The Novice and John Wilkes Booth

On June 15, 1863, John Wilkes Booth began an acting engagement in St. Louis, Missouri. While Booth visited many different cities as a touring star, the audiences of St. Louis were very supportive of his efforts. This particular engagement was his fourth time playing in the city in only a year and a half. In addition to the audiences, Booth was also aided by the fact that he had a pretty decent connection in the St. Louis theater scene. During each of Booth’s engagements in the city, he performed at Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre.

Ben DeBar

Ben DeBar was essentially family to Booth. In 1840, Booth’s eldest brother, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. married Ben DeBar’s sister, Clementina. June and Clementina’s union did not last however because, in 1851, June took a page out of his father’s book and ran off with another woman. Despite this unpleasantness, Ben DeBar maintained a good relationship with John Wilkes Booth and the rest of the Booth family. Ben DeBar hired John Wilkes Booth for five different engagements in St. Louis, and when he opened another theater in New Orleans, Louisiana, John Wilkes was hired there as well.

The June 1863 engagement in St. Louis was like any other for the 25 year-old actor. The newspapers noted that Booth was, “nightly greeted by full and fashionable houses; his performance[s] eliciting the most enthusiastic applause.” Booth’s engagement was scheduled to last from the 15th to the 27th, a normal two week engagement.

After a few days in St. Louis, Booth was presented with an offer from an unusual source. A Missouri resident by the name of R. J. Morgan approached Booth asking him if he could take Booth’s place on the final night of his engagement. It was not unheard of for actors to make such requests of their peers though it was more common for actors to request the services of their peers for benefit performances or during emergencies. Being asked to surrender a performance was less common. This request was even more strange, however, because the solicitor was not even a fellow actor, at least not yet.

We know very little about the life of R. J. Morgan. His foray into theater begins and ends over the course of about a year. Four months prior to his proposition to John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was a relatively unknown man. He was born in England and at the beginning of the Civil War he resided in Missouri. In early 1863, he was briefly living in Davenport, Iowa. What his business was and why he was in Iowa is a mystery. Apparently, he was able to make somewhat of a name for himself as one who knew a little bit about European and American poetry. On February 17th, a group of citizens in Davenport wrote a letter to Morgan which was published in the newspaper. The men appealed to Morgan to honor them with a public reading of various poems known to him. One would expect that Morgan must have previously given private readings of poetry which motivated his friends and neighbors to ask for a public showing. Morgan accepted the invitation of the men stating, “I shall avail myself of the flattering invitation extended to me…” and “the entertainment proposed to be given, I trust you will look upon as an amateur affair, with little professional pretensions.” Morgan secured the use of Davenport’s Metropolitan Hall free of charge after insisting that the proceeds of the readings would not go to him, but would instead be donated to the needy families of absent Union soldiers. It might be a bit cynical but, given his later actions with Booth, it is not out of the realm of possibility that R. J. Morgan desired to start a career as an dramatic orator and organized the invitation and philanthropic gesture to work in his advantage.

On the night of February 24, 1863, R. J. Morgan presented his “Evening with the Poets”. He presented readings of 12 poems including Beautiful Snow, a piece also rendered by John Wilkes Booth from time to time. While the audience enjoyed Morgan’s readings, the turnout was a bit lackluster for his first time out. “The audience was not large,” the newspaper said, “but those who had the pleasure of listening to the reading of the selections on that occasion may count themselves fortunate…It is certain that the public greatly underestimated Mr. Morgan’s ability, else the Hall would have been filled…” Morgan stayed true to his word, however, and donated the night’s entire proceeds of $18 to the Adjutant General of Iowa. “Your request, that I will apply the amount to the relief of needy families of our absent soldiers shall be faithfully complied with,” the General wrote to Morgan (who subsequently had the note published in the newspaper).

This initial, charitable reading, kick-started Morgan’s new career as a dramatic reader. Four days after his debut, Morgan gave another evening of readings in Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Davenport. For his second reading he duplicated his first program entirely, but this time he took home the proceeds. After that, Morgan spent the next two months travelling around the Midwest giving readings in different cities. We have records of him performing in Iowa City, Muscatine, and Davenport, Iowa; Springfield and Jacksonville, Illinois; and in St. Louis, Missouri. He was apparently still in St. Louis when John Wilkes Booth came to town.

As Morgan’s readings went on, he began expanding his repertoire. He incorporated more and more Shakespeare, doing readings from Hamlet, Othello, and Henry IV. Coincidentally, while he was on the road, Morgan’s talents as a reader drew comparisons with a family of actors, a member of which would be shortly known to him. After a performance in Muscatine, Iowa the newspapers wrote, “The rendering and acting of Hamlet in his deathless soliloquies, was of that high and brilliant order that few attain who reach for it. The true life, energy and expression was breathed into it so faithfully that even a Booth or a Forrest might listen profitably.” After four months, Morgan apparently believed he was ready to move beyond being merely a reader and elocutionist. He wanted to be an actor and so he approached John Wilkes Booth in order to make that happen.

While Morgan’s correspondence to Booth doesn’t appear to survive, the two brief notes Booth wrote back to Morgan are housed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield as part of the Taper Collection. It’s clear that Morgan appealed to Booth to surrender the final day of his engagement so that Morgan could take his place and make his own theatrical debut. On June 22nd, Booth wrote to Morgan setting his terms for such a deal.

“Dear Sir,

I will agree to give up Saturday night 27th on condition you pay me fifty dollars $50 to be paid on or before Friday morning 26th

But it is understood I do not play myself these I consider very reasonable terms

Your respects

J. Wilkes Booth”

John Wilkes Booth was perfectly willing to surrender the last night of his engagement – for a price. The 1862/1863 theatrical season had been a good one for Booth and he did very well financially in Chicago earlier in the season. In December of 1862 he wrote to a colleague that he had made $900 his first week in Chicago and, as such, had averaged about $650 per week so far that season. If his success had held out for the rest of the season, $50 was somewhat generous on Booth’s part since he was making around $100 per performance on average. With only two engagements left in the season Booth may have been fine with taking an extra day off, and making $50 not to go to work wasn’t a bad plan.

With Booth’s note in hand, Morgan approached Ben DeBar seeking permission to perform at his theater. Since Booth had given his blessing, DeBar consented. Morgan wanted his debut to be a benefit performance for himself, where he would be entitled to a share of the box office. On the back of the same note Booth had written, DeBar gave his terms.

“Mr. RJ Morgan

You can have the one half of the receipts of the theatre on Saturday night next over and above the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. You paying Mr. J W Booth fifty dollars for relinquishing the night to you.

B. DeBar”

With these agreements in hand, R. J. Morgan began preparations for his debut. He chose A New Way to Pay Old Debts as his play, where he would perform the role of Sir Giles Overreach, the main character and villain. Coincidentally, Sir Giles Overreach was a favorite character of John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. The elder Booth had performed the role over 320 times during his career.

On Friday, June 26th, Morgan paid John Wilkes Booth the $50 he was owed. Booth then jotted down a note for Morgan, which acted as a receipt.

“Reced. St. Louis June 26th / 63 of Mr Morgan fifty doll in consideration of giving up Saturday night as per agreement $50 –

J. Wilkes Booth”

The following evening, Saturday, June 27th, with tickets and playbills in hand, R. J. Morgan made his on stage debut as an actor. Whether John Wilkes Booth attended the performance of the man who took his place is unknown. By Monday Booth was already on route to Cleveland, Ohio for his next engagement.

A few days after the performance, a review in the St. Louis Democrat newspaper hailed R. J. Morgan’s outing a complete success:

“The debut of R. J. Morgan at the St. Louis Theatre last Saturday evening, in the arduous character of Sir Giles Overreach, was, in point of execution, a brilliant success. This was Mr. Morgan’s first appearance upon any stage, and his success more than excelled the high expectations of those who were familiar with him as a dramatic reader. From his first entrance upon the stage, the bold, bad man, the scheming, heartless villain, stood out so prominently that the individuality of the actor was forgotten…His style and acting are of that electric and startling character that carries an audience with him. Mr. Morgan has a good stage presence, a clear and distinct enunciation, a perfect command of himself, and walks the stage with ease and abandon of a veteran stager. We predict for him a brilliant career in the arduous profession which he has chosen.”

Another reviewer from a different paper, however, was a bit more critical of Morgan’s performance:

“Last night, a Mr. R. J. Morgan, who has gained somewhat of a reputation as a reader, attempted the very difficult part of Sir Giles Overreach, in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”; and, as might be expected, he made a failure, so far as making any favorable impression went. He knew the part, and had a good knowledge of the business; but there are very few old actors who can play the part with effect, and it is utterly impossible for a novice to do it, let his natural talent be what it may.”

Brilliant or failure, Morgan’s on stage debut worked in his favor. Though the 1862/63 theatrical season was wrapping up when he took the stage, the 1863/1864 season was just a couple months away. Somehow, perhaps through a good word from Ben DeBar or possibly even John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was hired by John T. Ford to become a member of the stock company at his Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. Morgan left the Midwest behind to follow his dreams on the east coast. The Holliday Street Theatre opened for the season on August 17th but Morgan didn’t grace the stage until September 1st. Despite being a stock actor, Morgan still found his name on the Holliday Street playbills from time to time. John T. Ford had a practice of publicizing his stock company and some took starring roles when the theater was in between star engagements.

But, while Morgan’s name could be found on several playbills during his time with Ford, he always played second fiddle to the star actors or veteran members of the company. Morgan acted in both Shakespearean tragedies and comedic farces. On November 28th the Holliday Street Theatre put on the comedy Our American Cousin which would gain infamy a year and a half later. Morgan played the more serious role of Sir Edward Trenchard.

For some reason or other, after December of 1863, R. J. Morgan left the Holliday Street Theatre. What caused Morgan to abandon his career as an actor is unknown. Perhaps he was unhappy with working as a subordinate stock actor. Maybe the fairly poor salary in that job wasn’t enough. Or perhaps he just missed his home. Whatever the reasons, by April of 1864, he had made his way back to St. Louis. On April 23rd, during a celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, R. J. Morgan returned to his roots and gave dramatic readings from Shakespearean plays. Five days later, on April 28, he gave an evening of dramatic readings as a benefit for the St. Louis Sanitary Fair. In October of 1864, he received a pass to leave and re-enter the military district of St. Louis.

