Who really was the driving force behind the Lincoln assassination? This video looks at the events leading to Lincoln's assassination, particularly the role of trade between Union and Confederacy and the role of George Sanders.
The Catholic Bishops vs. Joe Biden
William Barr Speaks
What really infuriated Booth was his conviction that America was now destined to be ruled by a dictator, Lincoln, who would bring about a horrible racial reversal. Booth, who referred to black people as “monkeys,” “apes,” or “thick-skulled darkies,” wrote that “this country was formed for the white not for the black man,” and that slavery was “one of the greatest blessings that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”
Booth’s anger boiled over on April 11, 1865, when he attended a speech in which Lincoln called for suffrage for certain African Americans—the first time an American president had ever done so. Booth growled, “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Privately, Booth declared that something “great & decisive” had to be done.
Three days later, Booth killed Lincoln. He was driven by what he saw as a patriotic and religious duty to save his nation from racial integration through an act of violence—exactly what John Brown had done, but in reverse. Brown had changed history in single stroke, like the despot-killing Brutus or many other Shakespearian characters Booth had played. Booth thought that he too could play hero on the national stage. Who knew? Perhaps by shooting Lincoln he would become even grander than the man he called “the grandest man of the century,” John Brown. Like Brown’s letters and speeches, Booth’s writings are full of firmly proclaimed devotion to God and country. Just as Brown saw himself as a patriot acting in the spirit of 1776, Booth looked back fondly on the American Revolution and wrote, “How I have loved the old [American] flag, can never now be known.” If Brown saw his violent deeds as God-directed, so did Booth, who scribbled in his pocket diary shortly before he was captured in a Virginia barn, “God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.”
And so, both Brown and Booth followed the higher law. But can either of them be said to be justified in his actions? In Booth’s case, the answer seems a definite “no.” There has, however, been a long tradition of Booth-worshipping, from avid relic-gatherers just after the assassination to the ex-Confederate colonel Robert H. Crozier, who in his 1869 novel The Bloody Junto compared Booth to the worthiest “ancient semi-gods,” to the Confederate veteran Joseph Pinkney Parker, who in 1904 erected a monument with the words, “In honor of John Wilks [sic] Booth/For killing old Abe Lincoln,” to Izola Forrester, allegedly the granddaughter of Booth, who wrote in a 1934 book that “you cannot but feel a deep love for [Booth],” to the Southern shock jock and former Rand Paul aide Jack Hunter, who said that he personally raised a toast on every May 10, Booth’s birthday, to Lincoln’s assassin, about whom Hunter declared, “John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place.” That kind of attitude led Erik Jendresen, the Executive Producer of the television movie Killing Lincoln, to remark that John Wilkes Booth “could be the poster child for the Tea Party.”
As for John Brown, many people today, including a few widely-read commentators—such as Tony Horwitz, Christopher Benfey, and Sean Wilentz—consider him a fanatical, perhaps insane, homegrown terrorist. But Brown was held in the highest esteem by some of America’s most thoughtful observers. Henry David Thoreau compared him to Jesus Christ, Harriet Beecher Stowe called him the greatest American, Frederick Douglass declared, “I could live for the slave, but he could die for him,” and W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “John Brown was right.”
The contradictory responses to Booth and Brown, make it tempting to conclude that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But the picture gets more complicated—and more suggestive—when we recognize that Lincoln also advocated extreme violence in the name of higher ideals. Initially, he had dissociated himself from John Brown, declaring that while Brown’s motives were worthy, his actions were illegal. But as the Civil War wore on, he deemphasized law and precedent in pursuit of his goal of eradicating slavery. He used his presidential military powers to suspend habeas corpus and other civil liberties, and he directed his leading generals, Grant and Sherman, to pursue a brutal, scorched-earth strategy that some historians see as “total war.” And he did so in the name of God. Although Lincoln never joined a church, he read the Bible often, put “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, approached his Cabinet about the possibility of amending the Constitution to include mention of God, and issued an extraordinary nine proclamations of prayer, fasting, or thanksgiving in order to fire the North with spiritual enthusiasm.
In his second inaugural address in March 1865, Lincoln appealed to the Old Testament God to vindicate bloody violence in the battle against injustice. Only 750 words long, the speech contained fourteen mentions of God, three invocations of prayer, and four Biblical citations, including Lincoln’s militantly pious declaration: “If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” John Brown would have agreed completely.
And so, on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865, three forms of higher law mingled explosively: that of Brown, who inspired Booth, though from the opposite vantage point of racial equality that of Booth, who believed God-backed terrorism could preserve white supremacy and that of Lincoln, who cited “the judgments of the Lord” to promote a holy war against slavery. Of the three, Lincoln has of course been best received by history, and we can say that his form of higher law—channeled as it was through American institutions like the electoral process and presidential proclamations—is indeed the most admirable. The loose-cannon higher law actions of Brown and Booth seem out of bounds, for these men acted outside of institutions, without the sanction of some larger group. To be sure, both Brown and Booth, by turning to violence, succeeded in galvanizing change. Brown did become a martyr in the North and was a major inspiration to Union troops as they marched southward, singing their favorite song, “John Brown’s Body,” quickly adapted by Julia Ward Howe as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That’s why many antislavery leaders attributed the fall of slavery largely to John Brown’s heroic example.
John Wilkes Booth likewise succeeded in creating a martyr whose memory would transform the nation, only not the one he intended. The poet Walt Whitman considered the assassination of Lincoln the greatest boon to America, since it unified a nation whose deep divisions had created unimaginable bloodshed and suffering. Shared sorrow over the tragic death of America’s “great Martyr Chief,” Whitman wrote, provided “a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than anything in written constitution, or courts or armies” it was the one thing needed only to “really, lastingly condense—a Nationality.” Time has proved Whitman right. Lincoln since his death 150 years ago has been a unifying figure in the national consciousness, virtually the only constant amid shifting political winds and economic conditions—the most beloved of Americans among both conservatives and liberals.
But Lincoln is not just a unifying national icon. He is a lasting example of the proper use of the higher law: that is, the principled pursuit of justice through a popularly elected government. Although lone-wolf higher-law types like John Brown and John Wilkes Booth sometimes have positive results, history has shown that the higher law of individuals can also be a slippery slope that leads to unleashed violence. At Gettysburg, Lincoln announced “a new birth of freedom” for “this nation, under God”—a higher law declaration. But in the next breath he expressed a firm commitment to preserving “government of the people, for the people, by the people.” Even the most apparently virtuous aims, Lincoln knew, can be dangerous if they are not channeled through a democratically chosen government.
Here, in his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln defined the truly American higher law.
John Wilkes Booth: history's most charming assassin?
‘Fortune’s Fool,’ the first-ever biography of John Wilkes Booth, portrays Lincoln's assassin as charismatic, talented, and overcome with hatred and rage.
There may have never been a more charming assassin than John Wilkes Booth, who took the life of President Abraham Lincoln in a theater 150 years ago this week.
“He was a man with something to lose, not a born loser,” says Terry Alford, professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College. “He was somebody.”
As one of his era’s top actors, Booth had legions of fans, including at least two White House residents named Lincoln. His masculine energy and sexiness captivated women, and men found him to be a fine companion for evenings out on the town. When I asked if Booth had enemies, Alford – now his sole biographer – couldn’t think of one.
The reverse was hardly true. Booth hated the North with an uncommon rage, one that exploded in blood and ruined lives.
This assassin like no other deserves to be understood by history. What drove this beloved celebrity to murder? Alford seeks the answer in his extraordinary new book Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth.
As Kamala Harris’ portfolio grows, so does the scrutiny
We all know what happened on the night of April 14, 1865. Thanks to the gripping and deeply perceptive “Fortune’s Fool,” we know much more about why.
In our interview, I asked Alford to ponder what he learned about this extraordinary man’s life and his lust for revolution and revenge.
Q: What was John Wilkes Booth like in person?
He had drop-dead good looks, perfect teeth, great complexion. Physically, he was a marvel, a gym rat, an exercise fanatic.
A lot of people found him charming to be around with great personal appeal. He could be very sympathetic, he could put his face up next to yours and listen.
He was brave on occasion. When an actress’s dress caught fire, he put it out. And when a horse bolted with a young girl riding down the street, he ran the horse down and saved the girl.
It’s amazing how many friends he had, an army of friends of both sexes. He did a terrible thing, but as time passed and people felt safe to speak they mind, there’s a surprisingly positive amount of things said about him.
Q: You focus in the book on Booth’s incredible acting talents, which tend to be forgotten today. What was he like as a performer?
He was an exceptionally good actor. He excelled at physicality on stage – leaping, swordplay, dramatic conclusions. He’d seem a little bit over the top and melodramatic to us now, but that was pretty much what the audience wanted. He could also be tender and play parts like Romeo that required openness and sincerity.
I wonder if he would have burned out given his acting style. Once the curtain fell, he would lie on the floor for 5-10 minutes because he was so exhausted. I don’t know how he would have lasted or held up.
Q: What did he care about the most?
His main obsession was the opposite sex, and he had a two-volume little black book. He’d have his respectable upper-middle class girlfriends and romances, but their life was so restricted they had no idea of the world he lived in. He could be engaged to a high-born lady and be with prostitutes at the same time.
Q: What were the roots of his racism, which led him to deeply hate the North and Lincoln?
