Assassination – the Aftermath: part 2 (Article 23)

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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Assassination – the Plot: part 1 (Article 22)

On Friday April 14, 1865, most residents of Washington DC were euphoric.

The long, deadly, Civil War was surely about to end. The former Confederate Capital of Richmond was in Union hands, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, and General Joseph E. Johnston had asked for surrender terms for his large army further south.

All in all, for those who supported the Union, this Good Friday was indeed a good day.

But Washington DC had always been a “Southern” city and some residents had hoped that the Confederate States of America, formed only four years earlier, would endure as a sovereign country. While these people were certainly saddened by the fall of the Confederacy, most were probably relieved that the Great War was ending; and most just wanted to resume their daily lives.

However, there were a few men in Washington who were committed to a plan which, if successful, might cause such chaos within the Union to allow Confederate military forces and political officials to re-group and, at the same time, exact revenge on the Union leaders who they believed were most responsible for the “War of Northern Aggression” against the South. John Wilkes Booth had chosen April 14 to have his co-conspirators carry out coordinated attacks that would attempt to murder Vice-President Andrew Johnson, General Ulysses S. Grant, and the primary target, President Abraham Lincoln.

But Booth had been plotting for months and, until the past few days, assassination was not even part of his plan.

In the late summer of 1864, according to friends, Booth said he wanted to serve the Confederacy in some “grand way,” but not as an ordinary soldier. He began to contemplate a mission to kidnap Lincoln, spirit him away to Richmond, and then use him as a pawn to trade for a large number of Confederate prisoners. Booth may have decided on this course of action after Union Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, declared an end to, what had been, frequent prisoner exchanges saying, “I am no longer going to release Confederates just to have them fight us again.”

From September 1864 through January 1865, Booth periodically traveled to into Confederate held territory and even to Canada where there were numerous Southern operatives. But, despite one hundred and fifty years of research, and much speculation, no one knows for certain if he received any support, or even encouragement, from Confederate authorities for his plan.

We do know that Booth met with potential co-conspirators during that time with mixed success. In November he discussed the kidnap plan with two friends, Samuel Chester and John Mathews, who both refused to join him, testifying later that they considered it just reckless talk. But, by January 1865, Booth had recruited at least seven men who were willing to attempt to kidnap the President of the United States. Ned Spangler, Michael O’Laughlin, and Samuel Arnold had known Booth for years and they were joined by four men Booth had only recently met; John Surratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Paine.

Throughout February and March, Booth developed and discarded various plans to capture Lincoln and studied several possible escape routes into Confederate territory in Virginia. Booth even attended Lincoln’s Inauguration speech on March 4 and told a friend that he was close enough to the President to shoot him there if he chose; but kidnapping was still the mission.

Then Booth learned that Lincoln would attend a play given for wounded Union soldiers at Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of Washington on March 17; and he thought the time had come. He summoned the seven other conspirators, they found a grove of trees on the road from which they could spring their surprise attack, and waited for Lincoln’s carriage. As the carriage approached, Booth rode out to check the number and placement of the guards before ordering the charge.

But, to his dismay, when the carriage passed, the occupant was Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase!

The kidnap plan quickly began to unravel as some of the men were concerned that authorities may have learned of the plot. Although Booth tried to rally the group, several began to express doubt that they could ever successfully kidnap the President; and Booth reluctantly agreed that they should separate for a few weeks.

Booth went to New York for two weeks and must have been discouraged by the military advances by the Union Army in Virginia. When he returned to Washington in early April, he found the city in celebration over the abandonment of the former Confederate capital city of Richmond by its political leaders. He also learned that Lincoln had even walked through the streets of Richmond on April 4, unharmed! And then, on April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered.

Observers later noted that Booth was now alternatively despondent, or angry (even apoplectic), or resolved and focused, and it appears this is when he decided on a much simpler, and deadly, plan than kidnapping the President.

On Tuesday April 11 Lincoln scheduled a brief evening speech at the White House to publicly discuss his plan for reconciliation of the Southern states. Booth and Paine went to the White House lawn where Booth wondered aloud if Paine, who was armed, should fire at the President who stood at an open window framed by candle-light. We do not know if he decided against the assassination attempt at that time because the area was too crowded or if he wanted to wait for an opportunity to kill more officials than just the President. However, when Lincoln said that the nation should consider allowing Negro veterans the right to vote, an angry Booth reportedly told Paine, “That will be the last speech he will ever make.”

While it seems that Booth trusted Paine and that they formed a bond, Booth may not have been aware that his friend’s name was not Paine, but was actually Lewis Powell. Many witnesses knew him only as Paine and, for several days, authorities believed Powell and Paine were different co-conspirators. For the purpose of the rest of this narrative his birth name of Powell will be used.

On April 12, the morning after Lincoln’s White House speech, John Wilkes Booth called together Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt; the men who he believed would be willing to participate in the assassinations of three of the Union’s most influential leaders.