From that point on, the life and dramatic career of R. J. Morgan returns to the anonymity from which he came. Even basic biographical data, like what the R & J stand for, is still a mystery. While there are possibilities as to his identity (there was an auctioneer named Rees J. Morgan who lived in St. Louis in 1865 and 1866), I have been unable to find definitive evidence of his life outside of 1863 – 1864. The bulk of what was presented here comes from some newspaper articles about his dramatic readings and a small collection of tickets and playbills from his career housed in the special collections department of Louisiana State University. How a collector in Louisiana acquired these few papers on R. J. Morgan’s life, I have no idea. The few items about Morgan and John Wilkes Booth that are now a part of the ALPLM’s Taper collection were almost assuredly once a part of the same collection that was later donated to LSU. Hopefully more information about R. J. Morgan will be found in the future.

In closing, while researching there were two interesting bits of trivia that I stumbled across. The first is that it is quite possible that R. J. Morgan, during his limited career with John T. Ford, may have actually performed at Ford’s Theatre. John Ford reopened his Washington theatre in August of 1863, after rebuilding it from a December 1862 fire. After its reopening, Ford would often pull from his Baltimore stock company when he needed extra performers in Washington. It’s very possible that R. J. Morgan was brought to Washington by Ford to supplement his new theater. R. J. Morgan was definitely in Washington, D.C. in January of 1864 because he received a military pass to visit Alexandria, Virginia during that time. What’s even more interesting to think about is the fact that John Wilkes Booth had an engagement at Ford’s Theatre in November of 1863, when Morgan was still employed by John T. Ford. Did Morgan have a chance to act beside the man who allowed him to get his start? Maybe.

Lastly, while R. J. Morgan’s connection to John Wilkes Booth, the first presidential assassin, and Ben BeBar, a member of the Booth family, has been established, amazingly Morgan also has a slight connection to the second presidential assassin. Remember that the event that put Morgan on the path to being an actor was that very first dramatic reading he was asked to do in Davenport in February of 1863. A group of the Davenport citizenry wrote to Morgan, with each man signing their name to the letter.

A total of 22 men affixed their names to the request, the last of which was a man named “J. W. Guiteau”. This man’s full name was John Wilson Guiteau. He was a Davenport lawyer and the older brother of Charles J. Guiteau, the future assassin of President James Garfield. It’s so strange that R. J. Morgan made both his dramatic reading and acting debuts because of the support of assassins and their families.

References:
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
The Albert Louis Lieutaud Collection – Louisiana State University Special Collections
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux
Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen Archer

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

Grave Thursday: Mary Van Tyne

On select Thursdays 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.


NOTE: I know today isn’t Thursday. I’ve been swamped with getting ready for the new school year to begin and though I tried to get this out yesterday, I found I had to do a bit more research. Rather than wait another week to post it, I figured I’d just post it tonight instead. So enjoy this Friday edition of Grave Thursday.

Mary Ann Van Tyne

Burial Location: Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Mary Van Tyne, whose maiden name was Ricard, was originally born in England. We know she had moved to the  United States by 1833 for it was during that year that she married Dr. John P. Van Tyne in Maryland. By 1840, the pair had relocated to Washington City and quickly began building their family. By 1850, Mary and John were the parents of at least 5 children. In February of 1851, John Van Tyne died at the age of 44, leaving Mary a widow. She supported her family financially by working as a seamstress and dressmaker. As time went on, Mrs. Van Tyne even advertised her talents as a seamstress.

In 1857, Mary’s only remaining son, Charles, died at the age of 21. In the 1860 census, Mary Van Tyne is shown as a widow, working as a dressmaker with her four daughters: Mary, Kate, Florida, and Ellen.

During the Civil War, the population of D.C. boomed. Many homeowners made supplemental incomes by renting out rooms. Conspirator Mary Surratt would follow this route after relocating from her Maryland tavern to her D.C. town home. Mrs. Van Tyne, likewise started to rent out rooms and advertised her spaces in the D.C. papers.

In February of 1865, two men took up Mrs. Van Tyne’s offer of lodging and began renting one of her rooms. Their names were Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen and, unbeknownst to Mrs. Van Tyne, they were taking part in John Wilkes Booth’s plan to abduct President Lincoln.

While Mrs. Van Tyne did not have a lot of contact with her new boarders, she did get to know a few things about them. For instance, Mr. O’Laughlen told her that he was also known as McLaughlin, and that if she should receive any mail addressed as such that it should come to him. Once, when cleaning their room, she came upon a pistol but didn’t think much of it and merely placed it in a bureau drawer for safe keeping. Often, the two men would leave and go to Baltimore on a Saturday and not return to the city until Monday or Tuesday.

The two men were also frequently visited by a handsome man. The man would call at all times of day looking for the men and leaving messages for them. Finally, Mrs. Van Tyne inquired with her boarders about who the handsome man was. They informed her that he was John Wilkes Booth, the popular actor. Once, Mrs. Van Tyne overhead something among the men about business and she later asked Arnold what business they were in. Arnold replied that the three men were in the oil business together in Pennsylvania. Booth was a common visitor and often appeared to keep her boarders out late. Mr. Arnold and O’Laughlen had a night key which allowed them to come and go as they pleased. Since they were sleeping in a back bedroom on the first floor, she did not always know whether they were home or not.

Finally, on March 18th, Arnold and O’Laughlen told Mrs. Van Tyne that they were going to be leaving for good on Monday the 20th. They were off to the Pennsylvania oil fields, they told her. They mentioned that while they were anxious to leave that very night, Booth was performing at Ford’s Theatre and they wanted to see him. Mrs. Van Tyne expressed her own desire to see Booth perform. Grateful for the lodging Mrs. Van Tyne had given them, O’Laughlen gave Mrs. Van Tyne three complimentary tickets for Booth’s performance in The Apostate at Ford’s Theatre that night.

Mary Van Tyne neither heard from nor saw Mr. Arnold or Mr. O’Laughlen after they left on March 20th. After the assassination of Lincoln, the identities and movements of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators were traced. On May 5th, Mrs. Van Tyne was interviewed by Baltimore provost marshal, James McPhail. McPhail and his men were largely responsible for hunting down Arnold and O’Laughlen. Mrs. Van Tyne told all that she knew about the two men who stayed in her home.

Ten days later, Mrs. Van Tyne was among the first to be called to the witness stand at the trial of the conspirators. She testified about Booth’s common visitations to her home in search of Arnold and O’Laughlen. She was also asked to identify a picture of Booth as the man she saw. While she identified it, she also made the observation that the photograph presented to her was a poor likeness of the man and did not truly capture how handsome Booth was. After providing her testimony for the day, Mrs. Van Tyne returned home and back into obscurity.

Mary Van Tyne continued to live in Washington, D.C.. By 1870, she moved out of her D street boardinghouse and began living with her daughter, Florida, who had married a man named Friebus. She would live with her daughter and son-in-law for the rest of her life. On December 18, 1886, Mary Van Tyne died of “valvular disease of [the] heart”. Her age at death is difficult to determine. Her obituary stated that she was “in her eighty-first year.” Her burial records give her an age of “80 years” and “5 months” at time of death. The census records did not really help the matter. Unlike many census records where women miraculously age less than a decade in the ten years span between censuses, Mrs. Van Tyne actually managed to age more than ten years between the 1860 and 1870 census. The 1850 and 1860 census records give her birth at about 1812 which would make her about 74 at her death. The 1870 and 1880 censuses give her birth at about 1806 which puts her back up at 80.

Upon her death, Mrs. Van Tyne was interred in Section P, Lot 202, Site 5 in D.C.’s Glenwood Cemetery. If Mrs. Van Tyne was marked with a gravestone upon her death, it no longer stands. Her burial lot is only marked by the gravestone of her daughter, Florida Friebus nee Van Tyne, who died in 1915.

GPS coordinates for Mary Van Tyne’s unmarked grave: 38.921110, -77.004470

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

“Helped to Guard the Conspirators”

While doing a little searching tonight, I came across an interesting article from the December 15, 1902 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It highlights a Philadelphia resident named Isaac M. Marshall who claimed to have been among the guards detailed the watch over the Lincoln assassination conspirators during their trial and imprisonment. The article gives some candid thoughts that Corporal Marshall had about the conspirators, which I thought would be worth sharing.

Living at 3213 Mt. Vernon street is a veteran of the Civil War – Isaac M. Marshall – who was one of the guards of the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, and who has still a vivid recollection of how they looked and acted when on trial for their lives at the old Arsenal in Washington. “I was a member of Company I, of the Third Regiment, Hancock’s Veteran Corps, at the time,” he said yesterday to a reporter of The Inquirer. “We were camped outside the capital in 1865, and the morning after the great crime had been committed we got orders to watch all the approaches leading from the city. The entire regiment was given this duty and no one was allowed to go through the lines without establishing his or her identity, and that they had a right to pass on.

“Later on our company was at the Arsenal during the trial of the men and Mrs. Surratt. I remember all of the conspirators well. Lewis Payne, one of those who were hanged, always wore a knit shirt. He was stalwart and of athletic build and had an eagle eye. The stern look on his face never appeared to change. David E. Herold was handsome, and he knew it. He had long black hair and he frequently pushed it above his forehead. There were many young women present – admitted by card – and to some of these he frequently bowed. One of his peculiar actions was to raise his hands so that they could see his manacled wrists.

“Of Samuel B. Arnold, whose story of alleged cruel treatment I have read with deep interest, as it appears from day to day in The Inquirer, I want to say this: Whatever may have happened to him at the Dry Tortugas, he did not look as if he had suffered any before his trial occurred. On the contrary, he appeared to have been well fed and otherwise well cared for. You could scarcely tell what kind of a man he was. At times his countenance wore a look of defiance; then of sternness and again of unconcern. He was neatly attired, as were all the others, save Payne, who managed to change his clothes after the crime, assuming the garb of a laborer.

