Good Friday, April 14, 1865 began as a joyous day for most residents of Washington DC.
The Confederate government had abandoned their Capital in Richmond, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, and the War was certainly going to end very soon. And, the President of the United States had given a speech three days earlier in which he welcomed back the people of the South, “As if they never left us at all.”
But that Good Friday would end as one of the most tragic days in American history.
Abraham Lincoln, who was attending a play at Ford’s Theater, was mortally wounded that evening at 10:20 pm and would die the following morning. In a coordinated attack at his home, Secretary of State William Seward, his son and another guest were savagely stabbed, but survived. Vice President Johnson was supposed to also be a target but was not harmed as the assigned assassin did not go through with his mission.
When he jumped from the elevated Presidential box to the stage, Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, broke his leg but stumbled to his feet and escaped the building to a waiting horse. He then rode east to the Navy Yard Bridge to cross the Anacostia River into southern Maryland. When the sentries at the bridge stopped him, Booth gave his correct name and stated that he was returning to a friend’s home in Maryland; and, unaware that Lincoln had just been assassinated, the guards let Booth pass. Within a few minutes, David Herold, who had controlled the getaway horses at Secretary Seward’s home, approached the same bridge and was also allowed to pass. Booth and Herold then set out to ride nearly fifty miles through rural southern Maryland with a plan to cross the Potomac River into eastern Virginia at a point where the river was nearly two miles wide. They had decided on the longer escape route to avoid Union military units which for the past year had been massed near the west side bridges toward Alexandria, Virginia
George Atzerodt, who decided to not murder Vice President Johnson, instead became drunk and left the city for a relative’s home in Maryland.
Lewis Powell, who had attacked Secretary Seward, was not yet a suspect and stayed out of sight in the city until Monday morning. Then disguised in shabby clothes as a laborer, he headed for a place he thought he would be welcomed.
By Sunday, April 16, police and military officers knew Booth was Lincoln’s assassin but they did know who had attacked Seward. However, when they learned of Booth’s frequent visits to Mary Surratt’s boarding house, her son John, who was known to be a Southern sympathizer, became a suspect.
But authorities, when they went to interview Mrs. Surratt, had no reason to believe she was directly involved. When the officers first met her, they erroneously informed her that her son, John, had attacked Secretary Seward and asked if she knew where he could be found. The officers testified later that Mrs. Surratt seemed genuinely surprised and horrified that her son may have been involved in such a murderous scheme. She readily admitted that she knew Booth but said that her son had not been home for several days; and she was telling the truth.
The officers noted that Mary Surratt was in deep despair over the accusation against her son, and it would be another day before she learned that John was not the person who had tried to kill Seward after all. Meanwhile, the boarding house was placed under full time surveillance and all who arrived were questioned.
But John Surratt would not be coming home.
While he had willingly joined the original kidnap plan, John Surratt refused to participate in the plot to murder Lincoln and others, and had left Washington DC several days before the assassination. He had been asked by a Confederate contact to go to Elmira, New York to determine if a small force could successfully liberate the Southern soldiers who were held in a nearby prisoner of war camp. While in New York, John heard about the assassination, and that there was a $25,000 reward for his capture. He slipped into Canada and was not heard from for two years.
Back in Washington DC, on Monday morning April 17, Lewis Powell arrived at the boarding house and was identified as Seward’s assailant by a witness who was at the house. Powell gave his name as “Lewis Paine” which was the name on the pardon certificate he gave to the officers who arrested him. Mary Surratt must have been momentarily relieved to learn that her son was no longer a suspect in that crime; but the good news ended then and there. Although there was no proof of her personal involvement in the plot, authorities arrested Mrs. Surratt because she was clearly in contact with both Powell and Booth; now known to have carried out the attacks.
The authorities were after anyone who had been in contact with Booth, and his three friends who had participated in the kidnap scheme were quickly targeted. Based on a tip from someone to whom he had bragged about his friendship with Booth, Baltimore police arrested Michael O’Laughlin on Monday April 17. Also, Ned Spangler, the stage hand, was arrested the same day as agents learned of his friendship with Booth. Samuel Arnold had been arrested a day earlier when police found a letter he had written to Booth in the room at the National Hotel which Booth had rented.
