Posts Tagged With: Conspiracy Trial

John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” Cipher

From the prosecution’s point of view, the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators had essentially two main goals. The first goal was to prove the guilt of the 7 men and 1 woman put on trial for complicity in the death of the President. The second goal of the trial was to put forth evidence to show that the assassination was sanctioned and supported by the leaders of the Confederate States of America. Establishing the Confederacy’s involvement proved a far harder task than the trying of the conspirators. In the end, the prosecution was hampered by unreliable and perjured testimony ultimately leaving the question of Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death to be a much debated topic even 150 years later.

The prosecution’s method of connecting the Confederacy to Lincoln’s assassination can be best described as “quantity over quality”. They brought out a multitude of witnesses and evidence to make damning claims about John Wilkes Booth’s Confederate involvement but very little of it holds up under scrutiny. For example, the very first witness called the stand was a former Confederate soldier named Henry Von Steinaecker. He testified about having met John Wilkes Booth in Virginia in 1863 and that, at that time, Booth was in communication with high ranking Confederate officials plotting the assassination of Lincoln. As the first witness on the first day of the trial, the prosecution was setting the tone for the entire proceeding. At the time of Steinaecker’s testimony, not all of the conspirators had defense attorneys and the lawyers that were present did not believe such testimony had much to do with their clients. There was no cross examination done on Steinaecker.

When, later in the trial, the defense tried to recall Steinaecker, they were told by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt that Steinaecker could not be located. In the end the defense called Steinaecker’s superiors in the Confederacy and both men testified that very little of what Steinaecker had testified to was true. Steinaecker had actually been a deserter from both the Union and Confederate armies and was serving a three year prison sentence in Fort Delaware when Lincoln was assassinated. Despite having written letters to both Lincoln and the Judge Advocate General asking to be released and offering his services, it was only after Lincoln’s death that Steinaecker wrote to the Judge Advocate General with his vital information about Booth and Confederate officials. After testifying Steinaecker was released from prison and disappeared. Steinaecker was the first of many prosecution witnesses who made grandiose claims about John Wilkes Booth and the Confederacy only to have his testimony questioned or disproven later.

In addition to using unreliable witnesses, the prosecution also presented material evidence in hopes of proving Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood pieces of material evidence the prosecution brought forth to tie Booth to the Confederacy was the assassin’s so-called “Confederate” cipher.

After the assassination of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth’s rented room at the National Hotel was searched. Among his papers, most of which were mundane letters and memorandum, was this cipher which was written in Booth’s own hand. At the trial of the conspirators, this cipher was entered into evidence as Exhibit 7 and was portrayed as a physical link between John Wilkes Booth and the Confederate secret service. In addition to this paper cipher, the prosecution also entered into evidence a large cipher cylinder seized from the office of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond.

Thomas Eckert, the assistant Secretary of War under Edwin Stanton, was called to testify about these two ciphers. He stated that both the paper cipher found in Booth’s belongings and the cylinder found in Richmond were the same. Eckert then presented copies of Confederate letters that the War Department had intercepted during the war that had been written using the same cipher.

Taken at face value, this cipher found among John Wilkes Booth’s papers seems like a very damning piece of evidence. Eckert, the Union’s chief codemaker, testified that Booth’s cipher was the very same as the one used by the Confederacy, which seems to definitely prove that John Wilkes Booth must have had a strong connection to the Confederate States. In the years since the trial, John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” cipher has been used by different authors in their arguments that the Confederacy sanctioned Lincoln’s murder.

However, just like the testimony of Henry Von Steinaecker, the conclusiveness of Booth’s cipher connecting him to the Confederacy doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.

First off, the handwritten, alphabetic note found in John Wilkes Booth’s room is called a Vigenère table. The table is a tool used in order to encrypt and decrypt a message using a Vigenère cipher. It is true that the Confederacy did use a Vigenère cipher to encrypt secret messages during the war and that, fundamentally, Booth’s table is the same as the cylinder found in Richmond. But before making any conclusions it is important to understand how a Vigenère cipher works.

If you were to receive an encrypted note that had been written with a Vigenère cipher, you would be faced with something like this:

ISATFIOJXSFOFGLEOQBWISDUBUXCAUXWZDLTPCHAIKOLUPXOFLTPCGK

To anyone who intercepted your note, this message would appear to be lines of complete gibberish. Even if the person intercepting your note realized it was written in a code of some kind, they would almost certainly fail at decoding it.

In order to decrypt the note a person needs two things. The first thing would be a Vigenère table, much like the one found in Booth’s room. A Vigenère table is little more than the alphabet, written on 26 lines, with each new line being offset by one letter from the previous line. The Vigenère table is a tool used to help decrypt the message. The second requirement for decrypting a Vigenère cipher is knowing the keyword or phrase that was used to create the message. Let’s look at an example of how a message written in a Vigenère cipher could be decrypted using a table and keyword.

Let’s say that I wrote this coded message to you:

O W A V U Z G Z N B T R D G S M N V F P N M M

In order to decrypt this message you would already need to be aware of the keyword or phrase that was used in making it. This was generally a word or phrase that had been agreed upon ahead of time or had been sent separately. It wouldn’t be very secure for the writer of the message to include the keyword with the encrypted message. For this message let’s say that our previously agreed upon keyword is: LINCOLN

Your first step towards decrypting this message would be to write the keyword LINCOLN, one letter at a time, above the ciphered text. When done, it would look like this:

Notice that you might run out of message before the whole keyword is completely used again, this is not a problem.

Each letter of the encrypted message now has two corresponding letters: the keyword letter and the original letter. Now all you need in order to decipher the message is your Vigenère table. Here is a more legible version of a Vigenère table, identical to the one Booth wrote.

