At around 9:00 p.m. on April 17, 1865, a young, mustachioed man in handcuffs was brought to Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard and placed aboard a ship named the U.S.S. Saugus. The Saugus was lying at anchor in the middle of the water in preparation for its role of becoming an island fortress to hold those arrested as conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination. This 24 year old man, whose presence on board christened the Saugus as a prison ship, was named Michael O’Laughlen.
O’Laughlen was a long time friend of John Wilkes Booth. The two grew up as boys together on Exeter St. in Baltimore, where the Booth’s lived across the street from the O’Laughlen family. Though Booth had a more personal relationship with Samuel Williams O’Laughlen, Michael’s older brother, Booth still had fond memories of Michael. As both Booth and O’Laughlen grew up, their lives went in different directions. Booth became a noted Shakespearean star, following in the footsteps of his father and brothers, while O’Laughlen ended up joining a Maryland regiment which fought on the side of the Confederacy. Much of O’Laughlen’s time in the Confederacy was plagued with illness and by 1862 he was back home in Maryland assisting his brother in the hay and feed business.
In the fall of 1864, Booth reconnected with his old friend and the charismatic actor easily convinced O’Laughlen to join his plot to abduct President Lincoln for the benefit of the Confederacy. Delays and inaction continued for several months and O’Laughlen eventually lost interest in the plot and returned to work with his brother. On April 13, 1865, O’Laughlen traveled from Baltimore down to D.C. in order to take in the Grand Illumination celebration with friends. He allegedly made a couple of attempts to meet with Booth on this date, but failed to connect with the actor. When the assassination occurred on April 14th, O’Laughlen was terrified due to his intimate connection with the assassin. O’Laughlen returned to Baltimore but, after a few days, realized that his arrest would be unavoidable and imminent. O’Laughlen was the only conspirator to have turned himself in, arranging his surrender at the home of his sister.
And so it was that Michael O’Laughlen was the first of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators to be placed aboard the Saugus, confined for his own protection away from mob violence that might do him harm but also in a condition that would prevent him from communicating with anyone. As other conspirators were arrested, they would be place aboard the Saugus as well, until the ship no longer had enough space to adequately isolate them all and the U.S.S. Montauk was brought alongside for additional space. O’Laughlen was kept aboard the Saugus during this time, confined to the ship’s head.
O’Laughlen was on the Saugus from April 17th until April 29th when all the accused aboard the ironclads were transferred to the Arsenal Penitentiary. The research of authors Barry Cauchon and John Elliott has shown pretty conclusively that during this period of confinement, photographer Alexander Gardner made four visits to the ships to photograph the conspirators. O’Laughlen’s mugshots were taken with the bulk of the other conspirators’ images on April 25th. The following are the two images previously known of Michael O’Laughlen:
Until now, these two images were the only images we have ever found of Michael O’Laughlen. Mugshots such as these were used by artists to create engravings for the illustrated newspapers of the day. However as a low interest conspirator and one who was not involved in the actual assassination plot, few took the time to make an engraving of the mild mannered O’Laughlen. The public was far more interested in getting a look at Lewis Powell, the scoundrel who viciously attacked the Secretary of State, so far more impressive engravings were made of him. One of the lesser known illustrated newspapers, the Washington Weekly Chronicle, contained engravings of most of the conspirators when they published their July 15, 1865 issue:
Though Lewis Powell took center stage, the Chronicle also provided this engraving of Michael O’Laughlen:
A detailed look will demonstrate that this particular engraving does not actually match either one of the two known mugshot photos of Michael O’Laughlen. It is somewhat similar to the hat-less photo of O’Laughlen, but this engraving shows more of his face than the original source image.
The easiest conclusion to draw is that the engraver added a little bit of their own artistic license when creating the drawing of Michael O’Laughlen. This is not unheard of. As a matter of fact, the large image of Lewis Powell in this edition does not match a known image of Lewis Powell. Despite the tagline that this engraving was based on a photograph taken especially for the Washington Weekly Chronicle, according to author Betty Ownsbey, this engraving of Lewis Powell appears to be a sort of composite between two images of Powell, instead.
So it seemed reasonable that the engraving of Michael O’Laughlen in this issue was also not based on an actual photograph, but instead on an artist’s extrapolation of O’Laughlen’s mugshot photographs.
It turns out, however, that this engraving actually isn’t an extrapolation or artistic license. Today, while searching through the online digital collections of the Huntington Library in California, I decided to click on a thumbnail that I assumed was one of the two common mugshot photographs of Michael O’Laughlen.
Immediately I was struck with the suspicion that something was wrong. It was a strange feeling to have. Before me was obviously the hat-less mugshot photo of Michael O’Laughlen, and yet, at the same time, it wasn’t right. As a longtime researcher and reader on the Lincoln assassination I have become so accustomed to seeing the same images over and over again. My accustomed brain was saying, “Yep, this is the same picture of O’Laughlen you always see,” but, at the same time, I couldn’t shake the idea that something was different. Suddenly, I had to see Michael O’Laughlen’s mugshot photographs, I needed to silence the voice saying something was wrong. I opened up my O’Laughlen Picture Gallery and stared at the mugshots. Then it hit me, this image was not the same as the traditional hat-less mugshot. I was surprised and ecstatic to see that this was the photograph that the Washington Weekly Chronicle engraving was based on. Here, at long last, was O’Laughlen’s missing mugshot photograph:
Unlike the original hat-less photo, O’Laughlen’s face is angled more towards the viewer in this image. The fact that O’Laughlen’s chin is slightly blurry here also hints that he was moving, possibly turning, when the photo was taken.
While Michael O’Laughlen escaped formal execution at the conclusion the trial of the conspirators, his ultimate fate would be equal to it. While serving his life sentence at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, O’Laughlen was one of the many souls who contracted Yellow Fever in the fall of 1867. Despite the attentive care provided to him by his fellow prisoners, Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, and Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen perished from Yellow Fever on September 23, 1867. Dr. Mudd lamented that O’Laughlen had become a dear friend to him and that he would miss his, “warm friendly disposition” and, “fine comprehensive intellect.”
This newly discovered mugshot of conspirator Michael O’Laughlen gives us another, much needed angle on a man whose life was tragically cut short due to his involvement in John Wilkes Booth’s plot against Lincoln. It gives us an additional chance to look into the eyes of a young man who has realized that he allowed a charismatic friend to lead him down the path of his own destruction.
This image should also remind us that there are still new discoveries to be made. The book of the Lincoln assassination will never be completely written, and, as demonstrated here, it will never be completely illustrated either.
The Huntington Library Digital Collections
A Peek Inside the Walls: 13 Days Aboard the Monitors by John Elliott and Barry Cauchon
The Assassin’s Doctor by Robert K. Summers