“Michael O’Laughlin, who also went to the Dry Tortugas, was the only one who seemed to be affected and sorry. George Atzerodt I didn’t pay much attention to. Dr. Mudd did not have the appearance at all of a physician or professional man. Mrs. Surratt was always veiled; sat immovable and looked like a statue. After the trial the Third Regiment was sent to Camp Butler, at Springfield, Ill., and I was there when the lamented Lincoln was buried…”

Marshall’s extended comment about Samuel Arnold is due to the fact that this article came out in 1902, the same year that Arnold allowed his lengthy memoirs to be printed in the newspapers after he had read his own obituary. In his memoir, Arnold complained at length about the treatment he received at the hands of the government. Marshall provides a small rebuff to Arnold’s claims that he was mistreated while in Washington (though considering the hoods Arnold and the others were forced to wear, you can’t blame him too much for complaining). The other descriptions of the Lincoln conspirators are very much in line with what other visitors of the trial observed.

While I can’t positively confirm that Isaac Marshall was one of the guards at the trial of the conspirators, it seems fairly likely he is telling the truth. The Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where the conspirators were imprisoned and tried, was largely manned by members of the Veteran Reserve Corps, which Marshall was a member. On the day of the execution of the conspirators, Marshall’s specific group, the Third Regiment, was assigned duty as sentinels from the northeast corner of the arsenal grounds extending along the east bank of the river. Members of the 3rd regiment were also stationed in a line 100 yards south of the prison grounds. So, at the very least, Marshall did have guard duty on the day of the conspirators’ death. Even Marshall’s claim to have been in Springfield when Lincoln was buried is possible. The Third Regiment wasn’t officially mustered out of service until December of 1865 and Abraham Lincoln’s remains were “buried” in a temporary vault in Oak Ridge Cemetery on December 21, 1865. Isaac Marshall may have had the unique experience of being present at both the execution of the conspirators and at one of Abraham Lincoln’s many burials.

Isaac Marshall died on July 6, 1919 and is buried in Fernwood Cemetery, outside of Philadelphia.

References:
(1902, December 15) Helped to Guard the Conspirators. Philadelphia Inquirer, p 5.

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

One Million!

On August 13, 2018 at around 10:15 pm, BoothieBarn officially reached over one million views!

I announced similar milestone moments when this blog made it to 10,000 and 100,000 views. I was happy then and I’m ecstatic now that this blog continues to grow at such an amazing pace.

While the vast majority of the visitors to this site come from the United States, this blog has been able to make a splash internationally as well. Here’s a map showing all the places that have visited BoothieBarn.com since its founding in 2012.

Granted, the map isn’t completely filled up. Clearly I have to do more outreach in places like Chad, Greenland, Lesotho, Tajikistan, Svalbard, the Solomon Islands, Djibouti, and others. Still, I’m very pleased this site has found such a global audience especially since it deals with a uniquely American story.

Here are some more numbers to mark this milestone:

453 = total number of posts on this blog (so far)

629 = average words per post in 2012

756 = total number of blog followers

2,354 = age of the blog in days

3,119 = average words per post in 2018

6,072 = highest number of views in a single day. It occurred on April 14, 2015, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination

15,633 = average views per month in 2017

401,904 = total number of words contained in all the blog posts here on BoothieBarn

I’d just like to thank you, the readers, for all of your support and community over these past six years. I’m especially grateful to those of you who have graciously donated to this site through Patreon. I have been blown away by the level of generosity and am so very appreciative of it. With this level of continued support, I’m hoping to bring even more exciting things to BoothieBarn in the future. With one million views there’s no stopping us.

Thank you all for reading, commenting, and giving to BoothieBarn.

Sincerely,

Dave (and Kate) Taylor

Categories: News | Tags: , , | 13 Comments

The Ford’s Theatre Orchestra

“More is probably known about the people who were at work in Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, and about the topography of the theatre itself than of any other house in the world. We know the names, habits, and duties of every actor, stagehand, ticket-taker, box-office man, and usher*, and we know who many of the audience were.”

This quote comes from the doctoral dissertation of John Ford Sollers, the grandson of Ford’s Theatre owner, John T. Ford. While Sollers’ claim wasn’t quite true when he wrote it in 1962, thanks to modern scholarship, we now really do know a lot about the actors and stagehands of Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. However, despite the wealth of information historians have discovered, we still have one blind spot in our knowledge of the inner workings of the theater that night. This blind spot was even acknowledged by Sollers in his day, forcing him to add a footnote after the word “usher” in the quote above. The footnote attached to it admitted that:

“Unless further information has been found, we do not know the names or even the number of the orchestra”

Music was a crucial part of the theater experience in the Civil War era. Even during non-musical performances (like the comedic play Our American Cousin) an overture and entr’acte music were expected by audiences. Theaters were houses of entertainment and an orchestra was part of what you paid for when you bought your ticket. We know that Ford’s Theatre had an orchestra. We know that President’s Lincoln’s party, arriving late to the theater, was greeted by that orchestra. But how much do we really know about the musicians who played that fateful night?

The big challenge when it comes to determining the identities of the orchestra members at Ford’s Theatre, is that we lack any sort of list from the period. When John Ford Sollers was writing his dissertation about his grandfather, he had access to documents that had belonged to John T. Ford and even he could not come up with the names of any members of the orchestra aside from its director. Over the past week, with the assistance of fellow researcher Rich Smyth, I have assembled a partial list of those who were said to have been in the orchestra the night Lincoln was killed. The evidence supporting their attendance is, overall, extremely weak and varies greatly from man to man. Every name must be taken with a grain of salt and, aside from William Withers, we cannot guarantee that any of these men were actually present. With that being said, what follows is the list of the possible Ford’s Theatre orchestra members on April 14, 1865:

William Withers – orchestra director
George M. Arth – double bass
Scipione Grillo – baritone horn
Louis Weber – bass
William Musgrif – cello
Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin
Henry Donch – clarinet
Reuben Withers – drums
Henry Steckelberg – cello
Isaac S. Bradley – violin
Salvadore Petrola – cornet
Joseph A. Arth – drums
Paul S. Schnieder – possibly violin or trumpet
Samuel Crossley – violin
Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells

Below you will find little biographies of each man and the evidence we have about their presence at Ford’s Theatre. I’ve placed them in an order that arranges them from more likely to have been at Ford’s to less likely to have been at Ford’s. Judge the evidence for yourself as we explore the boys in the band.


William “Billy” Withers, Jr. – orchestra director

In 1862, when John T. Ford first remodeled the Tenth Street Baptist Church and opened it up as Ford’s Atheneum, he hired a musician named Eugene Fenelon to be his orchestra director. As director, Fenelon not only conducted the orchestra on a nightly basis, but was also tasked with the duty of recruiting and hiring musicians to ensure that Ford would have an ample sized band each night. In this capacity, Fenelon recruited local D.C. musicians. Fenelon remained as Ford’s orchestra director until a fire struck Ford’s Atheneum in December of 1862. The loss was a hefty one for John Ford at about $20,000. Consumed in the fire was a bulk of the orchestra’s instruments and music. While Fenelon stayed in D.C. during the process of rebuilding that followed, when the new theatrical season opened in the fall of 1863, Fenelon took a job as the orchestra leader of the recently opened New York Theatre in NYC. Ford was then tasked with finding a new orchestra leader for his new theater. He chose to put his faith in a 27 year-old violinst and Union veteran, William “Billy” Withers, Jr.

Withers was from a musical family and, at the beginning of the war, he and his father and brothers had joined the Union army and served as members of a regimental band. The bands provided music during marching and aided with the morale of the men. In the late summer of 1862, however, Congress passed a law abolishing regimental bands, feeling that the service had been abused by non-musical men trying to avoid regular duty and that the bands were not worth the cost during war time. Though Withers stayed on for some time after the dissolution of his band and acted as a medic, he was eventually discharged. Withers excitedly took up John T. Ford’s offer to be his new band leader. When the new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, Withers’ orchestra, and his experience playing patriotic music was complimented.

“The music under the leadership of Prof. Wm. Withers was highly pleasing, and the execution of the national airs gave a spice to the entertainment, which was fully appreciated.”

Ford’s Theatre had always had a healthy competition with their Washington rival, Leonard Grover’s National Theatre. As the two leading theaters in the city, the press abounded in making comparisons between the two houses. One way the theaters rivaled each other was with their orchestras. While a normal theater orchestra at the time would contain about ten musicians on a nightly basis, both Ford’s and Grover’s began advertising that their orchestras had been “augmented” to include more musicians. It appears that Withers continued to augment the orchestra during his tenure and found his growing of the band to be a point of pride. “Our orchestra under the Brilliant Leader Prof. William Withers, Jr. is considered second to no theatre South of New York,” proclaimed one Ford’s Theatre advertisement. Another highlighted the fact that the orchestra, “has lately been increased and numbers now nearly a Quarter of a Hundred first class Instruments,” and that it had been, “lately largely augmented and is now unsurpassed in numerical and artistic strength.” Billy Withers was a great asset to Ford during his first theatrical season. In addition to his duties as conductor of the orchestra, Withers would occasionally volunteer his services as a solo violinist for special occasions.

Theatrical seasons ended during the hot months, which left many musicians without jobs during the summer. Without the steady (albeit small) income from the theaters, musicians had to make their own arrangements. During this time, many teamed up with other musicians to play small concerts in music halls. With his connections, Withers was able to rent out bigger venues. During the summer of 1864, Withers and his orchestra played concerts at both Grover’s and Ford’s theaters. On July 10, 1864, Withers presented a “Concert of Sacred Music” at Ford’s during for which he brought in two vocalists and, “forty musicians of the best talent in the city, forming an array of talent such has never before appeared jointly in Washington.” The concert was well received and the proceeds helped the D.C. music scene make it through the lean summer.

