booths gun

This sad and terrible artifact is extremely small–smaller, in fact, than it looks in this photo. It is a Philadelphia derringer, probably manufactured about 1852. On the evening of April 14, 1865, disgruntled actor John Wilkes Booth pulled this small gun from his pocket and crept up behind the chair of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, in a box at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln, his wife and two guests were watching a play called Our American Cousin. The audience did not hear the shot. Lincoln never regained consciousness.

Derringers were popular in the mid-19th century. While not very practical as weapons, they were deadly enough at the close ranges for which they were designed. The typical cliché depicts card sharks in Wild West saloons hiding derringers in their clothes or under the table and whipping them out at crucial moments. This is not far from the truth. Because of its compact size a derringer could not hold more than one shot; this weapon is neither a revolver nor obviously has any automatic features. If you used one you had to be up-close and personal, and you’d better not miss. As Booth proved in 1865, even this sort of clumsy device could put a tragic twist in a nation’s history.

Lincoln was the third U.S. President to die in office and the first of four to be assassinated. His cowardly murder by Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, is generally thought of as the last act of the Civil War, which formally ended the previous Sunday with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Even without Booth’s bullet Lincoln was not long for the world. Recent scholarship has revealed the startling conclusion that he was probably dying of cancer at the time and likely wouldn’t have lived more than a few more months.

Booth’s gun is on permanent display in the basement of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where it was used that night. It occupies a shelf along with the content of Lincoln’s pockets, which included a piece of string and a Confederate $5 bill. This is one of the few artifacts in this series I’ve seen in real life. It was fascinating and very sad at the same time. It also made me feel somewhat uncomfortable. But it’s a part of history, and a lot of history is uncomfortable.

The photo of Booth’s derringer is by Wikimedia Commons user Wknight94 and is used under GNU Free Documentation license.