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The Man Who Witnessed the Assassination of Abe Lincoln

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 21, 2023 3:00 am

The Man Who Witnessed the Assassination of Abe Lincoln

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 21, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Ford's Theater re-enactor Mike Robinson tells the full unknown story through the eyes of AC Richards, Washington's Superintendent of Police.

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Now we're voyaging. And we continue with Our American Stories. A.C. Richards was the chief of police for Washington, D.C. in 1865. He attended a play called Our American Cousin at the Ford's Theater on Good Friday.

But the chief wasn't there for the performance. He was there to see the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who the papers had announced would be there that night. But Richards saw more than just the president. He witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The chief's story is told by Mike Robinson, a reenactor who inhabits Chief Richards' experience to share with audiences the memories of that fateful night. Here is Mike Robinson as the character of the chief to tell the story of the assassination of America's greatest president. My name is A.C. Richards. I was a superintendent of Metropolitan Police from 1864 until 1878. You may address me as chief. And I was in the audience that night on Friday, April 14th, 1865.

Would you be at all interested in what I recall from that evening? Well, the Washington you see today is much different than the Washington of my time. In fact, Charles Dickens came here in the 1840s and he said, Washington is a city of magnificent intentions. It has grand boulevards that start at nothing and go nowhere. Indeed, we had not a single paved road.

In fact, the avenue just down here, which was intended to connect the executive branch with the legislative branch, was unpaved. It was built on a flood plain and every time it rained it would flood out. In 1860, our entire population was a mere 75,000 people and none of us locked our doors at night. And then the war came and our lives were changed forever. By 1865, our population had grown to well over 200,000 people and we all locked our doors at night. The people who came here during those war years were petty foggers and scoundrels. They were people trying to get something out of the federal government.

I'm sure that's no longer true in your time, is it? But they required a great deal of entertainment, so Washington became a very exciting place to live. By 1865, we had over 3,500 saloons.

If you did not like the Star Saloon on this side of Ford Theater, you could well go to the Greenback on this side. We had more than 400, how shall I phrase this, houses of ill fame. In fact, early in the war, one of the generals who was here liked to segregate all of the ladies of the night on the south side of the avenue. The general's name, by the way, was Hooker.

We call that Hooker's Division. Indeed, those war years were very exciting years and there was no more exciting time than that week in April of 1865. That week started with Palm Sunday, April 9th, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia and we started to think that perhaps this terrible time was finally ending. I know that many of you in the audience think of our war, the rebellion, as a remarkably romantic period. Beautiful ladies in hook skirts and handsome, brave young gentlemen in military uniforms. Indeed, we all enthusiastically marched off to war in 1961.

After all, this war would last for only three months. Or so they told us. What fools were we? By 1865, we had all seen the elephant. By 1865, we knew what war was. By 1865, we had lost more than 750,000 of our finest young men.

So many young men. This was a whole generation of future leaders that had been taken from us. There was hardly a household in the nation, north or south, that was untouched by morning. It was a cruel, cruel war. So you can imagine how we felt that following Monday when we learned that Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.

Now there were still over 100,000 Confederates in the field, and the Confederate government had not yet been captured. Everyone knew that Bobby Lee had the most important army in the Confederacy, and we started to think that perhaps this was the beginning of the end. So a group of us Lincoln men, and I must admit, I was a Lincoln man then, I am a Lincoln man now, and I shall always be a Lincoln man. A group of us got together and we marched up to the White House to serenade the president. As we were singing, he came out on the balcony, and we shouted, speech, speech! There was no one better at speechifying than Abe Lincoln, and we expected something very special this evening. After all, he was the man who had led us through this terrible time. But old Abe, he hated to speak off the cuff. He told us if we would come back the following evening, he would be sure to have a few words prepared to say to us.

Of course we did that. Well, I must tell you that he surprised us by what he had to say. It was not at all an inspirational speech. It was a very technical talk about how he would reunite the nation, what would come to be called Reconstruction. He said that he would emancipate all the slaves.

Now that certainly surprised no one. As many of you know, in January of 1963, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the slaves in secession territory. And indeed, by February of 1965, we had passed the 13th Amendment. It had not yet been ratified, but we were well on the way to eradicating this terrible blot, the blot of slavery, which lay upon our Constitution. What he said, in addition, was that he felt that intelligent black men and those who fought for the Union cause deserved the right to vote. Now he had certainly come a long way from the time when he was advocating colonizing all blacks outside of the nation.

