Grave Thursday: Alexius Thomas

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.


Alexius Thomas

Burial Location: Unknown

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

In 1865, a man named Alexius Thomas was living on the road between Beantown and Bryantown in Charles County, Maryland. He had been born into slavery in about 1820 and from that time until Maryland’s slavery abolishing Constitution was approved in November of 1864, Thomas had been considered the property of a man named Henry Lowe Mudd. Thomas was likely given his name of Alexius in memory of Henry Mudd’s father who bore that name and died when Henry was less than 2 years old. Even though, by 1865, he was now emancipated, Alexius Thomas still lived on and worked the land owned by his former master. While working on the afternoon of April 15, Thomas happened to see a young, “clean made, neat built man, about 5 ½ feet tall” ride by him on a bright bay horse. The man was headed to Bryantown and did not stop. “In a little while – I don’t think he had time to go to Bryantown, he passed me again, and went on down the road toward Beantown,” Thomas recalled. Later that evening, right around dusk, Thomas observed the same man once more and this time the young man came up to him. “Uncle, where am I at?” the man asked Thomas. “I am entirely lost.” Thomas proceeded to point out the cardinal directions to the stranger to help him get his bearings. The man then asked Thomas if he was near the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Thomas told him he was not far from Dr. Mudd’s house and that the property he was currently on was actually owned by Henry Lowe Mudd, Doctor Sam’s father.  The young man then asked about the possibility of staying the night at the house and Thomas said he did not know if Mr. Mudd was at home. “I think I won’t bother anyone tonight,” the man replied before asking, “Isn’t there a large swamp near here?” Thomas replied in the affirmative and pointed out the location of the swamp past one of their tobacco houses. When the stranger asked Thomas if he would like to go to Bryantown, Thomas replied that he could not go at all which seemed enough for the stranger. As he was departing, he told Thomas, “Well, I will take the swamp anyhow, I won’t bother anybody tonight.” With that, the stranger departed in the direction of the swamp and Alexius Thomas was pulled into his house by his wife, Mary.

The home of Henry Lowe Mudd. Alexius Thomas lived near this site.

The whole interaction would have been otherwise forgotten except that the man Alexius Thomas found himself observing and then conversing with was none other than David Herold, the accomplice of assassin John Wilkes Booth. When Thomas observed Herold on the afternoon, the fugitive was riding towards Bryantown in hopes of securing a wagon to use as transport for the wounded Booth who was recuperating at Dr. Mudd’s house. Dr. Mudd was accompanying Herold towards Bryantown but Herold rode ahead and split from Mudd at a point where the road forks. This is why Thomas did not see Dr. Mudd ride by that day, as the doctor took the other path. Apparently, as Herold got close to Bryantown, he witnessed the presence of Union soldiers who were on alert due to the assassination of Lincoln. Herold did not travel all the way into Bryantown, as aptly noted by Thomas, and returned to the Mudd farm. In the late afternoon, Herold and Booth departed the Mudd farm, heading toward the swamp. It is assumed that when Herold emerged and spoke with Thomas around dusk, he was doing so because he and Booth had become lost and turned around inside the swamp. Herold was no doubt disheartened to learn that they had covered a very short distance in the past few hours and then made inquiries about staying the night in order to avoid suspicion. This was an unnecessary precaution, however, as Alexius Thomas had not yet heard the news about Lincoln’s death. He would learn of the news, however, and on April 21, Thomas found himself imprisoned inside of the Bryantown Tavern where he gave a formal statement of what had occurred. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who, on April 18th, had first answered questions from detectives about the “strangers” who showed up at his house, was also imprisoned at Bryantown Tavern that day. Mudd and Thomas were both shipped up to Washington for further questioning and investigation. While Dr. Mudd would be found to be a conspirator in Booth’s plans, Thomas was held in the Old Capitol Prison as a witness. He was not called to testify at the trial of the conspirators and was released from custody on May 18.

After his passing interaction with history, Alexius Thomas largely disappears. He is enumerated in the 1870 census as “Alick”, one of many misspellings of his name. Other variations of his name include Alexis, Electus, Eluctus, Elictus, and even the far afield, Elliott. Thomas’ name pops up one final time in the November 1, 1872 edition of the Port Tobacco Times where he is included on a list of registered voters in Charles County’s eighth district. At some point after 1872, it appears that Alexius Thomas passed away. In the 1880 census Mary Thomas is listed as “widowed” and is living with her son, Alexius, Jr, along with her other children.

Alexius Thomas’ final resting place is not known. He is almost assuredly buried somewhere in Charles County, but, like so many black citizens during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, his grave is unmarked and unknown. Like so many others, Alexius Thomas’ legacy is not written in stone but in his descendants. Though Alexius was born a slave and couldn’t read or write, he undoubtedly stressed the importance of education to his children after emancipation came. His sons, Daniel and Alexius, Jr., were unable to write but did learn to read. When they got older, both men served as trustees for their district’s “colored school” which aided in the education of their neighbors and friends.