George Atzerodt was found on Thursday in Maryland at his cousin’s house, in a drunken sleep. His brother, a Baltimore policeman, gave his probable location upon learning that George was a possible suspect. The police were after Atzerodt because witnesses had seen him with Booth and Powell; but authorities were still unaware that he had been assigned to assassinate the Vice President.
But John Wilkes Booth and David Herold were still free and headed south through Maryland to find a safe haven in Virginia. To understand their travel route, it is helpful to know a bit about the geography of Washington DC, the bordering state of Virginia, the Maryland countryside, and the meandering course of the Potomac River. While there was a bridge over the Potomac from Washington DC westward into Virginia, the city was actually bordered more to the east and south by Maryland. In fact, after crossing the Anacostia River, a small tributary of the Potomac at the Navy Yard Bridge, Booth and Herold needed to ride nearly fifty miles south through Maryland. And, while the Potomac generally flowed to the southeast, there were stretches where it ran south, other parts where it ran east, and places where it actually turned north for a few miles; much in the shape of a fish-hook. So, Herold and Booth would cross the Potomac about 45 miles southeast of Washington into Virginia.
The two fugitives headed first to Mary Surratt’s tavern at Surrattsville. They gathered several weapons which were stored there, some knowingly by John Surratt and others possibly unknowingly by his mother, and rode another 20 miles south to the Maryland farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd.
Booth’s broken leg needed medical attention.
Arriving at the farm about 6 am, less than eight hours after the assassination, Herold introduced himself as “Henson” and said he was traveling with a wounded Confederate soldier named “Tyson” who had a broken leg. Mudd set the break, fashioned a splint, and offered to let the two men spend the night. Mudd testified later at his trial that he had never met Herold before and that he did not recognize his patient as Booth while attending to the damaged leg. Mudd further said that he first learned that Lincoln had been shot when he went into town later that morning and was shocked when told that John Wilkes Booth was the assassin. Only then, according to Mudd, did he realize that it was Booth at his home. The doctor returned to the farm and ordered Booth and Herold to leave; however, he did not report Booth’s visit for another day and, even then, asked his cousin to give the information to Union authorities.
Historians are divided about Dr. Mudd. It is not known with certainty whether the fugitives would have stopped at Mudd’s farm were it not for Booth’s injury, or if Mudd really failed at first to recognize Booth as his patient. Even Mudd gave conflicting stories over time, but his hesitation to personally and promptly report his encounter with Booth sealed his fate.
After leaving Mudd’s farm, Booth and Herold still needed to traverse another 20 miles before they would reach the point on the Potomac where they planned to cross into Virginia. Since there were people in southern Maryland who were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, Herold’s story about the wounded soldier just trying to get home was sufficient to gain them meals and a few restful nights’ sleep.
When they reached their destination at river’s edge, they traded their horses for provisions and a rowboat. Once on Virginia soil they continued their journey by requesting rides in wagons with drivers they assessed as unlikely to betray the wounded Confederate soldier and his companion.
About 9 am on April 24th, after nine days on the run, they were approached by three actual Confederate soldiers who had recently been pardoned by a Union General and were headed home. Herold, not wanting the soldiers to think they were deserters, or Union spies, blurted out, “We are the assassinators of the President.” William Jett, who seemed to be the leader, said that they were aware of Lincoln’s assassination and that Booth was a suspect. Jett then said that he knew a local farmer, Richard Garrett, who lived a few miles away and who would likely be sympathetic to a wounded Confederate; but Jett advised Booth and Herold against revealing their real names. The three soldiers and Herold agreed to double up on two horses, giving Booth a horse by himself, and the five men headed for Garrett’s farm.
Jett chose to leave them near the farm rather than to make introductions to Garrett, so Herold walked a short distance to the farm house and introduced himself to Richard Garrett as David Boyd. Herold asked for a few days refuge for himself and a wounded companion; who was introduced as James W. Boyd, his brother. Garrett was a dedicated secessionist and readily agreed to let the men stay and said he would try to learn if there were any nearby Confederate units the two brothers might join.
