On Good Friday in April of 1865, the guard on duty outside the Presidential box, John Parker, took advantage of the time President and Mrs. Lincoln would be watching the play, “Our American Cousin”, to descend the back stairs of Ford’s Theatre to the adjacent Tatavul’s saloon and ordered a tankard of ale. At the other end of the bar sat John Wilkes Booth, building his courage with a whiskey after completing his preparations. The assassin left the tavern, and as a celebrity actor strode unimpeded through the theatre.
Booth slipped into the unguarded dark corridor leading to State Box in Ford’s Theatre. Timing his arrival to coincide with the funniest line of the play, he hoped the laughter of the audience would cover any commotion before he took his shot. Booth checked through the small hole he had bored in the wooden partition earlier in the day and saw the back of the president’s head. Silently he pushed back the unlatched door, extended his arm and discharged his derringer. The ½” ball smashed into Lincoln’s skull just behind his left ear, traversed his brain and stopped just shy of exiting near his right eye. President Lincoln slumped forward in his chair without a cry and died the next morning across the street in the commandeered bedroom of a boarding house with his wife Mary in the next room still in the clothes stained with her husband’s blood.
Booth’s co-conspirators, George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell, were not as lethal. Powell forced his way into the home of Secretary of State William Sewell, and with his Bowie knife repeatedly slashed the bed ridden Sewell. After a long recovery Sewell lived. The hapless Atzerodt was too drunk to go to Vice President Andrew Johnson’s room at the Kirkwood House. Only Booth accomplished his part in their deadly conspiracy to destroy the top three positions in the Executive Branch of the government. Booth was never tried and was shot through the spine while resisting capture; he died at 26.
With the survival of the barely educated Andrew Johnson from Tennessee, the aftermath of the Civil War was dramatically altered and America’s “Reconstruction” followed a bad turn. Lincoln had made clear his intentions of leniency and reconciliation, planning to use the balance of his final term in office to lead the country through healing and opportunity for nine million freed slaves. The brutal corruption of the “carpetbaggers” sanctioned by vengeful Congressmen and undeterred by the inept Johnson sealed in the bitter resentment of the former Confederates and the ascendency of the Klu Klux Klan. Embedded racism and Jim Crow laws persisted for another century. A deep wound did not heal. What could have been had President Lincoln lived can never be known.
Ninety eight years later in November of 1963, another president fell, but this time to a lone assassin, the troubled Lee Harvey Oswald. A former U.S. Marine with a history of court-martials, Oswald returned from a three year defection in the Soviet Union with a Russian wife and child. He hoped to emigrate again, this time to Cuba for another try at a “purer” version of socialist utopia, but Cuba examined his record and rejected him. In April of 1963, Oswald missed with a sniper shot at retired General Edwin Walker, hitting the window frame in Walker’s home office. He was never a suspect until after Dallas. Oswald got a job at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas.
Lee Harvey Oswald brought an inexpensive, 6.5 caliber mail order, bolt action Carncano scoped rifle to work the day the route of President Kennedy’s well publicized motorcade was to pass in front of the Book Depository. Oswald set up in a sixth floor window in a nearly deserted section of the warehouse and waited.
His first shot passed through President Kennedy’s neck, probably not fatal, and seriously wounded Texas Governor John Connally, sitting in the front seat of their convertible limo. The second shot missed. The confused driver inexplicably slowed the limo. The third shot slammed into the president’s head, tearing out massive portions of his brain and skull. He was rushed to Parkland Hospital, but President Kennedy was certainly instantaneously brain dead. Oswald later in the day murdered Dallas policeman J.D. Tippitt when Tippitt exited his patrol car to question Oswald. He was never tried and after his capture was gut shot in jail by Dallas strip club owner and police hanger on, Jack Ruby; Oswald died at 24.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a former Texas Senator, was sworn in on the plane that carried the President’s body before it headed back to Washington. Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline stood next to Johnson still in the clothes stained with her husband’s blood.
President Kennedy had spoken of pulling back from Vietnam and was a fiscal conservative. Johnson escalated the Vietnam War and ushered in the Great Society welfare entitlement that debilitated the minority population for the next fifty years. The war and the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy five years later precipitated a generation of disillusionment, discontent and dilettante revolution, the repercussions of which ripple down to this day. What could have been had President Kennedy lived can never be known.
Quote attributed to a homily from St. Marcarius (fourth century Egyptian monk):
“When a house has no master living in it, it becomes dark, vile and contemptible…. Woe to the house where no master dwells, to the field where no farmer works, to the pilotless ship, storm-tossed and sinking.”