“I have too great a soul to die like a criminal.”

DEATH OF AN ASSASSIN: Homicide, Suicide or Something Else?

by Steven G. Miller


One of the longest-running controversies surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, concerns the question of whether Booth was shot by Sergt. Boston Corbett on April 26, 1865, or if he shot himself. This matter of suicide versus homicide — whether justified or not — has been around since the news first broke that Booth was dead, and the issue is still debated today. I have long been of the opinion that Booth was shot by Sergt. Corbett. I think the forensic evidence, expressed by Dr. J. Janvier Woodward in the 1865 autopsy and seconded by Dr. John K. Lattimer in his 1980 book and follow up article, shows that the fatal bullet was fired from a cavalry revolver from a distance of a few yards, rather than by a revolver or rifle from a few inches — as would be the case if Booth shot himself with one of the weapons he carried. The strongest piece of evidence about the shooting is the 1865 letter from one of the members of the patrol that captured Booth, Private Emory Parady. On April 28, 1865, Parady wrote that, at the time he was shot, Booth “was in the act of raising his caribine when crack went a pistol”.

However, after reading as many eyewitness accounts as possible during the preparation of a manuscript concerning the death of the assassin, I’m not sure that this conclusion contains the whole story. In fact, I think that there may be a middle ground between these two positions. I’ve concluded that Booth’s death may be the most famous, heretofore undiagnosed example of what law-enforcement officers now generally call “suicide by cop.”
In other words, Booth was killed by Sergt. Corbett, but that the assassin set it up so that the soldier virtually had no choice in the matter.
There are several terms by which this controversial phenomena is known: “police assisted suicide” (PAS), “homicide by law enforcement,” “in the line of duty shootings,” “victim precipitated homicide” (VPH). The last term preferred is by Canadian Criminologist Richard B. Parent who has done a major study of the phenomena. The most commonly used phrase by law enforcement and the media, however, is “suicide by cop,” also known by the abbreviation SBC.
A rough definition of SBC is: “A form of suicide in which a person intentionally provokes law enforcement agents or police officers into using deadly or lethal force against them.”
It is generally agreed that people with a death wish who resort to this method do it for a variety of reasons, some known and some unknown. These may include depression, cowardice or the inability to kill themselves, religious beliefs that prevent the taking of one’s own life, a sort of macho idea of “taking someone with me”, or a notion of dying for a cause (martyrdom). There are also incidents in which police officers, fearing for their own safety, have had to use deadly force on a suspect who is seemingly out of control on alcohol or drugs, or is so mentally disturbed that they can’t be reasoned with or restrained. Do these instances constitute “suicide by cop”? No.
There are four criteria that law enforcement officers use to classify incidents of SBC:
1. The subject must indicate the intent to die.
2. The subject must have a clear understanding of the finality of the act.
3. The subject must confront a law enforcement official to the degree that it compels that officer to act with deadly force.
4. The subject dies as a result of the confrontation.
Booth’s decision, I believe, was prompted by a series of events that convinced him that escape was impossible and that he faced imprisonment, trial and execution at the end of a rope. The first of these so-called “trigger events” occurred immediately after the shooting of the president. Booth sustained a broken left leg, either in the dramatic leap from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre after the assassination or in a horseback accident shortly thereafter. Once he broke his leg, his ability to escape was seriously hampered. Following that, he received a luke-warm reception in Maryland — his home state — but at least he was helped by members of the Confederate underground. He probably expected that Virginians would be much more accepting of his deed and be of more assistance. Once across the river into Virginia he met three confederate soldiers, Bainbridge, Ruggles and Jett. They promised to help him and this buoyed his spirits, but after a while didn’t seem to be of much value. At first they helped hide him and promised to try to get him further south, but they spent their time drinking and frittering away the hours instead of coming up with any concrete plans.’
This allowed the manhunters to catch up to Booth and he was stuck without a plan of escape. Booth was finally left with a typical middle-class Virginia family, the Garrett’s. He was introduced to them under an assumed name and the family had no idea who he really was. The two older Garrett sons were recently returned Confederate soldiers and farmer Garrett was an educated and semi-prominent man. They would be a good barometer of the reaction of locals. Booth was at dinner with them when the news of the assassination was brought in by one of the sons. The family members, far from praising the deed, expressed their opinion that it was a terrible blow to an already defeated south. The father, Richard Henry Garrett, condemned it in “the strongest terms.”