Over the prior few days, Union authorities had questioned hundreds of people in Maryland and Virginia, and after assessing the locations of sightings of a wounded man and his friend, were able to focus more searchers along Booth’s route. Although none of the witnesses along the trail admitted to knowing the fugitives were Booth and Herold, several stated that they had helped the wounded young Confederate and his friend get back home by providing food, rest, and transportation.
Then, agents found William Jett! He said that he had met two “stragglers” and recommended that they might seek refuge with Richard Garrett; but he did not disclose that he knew the men were Booth and Herold. Word reached Garrett, likely by someone sent by Jett, that Union troops were on their way to his farm to search for two fugitives and would probably arrive the following day.
What neither Jett nor Garrett knew was that the Union Commander, sensing that they were close to finding Booth, ordered an all-night ride.
Upon learning that Union troops were looking for the two men, Garrett asked Herold the reason that such a large force was tracking them. Herold, still not disclosing his or Booth’s identity, replied that he and his brother were wanted for “several transgressions” and that they would leave the area if Garrett would provide two horses. It is not clear if Garrett realized by this time who the men really were, but he refused to give them horses that evening to aid their escape. Garrett expected the troops to arrive later the next morning, so he allowed Booth and Herold to rest overnight in a nearby tobacco barn; but he wanted them to depart early, evidently on foot.
After a hard night-time ride for over twelve hours, the Union troops arrived at Garrett’s house about 2:30 am and charged in. The startled Garrett told them two men were in the barn, which the soldiers then immediately surrounded. The Commander yelled an order for Booth and Herold to surrender and assured them the soldiers would hold their fire; as their orders were to take Booth alive if at all possible. The Commander and Booth had several conversations over the next hour but these were not really negotiations; mostly Booth made statements about his willingness to die for his cause and the senior officer repeated several times his demand that they surrender. Finally, the Commander ordered a small fire to be started at the rear of the barn to “smoke them out” and at first that seemed to work. Booth yelled, “There is a man in here who wants to surrender awful bad” and “He is innocent of any crime whatsoever.” Then Herold, unarmed and with his hands raised, stepped out of the barn. He was immediately seized by soldiers who pulled him away from the barn and tied him to a nearby tree.
Booth, on the other hand, began to limp towards an area away from the flames and could be seen through cracks in the barn still carrying a rifle. Sergeant Boston Corbett, who later said it appeared that Booth was ready to shoot at one of the officers, fired a single shot that struck Booth in the neck. Booth fell, paralyzed from damage to his spinal cord, and was dragged from the burning barn by two soldiers. He remained conscious and spoke several times over the next three hours. He died at 7 am, April 26.
The twelfth day after he murdered Abraham Lincoln!
Sergeant Corbett was immediately arrested by the Commander for killing Booth against clear orders; however, the public saw him as a hero and, after several weeks of uncertainty, the army decided to drop the charges.
Booth’s body was taken overland back to the Potomac River and placed on a waiting ship for passage to the Washington Federal Navy Yard where the process of identification took place. There were several points of identity noted by the examiners besides the familiar facial features. The left leg was broken, Booth had the letters “JWB” tattooed on his hand, a dentist recognized several fillings, and a surgeon who had removed a non-malignant tumor from Booth’s neck noted the scar that was left. Several of Booth’s theatrical acquaintances also identified the body. A few personal items were found including a photograph of his sister and a diary, with the final entry on the day before his death. Satisfied that the corpse was Booth, a brief autopsy was performed which verified the damage to the spinal cord. As often seen today following any tragedy, there was a morbid public interest in the manner of Booth’s death and in his remains; and Secretary of War Stanton and new President Andrew Johnson did not want any burial site to become a curiosity to some and a martyr’s grave to others. The crew of the ship, which had transported the body to the Federal Navy Yard, was even ordered to stage a “burial at sea” to mislead any onlookers. They also decided that Booth would be secretly buried in a location known only to a few and controlled by the military. Booth’s remains lay buried in the secret location until 1869 when President Johnson, as one of his last acts in office, permitted Booth’s family to identify and then re-inter the body. They decided on a Baltimore cemetery where the family owned several plots; but they placed the body in an unmarked grave. Years later, researchers studied the cemetery records and, by a process of elimination, were able to locate Booth’s burial place.
