What did Booth shout from the stage at Ford's Theatre? -- Lauren D.
Moments after shooting Abraham Lincoln in the presidential box at Ford's Theatre, actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth dropped upon the stage, faced the audience as he had so many times before and shouted ... something. Or did he?
Author Timothy S. Good noted that written descriptions of the event penned by eyewitnesses became more divergent as the years passed. The accounts written shortly after the events of April 14, 1865 have slight differences which can be credited, in part, to where the eyewitness was as events unfolded. But as the years passed the tale sometimes became embellished as folklore colored recollection.
In his fascinating book We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts, Good has this to say on the subject:
...the evidence suggests that Booth uttered the words 'Sic Semper Tyrannis' and that he spoke this Latin phrase not from the box but from the stage where he had performed so many times before. . . . Ten reliable eyewitnesses recalled having heard Booth proclaim 'Sic Semper Tyrannis," the state motto of Virginia, to the stunned audience from the stage. The phrase, which means 'thus always to tyrants, ' had been used as a rallying cry by the colonists against King George III during the American Revolution. . . . Basset and McIntyre (May 5, 1865) are the only two eyewitnesses to have heard "Revenge for the South." In a slightly altered version Miss Shepherd recalled hearing "The South is avenged!" Ferguson (1930) and Daggett (April 15, 1865) credit Booth with saying, "I have done it!" Lindsey (1930) and Maynard (1910) simply remembered the actor shouting incoherently as he crossed the stage, while Daniel Ballauf (April 14, 1865) believed that Booth said nothing." (p. 20-21)
Good also notes that in the diary he kept while on the run, Booth himself says he shouted "Sic Semper." It seems likely that in making the note he used the abbreviated term "Sic Semper" to refer to the longer state motto.
I recently stumbled across a gem on YouTube. It's the February 9, 1956 appearance of Samuel J. Seymour, the last surviving witness to the Lincoln Assassination, on television's "I've Got A Secret." Watch this and see what Mr. Seymour remembers from that night.
Thanks for your question!
Rick Mundy, PhD
Author of Theatrical Pariah: John Wilkes Booth and the Literature of the Theatre
Doctoral Dissertation, 1999.