At least John Wilkes Booth had a sense of humor.

Booth was an actor, an esteemed one. When he entered into a plot to take out Washington's three most influential politicians, a plot hatched because the conspirators discovered that kidnapping President Lincoln was just too damn difficult, Booth decided to do it with flair.

The play at Ford's Theater (still a working playhouse, I might add) and attended by the Lincolns and their two guests, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, was Our American Cousin, in which a bumbling American farmboy is thrown into his wealthy English relatives' upper-class social circles. Predictably, hilarity ensues. Booth knew this play quite well, having acted in it previously, and timed his assassination to coincide with one of the play's biggest laugh lines. As the rube exclaimed, "Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sockdologizing old man-trap!" (gotta love nineteenth century humor) a shot rang out, Rathbone was stabbed and a laughline of Booth's own ("Sic Semper Tyrannis," the state motto of Virginia) echoed out from the stage.

Booth was the only assassin that day who was successful. Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Henry Seward were the other two targets apart from President Lincoln - Johnson's assassin chickened out and Seward's managed to kill or maim practically everybody in Seward's bedroom apart from the man himself.

The President died laughing. I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse.

Sarah Vowell. Assassination vacation. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.