Grave Thursday: Silas T. Cobb

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Sgt. Silas Tower Cobb

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Burial Location: Central Burying Ground, Holliston, Massachusetts

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Good evening enthusiasts of all things historic, 

This is Kate, returning for another Grave Thursday installment. For this post, I decided to incorporate my work with Dave’s to bring you the full story of the watchman on the bridge, Silas T. Cobb. 

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Sergeant Silas Tower Cobb is most remembered to history as the man who unknowingly created the John Wilkes Booth Escape Route. On April 14, 1865, Cobb allowed John Wilkes Booth and David Herold to cross the Navy Yard Bridge out of Washington City and into Southern Maryland. Riders were not allowed to cross the bridge after 9 PM but Booth and Herold arrived at almost 11. Unaware that President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were mortally and severely wounded, Cobb allowed Booth and Herold passage. Rules had been lax since the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and riders wishing to leave the Capitol City did not seem nearly as dangerous as riders seeking entrance. Cobb drowned two years later at the age of 29 during a boating accident in Grand Haven, Michigan.

You can read more about Cobb’s later life here. This is the story of his life leading up to April of 1865. 

Named after his father, Silas Cobb was born on October 13, 1838 in Holliston, Massachusetts to Silas and Sophia Cobb. He spent his childhood training as a boot maker, a trade which he would resume after the Civil War, and sailed to the Arctic when he was 19 as a crewman aboard a whaling ship. Cobb did not immediately enlist in the Union Army following the firing on Fort Sumter. Instead, he married Sophia Treen. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Ada, but she died in infancy about a month after the execution of the conspirators. In 1863, Cobb enlisted in the Union Army, joining the 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. The regiment remained in its home state until it was called to Washington City to guard its various bridges and passageways. In 1862, General Lee had attempted a march on Maryland to put pressure on Washington and by 1863 had invaded Pennsylvania. Perhaps one reason the 3rd Massachusetts was sent south was to barricade the Capitol in the event that Lee managed to break significant Union lines. Lee’s campaign ultimately failed but it placed Cobb on the Navy Yard Bridge, keeping him from being lost to the pages of history as another name on another roster. While Lee never appeared, on April 14th Cobb received a different kind of Southern sympathizer on the bridge. The rest is history.

It is not known for certain why Cobb was in Grand Haven when he died. Some historians theorize that he was attempting to sell boots, having been honorably discharged from the Union Army and resumed his shoe making. Evidence for this theory points to a friend Cobb knew from his time in Holliston, Edgar Fletcher, who was also a boot maker. The pair were traveling through Michigan together. Both perished in the accident.

The body of Silas T. Cobb was brought back home to Holliston where it was laid to rest in the Central Burying Ground. A small military headstone marks the site today. Much like Cobb, it is a stop on the road to more recognized places (Fall River to the South, Boston and Salem to the North) but it is still a stop worth discussing due to its brush with history.  

Until next time.

-Kate 

GPS coordinates for Silas Cobb’s grave: 42.202776, -71.429104

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Grave Thursday: Captain Christian Rath

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Christian Rath

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Burial Location: Mount Evergreen Cemetery, Jackson, Michigan

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christian-rath-grave-1-peter-gaudet

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Hello cemetery patrons,

This is Kate resuming the blog’s Grave Thursday tradition following our holiday hiatus.

After writing about Major General John Hartranft for a previous Grave Thursday, I received a comment regarding my lack of information about Captain Christian Rath, the man who always seems to appear alongside General Hartranft. I answered the question by stating that such a distinguished figure as Captain Rath deserved his own spotlight, not a mere afterthought bolted onto someone else’s legacy. So, without further ado, here is the story of Captain Christian Rath, perhaps secondary in rank but first in honor.