It is also interesting to note that Alexius’ youngest child, born in the years after his run in with the assassin’s accomplice, was given the name Abraham in memory of the late President. This son was called Abe Thomas and he lived his whole life in Charles County, working as a farm laborer. Though his grave is unmarked, we know that Abe Thomas is buried in Oldfields Episcopal Church Cemetery in Hughesville, Charles County. Abe Thomas, named for the President by his father, Alexius Thomas who unknowingly assisted the assassin and his accomplice with directions, died on May 10, 1938, the 100th anniversary of John Wilkes Booth’s birth.

References:
Statements of Alexius Thomas [1 & 2] in the edited volume The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Edward Steers, Jr.
1870 Federal Census record for Alick [sic] Thomas
1880 Federal Census record for Mary Thomas, Loch [Alexius, Jr.], & Abraham Thomas
The Port Tobacco Times and Charles County Advertiser
Burials in Charles County Maryland, Vol II by the Charles County Maryland Genealogical Society

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | 5 Comments

“You know best, Captain” The Executed Conspirators in Lincoln’s Assassination

On June 27, 2017, I was fortunate enough to return to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in order to speak to their volunteers and members of the public. The topic of my talk revolved around the four conspirators who were executed for their involvement in John Wilkes Booth’s plot against Lincoln. The following is a video of that talk that the ALPLM was kind enough to put on YouTube:

In the process of researching and writing this speech I consulted many excellent books. Specifically, I’d like to point out the vital scholarship of Betty Ownsbey in her book on Lewis Powell and the research of Kate Clifford-Larson in her book about Mary Surratt. These texts are a wealth of information and proved invaluable in preparing for this speech. I would also like to thank Betty Ownsbey and Dr. Blaine Houmes for allowing me to use some of their images in this speech.

The day before the speech I gave a radio interview to WTAX, the local Springfield station, about the speech and my interest in the Lincoln assassination. It’s only about 5 minutes long and can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/news-radio-wtax/6-26-17-dave-taylor-lincoln-assassination-expert-podcast

I’d like to thank the folks at the ALPLM for allowing me to come back and speak to their volunteers. I must admit that I definitely feel a strong sense of pride at being able to tell people that I’ve spoken at the Lincoln library. Kate and I had an amazing time touring the museum and being taken into the vault to see their treasures.

I hope you all enjoy the speech.

Dave

EDIT: For ease of access I’m also going to embed the video of my prior speech for the ALPLM in which I discussed John Wilkes Booth’s history:

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The Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©

Tomorrow, June 21, 2017, Kate and I are taking to the road on what we’re calling the Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©. It will be quiet here on the blog for next couple of weeks as we drive out to see family, friends, and of course, Boothie sites from our Lincoln assassination maps! A week from now we’ll be in Springfield, Illinois where I will be presenting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. As a follow up to my speech on John Wilkes Booth last summer, this year I will be speaking on the four conspirators who were executed for their involvement in Lincoln’s death . For those of you who live in the area and might be interested in attending this speech, the ALPLM has free tickets available to those who register. See this site to reserve your tickets: https://alplmfoundation.tix.com/Event.aspx?EventCode=978923 For those of you not in the area, the speech is scheduled to be recorded and I will let you all know when it is put online.

As excited as I am to be speaking at the Lincoln library once again, that speech will only be a small part of our multi-state road trip with many fascinating detours and stops. While we’re hoping to put up a full post about our adventures when we get back, I encourage you all to follow our exploits as we go via Twitter. You don’t have to be signed up for Twitter to see what Kate and I are tweeting. You can either visit my Twitter page, which is accessible by clicking here, or by watching the Twitter bar on this website. For desktop users, the Twitter bar should be somewhere on the right hand side and for mobile users, it should be near the bottom of the page. For those of you who do have Twitter, we are planning on using the hashtag #BoothieRoadTrip if you want to follow along.

Well, you’ll have to excuse me now because Kate and I have a scheduled departure time of 4:00 am tomorrow. It’s time for us to get some rest. We hope you’ll follow us as we experience the Great Boothie Road Trip 2017 ©!

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

In the Words of Asia Booth

Asia Booth Clarke was the chronicler of the Booth family. In a few hours from this posting, Kate will be up at at Tudor Hall to give her first of two talks this year about Asia and her writings. The basis of Kate’s speech is the collection of letters Asia wrote to her life long pen pal Mary Jane “Jean” Anderson.