One cannot help but contrast Booth’s ignoble end to the outpouring of grief by millions of Americans, who paid their respects to Abraham Lincoln in the Capital city and along the rail route through most northern cities for his final journey back to Springfield, Illinois.
But, there are some authors, not historians, who speculate whether Booth was actually killed at Garrett’s barn; however, reputable scholars dispute their theories and agree that Booth was the leader of the initial kidnap plan and the subsequent assassination plot, that he died at Garrett’s farm, and that his body was appropriately identified. The speculative tales make interesting reading but should not be considered American history.
With all of the suspects in custody, except John Surratt, Secretary Stanton and President Johnson directed that all conspirators be tried together in a military court; the trial began on May 9, 1865 and by June 29, the verdicts were in.
Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were to be hanged. Dr. Mudd, Arnold, and O’Laughlin received life sentences; while Ned Spangler was sentenced to six years. Mudd later received a pardon for his heroic medical care for guards and inmates during a deadly outbreak of yellow fever. O’Laughlin died in the epidemic, but Arnold and Spangler also received pardons. Thereafter, those pardoned would lead quiet lives.
Because the trial was held in a military court, President Andrew Johnson had to approve any death sentences; and he did so for the four defendants on July 5; and then ordered that the executions be held in only two days, July 7.
Throughout the trial, Lewis Powell had steadfastly claimed that Mrs. Surratt knew nothing of the plot and said he regretted returning to the boarding house because it seemed to implicate her. There was a flurry of appeal activity, especially on behalf of Mrs. Surratt, including a writ of habeas corpus issued by a federal judge at 2 am on the day of her scheduled execution; but President Johnson quickly suspended the right to habeas corpus for all Lincoln defendants. On the gallows, Powell again declared, but to no avail, “Mrs. Surratt is innocent and should not die with us!”
After the sentences were carried out, the four bodies were buried near the gallows, in a secure military facility, where they remained for four years until the families were allowed to re-inter them.
But what of the others who were part of the kidnap or assassination plots, knew of Booth’s plans, or were simply caught up in the events.
John Surratt avoided capture for two years until he was caught in Europe and returned to stand trial; but his case was tried in a Washington DC civil court rather than a military court. The jury deadlocked and the trial ended but the federal prosecutors filed a motion for a second trial with new charges. In a remarkable example of incompetence, or as some believe a cunning plan to absolve John Surratt, the prosecutor chose charges that had a two year statute of limitations; and the Judge dismissed the entire case. The irony was that, because Surratt was a fugitive and out of the country for two years, the limitation did not apply.
John Surratt was interviewed several times over the years and always bristled when asked why he chose to disappear rather than defend his mother; even if only by a written statement delivered to prosecutors or newspapers without revealing his location. His answers varied but, while proclaiming her innocence, were usually self-serving and unapologetic. In a presentation he gave in 1870 to a historical society, John Surratt gave his most thorough account of the kidnap plot but claimed he left the group when Booth suggested assassination. He further claimed that a former classmate, Louis Weichmann, a clerk in the Union War Department who often stayed at the Surratt boarding house, was in fact a co-conspirator. Weichmann was the primary witness against Mary Surratt, and he testified that he saw her in “private sessions with Booth and Powell” which would suddenly go quiet when he entered a room. According to John Surratt, Weichmann committed perjury against his mother to save himself. No charges were ever filed against Weichmann and in a deathbed statement in 1902, he again swore that he was never Booth’s associate and that his testimony was true. John Surratt, who continued to incriminate Weichmann, died in 1916 at 72. Most historians believe Weichmann probably knew more about Booth’s plans than he said in his testimony, but few think he was a co-conspirator.