I thought a lot about that. He could be kind to individual African Americans, but the basic problem to him was that they didn’t belong in the United States. When the war came along, they were the most obvious beneficiaries, It was almost like for him, they couldn’t win freedom without him losing his. It wasn’t just that they would get something. He would lose something.
He identified all these changes with Lincoln. In fact, he seemed less focused on the war than Lincoln. I think he personalized Lincoln to represent everything bad that was happening around him.
Q: One of the amazing things about Booth, which is unique among assassins, is that he knew his victim, and his victim knew him and liked him. Booth was so famous that even Lincoln’s young son Tad was a fan. What did you learn about the connections between and his fan in the White House?
Lincoln had seen him act and applauded his efforts, and according to several people, Lincoln wanted to meet him. He was a star.
Q: As you write, shortly before the assassination, Booth tried to kidnap Lincoln, and he created public scenes by getting inappropriately close to the president. What was going on there?
At the end, Booth was starting to get desperate. It’s possible he could have shot Lincoln before he did.
Q: Why do you think he didn’t? Did he want to make sure he could escape?
As crazy as he became, he always showed a firm regard for not only doing his dirty work, but also getting out of it.
Q: Some people don’t realize that there was a wider assassination plot among Booth and his conspirators. The plot succeeded in killing Lincoln and severely wounding the secretary of state, although the vice president escaped unharmed. What did Booth think would happen next?
He realized he may gain some benefit by cutting the head of the government. If the South couldn’t kill the Northern army, why not kill the head?
Based on what he had to say, he hoped that the North might fall into revolution or confusion about who should govern, and it would be distracted enough for the South to win.
He knew this was desperate stuff, a major difference from plotting a kidnapping. He knew all that. Things that meant a lot to him like money, women, and family got swept aside by this fanaticism.
Q: If he’d ever faced trial, should Booth have gotten off on an insanity plea?
He’s not in crazy in the sense that we’re having lunch at the mall and we say, “Hey, look at that guy” because we’d both know something was wrong.
But he’s crazy in the sense of fanaticism: He’s perfectly OK on 9 out of 10 things, but don’t bring up the 10th thing. Fanaticism overwhelmed all of his good instincts – and he had many – and his good sense.
Q: How did you pick the book title “Fortune’s Fool,” which comes from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”?
It’s said when Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin and realizes what he done. Shakespeare was very invested in this idea of fate, that there are things impelling you forward that are out of your control.
Booth did say late in life to his mother that “I think there’s a hand on me that’s pushing me in a direction.” I think that’s exactly what was happening: He wasn’t in control of what he was doing. What he was doing in control of him. He was overwhelmed by his desire to help the South and for personal redemption for not having been a Confederate soldier.
Q: Booth lives for days after the assassination as he tries to escape, and he’s stunned by the universal horror at the assassination. How did he miss reality so completely?
He totally misread how people would see the assassination, and that makes you wonder how sane he is. But he had to be sane since he knew when to attack Lincoln and how to get out of Ford’s Theater.
Get the Monitor Stories you care about delivered to your inbox.
He also said he wanted revenge for the South. He’d been exceedingly distressed by the Confederate surrender, and he’d seen prisoners being mistreated in the streets.
Revenge is not a very noble motive, but it’s a very human motive: “I’m hurting, and I want to share this hurt with you.” I think that was certainly in his mind.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Start of content
On the morning of April 14, 1865 (Good Friday), actor John Wilkes Booth learned President Abraham Lincoln would attend a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin that night at Ford&rsquos Theatre&mdasha theatre Booth frequently performed at. He realized his moment had arrived.
By 10:15 that evening, the comedy was well into its last act. In the Presidential Box, President and Mrs. Lincoln and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, laughed at the show along with the audience&mdashnot knowing that Booth was just outside the door.
- How could such a thing have taken place&mdashand in Washington, the fortified capital of the nation? How did Booth gain such access to the theatre?
- Why didn&rsquot Lincoln&rsquos security people stop him?
- Was it a lone act or part of a larger conspiracy?
- And, when all was said and done, what was the outcome&mdashfor those involved in the crime, for their victims, for the nation and even for Ford&rsquos Theatre?
Conduct your own investigation below! As you look at the evidence, consider:
Stalking John Wilkes Booth
Henry Clay Ford was counting receipts in the box office of Ford’s Theatre, which his older brother John owned, on the night of April 14, 1865. Around 10:00 p.m., he heard a faint, percussive pop.
At first, Ford assumed someone had accidentally fired a blank stage prop pistol in the property room. But when he glanced up, Ford was surprised to see his good friend John Booth on stage. Although Booth was a familiar and welcome presence around Ford’s Theatre — a popular member of its extended “family” of actors and stagehands — he definitely wasn’t in the cast of that evening’s performance of Our American Cousin. In fact, the last time he had taken the stage had been almost a month prior, playing the villainous lead in a benefit performance of a melodrama called The Apostate to raise money for a fellow actor’s draft exemption.
In the blink of an eye, Booth was gone, and the audience was silent. Before the crowd could grasp the immensity of Booth’s actions, he’d made his way out the back door, mounted his horse, and fled down F Street toward the Navy Yard Bridge. W.J. Ferguson, a young bit actor in the theater that Good Friday evening, later said, “So completely hidden had been the tragedy that hundreds in the house had not the least idea of the profound seriousness.”
But as the acrid smell of gun smoke spread, and Mary Lincoln’s aggrieved shrieks pierced the silence, grim reality began to set in. Within hours, the president of the United States lay dead from an assassin’s bullet, and the largest manhunt in American history was underway.
Persistently revisited and rehashed over the ensuing decades, the events and characters associated with the Lincoln assassination have become one of the most dramatic and symbolic chapters in our national historical narrative. According to data published by the Surratt Society, by 1997, more than 3,000 books, monographs and articles had been published on the assassination and subsequent military trial of the conspirators. And this number continues to grow.
In later years, former friends recalled that, as a boy, Booth dreamed of having his name writ large in history. If so, he succeeded. Nearly every schoolchild knows of his deeds the image of the mustachioed assassin leaping over the theater box balustrade onto the stage is frozen in time and seared in our collective memory.
In Search of John Wilkes Booth
“Say what we will to the contrary, and be as indignant at the imputation as we please, Booth was the product of the North, as well as of the South. He was moulded as well by Northern as by Southern pulpits, presses, and usages.” — Abolitionist Gerrit Smith speaking at a Cooper Institute meeting in New York, June 1865
Who exactly was this man who shot the president? John Wilkes, second youngest of the 10 children of acclaimed English-American actor Junius Brutus Booth, Sr., was born in Harford County, Maryland, just a stone’s throw south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He came from a politically divided family and a politically divided region. In letters written during the war, Booth’s mother Mary Ann referred to Confederates as “the enemy.” His older brother, Edwin, a nationally acclaimed actor by the early 1860s, voted for Lincoln in 1864.
Years earlier, John Wilkes’s grandfather, Richard Booth, had retired as a London barrister and joined his son and grandchildren in America, where he aided runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. John Wilkes’s father, Junius, was a self-styled vegetarian and pacifist, but that didn’t stop him from penning a death threat to his friend, President Andrew Jackson, in 1835.
As a teenager, the future assassin resolved to follow in his father’s footsteps and began his career as a bit player in the theaters of Philadelphia, appearing under the stage name “J. Wilkes.” It was in Richmond, Va., during the 1859–1860 season, that he rose to regional stardom as a member of a theater company managed by John T. Ford, a childhood friend who would soon open Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In December 1859, Booth witnessed the execution of the militant abolitionist John Brown, which had a profound effect on him. Though Booth hated everything the abolitionist stood for, he later spoke admirably of his courage in staking his life on his convictions and stoically accepting the consequences of his actions.
In late 1860, still in his early 20s and on the cusp of national stardom, Booth embarked on his first tour of northern cities as a leading man. His theatrical success continued despite the war during the 1863–64 theatrical season, Booth earned $20,000 (a significant sum, given Lincoln’s presidential salary of $25,000). But in letters to his mother, Booth poured out his anguish and remorse over living the good life among his “enemies,” while Southern patriots fought and died in the field.
Despite his mixed emotions and growing fanaticism, Booth was certainly well liked by his peers. Years after the assassination, Clara Morris, a friend and fellow actor, said: “At this late date the country can afford to deal justly with John Wilkes Booth…. He was not a bravo, a commonplace desperado, as some would make him…. It was impossible to see him and not admire him it was equally impossible to know him and not to love him.”
E.A. Emerson, another contemporary, remembered Booth as “a kind-hearted, genial person…. Everybody loved him on stage, though he was a little excitable and eccentric.”
Cleveland theater manager John Ellsler, who had partnered with Booth as a prospector in the West Pennsylvania oil fields in 1864, praised him as “as manly a man as God ever made.” Through his older brother Edwin, John Wilkes even became acquainted and got on well with the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe. He was a charmer and a chameleon, capable of being all things to all people.
He was also a man of contradictions. In July 1863, Booth was visiting his brother Edwin in New York City when the Draft Riots broke out and impoverished Irish protesters, enraged by the provision in the conscription law that allowed one to buy out of military service, vented their anger on black residents of the city, who they saw as competitors for jobs. Booth took it upon himself to personally protect Edwin’s black servant from harm amid the lethal violence. Adam Badeau, a close friend of Edwin’s who would later serve as a Federal colonel on Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s staff, was also a houseguest at the time and later claimed he had no idea his best friend’s younger brother harbored such rabid pro-Southern, pro-slavery sentiments.