Booth still had a chance to escape, however, but did not have a horse to ride. He and his companion David Herold, rowed across the Potomac to Maryland and were, thus, unable to bring mounts with them. They were brought to the Garrett farm by the three rebel soldier on horseback, but only by riding double. The Garrett’s refused to sell Booth a horse and made only token attempts to arrange for a wagon to take them on to another location. On the late afternoon of April 24th the situation grew decidedly more desperate. Two of the soldiers, Ruggles and Bainbridge, came up to the gate at the Garrett house and warned Booth and Herold that Yankee troops were entering the town of Port Royal, three miles north. The rebels did not offer to help the assassins escape. Instead they wished the wanted pair good luck, told them to hide themselves and quickly departed. The northerners rode by on the southbound road and stopped to water their horses across from the Garrett house. One of the sons went over to ask a neighbor what they soldiers were doing. He was told that they were looking for two men, one with a broken leg. The Garrett’s hospitality then grew ice cold and Booth and Herold were denied permission to even sleep in the family house. They were told them must move on. The pair did not have the ability to travel, but tried to make plans to leave on the next morning in a hired wagon. The Garrett’s begrudgingly allowed them to sleep in the tobacco house/barn/storage building, but locked them in and sent two sons out to ensure that they did not steal the family horses. By this time Booth must have seen all his options gone and made up his mind that he had to do something to forestall capture and a humiliating death. I believe he chose suicide by cop.
Does the shooting of Booth fit the SBC profile? Consider the following: 1. On April 24, 1865, Booth told one of the Confederate soldiers he met, Lt. A.B. Ruggles, that he would never be taken alive. When surrounded by Union troops in Garrett’s tobacco house the soldiers demanded that Booth give himself up. He called out: “Surrender? The word was never in my vocabulary! I have never learned the meaning of it.”
Though the pursuers did not know it until later, he had written in his notebook—
“the so called “diary” that he had ” too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may He (God), may He spare me that, and let me die bravely.”
In 1865, the usual method for executing criminals was by hanging. That was a fate that Booth surely knew he faced if captured. During his days as a fugitive he had been supplied with newspapers reporting on his crime. He knew that there was a huge reward offered for his capture, that there were a large number of searchers hot on his trail, and that, because of the broken leg he suffered right after the assassination his odds of escape were minuscule.
When asked to surrender his weapons he said, “These guns are mine and I may have to use them on you.”
He also prevented Jack Garrett and Corp. Herman Newgarten from piling wood against the side of barn by telling them he would shoot if they persisted. When told that if he did not surrender they would set fire to the barn, his response was: “Well, prepare a stretcher for me.”
He dramatically yelled from inside the barn: “Another stain on the glorious old banner.”
After he was shot he mumbled, “Tell mother I died for my Country.”
He died on Garrett’s porch as a result of the gunshot wound. While lying wounded after being carried from the barn he begged the soldiers to kill him. Some historians have concluded that he wanted them to do that to ease his pain, but perhaps he was worried that the troops t killed him after all, and that he might survive the injury. One of the detectives said they did not want him to die, but rather to get better. Given all the evidence that is presented above, Booth seems to meet all the four criteria of a SBC:
1. He told several people (Lt. Ruggles, for instance) beforehand that he would never be taken alive. He also wrote that in his diary. This shows intent.
2. He threatened the troops who were trying to arrest him and he stated that he was a cripple and that he would fight then singly if they would move back and allow him to come out of the barn. He didn’t seriously believe that he could have outfought them all and somehow escape. When told he would face a fiery death in a burning barn, he said that they had better prepare a stretcher for him. He clearly knew that he was facing death one way or another. This indicates knowledge that his action would result in his death.
3. When confronted with the option of surrendering or burning to death, he chose to raise and point his rifle toward the front door where Herold was being taken out by Lieut. Doherty. This action prompted Sergt. Corbett to shoot at him. Corbett’s shot hit Booth through the neck, rather than the arm as intended. The sergeant testified that he could have shot Booth beforehand, but that he held his fire until such time as Booth seriously posed a threat to someone else. What Booth did caused the shooting.
4. Booth died as a result of the wound. (He even begged them to finish him off, in case the wound was not fatal.)
After long study I concluded that the death of John Wilkes Booth clearly met all four criteria for classification as Suicide by Cop.
John Wilkes Booth’s escape plans for an escape after the assassination of the President apparently centered on out distancing his pursuers and getting out of America to a save haven, possibly Mexico. Unfortunately for his plans, he broke his leg after the shooting of the president. This injury essentially reduced his changes of a successful escape to next to zero. Dr. Samuel Mudd confirmed his worst fears, that the leg was seriously injured. Once he made contact with Thomas A. Jones and went to ground, he learned that the massive manhunt was very close to him. Before he was able to cross the Potomac he must have concluded that his escape was unlikely and that he must take drastic steps if he was to avoid the hangman’s noose. His choice was almost certainly SBC.
1. Ingraham, Prentiss, (Editor), “Pursuit and Death of John Wilkes Booth,” THE CENTURY MAGAZINE, 1889. Lt. Ruggles stated: “(Booth) said that he would never be taken alive. If he had not broken his leg he could readily have distanced all pursuit. . . .there was no braggadocio about him; simply a determination to submit to the inevitable, parleying when it should become necessary to do so. The few extracts he read me from his diary showed this.”
4. Parent, Richard B., “Suicide by Cop,” POLICE MAGAZINE, September 1999. (Parent examined the phenomenon of victim precipitated homicide, also known as suicide by cop, in his thesis, entitled “Aspects of Police Use of Deadly Force in British Columbia: The Phenomenon of Victim Precipitated Homicide”. He is a Canadian police officer who was a Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University when he did the study.
5. Emory Parady letter’s 4/28/1865 is from the Millington-Parady Papers, author’s collection.

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