As Kate put the final flourishes on her speech, I decided to put together this animated .gif showing some of Asia’s words from her letters to Jean. Asia’s original letters to Jean are housed in the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

If you are not able to make it to Kate’s speech this time around, she will be at Tudor Hall to give it again on October 8, 2017.

Lastly, if you want to learn a little more about Jean Anderson, here is a short and unfortunately shaky video I recorded at her grave in Green Mount Cemetery:

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John Wilkes Booth’s Acting Debut

On August 14, 1855, John Wilkes Booth, the seventeen-year-old son of the late, great Junius Brutus Booth, made his professional debut upon the stage. For one performance only, John Wilkes Booth performed the role of Richmond in the third act of Shakespeare’s Richard III at Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre.

As shown by the above newspaper advertisements, the performance was part of a benefit for Booth’s friend and fellow actor, John Sleeper Clarke. Clarke had known John Wilkes and Edwin Booth from their shared boyhood in Baltimore. The three boys and a few other friends used to perform together in self produced children’s shows for their neighbors, dubbing themselves The Tripple Alley Players. Using makeshift costumes and borrowed props the boys would stage shows in back rooms, stables, or cellars charging their friends a penny for a ticket. These performances definitely made an impact on the boys as four of The Tripple Alley Players would grow up to become professional actors. Clarke’s real name was John Sleeper and he had been nicknamed “Sleepy” by his peers. Seeing how such a name would make him a subject of ridicule on the stage, he wisely chose the stage name of John Sleeper Clarke for the rest of his life.

John Sleeper Clarke

It is interesting to note that this performance was not only the debut of John Wilkes Booth, but also the first time Clarke performed in the play of Toodles. This comedy would later become a staple for Clarke and the role he was best known for. As a benefit performance, Clarke was entitled to all of the box office returns for that night after expenses, so the young actor was eager to draw in as many patrons as possible. Clarke heavily advertised the debut of John Wilkes, the son of the great tragedian Booth, in order to pull in the largest audience he could. Sadly, there do not seem to be any reviews in the days that followed about John Wilkes’ performance. Booth himself, however, was very happy with his performance. He had not told his family of his intentions to act on the stage for Clarke and so they did not witness his debut. Instead he came riding back to Tudor Hall after the fact to inform them. The story of his return is recounted in Asia Booth’s memoir about her brother and follows below. Please note that the following text demonstrates racial language and views which are not acceptable today but were held by John Wilkes, Asia, and most of the Booth family.

“Wilkes went for a brief visit to Baltimore, and on the day of his return I was under the low trees outside our grounds pulling mandrakes, gathering may-apples and dew-berries. Six little darkies, seven dogs, and a couple of cats who always followed the dogs, were my company. Our baskets were partly filled, and the clatter of hoofs sounding clear, I looked out from the bushes to see Wilkes returning on Cola. He came up rapidly then dismounted, while the dogs yelped and the cats rubbed against his legs, and the piping querulous voices of the darkies called out in the uproar, ‘How do, Mars’ Johnnie.’

He had a greeting for all and threw a packet of candies from his saddle-case far beyond where we stood, saying, ‘After it, Nigs! Don’t let the dogs get it!’ The never-forgotten bag of candies was longingly looked for by the blacks, young and old, whenever ‘Mars’ Johnnie’ came from town or village.

Turning to me, he said, ‘Well, Mother Bunch, guess what I’ve done!’ Then answering my silence, he said, ‘I’ve made my first appearance on any stage, for this night only, and in big capitals.’

He had acted ‘Richmond’ at the St. Charles’ Theatre [sic], Baltimore. His face shone with enthusiasm, and by the exultant tone of his voice it was plain that he had passed the test night. He had made his venture in life and would soon follow on the road he had broken. Mother was not so pleased as we to hear of this adventure; she thought it premature, and that he had been influenced by others who wished to gain notoriety and money by the use of his name.”

Mary Ann Booth was right on the money when she expressed her belief that Wilkes had been used for the sake of his name in his first performance. Clarke asked his friend to perform, literally, for his own benefit. Even from early on, Clarke understood the power in the Booth name and sought to gain from it. Later he would go into business with Edwin Booth and then come into the family by marrying Asia. However, even if Clarke’s inclusion of John Wilkes as an actor stemmed from his own self-interest, he did help foster the young man’s growth. When the next theatrical season began, Clarke got John Wilkes a job as a stock actor in Philadelphia. From here Booth would start down the road of learning his craft. Thus, it is from this minor performance in Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre, that John Wilkes Booth’s career as an actor began.

References:
John Wilkes Booth Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux
John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir by Asia Booth Clarke edited by Terry Alford
Newspaper extracts from Genealogybank.com

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Grave Thursday: The Montgomery Theatre

Each week 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.


The Montgomery Theatre

Burial Location: 39 S Perry St, Montgomery, Alabama

Connection the the Lincoln Assassination:

For this week’s Grave Thursday we are dealing with the death of a place, rather than a person. The place is the old Montgomery Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama which is currently in the final phases of demolition.

