‘Manhunt’ Episode 1 Recap & Ending Explained: Why Did John Wilkes Booth Kill Lincoln?

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Maybe there is a reason why Macbeth comes from a theater actor and not just a writer. You see, the ambition to become popular is a toxic thing. It feeds the demon inside you and compels you to commit a sin. That is precisely what happened with the antagonist of the Apple TV miniseries Manhunt, John Wilkes Booth. Based on James L. Swanson’s book, the historical drama promises to untangle the conspiracy behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a tragic incident that shook the entire nation on April 14th, 1865. Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies), the then US Secretary of War, dedicated himself to conducting the manhunt to find John at all costs. The pilot episode acts as a build-up to the assassination and the investigation that followed Lincoln’s death.

Spoiler Alert


What Is The Episode About?

John Booth (Anthony Boyle) made up his mind to kill Lincoln as soon as he found out that the President would be attending the Ford Theatre with his wife to watch a play titled ‘Our American Cousin.’ On the very same night, John had planned two more murders. The targets were Andrew Johnson and William Seward, the Vice President and Secretary of State, respectively. But for multiple hits on the same night, he needed a team, which is where his fellow partners-in-crime, Powell, Atzerodt, and David Herold, come in. They shared the same ideology and, therefore, quickly got convinced to set John’s plan in motion.

The first episode of Manhunt begins with Powell breaking into Secretary Seward’s house. He planned on getting the job done with his gun, but it got jammed, and he was forced to use a dagger. Powell slashed his way into William H. Seward’s room, where he was bedridden for some time after surviving a life-threatening carriage accident. For Powell, Seward was an easy target. Powell stabbed the helpless man in the face and left the house, covered in blood. However, as soon as he came out, he was shocked to find out that David Herold had chickened out and ran away. 

Edwin Stanton promptly reached Seward’s house when he was informed about the break-in. The Secretary of State survived the stab because of the braces he had on. Stanton remembered Seward warning him about the unpredictability of extremists, and unfortunately, his fear turned out to be legitimate. The attack on William Seward was just the tip of the iceberg, and as the night unfolded, things gradually slipped into total chaos.


What role did the Battle of Appomattox play in Lincoln’s murder?

Five days before Lincoln’s murder, Robert E. Lee and his army finally surrendered to the Union Army and accepted Lincoln’s terms. His surrender marked the end of the ongoing battle between the Union and the Confederacy. It was a moment of victory for Lincoln and his associates, but alas, their celebration was short-lived. We all know what happened next.

After Lincoln received the news, Edwin Stanton reached out to Seward to celebrate the occasion and check on his health. Seward advised Stanton to refrain from drawing any conclusions until it became completely clear to every Confederate officer that the war was over. Stanton did not think there were any threats left, and he invited Seward to celebrate the moment. The Secretary of State was skeptical, knowing how unpredictable extremists can be. His condition was simple—he was ready to celebrate the victory only when the bloodshed would stop. And the prime example of such caution was John, who came up with the plan only after he found out that Lee had surrendered. As a Confederate sympathizer, he believed that if he failed to stop Lincoln, Americans would lose their country. John’s interaction with people of color throughout Manhunt episode 1 was suggestive enough to tell any sane person that he was a racist to the core of his heart. 


What motivated John to implement his plan?

John Booth was a mere theater actor known for playing supporting roles and performing fighting stunts on stage, but with the battle of Appomattox ending, he decided it was time to be remembered for something truly significant. His father and brother were prominent theater actors, but John failed to attain that level of popularity. He was desperate to be known by the world and for his work to be discussed at every corner. John believed that Lincoln’s murder would turn him into a national hero and that he would finally achieve the fame he had always been after.

Meeting Lincoln’s guard, Parker, in a bar on the night of the play helped John implement his plan even better. He found out that once seated, Lincoln was left unguarded, giving him the perfect opportunity to murder him without any fuss. John had previously performed in the same theater hall, and being a theater actor himself, John had access to every door and VIP seat in the hall, which made things easy for him. He entered the theater with a gun and a dagger in his pocket. John waited at the back of Lincoln’s theater box for the right moment in the play and finally pulled out his gun to shoot the President in the head, leaving him fatally injured. 

With a dagger in his hand, he managed to make his way to the stage and yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants) before exiting. The most surprising aspect of the whole ordeal was that John managed to get away even though there were 1500 people in the audience. Perhaps it was the shock and horror that resulted in the delayed reaction. Before the audience could comprehend the magnitude of the crime committed, John escaped on his horse that he parked outside the building.


