History is not as boring as it is usually presented in school. My history teacher told us John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln while he was watching a play at Ford’s Theater. He failed to mention that it was the result of a conspiracy involving at least 8 other people, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw this picture.
At the end of the Civil War, the north was holding thousands of confederate prisoners of war. The original plan was to kidnap President Lincoln and ransom him for the release of the prisoners. In March of 1865 the conspirators gathered at a restaurant to wait for the President, but the plan fell through when Lincoln had a last minute change of plans. Ironically, he attended a function at the hotel where John Wilkes Booth was staying instead. Booth became more desperate and decided to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State simultaneously in an attempt to overthrow the government and revive the confederate revolution.
The following text is from Doug Linder | The Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators
For President Abraham Lincoln, things looked brighter on Friday, April 14, 1865 than they had for a long time. Five days earlier, General Robert E. Lee effectively ended the long nightmare of the Civil War by surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia, and just the previous day, the city of Washington celebrated the war’s end by illuminating every one of its public building with candles. Candles also burned in most private homes, causing a city paper to describe the nation’s capital as “all ablaze with glory.” The President decided he could finally afford an evening of relaxation: he would attend a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in downtown Washington.
The presidential party took their seats in a specially-prepared box on the left side of the stage. During the second scene of the third act of the play, John Wilkes Booth, a southern-sympathizing actor, climbed the stairs to the mezzanine. He showed a card to Lincoln’s valet-footman and was allowed entry through a lobby door leading to the presidential box.
Reaching the box, Booth pushed open the door. The President sat in his armchair, one hand on the railing and the other holding to the side a flag that decorated the box, in order to gain a better view of a person in the orchestra. From a distance of about four feet behind Lincoln, Booth fired a bullet into the President’s brain as he shouted “Revenge for the South!” (according to one witness) or “Freedom!” (according to another).
Major Rathbone sprang up to grab the assassin, but Booth wrested himself away after slashing the general with a large knife. Booth rushed to the front of the box as Rathbone reached for him again, catching some of his clothes as Booth leapt over the railing. Rathbone’s grab was enough to cause Booth to fall roughly on the stage below, where he fractured the fibula in his left leg.
Rising from the stage, Booth shouted “Sic semper tyrannus!” and ran across the stage and toward the back of the theatre. Ed Spangler, a Ford’s theater stagehand, opened a rear door as Booth rushed out to a horse being held for him by Joseph Burroughs (better known as “Peanuts”).
Booth mounted the horse and swept rapidly down an alley, then to the left toward F Street–and disappeared into the Washington darkness.
About 10:15, the same time as Booth fired his fatal shot, two men well known to Booth, Lewis Powell and David Herold, approached the Washington home of Secretary of State William Seward, where the Secretary lay bedridden from a recent carriage accident.
You may remember Seward from history class. He was the man behind “Seward’s folly”, the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
Powell knocked on the door of Seward’s home as Herold waited outside with his horse. Powell told the servant who answered the door, William Bell, that he had a prescription for Secretary Seward from his doctor. Over Bell’s objections, Powell began walking up the steps toward the Secretary’s room. One of the Secretary’s sons, Frederick Seward, confronted Powell. Seward told Powell he would take the medicine, but Powell insisted on seeing the Secretary.
When Seward continued to refuse him entry to the bedroom, Powell clubbed him violently with his revolver (fracturing Seward’s head so severely that he would remain in a coma for sixty days), then slashed the Secretary’s bodyguard, George Robinson, in the forehead with a bowie knife. Finally reaching the Secretary in his bed, Powell–shouting, “I’m mad, I’m mad!”–stabbed him several times before he could be pulled off by Robinson and two other men. Powell raced down the stairs and out the door to his bay mare.
Sometime after 10:30, Booth approached the Navy Yard bridge leading over the Potomac to Maryland. Questioned by the sentry guarding the bridge about his purposes, Booth said he was “going home” to his residence “close to Beantown.” The sentry allowed Booth to pass. Five to ten minutes later a second rider, David Herold, approached the bridge. Herold told the sentry his name was “Smith” and had been “in bad company” and wanted to get home to White Plains. The sentry decided to let Herold pass. Shortly thereafter, Booth and Herold met up.