In the fall of 1859, Colonel Charles T. Pollard, president of the Montgomery and West Point Railroad, commissioned the construction of a new theater in Montgomery, Alabama. The brick contractor was B. F. Randolph who used his female slaves as the laborers for the theater’s masonry and plastering. By October of 1860, the large and stately Montgomery Theatre was completed. The first lessee and manager of the theater was Matthew Canning, who opened the theater with his troupe of actors on October 22, 1860.

Matthew W. Canning

22 year-old John Wilkes Booth was part of Matthew Canning’s troupe of actors.  Booth’s tour with Canning was his first as a star performer. Prior to this he had been learning his craft in Philadelphia and Richmond. Attempting to succeed on his own talents rather than his prestigious family name, he had been and was continuing to be billed “J. B. Wilkes” or “John Wilkes”.

When the Canning troupe presented the grand opening performance of the show, School for Scandal, at the Montgomery Theatre, John Wilkes Booth was not present. Ten days earlier, when the troupe had been in Columbus, Georgia, Booth had suffered an accidental gunshot wound to his thigh. Though stories differ, the most reliable account holds that Booth and Canning were attempting to clean a pistol when the weapon accidentally discharged. This gunshot wound ended Booth’s performances in Columbus and caused him to sit out most of his starring performances in Montgomery as well.

John Wilkes Booth finally made his debut at the Montgomery Theatre on Monday, October 29, 1860, when he performed as Pescara in The Apostate. He would perform for the rest of the week before closing his engagement to recuperate further. John Wilkes Booth was resting in Montgomery, Alabama when Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860.

On November 16, Booth returned to the stage of the Montgomery Theatre in a benefit performance for his fellow actor, Kate Bateman. Booth played Romeo to Bateman’s Juliet.

The troupe’s final day at the Montgomery Theatre was on December 1, 1860 in a benefit performance for Booth himself. Booth performed in a two act play called Rafaelle, the Reprobate, and then his fellow actor, Maggie Mitchell, performed in Katy O’Sheal. The evening was ended with Booth performing the titular character in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Richard III. This performance marked the end of Booth’s engagement in Montgomery but it also marked a new beginning for the young actor. It was on the stage at the Montgomery Theatre that John Wilkes Booth reclaimed his true name and was billed as J. Wilkes Booth. From this day onward, the actor would always use his true name.

John Wilkes Booth would never return to Montgomery, but the beautiful theater he helped to christen would continue to operate for many years. Edwin Booth would perform on the same stage in 1876, 1882, and 1888 along with countless other luminaries of the stage.

After 47 years of operation, the Montgomery Theatre was closed on November 13, 1907 when a newer, grander theater was opened in the city. The old theater’s interior was remodeled into a department store but the outside retained its original construction. The Webber department store lasted until the 1990’s when it finally closed. After a few years the building was bought by a foundation which paid almost half a million dollars to replace the roof. In 2010, the foundation sold the building to a developer who planned to restore the structure and create retail and housing space within the interior. Unfortunately while work was being done to restore the building in June of 2014, the structure suffered a partial collapse.

Though the hope was that the restoration would continue, the owner of the building didn’t have the funds to continue after the collapse. The ownership of the building reverted to the city of Montgomery in December of 2014. The city valiantly made efforts to find a buyer willing and financially able to restore the structure, offering to sell structure for $1 to any developers who would restore it. In the end, however, the city could not find a buyer with the means to restore the building. The property was sold off and slated for demolition which began in late 2016. Here is how the building looked on March 30th of this year:

Though the Montgomery Theatre building could not be saved, deconstruction of the building has been slow to allow for the salvage of some of the structure’s cast iron, bricks, and masonry pieces. Some of the windows of the theater are also being saved and will be given to the local historical society.

Despite the loss of the Montgomery Theatre building, the history of the site will not be lost. There is a historic marker that will be returned once construction on the site is completed. In addition, the company that is redeveloping the property has vowed to, “include a plaza and information to recognize the building’s history.”

I want to close this post with the words of an old time Montgomery resident by the name of Frank P. O’Brien. O’Brien was present the night the Montgomery Theatre opened in 1860. When the theatre closed in 1907 he gave his reminiscences of the many plays and actors that had graced its stage. At the end of the article, O’Brien stated the following words, which are very fitting today:

“Wednesday night, November thirteenth, the curtain was ‘rung down’ in the old play-house to give way to one of more modern construction. The soft glow of unforgotten scenes alone is left to me, and many whose hearts have throbbed with hope for future years, as nightly we ascended the broad stairs from the street to listen to and witness scenes of comedy, music, and tragedy. Thus is marked the passing of the glory of the old Montgomery theatre…There is not one of us who has not gone up the wide stairs loving, and come down them loving the more. There is not one of us who has not left some weight of the soul there and never returned to claim it.