Where did John go after the assassination?

After the assassination, John was headed to Virginia but was stopped at the Navy Bridge that closed at 9 p.m. The officer refused to allow him to enter, but being a known face in the theater helped John convince the man. He met David Herold on the way to Charles County, Maryland. They headed to Samuel Mudd’s place to treat John’s broken leg. He was well aware of John’s role in Lincoln’s death, but we do not know about his association with the murder. The fact that Mudd was pro-slavery suggested that he was aligned with the cause, and that was enough reason for him to treat John. John read the morning newspaper and was proud to be called the symbol of the cause. He believed he had succeeded in becoming the most famous person in the world. John’s obsession with making a name for himself hinted at how self-absorbed he was. As much as he believed in the cause, having his name in every newspaper was the ultimate goal.


What clues did Secretary Stanton find during his investigation?

Secretary Edwin Stanton was informed about the shooting while he was investigating the scene at Seward’s residence. He lost all hope when he entered the room where Abraham Lincoln was brought in after the shooting. He was in a state of coma, and it was impossible to stop the continuous bleeding. His degrading health indicated that the president would eventually succumb to his wound. There was complete chaos outside the room, with Mrs. Mary Lincoln becoming hysterical with every passing second. She held Parker responsible for the incident; the guard was ashamed, and all he could do was apologize for his absence. Stanton was informed of the German immigrant arrested for conspiring to kill Vice President Johnson at the Kirkwood hotel. He found out that John planned to attack the three significant figures simultaneously to dismantle the Union. The next morning, April 15th, at 7.22 a.m., the president’s tragic death was announced.

Secretary Stanton fondly remembered Lincoln’s excitement upon receiving the votes for reconstruction and his immediate decision to extend aid to free people. To celebrate the end of the Civil War, Lincoln planned to watch ‘The American Cousin’ at the Ford Theatre, and he had invited Stanton as well. After Ulysses. S. Grant expressed his desire to head home to meet his children, Lincoln hoped for Stanton to join him. Stanton was not entirely convinced about Lincoln attending a theater show with the constant death threats they were receiving, but the President believed that if one wanted to, they could have killed him already. He simply wanted to have a good time with his loved ones. Stanton regretted not being by his side that night, knowing that he could have prevented the assassination. The loss was personal, and Stanton was determined to find the man responsible for it. 

After Lincoln’s death, Stanton’s first task was to investigate the crime scene. He tried to find out more about the actor and killer, John. He found the gun John used to kill Lincoln lying on the ground in the theater box. Stanton was left wondering why only one man was chasing John after the assassination, and it struck him as odd that the theater staff had barely shown any response. He figured out that John knew the staff, and upon questioning a boy working there, Stanton got more clues. 

Joseph Burroughs, aka Peanuts, described the horse John escaped on and also added that he headed to the Navy bridge. Stanton concluded that John was in Maryland, and Peanuts hinted at the fact that the horse would require feed during the journey. Stanton immediately decided to ban horse feed in Maryland until John was found. Upon questioning, Stanton found out that a man named Ned Spangler had asked Peanuts to look after a horse while he was gone. Peanuts had no idea then that he was in any way contributing to the president’s murder. He further added that Ned was John’s friend because he held the door open for John when he left through the backdoor of the theater. The information helped Stanton immediately arrest Ned Spangler for his involvement in the assassination. There was ongoing speculation in newspapers about the Union crumbling down. 

Lincoln’s demise sparked rumors about the downfall of democracy in America, but Stanton reassured the media that the laws and institutions in the United States were designed to protect democracy. The reaction suggested that there were a good number of people who wanted chaos to ensue after the assassination, and they were more than happy to add fire to the rumors to create panic among common people. The United States was in a fragile condition, and the murder of the president could have led to complete mayhem. Stanton tried to use the media attention to garner sympathy from Lincoln’s supporters for the barbaric crime committed. He had his blood-soaked pillows and sheets photographed for the front page to make a statement—that the criminal would not be forgiven or forgotten. 

At the end of Manhunt episode 1, Stanton comes across a coded message in John’s hotel room. The message was meant to be destroyed, but its remains in the fireplace suggested that John was perhaps a Confederate spy. Stanton also found out that John had deposited money in the same account that was used by the Confederate Secret Service to launder money. All this while, John’s attack was assumed to be self-driven, but with the evidence found, Stanton was left wondering if it was a planned assassination by the Confederacy. If it were found to be true, Seward’s fear would be proven legitimate, and Stanton would have no choice but to start another war.


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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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