The New Dying Words of John Wilkes Booth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

John Wilkes Booth
April 1865

Behind the curtain of the Lincoln assassination is a strange New Hampshire love story. Lucy Hale, daughter of an abolitionist senator, was reportedly engaged to the man who killed President Lincoln. Whether it wasa real love or a manipulative game, no one knows. It was real, at least, from Lucy's view. But what it is was real from the other side too?




SEE: Tour of Lincoln's Assassination Site
ALSO READ: Lincoln the Vamprie Slayer
SEE MORE: Lucy Lambert Hale

Abraham Lincoln was murdered at Ford's Theater 140 years ago. If this was 1865, you and I would be in shock. We would find ourselves suddenly sobbing, unable to talk about the news. A minute later, remembering that the long bloody Civil War was over, there might be a jolt of elation, then the crashing realization that the man who carried us through tens of thousands of deaths, was himself freshly slaughtered.

Abraham Lincoln / Library of CongressAt this point in the story, with a $100,000 bounty being offered, John Wilkes Booth is still at large, hiding in the swamps of Virginia, writing in his journal, waiting for the Confederacy to raise him to glory for shooting President Lincoln in the back of the head. Hundreds of witnesses to the murder in Washington are being interviewed. Scores of people who knew the famous actor are being detained or jailed. Booth is at large. After jumping from the theater box to the stage he escaped on horseback out the back stage door. No one knows how many conspirators were part of this plot. Everyone is a suspect.

It took over a week for soldiers to track Booth to a barn at Garrett Farm. We've heard the story so many times since that it reads like a fairy tale. They set the barn on fire hoping to smoke out the assassin. Finally, Booth appeared through the flames, his leg broken from his leap to the stage at Ford’s Theater. A soldier shot him in the spine. He lay paralyzed, mumbling and crying for the soldiers to kill him. He asked the soldiers to tell his mother that, what he did, he did for his country. But there was no country. The South had lost the war.

Then John Wilkes Booth made a strange request. He asked that his hands be lifted up so he could see them. This was done. He stared at his hands for a moment and mumbled, "Useless, useless." Then he died. Perhaps that is exactly what Booth said. Perhaps he said something else. Open your mind and stick with me for a moment. Maybe we can change history.

John Wilkes Booth had a fiancée. As he lay dying on the porch of Garrett’s farm he was engaged to Miss Lucy Hale of Dover, New Hampshire.

Lucy’s father, NH Senator John P. Hale forcefully denied the engagement story. But witnesses reported seeing Lucy and John Wilkes Booth spooning in the public rooms of the National Hotel in Washington, DC. Perhaps the actor was simply playing Lucy for a fool. Using her father’s connections, Lucy had gotten a ticket to Lincoln’s second inauguration ceremony for her boyfriend. You can see Booth standing within striking distance of the President in a famous photograph. It is a chilling picture.

When Booth died outside that burning barn, he was carrying a portrait of Lucy in his pocket. The small photo of Lucy and a number of other women are on display in the museum beneath Ford’s Theater. Lucy’s home too is a museum in Seacoast, New Hampshire. Guides at the Hale House mention the Booth connection, but the historic emphasis is always on father JP Hale’s record as the nation’s first Abolitionist senator.

Until now, history has played Lucy, better known as "Bessie" Hale, like an innocent footnote to the death of Lincoln. Booth was a ladies' man and Lucy was just one of the ladies he played to off stage, historians say. She was the toast of Washington society and the daughter of an influential Senator. She had attracted the attention of Oliver Wendell Homes Jr.. Her father hated Booth's lowly actor status and, some say, had hoped to marry Lucy to the President's son Robert Todd.

"The Day Lincoln Died", a made-for-TV-movie, offers an imagined scene between the lovers. Booth sweeps Lucy onto the dance floor at the hotel where both were staying. "Have you gone mad?" Lucy says breathlessly as they spin around the ballroom.

"Mad for you," Booth cajoles. "Have I caused you some trouble?"

"Seeing as my father's jaw is resting in his soup, I'd say so," she replies.


Jason Hindle, who has given the summer tours at the Hale House in Dover, tells a story that cuts to the bone of the affair. Jason says Lucy gave John Wilkes Booth a ring which he flaunted openly, whether to display his love for Lucy or to taunt her abolitionist father, we'll never know. Senator Hale, like Lincoln, was hated in the South. Booth, who acted briefly as a Confederate spy, was enraged by Abolitionists and by Lincoln’s efforts to both free the slaves and give them the vote.

Lucy Hale

But is it possible that, despite her father’s politicts, Booth was truly smitten with Lucy? He reportedly showed his engagement ring to an actor friend in a tavern shortly before the assassination. Booth continued kissing the ring and calling Lucy's name. His companion found this behavior disturbing.

Originally, Booth and his conspirators intended to kidnap Lincoln, not kill him. Booth had no intention of dying for his cause and expected to be even more famous when the deed was done. Lucy – and again our evidence is anecdotal – continued her passionate feelings for Booth even after the murder.