When the 1864-65 theatrical season opened in the fall, Withers was rehired by Ford to be his orchestra director. The season started without a hitch but, in January of 1865, Withers experienced some unaccustomed criticism of his orchestra in the press. In comparing the two main D.C. theaters, a reviewer from the National Intelligencer stated that, “In some respects, Mr. Ford has done better. His theater has been uniformly dignified, and he has succeeded in procuring a different class of stars from those played by his competitor…but his stock company has not by any means been all that it should be, and his orchestra needs improvement.” It appears that, perhaps due to this critique, Withers began the process of augmenting the Ford’s Theatre orchestra again. His attention on the theater orchestra was a bit distracted however, as Withers was chosen to provide some of the music for President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration ball. He entered into a contract in which he would be paid $1,000 for forty pieces of music. Withers not only used the local talent at his disposal but also brought in musicians from New York. After the inauguration was over, it’s likely that a few of these musicians from New York were hired by Withers to augment the Ford’s Theatre band.

As much as John T. Ford liked being the best, he and Leonard Grover had realized the costly arms race that dueling orchestras would cause them. It appears that some time over the last two years, the two theater owners had come to an mutual understanding regarding the size of their orchestras. Rather than continuing in attempting to one-up each other, they had put an unknown limit on each other in order to keep the houses equal. When Withers began increasing the size of the orchestra in early 1865, Ford objected, fearing it would break the truce with Grover. On April 2, 1865, Ford wrote a letter to his stage manager, John B. Wright:

“Respecting the orchestra I have promised and wish to keep my word to make my orchestra the same number that Grover has in his – will you notify Withers that for the rest of the season, I wish it reduced. The necessity of this I will explain and stisfy you – If Grover wants Withers – he can go – O can easily supply his place. Let us have the same Instruments that Grover has – my honor is pledged to this.”

Rather than run off to Grover’s National Theatre, as Ford thought might occur, William Withers stayed at Ford’s Theatre and likely reduced his orchestra as ordered.

In addition to being a band leader and talented violinist, Withers also composed music. He wrote several polkas and instrumental pieces which were sold by local music shops. Another piece that he composed that he had not published was a song called “Honor to Our Soldiers”.

With the Civil War coming to an end in April of 1865, Withers was looking for a chance to perform his own patriotic air, which featured vocalists. He had arranged for a quartet of vocalists to perform the song on the evening of April 15th. However, during the morning rehearsal for Our American Cousin on April 14th, Withers heard the news that the Lincolns, possibly joined by the Grants, were coming to the show that night. Performing his song in front of the President and General Grant would make for a much better debut and so he decided to perform the piece that night instead. Not having time to arrange for formal vocalists for that night, Withers was forced to rely on the talent around him. Withers tapped three of his coworkers to sing solos in the song: May Hart, Henry B. Phillips, and George M. Arth. May Hart was a new member of the Ford’s Theatre stock company having been recently transferred from the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. She was performing the minor role of Georgina that night. H. B. Phillips was the acting manager at Ford’s and it was his job to improve the quality of the stock actors. Phillips is credited as having written the lyrics for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. George Arth was actually a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra who is discussed later. In addition to these soloists, lead actress Laura Keene said she and other members of her company would be happy to sing along as back up.

As we know, the Lincoln party did not arrive at the theater on time. Knowing they were on their way, Withers was given instructions to play a longer than average overture in hopes they would appear. After 15 minutes elapsed without the Presidential party, the play began without them. When the Lincolns, Major Rathbone, and Clara Harris did make their appearance, the play was halted and Withers and his orchestra began playing “Hail to the Chief”. This was followed by a rendition of “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” as the Lincolns and their guests took their seats in the Presidential box. With that, the play went on.

Withers was initially promised that the performance of his song would occur during the intermission between the first and second acts. However, when the intermission came, he was told by stage manger John Wright that Laura Keene was not prepared to perform during this break and that the orchestra should play his normal intermission music instead. Though slightly annoyed, Withers was assured the song would be performed during the next act break. When the second act break came, however, Withers was once again informed that Laura Keene was not ready. When the third act began, Withers made his way out of the orchestra pit by means of the passageway that led under the stage. He was miffed that his song had been delayed twice. He made his way up one of the two trapdoors on either side of the stage and went to converse with John Wright backstage. Wright said that Withers should plan to perform the song at the conclusion of the play and that Laura Keene had already sent word to the Presidential party to please remain after the curtain fell. Angry at Wright, Withers spied Ford’s stock actress Jeannie Gourlay also backstage and went over to talk with her. It while was Withers was conversing quietly with Jeannie Gourlay about his troubles that the shot rang out.

What occurred next has been well documented. After shooting the President and slashing away Major Rathbone with his knife, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the Presidential box onto the stage. The only actor on stage at the time, Harry Hawk, turned and ran out of Booth’s path. Upon reaching the backstage, it was William Withers and Jeannie Gourlay who stood in the way of Booth’s exit.

“Let me pass!” Booth yelled as he slashed at Withers with his knife, cutting his coat in two places. Booth pushed past Withers and Gourlay, made his exit out the back door, and escaped on horseback into the Washington streets. Withers’ backstage encounter with Booth became a well known part of the assassination story and up until his death in 1916, the orchestra leader never passed up an opportunity to tell his tale. As far as evidence goes, William Withers’ attendance at Ford’s Theatre that night is airtight and even his slashed coat is on display in the Ford’s Theatre museum.

To read more on William Withers, pick up Tom Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, or check out the following articles by Richard Sloan and Norman Gasbarro.


George M. Arth – double bass

Like William Withers, George Arth came from a musical family. At least two of his brothers and his cousin were active in the D.C. music scene. In August of 1861, George Arth joined the U.S. Marine Band, known as The President’s Own band. Arth could play many instruments, but his role in the Marine Band was that of a bass drummer. With the Marine Band, Arth would perform at important events around Washington, often for the President or other dignitaries. The job wasn’t full time, however, and many members of the Marine Band had other jobs in the city as music teachers or as theater orchestra members. In 1864, while Laura Keene was renting out and appearing at the Washington Theatre in D.C., she hired George Arth to be her orchestra director for the engagement. The job was temporary, however, and when she left the city, George Arth went back to being just an ordinary orchestra member at Ford’s Theatre.

Arth must have had a good singing voice since, as pointed out earlier, he was one of the Ford’s employees that Withers pegged to help him in the singing of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”. While we do not have any record of Arth’s whereabouts during the assassination, we can safely assume he was somewhere on the premises preparing for the song when the shot rang out.

An additional piece of evidence we have that places George Arth at Ford’s that night is a letter he wrote in the days following the assassination. After Lincoln was shot, the theater was shut down and subsequently guarded. Members of the Ford’s Theatre staff were brought in for questions and some were arrested. On a normal night, it was typical for the musicians to leave their instruments in the theater, especially when they were engaged to play the next day. While Arth likely assumed that the next night’s performance at Ford’s Theatre wasn’t going to occur, in the chaos that ensued after Lincoln was shot he was apparently unable to retrieve his own instrument. Unlike some of the other musicians who may have carried their instruments out of Ford’s with them, Arth played the largest bowed instrument in the orchestra, a double bass. After the government locked down Ford’s and started guarding it, no one was able to take anything out of the premises.

On April 21st, Arth wrote a letter to the general in charge of the guard detail asking for permission to retrieve his trapped instrument.

“Respected Sir,

I beg of you to grant me a permit to enter Fords Theatre & bring from it mu double bass viol & bow belonging to me & used by me as one of the orchestra at said theatre – as it is very necessary to me in my profession & I am suffering for its use.

I am humbly your servant

George M. Arth”

Arth’s request was approved and he was allowed to retrieve his double bass. Arth remained in D.C. after the war and continued working as musician. He died in 1886 at the age of 48 from consumption and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


Scipione Grillo – baritone horn

A native from Italy, Scipione Grillo became a naturalized citizen in 1860. He originally made his home in Brooklyn, New York where he offered his services as a music teacher. By 1861, however, he had relocated his wife and kids to Washington and in July he joined the Marine Band. In addition to being a musician Grillo was a bit of a businessman. When John T. Ford rebuilt his theater after the 1862 fire, he devoted space on the first floor just south of the theater lobby to the creation of a tavern. As part of his property, Ford could lease it out for a profit and provide an easily accessible place for patrons to get drinks between acts. The tavern space was eventually leased by two Marine Band members, Peter Taltavul and Scipione Grillo, who co-owned the venture. They called their establishment the Star Saloon after the theatrical stars who would patronize it. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Taltavul’s time on duty and he acted as barkeep to the thirsty theater-goers. Taltavul has become famous for pouring John Wilkes Booth his last drink before the actor assassinated Lincoln.

Scipione Grillo’s partnership in the Star Saloon is often overlooked because he was spending that night in the orchestra instead of serving Booth. While Grillo was required to attend the trial of the conspirators during the entire month of May in 1865, he was never called to testify about his acquaintanceship with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. It wasn’t until two years later, at the trial of John Surratt, that Grillo took the stand to state what he knew. During his routine questioning, Grillo was asked about whether he saw anyone out on the pavement of Ford’s during the show. He replied:

“No, sir. I was not out of the place myself. I was in the orchestra between the first and second acts; but in the third act we had nothing to do, (being always dismissed after the curtain is down,) and so I went out and went inside of my place.”

Grillo also stated that he was still inside of the Star Saloon when the assassination occurred. So, while he did not witness the assassination firsthand, he was among the members of the orchestra that night. Since it was part of the Ford’s Theatre building, the Star Saloon was also closed by the government, which ended Taltavul and Grillo’s business together.

Scipione Grillo appears to fall off of the map after his 1867 testimony. I have not been able to find any trace of him after that, but it is possible he, his wife, and children traveled back to Italy to live.


Louis Weber – bass

Louis Weber had been born in Baltimore in 1834 but his family moved to D.C. when he was four years old. He became a member of the U.S. Marine Band and played at the inauguration ceremonies for Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln. He was an active member of the Marine Band for 25 years.

In the same manner as George Arth, the evidence pointing to Weber being a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra was the return of his instrument by the government. While Weber’s original request does not seem to have survived, on April 28th, Col Henry Burnett (later one of the prosecutors at the trial of the conspirators) sent a telegram off to the general in charge of the Ford’s Theatre guards ordering him to, “send to this office, one bass violin the property of Louis Weber”. This order was fulfilled and later that same day, Louis Weber signed a receipt for his bass.