Vale! old house, the ghostly shadows of scenes long to be remembered will continue to hover within thy hallowed walls ’till the inevitable march of progress hastens thy destruction.”

GPS coordinates for the former site of Montgomery Theatre: 32.378385, -86.307671

Categories: Grave Thursday, History, News | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

The Hidden History of James P. Ferguson

On April 1, 2017, I spoke at the annual Surratt Society Conference. The topic of my speech revolved around the hidden histories of some of the minor characters in the Lincoln assassination story. One of the subjects of that talk was James P. Ferguson, assassination witness and proprietor of the Greenback Saloon next to Ford’s Theatre. The following text comes from my speech and is presented in lieu of a Grave Thursday post.


James Patton Ferguson

Burial Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

In the assassination story, James P. Ferguson is known as being the man who owned the Greenback Saloon on the north side of Ford’s Theatre. Ferguson was well acquainted with the actor turned assassin, John Wilkes Booth. On the day of Lincoln’s assassination, in the late afternoon hours, Booth had showed off his escape horse to Ferguson and some of the Ford’s Theatre employees. That night, Ferguson secured two tickets to “Our American Cousin”. He had been told that General Grant was going to be the guest of the Lincoln’s that night and Ferguson wanted to see the great general. Ferguson secured seats on the balcony level opposite the President’s box in order to get a good view of its occupants. When the President arrived with different guests, Ferguson was disappointed but kept his eyes on the box hoping that Grant might join the party later. Ferguson was perhaps the only person looking at the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth entered and fired. He was one of the first witnesses to be interviewed and his descriptions of the events of that night are one of the best.

Hidden History:

James Patton Ferguson was born on August 20, 1828 in Highland County, Ohio. As a young man he had a roving restless nature. He found employment as a boatman on a river steamboat that ran between Cincinnati and New Orleans, he was elected as a policeman in Cincinnati until he was fired for being found asleep in a barrel while on duty, then he moved to New Orleans where he worked as a bartender. While he would continue to work as a bartender and restaurant keeper for the rest of his life, in the mid 1850’s Ferguson left his job in New Orleans and joined up as a soldier of fortune. Ferguson traveled down to Nicaragua to fight under the command of a man named William Walker.

William Walker

William Walker was a Tennessean physician and lawyer turned mercenary. He was a firm believer in both the practice of slavery and in belief of Manifest destiny. Walker sought to annex land in Mexico and Central America in order to create new American colonies that practiced slavery. These colonies would be ruled by Walker as republics in the hope they would later be accepted into the United States as additional slave states. In 1853, Walker successfully invaded the sparsely inhabited Mexican state of Baja and declared it the Republic of Lower California.

Walker planned to invade and annex the nearby Mexican state of Sonora but, in 1854, with his supplies running low, he retreated back to the U.S. Though he was put on trial for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794 which made it illegal for an American to wage a war against any country at peace with the United States, Walker was acquitted by a jury after only 8 minutes of deliberation.

While Walker had been fighting in Mexico in 1854, a civil war had broken out in Nicaragua.  The two groups fighting for control of the country were the Legitimist Party and the Democratic Party. After hearing about Walker’s incursion into Mexico, the leader of the Democratic party, Francisco Castellon, sought Walker’s help to defeat the Legitimists. Back then, Nicaragua, like Panama, was a crucial point for transcontinental trade. Walker saw the benefit of controlling Nicaragua and traveled down to “help” Castellon and the Democrats. On June 29, 1855, Walker with a group of about 45 mercenaries and 100 natives, seized the city of Rivas, Nicaragua. By October of 1855, Walker and his men had completely defeated the Legitimist army and had seized their capital of Granada. The civil war in Nicaragua had been won for the Democratic Party. News of Walker’s success traveled far and wide and apparently made an impression on the 27 year-old James P Ferguson. Ferguson left New Orleans and traveled down to Nicaragua to join Walker and his men.

As commander of the whole army, William Walker essentially ruled Nicaragua through a provisional president. Walker’s regime was even recognized as the legitimate government of Nicaragua by U.S. President Franklin Pierce. Though it is unknown when exactly James P. Ferguson joined the ranks of Walker’s army, we know it was at least by April of 1856. You see after the Nicaraguan Civil war ended with Walker’s army victorious, the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Honduras had growing concerns over their border. Walker’s well known desire to annex and expand his territory was a problem. In March of 1856, Costa Rica declared war not on Nicaragua but on Walker’s army of mercenary invaders. On April 11, 1856, the army of Costa Rica made attacked on Walker’s army in Rivas, the same city that Walker had seized when he first arrived in Nicaragua the year earlier. James P. Ferguson was in that battle which was later known as the Second Battle of Rivas. The Costa Rican army of almost 9,000 volunteers were too much for Walker and he was forced to retreat to his stronghold of Granada. At the end of the battle casualties were high on both sides. Though the circumstances are unknown, Ferguson is listed as one of those wounded during the battle.