Little is known of Rath’s early life other than he was born on October 22, 1831 in Germany. He either left or fled home – depending on the source – at the age of 18 after joining a group of revolutionaries that attacked the German government. Immigrating to the United States in 1849, Rath made his way to Jackson, Michigan, the place that would become his permanent settlement. In 1857 he married Evaline Henry, with whom he had two children, and became a shoemaker, the trade in which he was employed at the outbreak of the Civil War. Before enlisting himself, Rath ran an enlistment office out of his storefront.

During the war between the states, Rath served with Company G of the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, the same regiment he had aided and the same company he had organized. In 1862, at the age of 30, he became the company’s second lieutenant. He would be promoted to first lieutenant the same year and rise to the rank of Captain in 1863. Due to being wounded at the famous battle of Antietam, Rath would suffer various medical ailments for the rest of his life. He was also briefly captured by Confederate forces at Spotsylvania in 1864 but managed to escape. Rath remained a Captain for the remainder of the war, his next promotion coming only after fighting had ceased.

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Rath received notice that General John Hartranft, the man placed in charge of the conspirators at Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary, wanted Rath as his Provost-Marshal. According to Rath, the two men had known each other for some time:

“I was well acquainted with Hartranft; we had met in many battles, and I had broken many horses for him, both of us being lovers of fine animals.”

General Hartranft had also previously selected Major Richard Watts for his staff. Watts had been a member of the 17th Michigan as well and recommended Rath for service when Hartranft asked for more recruits.

In the courtroom, Hartranft and Rath often sat together at a small table by the public entrance checking audience passes.

Arguably, Rath is most remembered for being the hangman of the four condemned conspirators. On the afternoon of July 6, 1865, the Union government headed by Andrew Johnson presented Rath with a long list of jobs (build and test the gallows, make the nooses and hoods, oversee the digging of the graves) and a ridiculously short amount of time to complete them all (slightly less than one day).  According to the Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia by Edward Steers,

“The scaffold was twenty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and ten feet high to the floor of the scaffold, and twenty feet high to the beam that held the ropes. The platform consisted of two drops, each six feet by four feet, supported by an upright beam that could be knocked away on command.”

It took all night to complete the gallows. The final nail was only hammered in on the morning of the execution, making it less than 24 hours old at the time of its use.

Rath also tied the nooses long after the sun had set on July 6th. Tired and believing Mary Surratt would be spared, he only put five turns in the knot instead of the regulation seven.

“I put seven knots in each one except one, and I only put five in that, for I fully expected that Mrs. Surratt would never hang.”

Rath found his “prop knockers” (William Coxshall, Daniel Shoup, George Taylor, and Joseph Haslett) only by claiming he needed assistance with a “special duty.” However, this sly idea did not find any volunteer grave diggers and Rath had to order soldiers to the task. “All the workmen were superstitious,” he later wrote. It was a common 19th century belief that grave digging brought bad luck.

Authors Barry Cauchon and John Elliot attempted to follow Rath around the courtyard in their book supplement, Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators. They placed him on the gallows, where he said to Lewis Powell, “I want you to die quick,” and then eventually found him back on the ground where he gave the signal to knock away the support posts. The signal changes from source to source, sometimes being recorded as three claps or a thrust of the hand. Moments before this, Rath recalled asking General Winfield Hancock if Mary Surratt would be saved to which Hancock replied no.

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After the execution, Rath was promoted to Brevet Major and Lieutenant Colonel for “special and efficient services during the confinement, trial, and execution of the conspirators.”

Christian Rath quietly lived out the rest of his life in Michigan. He resumed work as a shoemaker, owned a fruit farm, raised chickens, frequently participated in military parades and from 1868 to 1900 worked as a a mail clerk for the Michigan Central Railroad. With the exception of a handful of interviews, he did not speak much about the events he witnessed during the summer of 1865. Rath died at the age of 89 on February 14, 1920. He was buried beside his wife, who had died in 1908, in Mount Evergreen Cemetery in Jackson, Michigan.