Weber lived out the remainder of his life in Washington. He died in 1910 from a stroke and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


William Musgrif – cello

William Musgrif was born in England in 1812. After immigrating to America he settled in New York. As a musician, Musgrif was skilled in both the violin and the cello, but seems to have preferred the cello best. In 1842, Musgrif and his cello became founding members of the newly established New York Philharmonic. As part of the Philharmonic, Musgrif mentored younger players in the cello. By 1860, he, along with his wife and son, had moved to D.C. where he offered his skills as a music teacher. Musgrif was also the conductor for his own group in D.C. called the Mozart Society.

The evidence that William Musgrif also moonlighted as a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra comes from yet another letter written in the days after Lincoln assassination. William Withers had already written once and received a portion of his instruments that had been left at Ford’s that night, but he had not received all of them In May of 1865, Withers penned another letter asking for permission to get the “balance of my things” which included “sleigh bells, triangle, harmonica”. He also requested, “one instument, violocella, for Mr. Musgrive [sic]”

These items were inspected and then delivered to Withers. On May 7th, Withers signed a form stating her had received, “a lot of sleigh bells, a triangle, harmonica, and violincella being properties left at Fords Theatre on the night of the Assassination of President Lincoln.” Withers signed for both himself “and Mr. Musgive [sic]”.

William Musgrif continued to live in D.C. in the few years following the assassination. In 1868, an unfortunate incident caused Musgrif to make the acquaintance of another person who had been at Ford’s on April 14th. On February 19th, Musgrif was in the billiard room of the National Hotel observing a man named William Rogers, who was drunk. When Musgrif attempted to take the billiard balls away from the drunkard, Rogers “hit him over one of the eyes.” A police officer was summoned, arrested Rogers and proceeded to take down the 56 year old musician’s sworn statement. That responding police officer was none other that Officer John F. Parker, the man history has condemned for allegedly leaving Abraham Lincoln unguarded on the night of his assassination.

By the mid 1870s, William Musgrif had moved out to Colorado with his son. It is likely he died and was buried there.


Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin

Chris Arth was the cousin of George M. Arth, the would be soloist for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. His 1901 obituary, which is also one of the pieces of evidence for his presence at Ford’s Theatre, gives a good description of his life.

In addition to this obituary’s claim that Chris Arth was a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, there is also a 1925 article from a D.C. correspondent known as the Rambler which supports the idea. I’ve briefly touched on the Rambler before. His real name was John Harry Shannon and he wrote for the Evening Star newspaper from 1912 to 1927. His stories involved local interest pieces and often involved him travelling around Washington talking to old timers. In an article he wrote about the history of D.C.’s music scene, the Rambler included a letter that was written to him by John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union. You’ll notice that in the obituary above it states that Chris Arth was a member of the same union during his lifetime. Birdsell compliments the Rambler’s work and then poses a challenge to him:

“In this connection it may be possible that, during the course of your researches for the preparation of these writings, you may acquire a complete roster of the orchestra which played at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was shot. I have had inquiry for this from several sources. The first came from somewhere in California. I communicated with the Oldroyd Museum, and while they did not possess this information, they expressed a desire to acquire it.”

After this, Birdsell proceeds to give the list of names he has been able to determine.

“To date the partial roster, which I have is as follows: Leader, William Withers; violin, Chris Arth, sr.; bass, George Arth; clarinet, Henry Donch; cornet, Salvatore Petrola.”

After this list Birdsell makes the final statement that since the average orchestras at the time consisted of 10 instruments he believes he is only half complete. Birdsell was likely unaware of Ford’s and Grover’s mutually agreed upon augmented orchestras which were no doubt larger than ten musicians.

If we trust his obituary and Birdsell’s list, then Chris Arth, cousin of George Arth, was in the orchestra at Lincoln’s assassination.


Henry Donch – clarinet

Henry Donch was a native of Germany who moved to the United States in 1854. He lived in Baltimore and was also a member of the Annapolis Naval Academy Band before he moved to Washington. Donch joined the U.S. Marine Band in August of 1864.

The evidence for Donch’s presence at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot is the same as Chris Arth’s: the Birdsell list and his obituary:

An second obituary for Donch provided an additional detail regarding his alleged presence at Ford’s:

“Mr. Donch was a member of the orchestra at Ford’s Theater on the night Lincoln was shot. Mr. Donch, who was facing the assassin as he leaped from the box, always declared that Booth never uttered the phrase, ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis,’ which is attributed to him.”

While the general consensus is that Booth did, in fact, utter the phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannis” after shooting the President, Donch’s contrary claim does not, by itself, prove him to be a liar. The eyewitness accounts from Ford’s vary widely and it’s possible that, in the confusion, Donch truly did not hear or remember Booth stating these words.

Coincidentally, Henry Donch would observe another Presidential assassin, though this time during the period after his crime. After Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield, Henry Donch was selected at one of the grand jury members in his trial.


Reuben Withers – drums

Reuben Withers was the younger brother of Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers. Reuben had joined the same regimental band as his brothers and father at the start of the Civil War, but similarly was sent back home when such bands were disbanded. He joined the ranks of his brother’s brass band and, it appears, the Ford’s Theatre orchestra.

In his older years, William Withers suffered from paralysis and was cared for by Reuben. The two elderly men shared a home and business together in the Bronx. Even in his paralysis, reporters came to hear the story of William Withers being stabbed by Booth on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. In at least interview, Reuben recounted his own remembrances of the night of April 14th:

“The President was a little late coming in. We had played the overture and the curtain was just going up when we saw him enter the stage box. Brother William immediately started us playing ‘Hail to the Cheif,’ then ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and there was a lot of cheering. Everybody was feeling good and happy…

After we had played the overture I left the theatre to catch the 9.20 train for Zanesville, O., and so I missed the actual scene of the great tragedy. I had been offered a better position to play in the band of Bailey’s circus, and I had fixed that night of April 14, 1865, as the time of my leaving Washington…”

Was Reuben Withers truly in the orchestra that night? After years of hearing his brother tell his tale, perhaps he just wanted to include himself in the narrative. Or perhaps he did tell the truth and left the theater before the crime occurred. We may never really know. Reuben Withers preceded his brother in death, dying in 1913. The house and business the Withers brothers owned still stands, albeit a bit modified, at 4433 White Plains Road in the Bronx.


Henry Steckelberg – cello

Henry Steckelberg was born in 1834 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1858 residing at first in New York. When the Civil War broke out he, like the Witherses, joined a regimental band in New York. After returning to civilian life, Steckelberg made his way to Washington and can be found in the 1864 D.C. directory listed as “musician”.

When Steckelberg died in 1917, his obituary stated that, “On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination he was playing at Ford’s Theater. The orchestra was having an intermission when the tragedy occurred.”

An additional piece of evidence comes from the Steckelberg family. The genesis for this entire post was an email from Steckelberg’s great granddaughter asking if a list of the orchestra members existed. She told me about her family’s belief that her great grandfather played that night and that the family still owns Steckelberg’s treasured cello that he, assumingly, used. In addition, she was kind enough to send along a letter, written by Henry Steckelberg’s sister-in-law which supplemented his obituary. The relevant part of the letter states:

“On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he [Steckelberg] was playing in the regular orchestra in Ford’s Theater. The assassin was a regular hanger on around the theater and he (Booth) often played cards with the orchestra members in the rehearsal room below the orchestra pit. His presence in the theater caused no notice. Booth was unemployed at the time, very jealous of his successful brother. He had no personal animosity toward Lincoln but wished to do something to draw attention to himself.”

It’s hard to tell if the writer of this letter was using knowledge she had obtained from Steckelberg or merely adding her own embellishments and beliefs about the Lincoln assassination story to the basic Steckelberg obituary. The latter part of the paragraph is entirely opinion and the former contains one factual error: there was no rehearsal room “below the orchestra pit” at Ford’s Theatre as the pit was the lowest you could get.

While there isn’t much to go on regarding Henry Steckelberg, his obituary does recount that the orchestra was on break during (and therefore didn’t witness) Lincoln’s assassination which is in line with what Scipione Grillo testified to in 1867. It’s possible that Henry Steckelberg was there after all.


Isaac S. Bradley – violin

Isaac S. Bradley was born in 1840 in New York. During the Civil War, Bradley joined the Union army where he served as a bugler in the 10th New York Cavalry. Bradley was discharged from the service on November 20, 1865. By 1868 he had moved to Dayton, Ohio where he married and started a family. He lived in Dayton for the remainder of his days, becoming a photographer. Bradley died on July 10, 1904.

While I have yet to find any period documentation of Bradley’s presence at Ford’s Theatre during his lifetime, in 1960, his elderly daughter Clara Forster was interviewed by a newspaper in her home of Anderson, Indiana. She stated that during her father’s military service he, “fell victim to a rheumatic ailment that hospitalized him for some time in Washington,” and that he, “was ready to accept the offer to play in the orchestra at Ford’s Theater in Washington because he had with him his own Amati violin…”

With her father’s antique violin in her hand, Mrs. Forster then recounted the story her father had told her of that night:

“We were playing very softly when suddenly a messenger came and told us to play louder. We had heard a shot and someone running across the stage above, but we thought nothing of it.

So we played louder, not knowing of the tragedy that had occurred overhead; not knowing that our beloved Abe Lincoln had been shot.”

The article went on to state that “the order to play more loudly was given in an effort to offset commotion caused by the shooting and to avert panic in the audience.” It’s important to note that Mrs. Forster’s account is in contradiction to the testimony of Scipione Grillo who made it clear that the orchestra was not on duty during the assassination.

Mrs. Forster was very proud of her father’s heirloom violin and described it in detail:

“Mr. Bradley was second violinist in the orchestra, playing with four other young soldiers who had served in the Civil War…

[The violin] had been given to him when he was about 10 or 11 years old. It had been acquired by his grandfather from the Cremonesis family in Italy, reported to have taught the famed Antonius Stradivarius the art of producing priceless violins.

Mr. Bradley was told that the instrument purchased by his grandfather, who served in the Revolutionary War, was made in 1637. A certificate inside the violin bears that date and the name of the maker.

Mrs. Forster reports that her brother, the late Frank Bradley, had the violin in his possession for some time and about 1914 refused an offer of $20,000 for it. During the past few years, Mrs. Forster made her home in Milwaukee, where a concert violinist and teacher became interested in the Amati violin and wrote an article about it for a national music publication. One of the amazing facts was that its owner had carried it with him through much of the Civil War and that it had not been damaged.”

