Remarkable Tales: Four Men Who Murdered The President
John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald: four men who commited the ultimate act of treason when they assassinated American Presidents. Discover the remarkable stories behind their terrible crimes through the historic artifacts and memorabilia they left behind...
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) was born in Maryland as the ninth of ten children. He was the son of noted British Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, who had moved to America in June 1821 with his mistress Mary Ann Holmes, and showed early interest in both drama and politics. After making his stage debut in 1855 at the age of 17, he became a stock company actor known for his energetic, physical and often scene-stealing performances.
As his reputation began to grow, he was described by critics as "the handsomest man in America" and a "natural genius". He achieved leading man status, earning the equivalent of more than $500,000 each year for his performances across the country, and received acclaim for Shakespearean roles such as Hamlet, Richard III and Brutus.
There are several items of memorabilia remaining from Booth's successful theatrical career. A collapsible stage dagger used by both Booth and his father Junius Brutus Booth in their performances sold at Heritage in 2008 for $3,585; and in 2010 the same auction house sold a leather jerkin worn as a stage costume by Booth in several historical dramas for $10,157. Original playbills for his roles in several Shakespearean plays have also sold for up to $10,000.
But behind Booth's fame, talent and good looks burned a hatred of the Abolitionists who sought to bring an end to slavery in America. He was dismayed by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and wrote a lengthy speech in support of the South entitled 'Blood and Justice'. Although it's believed he never delivered the speech publically, the 21-page manuscript provides a valuable insight into his passionate and vengeful state of mind as the nation hurtled towards civil war.
The speech made his view on slavery clear, and illustrated his hatred for those he felt had forces secession on the Southern states and split up the country.
"..instead of looking upon slavery as a sin…I hold it to be a happiness for themselves [the slaves] and a social & political blessing for us….I have been through the whole South and have marked the happiness of master & man. Take every individual and you will find the happiness greater there than here…."
"Men have no right to entertain opinions which endanger the safety of the country. Such men I call traitors and treason should be stamped to death…So deep is my hatred for such men that I could wish I had them in my grasp, and I the power to crush. I'd grind them into the dust!"
The original manuscript of this speech remained unpublished until the 1990s, and sold at a Christie's auction in June 2007 for $321,000.
AS the Civil War tore the country in two, Booth even found his own family divided. His brother Edwin, a Shakespearean actor of even greater acclaim, refused to perform in the southern states and was an avowed supporter of Abolitionism. The pair argued until Edwin told his brother he was no longer welcome in his home, and Booth's hatred of President Lincoln grew even stronger. Following Lincoln's re-election in 1864, Booth and a group of Confederate agents planed to kidnap the President, but their plans were changed by the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in March 1865. They decided that killing Lincoln was their only option.
On April 13 Booth witnessed Lincoln give an impromptu speech from a White House window, stating his plan to grant suffrage to the former slaves. He saw this as the final indignity, and said it would be the last speech Lincoln ever made. The following day he learned the President and his wife would be attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre, and he realized what he had to do.
On the evening of April 14 he entered the President's private theatre box and shot Lincoln once in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer pistol. He then leapt from the box to the stage, brandishing a knife and crying out "Sic semper tyrannis" (Latin for "Thus always to tyrants") as the crowd reacted in horror. Booth escaped the theatre and fled on horseback, aided in his plan by several Confederate sympathizers.
The police immediately published broadsides offering rewards for information on Booth's whereabouts. These original printed posters are today rare and have become highly sought after by collectors. In 2005, one such broadside offering a reward of up to $50,000 and providing descriptions of the conspirators sold at Christie's for $72,000; other different variants from the time have also sold at Christie's for $71,000, $70,500, $50,190 and $40,000 respectively.
A military arrest warrant issued in the day of Lincoln's death, ordering enlisted men to search all trains heading out of Washington D.C, also sold at Heritage in January 2015 for $21,250.
As the nation mourned the loss of their President, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold fled across the country. Whilst fugitives hiding under assumed names at the Garrett farm in Caroline County, Virginia, they learned that the final Confederate army had surrendered and the Civil War was undeniably over. Realising his efforts had been in vain, Booth formulated a plan to escape to Mexico.
However, a squad of Union soldiers, led by intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger, had tracked the men to the farm and surrounded it, forcing Herold to surrender. Booth told them "I prefer to come out and fight", and as the barn he was hiding in was set alight he was shot in the neck by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dragged from the burning building and died three hours later on April 26, his last words being "Useless, useless."
John Wilkes Booth's body was then taken to the USS Montauk for an autopsy, where a lock of his hair was taken by his brother Edwin. More than a century later the same lock of hair, accompanied by a collection of letters and photographs of Booth, sold at Christie's for £35,250.
