It is wideely believed that John Wilkes Booth yelled the words Sic semper tyrannis (‘Thus always to tyrants’) whilst in the box or upon landing on the stage during the assassination of President Lincoln. It is not actually known for certain; there are various ‘ear witness’ reports of what he actually said.
When Booth gained access via the very first door of the entrance to the Presidential box, he barricaded the door behind him, using a stick which he wedged in between the door and the wall.
He then turned and looked through a small peephole he’d previously carved in the second door.
Booth had never starred in the particular play that was on; however, he knew the script off by heart and patiently waited until Harry Hawk (playing Asa Trenchard) was on the stage to speak the funniest line in the play. Booth was hoping that the laughter from the audience would muffle the gunshot.
When Hawk said the line “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!” the audience burst into laughter, including Lincoln – as he was shot. Booth opened the second door, snuck forwards and shot Lincoln at point-blank range, instantly killing him.
The bullet entered Lincoln’s head behind his ear, went through his skull and lodged just above his eye. Mary immediately reached out to Lincoln; she caught him and screamed as she realized what had happened. When the shot was fired, Rathbone states he thought he heard Booth shout ‘Freedom!’.
Rathbone leapt from his chair and tried to stop Booth from fleeing. He grabbed him and a struggle ensued.
Booth released his pistol and drew a knife, stabbing Rathbone in his arm. Rathbone fought on and again attempted to catch Booth as he tried to jump from the edge of the box.
Rathbone managed to get hold of Booth’s coat and this caused Booth to leap over the side of the box onto the stage. He stood and crossed the stage, the audience believing he was part of the ongoing play. Booth then lifted his bloody knife above his head and yelled out to the audience.
Most witnesses say he shouted ‘Sic semper tyrannis’, some say he yelled ‘Sic semper’ (Booth himself claims this is what he shouted) and others don’t recall anything in Latin being shouted out.
Booth also shouted out in English, some say he yelled ‘The South is avenged’, others say it was ‘The South shall be free!’ or ‘Revenge for the South’.
Two people say he yelled ‘I have done it’.
The audience, so far, were not aware of the events that had just passed; however, soon the screams of Mary Lincoln and Clara Harris were heard, and Rathbone was yelling ‘Stop that man!’.
This caused panic within the audience, as they began to realize this was not part of the show. Several audience members chased Booth but failed to catch him, Booth ran off stage and left via the side door. Joseph Burroughs ‘aka Peanuts’ was waiting outside, holding Booth’s horse, and as Booth exited the theatre he struck Peanuts in the head with his knife, jumped onto his horse and rode off.
An actress in the play, Katherine M. Evans, rushed out to the stage once Booth had left and stated “I looked and saw President Lincoln unconscious, his head dropping on his breast, his eyes closed, but with a smile still on his face”.