However, Booth was unsure of when and where to strike to assure the murders would be simultaneous. Booth was reasonably sure that Vice President Johnson would be at the Kirkwood House, where he had remained out of public view since his embarrassing speech at the Inaugural Ceremony which he delivered while “manifestly intoxicated.” Then Booth learned, through theatrical acquaintances, that Lincoln might attend Ford’s Theater on Friday April 14; but he still had no idea where to find General Grant, his third target.

Then, for Booth, the pieces seemed to fall into place!

He learned that General Grant and his wife would accompany Lincoln and Mary to a play, on April 14, at Ford’s Theater, where Booth knew the building layout and the staff very well.  Booth decided that he and  Powell would go together to assassinate Lincoln and Grant during the performance at a moment in the play, “Our American Cousin,” when he knew that the audience, including Lincoln and Grant, would be focused on the actors and laughing at a humorous line in the script.

But just as quickly as the plan had come together, circumstances again changed, and Booth needed another rapid revision!

On the morning of the 14th, Booth learned that General Grant had left Washington and would not be at the theater with Lincoln.  Booth, Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold discussed alternate plans and decided that Secretary of State William Seward should now be a target and Powell accepted the new assignment.  Since Seward was at his home recuperating from a carriage accident, Booth and Powell would have to separate for their missions.  Booth already had planned for someone to have his horse waiting after he shot Lincoln and escaped the theater, so he assigned another accomplice, David Herold, to accompany Powell to Seward’s home as a lookout and to control their horses.  Herold would then later meet Booth just across the Potomac River in Maryland.  The final mission fell to George Atzerodt, who was to kill Vice President Johnson.

The three attacks were to occur at 10:15 pm.

About 7pm Atzerodt, who was known for drinking to excess, went to the bar of the Kirkwood House where the Vice-President stayed, and began the first of many rounds of whiskey.  But, he never attacked Johnson and finally, about 10pm, left the hotel and meandered a few miles north into Maryland to seek refuge with relatives.  He said later that he never intended to go through with the assassination.

At 10:15, as David Herold controlled their horses, Powell charged into Seward’s home, and repeatedly stabbed the Secretary, his son, and another visitor; but remarkably, all of his victims survived.  Powell then ran from the house, mounted his horse and headed for a hideout in the city; while Herold rode off for his rendezvous with Booth.

At about 10:10pm, John Wilkes Booth entered Ford’s Theater where he had earlier set up a brace to block the stairway door from the inside.  Booth had expected to see a guard at the door that he would need to either talk his way past or attack with a knife; so he must have been astonished to see a vacant chair.  The absence of John Parker, who was to guard the stairway, has never been adequately explained.  Unhindered, Booth went to the second floor, entered the President’s box, shot Abraham Lincoln, dropped the derringer he had just fired, used a large knife to slash the arm of an army officer who was a guest in the box, and jumped from the balcony to the stage.  He caught his spur in the bunting and landed awkwardly on the stage breaking his left leg.  Many in the audience thought the action was part of the play; then the screams began!  Waving the knife to clear his path, Booth, limping badly, exited the theater, mounted his waiting horse, and escaped into the outskirts of the City to meet David Herold, as planned, in Maryland.

Abraham Lincoln, mortally wounded, would die the following morning.

So who were these assassins and their accomplices?

Several of the early members of the Booth team balked at the change in objective from seizure to assassination and left the band; but four stuck together.  They and a few secondary accomplices were an unlikely team.  They each had some allegiance to the Confederacy, although their level of zeal differed, but none were trained assassins and they did not really know each other very well.

John Wilkes Booth was from a famous family of actors and writers, was well educated, and had enjoyed some success as an actor himself.  Although his family supported the Union, John, the youngest and least successful, gravitated toward support for the Confederacy.  His family later commented that perhaps, at first, he did so as a mild rebellion against his family and allegiance to the Southern cause may have seemed more “romantic” to him.  Only in the last year of the War did his public comments turn vociferous, and then usually when he had too much to drink.  At one family gathering his brother, Edwin, asked John to leave the house because his language became so disruptive and embarrassing.  John was already jealous of Edwin’s greater fame and fortune and some biographers believe that episode turned John from only a vocal supporter to one committed, as John Wilkes himself said, “To make a mark for the Confederacy.”

Lewis Powell (aka Paine) had served a year as a Confederate soldier and was a prisoner of war for a short time; but he also had a violent civilian past.  In early 1865 he applied for and received a certificate of pardon and signed a loyalty oath to the Union; however, he gave his name as Lewis Paine, an alias he would use until after Lincoln’s assassination.  A trusted Booth ally, he readily agreed to the original kidnap plan and then, when Booth decided to instead assassinate Lincoln and other government leaders, Powell agreed to accept whatever target he was assigned; and, in the end, Booth asked him to kill Secretary Seward.  A few modern conspiracy advocates have speculated that Powell’s pardon and use of the alias of Paine is an indication of a plot by Union officials to either infiltrate southern sympathizers in Washington DC or even to murder Abraham Lincoln; however, historians debunk those theories.