Born in 1841 in Freeport, Illinois, Charles Guiteau was a failed lawyer and unsuccessful preacher who seemingly annoyed everyone who ever met him. He was twice asked to leave a religious cult in Oneida, New York, once by his own father, and in 1880 switched his attentions to the world of politics.
Following the inauguration of President Garfield, Guiteau began turning up at the White House on a regular basis demanding to be given the job of US ambassador in Paris. The president's staff quickly tired of his visits, and barred him from returning in the Spring of 1881. But just a few weeks later he paid Garfield another visit, this time at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Depot, and shot him twice with a.442 Webley caliber British Bulldog revolver. The president died nine days later, and Charles Guiteau found himself in the spotlight at last.
From the moment he shot the president to the moment he was hanged, Charles Guiteau revelled in his new-found celebrity. Seemingly unaware of the public hatred for him in the outside world, he constantly smiled and waved at crowd during the trial as his bizarre behaviour turned it into a media circus.
He recited his testimony in the form of lengthy poems, constantly insulted his own lawyers and the judge, and asked random members of the audience for their legal advice. Whilst waiting in jail, Guiteau even dictated his autobiography to a journalist from the New York Herald and ended it with a personal ad for "a nice Christian lady under 30 years of age".
Right up until the end of the trial, Guiteau believed he would soon be free and started making plans to both tour the lecture circuit and run for the presidency himself. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882, and dragged to the cells whilst screaming "You are all low, consummate jackasses!" at the jury.
Whilst awaiting his execution, Guiteau continued to milk his notoriety for all it was worth. He sold photographs of himself as morbid mementoes, as documented in his note on February 8: "Dear Sir: Photographs are one dollar apiece or $9 per dozen… The photograph is very fine. Send for what you wish by money order…"
He had seemingly gone into partnership with Washington D.C photographer C. M. Bell, who was permitted to take photographs of Guiteau throughout his incarceration, with the idea to raise funds for his legal defence.
In 2006 a remarkable archive of Bell's photographs documenting the trial came to auction at Heritage. The collection was comprised of 46 original photographs covering every aspect of the crime; from several portraits of Guiteau and members of his family to the location of the shooting, the courthouse exterior, the weapon, the doctors who treated Garfield, the lawyers and even members of the jury. This unique historic record of the second Presidential assassination in American history sold for $4,481.
In 2008 the same auction house offered a slightly more gruesome piece of memorabilia, in the form of a piece of rope from Guiteau noose which sold for $1,792. Rare surviving copies of his signed prison portraits can sell for $1,000-$4,000 depending on condition.
Leon Czolgosz was an American former steel worker of Polish descent, born in Ohio in 1873. Following the economic crash of 1893 and a series of strikes, he lost his job at the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company and began cursing the injustice of his situation.
As a natural recluse, Leon spent much of his time alone studying radical political texts. When he attempted to reach out to other likeminded individuals, his awkwardness and blunt questions prompted suspicion from several groups who believed him to be a spy. The radical Free Society newspaper even published a story warning comrades to be wary of him.
Then in 1900, King Umberto I of Italy was shot dead by anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who claimed he was acting in the interests of the common man. Anarchists across the US were shocked into action by the event, and none more so than Leon Czolgosz.
Believing the oppression of the working class began at the very top of the government, Czolgosz decided to take matters into his own hands. He travelled to Buffalo, New York, the site of the Pan-American Exposition, hired a hotel room and bided his time. The on September 6 he made his way to the Exposition, armed with a .32 caliber Iver Johnson 'Safety Automatic' revolver, and approached President McKinley who was greeting people in line at the Temple of Music.
Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen at close range, before being surrounded by a mob which almost beat him to death there and then. Only McKinley's calls for restraint saved his life, but it was merely a temporary reprieve.
His confession was recorded by police the very same day, and read in part:
"When I shot him I intended to kill him and the reason for my intention in killing was because I did not believe in presidents over us. I was willing to sacrifice myself & the president for the benefit of the country. I felt I had more courage than the average man in killing president and was willing to put my own life at stake in order to do it."
McKinley dies of his wounds two weeks later, in large part due to his wounds becoming infected by unsanitary hospital conditions. Czolgosz never contested the charge, having seemingly accepted his fate the moment he pulled the trigger, and at his trial nine days later the jury delivered a guilty verdict in less than an hour. He was sentenced to death, and his execution scheduled for October 29.
Whilst strapped to the electric chair, Czolgosz's final words were: "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."
