Eye Witness Accounts of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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Eye Witness Accounts of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Grade Level – 8th Grade

Lesson Overview:

The students will examine 5 eye witness accounts of the assassination and try to piece together what actually happened the night that Lincoln was shot.

Standards Addressed:

History/Social Science:

8.10 Students analyze the multiple causes, key events, and complex consequences of the Civil War

Language Arts:

Reading Comprehension 2.3 Find similarities and differences between text in similarity, scope, or organization of ideas

English Language Learner (ELL) Strategies:
Use of Supplementary materials:

This lesson will use re-typed eyewitness accounts from people who witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The reading I adapted for second language learners. There were many words or passages that had to be rewritten or paraphrased due to their vocabulary or style. Some of these accounts were 140 years old and needed some clarification. These readings will help the students get a sense of what happened the night Lincoln was shot.

Adaptation of Content:

They will be organizing their information on a table divided by topic that they will fill out after reading each eyewitness account. These accounts should be read in groups and filled out together in the group. This will help the students who have difficulties with comprehension and retention. Difficult vocabulary had been defined for the student in the reading.

Engaging Scenario:

The students will be reading five eyewitness accounts of the Lincoln assassination in groups. They will then fill in the events that happened into a graphic organizer that I have created. These accounts do vary slightly and after reading the accounts the group will then form their own hypothesis as what happened that night. They will then work together and produce a summary of what they think happened. They will them share them to the class. I will then read Timothy S. Good’s account of what happened that night.

Task Summary:

The teacher will need to diagram the theater and its sections to the students so that they have a sense of where the president was seated and where the eyewitnesses were located.

Before the students begin at some point in the year the teacher should have gone over Primary sources and secondary sources. Also how people’s perspectives change over time. Some of the accounts are from within 48 hours of the shooting; some are from decades later. Stress the value of each and how the validity might be different for each.

The students will read the five eyewitness accounts that I have provided (see attached). They will fill out the required information from each story in the graphic organizer (see attached); this will help them synthesize the information. This will also help them when the group needs to write their own summary later.

After each group has read the material and finished their organizer they can then debate what they think actually happened that night. They should then construct their own account of what happened that night. They will then share their account with the class. After all of the groups have gone read the Timothy S. Good version of the assassination. I have prepared a 1.5 page paraphrasing of his summary (to save time his version is 26 pages) Perhaps the group who was closest could get a prize or extra credit but that is really up to your own style.
Note: There are 100 eyewitness accounts in Good’s book. I choose the five because of their closeness in detail to each other and their length. I feel that the reading could be changed very easily and made to be much more contradictory but it could get very confusing for those students with very low reading levels; but would be very useful for a honors or G.A.T.E. class.

Resources/Materials Needed:

We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eye Witness Accounts. By Timothy S. Good. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.1995. ISBN#: 0-87805-779-x

You can also use the Material that I have transcribed and edited for use in my classroom, as well as the summary and Table that I created for this exercise.

Major Henry Rathbone

Location: Presidential box

May 15th, 1865

On the evening of the 14th of April, at about twenty minutes past 8 o’clock, I , in the company with Miss Harris, left my residence at the corner of Fifteenth and H streets, and joined the President and Mrs. Lincoln, and went with them, in their carriage, to Ford’s Theater, on Tenth Street. On reaching the theater when the presence of the President became known, the actors stopped playing, the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and the audience rose and received him with [loud] cheering. The party proceeded along in the rear of the dress-circle and entered the box that had been set apart for their reception. On entering the box, there was a large arm chair that was placed nearest the audience, farthest from the stage, which the President took and occupied during the whole of the evening, with one exception, when he sat down again. When the second scene of the third act was being performed, and while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back towards the door and the president. The distance from the door and where the president sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was “Freedom!” I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried (blocked) the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm. The orifice (opening) of my wound was about an inch and a half in length, and extended upward toward the shoulder several inches. The man rushed to the front the box and I [tried] to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box. The clothes, as I believe, were torn in the attempt to hold him. As he went over upon stage, I cried out, “Stop that man!” I then turned to the President, his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward, and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded (a wound which he would die from), rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid.