Booth and Herold arrived around midnight in Surrattsville, where they proceeded to a home and tavern kept by John Lloyd. Herold burst into Lloyd’s home shouting, “Lloyd, for God’s sake, make haste and get those things!” Lloyd, without replying, turned to get two carbines that had been delivered three days earlier by Mary Surratt, owner of the tavern. Herold took the carbines and a bottle of whiskey. He gave the whiskey bottle to Booth, who drank from it while sitting on his horse. In less than five minutes, they were off again, heading south.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the President lay dying in a private home across the street from Ford’s Theater. Without ever regaining consciousness, he would live for seven more hours.
Less than six hours after the attack, investigators–under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton–already began to focus on the 541 High Street home of Mary Surratt, a house where Booth was known to have stayed during his frequent visits to Washington.
Rousing Surratt from bed about four in the morning, investigators questioned her about Booth’s whereabouts. When the investigators left, Surratt exclaimed to her daughter (according to Louis Weichmann, a boarder in Surratt’s house), “Anna, come what will, I am resigned. I think J. Wilkes Booth was only an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to punish this proud and licentious people.”
On April 17, shortly after eleven at night, a team of military investigators again arrived at the Surratt home to interview her and other residents about the assassination. While they were doing so, Lewis Powell, carrying a pick-axe, knocked on the door. Powell–at the unlikely late-night hour–claimed to have been hired to dig a gutter. Mary Surratt refused to back up his story. Surratt told investigators, “Before God, sir, I do not know this man, and have never seen him, and I did not hire him to dig a gutter for me.” While in the Surratt home, investigators uncovered various pieces of incriminating evidence, including a picture of John Wilkes Booth hidden behind another picture on a mantelpiece. Facing arrest, Surratt asked a minute to kneel and pray. Surratt and Powell were taken into custody, where William Bell, Secretary’s Seward’s servant, identified Powell as the man who had stabbed the Secretary.
The investigation, directed by Lafayette Baker of the National Detective Police, produced three more arrests on the 17th. Investigators picked up Edman Spangler after gathering reports from theater-goers and nearby residents that Booth had yelled for Spangler in the hours before the assassination and that Spangler had told a theater worker who witnessed Booth’s escape, “Don’t say which way he went.”
Samuel Arnold was arrested at Fortress Monroe in Maryland. Investigators determined Arnold to be the author, “Sam,” of a vaguely incriminating letter found in a search of a trunk in Booth’s hotel room following the assassination. In his March 27 letter to Booth, Arnold wrote, “You know full well that the G[overnmen]t suspicions something is going on” and that “therefore the undertaking is becoming more complicated.” He declared, however, that initially “None, no not one, were more in favor of the enterprise than myself.”
Arnold’s arrest proved especially helpful because he identified a number of individuals he said had met in March to plan the kidnapping of the President. According to Arnold, at a meeting at the Lichau House on Pennsylvania Avenue in March, seven men developed a plan to abduct Lincoln at a theatre, take him to Richmond, and hold him there until the Union agreed to release Confederate prisoners. Arnold said his part was to have been “to catch the President when he was thrown out of the box at the theatre.” In addition to himself and Booth, Arnold told investigators that men at the meeting included Michael O’Laughlen, George Atzerodt, John Surratt, a man with the alias of “Moseby,” and another small man whose name he did not know.
Two of the men identified by Arnold as part of the original kidnapping plan soon were in custody. One, Michael O’Laughlen, voluntarily surrendered himself in Baltimore. O’Laughlen, wearing black clothes and a slouch hat and claiming to be a lawyer, had allegedly entered the home of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, on the night before the assassination and inquired about the Secretary’s whereabouts. At the time of the attacks the next night, however, O’Laughlen was not fulfilling his suspected assignment of assassinating Stanton, but was instead drinking at the Rullman’s Hotel.
George Atzerodt’s arrest came on April 20 at the home of his cousin in Germantown, Maryland. Atzerodt had aroused suspicion by asking a bartender on the day of the assassination at the Kirkwood Hotel in Washington about the Vice President Andrew Johnson’s whereabouts. (The Vice President had taken a room at the hotel.) The day after Lincoln’s assassination, a hotel employee contacted authorities concerning a “suspicious-looking man” in “a gray coat” who had been seen around the Kirkwood. John Lee, a member of the military police force, visited the hotel on April 15 and conducted a search of Atzerodt’s room. The search revealed that the bed had not been slept in the previous night. Lee discovered under a pillow a loaded revolver, a large bowie knife, a map of Virginia, three handkerchiefs, and a bank book of John Wilkes Booth.
