Letter 18 – April 18 1865
A copy of John Wilks Booth's letter justifying his act.
He speaks of the opinions of some who felt that the assassination was done by an abolitionist on the grounds that Lincoln was not extreme enough in punishing the "southern, slave holder rebels".
No summary can begin to approach the experience of reading this letter, started in the darkness of the early morning and continuing as a vivid eyewitness account of how the citizens of Reading responded to LIncoln's death and funeral..
Reading Penna April 18. 1865. 2 Oclock A.M.
Last Saturday morning I was preparing to go to the rope walk, when an acquaintence came And said it was reported that the president of the United States was shot. I hurried up to the one of our telegraph offices. It wanted 15 minutes of the time the operator should be there. I found about fifty men talking about the report and waiting to have it confirmed or contradicted. The report had come by the coal line telegraph about midnight. This is the rail road Co's telegraph line. It is always in operation for the night and day to regulate the numerous coal & goods trains by, and it was by this line we got the first news of the surrender of Lee & his rebel army.
Well, the anxiety was most intense. The suspense between hope and fear was oppressive in the extreme. The operator came. adjusted his instrument, and in a few minutes told us it was true. Abm Lincoln was shot and died about 7 Oclock that morning. (It was then 8 Oclock, so he had been dead only one hour when the sad news was confirmed here. I am now verging on three score years of age, and have passed through some trying times during my life, but I never before felt as I did then. It is utterly impossible to describe my feelings. Wunder what next. appalled at the past and the present, good men stood agast at the future.
Abm Lincoln, the good, the kind hearted, the generous, the patient, the long suffering, the ever forgiving, the noble and humane Abm Lincoln, president of these United States and victorious defender of freedom, justice and the right, was publicly murdered, and the daring demon who had done the develish deed, with the falsehood of hell on his tongue had shouted "Sic Semper tyrannis" and escaped on the instant, in the horror and amazement of at such a bold and daring and aweful crime. Yes "Sic semper tyrannis" was the motto of the villianous and lying murderer.
And I then stood within a hundred feet of where I had seen northern proslavery demogogues stand, only six months before, and boldly declare that Abm Lincoln was a usurper and a tyrant, worse than Charles 1st of England and as richly deserved to die the death he died. I had heard others assert that he ought to be hanged in the same rope that hung John Brown, and now these teachings have been acted out. These vilely false inculcations have been carried out to the bloody end, and there lays Abm Lincoln, the most tried and the best proved president we ever had, with a rebel bullet hole in his head and his brains blown out. What an aweful crime is this. The president of these United States most foully murdered in the full presence of his family and thousands of his people, crowds of his
Jeff Davis is in some small southern town raving out proclamations. But his power is all gone for ever, and he had better be gone too. For if he is caught now, he is as sure to be hanged as he has a neck to put a rope around. It is well known beyond all doubt that Davis and his rebel cabinet are at the bottom of this infernal plot by which our good man, our best man has fallen. It was a widespread
He was for pardoning every one of the guilty rascals & restoring them all their property (except slaves) all their franchises and privileges and putting them in power again all through the south same as they were before. Never, since the creation, was a more insane, mad act done by man than this develish murder of Abm Lincoln by rebel emissaries. The effect through out all the north is aweful, terrible in the extreme.
Strong men stood weeping in the streets, and women shrieked with horror at the heinous crime. The poor blacks take it very hard and seem entirely inconsolable. They worshipped the slavery destroying president as more than a man, and should the negro troops ever have a chance at the vile rebels again they will take a terrible revenge. But, as to that, the whole of the union soldiers are stung almost to madness, and if all resistance by the south does not immediately cease, God help all taken in battle after this.
The whole north crys for vengence. "Justice without mercy, dig graves and stretch hemp" is preached from the pulpits. And their lays the cruel, bloody handed murderous south utterly defeated and powerless at our feet. There are no southern sympathizers now. It is "more than any ones life is worth now to say a word against Abm Lincoln or in favor of the rebels.
In several places rank copperheads have been beaten to death for expressing satisfaction at this most foul assassination. Those who slandered Mr Lincoln so last election, now hang their heads in shame and are humbly silent. All works of every kind stopped, and all business was suspended on Saturday at at dinner time. only a few hours after the sad news came.
And every day is almost as silent as a sabbath. The only difference is that there are many people on the streets, around the telegraph offices and railway stations, discussing the meloncholy event & anxious to get news, especially of the arrest of the assassin.
April 19th. Wednesday. This is the day of our first murdered president's funeral. It is far more strictly kept than any Sunday I have ever seen in america. All Nearly every dwelling house, all the churches and public buildings, are hung with the dark emblems of national sorrow. Many are very tastefully and profusely decorated with the dark habiliments of woe. All the churches are open and crowded full of people all array'd in their nicest and best apparel, and many of them mourning for loved ones lost in this cruel war, and nearly all with wearing badges, with the lamented Lincoln's likeness, or some mark of respect for our departed president. I said nearly every house is draped in mourning. a very few show no sign of respect at all. But they are few. Not over 6 or 7 in the whole city, and
I have not the least doubt that if John Brown had taken revenge for his great wrongs by killing the vile betrayer of his country, James Buchanan, hundreds of abolitionists would have been murdered by bloodthirsty proslavery mobs of the kind that committed those cowardly crimes in New York not long since. And it would have been worse still because slaveholders had all the power then and government would have been slow to stop them, most likely looked on approvingly and done nothing to protect us.
We know this by their infamous course in the Kansas troubles 8 or 10 years ago. Many free state men were shot down publicly, in broad daylight, for trying to make Kansas a free state, and their daring murderers were rewarded with good fat offices under the government by James Buchanan, the traitor president of the united states, by and with the consent of the then proslavery cabinet and senate. It was indeed fortunate for us all that John Browns frenzy for freedom did not take the notion that this Booth's frenzy for slavery has, and lead him to slaughter the then president. If it had, very likely I should never have lived to become your correspondent. Several of these proslavery democrats
Remember me kindly to your parents.
A copy of John Wilks Booth's letter justifying his act.
This is the one letter that we still cannot read without feeling the anguish of our great, great uncle. His accuracy in this on the spot report of Lincoln's death has withstood the test of time for accuracy
or this website in general.