Conspirator David Edgar Herold was born in Washington, D.C.
David Herold was the son of Adam George and Mary (Porter) Herold. He attended Gonzaga College High School, Rittenhouse Academy, and Georgetown College. Davy studied pharmacology and was employed as a druggist’s assistant and clerk when he became part of John Wilkes Booth’s plot. He enjoyed hunting and had learned the routes and trails of Southern Maryland well during his hunting excursions. This made Davy a perfect guide for Booth’s escape. At the time of the assassination Davy was just 22 years old.
Davy’s true activities on the night of the 14th are hard to pin down. It is most commonly written that he escorted Lewis Powell to the Seward house, and then fled when the onslaught began. Another theory is that he was a point man – directing Powell to Seward’s and then returning to the Kirkwood house to see if Atzerodt had completed his assault on the Vice President. Lastly, in his confession Atzerodt states that he refused to kill the Vice President, and that it was Davy who was assigned to do so in his place.
What we do know for certain is that stable man John Fletcher saw Davy Herold riding his horse around the time that the assassination occurred. Fletcher chased after him as Davy was supposed to have returned his rented horse hours ago. First Fletcher chased him on foot before going to his stables to get a horse for the pursuit. When Fletcher came to the Navy Yard bridge he learned from the leader of the guard house, Silas Cobb, that Davy had already passed over the bridge. Cobb told Fletcher he could pass and cross the bridge, but that he would not be allowed to return over it until daybreak. At this point Fletcher gave up his pursuit. Davy caught up with Booth who had crossed the bridge before him. Davy would stay by Booth’s side during their entire escape. In the end, Davy surrendered himself to the Garrett’s Farm patrol. Davy was brought back to D.C. and placed on the ironclad ship the Montauk. Then he was transferred to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. Davy celebrated his twenty-third birthday behind those bars and in the midst of the conspiracy trial. Two of his sisters, Jane and Kate, gained passed to visit him two days later on June, 18th. They sat and spoke with him in the courtroom from three o’clock until six o’clock. Davy’s sisters had visited him in prison at least four times prior to this, making him one of the more visited conspirators after Anna Surratt’s attendance of her mother.
David Herold was found guilty on all counts against him except having conspired with Edman Spangler. He was sentenced to hang and the sentence was carried out on July 7th.
His body was released back to the Herold family in February of 1869 and he was interred in Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. He is buried underneath his sister Jane in the family plot, bearing no headstone of his own.
The press of 1865 was not kind to David Herold. He was denounced as an idiot boy, with no sense or intelligence of his own. They portrayed Davy as Booth’s lapdog. While Davy did display a great deal of devotion to Booth, he was also an intelligent and crafty young man. Upon his capture, Davy expertly avoided his interrogator’s attempt to implicate him further. In addition, while on the run, Davy displayed his own creativity and intelligence by co-authoring a poem with Booth. Instead of an autograph, he and Booth presented Willie Jett the following poem. Davy wrote the second half:
“He put aside the dainty bribe
The little proffered hand
Albeit he held it in his thought
The dearest in the land
Not sharply nor with sudden heart
But with regretful grace
Meanwhile the shadow of his pain
Fell white upon his face
Dark daughter of the Sultry South
Thy dangerous eyes & lips
Essayed to win the prize and leave
Dear honor we Eclipse
She shyly clung upon his brow
He stayed now at the door
I could not love thee, dear so much
Loved I not Honor more.
Adieu, forever mine, my dear
Adieu forever more!”
Today marks the 170th anniversary of David Herold’s birth. To me, Davy was a well educated, well off, young man who truly believed in the cause Booth expounded. Davy was the only surviving son in a home filled with daughters and he longed for adventure. In Booth’s ideas he found a cause to fight for, an adventure to pursue. While those ideas were proven to be wrong and misguided, he believed in them nevertheless. As with the others in Booth’s clan, Davy wanted to make a difference. So on this, the day of his birth, we remember a man who choose his actions poorly, but do so with the best of intentions.
Original document images are from Fold3.com
American Brutus by Michael Kauffman
The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft by Ed Steers and Harold Holzer