Meanwhile, efforts to apprehend Lincoln’s assassin continued. Military investigators tracking Booth’s escape route south through Maryland reached the farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd home on April 18. Mudd admitted that two men on horseback arrived at his home about four o’clock on the morning of April 15. The men, it turned out, were John Wilkes Booth–in severe pain with his fractured leg–and David Herold. Mudd said that he welcomed the men into his house, placed Booth on his sofa for an examination, then carried him upstairs to a bed where he dressed the limb. After daybreak, Mudd helped construct a pair of crude crutches for Booth and tried, unsuccessfully, to secure a carriage for his two visitors. Booth (after having shaved off his mustache in Mudd’s home) and Herold left later on the fifteenth. Mudd told investigator Alexander Lovett that the man whose leg he fixed “was a stranger to him.” He also misled Lovett about Booth’s escape route, telling the investigator that the two men had headed south, when they actually had departed to the east.
Lovett returned to the Mudd home three days later to conduct a search of Mudd’s home. When Lovett told of his intentions, Mudd’s wife, Sarah, brought down from upstairs a boot that had been cut off the visitor’s leg three days earlier. Lovett turned down the top of the left-foot riding boot and “saw the name J Wilkes written in it.” Mudd told Lovett that he had not noticed the writing. Shown a photo of Booth, Mudd still claimed not to recognize him–despite evidence gathered from other area residents that Mudd and Booth had been seen together the previous November. Mudd became the seventh conspirator to be arrested.
Near the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, investigators closed in on their prey on April 26. Everton Conger and two other investigators pulled Willie Jett out of a bed in a hotel in Bowling Green to demand, “Where are the two men who came with you across the river?” Jett knew that Conger meant Booth and Herold. When Jett had talked with the two conspirators they had made no effort to hide their identity. Herold had boldly declared, “We are the assassinators of the President. Yonder is J. Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln.” Jett told Conger that the men they sought “are on the road to Port Royal” at the home of “Mr. Garrett’s.”
Reaching Garrett’s farm, the government party ordered an old man, Garrett, out of his home and asked, “Where are the two men who stopped here at your house?” “Gone to the woods,” Garrett answered. Unsatisfied with Garrett’s response, Conger told one of his men, “Bring me a lariat rope here, and I will put that man up to the top of one of those locust trees.” One of his sons broke in, “Don’t hurt the old man; he is scared; I will tell you where the men are–…in the barn.”
Finding the suspects to be in the Garrett barn, Conger gave Booth and Herold five minutes to get out or, he said, he would set fire to it. Booth responded, “Let us have a little time to consider it.” After some discussion in the barn, Booth proposed that if the capturing party were withdrawn “one hundred yards from the door, I will come out and fight you.” When his proposal–and a second one for a withdrawal to fifty yards–was rejected, Booth said in a theatrical voice, “Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me.” As Conger ordered pine boughs placed against the barn to start a fire, Booth announced, “There’s a man who wants to come out.” After being called “a damned coward” by his partner, David Herold stepped out of the door of the barn and into the hands of his capturers.
Conger lit the fire minutes later. With flames rising around him, Booth, carrying a carbine, started toward the door of the barn. A shot rang out from the gun of Sergeant Boston Corbett. Booth fell. Soldiers carried Booth out on the grass. Booth turned to Conger and said, “Tell mother I die for my country.” Moved into Garrett’s house, Booth revived somewhat. Repeatedly he begged of his captors, “Kill me, kill me.” Booth again weakened. Two or three hours after being shot, he died.
One suspected conspirator would elude investigators for more than a year and would not stand trial with the other eight: John Surratt, Jr., the son of Mary Surratt. Surratt fled to Canada after the assassination. In September, Surratt traveled to England and later to Rome. Finally arrested in Egypt on November 27, 1866, Surratt was brought back to the United States for trial in a civilian court in 1867.
A special military commission was set up to try the conspirators. Continue reading Doug Linder’s account of what happened at law.umkc.edu:
Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, and Samuel Arnold were all pardoned by Andrew Johnson right before he left office in 1869. Although he was supposed to be George Atzerodt’s target, Mary Lincoln was convinced that Johnson was involved in the conspiracy: Link
A book about the story came out last year: James Swanson | Manhunt