“You are in danger”: Lincoln was no stranger to assassination threats
“I regret that you do not appreciate what I have repeatedly said to you in regard to proper police arrangements connected with your household and your own personal safety. You know, or ought to know, that your life is sought after, and will be taken unless you and your friends are cautious for you have many enemies within our lines.” — Letter written to Lincoln by his friend and occasional bodyguard Ward Lamon, December 1864
Lincoln was no stranger to mortal danger he even kept a file in his desk labeled “assassination,” in which he presumably collected the most colorful or credible missives from those eager to take his life. The threats against the 16th president began shortly after he left Illinois in February 1861 on his long, circuitous journey to his first inauguration and continued more or less unabated throughout the rest of his life. New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley reasoned that if he received more than 100 death threats during the war, Lincoln must have gotten more than a thousand.
A fair share of this vitriol emanated from north of the Mason-Dixon Line. A Wisconsin newspaper editor named Marcus Mills Pomeroy repeatedly excoriated Lincoln in his La Crosse Democrat, opining that if Lincoln should be re-elected “to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with a dagger point for the public good.”
Surprisingly, despite this treacherous undercurrent, presidential security was, at least early in the war, practically nonexistent. Lincoln was frequently spotted riding or walking alone in and around Washington, D.C. He often took solitary, late-night walks to the nearby War Department telegraph office to peruse the latest dispatches from the front, even though the White House grounds were open to the public.
One evening in 1864, when the president rode alone on horseback from the White House to his Summer Cottage at the Soldiers Home (then well beyond the ambits of the city), someone took a shot at him from fairly close range.
“It seems that uncontrollable fate, moving me for its own ends, takes me from you, dear Mother, to do what work I can for a poor, oppressed, downtrodden people … I have not a single selfish motive to spur me on to this, nothing save the sacred duty, I feel I owe the cause I love, the cause of the South. The cause of liberty and justice.” — Letter from J. Wilkes Booth to his mother, Mary Ann Booth, November 1864
As early as mid-1863, the character of the war began to take an insidious turn. Long gone were the chivalric days of 1861 and 1862 when Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan assured Southerners he would not destroy their property. By 1864, covert, “black flag” operations were sanctioned by both sides.
In early March 1864 came the infamous and unsuccessful Dahlgren-Kilpatrick Union cavalry raid, a failed attempt to free Union prisoners of war housed in Richmond, Va. After Confederate pickets killed one of the retreating commanders, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, a letter was found on his corpse. It appeared to be a speech he’d intended to give to his troops. In it he resolved to: “destroy and burn the hateful city,” adding for good measure, “Jeff Davis and cabinet must be killed on the spot.”
Dahlgren’s incendiary letter was widely reprinted in newspapers on both sides of the conflict, fanning the hatred of fanatics like Booth. Precisely where and when John Wilkes Booth decided to immerse himself in criminal intrigue against Lincoln is unclear, but after spending much of the summer of 1864 as an investor and prospector in the Pennsylvania oil fields, he journeyed to Baltimore in September and met with the first two men to enter his conspiracy: his childhood friends Sam Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen.
From then until sometime in the early spring of 1865, Booth sought to abduct President Lincoln so that the Confederate government could use him as a bargaining chip in negotiations for a conditional peace and the exchange of Southern soldiers in Union prison camps. As he laid out various scenarios for accomplishing the deed, Booth made several trips in late 1864 to southern Maryland, which, although under nominal Federal occupation, was a hotbed of covert Rebel activity. At this point, Booth planned to include a physician in his abduction party — as a gesture of good faith that Lincoln would be delivered to Richmond without harm befalling him — and, presumably, this is where Dr. Samuel Mudd, Jr., entered the picture.
But after months of delay and fruitless intrigues, Booth made only one feckless effort to nab Lincoln on March 17. It came to naught when the president had a last-minute change of schedule and ended up not taking the road to the Soldiers Home, where the would-be kidnappers lay in wait for him.
Meanwhile, events were moving fast and soon rendered the kidnapping scheme irrelevant. On April 3, 1865, Union troops occupied Richmond, Va., and, within a week, Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. In their hearts and minds, most Southerners, as well Northerners, realized the writing was on the wall. There was, however, a small but committed minority who believed the tide could still be turned. If Booth could create an interval of chaos, such as in the wake of an assassination, to paralyze the highest echelons of the federal power structure, these die-hard Confederates could rise from the ashes and renew the struggle. Justification for this rationale came from the fact that not all Confederate generals had surrendered their commands — scattered fighting continued in the Western Theater until the Battle of Palmito Ranch, Texas, in May. Moreover, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials remained at large after fleeing the capital.
The conspirators made their preparations against the backdrop of a capital city in giddy celebration, all military bands, firework displays and grand illuminations. Government offices shut down and sent their workers packing, even as taverns swung their doors wide open to receive them.
Booth, meanwhile, was short on manpower to execute his plans: three conspirators — John Surratt, Jr., Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlin — had lost faith in him. Wanting nothing to do with killing, they abandoned the conspiracy. With them gone, it was down to Booth and three bitter-ender accomplices: Lewis Powell (a.k.a., Lewis Paine), a former Confederate soldier who was wounded the second day at Gettysburg and later rode with Mosby’s Rangers George Atzerodt, a Prussian-born, alcoholic carriage painter and free-booting blockade runner for the Confederacy and David Herold, the 22-year-old son of a former Federal Navy Yard official.
Around mid-day on Good Friday, Booth made his customary visit to Ford’s, his home away from home in Washington, to get his mail. When Henry Ford informed him that Lincoln was planning to attend the theater that evening, Booth showed no outward reaction, but he must have rejoiced internally.
His opportunity now apparent, Booth stopped by the Surratt Boarding House to tend to some final details. Later in the afternoon, he was seen in Baptist Alley astride his rented horse, apparently going through the paces for a fast getaway, much like a sprinter practicing coming out of the starting blocks.
Around 8:00 p.m., Booth held a final meeting with his ragged band of co-conspirators — Powell, Atzerodt and Herold — at the Herndon House hotel. There, just a block away from Ford’s, he assigned their final, bloody tasks.
Our American Cousin was already in progress when President and Mrs. Lincoln, along with their two guests —Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancée and stepsister Clara Harris — and a small entourage, arrived at Ford’s to considerable fanfare.
John Parker, a Washington policeman assigned to the White House, accompanied the presidential party, as did Lincoln’s footman Charles Forbes. Once the Lincolns were settled in the state box, the stage action resumed, and Forbes and Parker left, presumably to get a drink next door at the Starr Saloon. Forbes soon returned and took a seat just outside the state box, but Parker’s whereabouts at the time of the shooting are unknown.
It was, in fact, not unusual for Lincoln to attend Ford’s without anyone guarding, or even monitoring, traffic in and out of the state box. That was the case one evening in February 1865 when Lincoln attended Ford’s with Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside as his guests.
Booth returned to the theater around 9:00 p.m. by way of Baptist Alley and entered through a rear door. After chatting briefly with the doorman out front, Booth adjourned to the adjacent Star Saloon for a drink.
Shortly after 10:00 p.m., Booth re-entered Ford’s and proceeded up the staircase to the dress circle, calmly humming a tune. He strode resolutely down an outer aisle and presented a card of some kind (it never has been determined exactly what) to Charles Forbes, who let him pass.
Booth entered the narrow passage onto which the doors to the state box opened. He closed the door behind him and wedged it shut with a board he had earlier cut from a music stand. Booth had acted in Our American Cousin many times and was thoroughly familiar with its comedic ebbs and flows. He waited for a particular scene, when only one person would be on the stage and the dialogue usually provoked loud peals of laughter from the audience.
When the moment came, he opened the inner door to the president’s box and shot Lincoln point blank in the back of the head with his derringer (some witnesses claimed that he shouted “Freedom!” during or immediately following the act). Rathbone grappled with Booth, managing to grab hold of a button on his coat before being slashed on the upper left arm by the assassin’s dagger. The scuffle was enough to throw Booth slightly off balance, and as he made the 12-foot leap to the stage, he caught one spur in the treasury flag decorating the railing. He landed in an awkward crouching position and broke the fibula in his lower left leg. According to various eyewitness accounts, he shouted either “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (the state motto of Virginia, “Thus always to tyrants”) or “The South is avenged!” as he rushed off the stage and out the rear exit. Once in Baptist Alley, Booth mounted his horse and galloped down F Street, toward the Navy Yard Bridge (near today’s 11th Street Bridge).
On the Run, out of the Capitol
Meanwhile, Lewis Powell was sent to kill Secretary of State William Seward. At the time, Seward was bed-ridden at his residence on Lafayette Square, recovering from a serious carriage accident nine days earlier.
Posing as a druggist’s delivery clerk, Powell tried to bluff his way into the house, and when that failed, he bludgeoned and slashed his way into Seward’s bedroom, where Lincoln had visited the secretary four days earlier. Powell stabbed Seward repeatedly with his dagger and injured several others in the household who tried to stop him. Miraculously, they all survived.
Herold, unlike Powell, was not a killer, and Booth probably realized it. But he knew his way around Washington and accompanied Powell, a country boy with no sense of direction in the big city. As Powell carried out his violent assignment upon the Seward household, Herold, still astride his horse outside, was unnerved by the bloody shrieks and galloped off.