Following his execution, all of Czolgosz's papers and personal possessions were burned in acid to satisfy the anger of the public. Fearing an angry mob would even attempt to dig up his corpse, the Auburn State Prison treated his body with quick lime and sulphuric acid to speed up decomposition.
To this day just two items bearing his signature are known to exist: his confession statement, and a brief note signed on the way to prison following his trial. The final two pages of his confession, countersigned by officers Vincent T. Haggerty, M. J. O'Laughlin and John Martin, sold at Christie's in 2008 for $110,500. And in 2012, a slip of paper he signed for a deputy sheriff whilst en route to Auburn Prison, dated 26 September 1901, sold for $37,500.
Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) was a New Orleans-born former U.S marine who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 before returning to America in 1962. His strong Communist beliefs, combined with his military training and volatile personality, led him into conflict with authorities in the U.S and drove him to the ultimate act of revenge against America: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
On November 22, 1963 Oswald shot Kennedy from the window of the Texas Book Depository, as the President travelled through Dallas in an open-topped car as part of a motorcade. After making his escape, he later shot and killed police officer J.D Tippit who tried to apprehend him before being tracked down to a movie theatre and captured hours later.
To this day countless theories exist as to Oswald's role in the shooting, from those who state he was simply a 'lone gunman', to others who claim he was a patsy covering for a second gunman and part of a conspiracy to kill the President.
Kennedy's alleged ties to organized crime and scandals involving his private life fuelled the fire of the conspiracy theories. And when Oswald was himself killed soon afterwards by mob affiliate Jack Ruby, many believed he'd been silenced by those that planned the assassination.
Decades later, these theories and unanswered questions have led people to scrutinise every aspect of Oswald's life in search of clues. In turn, collectors have paid huge sums to acquire items of his personal memorabilia that offer an insight into his disturbed psyche.
His three years in the military can be traced through items including personal letters sent to his mother; his Marine Corps rifle score book which described him as "an excellent shot" (sold for $20,315 in 2008); documents pertaining to his two military court-martials, for fighting with a sergeant and accidentally shooting himself in the elbow with an unauthorized pistol (sold for $7,170 in 2008); and his original military discharge orders dated September 1, 1959 (sold for $6,125 in 2008).
Following three years of military service Oswald received a discharge from active duty, claiming he was needed to care for his mother. In reality, he had his mind set on defecting to the Soviet Union. However, he remained on reserve with the Army and had neither a passport nor permission to leave the country. He worked his way around this by applying to numerous foreign universities, hoping one would accept him and grant him a student travel visa.
After lying on his application forms, he was finally accepted by the Albert Schweitzer College in Churwalden, Switzerland and sent a visa, which he used to leave the US and head straight for the Soviet Union. Oswald's original application form and a collection of signed letters to Albert Schweitzer College sold at Heritage in October 2008 for $7,767.
His defection in October 1959, and his growing hatred of the United States, can be clearly seen in personal letters to his mother and brother. An extensive archive of 39 family letters which sold at Heritage in 2008 for $59,750 provided evidence of his mental state and political leanings. One letter to his brother stated:
"In the event of war I would kill any American who put on a uniform in defence of the American government - any American… in my own mind I have no attachments of any kind in the U.S…I want to, and I shall, live a normal happy and peaceful life here in the Soviet Union for the rest of my life…my mother and you are (in spite of what the newspaper said) not objects of affection, but only examples of workers in the U.S."
Despite this new-found hatred for America, he soon found himself back on U.S soil after marrying his Russian wife Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova in April 1963. Oswald's gold wedding band, purchased in a jewelry store in Minsk, became a piece of government evidence following his death. He had left it on a night-stand next to Marina one the morning of the assassination, and she turned it over to the Secret Service on December 12, 1963. It would not be until 2012 that the ring was returned to her, still in the original brown paper envelope, and in 2013 it was sold through RR Auction for $108,000.
By far the most morbid items are those which date from after Oswald's death. In 2008, his mortuary toe tag complete with blood stains and a lock of Oswald's hair tied to it sold at Guernsey's in New York for $82,687.
Even more controversially, a row erupted in 2010 when the coffin Oswald had originally been buried in came up for auction. From the day of his funeral, a theory had developed that a look-alike Russian agent had been buried in place of Oswald. In 1981, to end the rumours once and for all, Marina Oswald won a legal battle to have his body exhumed and identified. After positively matching his dental record to the corpse, a pathologist stated "The remains in the grave marked as Lee Harvey Oswald are indeed Lee Harvey Oswald" and his body was reburied in a new coffin.
But instead of destroying the original deteriorated coffin, funeral director Allen Baumgardner kept it and sold it almost 30 years later at a Nate D. Sanders auction for $87,468.
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