After I posted about the update to the Maps section yesterday, Lincoln researcher Eva Lennartz of Germany made the following comment:
“I have a question – from Mr. Fazio’s new book I just “learned” Surratt’s leap over the balustrade was an embellishment (which would make sense to me). So you think it wasn’t?”
What follows is my response to Eva, which started as a comment but quickly grew into a post.
With regards to John Surratt’s leap from justice on November 8, 1866, there has been some embellishment done to the story (particularly in some of the fanciful penny dreadfuls, that illustrate this post), but records are clear that he did make the jump.
You’ll remember that John Surratt was most likely in Elmira, NY when the assassination occurred. When he heard the news he fled up to Canada, where he was hidden away for the entirety of the trial of the conspirators. In September of 1865, Surratt traveled from Montreal to Liverpool, England. From there he made his way to Rome where he enlisted in the Papal Zouaves (the Pope’s army) on December 11, 1865. His alias was John Watson, a native of Scotland and he served in the Papal Zouaves until he was identified by a fellow zouave, Henri Beaumont de Ste. Marie. Finally, on November 7, 1866, John Surratt was arrested by the Zouaves on the request of the American government and imprisoned for a night in the Zouave barracks in Veroli, then part of the Papal States. On the morning of November 8th, Surratt was awaken by the guards, told he was going to be transported to Rome, given coffee and then marched with a guard of six men towards the barracks gate. As the story goes, before reaching the gate John Surratt asked to use the privy which was located near the back of the barracks and overlooked a cliff leading down to the valley below. He was given permission to use the privy and, upon being unescorted near the latrine, he vaulted over a balustrade and leapt over the cliff. Let’s look at the reports and accounts of John Surratt’s escape.
Right after Surratt made the leap and escaped, the commander of the detachment in Veroli, Captain de Lambilly, sent a telegram to Velletri that was forwarded on to Rome. It said, “At the moment he left the prison, surrounded by six men as guards, Watson plunged into the ravine, more than a hundred feet deep, which defends the prison. Fifty zouaves are in pursuit.”
Later that day, when the pursuit of Surratt had failed to recapture him, Captain de Lambilly, would write about the circumstances further. “The gate of the prison opens on a platform which overlooks the country; a balustrade prevents promenaders from tumbling on the rocks, situated at least thirty-five feet below the windows of the prison…This perilous leap was, however, to be taken, to be crowned with success. In fact, Watson, who seemed quiet, seized the balustrade, made a leap, and cast himself into the void, falling on the uneven rocks, where he might have broken his bones a thousand times, and gained the depths of the valley”.
Probably the most helpful account, however, is one written by Colonel Allet, De Jambilly’s immediate superior. Allet was stationed in Velletri, some 70 km away from Veroli. After Surratt’s escape on November 8th he sent one of his men to Veroli to investigate. On November 9th, Allet wrote to his superior, the Pontifical Minister of War, what had been learned from the investigation: “I am assured the escape of Watson savors a prodigy. He leaped from height of twenty-three feet on a very narrow rock, beyond of which is a precipice. The filth from the barracks accumulated on the rock, and in this manner the wall of Watson was broken. Had he leaped a little further he would have fallen into the abyss.”
From the above records it seems a bit unclear the exact distance of Surratt’s leap. Regardless, there’s no doubt that Surratt made this perilous leap and was extremely lucky to have landed where he did. Had he missed the outcropping of filth covered rocks some 23 – 35 feet below, he surely would have perished in the fall. But that’s not to say that even the jump he made couldn’t have killed him. Even Captain de Jambilly was astonished that Surratt survived, “Lieutenant Monsley and I have examined the localities, and we asked ourselves how one could make such leaps without breaking arms and legs.”
Despite what Mr. Fazio might have you believe in his book, John Surratt did not land unscathed. He injured his arm and his back in the fall. That is why, when he reached the Italian city of Sora, Surratt sought medical treatment. From Sora he went to Naples where he was questioned and held by the authorities there. While there he passed himself off as a Canadian and told the Naples police that, “he had been in Rome ten months; that, being out of money, he enlisted in the Roman Zouaves, &c.; that he was put in prison for insubordination, from which he escaped, jumping from a window or high wall, in doing which he hurt his back and arm, both of which were injured.”
So, let’s look at the evidence. In supporting John Surratt’s leap we have multiple 1866 reports on the nature of his escape, and a supporting confession from John Surratt himself before any publication of the story occurred. On the side against him making the leap is a newspaper article from 1881 filled with the inaccuracies. You can read Mr. Lipman’s account for yourself HERE.
The account is filled with errors, but the one that makes it the most obvious that Lipman never met Surratt in the Zouaves is the fact that he gives the precise year of 1867 as when everything occurred. As we know, Surratt was back in America in 1867 as he was standing trial by then. Lipman shows some knowledge of the Italian territory (though his geography of Surratt’s whereabouts doesn’t exactly match the official record) which makes it possible that he could have been a member of the Zouaves himself. However, it seems that, after learning the details of John Surratt’s arrest from other zoauves or even just from the latter’s highly publicized trial, Lipman decided, years later, to falsely add himself to the narrative.
Is the story of John Surratt leaping over the balustrade at the Papal barracks in Veroil, Italy a dramatic one that is hard to believe? Absolutely, but it did happen.
Surratt had be on the run for over a year and a half before he was his arrested in Veroli. Did he plan his perilous escape while sitting in his cell the night before or did the idea just come to him as he walked near the barracks’ privy? Did Surratt take the plunge expecting to die in the attempt, or did he have faith he would live? How did his survival from such a death defying leap affect the rest of his escape and his life? These are the fascinating questions that I like to ponder.
I hope this helps, Eva. Remember to always question noncontemporary sources from people claiming to have been involved in historical events. The desire to be connected in someway to history can drive even the most decent and honest person to lie and exaggerate. Too often, authors are so determined to find proof of their claims that they suffer from confirmation bias, and put their faith in disreputable sources like these in order to “prove” their beliefs.
I would, however, be remiss if I did not include this final note on the subject. On April 8, 1867, a newspaper article was published in the New York Times entitled, “A Visit to Surratt”. The article recounts the visit of the newspaper corespondent to John Surratt’s jail cell, where the conspirator permitted an interview. You can read the full article HERE.
According to the article, while John Surratt was in prison in America he read, “with great apparent interest, the published accounts of his capture and escape.” The article then recounted the following regarding his famous leap:
So perhaps, Surratt’s magnificent jump was only a distance of twelve feet. By the time the other zouaves made it over to the balustrade and looked down he could have climbed down the extra ten or fifteen feet, which was then thought by those above to have been the distance he fell. We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that John Harrison Surratt did continue his flight from justice by taking a leap of faith in Veroli, Italy, only to be captured less than twenty days later, in Alexandria, Egypt.
The Pursuit & Arrest of John H. Surratt: Despatches from the Official Record of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln edited by Mark Wilson Seymour
John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away by Michael Schein