No, John Wilkes Booth did not break his leg jumping from the balcony after he shot Abraham Lincoln. He probably didn’t even hurt himself. At least not then.
New insights into the Lincoln assassination don’t necessarily require the discovery of documents hidden away in an attic. One researcher demolished the broken-leg-in-the-theater myth with a rather mundane tool: his computer. And his data analysis helped him sift out new facts about Booth’s plots as well.
Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, actually jumped onto the Ford’s Theatre stage to prove his point. But the heart of his 30-year-long research was his computer. It facilitated daily and hourly analysis of the events to a depth that no other researcher has accomplished before.
Michael W. Kauffman joins us for an interview about one of the greatest crimes of American history. And some of his answers might surprise you.
Ann Marie: One premise of your book is a new analysis of evidence with modern data analysis techniques. How did that provide new insights into the Lincoln assassination?
Michael Kauffman: The computer analysis made a world of difference in the way I thought of the assassination, and particularly in the way the plot developed. By keeping every event anchored to a particular time and place, I was able to get a much better idea of movements and connections among people. I learned to keep everything in context — not looking ahead or anywhere beyond a person’s field of vision at any given time. In this way, the conspiracy unfolded one day (and even one hour) at a time, just as it did in real life.
By selective filtering, I was able to find out who knew (or might know) what at any given time; what they couldn’t possibly know; and what previous events might have inspired or affected certain actions by Booth and the conspirators. In a second or two, I could sort out everything that happened, say, at the Surratt Tavern on a given day. I could also call up everything that happened there that involved a certain person or group of people. That’s how I found out that on March 18, when John Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hiding the weapons at the tavern, they were almost caught by Atzerodt’s brother, John, who happened to be there at the same time.
Looking back, I was never able to find any account of the plot that actually laid out the conspiracy’s development in detail. Nobody had ever noticed that Booth formed a plot with Arnold and O’Laughlen, then formed a second plot with Surratt and the others. The first two conspirators knew nothing about the rest of them until they all got together at Gautier’s. That’s one reason it was such an explosive meeting. And putting things in a larger context, we can also see how Booth’s ostensible plan to capture Lincoln near the Soldiers’ Home grew into something entirely different right around January 18th. That’s when he moved Arnold and O’Laughlen to another location and started scouting around Ford’s Theatre. It’s no coincidence that the government resumed its exchange of prisoners at about that date as well. Booth no longer had an excuse for capturing Lincoln, but he never stopped plotting.
Having a computer track events was an enormous help because it wouldn’t let me omit anything unless I made a conscious decision to do so. That forced me to give some thought to even the smallest details, and I learned a lot from that exercise.
How long have you been researching the Lincoln assassination?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in Abraham Lincoln, but my thoughts really never turned to the assassination until John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963. It was an electrifying event, and soon afterward I started to see comparisons with the death of Lincoln. That was fascinating, and I read as much as I could find on the topic from that point on. I visited the Lincoln Tomb in 1965 and was absolutely hooked. But probably the turning point was in November of 1969, when I read Jim Bishop’s book The Day Lincoln Was Shot. He laid out the story so clearly and vividly, I felt I knew everything there was to know about the topic. I was already compulsive about writing, and Bishop inspired me to try my hand at writing a full-scale book about the Lincoln assassination. I typed out a couple hundred pages, and was quite pleased with myself until I actually went back and read it from the beginning. It needed work, for sure, but I had become more interested in learning about the case than writing about it. I kept at it, and as soon as I turned 18, I moved to Washington to be near the sources. I assumed I could finish the book in about a year, but it actually took a bit longer than that; the publication date of American Brutus was 30 years to the day after my arrival in Washington.
The short answer: I got serious about research at the end of 1969, and have been at it ever since.
The body of one conspirator went missing for over 100 years. How did that come about? And how was it discovered again?
I’ve always felt that history revolves around the people who took part in it. It’s really all about people, and if we get to know the characters in the story, we can go a long way to understanding how and why they acted as they did. As any genealogist can tell you, gravesites are often the key to unlocking a wealth of information, and I’ve gone to extremes to find and visit the final resting places of all those who figure in this drama.
To that end, I made quite a few trips to Geneva, Florida in search of information about Lewis Powell. This little hamlet is not far from Orlando, and it’s where Rev. George C. Powell and his family settled after the assassination. A few of us (Betty Ownsbey among them) always wondered whether Powell might be buried there. His body had been moved a few times after his execution, and was no longer accounted for. But my trips to Florida turned up very little, and nobody in the family would even talk to me.