Mrs. Forster appears to be the only source that her father was in Washington and a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that night. She was apparently quite convincing though, especially with her father’s violin as a witness. In the 1960s, when the National Park Service was preparing a historic structures report about Ford’s Theatre, Mrs. Forster wrote a letter to George Olszewski, the National Capital Region’s chief historian. Olszewski was convinced enough by Mrs. Forster’s letter that he included Isaac S. Bradley’s name in his partial list of orchestra members.


Salvadore Petrola – cornet

Salvadore Petrola, a native of Italy, came to the United States in 1855 when he was 20 years old. A talented cornet player, Petrola joined the U.S. Marine Band in September of 1861 and remained a member for the maximum time allowed, 30 years. As a band member in the 1880s, Petrola was the assistant conductor of the band, second only to its leader, John Philip Sousa. Petrola assisted Sousa in arranging music for the band and served as its primary cornet soloist for many years.

Despite a lengthy search, the only concrete evidence that I have been able to find to support the idea that Petrola was in the orchestra at Ford’s is the list of names John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union, provided to the Rambler in 1925.

One additional fact could be taken as, perhaps, circumstantial evidence in favor of Petrola’s presence, however. The only instrumental solos contained on William Withers’ handwritten copy of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”, is for a cornet. In fact, the cornet gets three solos over the course of the song.

Is it possible that William Withers wrote so many solos for his cornet player because he was working with very talented, Salvadore Petrola? We’ll never know.


Joseph A. Arth – drums

Joseph Arth was the younger brother of Ford’s double bass player, George M. Arth. Like his brother and cousin, Chris Arth, Joseph was a member of the U.S. Marine Band. Like Salvadore Petrola, Joseph stayed in the Marine Band for 30 years.

Our only evidence for Joseph Arth’s presence at Ford’s Theatre comes from his wife’s obituary from 1940. Joseph married Henrietta Scala, the daughter of one time Marine Band leader, Francis Scala. Upon Henrietta’s death at 90 years of age, the newspapers highlighted that she was both the daughter and wife of noted Marine Band musicians. In referencing her husband, the obituary stated:

“She was the widow of Joseph A. Arth, drummer with the band during the same period. Files of The [Evening] Star report that Joseph Arth was the drummer in the pit at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was assassinated.”

It’s not much to go on, but perhaps Joseph was playing alongside his older brother George in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that fateful night.

A pair of drumsticks in the Ford’s Theatre collection. These are said to have been present on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Could they have been used by Reuben Withers or Joseph Arth?


Paul S. Schneider – possibly violin or trumpet

Paul Schneider was born in Germany in 1844 and immigrated to the United States in 1861. During the Civil War he joined the Union army under the alias Ernst Gravenhorst. He served as a bugler for the 5th U.S. Artillery from January of 1863 until December of 1865. In the 1870s, Schneider moved to Memphis, Tennessee, initially working as a musician in the New Memphis Theatre before becoming a music teacher. In 1882/3, Schneider became the second director of the Christian Brothers Band, the oldest high school band still in existence. As director of the band, Schneider and his students performed at important events including playing for President Grover Cleveland in 1887 when he visited Tennessee. In 1892, Schneider was succeeded as director by one of his former students, but remained in Memphis and involved in the musical life of the city. He died in 1912.

I have been unable to determine the source of the claim that Paul Schneider was a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It appears to have come after his lifetime but is not well documented. In 2011, Patrick Bolton, the current leader of the Christian Brothers Band, published his doctoral thesis about the history of the band. The dissertation contains a large amount of information about each band leader and the growth of the band over time. While it gives a great biography of Paul Schneider, the information about his connection to Ford’s Theatre is limited:

“Schneider was also known for his skills as a violinist and performed in touring orchestras around the country, including one that performed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. On the evening of April 14, 1865 he has been placed in this historic theatre performing Hail to the Chief for President Abraham Lincoln before the fateful performance of the play, ‘Our American Cousin.'”

Bolton was a good researcher, but it appears that even he had difficulty in finding evidence for this claim. His phrasing of “he has been placed” demonstrates a degree of uncertainty. Likewise, the best reference Bolton could find to support this idea was from a 1993 newspaper article about the Christian Brothers Band which merely mentioned that Schneider had been a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra without any supporting evidence.

Without additional, period evidence, I have some serious doubts that Paul Schneider was present at Ford’s. However, the idea that one of their band leaders was a part of such a historic event is a point of pride to the Christian Brothers Band. When the band traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2014, they even presented a picture of Professor Schneider to Ford’s Theatre.


Samuel Crossley – violin

Unfortunately, despite best efforts, I have been unable to find any verifiable information about Samuel Crossley aside from the story I am going to recount. In 1991, the National Park Service received a donation to the Ford’s Theatre collection in the form of this violin.

The violin was said to have been played at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. A label inside the violin identified its previous owner, a Union soldier by the name of Samuel Crossley.

On February 11, 2009, at the grand re-opening ceremony for the newly remodeled Ford’s Theatre museum, noted violinist Joshua Bell played the song, “My Lord, What a Morning” on the Crossley violin. In the audience were President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Though I haven’t been able to find a recording of that performance, in videos of the President’s remarks, Bell can be seen in the background holding the Crossley violin.

More information about Samuel Crossley (and the provenance behind his violin) is needed.


Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells

Luke Hubbard was born in 1848 in Onondaga County, New York. In 1863, Hubbard attemptted to join the Union army but was rejected on account of being under the age limited (he was only 15 at the time). Not one to be deterred, Hubbard waited a year and then enlisted again, this time claiming he was 18 years old. Records verify that Hubbard served as a private in Company B of the 22nd New York Cavalry from July 1864 until he was discharged from service on October 18, 1865. Years later, Luke Hubbard claimed that an unexpected series of events during his tour of service caused him to not only be present at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but an acting member of the orchestra.

The following comes from two sources, an account that Hubbard gave during his lifetime and his subsequent obituary.

“That fall [1864] I was taken ill with fever and removed to Carver hospital in Washington. After I recovered, instead of being returned to my regiment and probably largely because of my youth as well as being in a weakened state, I was given a position in the Carver hospital band. In the army I had been a bugler. This hospital band furnished the music at Ford’s theater on the memorable night. I was playing the triangles and sat at the end of the orchestra under the box occupied by the presidential party…”

“The actor, John Wilkes Booth, was well known by the president, and when he was not in the piece being presented or when Booth was off the stage for a time, or between acts, he would often call on President Lincoln in his box, when both would witness the performance together, or sit and chat in the most friendly manner, so that he had no trouble gaining access to the box on the night of the conspiracy.”

“Many people have claimed that Booth said this or that when he jumped to the stage from the box, but with thirteen pieces playing at the time. I don’t think he could have been heard had he uttered any remark…

In a moment Mrs. Lincoln appeared at the edge of the box, waved her handkerchief to the leader of the orchestra, who raised his bow, a signal for the music to cease. Mrs. Lincoln was then heard to say, ‘The president has been shot.’

The members of the orchestra meanwhile not understanding the scene before them, saw Booth drag himself across the stage holding in one hand the revolver which had done its fatal work, and in the other grasped a knife for use in case the other weapon failed. As the door at the rear of the stage opened, the orchestra members who sprang to the stage saw two pair of arms sieze [sic] the injured man, the last that was seen of him. When the door was reached it was found to be locked on the outside, and by the time they reached the street through another exit the theater was surrounded by a cordon of soldier, and they were obliged to give their names and business at the theater that night.”

“Mr. Hubbard was the third man to climb over the footlights and rush to the back of the stage, but the door was locked on the outside.”

Ironically, one of the most detailed accounts we have from a person who claimed to have been in the orchestra at Ford’s Theatre is also the least factual and least reliable. Very little of what Hubbard recounted is accurate. The orchestra was not playing when the shot rang out. Booth dropped the derringer pistol he used on Lincoln in the box and therefore did not have it on the stage with him. No one grabbed the injured Booth and pulled him out the rear door of Ford’s. The back door of Ford’s was not found to be locked from the outside after Booth passed through it. And perhaps the most egregious (and somewhat laughable) error of them all: John Wilkes Booth was not a friend of Lincoln’s nor did he often join the President in his theater box to “chat”.

As entertaining as it is, it’s probably safe to dismiss Hubbard’s account entirely. Still, it’s interesting that the instruments Hubbard claimed to have played that night, the triangle and bells, were two of the instruments William Withers asked permission to retrieve after the assassination.


The stage of Ford’s Theatre taken in the days after Lincoln’s assassination. The orchestra pit with music stands and sheet music still in place can be seen at the bottom of the image.

Compared with the stars who graced the stages of Victorian era theaters, the lives of theater orchestra members were without glamour or fame. While equally talented in their own specific roles, many of the men who provided crucial musical accompaniment led quiet and largely uncelebrated lives.

The names listed above are only possible members of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, with some having much better evidence than others. We only know them because either they chose during their lifetime or their friends and family chose after death, to connect their names with one of the most notable events in our history. This desire to be remembered and connected to such important events leads some people to exaggerate or outright lie. On the reverse, however, it is possible that there were members who did not wish to have their whole musical careers boiled down to a single, traumatic night. How many orchestra members witnessed Lincoln’s assassination, but never talked about it publicly?

As time goes on, additional people who are claimed to have been in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra will no doubt be found. When that happens, we must judge the reliability of their evidence just like the names above. If you stumble across a new name, I encourage you to add a comment to this post so that others may evaluate the evidence.

The exact identities of those playing at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, will never be known for certainty. Just like in 1925 and 1962, we still do not have a reliable count of how many musicians were even there, and we likely never will.

Known and unknown, the orchestra members of Ford’s Theatre, under the direction of William Withers, have the distinction of having played the last music President Abraham Lincoln ever heard.

