Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Organized Assassin

It has often been the M.O. of the American assassin to not have much of an exit strategy---no real end game beyond committing the act itself.

Leon Czolgosz had absolutely no chance of escape following the murder of President McKinley in 1901. Same with Charles Guiteau, killer of President Garfield 20 years earlier.

Witness the random, aimless meanderings of Lee Harvey Oswald following the shooting of President Kennedy, when he couldn't even get out of town despite the chaos within it.

There was one exception, however.

One hundred and forty-six years ago Thursday, actor and miscreant John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the suite of President Abraham Lincoln in Washington's Ford's Theater and shot him point blank in the back of the skull.

Booth's mission was accomplished; Lincoln was mortally wounded and he would die several hours later.

Beyond that, Booth knew what he wanted to do---get out of Dodge, and fast.

After pulling the trigger of his pistol, Booth leaped from the suite to the stage, severely injuring his leg in the process. He shouted something, "Sic semper tyrannis," Latin for "Thus always to tyrants." It was part of Booth's flair for the dramatic; it was also a reference to what Brutus said at Caesar's assassination, and it was the motto of Virginia.

Booth had arranged for a getaway horse and an escape route was in his head. Booth was part of a plot that was to not only kill Lincoln, but also Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. The mission was to take out the president and the next two successors, in an effort to throw the government into panic and leave an opportunity for the Confederacy to take advantage.

In his 2005 analysis of Lincoln's assassination, Thomas Goodrich wrote, "All the elements in Booth's nature came together at once – his hatred of tyranny, his love of liberty, his passion for the stage, his sense of drama, and his lifelong quest to become immortal."

That pretty much sums it up well.


John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)


Booth died 12 days after shooting Lincoln, after being shot inside a barn on the farm of the Garrett family in northern rural Virginia. He was ratted out by William S. Jett, a former private in the 9th Virginia Cavalry.

But Booth had an exit strategy; he just couldn't quite pull it off.

His dying words, allegedly, were, "Tell my mother I died for my country."

Booth blamed Lincoln for the country's troubles, and believed himself to be the man deemed to punish the president.

Unlike the assassins of our other fallen presidents, John Wilkes Booth never intended to be caught. He fully expected to escape and live the rest of his life basking in the glow of his misdeed.

Even Oswald, it could be argued, believed himself to be doomed following the murder of Kennedy. In fact, I would suggest that Oswald didn't even think he'd be successful. I believe his panicked moves after the killing suggests those of someone who was scared to death that he actually killed the president, and didn't know what the hell to do or where to go.

Not Booth; he didn't want to be a martyr, he wanted to be a Confederate hero, and live to enjoy that status.

Booth's sister Asia had been given a letter by her brother in January 1865, some four months before the assassination. Booth instructed her not to read it until after his death.

It read:

"I know how foolish I shall be deemed for undertaking such a step as this, where, on one side, I have many friends and everything to make me happy ... to give up all ... seems insane; but God is my judge. I love justice more than I do a country that disowns it, more than fame or wealth."

Such is the mind of the determined---and organized---assassin.

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