Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Diary of John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth

When John Wilkes Booth fled Ford's Theater after shooting Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, he was chased down and killed in a barn on a farm in Virginia two weeks later. Officers found a red leather diary on his body that contained only two entries along with photos of five women. In the entries, which were later published in the New York Times, John Wilkes Booth defended his actions and denied that killing the president was wrong or immoral. He also expressed his anger at being hunted by the police and stated he couldn't understand why he was being persecuted instead of thanked:

April 13, 14, Friday, the Ides...I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through thousands of his friends, and was stopped, but pushed in. A Colonel was at his side, I shouted “Sic Semper” before I fired; in jumping broke my leg. I passed all of his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment....Friday, 21st – After being hunted like a dog, through swamps and woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return, wet, cold and starving, with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair; and why? For doing what Brutus was honored for, what made Tell a hero; and yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cut-throat. My action was purer than either of theirs....I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country, and that alone – a country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this to end, and yet no behold the cold hand they extend me! God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong except in serving a degenerate people.... For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family , and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so....God, try and forgive me and bless my mother. To-night I will once more try the river with the intent to cross, though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to to return to Washington , and, in a measure, clear my name, which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck; I may before God, but not to man....To-night I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who can read this fate? God's will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may he spare me that, and let me die bravely!”

John Wilkes Booth's diary

The diary was taken off of John Wilkes Booth's body by Colonel Everton Conger and passed around to various military officials, including the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and General Holt, yet it was never introduced as evidence in the 1865 Conspiracy Trial of Booth's accomplices.

The diary was rediscovered in 1867 in an old war department file and although the two original entries remained intact, much speculation was made over some mysterious missing pages. Stanton wrote a letter to President Andrew Johnson about the diary, explaining that the pages were already missing when the diary was first discovered on Booth's body and the diary looked no different than on the day they originally discovered it. An official report that same year by General Holt stated that the condition of the diary was still exactly as Holt first saw it in 1865. He theorized that the missing pages probably contained entries from early 1865 and were most likely destroyed by Booth himself. The pages have never been found and their contents remain unknown.

The diary is now on display at Ford's theater in Washington D.C.


Library of Congress: John Wilkes Booth Diary

New York Times; Diary of John Wilkes Booth: An Official Certified Copy; May 1867

Ford's Theater: John Wilkes Booth Diary

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