But upon reflection, it seemed only just. More than 200,000 brave black men fought for the Union cause. Two-thirds of them were former slaves. They were fighting for their families, but they were also fighting for our country. Without them, we could not have won the war. Had they not earned the right to vote? Many of us thought so.

But not all. There were three men standing on the periphery of the crowd, one dressed all in black, turned to the other two, and he said, and now by God, I'll put him through. That's the last speech he'll ever make. And you're listening to Mike Robinson. The story of Lincoln's assassination continues here on Our American Story. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

Stories from our big cities and small towns. But we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Another week, another free pass to entertainment. Check out all the shows and movies you can watch with Xfinity Flex, no strings attached. Face the darkness in the season two premiere of Yellow Jackets from Showtime. Crack open the history vault and dig into shows like America, The Story of Us. Then watch free picks from networks like Disney Story Central and more with the kids. Give your ear some love with Hit Nation Junior on iHeart Radio. Easily discover new free content each week across the best streaming apps.

Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. And we return to our American stories and to Mike Robinson in the character of Chief A.C. Richards who witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Let's listen to what he saw. Friday, April 14th, 1865, when I learned that Abraham Lincoln would be here at Ford's Theatre that evening, I decided I should be too. Now this was Good Friday. I would not have normally come to the theater on that evening. Indeed, I came that evening, not to see the play Our American Cousin. I came to see that great man, Abraham Lincoln. Well, the play was scheduled to commence at eight that evening.

The presidential party was nowhere in sight. The show started anyway. It was not until about half past eight that President Lincoln and his party came into the building.

They climbed the spiral staircase and were seen walking across the dress circle. The leading lady stopped the play. The band rose up and played Hail to the Chief and the audience went mad. This was the man who had saved our nation. We watched him as he walked around the dress circle and went through this yellow door. He next appeared just here, turned to us, smiled at us, obviously he was enjoying us as much as we enjoyed him, doffed us at, and the play recommenced. About nine that evening, another actor in this drama came into the theater, but not through the front door this time. He entered through the stage door, dropped through a trap door, proceeded beneath the stage, remember the play was ongoing, emerged from a trap door on this side, went down the alley and into the star saloon.

He would fortify himself for the dirty work yet to come. He came back into the theater shortly before ten that evening. He was seen talking to some of the patrons in the back of the theater.

Can anyone tell me what Wilkes Booth's profession was? He was an actor indeed, and this was the largest role he had ever played. This evening he was playing on a world stage. He was not about to hide anything he would do this evening. He sought to achieve his place in history. Shortly after ten, he climbed the spiral staircase, walked around the dress circle to a man sitting just outside the presidential door. The man's name was Charles Forbes.

He was a presidential messenger. Booth walked up to Forbes, reached into his pocket, and presented Forbes with a calling card upon which it said, J. Wilkes Booth. Lincoln had seen Booth on this very stage in 1963 and admired his acting talent. Forbes allowed Booth through this yellow door into the outer vestibule of the box.

Booth closed the door and propped it shut. He was waiting for something he knew would take place during the third act second scene of this play. The play was Our American Cousin. It was a comedy about a bumpkin from Vermont who went to England to marry an English girl, and then her mother found that he had no money. Well, you can imagine what happened to that marriage. It would be a point in this play, third act second scene, when the leading man would be the only man on stage, leaving it unobstructed for an escape. He has just been told by his potential mother-in-law that he cannot marry his fiancée, and he addresses her as she walks off stage. Not familiar with the manners of good society, hey?

Well, I guess I know enough to turn to you, inside-out, old gal. You sockdoligizing old man-trap? At which point the audience burst into laughter. That was Booth's cue. He entered the inner box, approached the president rapidly from behind, reached into his pocket, pulled out a.44 caliber derringer, and fired once into the back of the president's head. The first man to realize what had happened was Major Rathbone.

He had been sitting in the corner. He jumped up and struggled Booth. Booth threw the gun down, pulled out a dagger, and tried to stab Rathbone in the heart. Rathbone defended himself, but he was sliced to the bone.