It was about 18 years later, in early 1993, that I got a call from Stuart Speaker, a former park ranger from Ford’s Theatre. Stuart was then working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, and had just found a skull with an accession card that identified it as the cranium of a white male, Mr. P____ who was “hung” at Washington on July 7, 1865 for attempting to kill Secretary Seward.
Of course, I paid a visit the next morning, and stood face to face with Powell himself. There was no question in my mind about the identity. Powell had a strikingly asymmetrical jawline, having broken his jaw as a child, and the skull really did look like the man in the photos.
I still had the names and addresses of people in Florida, and I wasted no time in calling Lorraine Yarborough Whiting, the caretaker of the cemetery. She had been quite kind to me on my visits, and I knew that she was well acquainted with me and with the Powell relatives. I got a call back from the relatives in a matter of minutes.
The Smithsonian wanted to verify the identity, so they sent the skull to the FBI Lab, and I supplied them with ten different photos of Powell to help the process. When the results were in, the family wrote and requested that the remains be returned to them for burial. To my surprise, the Smithsonian initially refused. Months went by, and they put forth all kinds of arguments for keeping the skull right where it was, but ultimately they sent it by Fed Ex to Powell’s next of kin, a great grand-niece.
You even participated Lewis Powell’s reburial….[Lewis Powell’s great grand-niece] called and asked if I would come down for a service at the cemetery on July 7th. My wife and I were expecting a baby within two weeks, so the event was postponed until our daughter was old enough to travel. Finally, on November 11, the family got together with a few friends and heard a nice eulogy by Betty Ownsbey as Louis Powell was buried next to his mother. There were no uniforms, no Confederate flags, and no references to any of the horrors of April, 1865. It was quite dignified.
We never really figured out why the skull ended up at the Smithsonian. It was turned over to them by Alfred H. Gawler, a clerk at the Army Medical Museum. Apparently the museum had acquired it sometime after Powell’s last known resting place, Graceland Cemetery, was disbanded in the 1870s and 1880s. The body had been moved there from Holmead Cemetery when the latter was developed just a few years earlier. Notices had been put in the paper, but apparently the Powells didn’t often read the Washington Star at their home in Florida, so they never claimed the remains when the rest of Holmead’s residents were evicted. (The Washington Hilton occupies the site of the cemetery today.) And Powell wouldn’t have been at Holmead in the first place if not for a public-spirited person or group who agreed to pay for burial there when the Washington Arsenal — site of the execution and first burial — was demolished in 1869. But records are sketchy and they sometimes contradict one another. We only know where Powell’s skull ended up. And what about the rest of him? It’s anybody’s guess. It might have been decomposed too badly to recover, and then again, the Medical Museum may have taken only what they had room to store. I don’t know.
The by-product of this was the discovery of new information from the Powell family, who shared their family treasures with Betty and me.
Your book makes a good argument that the story about Booth breaking his leg when he jumped from the balcony onto the stage at the theater is a myth. How did he really break his leg?
It’s never easy being the one to tear down a good story, and the Revenge of Old Glory was one of those cherished bits of folklore that really doesn’t want to die.
I gave tours of the Booth Escape Route for 30 years or so, and on one of those tours someone asked when the authorities first learned that Booth had broken his leg. I couldn’t say for certain, but I promised to get an answer. Surely, I thought, the people in the audience at Ford’s knew the assassin had hurt himself. He limped across the stage, and by some accounts, barely got out ahead of the pursuers. At least that’s how the story usually went. But as I mulled it over, it occurred to me that in all the notices that went out in the first week after the shooting, I never saw any reference to a possible injury. Everyone was desperate to catch Booth, and the government had published minutely detailed descriptions of him in the papers as well as circulars and handbills. There was no mention of a broken leg, or even a sprain.
Going back to the database, I was struck by the complete lack of evidence about a leg injury. Eyewitnesses said that Booth ran, darted, glided, bounded or hurried across the stage — but he didn’t limp. As he mounted his horse, left foot in the stirrup, the animal pulled out from under him, and it took a tremendous amount of strength and dexterity — all balanced on that one leg — to gain control and ride off. Maybe he was still too pumped up to notice the pain, but it was quite a while before he reached the Navy Yard Bridge, and the sergeant there saw no sign of agitation or agony. He let Booth cross.