In the film, devastated by the fall of Richmond, Booth runs to Lucy Hale for comfort. They spend the night before the assassination together. That is pure fiction. Booth had spent the night in a hotel with a woman in a nearby town a few days before. It was more likely Ella Star, Booth's "good time girl" whose sister ran a high class bordello.

According to White House records, Senator John P. Hale met with President Lincoln in his office on the morning of April 14 at 10 am. After 20 years as a New Hampshire senator, Hale had lost an election. The morning of the assassination, Hale reportedly asked Lincoln for a post as American aAmbassador to Spain. He wanted Lucy out of the country fast, and out of the influence of John Wilkes Booth.

Ford's Theatre, Washington, DCOn the day of the assassination Booth met with his co-conspirators, then went to Ford's Theater and rigged the doorway so that he could slip into the President's box unnoticed. Witnesses also reported seeing Lucy and John in conversation in a public room at the hotel late that same morning. Perhaps Lucy told her fiancée of her father’s plan to spirit her away to Spain. In the fictionalized film, Lucy begs Booth to let her stay with him, but he suddenly grows philosophical. "Your father is doing the right thing," he says. "I would only cause you pain."

For a moment let’s consider the possibility that John Wilkes Booth truly loved Lucy Hale. He may have cared for her in a deeper way than he did for the showgirls that he won so easily. Wooing Lucy was either Booth's finest performance, or it was real. In some ways, it even makes sense. She was from a wholly different world, the star-crossed Capulet to his Montague. Booth even wrote to tell his mother about his planned marriage to Bessie Hale. His mother's response was tinged with jealousy toward her son's news.

Was Lucy’s imminent departure for Spain a factor in the chain of events that followed? Did her news -- combined with General Lee’s surrender at Appomatax and Lincoln’s plan to attend Ford’s Theater -- push Booth finally into action after so many months of talk? Losing Lucy meant the end of Booth’s VIP access to presidential functions. Losing Lucy was also the direct action of President Lincoln. The man who had destroyed both the South and it sway of life, was now destroying Booth’s planned marriage. Perhaps, in Booth’s mind, Lincoln had even stolen Lucy away for his own son Robert Todd. Booth had reportedly seen Lucy dance with Robert Todd and been jealous.

The new pieces, right or wrong, fall hauntingly together. The evening of the assassination Booth carried both a gun and a knife to the presentation of "My American Cousin." With Robert Todd attending, he might have had two murders in mind – one to avenge his country, the other his heart.


But Robert Todd did not attend the play on April 14, nor did Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who arrived in town that day. But Booth had crossed an emotional line and there was no going back. His co-conspirators, directed to kill Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward both failed. Booth escaped into infamy and Lucy disappeared from public view. Although every person who had even a passing acquaintance with Booth was interrogated. The conspirators wre publicly hanged. Even Mrs. Surratt, the woman who owned the house where the conspirators met was hanged. Lucy Hale – the assassin’s fiancée seen talking to him the morning of the murder -- was not even questioned.

Lucy Hale and her father spent the next five years in Spain where the aging senator suffered from depression that one writer has called "National Hotel disease". The country too mourned for years and years. Lucy apparently still carried a torch for the nation’s most despised man. According to Booth’s brother Edwin, also a famous actor, Lucy wrote to him after the assassination, still distraught over the death of her intended.

Booth's Capture / Library of Congress

So let’s carry this version to a strange alternative conclusion. Imagine that Lucy was to John Wilkes Booth like Jodie Foster was to John Hinckley Jr. – and much more. Perhaps she really did love him unconditionally. She was the little girl from New Hampshire, captivated by his ambition, fame, talent and good looks. She was the Senator’s daughter, chaste and unreachable and willing to do anything for love. Maybe what they had was real.

When the soldiers dragged Booth's wounded body onto the porch at the Garrett Farm, he asked that a message be delivered to his mother. Then John Wilkes Booth made a strange request, one that has puzzled historians for over a century. He asked that his hands be lifted up so he could see them. He stared, possibly, not at his paralyzed hand, but at the ring on his hand -- the engagement ring he had kissed hundreds of times.

Then Booth mumbled something that has been misquoted ever since. It sounded like, "Useless, useless." But they were garbled, gurgling sounds, whispered, barely audible according to witnesses. Booth was just repeating what he had said as he kissed the ring in the tavern weeks before, He had probably been repeating this mantra for days as he hid in the Virginia swamp growing colder, hungrier and lonelier.

Think about it. Say the words out loud and you'll know the truth at last. Booth was repeating his lover's name. He said, "Lucy -- Lucy." He moved his dry cracked lips as if to kiss the ring a final time -- and died.

"The New Dying Words of John Wilkes Booth"
Copyright (c) 2005 J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without permission. Originally appeared online here April 20, 1998.