Several stories followed Rath’s legacy due to his involvement in the infamous execution. One story, found in the book, The Man Who Traded his Wife for Woodworking Tools: And Other True Stories of 19th Century Jackson, Michigan, claimed that Rath was plagued by nightmares of Anna Surratt screaming at him for killing her mother. Why this hysterical apparition of sorts appeared to Rath and not Andrew Johnson I do not know.

A similar tall tale said that Mary Surratt’s spirit was punishing those who had wrongly taken her life, including Christian Rath who had gone insane and died in a mental institution. However, this was little more than the likes of a penny dreadful fable. Unlike Boston Corbett or Henry Rathbone, Rath only suffered from rheumatism (joint pain), dyspepsia (chest pain), and cystitis (bladder inflammation) due to his war wounds and dementia due to age. Furthermore, Rath treated Mary Surratt with the utmost of respect during the execution. “I had Lieutenant-Colonel McCall lead Mrs. Surratt from her cell to the gallows, as I did not want an ordinary soldier to lay his hands on her,” he said. Even her placement on the gallows, decided by Rath, conveyed honor. “I wanted to give Mrs. Surratt any honor I could, so I seated her one the right.” After the hanging, Rath said, “I took charge of Mrs. Surratt myself, not being willing that any hand should desecrate her. I lifted her tenderly in my arms…removed the noose from her neck, and with my own hands and alone placed her in the box.”

Unfortunately, despite his good intentions, Rath was a soldier, not an executioner. His limited knowledge of proper hanging procedures and the demanding deadline swiftly caught up with him. He failed to correctly prepare and secure the ropes, leading to an unexpected botched execution. While Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt did die quickly, the same could not be said for David Herold or Lewis Powell who strangled for about five and seven minutes, respectively. Christian Rath will always be known as the “hangman” of the Lincoln conspirators. However, it should also be remembered that, despite his failures, he did try to make moral choices.

old-christian-rath

Grave photographs courtesy of Peter Gaudet. You can view his website by clicking here.

Until next time.

-Kate

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , , , | 21 Comments

“O Come All Ye Soldiers”

Happy holidays to all the Booth buffs and Lincoln lovers,

This is Kate, shaking up the annual Thursday ritual. In lieu of a Grave Thursday post I decided to try my luck at writing a Boothie Carol like Dave did yesterday. My song is a revised version of, “O Come All Ye Faithful”. I hope you all enjoy it!

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“O Come All Ye Soldiers”
As sung to, “O Come All Ye Faithful”

O come all ye soldiers,
Spurred and mounted fiercely,
O come ye, o come ye to Locust Hill.

Come and avenge him,
Slay the foolish rebels;

O come let us surround them,
O come let us arrest them,
O come let us avenge him,
For Abraham.

O ride band of brothers,
Ride in exultation,
O ride all ye cavalrymen to Garrett’s barn.
Say to the traitors, you shall not escape us;

O come, give up yourselves now,
O come, do not delay now,
O come, fire the barn now,
For Abraham.

Hail! Death we greet thee,
Come this early morning,
O Boston! for evermore be thy name adored.
Mount toward the river, soon in sight appearing;

O come bring one who’s broken,
O come bring one in shackles,
O come and raise Old Glory,
For Abraham.

Until next time,
-Kate

Former Boothie Carols can be read here:
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Play” / It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
“We Bruti” / We, Three Kings of Orient Are
“Wilkes Booth the Head Conspirator” / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
“Lewis Powell is Coming For You” / Santa Claus is Coming to Town
“Little Doctor Mudd” / Little Drummer Boy
“Boothie Wonderland” / Winter Wonderland
“Thomas Jones” / Silver Bells

Categories: History, Levity | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

A “Thomas Jones” Carol

With the holidays almost here, it’s time for another installment of Boothie Christmas caroling where we revise a classic Christmas Carol into a Lincoln assassination themed Boothie Carol. Today’s song is a revised version of, “Silver Bells”. I hope you all enjoy it in the humorous manner in which it is intended.

