The Gun That Shot Lincoln

A tiny derringer, hidden in the assassin’s pocket, felled the President and sealed the South’s fate.
Anita SlomskiArtifacts
Theatre interior at Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
Wknight94 / Wikipedia Commons

The bloodstained pillow that cushioned Abraham Lincoln’s head and the .44-caliber “pocket cannon” that fired the fatal shot are what most captivate visitors to Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., as they imagine the events of April 14, 1865. At approximately 10:15 p.m., five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, actor John Wilkes Booth entered the theater box where Lincoln and his wife were watching Our American Cousin, slipped the single-shot, 5.87-inch derringer from his pocket and fired at Lincoln’s head.

Gun that shot Lincoln

“It’s not so much the gun that fascinates people, but rather that Booth used it to change the course of history of the country,” says Gloria Swift, the museum curator at Ford’s Theatre. “Looking at the gun, you can’t help but wonder what would have been, had the tragedy not occurred. There are indications that Lincoln may have been kind to the South during a reconstruction period, but after the assassination, the North came down with a vengeance.”

One hundred and thirty-two years after Lincoln’s death, a bizarre footnote was added to the pistol’s history. In 1997, the FBI was called in to authenticate the gun after a career criminal claimed members of his gang had stolen the deringer during the late 1960s and replaced it with a fake.

The lead bullet removed from Lincoln’s head was so badly corroded that matching it with the gun was out of the question. So the FBI’s Special Photographic Unit superimposed historical photos taken of the deringer during the 1930s with the actual gun at Ford’s Theatre, matching swirl patterns in the black walnut grain of the stock, pit marks on the barrel and a crack in the forestock. The pistol is definitely Booth’s.

*The National Park Service oversees more than 100 million historic items and museum pieces. To learn more about the unique objects preserved within the national parks, click here.

Comments

very important piece of history... absolutely priceless
don
torbert
HOW do we know Booth did the above . Who was the witness?
Harold P
Boushell
Seriously? Who was the witness? I hope you are joking or trolling because there was a theater full of witnesses.
Stephen
Haladay
Theatre goers were watching a play not looking into a dimly lit Presidential box above their field of view, and most thought the leap to the stage was part of the play until Mary started shrieking, but Booth wasn't the first name on peoples lips.
Terry
Harris
The firearm used was not a "Pocket Cannon" it was a Deringer.
Corbin
Brubaker
A .44 seems a bit OTT! A .32 would've done the job.
Peter
Hockley
A .32 caliber pistol? You can't be serious. Booth was intent on killing Lincoln, not shooting the end of his ear off! Shot in the head by a .44 at very close range, it is astonishing that his victim lasted as long as he did.
Larry
Yates
.44 WAS the large calibre pistol size at that time. There was no .32 then. It would be a .31. Please know your pistol history. Earlier pistol had bores up to .75 cal. As the power got better the large calibres were no longer needed. As was said the smaller calibres did the job.
James
Breiner
"Cannon" is apt. Its bullet is slightly smaller than for a .45 caliber pistol we used in Vietnam. It would have created enormous damage to Lincoln's head. Booth picked his weapon well. And Americans suffered greatly.
Larry
Yates
The diameter of the round may have been comparable to what you used in Vietnam, but this was a black-powder cartridge, propelling a lead ball, not modern high pressure smokeless powder propelling a jacketed, conical projectile. Muzzle energy was maybe 1/3 that of a modern .45 - still enough to do the job but definitely not deserving of the title 'pocket cannon'.
Alexander
Koyfman
Actually a little larger - .452 vs .445, 232 gr vs 230 gr
Bart
Murphy
Well a .44 caliber bullet is no mouse gun round.
Bill
McIntosh
I’m a huge history buff and have read hundreds of books on the assisination. Not to mention hundreds of documentaries. I’m also a police detective and have been in law enforcement for over 20 years. My question is very simple and really inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But my question is, why the need to “hide” the guns at the tavern? I understand they needed a place to KEEP the guns, by why the need to HIDE them? Back then, everyone had guns. If questioned, Lloyd could have simply said they were his. There would have been no suspicion in guns simply being present at the tavern. That was commonplace at the time. Why weren’t the guns simply kept there on a gun rack or leaned in a corner, etc? I’ve never understood the need to have HID the guns.
Kyle
Pannell
In regards as to why the guns were "hid". They were hid in case the conspiracy was discovered and someone talked. That is so easy to understand. As for everyone having guns, that simply is not true. I can show you hundreds of photos from that era of people in small towns and large cities and you see no guns.
kenneth
reader
Historians indicate that most men did carry weapons. They didn't wear them in holsters, typically they were either just put in their jacket pocket or stuffed in the front of their pants. Many of the weapons had a kind of hook on one side to assure they didn't slip down the pants. Hundreds of pictures of people not displaying guns isn't surprising, but claiming that men carrying guns wasn't common is erroneous. The question is legitimate. The probable answer is listed above, if the scheme to simultaneously assassinate Lincoln, his Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward was discovered, no weapons might help the assassins case. Seward was seriously injured as were three others, the assassin Atzerodt lost his nerve and didn't complete his mission.
Loren
Lyon
The reason the carbines had been hidden at the Surrattsville tavern was because throughout the civil war Maryland, a Southern state, was forcibly kept in the Union due to its location (physically surrounding Washington DC) most of whose inhabitants were of a secessionist bent, especially those living in the counties south of the capital. Under the authority of martial law, it became customary for Union patrols to randomly inspect buildings in this region for weaponry, etc. as a hedge against subversive activities; and the penalty for concealing such items was imprisonment for an indeterminate length of time (due to suspension of the writ of habeas corpus).
graham
baldwin
this is a very important part of history thank you for doing this
Anderson
Baily
Stay Inspired
Connect with the parks you love. Sign up to receive the latest NPF news, information on how you can support our national treasures, and travel ideas for your next trip to the parks. Join our community.