Today’s post comes from Emma Rothberg, intern in the National Archives History Office.
Tucked in a corner in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives in Washington, DC, is a rectangular piece of paper faded grey with time. It is unobtrusive and, due to its small size, could easily be missed among the larger and flashier documents and artifacts. But this card is a reminder of one of the most resonant and well known stories of American history—that of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by the actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
On April 14, 1865, Vice President Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House—a hotel that stood at the corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Also in the hotel, and in a room directly one floor above the Vice President’s suite, was George Atzerodt. He was a fellow conspirator in Booth’s larger plot to murder President Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Vice President Johnson and thus throwing the recently victorious North into chaos and disarray. Atzerodt—a German carriage painter from Maryland who had spent the Civil War years ferrying Confederates across the Potomac—arrived at the Kirkwood House on the morning of the 14th. His task: to assassinate Vice President Johnson.
Like a character from a bad cop movie, Atzerodt proved to be an inept conspirator—he signed for the room with his own name and spent most of his “surveillance” time in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about Johnson. Once drunk, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point him in the direction of the Vice President’s ground-floor room. When told that Johnson had just returned to his room, Atzerodt balked and immediately left the hotel. He spent the next several hours drunkenly wandering around the streets of Washington. Vice President Johnson left shortly afterward for his own meeting with Lincoln at the White House.
Later that afternoon, just hours before he assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth arrived at the Kirkwood Hotel looking for George Atzerodt. Upon learning of his co-conspirator’s flight, Booth asked for a blank card, addressed it to Vice President Johnson and wrote, “Don’t wish to disturb you Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.”
This card is now on display in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” an exhibit at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.
We all know the rest of the story. President Lincoln, joined by his wife Mary, Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, attended a staging of the popular comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street on the night of April 14. Having acted on its stage, Booth knew the ins and outs of the theatre, and he was also quite familiar with the play. He walked up the back stairs, waited for the line that would garner the most laughs (Mr. Trenchard: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologizing old man-trap”), and fired into the back of Lincoln’s head.
The crowd was at first unaware of what had happened, thinking it was a part of the play, until audience members heard Mary’s scream from the Presidential box and saw Booth jumping to the stage. As he jumped, he caught his boot spur on the bunting and broke his left shin bone as he landed. Booth then uttered his famous line, “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants,” the Virginia state motto—before hobbling off the stage and making his escape on horseback.
President Abraham Lincoln died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.
Historians continue to debate why Booth would have left this card for Vice President Johnson. The Senate’s biography on Andrew Johnson posits the idea that, upon knowing that Atzerodt was not up to task, Booth devised a plan to implicate the Vice President in the conspiracy. Having to explain a calling card left by the assassin of the President of the United States would certainly create problems for Johnson and further Booth’s ultimate plan of throwing the North into confusion.
Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary William A. Browning picked up the mail (including Booth’s calling card) assuming it was for him. Browning had met Booth once after a theater performance.
Whether or not this is the whole story behind the calling card, the signature gives us pause.
We know what it speaks to, we know the date it was signed, and we recognize the name. We recognize this calling card and this signature—a signature that played a direct role in the assassination of one of the United States’s most beloved Presidents—as small yet important parts in a story that we all know so well.
The exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” is free and open to the public in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2015.