On reaching the door of the passageway, I found it barred by a heavy piece of plank, on one end of which was secured in the wall, and the other resting against the door. It had been so securely fastened that it required considerable force to remove it. This wedge or bar was about four feet from the floor. Persons upon the outside were beating against the door for the purpose of entering. I removed the bar, and the door was opened. Several persons, who represented themselves as surgeons, were allowed to enter. I saw there Colonel Crawford, and requested him to prevent other persons from entering the box.

I then returned to the box, and found the surgeons examining the President’s person (body). They had not yet discovered the wound. As soon as it was discovered, it was determined to remove him from the theater. He was carried out, and I then proceeded to assist Mrs. Lincoln, who was intensely excited, to the stairs, I requested Major Potter to aid me in assisting Mrs. Lincoln across street to the house where the president was being conveyed. The wound which I had received had been bleeding very profusely (a lot), and on reaching the house, feeling very faint from the loss of blood, I seated myself in the hall, and soon after fainted away, and was laid upon the floor. Upon the return of consciousness (When I awoke) I was taken to my residence (house)...In my opinion the first shot and the assassin leaving the box did not exceed thirty seconds.

James P. Ferguson

May 15th, 1865

Location: Dress Circle-North side
I keep a restaurant adjoining (next to) Fords’s Theater, on the Upper side. I saw J. Wilkes Booth, on the afternoon of the 14th, between 2 and 4 o’clock, standing by the side of his horse- a small bay mare (a dark brown female horse); Mr. Maddox was standing by him talking. Booth remarked, “See what a nice horse I have got; now watch, he can run just like a cat;” and, striking his spurs into his horse, he went off down the street.

About 10 O’clock, Mr. Harry Ford came into my place and said, “Your favorite, General Grant, is to be at the theater to-night, and if you want to see him you better go and get a seat.” I went and [got] a seat directly opposite the Presidents box, in the front dress-circle. I saw the President and his family when they came in, accompanied by Miss Harris and Major Rathbone.

Somewhere near 10 o’clock, during the second scene of the third act of “Our American Cousin” I saw Booth pass along near the President’s box, and then stop and lean against the wall. After standing there a moment, I saw him step down one step, put his hands on the door and his knee against it, and push the door open- the first door that goes into the box. I saw no more of him until he made a rush for the front of the box and jumped over. He put his left hand on the railing, and with his right he seemed to strike back with a knife. I could see the knife gleam, and the next moment he was over the box. As he went over, his hand was raised, the handle of the knife up, the blade down. The President sat in the left hand corner of the box, with Mrs. Lincoln at his right. Miss Harris was in the right hand corner of the box, Major Rathbone sitting back at her left almost in the corner of the box. At the moment the President was shot, he was leaning his hand on the railing, looking down at a person in the orchestra; holding the flag that decorated the box aside to look between it and the post, I saw a flash of the pistol in the right back of the box. As the person jumped over and lit (landed) on the stage, I saw that it was Booth. As he struck the stage, he rose and exclaimed, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” and ran directly across the stage to the opposite door, where the actors come in.

I heard some halloo (yell) out of the box, “Revenge for the South!” I do not know that it was Booth, though I suppose (guess) it must have been; it was just as he was jumping over the railing. His spur caught in the blue part of the flag that stretched around the box, and, as he went over it tore a piece of the flag, which was dragged half way across the stage on the spur of his right heel.

Just as Booth went over the box, I saw the President raise his head, and then it hung back. I saw Mrs. Lincoln catch his arm, and I [then knew] that the President was hurt. By that time Booth was across the stage. A young man named Harry Hawk was the only actor on the stage at the time.

I left the theater as quickly as I could to [go to the police station and report what I saw.] … The next day the [police chief asked how I could see the flash of the gun when it was fired through the door?] We went to the theater to examine the hole. We got a candle and examined the hole in the door of the box which the [chief said the bullet was shot through]. The hole had been made by a knife, [proving the bullet had been fired inside the box].