Thomas Jones Christmas Carol

“Thomas Jones”

As sung to, “Silver Bells”

Easter morning, without warning,
Sam Cox comes down my street.
In the air there’s a feeling of danger.
I start going, without knowing
Why his dad wants to meet,
But I get to Rich Hill and I hear:

Thomas Jones, (Thomas Jones)
Thomas Jones, (Thomas Jones)
I’ve hidden Booth in the thicket
Lend a hand (Lend a hand).
Help this man (Help this man).
Make sure he gets river bound.

When I find him, Herold’s with him,
So I say to them both,
“We must wait for the troopers to leave here.”
He wants papers. I say, “Later.”
Then I give him my oath
No amount could cause me to betray

John Wilkes Booth, (John Wilkes Booth)
John Wilkes Booth, (John Wilkes Booth)
It’s not quite time to go boating.
Hunker down (Hunker down).
Don’t be found (Don’t be found).
Soon it will be rowing day!

Previous years’ Boothie Carols can be read here:
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Play” / It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
“We Bruti” / We, Three Kings of Orient Are
“Wilkes Booth the Head Conspirator” / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
“Lewis Powell is Coming For You” / Santa Claus is Coming to Town
“Little Doctor Mudd” / Little Drummer Boy
“Boothie Wonderland” / Winter Wonderland

Categories: History, Levity | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Grave Thursday: Eaton Horner

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Eaton Horner

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Burial Location: Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Eaton Horner was a detective working for Maryland Provost Marshal James L. McPhail in 1865. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Horner, along with another detective named Voltaire Randall, were tasked with hunting down and finding conspirator Samuel Arnold. The authorities had searched John Wilkes Booth’s belongings at the National Hotel and had found a suspicious letter signed by a man named “Sam”.

Sam letter signature

The letter was sent from a small village outside of Baltimore called Hookstown. The contents of the letter spoke of secret plots with sentences like, “You know full well that the G—t suspicions something is going on there; therefore, the undertaking is becoming more complicated.” When the identify of “Sam” was found out to be Samuel Arnold, a party traveled to Hookstown to the home of Arnold’s brother in order to arrest Sam.

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The Arnold home in Hookstown

However, when they arrived at Hookstown the detectives found that Sam Arnold was not there. He had found a job in Fortress Monroe, Virginia a couple of weeks earlier. With this information Eaton Horner and Voltaire Randall hopped on a ship and made their way to Fort Monroe. They arrested Arnold as he was sleeping in the small room in the back of the store where he worked. He was the first of the Lincoln assassination conspirators to be arrested. Arnold spoke freely to Horner and Randall and, when they returned him to Baltimore, he was presented with a letter from his father encouraging him to write a full confession of his involvement with John Wilkes Booth’s abduction plot. Arnold did this in the presence of Horner, Randall and another detective, William McPhail. I have previously posted Arnold’s confession here. Arnold was shipped down to Washington and imprisoned shortly thereafter.

Eaton Horner and Voltaire Randall tried in vain to receive a share of the reward money for their arrest of a Lincoln conspirator. Their initial request for reward money and accompanying recommendation from Provost Marshal James McPhail was passed over. But Horner and Randall decided to try and get a recommendation from someone with a little more clot, regardless of whether they knew him or not. The pair enticed a newspaper editor friend of theirs named C. L. Sanders  who had lived in Illinois during the Civil War to write a letter on their behalf to the former Governor of Illinois who was then a U.S. Senator from Illinois, Richard Yates:

“Balto. April 25th 1866
Hon. Rich’d Yates,
Dr Sir,
During the Presidential & Gubernatorial campaign of /64, it was my pleasing duty to edit the “Macomb Journal” McDonough Co. Ill & in that capacity met you on several occasions. My object in addressing you is to secure your interest in the behalf of two detectives who contributed more to the arrest of the Conspirators than any other parties. Mr. Eaton G. Horner & Mr. Voltaire Randall of this city arrested Arnold & gave the information which led to the arrest of Payne, Herold, & Atzerodt, & fastened the assassination of our great & fond President upon Booth. Because the arrest was made & the information given before any reward was offered, these two men have been deprived of any portion of the reward.
I would earnestly solicit your interest in their behalf & would refer you for fuller particulars in the case to Hon. Jno. L. Thomas, H. R. member from this city.
Hoping Sir, for your influence in this matter, I have the honor to remain
Very Respectfully,
Your obt. Servt
C. L. Sanders
221 Balt. St.
Balt. Md.”