He was lucky he was not killed, for, as they were retreating from Rivas, Walker ordered the bodies of the dead to be thrown into the city’s wells in order to poison the town’s water supply. This dastardly deed was very effective and resulted in a cholera epidemic after the battle had ended. The Costa Rican army unwittingly brought tainted water back with them when they returned home which resulted in a cholera epidemic that killed 10% of the country’s population.

The wounded James P. Ferguson left Nicaragua shortly after the Second Battle of Rivas and returned to the United States. Though he recovered, for the rest of his life, James P. Ferguson would walk with a limp.

After his return to the U.S., Ferguson went back to his chosen profession as a bartender. When the Civil War broke out, Ferguson, like many others, made his was to Washington, D.C. which had increased in size due to the war. In April of 1861, 33 year-old Ferguson married a woman named Martha who was about the same age as him. The pair settled down in D.C. where Ferguson came to run the Greenback Saloon.

Among the countless others who made Washington their home was a young couple named Sabret and Ann Cecil. The Cecils had three children. In 1862, Sabret died unexpectedly leaving Ann to raise their children Martha, Mary and John all by herself. To make ends meet Ann worked as a dressmaker. Somehow, the Fergusons came to know Ann and her children. Perhaps seeing the difficult situation Ann was in as a single mother and perhaps because James and Martha never had any children of their own, the Fergusons apparently offered to help Ann by caring for her middle daughter, Mary Ella, at the time. The Fergusons provided Ella with lodging and care and she became essentially one of the family. James Ferguson was very fond of 12 year-old and doted upon her greatly.

Martha Ferguson’s health was not always the greatest and that is the reason why, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Mary Ella Cecil who was James P. Ferguson’s guest at Ford’s Theatre instead. Ferguson’s detailed account of the crime made him a hot commodity with his story being  carried in many of the newspapers of the day, while Ella doesn’t seem to have been interviewed at all.

A few months after the assassination, Martha Ferguson’s health worsened and so James suggested that his wife leave D.C. James arranged for Martha to stay with some friends of his in his home state of Ohio. With Martha gone, Ella went back to live with her mother Ann. While James was very dutiful in writing letters to his wife in the period shortly after her departure, over time his letters to her became less and less until they inexplicably stopped coming altogether. By late 1866, Martha heard some terrible news from some of her other acquaintances, her husband had apparently taken a mistress and was parading her around as his wife. Angry, Martha left Ohio and travelled back to D.C. to confront her cheating spouse. When she arrived in D.C. she found that James had left the city, apparently having learned of her return. She traced him up to Baltimore before learning he departed that city and gone back to D.C. just before she had arrived. Returning to D.C., Martha learned the identity of the woman who was her husband’s mistress. Filled with fury and anger, Martha knocked on a door that was located near 6th St and H St, right around the corner from Mary Surratt’s boarding house. When the door opened Martha Ferguson upbraided the girl who had ruined her life, Mary Ella Cecil.

Yes, it appears that at some point over the years, James P. Ferguson’s interest in Ella changed from guardian to suitor. It’s possible that Ferguson was interested in Ella romantically as far back as the assassination when Ella was only 14 years old. It seems increasingly likely that James Ferguson sent his wife away to Ohio in order to remove any barriers against his relationship with Ella.

James Ferguson was not present in the home that Ella shared with her mother, but unfortunately “Jimmy the canary was. You see, as a token of his affection, James had presented Ella with a lovely canary whom Ella named Jimmy after its donor. Martha, seeing the bird and hearing its name, was so enraged that, to quote to newspaper, “she took the bird and wrung its head off”.

Screaming ensued between Ella and Martha and Ella seized Martha in order to kick her out of the house. At this, Martha pulled out a revolver and aimed it at Ella’s chest. Martha pulled the trigger three times, but the gun did not fire. Someone intervened and prevented the two from fighting further while a police officer was sent for. Martha Ferguson was arrested and charged with assault and battery with intent to kill with her bail set at $1,000.

Despite a hearty search, I was unable to find any additional details about Martha’s arrest or even if she stood trial for what she had done. It is unlikely Martha went to jail for committing avicide against Jimmy the canary and though she intended to serious harm Ella, the fact that the gun did not fire also probably saved her. Regardless, Martha falls completely off the radar after her arrest, even to the point that James did not know where to find her. In spring of 1867, James sought to divorce Martha but the issued subpoena is returned as Martha was, “not to be found”.

