One gunshot. One assassin hell-bent on killing “a tyrant,” as he charged — the 16th president of the United States. And in one moment, our nation was forever changed. This is the most dramatic and resonant crime in American history: the true story of the killing of Abraham Lincoln.
Premiering during Presidents Day Weekend on Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and encoring at 10 p.m., National Geographic Channel’s first original scripted drama, Killing Lincoln, presents one of the most significant events in our country’s history.
Killing Lincoln has all the components of a thrilling crime novel: conspiracy, public assassination, an unprecedented manhunt. This is both an electrifying look at a shadowy scheme cultivated during the rapid-fire succession of closing Civil War events and a wrenching journey to understand a reviled “madman.”
With the North all but assured of victory after four years of war, Southern stalwart John Wilkes Booth is plotting vengeance. He views President Lincoln as a tyrant eager to eradicate not just slavery, but the Southern way of life. He launches a clandestine plot to kidnap the president and spirit him away to the South — an under-the-cover-of-darkness mission that ultimately fails. But out of that failure comes a dastardly new plan: to kill President Lincoln. Booth’s ultimate success in murder would shock a nation and spark the largest manhunt in the country’s young history.
“The prevailing image of Booth is one of a two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain,” Johnson says. “My job was to dig deeper. Show that he was as complex as a Shakespearean character he portrayed on the stage. Demonstrate the artistry, obsession and Southern rigor as well as the virulent disdain for an ‘inferior’ president that culminated into his own bloody, one-act play.”
Says Campbell, “Lincoln is so adored, so universally revered today that it’s easy to forget he was a controversial president — one with many enemies — in fact he repeatedly dreamt of his own assassination. We felt it important to convey this hidden side of Lincoln, this sense of his almost wasting away with premonitions of death, even as he was outwardly so poised and steadfast through the closing of the war.”
With palpable tension, the production dramatically counts down the president’s last days and actions leading up to the April 14 assassination at Ford’s Theatre: Lincoln has six weeks to live, days to survive, hours to breathe one last time … and concludes with the aftermath of his murder.
The film opens in August 1864 — a year before his murder — as Abraham Lincoln is riding his horse alone. A gunshot is fired and goes through his $8 top hat. He has been in office four years and 41 days and the intensity of the hatred level toward him, even by members of his own party, is extreme. Juxtaposed with this is the following scene of John Wilkes Booth on stage performing, as swords clash and the audience cheers wildly.
Viewers are then introduced to Booth’s zealousness in a letter he writes and asks his sister to lock in the safe: “right or wrong, god judge me, not man.… My love as things stand today is for the South alone. Nor do I deem it a dishonor in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man [Lincoln] to whom she owes so much misery.”
On Tuesday, April 11, 1865, speaking to roaring crowds at the White House after Robert E. Lee surrenders, Lincoln is within range of a pistol. Booth is in attendance and promises that it will be Lincoln’s final speech. The stage is set: Abraham Lincoln has less than four days to live.
The “attack” time is set for 10:15 p.m. on April 15, 1865. Booth’s co-conspirators have their plan: Lewis Powell is to kill Secretary of State Seward in his home on Lafayette Square; David Herold will then guide Powell out of the city via the Navy Yard Bridge; George Atzerodt is to kill Vice President Johnson at the Kirkwood House Hotel; and Booth will kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
After having a drink at the Star Saloon, Booth is admitted into the theater, crosses underneath the stage and works his way up into the presidential box, where he aims the pistol and fires the fatal shot at the President. Lunging off the balcony, he runs to center stage and shouts, “Sic semper tyrannis!”