Amazingly, even though neither Horner or Randall were constituents of Sen. Yates, and the fact that the former Governor had no idea who they were, he did send a letter on their behalf to the War Department:

“Washington DC
May 2, 1866
Hon. E. M. Stanton
Secretary of War
Sir,
I have the honor to refer to you, for your consideration, the enclosed letter of Mr. Sanders, in relation to the distribution of the awards in the conspiracy case.
If the facts stated by Mr. S. are correct, it would seem that the claim is a just one.
Very respectfully,
Your obt Svnt
Rich. Yates
Senator”

It was a valiant effort on the part of Eaton Horner and Voltaire Randall, but it did not help. No reward money was ever given for the arrest of Samuel Arnold.

Eaton Horner is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore. There are many others buried in Loudon Park including John T. Ford and his brother James, Ford’s Theatre stagehand Henry James, and George Atzerodt’s brother John Atzerodt who also worked from Provost Marshal James McPhail.

GPS coordinates for Eaton Horner’s grave: 39.281038, -76.677574

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Grave Thursday: Dr. William Queen

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Dr. William Queen

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Burial Location: St. Mary’s Cemetery, Bryantown, Maryland

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Dr. William Queen was a physician in Charles County, Maryland who lived about six miles south of Bryantown. On November 11, 1864, John Wilkes Booth rode the stage down from Washington, D.C. to Bryantown where he spent the night. In his possession, Booth carried a letter of introduction to Dr. Queen. Booth had acquired this letter while he was in Montreal, Canada in the middle of October from a Confederate smuggler named Patrick Martin. Martin was from St. Mary’s County and still had contacts with the underground network of Confederate sympathizers and operatives back in Southern Maryland. Booth was anxious to connect with these individuals for his planned abduction plot against Abraham Lincoln. When Booth arrived in Bryantown the first time, he was able to send word to Dr. Queen that he wanted to meet with him. The next day Dr. Queen’s son, Joseph, picked Booth up at the Bryantown Tavern and brought him to his father’s home. John Wilkes Booth spent the night of November 12, at Dr. Queen’s home.

Dr. Queen’s son-in-law, John Thompson, would later testify at the trial of the conspirators that Booth’s letter of introduction to the doctor only mentioned that the actor was looking to purchase some land in the area and asked Dr. Queen to furnish him with assistance in this regard. This, however, is likely just a cover story that Booth and the Queen family committed to using. Booth’s true purpose was to scout the lands and roads of Charles County while simultaneously looking for individuals who would assist him in his abduction plot.

Dr. Queen was about 73 years old when Booth first arrived at his home. He was quite infirm and less than a year later he would become bedridden. So while Dr. Queen could not provide Booth with much in the way of physical assistance, his knowledge of the people and land was helpful. The next day, on November 13th, John Wilkes Booth joined Dr. Queen and his family in attending church at St. Mary’s Church in Bryantown. “Coincidentally” Dr. Samuel Mudd made the decision to attend St. Mary’s Church that Sunday rather than his home church of St. Peter’s. John Thompson introduced John Wilkes Booth to Dr. Mudd outside of the church before services commenced.

St. Mary's Church Oldroyd

John Wilkes Booth would return to Dr. Queen’s home after church was over and subsequently return back to Washington.