References:
The Theatrical Career of John T. Ford by John Ford Sollers (1962)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Tom Bogar
The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection
The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence edited by William Edwards and Edward Steers
The Trial of John H. Surratt, Vol 1
Catherine Adams – great granddaughter of Henry Steckelberg
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre – Historic Structures Report by George J. Olszewski
“The Oldest High School Band in America”: The Christian Brothers Band of Memphis, 1872-1947 by Patrick Joseph Bolton
Rich Smyth
The Art Loux Archive
Newspaper articles discovered via GenealogyBank
Most of the biographical information was compiled through the resources available on Ancestry and Fold3
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Become a Patron of BoothieBarn

When this blog first started in March of 2012, it was little more than a shelf on which I could put the small research oddities and tidbits of information I came across. I was still new to the Lincoln assassination field and unsure whether this hobby would turn into anything constructive. Since that time, the community around this site has grown far beyond what I ever expected. As my followers have grown, I have worked hard to provide new and varied content all with the aim of educating others about the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. I am very proud at what I have accomplished here on BoothieBarn and, particularly, in the growing scholarship behind the posts I produce.

I am, first and foremost, a teacher and that is why BoothieBarn is, and always will be, an educational resource open to all. As an elementary school teacher, I feel there is no higher calling than using your talents to educate others. As I tell my students, everyone has the capacity of enriching the world around them by sharing their unique knowledge and abilities with others. I research, write, and speak about the Lincoln assassination because I enjoy sharing my passion with others.

BoothieBarn is not a commercial entity. I make no money in writing or producing content for this site. I have no book deals nor do I make any money from advertisements (in fact, I actually pay to keep ads off of this site). In addition, the majority of the speaking engagements Kate and I are asked to do are unpaid. This website, and the Lincoln assassination story in general, is a hobby for us and one that we enjoy, but there are some real costs associated with owning, maintaining, and producing content on BoothieBarn. In webhosting fees and research subscriptions alone, I spend over $400 a year. Even this is a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of books and travel to historic sites and museums when researching new leads. This admission is not a complaint at all, but is merely meant to demonstrate that all we do here on BoothieBarn is a true labor of love.

With that being said, I have decided to launch a Patreon page for BoothieBarn. Patreon is an online system that allows individuals to provide some financial support for the work being done by their favorite creators. The website operates a bit like those infomercials you see on TV where you make a pledge to donate a certain amount each month. You choose whatever amount you would like to give and, once a month, Patreon will charge your credit card that amount and give it to your chosen creator.

My reason for joining Patreon is the hope that some of you might consider becoming a patron of BoothieBarn and help provide some financial support towards the work that we do. Your pledge would help to offset the costs associated with owning BoothieBarn and conducting research for it. A pledge of any amount would truly help to lift some of the financial burden that creating content for this site entails (especially from the shoulders of a couple of newlyweds on a teacher’s salary). I am not expecting that we will ever be able to break even regarding the costs of our work, but every little bit makes an impact.

Those of you who chose to become a patron will not only have our deepest thanks, but also access to some patron-only material on our Patreon page. From time to time I will be adding images and short descriptions of some of the Lincoln assassination artifacts that we have seen in our travels. I’m calling this section “The Vault”, and we already have a few entries ready to go in the “Posts” section of the Patreon page. A recurring pledge of any amount grants you ongoing access to The Vault and the treasures inside. It’s our way of thanking you for your support.

I hope that you will consider becoming a patron of BoothieBarn and help us continue to provide thought provoking, educational material on Lincoln’s assassination. Please click the “Become a Patron” button below to be taken to our Patreon page to read our story. There you will find information on how the Patreon system works so that you can decide whether giving is something you feel you can do.

Even if you don’t have the means to contribute, I appreciate your continued support of our efforts here on BoothieBarn.

Sincerely,

Dave Taylor

Categories: News | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

A Piece of Crutch

Later this month, Heritage Auctions will be auctioning off a unique relic: a cross section piece from the crutch of John Wilkes Booth.

This piece of crutch is one among several lots in this auction that come from the family of noted Civil War photographer, Alexander Gardner. Gardner was responsible for photographing mugshots of the arrested conspirators and, later, documenting the execution of four of them. Accompanying this crutch piece is a handwritten note, likely written by Gardner’s daughter, Eliza, which states the history of the crutch piece.

“A piece of the crutch made from a broom handle for J. Wilkes Booth. Sawed up and given to the persons who were present at the Post-Mortem of Booth’s body on board the Monitor “Montauk”

My father Alexander Gardner and my brother Lawrence Gardner were both on board the Montior and saw Booths body taken away in small boat”

We know that Alexander Gardner and “an assistant” were brought on board the USS Montauk after John Wilkes Booth’s body had been brought back up to Washington. The long held story was that Gardner, assisted by another photographer named Timothy O’Sullivan, photographed the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth. According to the story, a single print of the autopsy photo was made, given to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and then lost to history. The allure of discovering this long missing Booth autopsy photograph (akin to the discovery of only known image of a visible Lincoln lying in his coffin) has been a goal of many researchers over the years. However, in 2013, impeccable research from John Elliott and Barry Cauchon for their “Inside the Walls” project on the imprisonment of the Lincoln conspirators helped explain why all efforts up to that point to locate the Booth autopsy photo had failed: it likely never existed. While all the evidence is nicely laid out in the duo’s third “A Peek Inside the Walls” supplement titled, “The Mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s Autopsy Photo“, the big discovery by John was an article that was published in 1891 from Lawrence Gardner. In the article, Lawrence Gardner decries the erroneous claims that John Wilkes Booth had not been killed. He then related his attendance as his father’s assistant on board the Montauk after Booth’s body had been placed upon it.

“The object of my father’s visit to the monitor was photography and the body in question was to be the subject. Did we take a picture? No! After everything had been prepared Gen. Eckert concluded that inasmuch as there was so little likeness in the remains to the photograph in existence of Booth perhaps it would be best not to make the picture and the plan was abandoned for that reason.”

Lawrence Gardner relates the same facts as practically everyone who viewed the deceased John Wilkes Booth’s remains – that his body underwent so much trauma and decay during his escape, death, and transport to Washington, that it looked very much unlike the living actor. This idea is often seized upon by conspiracy theorists as evidence of a patsy doppelganger who was killed in Booth’s place but Gardner, like the others who mentioned the poor condition of Booth’s body, is adamant that the body was properly identified. Asked by the reporter is it was actually Booth’s body, Gardner responded, “Of course it was. There could be no question about it,” and then proceeded to recount the different ways the remains were identified. With the decision being made not to photograph the decaying corpse of Booth, Lawrence and his father made three images of conspirator David Herold, who had been captured alongside Booth, before departing.

Included in the lot with the piece of Booth’s crutch is a Harper’s Weekly drawing of the autopsy scene. Affixed onto a page, a notation, likely from Eliza Gardner, identifies her father, Alexander Gardner, among the men present. It is joined by a short affidavit that (in my mind) gives further credence to Lawrence Gardner’s claims in his newspaper article.

“This is a copy of a pen & ink sketch made by my father Alexander Gardner and sent to Harper’s Weekly.

The Govt would not allow a photograph of this to get out, so the pen and ink sketch was made.”

Admittedly, Eliza Gardner’s phrasing that the government would not allow an autopsy photo, “to get out” is a bit ambiguous and open to interpretation. My own interpretation, however, reads this as a validation of Lawrence Gardner’s claim that no photograph was allowed to be taken at all. Instead, Alexander Gardner sketched the scene and inserted himself into it. This would also explain why the label for the drawing in Harper’s Weekly lacks the “from a photograph” tag that accompanies all the other engravings made from corresponding photographs.

I believe this auction lot supports the case against an autopsy photo being taken, and feel that there is more evidence on that side. And, yet, I can’t help but look at the Booth autopsy photograph like Santa Claus. Logically and factually I can admit that it most likely doesn’t exist, but that isn’t going to stop me from hoping that it might turn up someday.

Leaving the mythical autopsy photograph behind, let’s return to the crutch piece. Circular in nature, this cross section seems to support Eliza Gardner’s claim that it was once part of a “broom handle” or something like it. And yet, from Dr. Mudd’s statement to investigators, it appears that John Wilkes Booth’s crutches were even less sophisticated than that. In his April 21st statement to detectives in Bryantown, Dr. Mudd stated:

“The young man [Herold] asked me if I could fix up clumsily some crutches for his friend to hobble along with and I went down to the old Englishman [John Best] I had there who had a saw and auger, and he and I made a rude pair of crutches out of a piece of plank and sent them to him.”

Now John Best and Dr. Mudd may have been talented carpenters, but it would seem impossible that the two men could have transformed a rectangular plank of wood into two round crutches with circular grain patterns. The Gardner piece of crutch up for auction shows a tree’s circular growth rings and was clearly made from a tree branch or sapling. This is inconsistent with having been made from a wood plank.

Faced with this contradiction, one could easily make the assumption that the crutch piece up for auction was a fake, thus casting doubt on everything for sale from the Gardner family including this signed pass to the trial of the conspirators and  a lock of Lincoln’s hair. However, there is a very reasonable explanation as to why this piece of crutch does not match Dr. Mudd’s description: John Wilkes Booth had two pairs of crutches.

John Wilkes Booth’s first pair of crutches, and the ones that everyone thinks of, are the crude ones made for him at Dr. Mudd’s farm. While some sources place their creation solely on the part of John Best, the Mudds’ English handyman, Dr. Mudd, as demonstrated above, claimed he assisted in making them. These initial crutches were rough to say the least, and yet Booth managed with them during most of his escape. He and Herold managed to carry them on horseback from the Mudd farm to Rich Hill and thence to the Pine Thicket. When Thomas Jones put the two fugitives across the Potomac, the crutches came with them in their rowboat. In Virginia, Booth had the crutches when he evicted William Lucas from his cabin after being rebuffed by Dr. Stuart. And Booth still had these crutches when he first appeared at the Garrett farm on the afternoon of April 24, 1865.

Jack Garrett, the eldest son of Richard Henry Garrett, had been a Confederate soldier and had been wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in May of 1864. He had been sent home to the family farm to recuperate and during that time he acquired a good set of crutches. The crutches remained at the Garrett farm when Jack reported back for duty and were still there when he was discharged from service and returned home for good.  When John Wilkes Booth (known only as James W. Boyd to the Garretts) was invited to stay with the unsuspecting Garrett family on April 24, they noticed his poorly made and worn crutches. “He had a very rude pair of crutches,” Kate Garrett recalled years later, “but my brother had a good pair which he had used when wounded during the war, and he gave them to Booth.”