Harry Hawk

Location: Stage

April 16th 1865
My Dear Parents,

This is my first opportunity I have had to write to you since the assassination of our dear president on Friday night, as I have been in custody ever since. I was one of the principal (main) witnesses of the sad affair, having been on the stage at the time of the fatal shot. I was playing Asa Trenchard in “The American Cousin.” The old lady of the theater Mrs. Muzzey had just gone off the stage, and I was answering her exit speech, when I heard the shot fired. I turned, looked up at the president’s box, heard the man exclaim “Sic simper Tyrannis,” saw him jump from the staff and drop to the stage. He slipped when he [landed] on the stage, but got upon his feet in a moment, brandished (showed) a large knife, saying “The South shall be free,” turned his face in the direction I stood, and I recognized him as Wilkes Booth. He ran toward me, and I seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door in the rear of the theater, mounted a horse and rode away. The above all occurred in the space of a few seconds, and at the time I did not know the president was shot, although if I had tried to stop him he (Booth) would have stabbed me. I am now under $1,000 bail to appear as a witness when Booth is tried, if caught. All the above I have sworn to. You may imagine the excitement in the theater, which was crowded, with the cries of “hang him” or “who is he?” from every one present. It was the saddest thing I ever knew. The city only the night before was illuminated (brightly lit), and every one was happy. Now all is sadness. Everybody looks gloomy and sad. Mrs. Lincoln was laughing at my speech when the shot was fired.

Will T. Kent

Location: Dress Circle, North

April 15th 1865

My name is Will T. Kent. I am clerk in the office of the Paymaster General. I was at Ford’s Theater last night, seated in the left hand side nearly opposite the President’s box. About half past ten I heard a shot I thought was in the play. A man appeared in front of the President’s box and got upon the stage swinging himself down partly by the curtains and partly jumping. I noticed he had a large dagger in his left hand I think. He appeared to stagger but recovered himself. He held the dagger up just as he got upon the stage and said in a tragical tone very clearly and distinctly “sic semper tyrannis”. I immediately left my seat and went around behind the audience and went into the President’s box. Some persons had reached the box before me and were placing the President on the floor. The President was insensible (was unconscious or not awake). I went out and away from the theater and but missing my keys I went back to the theater and went back into the box where the President [had been sitting]. In moving about to find my keys, my foot struck against something and staring down I picked up a pistol. [The pistol Booth used to shoot Lincoln.]
W.H. Roberts

Location: Unknown

February 12th, 1927

Roberts was 16 in 1865

I was with a group of comrades (friends) in a restaurant in Washington early that evening. Someone suggested we go to Ford’s theater. I hesitated at first, for I was not in the habit of going to theaters, but I decided to go.

We were admitted free. I guess it was because we were soldiers. The president and his company came in a few minutes after we were seated. He bowed to the audience from his box and received quite an ovation. His box was some ten feet above the stage at one side…

The shot came in the midst of the play without warning, startling the audience as anything like that would. Nearly every one feared, I believe that the president had been the target of the gun. All appeared dazed for a moment. Then great confusion began. Cries of “get him” went up on all sides. Some rushed the stage, from which Booth, the assassin, had fled. Others went into the street, while others rushed toward the box.

Just after the crack of the gun we saw a man leap from the president’s box. A spur attached to his boot became entangled in the flags around the railing and he fell heavily to the stage. As he leaped, he flourished (pulled out) a dagger. He muttered something in a strange language, which I afterward learned was the famous “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” The assassin quickly recovered himself and disappeared through a stage door, despite a bad ankle.

As a cavalrymen, we joined the hunt for Booth and were on the scene when he was finally captured and shot several weeks later… Anyone who said a word that might be regarded as [happy] the assassination was dealt with harshly. I recall a soldier shooting to death one man who said he was glad Booth had shot Lincoln.

Timothy Good

Park Ranger

Ford’s Theater
The following passage is my brief summary of Timothy Good’s 26 pages of what he thought happened the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Good is the author of We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eye Witness Accounts. Good has done incredible research in formulating his book and his summary has incorporated all of his knowledge from working as a Park Ranger at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. and his time researching eye witness accounts. This is my Eighth grade version of his summary.
April 9th 1865 the Civil War ended and the nation (at least the North was in jubilation) The Ford’s invited Lincoln and General Grant, with their respective wives to the play “Our American Cousin”. The play was a special event in that it was the leading ladies Laura Keene’s last performance. Ford being a wise man thought it would be a good idea to advertise the fact that Abraham Lincoln and General Grant would be attending the play in the local newspaper. Many people went to the theater that night not to see the play, but to see Abraham Lincoln and General Grant. The North was incredibly proud of both men on the North victory in the Civil War.