Booth was not absent from Charles County for very long, however. On December 17th, he returned to Bryantown and spent another night with Dr. Queen and his family. The next morning, a Sunday, Booth once again attended church at St. Mary’s before he met up with Dr. Mudd. For the next few days, Dr. Mudd, not Dr. Queen, would be Booth’s host. In this way, Dr. Mudd came to replace Dr. Queen as a more able bodied facilitator of Booth’s plot. Mudd introduced the actor to Thomas Harbin, a Confederate agent who signed on to help with the abduction plot. It was also during this trip that Dr. Mudd helped Booth to purchase a horse from the doctor’s next door neighbor, George Gardiner. Booth returned to Washington on December 22nd, and, the very next day, Dr. Mudd took a visit to Washington where he happened to introduce Booth to John Surratt, who would become another willing and helpful participant in Booth’s plot.

After the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent investigation, Dr. Queen avoided arrest due to his declining health that had left him bedridden. His son-in-law, John Thompson, was taken up to Washington in his stead. Thompson would testify at the trial about Booth’s arrival in the county and his introduction to Dr. Mudd.

dr-queen-obit-1866

Dr. Queen’s health continued to deteriorate and, on March 1, 1866, he died at his home near Bryantown. He was buried next to his first wife and his son Joseph (the son who had transported Booth to the Queen home in November of 1864) who had died in November of 1865. The family plot is near the back of St. Mary’s Church cemetery, the same cemetery where Dr. Mudd would later be buried.

One of the artifacts in the collection of the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum is a newspaper clipping that was owned by one of Dr. Queen’s daughters, Molly Queen. The clipping contains a poem called “Then and Now” which was a piece of political propaganda related to the election of 1864. The poem laments the poor condition of the country due to the last four years of Lincoln’s presidency and encourages the reader to vote for the Democratic candidate, George McClellan. The poem ends with the line: “Three cheers for Mac and the good times coming; And a groan for Abraham!”

While this piece completely fits with the political point of view of the Queen family and so many others in Southern Maryland, what makes this artifact unique and worth saving is an ambiguous signature which is affixed in pencil to the side of the clipping:

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queen-clipping-booth-signature

John Wilkes Booth did visit the Queen family for the first time just a few days after the election of 1864 and so it is likely that Molly Queen had this clipping out and around during the actor’s visit. Even if this is not actually John Wilkes Booth’s signature, it still is a fascinating artifact connecting John Wilkes Booth and the family of Dr. William Queen.

GPS coordinates for Dr. William Queen’s grave: 38.539667, -76.836000

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Grave Thursday: Frederick Aiken

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Frederick Aiken

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Burial Location: Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Frederick Aiken was one of Mary Surratt’s defense counsels at the trial of the conspirators. A dramatic version of his exploits during the trial was the subject of the 2010 movie, The Conspirator, starring James McAvoy and Robin WrightDuring the course of researching for the film, it was discovered by researcher Christine Christensen that Aiken had been buried in an unmarked grave in D.C.’s Oak Hill Cemetery. The Surratt Society completed a fundraiser to mark Aiken’s grave. I briefly posted about the installment of the grave marker in 2012.

I highly recommend Christine Christensen’s article about Aiken’s life called, Finding Frederick.

Coincidentally, Frederick Aiken is buried within throwing distance of another attorney at the trial of the conspirators, William Smith Cox, the lawyer who represented Michael O’Laughlen. Later, Walter Cox would be involved in a trial for another assassinated president when he was the presiding judge at the trial of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield.

aiken-and-coxs-grave-oak-hill

 

GPS coordinates for Frederick Aiken’s grave: 38.914285, -77.058428

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Edwin Booth and the “Big Hole in the Ground”

edwin-booth-circa-1876-harvard In 1876, eleven years after his brother assassinated Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Booth was still making his living as a touring actor. After a brief period of respectful grief and contemplation in the months following his brother’s crime, Edwin’s success and fame as an actor had only increased through the years. However, while Edwin was widely respected and praised for his talents, his business dealings over the past decade had hurt him considerably. The lavish theater he financed, constructed, and named after himself in New York had bankrupted him and he had been forced to sell ownership of it to help cover his debts. As much as he disliked the stress of touring, it was the only way he was able to recoup his losses and provide for his family. He had hoped the Booth Theatre would be his home for years, but its failure required him to retake the role as a touring star.