Booth was likely extremely glad to get an actual set of crutches and not have to suffer from Dr. Mudd’s makeshift ones any longer. The Garrett children were also happy that their guest made the upgrade as Richard Baynham Garrett, then a boy of ten, remembered:

“…The [crutches] he brought with him were so rough that my brother gave him a pair which he had used while a wounded Confederate soldier, and it was on these he was leaning when shot in the burning barn. The writer then a boy, took the old crutches and sawed them off and used them in play with the other children.”

As noted by Richard Baynham Garrett, John Wilkes Booth did not get to use his new crutches for very long. About 36 hours after receiving them, Booth was shot in the Garretts’ burning tobacco barn and dragged to the porch of their farmhouse where he died. From the existence of the Gardner relic, it appears that when the soldiers went into the barn to drag out Booth and attempt to extinguish the flames, they also took the time to pull out some of Booth’s possessions. We know this to be likely as the carbine Booth was holding when he was shot was retrieved from the barn. According to witnesses, Booth had been using the crutches given to him by the Garretts right up to the point when he was about to come out the barn shooting. It seems possible that the soldiers of the 16th NY Cavalry retrieved at least one of the crutches from the barn and brought it back with them to Washington. The crutch (or crutches) was then sawed into pieces and given as souvenirs to those assembled at John Wilkes Booth’s identification and autopsy. This could explain why the piece offered for sale by Heritage Auctions doesn’t match Dr. Mudd’s description of how it was made. If genuine, the piece offered for sale must be from the nicer crutches given to Booth at the Garrett farm.

Appropriately, it’s important to relate that this is not the only piece of John Wilkes Booth’s crutch that exists. At least one other crutch piece is still in private hands today.

Maude Motley speaking with Booth buff John C. Brennan in Bowling Green, Virginia. A young Michael Kauffman (author of American Brutus) is on the right wearing plaid.

Many who study the Lincoln assassination are familiar with the name of Ms. Maude Motley. In the early days of the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour, rather than concluding at the Garrett farm and travelling no further south, the bus would go all the way down to Bowling Green, Virginia before heading back. While Booth never made it to Bowling Green, that is the location of where Willie Jett spent the nights of April 24th and 25th, before he was rudely awakened at gunpoint by the Union cavalry and forced to give up Booth’s location. David Herold spent the night of April 24th south of Bowling Green at a private home before rejoining Booth on the 25th. In the early days of the tour, Ms. Motley, a Caroline County native, would meet the bus tour at their stop in Bowling Green.

In Bowling Green, Ms. Motley would tell the tour participants some of the local lore regarding the end of Booth’s life. For a time Ms. Motley’s mother boarded with Lucinda Holloway, Mrs. Garrett’s sister who was acting as a live in teacher when Booth was killed at her farm. Lucinda Holloway’s version of Booth’s death had been passed down to Ms. Motley through her mother and she enjoyed telling it. But more than anything else, however, Ms. Motley regularly met the bus in Bowling Green in order to show off her unique relic: a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s crutch.

Ms. Motley’s story regarding how she got the piece of crutch is really best told in her own words. Luckily we have a recording of her speaking about the death of Booth and her crutch piece from a talk she gave in 1979. Below is an excerpt from that recording which covers how she acquired the crutch piece.

As Ms. Motley related it, one of the charred crutches from the barn was chopped up and shared among the Garretts’ neighbors after the Union troops left on April 26th. One of the recipients of a piece of crutch was the father of Ms. Motley’s neighbor and it was that neighbor who gifted the piece to her. On one side of the crutch piece, which Ms. Motley had set with a metal tag, some charring can be seen, ostensibly from the fire that consumed the Garrett barn.

Ms. Motley’s provenance is pretty good with only one slight problem with the timeline of her story. The elderly neighbor who gave the piece to Ms. Motley was Ms. Reeta Gray. Her father, the one who was said to have received the piece at the Garretts’, was William Edward Gray. William Gray was about the same age as Jack Garrett and was also a Confederate soldier. Unlike Jack, however, William Gray had been captured near the end of the war when the Union took Richmond. Gray was being held as a prisoner of war in Ashland, Virginia on the morning of Booth’s death. He could not have, in Ms. Motley’s words, “rushed over” to the Garrett farm on account of the barn being on fire. William Gray signed his oath of allegiance and was released from custody the next day April 27th and was allowed to return home to Caroline County. Now despite this small discrepancy, it is still very possible that William Gray acquired a piece of crutch some time after his return, passing it down to his daughter who gave it to Ms. Motley.

Though impossible to prove or know for certain, I’d like to think that the two known pieces of crutch, Ms. Motley’s and the Gardner one, come from the two different sets of crutches Booth used. The Gardner piece looks like it came from a legitimate crutch as opposed to a piece of plank, which, assumedly, would make it part of the set given to Booth by the Garretts. Ms. Motley’s piece which looks a little more plank like (though the small size makes it impossible to truly tell) could have come from the set made by Dr. Mudd. “But wait,” you might be saying, “if Ms. Motley’s piece of crutch was from the set made by Dr. Mudd and then traded for a better pair, why would it show evidence of burning?” Well, the answer to that is simple: Booth’s original pair of crutches got burned (at least a little bit).

As we have established, after trading Dr. Mudd’s crutches for a better pair, the Garrett children took the homemade crutches and altered them for play. Ten year old Richard Baynham Garrett cut them to size and likely chased his younger brother and sisters around the farm with them. After the events of April 26th, however, the family feared anything associated with their visitors. According to a later account by Richard Baynham Garrett, “The morning after the killing, not knowing what might happen, he took them [the crutches] and burned them in the open fireplace of the kitchen.”

But here’s the thing, like many other claims of priceless relics being destroyed, Richard Baynham Garrett didn’t go through with burning the entirety of Booth’s crutches. In fact, as a 25 year-old seminary student in 1880, Richard B. Garrett wrote a letter to then Judge Advocate General William McKee Dunn offering him some of the relics still in the family’s possession. In the letter he mentions still having a piece of Booth’s crutch.

Richard Baynham Garrett

“I have in my possession some very interesting relics of Jno. Wilkes Booth. It was at my father’s house in Va. that he was killed and I have preserved the relics. Among them are the mattress upon which he died, a piece of the crutch which he used, and a lock of his hair, cut off after his death…”

The Garretts were suffering financially at the time o this letter and Richard B. Garrett, needing money to continue seminary, was likely hoping the government would pay him for the relics. They declined and so the items stayed in the family.

It seems a distinct possibility that, if Richard B. Garrett retained at least one piece of Booth’s original crutches, that he may have saved and gave away other original pieces. Perhaps, rather than neighbors chopping of pieces of the “burned in the barn crutch” on the day of Booth’s death as Ms. Motely claimed, the Garretts, instead, gave away some salvaged pieces of Booth’s original pair of crutches from young Richard Baynham Garrett’s attempt to destroy the evidence. We will never really know for sure. Call it another, Santa Claus if you like, but I’d like to think the two known crutch pieces came from the two different sets of crutches, making both extremely unique.

Like Reeta Gray before her, Ms. Motley never married or had children of her own. When she died in 1989, Ms. Motley left her piece of crutch to her nephew. It may have changed hands a few times after that, but I don’t know that for sure. Today, the Motley piece of crutch is in private hands and is owned by a noted John Wilkes Booth authority.

Proxy bidding (early online bidding) for the Gardner crutch piece from Hertiage Auctions is already open with the actual auction scheduled for August 25th and 26th. For those of you interested in getting me a nice “Back to School” gift, bidding on the Gardner crutch piece starts at a very reasonable $2,500 ($3,125 including the buyer’s premium).

References:
Heritage Auctions
The Mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s Autopsy Photo by John E. Elliott and Barry M. Cauchon
The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd by Robert K. Summers
Garrett, R. (1907, December 29) The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Macon Telegraph Sunday, p 4.
Burr, F. (1881, December 11) John Wilkes Booth, The Scene of the Assassin’s Death Visited. Interesting Memories of the Garrett Family. A Full Narrative of the Tragic Events. Boston Sunday Herald.
The Art Loux Archive
Rich Smyth

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

Grave Thursday: Francis Dooley

On select Thursdays 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.


Francis Xavier Dooley

Burial Location: Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Connection to the Lincoln assassination: 

Trial testimony can be thrilling and insightful. Trial testimony can also be a complete waste of time. Regardless, the witness is forever written onto the pages of history, even if their contribution to the overall story is minuscule at best. Take this grave here. It looks ordinary and that’s because it is ordinary. It’s the grave of Francis Dooley, a pharmacist who was placed on the witness stand during the trial of the century to answer a question about candy. That’s essentially it. His testimony is one of the shortest given during the seven week trial of the conspirators.

You see, after the assassination, a search was conducted of George Atzerodt’s rented room at the Kirkwood House hotel. Two of the objects found were a toothbrush and a piece of licorice. Apparently, Atzerodt’s attorney, William Doster, felt that Dooley would be able to shed light on these mundane objects. It turns out Doster was wrong. This is Francis Dooley’s entire contribution to the Lincoln conspiracy trial:

Perhaps Doster was hoping that George Atzerodt had frequented the pharmacy and Mr. Dooley would provide some insight into his character. This never came to be and Francis Dooley went down in history as the 1865 Candy Man whose testimony seemed to be completely pointless.

Today, visitors who wish to see a man whose sole claim to fame is getting less than five minutes of it, can visit the grave of Francis Dooley in Congressional Cemetery, not far from conspirator David Herold.

Here’s the part where I would usually write something insightful about how even the smallest anecdotes can shed their own light but, in actuality, the statement of Francis Dooley isn’t deep or thought provoking at all. However, it’s funny in its bizzarrity, reminds us that even the most profound moments in history can take strange paths, and gives researchers a good chuckle.

Until next time,

Kate

GPS coordinates to Francis Dooley’s grave: 38.881563, -76.979789

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , | 18 Comments

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