Herold was riding a horse he’d rented from Nailor’s Stable. John Fletcher, the man who had rented Herold the steed, did not trust him. As the hour grew late, Fletcher began to worry that Herold meant to steal the horse and went looking for him. He encountered Herold on Pennsylvania Avenue and demanded his horse back. Not about to give up his mount at this juncture, Herold galloped off toward the Navy Yard Bridge with Fletcher in pursuit. Although the bridge was guarded by Sgt. Silas T. Cobb, restrictions on crossing had been relaxed after major hostilities ceased in the Eastern Theater both Booth and Herold were allowed across following only a brief interrogation.
Fletcher reported the theft’s details to the police, and authorities began connecting the dots: a growing series of reports indicated Booth was headed for southern Maryland.
Familiar Stops for the Fugitives
After rendezvousing at Soper’s Hill (the exact location has never been determined, but presumably in the vicinity of present-day Temple Hills, Md.), Booth and Herold stopped next at the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton), Md., about a dozen miles from Washington.
The tavern, like a downtown boardinghouse where several conspirators occasionally stayed, was owned by Mary Surratt. Her husband had died in 1862, leaving her with considerable property but also significant debts. During the war, both the house and the tavern in Prince George’s County (where Lincoln got exactly one vote during the 1860 presidential election) were designated safe houses on the “secret line” that the Confederacy established for covertly moving everything from mail and newspapers to escaped prisoners and spies between Richmond and Washington. In the fall of 1864, however, Surratt rented the tavern to a man named John Lloyd and moved to the house on H Street, where she took in boarders to make ends meet.
When Booth and Herold arrived at the tavern around midnight on April 15, they did not linger long. Booth stayed on his horse while Herold pounded on the door and roused Lloyd, who was well into his cups. Herold grabbed a bottle of whiskey and sent Lloyd upstairs to get “those things,” which turned out to be two carbines and a field glass.
These items were part of a cache of weapons, ammunition and other paraphernalia that had been hidden by Mary’s youngest son, John Surratt, Jr., the Confederate courier and agent who had previously colluded with Booth, but had subsequently attempted to leave the conspiracy. The items had been stashed the day after Booth’s aborted March 17 attempt to kidnap Lincoln on the lonely road that led to the president’s cottage at the Soldiers Home. The field glass belonged to Booth and had been taken to the tavern by Mary Surratt at Booth’s request on the afternoon of April 14. As Booth and Herold were leaving, Booth nonchalantly informed Lloyd, “I am pretty certain we have assassinated the President and Secretary Seward.”
Around 4:00 a.m., Booth and Herold arrived at the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in Charles County. Whether the visit to Mudd’s was planned or merely a last-minute detour to get Booth’s broken leg set is unknown, but the pair were clearly acquainted Booth had visited Mudd’s house at least twice in late 1864. On one of these trips he bought a “one-eyed” horse (blind in one eye) from Mudd’s neighbor George Gardiner — a mount later ridden by Lewis Powell the night of the assassination. In December, Mudd had introduced Booth to John Surratt, Jr., and the trio met at the National Hotel in Washington.
Years later, it was revealed that, in December 1864, Mudd also introduced Booth to Thomas Harbin, a ranking Confederate agent operating in southern Maryland. After hearing the outline of the plan to abduct Lincoln, Harbin assured Booth that, could he pull it off, the Confederate underground would provide aid and support to bring the president across the Potomac to Richmond.
“I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for — what made [William] Tell a hero. And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cut-throat …. (I) am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so.” — Entry in John Wilkes Booth’s so-called diary, written while in hiding a pine thicket in southern Maryland
It was around 5:00 p.m., on Saturday, April 15, when Booth and Herold left Mudd’s house and rode off into nearby Zekiah Swamp, where they promptly got lost. With a free black man named Oswell Swann serving as their guide, they arrived around midnight at Rich Hill, the home of Samuel Cox, an influential Charles County landowner and ardent Confederate. Cox fed the fugitives, then, in the pre-dawn hours, had his farm manager, Franklin Robey, conceal them in a pine thicket near Bel Alton. The thicket was, conveniently, not on Cox’s property.
Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, Cox summoned his foster brother, Thomas Jones, a farmer and fisherman. Jones had long been active in the Confederate underground and had spent time in Washington’s Old Capital Prison as a result of his activities. Cox knew that Jones was deeply familiar with the tides and currents of the wide Potomac River, and that his boats had survived the Federal seizures designed to minimize Booth’s chances of escaping across the river. Just as important, Cox knew that Jones, though he’d been impoverished by the war, could be trusted and would keep a secret.
For five days, Jones took food and drink, as well as newspapers, to the pine thicket as he waited for an opportunity to move Booth and Herold across to Virginia. This was no easy task, since the Potomac was now under constant surveillance by Federal gunboats and shore patrols.
Jones left the only descriptions we have of Booth’s exile in the pine thicket and of the subsequent river crossing. He wrote these observations, along with his first impressions of Booth, in an 1893 monograph called J. Wilkes Booth.
“He was lying on the ground with his head supported on his hand. His carbine, pistols and knife were close beside him. A blanket was drawn partly over him. His slouch hat and crutch were lying by him … though he was exceedingly pale and his features bore the evident traces of suffering, I have seldom, if ever, seen a more strikingly handsome man …. His voice was pleasant and though he seemed to be suffering intense pain from his broken leg, his manner was courteous and polite.”
Jones conceded that, given the risks, he’d entered this task with great reluctance, but, “no sooner had I seen him in his helpless and suffering condition than I gave my whole mind to the problem of how to get him across the river.”
The Other Conspirators’ Fates
“If this conspiracy was thus entered into by the accused … then it is the law that all the parties to that conspiracy, whether present at the time of its execution or not, whether on trial before this Court or not, are like guilty of the several sets done by each in the execution of the common design. What these conspirators did in the execution of this conspiracy by the hand of one of their co-conspirators they did themselves….” — Summation of the Hon. John Bingham, Special Judge Advocate in the Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy Trial
While hiding in the thicket, Booth pored over the papers that Jones brought him and finally learned how his co-conspirators had fared and how the world was reacting to his deed. Needless to say, he was not encouraged. In his diary, he even expressed “horror” at all the needless carnage in the Seward household.
Neither Powell nor Atzerodt, it turned out, had succeeded at their bloody endeavors. After fleeing from Lafayette Square, Powell got lost and never made it to the Navy Yard Bridge. He abandoned the one-eyed horse and most likely hid out in the Old Congressional Cemetery. By Monday night, April 17, he was cold and hungry and returned to the only place he knew to go: the Surratt boardinghouse. He had the misfortune of arriving just as five military detectives had returned to the house to resume interrogations of Mary Surratt and her boarders. Powell was arrested on the spot.
On April 14, Booth had ordered Atzerodt to find Vice President Andrew Johnson at a hotel named the Kirkwood House and shoot him. Atzerodt objected strenuously, telling Booth he had only intended to kidnap, not kill, and wandered off to have a few drinks. He then proceeded to the Kirkwood House, where he lingered over a few more drinks and asked after Johnson. Eventually, he stumbled back out on to the street, where he tossed the dagger Booth had given him in the gutter. He spent the night in a flophouse, left without paying the next morning, and pawned his revolver for $10. He eventually ended up at his cousin’s home near Germantown, Md., where, on April 20, he was arrested without a struggle.
Booth more than likely didn’t live long enough to learn the fate of Samuel Mudd, who was arrested on April 26.
On May 1, Johnson, who had assumed the presidency following the assassination, ordered the formation of a nine-member military tribunal to try the eight identified and located conspirators: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler and Mary Surratt.
The prosecution called more than 350 witnesses before judgments were passed in late June. All the defendants were found guilty. On July 7, Atzerodt, Herold, Powell and Mary Surratt were hanged on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal (now Fort Lesley McNair). Despite abandoning the conspiracy once it encompassed more than kidnapping, Arnold and O’Laughlen were found culpable for their initial collusion and sentenced to life in prison, as was Mudd. Theater stagehand Spangler was sentenced to six years alongside the others at Fort Jefferson, off Key West, Fla. All but O’Laughlin, who died in a yellow fever outbreak, were pardoned by Johnson and released in 1869.
John Surratt fled to Canada and, with the aid of former Confederates and sanctuary from Catholic priests, booked passage to England. Under the assumed name John Watson, he made his way to the Papal States and enlisted in the Pontifical Zouaves. Recognized in late 1866, he attempted to make his way to Egypt under a new identity, but was arrested and extradited to the United States. Thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, Surratt was tried in a civilian court rather than by a military tribunal the only charge he faced was murder, the statute of limitations having expired on lesser counts. The jury was deadlocked, but, ultimately, Surratt was released on $25,000 bail. He became a teacher, married and fathered seven children and lived in Baltimore until his death in 1916.
“I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to out-live my country…. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. O, may He spare me that, and let me die bravely.” — Excerpts from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, written in hiding during April 1865
Not until Thursday evening, April 20 was Thomas Jones, under cover of darkness, and with much stealth and trepidation, able to get the fugitives down to the Potomac and shove them off in his small, flat-bottomed rowboat.
Booth and Herold’s first crossing attempt quickly veered off course due to darkness, the river’s swift currents and strong countervailing tides and their maneuvers to elude federal gunboats. On Friday morning, they came ashore near the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek, still in Maryland, and several miles closer to Washington than when they’d shoved off. Fortunately, Herold had acquaintances in the area who sheltered them until Saturday night, when they successfully crossed over into Virginia.