In July of 1867, James took a legal notice in the National Intelligencer stating that if she does not appear within 40 days he will go through the divorce proceedings in her absence. There is no evidence that Martha ever comes forward and in December of 1867, the divorce is put on the docket in the D.C. courts. On February, 11, 1868, James P. Ferguson is granted a divorce against Martha. In what is likely a final insult to Mrs. Ferguson, James alleges that his reason for divorce is because Martha committed adultery in October and November of 1866 and was also addicted to drinking.

Fifteen days after his divorce from Martha, 39 year old James P. Ferguson married 17 year-old Mary Ella Cecil in DC. After losing his bar and restaurant the couple would move to Cincinnati and have three children together. James P. Ferguson died in 1897 while Ella lived almost 40 more years dying in 1936. They are buried together in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

That’s some of the hidden history of James P. Ferguson, saloon keeper, key assassination witness, Nicaraguan mercenary, and creepy adopted father/husband.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

Grave Thursday: Julia Ward Howe

Each week 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.


Julia Ward Howe

Burial Location: Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A Happy Women’s History Month to you all you researchers out there. This is Kate, taking over for Dave today.

For this Grave Thursday, we are going to discuss the strong willed social activist and suffragist who not only gave the Union one of its most recognized anthems but also wrote a lesser known, though equally beautiful, poem for the Booth family.

Julia Ward Howe is most often remembered for transforming the lyrics of “John Brown’s Body” into the patriotic hymn “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This is rather appropriate considering her husband, Samuel, was a member of the Secret Six, a staunch abolitionist group that financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. However, Howe wrote many other poems during her lifetime that were never set to music.

Long before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Julia Ward Howe had made the acquaintances of various members of the Booth family, specifically John Wilkes’ older brother, Edwin, with whom she developed a close friendship. In writing about her life, Howe spoke of her early admiration and introduction to the great actor:

“It was in the days now spoken of that I first saw Edwin Booth. Dr. Howe and I betook ourselves to the Boston Theatre one rainy evening, expecting to see nothing more than an ordinary performance. The play was “Richelieu,” and we had seen but little of Mr. Booth’s part in it before we turned to each other and said, “This is the real thing.” In every word, in every gesture, the touch of genius made itself felt. A little later I saw him in “Hamlet,” and was even more astonished and delighted. While he was still completing this his first engagement in Boston, I received a letter from his manager, proposing that I should write a play for Mr. Booth. My first drama, though not a success, had made me somewhat known to theatrical people. I had been made painfully aware of its defects, and desired nothing more than to profit by the lesson of experience in producing something that should deserve entire approbation. It was therefore with a good hope of success that I undertook to write the play. Mr. Booth himself called upon me, in pursuance of his request. The favorable impression which he had made upon me was not lessened by a nearer view. I found him modest, intelligent, and above all genuine, — the man as worthy of admiration as the artist. Although I had seen Mr. Booth in a variety of characters, I could only think of representing him as Hippolytus, a beautiful youth, of heroic type, enamored of a high ideal. This was the part which I desired to create for him. I undertook the composition without much delay, and devoted to it the months of one summer’s sojourn at Lawton’s Valley…

Edwin Booth circa 1860

And here, through the summer heats, and in spite of many wasps, I wrote my five-act drama, dreaming of the fine emphasis which Mr. Booth would give to its best passages and of the beautiful appearance he would make in classic costume. He, meanwhile, was growing into great fame and favor with the public, and was called hither and thither by numerous engagements. The period of his courtship and marriage intervened, and a number of years elapsed between the completion of the play and his first reading of it.

At last there came a time in which the production of the play seemed possible. Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Booth were both in Boston performing, as I remember, but not at the same theatre. They agreed to act in my play. E. L. Davenport, manager of the Howard Athenaeum, undertook to produce it, and my dream was very near becoming a reality. But lo! On a sudden, the manager bethought him that the time was rather late in the season; that the play would require new scenery; and, more than all, that his wife, who was also an actress, was not pleased with a secondary part assigned to her. A polite note informed me of his change of mind. This was, I think, the greatest ‘let down’ that I ever experienced. It affected me seriously for some days, after which I determined to attempt nothing more for the stage.

In truth, there appeared to be little reason for this action on the part of the manager. Miss Cushman, speaking of it, said to me, “My dear, if Edwin Booth and I had done nothing more than to stand upon the stage and say ‘good evening’ to each other, the house would have been filled.””

