Hello fellow history enthusiasts,
Kate Ramirez here stepping in for Dave to tell you all about some of the events hosted inside the walls of Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D. C.
As you know, commemorations remembering the 150 years since the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the death of John Wilkes Booth have long since passed. However, another milestone passed just a few weeks ago, 150 years since the beginning of the Lincoln Conspiracy Trial. Accordingly, Fort McNair hosted a two day event which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend.
(Side note: I’m trying to get the hashtag #LCT150 to go viral and become the official hashtag for the trial. So if you could use that for your various social media postings I would really appreciate it).
On May 8th, Fort McNair held a VIP event in the Officers’ Club which is only a few yards from Grant Hall, where the trial took place in a room on the third floor. Among the guests were Dave and I, many high profile military officials, Colonel Michael Henderson (Commander of Myer-Henderson Hall) delivered the welcome remarks, published Lincoln assassination historians like Kate Clifford Larson, and descendants of various individuals involved in the assassination, including Dr. Samuel Mudd and Thomas Ewing. After some mingling set to the tunes provided by some amazingly talented military musicians, four acclaimed speakers talked in depth about the military tribunal and its participants.
Starting off the program was American Brutus author Michael Kauffman. He provided an overview of events and discussed the differences between military and civil trials.
John Elliott, co-author of Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators, spoke about how it would have felt to be a spectator during the infamous trial of 1865. For all those who have seen Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, being a spectator was not as cushy as it appeared on film. In the days before fire codes and maximum capacity rules, there was nothing wrong with shoving as many people into a room as possible. Add that to the fact that air conditioning had yet to be invented and it was the middle of summer. You do the math.
Barry Cauchon, the second author of Inside the Walls, who thankfully got his computer connected to the projector in time, gave an AWESOME (yes, that word deserves to be in all caps) presentation about finding the smallest of details in the different execution photos. You can even see the Smithsonian Castle in one of the images. It was like “Where’s Waldo” but more fun.
Betty Ownsbey, author of Alias Paine (a second edition was just released so go buy it), was the final presenter. This was fitting as she talked about the various myths surrounding the original burial of John Wilkes Booth (no, he was not tossed into any rivers in case you were wondering), the final resting places of the four executed conspirators, and the journey taken by the skull of Lewis Powell.
The event then moved outside to the execution site where Barry Cauchon and John Elliott had earlier marked the locations of the gallows, the graves of the conspirators, the first burial place of Booth, the prison door, and various other structures we have all seen in pictures. Usually I do not find it fortunate that a tennis court was built on the hanging ground. However, said court does come fitted with bright lights which made seeing Barry, his informative presentation, and the gallows and shoe factor markers easy despite the sun having all but disappeared behind the horizon.
(Barry demonstrating the height of the gallows).
(Barry discussing how Alexander Gardner set up his cameras in the shoe factory, which was about 100 feet from the execution site).
As for admiring markers which were in darker areas, that gave everyone a valid excuse to return in the morning for the Grant Hall open house (except for Dave who attended the Tudor Hall symposium in Bel Air, MD). However, Dave and I did manage to get a few good pictures before leaving.
(Dave standing on the same spot as George Atzerodt when he was executed).
(I chose to sit where David Herold was standing when he was executed. I also look a bit like Vampria. I swear I’m not actually this pale in real life).
(The more natural lighting near the shoe factory marker shows my skin’s normal coloring).
Due to being on a military base, Grant Hall is only open once every quarter. May 9th was all the more special since it was the 150th anniversary of the trial’s beginning (the trial began in secret on May 9, 1865. May 10th was the first day the public was allowed inside) and visitors got to tour the refurbished trial room with John and the courtyard with Barry. I got much better pictures of the different markers in the sunlight. FYI: John needs to get some serious props since he got a facial sunburn while helping Barry put everything together. Dedication, ladies and gentleman. Dedication.
(The approximate locations of the executed conspirator’s original graves. Why the government felt they needed to keep dead bodies for four years I will never understand. But that’s just my opinion).
(The two red lines represent where the prison wall used to stand. It’s the place where all the soldiers were chilling on execution day in case you don’t know which wall I’m referring to).
(This red box marks where the stairs for the gallows were).
(The spot of the now demolished prison door through which the conspirators entered the courtyard on July 7, 1865).
(This is the length from the door to the stairs. The conspirators did not march a long dramatic distance like in the movies).
(The view from the gallows in the foreground to the shoe factory in the background).
(And vice versa).
(You can see the entire execution site from the courtroom window on the third floor of Grant Hall).
(X marks the spot of John Wilkes Booth’s original burial place).
The courtroom was nicely decorated with pictures showing who sat where on the prisoner dock and at the commissioner table. This was especially helpful to me since I can usually recall where each conspirator was but often can barely remember the names of the commission members let alone where they chose to sit.
(That’s Samuel Arnold next to the window. The light obscured his picture).
While John gave his lecture on the details of the trial, I got the chance to talk with Michael Kauffman, who returned to speak about how the eight conspirators got involved with John Wilkes Booth and how that influenced their individual fates.
If you ever get a chance to talk with Mr. Kauffman, ask lots of questions because he is an endless storage of facts and tidbits. Did you know that the red color of the Surratt Tavern originally came from turkey blood? Yep, the paint was a mixture of milk and turkey blood. I also managed to get this picture once the chairs were free to sit on again.
And this one when the tours were over and the Boothies still hanging around (no pun intended) decided to take advantage of the nice weather and continue chatting outside (and also because we had to vacate the courtroom or else be locked inside).
(Me, John Elliott, Barry Cauchon, and Michael Kauffman indulge in a group selfie).
Though the story surrounding Grant Hall is one of intense darkness in American history, the coordinators at Fort McNair were able to put together a spectacular event that was a remembrance of the past but also an environment for us in the present to interact with friends in a more light-hearted manner.
Times of great horror have the ability to shed light not only on the past but also on the present and future. When we as historians can look objectively at acts of violence without passing too many judgments about the players we realize that we’re not so different from them after all.
(Okay, so it isn’t the clearest image in the world but you get the idea).
(Final image created by John Elliott and Barry Cauchon).