Early Sunday morning, they came ashore at Gambo Creek, near the site of the modern-day Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge over U.S. Route 301. Having put the wide Potomac between themselves and the multitude of soldiers, police officers and civilians who were beating the bushes for them back in Maryland, Booth and Herold no doubt felt a wave of relief.
But it was a short-lived reprieve. Within a few days, a federal search party crossed the river and was on their trail. They also soon discovered that the populace in this war-torn section of Virginia was far more wary of offering the kind of assistance they’d received back in southern Maryland. Virginians, unlike their counterparts across the river, had seen firsthand the devastation of war and knew how vindictive the Yankees could be. When Booth and Herold finally found shelter at the Richard Garrett Farm, just south of Port Royal, Va., it was by posing as Confederate soldiers who had surrendered and were on their way home.
The Garrett Farm and the End of the Line
It was at the Garrett Farm, roughly 70 miles southeast of Ford’s Theatre, that Booth, just shy of his 27th birthday, drew his last breath. As he and Herold slept in Garrett’s tobacco barn, a search party of two federal detectives with a detachment 26 volunteers and their commanding lieutenant from the 16th New York Cavalry were closing in. When they reached the Garrett Farm, they silently encircled the barn. Although the lead that had allowed the authorities to pick up Booth’s trail in Virginia had actually been a false sighting, it had nonetheless sent them in the right direction.
After some negotiation, Herold surrendered and was dragged out of the barn, but Booth refused to be taken alive. The barn was set on fire in an effort to drive him out. Then, Sgt. Boston Corbett, one of the cavalrymen, crept up to an open slat in the barn wall and shot Booth from about 12 feet away. The bullet from Corbett’s Colt revolver struck Booth in the side of the neck and paralyzed him from the waist down, although he did not lose consciousness.
Corbett’s public statements about shooting Booth grew more grandiose and preposterous as time went on, but his initial report indicated that he fired because Booth appeared about to shoot his way out. The assassin was then dragged out of the barn and carried up to the porch of the Garrett house, where he lingered before dying around 7:00 a.m., as the sun was rising. Among his final whispered words were, “Tell my mother I died for my country.”
Booth’s body was conveyed by wagon to Belle Plain, Va. There it was placed on the steam tug John S. Ide and transported up the Potomac, under the Navy Yard Bridge to the Washington Navy Yard, where the assassin’s body was transferred to the deck of the ironclad USS Montauk.
As word spread, the scene on the Montauk and on the nearby riverbank took on a circus-like atmosphere as hundreds of curiosity seekers jostled for a glimpse of Booth’s remains. Aboard the ship, an inquest was held, and the corpse, already in an early stage of decomposition, was carefully examined. Friends and acquaintances of Booth’s were summoned to identify the body. Dr. John Frederick May, a surgeon who had removed a cyst from Booth’s neck in 1863, quickly recognized and identified the unusual scar left by the procedure.
The federal government was determined to keep Booth’s remains out of reach of both those who wished to desecrate them and those who wished to sanctify him as a martyr. That night, under cover of darkness, the body was taken by rowboat to nearby Greenleaf’s Point, where it was wrapped in an army blanket, placed in a wooden gun box and secretly buried in the basement of the Washington Arsenal. It remained there until 1869, when the Booth family was finally granted permission to rebury John Wilkes in an unmarked grave in the shadow of his father’s impressive obelisk in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery.
Murder with a Vengeance
After John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln, theories—many born of hysteria— swept the nation. Some claimed that the assassination involved members of Lincoln’s own cabinet, most specifically, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Absurd as that allegation was, it still surfaces from time to time. But another theory— a legend, really—suggests a more personal motivation for Booth’s horrific act: revenge for the death of a friend.
Although little known today, the name of John Yates Beall was familiar to Rebel and Yankee alike. A principled, soft-spoken member of an affluent old Virginia family, Beall first fought as a volunteer under “Stonewall” Jackson and then became a Confederate privateer on the Chesapeake. He raised a small corps of rangers, known as Beall’s Company, and preyed on Union shipping—seizing vessels and diverting their cargoes to the Confederacy. Beall concocted an ultimately doomed plan to raid the Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War Depot on Lake Erie—liberate the prisoners and destroy the Northern cities on the Great Lakes.
His final act was an attempt to sabotage a prison-bound Yankee train carrying captured Confederate generals as well as a considerable amount of gold. Beall was apprehended and taken to New York City, where he was tried by military court as a “spy and guerrillero.” The man presiding over the trial was Maj. Gen. John A. Dix, commander of the Department of the East and the man who had vowed to hang every Rebel agent and provocateur he caught. The verdict was a foregone conclusion Beall was sentenced to die.
Beall and his attorney wrote to President Lincoln seeking clemency. Lincoln, arguably the most merciful man ever to hold the office of chief executive, seriously considered granting Beall a reprieve but on this occasion he deferred to General Dix, who argued the execution should proceed for the “security of the community.” It was a decision that would haunt Lincoln until his own death shortly thereafter. On February 24, 1865— just weeks before the cessation of hostilities—John Yates Beall walked calmly to the gallows, declared “I die in the service and defense of my country,” and was executed.
Less than two months later, a stunned nation sought motivations for Booth’s actions, and somehow the assassination of Lincoln became interwoven with the hanging of John Yates Beall. The story varies with the telling, but the crux is that Booth and Beall were the closest of friends they were classmates and chums at the University of Virginia, and some versions have Booth engaged to Beall’s sister.
When Beall is condemned, Booth—a celebrity of such stature that the president certainly would have known of him—visits Lincoln to plead for his friend’s life. Some variations have Booth on his knees in supplication before the president. Lincoln, the story goes, “with tears streaming down his face, took Booth by the hands, bade him rise and stand like a man and gave him his promise that Beall should be pardoned.” The young actor leaves the White House, secure in his belief that he has saved his friend.
Here the plot thickens. When he hears of Lincoln’s promise, Secretary of State William H. Seward vehemently protests on the grounds that a display of clemency would “discourage enlistment, lengthen the war, and insult the sentiment that called for blood.” Seward harangues Lincoln, threatening to resign if the president doesn’t reverse his position.
In a variant of the story, Lincoln gives the signed pardon to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton with instructions to pass it on to General Dix. Stanton, however, shelves the pardon and orders Dix to proceed with the execution. The result is the same: Beall is hanged. When Booth hears of his friend’s execution, he becomes deranged with grief and hatches a plot to exact retribution on Lincoln and his cabinet.
It’s a good story, full of emotion, betrayal and tragedy. And it has enjoyed a long life in its various iterations. To many, it was legitimized over the decades in a number of newspapers and periodicals—such as the January 1901 issue of Confederate Veteran, which featured an account by a supposed former member of Beall’s commandoes. In 1905, a Philadelphia auctioneer named Stanislaus Henkel (or Henkle) claimed to have documentation that substantiated the revenge theory, but somehow it never materialized. A Confederate Army surgeon, Dr. George A. Foote, claimed to have been imprisoned in the cell adjoining Beall’s, and wrote his account of Lincoln’s treachery and Booth’s vengeance. “Booth, for what he termed the perfidy of President Lincoln towards him and his friend Beall, at once swore to avenge his friend’s death by killing both Lincoln and Secretary Seward,” Foote stated. “The war had nothing to do with the assassination of the President it was due simply and solely to revenge….”
The truth is, it is a classic piece of American folklore, changing with the telling. Not a single element of the story holds up under historical scrutiny. Booth, four years Beall’s senior, never attended the University of Virginia. It is vaguely possible that the two met at John Brown’s execution—Beall as a private in the Botts Grays and Booth a short-term enlistee in the Richmond Grays but many men were on the field that day, in fixed and solemn purpose, and it is unlikely that these two came together in any meaningful way, if at all.
Both kept diaries neither mentions the other. Booth’s name never appears in any of Beall’s correspondence, or in the recalled conversations by those who knew him. Beall’s best friend from childhood and university, Daniel B. Lucas, wrote an exhaustive memoir of his comrade in which Booth plays no part. Lucas’ own daughter, Virginia—who knew John Yates Beall well—refuted the Booth/Beall legend in 1926, writing that the story is “all in the air: smoke, the baseless fabric of a vision.” And in John Wilkes Booth’s own final testament, written while in pain and on the run, he makes clear the reason for his deed: “I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country, and that alone.”
There is no record that Booth visited the White House. We do know that one of Lincoln’s closest friends tried to convince the president to spare Beall, as did more than 90 congressmen and a number of staunch Union men, including Washington Chronicle editor John W. Forney. Had Lincoln relented and given his promise to Booth, or anyone else, as Forney wrote in 1876, he “would have fulfilled it at all hazards,” and Seward “would have been the last man in the world to ask him to break his word.”
The idea of Stanton deliberately flouting a presidential mandate, and in a capital case to boot, is nonsense. And although two of Booth’s close friends later confirmed that Beall’s death infuriated the actor, his plots—in their various forms and convolutions—were well underway by the time of the execution.
But we are talking fact here, and logic—two qualifiers that have no place in the realm of folklore. “I think it utterly improbable that there was any friendship between Booth and Beall, but there are some of our Southern people who still cling to the story as an explanation of Booth’s assassination of Lincoln,” a Southern editor wrote in 1927. There will always be those who prefer a good story to a simple explanation, and the bigger the event, the more farfetched the tale.