George Atzerodt was a part-time boatman for hire, often by thieves or purveyors of contraband, to cross the Potomac River, and on occasion, he had rowed Confederate couriers to the Virginia shore.  Atzerodt participated in the kidnap plot because, as one acquaintance later testified at his trial, “He would do anything for a price, and often did.”  Another said, “(He) was not very courageous and I have seen him in scrapes and I have seen him get out of them very fast.”  And, while both of these witnesses told the court that, as far as they knew, Atzerodt had never been involved in murder, he accepted the assignment to kill the Vice President!

David Herold was, by most accounts, a bit dim-witted, loyal to his few friends and he seemed to support himself through odd jobs.  Herold had spent his youth in an area of southern Maryland and Virginia near the Potomac and was originally expected to guide the kidnappers (with Lincoln as their hostage) through the countryside.  When the plot changed to assassination, he was assigned to first assist Powell at the Seward home and then to help Booth escape south through Maryland and into Virginia.

These four, Booth, Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold were directly involved in the various plots, including participation in the attacks on the evening of April 14.  But, subsequent testimony implicated several ancillary accomplices and perhaps two who may have been falsely accused.

Michael O’Laughlin was once a neighbor of John Wilkes Booth in Baltimore where the Booth family maintained a residence.  By all accounts the two were boyhood friends but saw little of each other as adults.  O’Laughlin, who was working as a store clerk, may have been surprised to receive a note in early September from Booth asking him to meet at a Baltimore hotel.

Samuel Arnold had been a classmate of Booth’s at a private preparatory school and it is believed that Arnold and Booth had some contact over the years; therefore Arnold may not have been as surprised as O”Laughlin when he also received a note to meet with Booth.

After Booth explained his plan to kidnap Lincoln, both O’Laughlin and Arnold agreed to participate; however, neither was later willing to become an assassin!

Ned Spangler was a carpenter and knew John Wilkes Booth because he was hired several times by the Booth family.  By 1864, Ned was working as a stage hand at Ford’s theater and was a frequent drinking companion of Booth’s.  While Spangler was a part of the original kidnap plot, he may not have known of Booth’s plan to murder Lincoln that night at Ford’s Theater.  Spangler had been asked by Booth to hold his horse outside the theater, but Spangler instead recruited a part-time helper, Joseph Burroughs to control the horse.  Certainly the hapless Burroughs knew nothing of Booth’s plan that night, but he was caught in the dragnet and found himself in jail for several days.

John Surratt, who lived in his mother’s boarding house, was a low level courier (for a fee) between Confederate agents in Washington and Generals farther south in Virginia; and had at least one assignment into Canada.  Surratt had also hired George Atzerodt to row him across the Potomac on several occasions.  Historians are unsure whether Booth was provided with an introduction to John Surratt by Confederate agents or simply by a southern sympathizer, possibly by Dr. Samuel Mudd from Maryland.  Conspiracy theorists often declare Confederate agents were involved, but Dr. Mudd also provides them with an interesting story line.  Whatever the source of the introduction to Booth, Surratt had willingly participated in the initial plot to kidnap Lincoln, but he withdrew from the group when Booth decided on assassination.  Certainly Surratt knew that President Lincoln and others were to be murdered but he did not report the new plan to authorities.

Mary Surratt was a widow who ran a boarding house in Washington DC with the help of her son John.  She was clearly identified as a southerner, having spent most of her youth in Virginia, but she was not an extremist and her neighbors and friends considered her a “woman of good character” who worked hard to maintain her business.  Mary also owned a small tavern in Maryland, about 15 miles south-east of Washington, in a rural area known as Surrattsville; where her deceased husband’s family had settled years earlier.  Many historians question Mary’s role in the kidnap and murder plots, and it is certainly possible that she was not guilty of any crime directly related to the President’s murder.  The charges against her were determined, not by factual evidence of participation, but by her association with Booth, Powell and of course, her son.

Dr. Samuel Mudd may have had some knowledge of Booth’s plot to kidnap President Lincoln; we just cannot be sure, however, it is unlikely that he was aware of the plan’s change to assassination.  The two men first met in November 1864 when Booth was in Southern Maryland ostensibly looking for land to create an estate, but likely scouting escape routes and prospective sympathizers for the kidnapers and their planed hostage, Abraham Lincoln.  Witnesses later said that Booth was directed by local residents to Dr. Mudd whose family owned several large tracts of land.  Mudd was a trained physician but had largely given up his practice to manage the family farm which had been ravaged by both Union and Confederate soldiers in search of provisions for their armies.  There was some later testimony, but not conclusive, that Dr. Mudd may have provided Booth with a letter of introduction to John Surratt.  What we do know is that Dr. Mudd and Booth met again before dawn on Saturday April 15 when Booth, along with David Herold, arrived at Mudd’s home to have the doctor treat his broken leg.  Mudd’s subsequent failure to personally and promptly tell authorities about his encounters with Booth was sufficient to label him a co-conspirator.

On Saturday morning, April 15, William Seward was still alive, despite having been savagely stabbed.  Vice President Johnson was still unaware that he had been an intended target.  Powell was hiding, Atzerodt was drunk, and Booth and Herold were on the run in Maryland trying to reach Virginia.

And, at 7:22am, President Abraham Lincoln died!


Next: Part 2    Assassination – The Aftermath.

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