Not everyone in the Washington D.C. area was a fan on the North or the President. One of these individuals was John Wilkes Booth. Booth a famous actor had already failed once to kidnap the president. That day he met with co-conspirators David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Powell to assist in multiple Murders. Booth was to assassinate the President, Atzerodt was to kill the Vice-President Johnson; and Powell was assigned to murder secretary of state William Seward.

Fords Theater prepared the presidential box, by draping American flags in the front of the box and a portrait of George Washington. They did this to show honor to the President, not uncommon then or now for heads of state. According to Good the play was supposed to begin at 7:45 that night, more than likely started at 8:00. The Grants declined the invitation, so Lincoln had to find someone else to go that night. Finally they found Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. By the time the Presidents party arrive at 8:30 there were already over a thousand people watching the play. (The theater only holds 600 today due to fire code.) Upon entry of the President the whole crowd stood and cheered. The play stopped and the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief”

At 8:30 Booth was next door at the Ferguson bar, he was just waiting for the right time. Booth was very familiar with the play and knew when the right time to strike was. The Ford’s Theater doorman recognized Booth and let him into the theater. It was not uncommon at that time for actors and actresses to come in and out of theaters. Booth was a regular at Ford’s theater. Booth then went up the stairs to the dress circle at about 10:15. (Before this lesson even begins it is very important to diagram the floor plan of Fords Theater. (Available on the Internet or pages 12-13 of Good’s book.) Booth was able to talk his was past Lincoln’s only bodyguard. At approximately 10:30 Booth looked through a peek hole and saw the president was seated and then entered the box. He then quietly boarded the door shut and then snuck up behind the president and shot him with a Derringer .44 caliber gun. The exact moment of the play was when the leading actress had exited and there was only one actor on the stage (it was Harry Hawk) during Act 3 Section 2. It was known as the funniest part of the play and thus why Booth chose this time to sneak in and attack the president because he would have a lot of noise of laughter to cover is movements. The shot was in the back right of the president’s head and knocked him unconscious instantly. Major Rathbone saw the assassin through the smoke in the box. He tried to grab Booth. Booth pulled out a nine-inch dagger and stabbed Rathbone in the arm all the way to the bone. Booth then grabbed the railing and jumped out of the box while Rathbone grabbed Booth’s coat. The jump was between 10 and 12 feet and Booth’s spur caught one of the flags causing him to land awkwardly. Good theorizes through numerous eye accounts that Booth did not break his leg from this jump but later in the evening from a fall off of his horse. Booth did a have a broken leg set my Dr. Samuel Mudd the next day, but probably did not want to admit it was from falling off of his horse.

When Booth landed on stage he showed his knife and said Sic Semper Tyrannis (thus only to tyrants). Many other witnesses think they heard something else but overwhelming testimony would say that on the above listed was said. Booth then ran past Harry Hawk back stage and to him waiting horse.

Chaos would then take over the theater. Three surgeons then rushed to the Presidential box and tried to help the president. Many people have said that they helped carry the president to the Peterson house across the street. In reality only about six people assisted in carrying the president. The president would die at 7:22 A.M. the next day. He would never regain consciousness after Booth pulled the trigger. As time passes the stories change as to what happened to Booth that night, or their involvement in helping Lincoln. Dozens of people have said they carried the president across the street, which is not possible. Many people think that John Wilkes Booth who will be killed on April 26th after a large manhunt actually lived, 40 people since then on their death beds claimed to be the real Booth. The conspiracy theory never ends, but Good had done considerable research of eyewitness accounts and his summary sounds incredibly reasonable.

Name of person giving the statement

Date of Statement:
Location in Theater:

Time of the night when the shot occurred or part of the play when the shot occurred.

Describe Booth’s escape:

What did Booth say?

Was Booth hurt?

What was the reaction of the crowd after the assassination?


Lesson designed by Dustin Clouds for Teaching American History Institute 2005

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