It was not until Booth reached the Surratt Tavern that he really shows signs of having injured himself. From that point on, he would tell many people that his horse tripped and rolled over on him, breaking his leg. He never gave any other explanation, but finding himself accused of a cowardly act, he wrote a brief rebuttal in his pocket diary. This was a grossly exaggerated account of the shooting and escape, and almost everything in it has been dismissed out of hand. The only exception is the phrase “in jumping broke my leg.” This has been taken to mean that he broke his leg while jumping out of the box. I suppose that’s what Booth wanted people to think.
In the course of their investigation, authorities gathered statements from many people who had encountered Booth and David Herold in their flight. They paid little attention to the details, and even less where the getaway horses were concerned. But a few things stood out, and they’ve never been contradicted. First, Booth had rented a small bay mare with a very spirited disposition. A few people called attention to her high-strung qualities during the afternoon of April 14th, and Booth always dismissed concerns with a boast about his fine horsemanship. He rode that horse out of Baptist Alley that night, and six hours later, he arrived at Dr. Mudd’s on a different horse. Booth had switched horses with Herold, whose rented mount happened to be noted for its gentleness and ease in the saddle. When Mudd’s farmhands were asked to describe Herold’s horse, they said that it was lame. It had apparently tripped and rolled on its left side, and its shoulder was swollen. The horse limped.
Booth didn’t often tell the truth, but in the case of the broken leg, he seems to have gotten as close as he ever did. He undoubtedly pushed his horse a good deal, and at some point in the darkeness, the horse stumbled and rolled on its side. Booth’s fibula had snapped sideways just a couple of inches above the ankle. It is one of the most common equestrian injuries, but one that has never been associated with a jump from a high place.
As part of your research, you jumped from the balcony to the stage in the reconstructed Ford’s theater. What was that like? Did you hurt yourself?
I actually jumped from a 14-foot ladder on the stage, and it really was no big deal. I’ve spoken with a few actors who actually did make the same jump, and they also reported it was nothing to write home about. The only exception was Jack Lemmon, who made the leap (from a studio replica of the box) on live TV in 1955. Lemmon told me that it “hurt like hell,” but was only sprained.
You tell the sad story of Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, the two people sitting with the Lincolns in the balcony that fateful night. What happened to them after they married and moved to Germany?
The story of Henry and Clara is one of the most tragic episodes connected with the assassination. Henry retired from the army in 1867 and he married Clara the following day (if I remember correctly). They moved into a house on Jackson Place, across from the White House, and eventually had three children.
Henry had a restless spirit — perhaps boredom had set in, but just as likely, he was tormented by his memories of the assassination. At some point he and Clara decided to get away for a while, and they moved to Hannover, Germany. There, on the night of December 23rd, Henry went into a strange fit and Clara (who had seen this sort of thing before) yelled for their nanny to lock the children in their room. They heard screams and a gunshot, and after a period of silence, the nanny opened the door and found Henry and Clara in a heap on the floor. Clara was dead from a gunshot wound, and Henry was badly injured with a self-inflicted knife wound. It was as though he had re-enacted the assassination in some bizarre way.
Henry was taken to an asylum in the village of Hildesheim, where he lived out his days. He died in 1911.
As I always say, the list of Booth’s victims included many people, not just Lincoln and Seward. In the 1970s I contacted a granddaughter of Henry and Clara, and she brought out some family treasures to show me. There were many reminders of those two tragedies, and it occurred to me that their lives came to be defined by what happened in Ford’s Theatre. They could never escape the feeling that they had survived, and that sense of guilt proved too much for Henry to bear. When I contacted Mrs. Hartley, she told me that nobody had ever asked about her grandparents, and she wasn’t even sure of what she might have from them. I couldn’t help thinking that for many years, nobody had dared to bring it up. It was just too unpleasant.
Has anyone ever researched the Rathbone case based on the German archives?
In the early 1990s I gave a bus tour and mentioned the fate of Major Rathbone. A woman on the bus was excited to hear it. She had grown up in Hildesheim, and her mother still lived there. Her mother enthusiastically dug out some old records and newspaper articles, and she translated them for me. Subsequently, much has been written about the Rathbones — most notably, a fine book called Worst Seat in the House, by Caleb Jenner Stephens. And, by the way, I can always recommend a work of fiction on the topic. I think that Thomas Mallon’s novel Henry and Clara is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.
Thanks so much, Mr. Kauffman, for your comments and all the work that went into your fascinating book.
Which part of Michael Kauffman’s research surprised you the most?