As Virginia Lucas wrote, “Nothing succeeds among the masses like…a half truth or no truth at all.” No amount of scientific data or hi-tech analysis will convince true believers that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that John Wilkes Booth was driven solely by a twisted sense of self-importance and a misguided desire to avenge the South.
Author and historian Ron Soodalter has been a teacher, flamenco guitarist, scrimshander (!), folklorist and curator. He is co-author of The Slave Next Door (U.C. Press, May 2009), a study of human trafficking in America.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.
Motivation For Abraham Lincoln's Assassination Essay
He almost shot booth in the neck and it paralyzed john wilkes booth, then they dragged booths body from the burning barn. Richard H. Garant front porch and three hours later he died. That is why i chose John Wilkes Booth made an impact on history killing the president Abraham lincoln. After that the confederacy surrendered about a week after that. The confederacy surrendered because the had no nation to fight against.&hellip
The Motives of John Wilkes Booth - HISTORY
Legend tells that John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, using the name David E. George, committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma Territory, in 1903. Booth, a popular and talented southern actor, accomplished his task of assassination on April 14, 1865, and following his escape into Virginia, was shot by Sgt. Boston Corbett of the Sixteenth New York Cavalry. Conflicting stories still exist about the identification of Booth's body, and there were errors made in the identification process along with errors in supplying information to the public about the identification. Legend tells that Boston Corbett, the man who shot Booth against orders, was involved in identifying the body as Booth's within a short time rumors began to circulate questioning the true identity of the corpse—doubts and rumors that continue today among Lincoln/Booth scholars and enthusiasts.
At approximately 10:30 a.m. on January 13, 1903, in the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, the screaming of a guest who had occupied room number four for three or four weeks brought others to his side David E. George was soon dead. A doctor diagnosed the cause of death as self-administered arsenic poisoning. Later it was told that the deceased had purchased strychnine that morning at a local drug store. The body was taken to Penniman's Furniture Store, also a funeral home. A coroner's jury soon heard stories about this strange, locally unknown man: he was a house painter who did not know how to paint, who always had access to money but died penniless, who frequented bars and loved alcohol, who often quoted Shakespeare, who knew no one but was known by many outside Enid, who was quoted as saying, "I killed the best man that ever lived."
After George was embalmed, he was placed in a chair in the window of the furniture store/funeral home so that the public could view him, and a photograph was taken. It was believed that he had a "remarkable likeness" to Booth and that his leg had been broken above the right ankle—the same break that Booth had suffered in jumping from the Ford's Theater balcony. However, the doctor who had set Booth's leg reported it to be the left leg. Many Enid citizens believed that if George was Booth, the body should be burned. Just as public interest was beginning to fade, Finis L. Bates from Memphis, Tennessee, arrived in Enid. Bates identified the body as his old friend John St. Helen.
Bates had been a lawyer in Granbury, Texas, and claimed to have known St. Helen (George) as a client and friend in the early 1870s. After about five years of friendship St. Helen became seriously ill and believing that he was dying, confessed to Bates that he was Booth. He recovered and later gave a detailed account of his life, the assassination, and the escape, to Bates—information that only Booth would know. However, some information that Bates later published about St. Helen was inconsistent with documented facts. Nevertheless, the body, which had been embalmed well enough for long-term preservation, was turned over to Bates, who then leased it to interested parties for specified time limits.
The George story created enough attention to have the body displayed during the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 then the mummified cadaver was displayed in different places from time by time by different people, such as carnival sideshow promoters. Shipped by rail to California in 1920, the body was stolen after the train wrecked. Bates later recovered the remains and kept it until his death his widow sold the mummy. It may today be stored in someone's basement or closet.
The Booth Legend has been perpetuated by articles in journals such as Harper's Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Life, Literary Digest, and many others as well as in numerous newspapers throughout the years. As a young boy growing up in Enid, Henry B. Bass saw the body on display and became fascinated with the story. He became a Lincoln poetry collector as well as a major collector of Booth artifacts. He also became an authority on the actor and the legend about Booth, or George, having lived in Enid. Bass, a widely known and respected building contractor, is the man who discovered and reported the strange coincidence that Sgt. Boston Corbett is buried in Enid.
Helen Jo Banks, "The Enid-Booth Legend" (M.A. thesis, Oklahoma A&M College, 1948).
Finis L. Bates, Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (Memphis, Tenn.: Pilcher Printing Co., 1907).
W. P. Campbell, "Oklahoma the Mecca for Men of Mystery . . . John Wilkes Booth," Historia 13 (July 1, 1922).
William G. Shepherd, "Shattering the Myth of John Wilkes Booth's Escape," Harper's Monthly Magazine 149 (November 1924).
No part of this site may be construed as in the public domain.
Copyright to all articles and other content in the online and print versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History is held by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS). This includes individual articles (copyright to OHS by author assignment) and corporately (as a complete body of work), including web design, graphics, searching functions, and listing/browsing methods. Copyright to all of these materials is protected under United States and International law.
Users agree not to download, copy, modify, sell, lease, rent, reprint, or otherwise distribute these materials, or to link to these materials on another web site, without authorization of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Individual users must determine if their use of the Materials falls under United States copyright law's "Fair Use" guidelines and does not infringe on the proprietary rights of the Oklahoma Historical Society as the legal copyright holder of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and part or in whole.
Photo credits: All photographs presented in the published and online versions of The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture are the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society (unless otherwise stated).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Guy Logsdon, &ldquoBooth Legend,&rdquo The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=BO016.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.
Oklahoma Historical Society | 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive, Oklahoma City, OK 73105 | 405-521-2491
Site Index | Contact Us | Privacy | Press Room | Website Inquiries
Why did John Wilkes Booth assassinate President Abraham Lincoln? How did investigators learn what happened and why? Find out below and conduct your own investigation.
Before John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford&rsquos Theatre on April 14, 1865, he had been plotting some kind of drastic action for months. He had met with co-conspirators planning to kidnap Lincoln. But after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops on April 9, Booth&rsquos intentions turned to murder.
Booth was born in Harford County, northeast of Baltimore, Maryland, and spent his childhood in that city. While Maryland did not secede and join the Confederacy, slavery remained legal. Many white Marylanders, including Booth, were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Booth saw Lincoln as a tyrant who was taking away white Southerners&rsquo rights to start their own country where race-based slavery was universally legal. Though Booth was adamantly pro-Confederacy, his family, including his more famous actor brother Edwin, were staunch Unionists.
During 1864, Booth had hatched a plan to help boost the Confederate Army. He was going to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners. Those conspirators almost succeeded on March 17, 1865, but Lincoln changed his plans at the last minute.
When Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Booth became desperate. At some point, possibly after Lincoln endorsed limited African-American voting rights during a speech on April 11, 1865, Booth&rsquos plan changed from kidnapping to assassination. He and other conspirators came up with a plan to kill the President, Vice President and Secretary of State on the same night.
The conspirators believed their plan would throw the U.S. government into chaos, renewing the Confederacy&rsquos ability to fight.
How did Booth evolve from famous actor to assassin? Who conspired with him? How do we know what we know?
Continue the investigation below to figure out how deep the conspiracy ran. As you look at each account, consider:
Dr. Samuel A. Mudd: The Man Who Helped J. Wilkes Booth Assassinate Lincoln
During his initial interview with investigating detectives on April 18, 1865, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd claimed, “I never saw either of the parties before, nor can I conceive who sent them to my house. ” With these words Dr. Mudd told the first in a series of lies about his involvement with John Wilkes Booth and Booth’s conspiracy to capture President Abraham Lincoln—a conspiracy that would ultimately lead to Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre.
Mudd would change his statement one day later while en route to Bryantown, in Charles County, Maryland, under a military escort for further questioning. Apparently having had second thoughts about his first statement, in which he denied ever seeing Booth, Mudd now admitted, “I have seen J. Wilkes Booth. I was introduced to him by Mr. J.C. Thompson, a son-in-law of Dr. William Queen, in November or December last.”
Mudd went on to more fully describe that meeting, telling of Booth’s alleged interest in acquiring land in Charles County and his desire to purchase a horse. In a handwritten statement, Mudd wrote, “The next evening he [Booth] rode to my house and staid [sic] with me that night, and the next morning he purchased a rather old horse. He continued, I have never seen Booth since that time to my knowledge until last Saturday night.”
In those two statements, Mudd continued his pattern of lying. He knew the statements were false and was attempting to conceal other information that would prove even more incriminating. Mudd had not only seen Booth before, but he had met with Booth on at least three occasions prior to the assassin’s appearance on his doorstep. As to who was responsible for Booth and David Herold’s visit to Mudd’s house in the early morning hours of April 15, it was Mudd himself.
History has been much kinder to Mudd than the events in the assassination should warrant. The facts that have emerged about his involvement with Booth belie the popular image of Mudd as a gentle country doctor who unexpectedly became entangled in a tragic murder through no fault of his own. The current perception of an innocent Dr. Mudd is largely due to the tireless efforts of his grandson, Dr. Richard Dyer Mudd, who has struggled for seventy years to clear his grandfather’s name and officially expunge the findings of the military tribunal that convicted him. His efforts have come close to fruition in the past two decades.
In 1991 the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records (ABCMR), a civilian review board, agreed to permit a hearing on Mudd’s conviction. The procedure limited the testimony to only those witnesses favorable to Mudd’s case. The board did not consider innocence or guilt but only whether the military commission that tried Mudd had legal jurisdiction to do so. In deciding against the military commission 126 years after it ruled, the ABCMR recommended that the secretary of the Army set aside the guilty verdict and expunge the record in Dr. Mudd’s case. The assistant secretary of the Army, acting for the secretary, twice refused the recommendation of the board, stating in part, “It is not the role of the ABCMR to attempt to settle historical disputes.”
