Lincoln’s Death, New Nation: April 1865 to 1877

Lincoln’s Assassination

How did the play begin?

Our American Cousin was a pleasant comedy about an English couple eager to advance their cause with American relatives. Lincoln was nodding; the first lady was engrossed. All seemed well. And then, at about 9:45, people in the audience were surprised to hear the explosion of a gun: that it was a pistol could not immediately be determined. Believing that this was part of the play, they continued to watch till they noticed that the actors were also in a state of shock. There was a shout, then a scream, then the sound of a thud as a man leapt from the president’s box all the way to the stage. Standing there for one brief moment, he shouted, Sic semper tyrannis! (“Thus always to tyrants”). Then he was gone.

A lithograph depicting the assassination takes some artistic license, such as Lincoln holding onto the flag and, at far left, Henry Rathbone (a military officer who accompanied the president along with his fiancée, Clara), trying to stop the murder when, in fact, he did not see anything until after Booth pulled the trigger.


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