Richard Garrett was harassed by federal investigators and army officials for a while but was never formally charged. William Jett, who had suggested Booth rest at Garrett’s farm and then told the pursuing military unit where Booth was hiding, was never charged but he became severely depressed over regret that, “with one statement I betrayed both Booth and Mr. Garrett.” Jett died in an asylum a few years later.
And what about John Parker, the man who was supposed to guard the door to Lincoln’s box? Some said he left his post to get a better view of the play and another witness said Parker joined him for a drink at an adjacent bar after the President was seated. One investigator reported that Parker claimed Lincoln had dismissed him upon entering the box. The true reason the door was unguarded is unknown and remains a missing piece of the puzzle. Historians do know that Parker appeared about midnight at police headquarters with two prostitutes he had arrested, so he may have simply resumed a foot patrol after leaving the theater. Although initially charged with neglect of duty, Parker’s case was dismissed; but his absence from his post has provided fuel for speculation for 150 years.
So did Booth accomplish his mission? I think not. Instead of helping the Confederacy, Booth actually caused the Southern people egregious harm. Lincoln’s murder unleashed a torrent of anger at the South by otherwise tolerant Northern citizens and politicians who now thought Confederate officials were complicit in the assassination of their popular President. These admirers of Lincoln now joined forces with the “Radical Republicans” in Congress, who already wanted to punish the southern population, and the result was a generation of punitive reconstruction policies.
Personally, I have always been more interested in the humanity lessons from historic events, rather than the factual minutia or trivia about the episodes. In my book, “Abraham Lincoln – An Uncommon, Common Man,” I wrote the following:
“Over time the assassination has become a historical event, studied in detail by thousands of authors and often viewed as an academic exercise. In many cases, however, the human tragedy is overlooked. Mary lost her husband and witnessed his murder. Tad and Robert lost their father and Sarah Bush Johnson lost her son. William Herndon and Joshua Speed lost their best friend, and William Seward lost the one political leader and friend he most admired. The country lost a President who was willing to forgive his adversaries and, while denied by some, the South lost an advocate who would have welcomed them back into the Union without the retribution evident in the subsequent reconstruction.
I have always considered Lincoln’s assassination a horrific loss for his family and friends, and a national tragedy with terrible repercussions.
But, while researching for this article, I found a letter expressing such immeasurable grief that I realized I had never considered the effect of Lincoln’s assassination on one family.
Whenever a good and decent family has a member who deliberately causes a tragedy, especially one of epic proportions, the family experiences grief on multiple fronts. They grieve for the loss of the innocent just as others, but they also may become victims to public outrage directed at them; and still, in some way, they also mourn the loss of one so close who inexplicably was to blame. The remaining members of the Booth family were overwrought by Lincoln’s death and their brother’s actions. On April 20, while John Wilkes Booth was still a fugitive, his older brother Edwin, a celebrated actor and philanthropist who was an admirer of Lincoln, wrote this letter (in part), addressed to “My fellow Citizens” which was widely published in America and in Europe.
“When a nation is overwhelmed with sorrow, the mention of private grief would, under the circumstances, be an intrusion, but I feel sure that a word from me will not be so regarded by you. It has pleased God to lay at the door of my afflicted family the life blood of our great, good and martyred President. I am yet but too sensible that other mourners fill the land. To them, to you, one and all, go forth our deep and unutterable sympathy; our abhorrence and detestation of this most foul and atrocious of crimes. For my mother and sisters, for my two remaining brothers, and my own poor self, there is nothing to be said. For our loyalty as dutiful, though humble, citizens and efforts to elevate our name, we appeal to the record of the past. For the present, we are not responsible. For the future—alas! I shall struggle on with a heavy heart, an oppressed memory and a wounded name—dreadful burdens—to my too welcome grave.”
His final words, “to my too welcome grave,” convey the deep sorrow Edwin felt for the rest of his life. John Wilkes Booth had not only murdered Abraham Lincoln and deprived the South of a magnanimous President who would have embraced their return; he also destroyed his own family.
A true American tragedy.
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