Booth leapt to the stage, landed awkwardly on his right leg, went down on that knee. As he rose up, he brandished the bloody dagger above his head, turned to the audience, and shouted, Sick, Sip, or Tyranus! It's the state motto of Virginia. We had used it in our war against old King George. It means, thus, always to tyrants. Not coincidentally, it's what's reputed to have been said upon the assassination of Julius Caesar. That was Booth's statement. He was saving the country by assassinating a tyrant.

He was Brutus to Lincoln's Julius Caesar. He ran across stage and out the stage door. Major Rathbone came to the edge of the balcony and shouted, Stop that man!

Stop that man! That's when I first realized something was terribly amiss. I left my seat in the audience and made my way to the stage. That whole period of time from when the gun was fired until when I arrived on stage was only slightly more than a minute, but it seemed an eternity. I searched the darkened stage for the culprit, but could find no one.

Eventually, I made my way to the stage door and opened it just in time to hear the sound of receding hoof beats. It was not until I came back into the theater that I was told that the President had been assassinated. I was the first officer on the scene, so I immediately started the investigation. The first person I interviewed was Miss Laura King.

She was the star of the show. She told me, I know not who shot the President, but the man who ran across stage was Wilkes Booth. We knew within half an hour that John Wilkes Booth was the assassin. Subsequent to that, I talked to Mr. Ferguson, who had been sitting just here.

Ferguson owned the Greenback Saloon on this side of Ford's Theater. He told me he had frequently seen Booth associating with Davey Harrell, Louis Payne, George Atzrat, and John Surratt. Shortly thereafter, we learned that this was a much larger conspiracy. We heard that an attempt had been made on the Secretary of State's life. This was not just to assassinate our beloved President.

It was to destroy our very nation. We launched the largest manhunt in American history to run the miscreants to ground 12 days later outside of Port Royal, Virginia. Booth was caught in a tobacco barn in the early hours of the morning of April 26, 1865, long before sunrise. The cavalry set the barn afire to force him out.

He could be seen moving about inside when he reached for his rifle and headed for the door. Sergeant Boston Corbett, fearing for the lives of his men, pulled his pistol, took aim, and fired once, striking Booth in the neck and severing his spine. He would die within two hours, a slow, miserable death appropriate to a dastardly assassin. But do you know what his final words were?

Tell my mother I'd die for my country. In his own mind, he was the hero of this tragedy he himself had authored. He had saved the country by assassinating a tyrant. John Wilkes Booth sought to achieve a place in history, which indeed he did. But do any of you think of John Wilkes Booth as a great American hero?

He shall be condemned through eternity as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. That night on Friday, April 14, 1865, our beloved president lay dying in his box. He was attended by three physicians. They concluded almost immediately that the wound would be mortal, but the theater was not an appropriate place for such a man to die. They carried him around the dress circle, down the spiral staircase, and out into the street, looking for a place to make him as comfortable as possible in the few hours he had remaining to him.

One of the boarders at the Peterson House just across the street recognized their dilemma and invited them in there. They brought the president in, took him straight back to the back bedroom, where at 7.22 the next morning, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln passed into history. As he died, a light cold rain began to fall over Washington. It was as if the very heavens wept at the loss of our beloved president. I shall always remember that terrible evening.

It started with a small comedy and ended as a large tragedy. Good day to you all. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by John Elfner. And a special thanks to Mike Robinson, who played the part of A.C. Richards, the chief of police for Washington, D.C. And he does this at the Ford Theater. And what a story it is, folks. Good Friday of all days for this to happen. When he gets to the theater, 30 minutes late, the play stops, Hail to the Chief is played, and there's a thunderous ovation. America has finally been relieved of war, and the future beckons without it. And what a life that John Wilkes Booth lived.

And what a decision to make. And he made it, thinking he was saving the country. And he was tracked down just days later and killed. We have that story on our website, as I shared with you earlier, James Swanson's remarkable book, Manhunt, the 12-day chase for Lincoln's killer.

The story of Lincoln's assassination, as told by the Washington, D.C. police chief here on Our American Stories. Let's ride. Eligible items only.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-21 04:19:40 / 2023-03-21 04:28:08 / 8

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