the horse. “Peanuts” Burroughs stated that, as Booth came racing out the back door of the theatre “he struck me with the butt of a knife, and knocked me down. He did this as he was mounting his horse, with one foot in the stirrup.”
While Burroughs did not mention which leg Booth placed in the stirrup, one has to assume he mounted his horse on the left side, which would require Booth to use his left leg. Had Booth actually broken his left leg in the theatre as he claimed, he would not have been able to use his left leg to hoist himself into the saddle. Nowhere in Burroughs’s statement is the claim made that Booth appeared to be in pain when mounting his horse. Mary Jane Anderson lived behind Ford’s Theatre and was looking out the window and had a clear view of the back alley of Ford’s Theatre, said in her statement on May 16, 1865, “I saw Booth come out of the door with something in his hand, glittering. He came out of the theatre so quick that it seemed as if he but touched the horse and it was gone like a flash of lighting.” Both Burroughs and Anderson gave a description of someone who appeared to be in no sort of discomfort whatsoever, much less a person with a broken leg.
Author and historian Michael W. Kauffman noted in his book American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies that “almost all eyewitnesses at Ford’s reported seeing Booth crouch or stagger… but they noticed no sign of pain, in movement or expression.” Sergeant Silas Cobb, who was placed in charge of guarding the Navy Yard Bridge that led out of Washington toward Virginia, confirmed the previous eyewitness accounts when he said that he did not notice Booth to be in any type of discomfort when he crossed the bridge. So if Booth did not break his leg at the theatre, when exactly did he?
As Booth made his way across the Navy Yard Bridge, his fellow co-conspirator, David Herold, crossed shortly after Booth without any trouble from Sergeant Cobb. The plan Booth made was to meet up with his fellow conspirators just outside Washington and ride south into Virginia, where he thought he would be safe. However, due to unforeseen problems, Booth would not be able to make the distances he so badly wanted.
Once David Herold was over the Navy Yard Bridge he continued to riding south into Maryland, where he met up with John Wilkes Booth. At this time, according to Herold, Booth said: “that his horse had fallen or he was thrown off, and his ankle sprained.” To back up what Booth told Herold, when the two men arrived at John M. Lloyd’s house at Surrattsville in Prince George County Maryland, where they were supposed to pick up supplies that were left for them, Booth told Lloyd that he broke his leg when his horse fell. Lloyd stated he “seemed to be in great pain.” Lloyd also mentioned that Booth did not dismount, unlike Herold, who was the one that knocked on his door to wake him. Just before Booth and Herold rode off, Booth said to Lloyd “we have killed President Lincoln and Secretary Seward.”
Booth and Herold then went looking for a doctor to tend to Booth’s injured leg. Booth wrote in his diary that he “rode sixty miles that night, with the bones of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump.” The doctor the two men were looking for was Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, who was about thirty miles away, not sixty as Booth claimed. When the two men arrived at the Mudd farm in Charles County, Maryland, it was around four o'clock in the morning on April 15th. Herold dismounted and knocked loudly on the doctor’s front door. When Dr. Mudd answered, he observed the two men, who he claimed appeared to be in distress and in need of assistance.
Mudd then invited the men in and had the injured one lie on the sofa in the parlor; when Dr. Mudd later retold this story, he claimed not to have known either man. Dr. Mudd, in his statement of May 16th, 1865, described Booth’s leg “as slight a breaking as it could possibly be.” The doctor continued on and said, “the patient complained also of a pain in his back.” Although Mudd examined Booth, he could see no reason for his back pain “unless it might have been in consequence of his falling from, his horse, as he said he had done.” This was one of the few times Booth told the truth and if Booth did in fact have a slight back injury, it backs up the claim he did, in fact, fall from his horse.
When Dr. Mudd finished setting Booth’s fractured fibula (broken left leg, per Booth's diary), he allowed him to rest in an upstairs bedroom where Booth would have some privacy. Dr. Mudd then gave instructions to his hired help to care for the two horses. It was the statement of one of the farmhands, Thomas Davis, which helps back up the claim of an accident with the horse. Thomas Davis noticed that one horse “had been hurt; his shoulder was swelled right smart.”
Davis also said the small bay had a “piece of skin off on the inside of the left foreleg about as big as a silver dollar.” Another comment Davis made was that Mrs. Mudd told him the injured man had fallen from his horse in Beantown and would be on their way now that Dr. Mudd fixed him up.
It seems very possible from what has been presented above that what we all assumed to know about the events following Booth’s shooting of President Lincoln could be, in fact, wrong. From middle school onward, we have read about John Wilkes Booth jumping from the President’s Box at Ford’s Theatre and allegedly breaking his leg. Could it be that history has been presented to us incorrectly? As time passes, more information and theories continue to be brought forward. To the best of my ability, I have tried to avoid giving wild speculation about Booth. I have simply examined what people of the time said, including Booth. However, what would be the point of Booth claiming he broke his leg in the Theater if, in fact, he broke it when he fell from his horse? One reason would be because of the embarrassment Booth felt from falling. Can one imagine the humiliation Booth would have felt if people would have known the famous assassin of the “tyrant” Lincoln had fallen off his horse? I think Booth felt it sounded a lot more heroic when he made the claim “in jumping, broke my leg” after shooting Lincoln.
This is what is considered to be solid evidence that Booth did not break his leg at Ford’s Theatre, but while he was riding to meet up with his fellow conspirator, David Herold, when his horse fell. Also, Booth did have a small broken bone in his left leg and complained to Dr. Mudd that not only was his leg injured, but so was his back.
This is consistent with a riding accident. Additionally, the story of the fall from the horse was told to more than one person, including Herold. There is also a confirmed report of an injured horse. Booth would have no reason to lie at this point, and with the statements above, it seems we now have the true way John Wilkes Booth broke his leg.
NOTE:Dr. Samuel Mudd claimed not to recognize the two men who appeared at his home the morning of April 15, 1865.On their escape from Washington, John Wilkes Booth and David Herold arrived at Mudd's house at about 4 o'colck on the morning of April 15, 1865. Mudd used his medical kit to treat Booth's broken leg and allowed the two men to sleep in his home. He later told investigators that he did not recognize Booth, although they met numerous times before.Mudd's medical kit, as well as Booth's boot and spur found in Mudd's house, became evidence in the trial of Mudd and seven other conspirators. The military tribunal convicted Mudd, sentencing him to life in prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (a small group of islands, located in the Gulf of Mexico) at the end of the Florida Keys. Mudd was handcuffed and shackled for the journey there.In 1867 there was an outbreak of yellow fever at the prison. When the prison doctor died, Mudd took over the position, halting the spread of the disease.
In 1869 President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd, Edman Spangler, and Samuel Arnold.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.