One man who knew the pain of losing a theater all too well was John T. Ford – he having lost his theater in Washington due to Edwin’s brother’s crime. John T. Ford approached Edwin Booth with an idea for a tour of the heart of the former Confederate states. Edwin Booth had not played in these areas since before the Civil War and John T. Ford assured Edwin that there would be a fortune to be made in his return. Edwin agreed and starting in January of 1876, he began a tour of cities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Joining him on this tour was his second wife, Mary McVicker. As Ford had predicted, Edwin was widely acclaimed during his performances in the South. “It was an ordinary sight to behold the ladies standing in double lines throwing flowers in his path as [Edwin] walked from his hotel to the theatre,” the company manager John Barron later recalled.

While the tour was a financially successful one and Edwin was pleased by the reception of his audiences, he was often displeased with the newspaper articles that accompanied his tour. The articles often contained “disgraceful anecdotes” about his father, Junius Brutus Booth, “all in the main false or exaggerated.” Worse yet, Edwin could not escape the shadow of his brother’s crime. He would write to a friend that during his tour he was, “daily reminded of the disgrace and misery that can never be forgotten by me or any member of my family.” Edwin was no doubt aware that there was a strong desire by many Southerners to see not just “Booth, the great Tragedian” but also “Booth, the brother of the assassin.”

edwin-booth-in-georgia-1876-nytimes

The tour with Ford was a short one with Edwin completing his final performance in Bowling Green, Kentucky on March 3rd. The entire tour grossed almost $90,000. Edwin made his own arrangements to perform in Louisville, Kentucky starting on March 13th, leaving him with a few days of downtime. Edwin decided to take this opportunity to visit a local landmark, Mammoth Cave.

mammoth-cave-nps

Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world with over 405 miles worth of surveyed passageways. Edwin Booth was greatly impressed by his experience touring through just a small bit of the cave system and wrote about his experience to his daughter Edwina. Please be aware that in this letter Edwin writes the words of his black guide, William Garvin, in the form of “negro dialect” which is most widely known today due to the writings of Mark Twain. Edwin also demonstrates his racial views which, while not acceptable today, were common with white men of the period. Edwin Booth was likely unaware that his guide was a veteran of the Civil War and had done more to protect the country that they shared than the actor ever did.

“I must tell you of our ride from Mammoth Cave, that ” big hole in the ground.” I shall try to relate the wonders I heard in the cavern, and describe our jog over the stones through the forest. Our guide was a bright young colored chap, who produced by his imitations of dogs, cows, etc., some fine effects of ventriloquism on our way through the cave. In pointing out to us a huge stone shaped like a coffin he would remark: “Dis is de giant’s coff-in”; then, taking us to the other dilapidated side of it : ” Dis is what he coughed out.” Then we reached what they call down there “The Altar,” where some foolish folk were married once upon a time. “De young lady swore she nebber would marry any man on the face ob the earth, so she came down yer and got married under de face ob de earth. ‘Spec’ she wanted materomony inter de groun’.” Then he would cry out, ” Hi ! John ! ” and we could hear the echo, as we thought, far away; then he would strike the ground with his staff, and we could hear a loud, reverberating sound, as tho’ all beneath were hollow, though when any of us tried it, no sound would come. He had finally to own up that he was both cause and effect.

