The curious coincidences of Abraham Lincoln's assassination

Drawing of John Wilkes Booth firing at the back of Abraham Lincoln's head
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC | Shutterstock

On 14th April 1865, the audience at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC settled into their seats to watch a performance of Our American Cousin. What would unfold in front of them would be one of the most infamous moments in the history of the United States of America.

While the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on that Good Friday is a widely known event, it was surrounded by weird coincidences, rumours, and serendipities that, to this day, have people questioning whether there were larger forces at work in the theatre that night. Here are six curious coincidences surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Grant’s conspiracy

Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, were both due to be sat with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. However, last-minute changes saw the Grants change their plans and visit New York instead. The suspicious timing led to a conspiracy that Grant was involved in the assassination plot. Under scrutiny as to his the plans changed at the last minute, it turned out that Grant was likely saved by his wife falling out with the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Julia witnessed Mary Todd lose her temper whilst visiting the Lincolns with General Edward Ord. After seeing the general’s wife, Sally Ord, ride alongside Abraham, Mary, in a jealous rage, chastised Sally. When Julia spoke up in defence of Sally, Mary then turned her anger at Julia. So, unimpressed by the First Lady, Ulysses and Julia opted to miss the theatre and visit their children instead.

Suspicious absences

Grant’s absence that night wasn’t the only cause for conspiracy. Lincoln’s bodyguard, John Parker, should have been stationed behind the curtain throughout the performance, but was nowhere to be found.

While it’s bizarre to think of only one person protecting the President of the United States today, it wasn’t uncommon in 1865. Lincoln was surprisingly unconcerned with his safety, despite the constant threats to his life. He would often opt for smaller security details and could sometimes be found walking alone late at night in Washington.

John Parker, meanwhile, was not the type of police officer you would expect to have been put on guard duty. Frequently disciplined for drunken behaviour, visiting brothels, and conduct unbecoming of a police officer, it’s unsurprising that when Lincoln was assassinated, Parker was found drinking in a nearby tavern having abandoned his post.

Et tu, Brute?

While John Wilkes Booth is now best known as the assassin of President Lincoln, he wasn’t a faceless nobody before that night. Both John and his brother Edwin were born into a family of actors and each became thespians themselves. However, while Edwin was renowned for his acting ability and kind and gentle personality, John was a belligerent and temperamental actor. Considered average at best, John was less popular than his brother and had a bigger reputation for his taciturn nature and alcoholism than for his on-stage performances.

Just six months before the assassination, the brothers performed together in Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser, a play that notably ends in the betrayal and assassination of Rome’s most famous emperor.

Booth’s heroics

Just a few short years before the assassination, there had been another fateful life-or-death situation involving a Booth and a Lincoln. While waiting to board a crowded train, Abraham’s son, Robert, was knocked by the crowd between the train and the platform. The train had already begun to move. Before he had time to realise what was happening, Robert was gripped by a hand that lifted him back onto the platform.

Upon turning around, he realised that he had been saved by the popular actor, Edwin Booth. Edwin did not know who he had saved until a while later when Robert recounted the story to Colonel Adam Badeau, who reached out to Edwin to congratulate him on his heroics.

The mad hatter

Despite severely injuring his leg when jumping from the balcony onto the stage, Booth was still able to escape the theatre that night. Hiding in a barn in Virginia, Booth had little better to do with his 12 days on the run than write about the motivations behind his plot to first kidnap and then assassinate the president.

When Booth’s whereabouts were discovered, the Sixteenth New York Cavalry unit was dispatched to bring him in. Early in the morning, the unit surrounded Booth’s hideout and set it alight with the intention of flushing Booth and his accomplice out. However, when peeking through a gap in the barn’s wall, Sergeant Boston Corbett panicked. Convinced that Booth was going to discharge his rifle and escape, Corbett shot Booth first. His shot went straight through Booth’s neck, paralysing him. Booth didn’t die instantly, however, and would suffer for several hours, begging his captors to kill him.

While Corbett was revered in the north as a hero, his actions that day were questioned heavily. He was already notable for his unstable behaviour, which is attributed to his regular handling of mercury when working as a hat maker. A religious fanatic, Corbett had castrated himself at the age of 26 to avoid sexual temptation. Following Booth’s death, his mental health would continue to deteriorate. He became aggressive and paranoid and feared retribution from Booth’s compatriots.

After holding members of the Kansas State legislature at gunpoint, Corbett was declared legally insane and institutionalised. Corbett later escaped and seemingly disappeared from history.

Cursed company

Corbett wasn’t the only player in the story of the assassination of Lincoln to be declared insane. In fact, of the four individuals in the theatre’s balcony box that fateful night, half would be institutionalised, and the other half murdered.

Following Grant’s change of plans, the Lincolns struggled to find company to join them. Eventually, the invitation was accepted by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara.

After Lincoln was shot, Rathbone jumped up to apprehend the assassin before he could escape. As a result, Rathbone was stabbed by Booth. The injury, which had cut through to the bone, bled profusely. However, with everyone at the time attending to the president, Rathbone wasn’t treated until much later.

Despite healing from his physical wounds, Rathbone was severely disturbed by the events of that night and the fact that he was unable to protect the president. He went on to marry Clara and father three children with her, but his mental health failed to improve. One night he threatened to hurt his children and attacked Clara. He fatally shot and stabbed her, before trying to stab himself to death. As before, though, Rathbone survived his knife wounds and was declared insane. He was sent to live at an asylum for the rest of his life.