That ruling resulted in Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer’s introducing a bill into the U.S. Congress directing the secretary of the Army to set aside the conviction of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd for aiding, abetting and assisting the conspirators who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. One of the co-sponsors of the bill was Representative Thomas Ewing of Illinois, who represented part of Lincoln’s original congressional district. (Rep. Ewing is also related to Maj. Gen. Thomas Ewing, one of Dr. Samuel Mudd’s two defense attorneys.) As an added measure, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Richard D. Mudd in December 1997 in the Federal Court for the District of Columbia (Richard D. Mudd v. Togo West) seeking to force the secretary of the Army to accept the recommendation of the ABCMR. Persistent efforts to rewrite history, however, have obscured certain facts supporting the conclusions of the military commission that first found Dr. Mudd guilty.
When Booth came to Mudd’s house in the early morning of April 15, 1865, seeking medical aid, it was the fourth time that the two men had met, and none of the four meetings had been accidental. According to historian James O. Hall in his book Come Retribution, in Mudd’s three previous meetings with Booth, Mudd had played a pivotal role in Booth’s scheme to assemble an action team to capture President Lincoln and carry him to Richmond as a prisoner of the Confederacy. Booth not only was an overnight guest at Mudd’s house during one of the three meetings but also had sent provisions to Mudd’s house for use during the planned kidnapping of the president.
Mudd’s statement that Booth spent the night at his house after their introduction in November 1864 and that he purchased a horse the next morning is not true. Those events did not occur in November as Mudd claimed, but in December. The reason Mudd would lie about such occurrences was self-preservation. He hoped to keep secret the number of times he had associated with Booth.
During Mudd’s trial, evidence was introduced by the prosecution showing that Mudd and Booth had indeed met prior to April 15, 1865. Louis Weichmann, the government’s key witness, told of an earlier meeting involving Mudd and Booth in Washington, D.C., at which Weichmann was present. Weichmann testified that while he and John Surratt, Jr., were walking along Seventh Street toward Pennsylvania Avenue, they met Booth and Mudd coming from the opposite direction. Mudd was taking Booth to meet Surratt at Mary Surratt’s boarding house when they encountered the two.
After introductions, the four men retired to Booth’s room at the National Hotel, a short distance away. Weichmann testified that during the meeting Mudd and Booth stepped into the hall and engaged in a subdued conversation that Weichmann could hear but could not discern the actual words. The two men were subsequently joined by Surratt before all three men returned to the room where Weichmann was sitting. Booth, Surratt, and Mudd sat around a table in the center of the room while Booth drew something on the back of an envelope–Weichmann said he thought it resembled a map. Whatever was discussed among the three men, one thing is certain: As a result of Mudd’s introduction of Surratt to Booth, Surratt agreed to join Booth in his plot to capture Lincoln.
Although Mudd’s defense attorney, Maj. Gen. Thomas Ewing, denied that the meeting had taken place, Mudd himself acknowledged that the meeting had taken place in an affidavit he prepared in August 1865 while in prison at Fort Jefferson, in the Florida Keys. It was in his affidavit that Mudd inadvertently let slip that yet another meeting involving Booth and himself had occurred in mid-December, immediately before the meeting in Washington.
After his conviction Mudd and co-conspirators Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, and Edman Spangler were transported to Fort Jefferson, where the men were scheduled to serve out their prison sentences. During the trip they were placed under a military guard commanded by Captain George W. Dutton. Captain Dutton later claimed that during the journey Mudd had confessed that he knew Booth when he came to his house with Herold on the morning after the assassination of the president. The captain said that Mudd also confessed that he was with Booth at the National Hotel on the day referred to by Weichmann in his testimony and that he came to Washington on that occasion to meet Booth by appointment who wished to be introduced to John Surratt.
Neither of those admissions were revelations to the government, which suspected the first and had proved the second. The trial was over. Mudd had been convicted and was now serving a life sentence in the isolation of Fort Jefferson. The government had lost interest in Mudd, but Mudd had not lost interest in trying to gain his release through the federal judicial system. Word of Dutton’s statement reached Mudd in prison, and Mudd knew that he had to respond to Dutton’s charges if he was ever to regain his freedom.
On August 28, 1865, Mudd prepared an affidavit in which he denied telling Dutton that he knew it was Booth who arrived at his house on April 15, only hours after Lincoln was shot. His denial was important for if Mudd had allowed Dutton’s accusation to stand it would have meant that the doctor had indeed knowingly aided and abetted the murderer of President Lincoln. But while denying any knowledge of Booth, Mudd inadvertently admitted for the first time to the meeting at the National Hotel with Booth, Surratt, and Weichmann on December 23, 1864, thus confirming the government’s charge made during the trial.
In his affidavit protesting Dutton’s first allegation—about knowing Booth before the assassination—Mudd unwittingly let slip another damaging piece of information. In describing the Washington meeting referred to by Dutton, Mudd wrote:
We [Mudd and Booth] started down one street, and then up another, and had not gone far when we met Surratt and Wiechmann. Introductions took place and we turned back in the direction of the hotel….After arriving in the room, I took the first opportunity presented to apologize to Surratt for having introduced him to Booth–a man I knew so little concerning. This conversation took place in the passage in front of the room [hallway] and was not over three minutes in duration….Surratt and myself returned and resumed our former seats (after taking drinks ordered) around a center table, which stood midway the room and distant seven or eight feet from Booth and Wiechmann Booth remarked that he had been down to the country a few days before, and said that he had not yet recovered from the fatigue. Afterward he said he had been down in Charles County, and had made me an offer to purchase of my land, which I confirmed by an affirmative answer and he further remarked that on his way up [to Washington] he lost his way and rode several miles off the track.
In his revealing statement, Mudd confirmed a second visit to Charles County by Booth just prior to the December 23 meeting at the National Hotel—a trip that, by Mudd’s own admission, included a visit to his property. This was the important other meeting.
Independent evidence that Booth visited Charles County in December can be found in the trial testimony of John C. Thompson. Thompson was the man who had originally introduced Booth to Mudd in November 1864 at St. Mary’s Church, as Mudd had already acknowledged in his statement given prior to his arrest. Thompson was the son-in-law of Dr. William Queen, a prominent Confederate operative who Booth also visited during his November trip to Charles County.
During questioning by one of Mudd’s attorneys, Thompson was asked if he had seen Booth again after the meeting where he had introduced Booth to Mudd in November. Thompson answered: “I think some time, if my memory serves me, in December, he came down a second time to Dr. Queen’s house….I think it was about the middle of December following after his first visit there.”
It is clear from both Mudd’s own statement in his affidavit of August 28, 1865, and Thompson’s testimony during the trial that Booth visited the Bryantown area in Charles County a second time in mid-December 1864. And it is in his own affidavit that Mudd admits to meeting with Booth during this second visit.
While Mudd claimed that Booth stayed overnight at his house and purchased a horse from his neighbor, George Gardiner, during the November meeting, several pieces of evidence show that those incidents occurred during Booth’s December visit, not in November. The first piece of evidence is found in a letter Booth wrote to J. Dominick Burch, who lived in Bryantown and worked at the Bryantown Tavern. Written from Washington, D.C., the letter is dated Monday, November 14, 1864, the day Mudd claims he accompanied Booth to Gardiner’s farm, where Booth supposedly purchased a one-eyed horse. The letter clearly places Booth in Washington on November 14, and makes it clear that Booth traveled by stagecoach and not by horse. (Booth rode the horse back to Washington and gave him to Louis Powell (a.k.a., Payne). Powell used the horse the night of the assassination. The horse was recovered by the military in Washington the night of April 14-15 and taken to twenty-second Army Headquarters.)
In his letter, Booth refers to an object he left on the stage last Friday (November 11). Booth implies from his description that the object was a gun, which he took from my carpetbag. “Its [sic] not worth more than $15, but I will give him $20 rather than lose it, as it has saved my life two or three times.”
The second piece of evidence refuting Mudd’s statement concerning the November purchase of a horse is a memorandum prepared for use at the military trial by George Washington Bunker. Bunker was a clerk at the National Hotel, where Booth stayed when in Washington. Bunker prepared an abstract of the hotel ledger for the trial prosecutors in the form of a memorandum, in which he listed Booth’s comings and goings from the hotel during late 1864 and 1865. Bunker noted that Booth had checked out of the National Hotel on Friday, November 11, 1864, and had returned on Monday, November 14.
In December, Bunker’s memorandum shows that Booth checked out of the National Hotel on Saturday, the 17th, and did not check back in until Thursday, the 22nd, the day before he met in his hotel room with Mudd, Surratt, and Weichmann. According to historian Hall, it was during that period, December 17-22, that Booth returned to Charles County and met with Mudd. And it was at that time that Booth stayed the night at the Mudd home and purchased the horse from Mudd’s neighbor, George Gardiner.
Booth also was seen in the Bryantown area in mid-December by a third person, who was called as a government witness during the trial. John F. Hardy, who lived midway between Bryantown and the Mudd farm, testified to seeing Booth at St. Mary’s Church near Bryantown on two separate occasions, the first in November, the second about a month after but before Christmas. Hardy went on to testify: “On Monday evening, I rode to Bryantown to see if I could get my horse shod and I met Mr. Booth…a little above Bryantown riding by himself. He was riding a horse in the road leading straight to Horse Head, or he could not come to this point, to Washington, on the same road.”