William Garvin, Edwin Booth's guide through the Mammoth Cave

William Garvin, Edwin Booth’s guide through the Mammoth Cave

Frequently we found in different chambers in the cave crystallizations hanging from the rocky ceilings called “stalactites,” and others rising from the ground directly beneath them, reaching up and often joining the ones from above, and forming a solid pillar from floor to roof; these latter are called ” stalagmites.” William, our guide (very serious all the time), remarked that ” De upper ones was called stalac-tite ’cause dey stuck tight to de roof, and de odder ones stalag-mite — cause dey might reach the upper ones, and den again dey might n’t.” A facetious and comical darky, truly! One of these columns, or pillars, had a sort of knob on it shaped like a fat dumpling face, which is named here “Lot’s Wife.” William said, “And she has n’t done poutin’ about it yet.” So we went laughing at his weak jokes; for it was funny to us actors to see this fellow throwing his wit at us, and our appreciation of his acting made him very happy. I think I have already written about the pretty little bats that hang about the walls and roof of the cave in clusters, with heads down and mouths wide open, as if laughing in childish glee at the fun they are having in playing “upside down.”

One of the geological formations pointed out by William Garvin was the “Giant’s Coffin”. This large slab of rock, about 40 feet long resembles a huge coffin when viewed from the right angle.

giants-coffin-engraving-mammoth-cave

giants-coffin-mammoth-cave

This and the other features of Mammoth Cave must have made a lasting impression on Edwin. Perhaps it was seeing these sights in person and then recounting them in his descriptions to Edwina that fueled Edwin’s desire to return. Over a year would pass, but as soon as it was convenient, Edwin made a return visit to Kentucky with both Edwina and Mary McVicker in tow.

In November of 1877, Edwin had a break of a little over a week after his engagement in Philadelphia ended and his new engagement in Cleveland was set to begin. Though it was certainly out of the way, Edwin rushed his family off to Cave City, Kentucky so that he could visit Mammoth Cave, once again. Whether Edwina was invited to join her father in exploring the cave on this trip is unknown, but I’d like to think that she was. It was, after all, a special day for the Booths. Edwin had scheduled his return visit to the cave to fall on November 13th, his 44th birthday.

Edwin revisited much of the same sites he saw in the year prior, possibly with William as his guide once again. This time, when the group of Edwin and his friends got to the “Giant’s Coffin”, Edwin enacted a plan he had thought up.

“While there Mr. Booth laid the first stone of what he hopes will become a monument to the memory of Shakespeare. The stone, weighing about two hundred pounds, was, with considerable exertion on the actor’s part, placed in position at the foot of the ‘Giant’s Coffin’ and the name of Shakespeare and the date painted on it in large white letters. Mr. Booth hopes that visitors to the cave, in the future, will each add a stone to the monument until it becomes one fitting the memory of the great author.”

Various searches have failed to come up with anything regarding a Shakespeare monument near the Giant’s Coffin, so I think it’s safe to say that Edwin’s dream never came to fruition. However, it would be an interesting piece of research to see if the cornerstone he laid and painted still exists somewhere near the coffin formation.

While Edwin Booth’s monument to Shakespeare may not stand today, he still managed to leave an indelible mark on Mammoth Cave just as the cave had left on him. According to local stories, during one of Edwin’s two trips to the cave he gave an impromptu recitation from Hamlet, his signature piece. He gave his recitation from high up on a ledge outcropping that was known as the Theater Gallery. To his few friends and the other souls who were lucky enough to be present, this was a truly unique performance by the greatest actor of the day in the most breathtaking of settings. Ever since that performance, the area in which he gave his recitation has been appropriately called “Booth’s Amphitheater” in honor of the great tragedian who enjoyed his visits to that “big hole in the ground” in Kentucky.

booths-amphitheater-postcard-1

edwin-booths-ampitheater-mammoth-cave

References:
American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Daniel J. Watermeier
Edwin Booth: A Biography and Performance History by Arthur W. Bloom
Edwin Booth: Recollections by His Daughter, Edwina Booth Grossmann, and Letters to Her and to His Friends by Edwina Booth Grossman
“Edwin Booth’s Birthday” Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer, Saturday, November 17, 1877
Mammoth Cave National Park
Black Guides of Mammoth Cave
Pictorial Guide to the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky by Adam Binkerd

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