Booth’s Broken Leg
Where did John Wilkes Booth break his leg?
Anyone who knows anything about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln knows that, after he shot Lincoln, Booth jumped from the box, caught his spur on the American flag, fell to the stage, and broke his leg. It is one of history’s great ironies: The Stars and Stripes enabled justice to be served by slowing the assassin and enabling his eventual capture and death.
In the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, when Mike was going through the eyewitness accounts, he noticed something: Not a single eyewitness reported seeing Booth limp as he fled across the stage after he shot President Abraham Lincoln. The more Mike looked at the testimony, the more the evidence pointed to the idea that Booth had not broken his leg in Ford’s Theatre. The evidence revealed Booth’s leg was broken at a later point in his escape, when his horse stumbled and fell on him.
As John Wilkes Booth escaped into the April night, authorities had no idea that he had broken his leg. Eyewitnesses in Washington, such as Sgt. Cobb and the people at Ford’s had not reported seeing him limp or noted that he seemed to be in pain. (Those who remembered a limp, remembered it after Booth died and the “facts” became known). John M. Lloyd and Dr. Samuel Mudd told detectives that “a stranger” had complained of a broken leg, but it was not until Mrs. Mudd gave authorities the boot that her husband had cut off of Booth’s leg, that any hard evidence came to light. The War Department then narrowed its focus to “lame man” sightings, and one of those led directly to Booth’s capture.
So, how did Booth break his leg? Booth offered a clue in his own version of the shooting, which he recorded in his diary (the entire entry is below, right), “in jumping, broke my leg.” Everyone took “in jumping” to mean when he jumped from the Presidential box. It could be argued that Booth was referring to another jump–a jump that caused his horse to stumble and fall.
Below are the major points of Mike’s argument. Many are excerpted from “Assassin on the Run,” published by Blue and Gray Magazine in June 1990, while others are from the In the Footsteps of an Assassin, published in 2012.
- Eyewitnesses at Ford”s Theatre gave no indication of the accident, except to say that the assassin landed on the stage off-balance after leaping from the Presidential Box. The more specific accounts say that Booth fell on his right hand and knee, though it was the left leg that was broken.
- During his escape, Booth told about a dozen people he had broken his leg when his horse stumbled and fell on him. He even said this to some people (such as John Lloyd) who knew about the assassination.
- David Herold backed up the stumbling horse story, adding that he himself was there and helped Booth mount up again right after the accident.
- When Booth mounted his horse in Baptist Alley (and had trouble with the skittish mare), his left leg bore all the weight and tortion of his body, yet he indicated no pain at the time and, and later, doctors did not report seeing signs of this trauma to the injury.
- Sgt. Cobb at the Navy Yard Bridge, who saw Booth 20 minutes after the shooting, noted that the assassin’s voice was smooth and that he appeared at ease. Everyone else, from Surrattsville down (after the horse falling incident), said that Booth’s voice was cracked in pain.
- Dr. Mudd once said that Booth’s pants were muddy when he arrived on the morning of April 15.
- Thomas David, a farmhand at Dr. Mudd’s, told detectives that Booth’s mare had a badly swollen left front shoulder and a fresh cut on its leg. Davis fed and cared for the horse during Booth’s visit.
Booth’s entire diary entry reads, “I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A Col. Was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night, with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill; Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. The country is not what it was. This forced union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to out-live my country. This night (before the deed), I wrote a long article and left it for one of the Editors for the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings. He or the Govmt”
Of course, one could argue that eyewitness testimony has flaws and adrenaline could have enabled Booth to move so quickly across the stage if he did, indeed, have an injury. Perhaps, the idea that Booth was undone by the American flag is simply too good to let go. The facts, however, support the claim that Booth broke his leg when his horse fell on him.
Killing Lincoln, on the National Geographic Channel, uses Mike’s broken leg theory! The scene in which Lincoln is shot shows Booth running across the stage and also shows the eyewitnesses, who describe Booth as running. Tom Hanks, who narrates the program, does say that there is controversy regarding where Booth broke his leg, but it is extremely gratifying that the show’s creators saw fit to use Mike’s version of events. The director and producer, (among others) told Mike they loved American Brutus and it influenced many of their production decisions.