This testimony places Booth in Bryantown on Monday evening during his second visit in December. Evidence that Booth purchased the one-eyed horse from George Gardiner during this second visit is gleaned from testimony of Thomas Gardiner. He testified that Booth bought a horse from his uncle on a Monday just as Mudd had claimed, and continued, “Booth requested my Uncle to send the horse to Bryantown the next morning [Tuesday] and I took the horse myself the next morning to Bryantown.” If Booth had purchased the horse on Monday and took delivery on Tuesday, it is clear that the purchase could not have happened in November, since Booth’s letter to Burch and Bunker’s memo both place him in Washington on Monday, November 14. Booth simply could not have been in two places at the same time.
Mudd probably lied about Booth’s overnight stay at his house in November and about purchasing a horse the next day to cover up his second Charles County meeting with Booth. Clues to the doctor’s reasons for meeting with Booth a second time can be found in an 1892 article written for the Cincinnati Enquirer by George Alfred Townsend. In 1885, Townsend, a journalist who had written extensively on the Lincoln assassination and those involved, interviewed a man named Thomas Harbin. Harbin had served during the war as a Confederate secret service agent involved in covert operations in Charles County, Maryland, including the Bryantown area, and in King George County, Virginia.
Harbin was well-acquainted with Mudd. He had once lived a few miles south of the Mudd farm and had served as postmaster at Bryantown before the war. He was well-connected throughout the area and knew virtually all the Confederate operatives working between Washington and Richmond.
According to Harbin’s statement, he went to Bryantown in December 1864 at Mudd’s request and met with him and his friend at the Bryantown Tavern on Sunday, December 18. Harbin told of being introduced to Booth by Mudd, and although Harbin described Booth as acting rather theatrical, he consented to assist Booth in his plan to capture Lincoln. Summarizing what happened during that meeting, Townsend wrote, “Harbin was a cool man who had seen many liars and rogues go to and fro in that illegal border and he set down Booth as a crazy fellow, but at the same time said that he would give his cooperation.”
Whatever Harbin may have thought of Booth, he agreed to join in the conspiracy. The enlistment of Harbin in Booth’s scheme was vitally important—as important as the enlistment of Surratt. Both were Confederate agents, highly competent, trusted and well-connected throughout the Confederate underground route between Washington and Richmond. Both men knew the intricacies of safe routes and safe houses located throughout southern Maryland.
Harbin also helped by joining with Surratt to recruit George A. Atzerodt in Booth’s conspiracy. This showed that Harbin’s involvement in the plot was not superficial but serious. His help would later prove invaluable when Booth and Herold made their escape south from Washington, D.C., after crossing the Potomac River into Virginia. Booth had Mudd to thank for the enlistment of Harbin and Surratt into his team.
Mudd’s claim of knowing Booth only incidentally was already compromised by Weichmann’s testimony. Had the authorities found out about the other meeting that took place in Bryantown in December of 1864 with Harbin, Mudd’s case would surely have been lost. Harbin was well-known to the Federal authorities as a Confederate agent, and his association with Mudd would have completely undermined Mudd’s cover of feigned innocence.
Faced with the knowledge that the authorities knew of Booth’s being in the Bryantown area and meeting with him in November 1864, Mudd compressed the two meetings into a single meeting in his testimony, hoping that the authorities would never guess that separate meetings had actually taken place. It worked. The other meeting involving Harbin completely escaped the investigators’ attention, although diligent detective work would have uncovered it from the testimony of Thompson and Hardy.
In statements given prior to his arrest, Mudd lied about virtually every piece of information the authorities were seeking in their effort to capture Booth. Lieutenant Alexander Lovett, the first interrogator, and Colonel Henry H. Wells, the second interrogator, both complained of the doctor’s evasiveness and apparent untruthfulness during their questioning of him. This behavior led Wells to place Mudd under arrest and send him to Washington under guard.
Mudd’s attempt to convince the military authorities that he had only met with Booth on one occasion belies all of the facts in his case. Mudd withheld even from his own attorneys information about the meeting at the National Hotel, where he had introduced Booth to Surratt, and the December meeting in Bryantown with Harbin. Ignorant of both meetings, Maj. Gen. Thomas Ewing, one of Mudd’s two defense attorneys, weakened his credibility with the military commission by arguing that Weichmann had lied about the hotel meeting in late December and that Mudd had only met Booth before the assassination but once on Sunday, and once the day following, in November last. The commission believed differently.
Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was anything but incidental. His role in bringing Booth, Surratt, and Harbin together was pivotal. The fact that Dr. Queen chose to pass Booth onto Mudd during the November visit and that Harbin came across the river to meet with Booth at Mudd’s invitation suggests that Mudd was an important figure.
And there is even more to the Mudd story that tightens the noose of incrimination around the doctor’s neck. According to Eaton G. Horner, the detective who arrested Booth conspirator Samuel Arnold at Fort Monroe on Monday, April 17, Arnold had said that Booth carried a letter of introduction when he visited Mudd in November 1864. On cross-examination by Mudd’s attorney, Horner was asked if Arnold had meant to say that Booth had a letter of introduction to Mr. Queen or Dr. Mudd? Horner was explicit in his answer: “I understood him [Arnold] to say and Dr. Mudd.”
The implication that Booth carried a letter of introduction to Mudd is obvious. (The letters of introduction to Dr. Queen and Dr. Mudd was written by Patrick C. Martin, a Baltimore liquor dealer who had established a Confederate Secret Service base in Montreal in the summer of 1862. He had arranged for blockade running and was a party to the plan to free Confederate prisoners at Johnson’s Island. Booth had gone to Montreal in October 1864, where he arranged with Martin to have his theatrical wardrobe shipped to a Southern port. He also secured letters of introduction from Martin to Mudd and Queen.)
Of special significance in this testimony is the fact that Mudd was implicated as a correspondent with Booth by Arnold on April 17, the day before the military authorities first visited Mudd (Tuesday, April 18). There is no way Arnold could have heard about Mudd as a result of the military investigation. Clearly he must have heard of Mudd and the letter of introduction from Booth himself.
George Atzerodt, the man Booth assigned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, implicated Mudd more directly in Booth’s plot when he confessed to Marshal McPhail of Baltimore, “I am certain Mudd knew all about it, as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors & provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond, about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd’s. “
Dr. Richard Stuart, another Confederate operative who lived south of the Potomac River in King George, Virginia, received Booth and Herold after Harbin saw them safely to Stuart’s house. Following his arrest, Stuart gave a statement to the authorities in which he said of Booth and Herold, “They said Dr. Mudd had recommended them to me.”
And in 1893, Thomas A. Jones published a book describing his role in first hiding the two fugitives in a pine thicket after they had left Mudd’s house and then sending them over the Potomac River to Harbin in Virginia. Booth and Herold had been turned over to Jones by Samuel Cox, Sr., another Confederate agent in Charles County. Subsequently, Samuel Cox, Jr., who was present the night Booth and Herold arrived at his step-father’s home, made several notations in his personal copy of Jones’ book. His notations about Mudd included one about Mudd’s role as a mail drop for the Confederate underground. 1 He also wrote that Mudd had admitted to him in 1877 that he knew from the beginning that it was Booth who came to his door seeking aid in the early morning of April 15, 1865. 33 This is the same claim that Captain Dutton had made in July 1865.
These allegations cast a dark shadow over Mudd’s claim of innocence. The story of the other meeting adds substantially to Mudd’s role as an accomplice of Booth. It opens up a whole new perspective on claims by Mudd’s defenders that he was an innocent victim of a vengeful government as it rushed to judgment.
Dr. Mudd died of pneumonia in 1883 at the age of forty-nine. George Alfred Townsend once again wrote a column about the mysterious doctor from Maryland. Among several people from Charles County he interviewed was Frederick Stone, who served as Mudd’s defense attorney along with Thomas Ewing. Stone told Townsend shortly after Dr. Mudd’s death:
The court very nearly hanged Dr. Mudd. His prevarications were painful. He had given his whole case away by not trusting even his counsel or neighbors or kinfolk. It was a terrible thing to extricate him from the toils he had woven about himself. He had denied knowing Booth when he knew him well. He was undoubtedly accessory to the abduction plot, though he may have supposed it would never come to anything. He denied knowing Booth when he came to his house when that was preposterous. He had been even intimate with Booth.
Nothing could be more damaging to Mudd’s claim of innocence than his own attorney’s condemnation. Those advocating Mudd’s innocence must explain his pattern of lying. An innocent man does not fear the truth. He neither misrepresents it nor withholds it. Dr. Mudd did both. Despite his own efforts and the efforts of his defenders to rewrite history, his name is still mud.
1 The claim that Mudd received and distributed mail for the Confederate underground is supported by a statement found in the Provost Marshal’s file dated August 31, 1863. Charges filed in 1863 by two former Mudd family slaves state in part, as some cavalry were making a search in the vicinity, Samuel Mud’s [sic] wife ran into the kitchen and threw a bundle of Rebel mail into the fire…. NARA, Record Group 109, M416, Union Provost Marshal’s File of Papers Relating to Two or More Civilians, File 6083.
This article was written by Edward Steers, Jr. and originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Columbiad.
For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!