Despite Howe’s deep disappointment over Edwin never performing the play she had written for him, the two remained close friends. This friendship extended to the woman who would become Edwin’s wife and the love of his life, Mary Devlin. Howe recalled the object of Edwin’s affection with great fondness:

“Mr. Booth, in the course of these years, experienced great happiness and great sorrow. On the occasion of our first meeting he had spoken to me of “little Mary Devlin” as an actress of much promise, who had recently been admired in several heavy parts.” In process of time he became engaged to this young girl. Before the announcement of this fact he appeared with her several times before the Boston public. Few that saw it will ever forget a performance of Romeo and Juliet in which the two true lovers were at their best, ideally young, beautiful, and identified with their parts. I soon became well acquainted with this exquisite little woman…”

Mary Devlin Booth, Edwin Booth’s first wife

In time, Howe’s friendship with the Booths extended to their daughter, Edwina. Much later in her life, Howe maintained a correspondence with Edwina Booth, even after her father’s death. In 1908, just two years before Howe’s own death in 1910, the 89 year-old Howe sent two poems to Edwina. According to the accompanying letter, Edwina, who was 48 at the time, had come across two poems that had been in her father’s possession. She believed one or both of them to have been written by Howe many years before. Edwina asked Howe to write her name below the verses she recognized as her own so she could correctly identify them. One of the pieces included with the letter was authored by Mary Elizabeth Blake, though Howe mislabeled the work as belonging to poet T. W. Parsons. The other poem, which was the work of Howe herself, was entitled To Mary. This poem had been written by Howe in 1863, upon her attendance at the funeral for Mary Devlin Booth.

To Mary

Thou gracious atom, verging to decay,
What wert thou in the moment of thy stay?
The flowers in thy faded hands that lie
More briefly than thyself scarce bloom and die.

How was it when swift feet thy beauty bore,
And Life’s warm ripple sunned thy marble o’er?
A slender maiden, captured by a kiss,
Wed at the altar for a three year’s bliss;

No longer space my life’s indenture gave,
From Juliet’s courtship to Ophelia’s grave.
The modest helper of heroic art,
The heaven bound anchor of a sinking heart.

Ask him who wooed me, earliest and last,
What was my office in Love’s sacred past?
What was she, here in silken shell empearled?
But my life’s life – the comfort of the world.

In addition to the poem, Howe recalled Mary Devlin Booth’s funeral in her autobiography:

“These lines recall to me the scene of Mary Booth’s funeral, which took place in wintry weather, the service being held at the chapel in Mount Auburn. Hers was a most pathetic figure as she lay, serene and lovely, surrounded with flowers. As Edwin Booth followed the casket, his eyes heavy with grief, I could not but remember how often I had seen him enact the part of Hamlet at the stage burial of Ophelia.”

Julia Ward Howe was one of the few guests present at Mary Devlin’s funeral. Edwin was also joined by his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth, who had traveled from New York to Massachusetts to comfort her son. Edwin’s brother-in-law, John Sleeper Clarke was present but not his wife Asia Booth. Asia had never liked Mary Devlin (or really any other woman) and stayed home in Philadelphia. Howe described the only other family member who tended to Edwin in his grief:

“Beside or behind [Edwin] walked a young man of remarkable beauty, to be sadly known at a later date as Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Lincoln and the victim of his own crime.”

John Wilkes Booth was the only Booth sibling who was able/willing to attend the funeral service of his sister-in-law. John Wilkes cancelled his upcoming acting engagement and hastened to Cambridge to be with his grieving brother.

Though life expectancy in the nineteenth century was much lower than today, Julia Ward Howe was one of the exceptions to the rule, living to the old age of 91. During that time, she buried her own husband at Mount Auburn Cemetery in a grave about 80 yards away from Mary Devlin’s. In 1893, Howe returned to Mount Auburn to mourn the loss of Mary’s husband, Edwin. She returned to Edwin’s grave a year later when his beautiful monument was unveiled.

Julia Ward Howe, the groundbreaking poet, abolitionist, and suffragist died of pneumonia on October 17, 1910. She was laid to rest next to her husband in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Howe now lies just across from the hill atop which, 47 years earlier, she witnessed the funeral of a soul taken too soon. She never forgot the picture of the heartbroken husband, “his eyes heavy with grief,” and the dutiful brother by his side, “a young man of remarkable beauty.”

Until next time.

Kate

P.S. By Dave: Julia Ward Howe stated that one of her greatest disappointments in life was that the play she had written for Edwin Booth was never performed. After Howe’s death, actress Margaret Anglin sought to rectify this oversight. During her engagement in Boston in March of 1911, Anglin received permission to perform Howe’s forgotten play. Hippolytus was performed for one night only on March 24, 1911 with all the proceedings going to benefit the Julia Ward Howe Memorial Fund. The title role, which had been written for Edwin, was played by Walter Hampden with high praise. Years later, Hampden would become the fourth president of Edwin Booth’s private club, The Players. Today, the research library housed in The Players is known as the Hampden-Booth Library.

GPS coordinates for Julia Ward Howe’s grave: 42.369612, -71.147075

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

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