For deciphering, you first use the keyword letter to find the right column on your Vigenère table. Then you move down the column until you find the corresponding message letter. This will give you the correct row. You move across that row to its beginning to find the first letter of the decrypted message.

So, in the example above, you would find the column that starts with L since our keyword, LINCOLN, starts with L. Then you move down the L column until you get to the letter O, which is the first letter in the message. Once you find O in the L column, you follow that row back to the beginning which shows you that it is in the D row. This tells you that the first letter in our message should be D.

To find the second letter in our message you would need to start in the I column since the second letter in LINCOLN is I. Then you would travel down the I column until you reach W, the letter in the original message. From there you follow the row back and discover the second letter in our message should be O.

This process of finding the keyword letter column, locating the encrypted letter in the column, then tracing the row back to learn the correct decrypted letter, is repeated for the remaining characters in the message. If you want to, grab a piece of paper and try to decipher the rest of the message yourself. When you’re ready to check your work, highlight the black text box below to reveal the decrypted message or scroll down to the first comment of this post.

DONT GO TO FORDS THEATRE ABE

Creating a message using a Vigenère cipher is very much the same as decrypting one. First you would write out the text you want to encrypt and place the keyword or phrase above it, letter by letter. Then, using the Vigenère table, you would located the correct column based on the keyword letter and the correct row based on the message letter. Where the corresponding column and row intersect gives you the encrypted letter for your coded message.

As far as creating secret messages go, a Vigenère cipher is a strong method of encoding as it really requires knowledge of the keyword in order to decode the message. In our example only the word LINCOLN as the keyword would result in the correct decryption. Deciphering a message without the keyword is technically possible, but very difficult to do. Ciphers with shorter keywords are more prone to codebreaking techniques that look for patterns and use math. But longer keywords or phrases strengthen the already strong encryption. The Confederacy utilized several key phrases for their Vigenère ciphers including OUR DESTINY IS ONE and COMPLETE VICTORY. COME RETRIBUTION was the key phrase used in Confederate ciphers in the final months of the war. It is important to point out that Vigenère ciphers were not a Confederate invention. This method of cryptography dates back to the 1500s and had long been prized as a code immune to being broken. This is why the Confederates used Vigenère ciphers in their secretive correspondences.

Going back to John Wilkes Booth, we find that it is accurate to say that the Vigenère table found among Booth’s papers matches the Vigenère cylinder found in Richmond. However the reason they are the same is because both the table and the cylinder utilize the same method of encryption. While every Vigenère cipher uses the Vigenère table to encrypt and decrypt a message, it is nothing more than a translation table. You can use the Vigenère table to encrypt a message using an infinite number of keywords. Claiming that Booth’s possession of a Vigenère table is iron clad evidence of his complicity with the Confederacy is akin to claiming that a specified individual is in cahoots with members of the Mafia because they both have the same numbers to choose from when they enter their PIN numbers at the ATM. They are using the same tool to encrypt information, but that alone does not prove anything.

“Still,” you might be thinking to yourself, “how does John Wilkes Booth even have knowledge of this secret agent stuff if he’s not working with Confederacy?” As pointed out above, the Confederacy did not invent the Vigenère cipher. Nor was knowledge of this cipher in any way a state secret. In fact, as the Civil War went on, the general public became more and more interested in the topic of codes and cryptography. In the same way that schoolchildren enjoy writing secret messages to their friends, writing in code became a fun activity with the Vigenère cipher described openly in this regard. Below is the beginning of 1864 article from the Newark Daily Advertiser explaining the exact process of creating a table and how to go about composing a message using the Vigenère cipher. Click the sample below for the full article.

As this article demonstrates, the Vigenère cipher was not an obscure method of cryptography known only to the Confederacy. It was an old but still relatively well-known method of composing encrypted messages.

We don’t know how John Wilkes Booth learned about the Vigenère cipher but it is clear that it appealed to his delusions of grandeur. After learning the Vigenère cipher, Booth reacted not like a trusted Confederate agent, but like an excited schoolboy. In Asia Booth’s book about her brother, she described how, in November of 1864, John Wilkes wanted to teach her the cipher but she did not like the propriety of it:

“He sat late with me on one of these nights – the last – and said to me, ‘Let me show you the cipher.’

When I understood what he meant, I said, ‘No, I shall not consent to any knowledge of that kind.’

But he added, ‘I might possibly need to communicate with you about my money affairs, and there is no need to let everyone know what I am worth.'”

Asia still did not consent to learning the cipher and the subject was dropped. This interchange, in which Booth is trying to brag to his sister about something that appears clandestine, seems to fit the self-aggrandizing that John Wilkes Booth demonstrated. It seems perfectly appropriate to his character for him to have learned something in the realm of cryptography in order to brag about it and show it off later. How could Booth have been trusted by Confederate officials with genuine Confederate keywords and phrases if he was so willing to teach the process to his own sister? In my opinion, Booth’s Vigenère table was just another prop he used to help him play the part of a secret agent because he had no such role in real life.

There is no evidence that John Wilkes Booth used his Vigenère table to encrypt or decrypt messages from the Confederacy or its leaders. There is no evidence that Booth was ever in possession of official Confederate keywords or phrases.  The government did not find anything in Booth’s papers that was written in any code that would have used the Vigenère table. Nor have any historians, to my knowledge, ever found anything in the papers of the Confederacy that could be considered an encrypted message from Booth.

Like a lot of the evidence dealing with the Confederacy at the trial of the conspirators, John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” cipher is far less definitive than what was testified to. Rather than proving a direct, physical link between Booth and high ranking Confederate officials in Richmond, Booth’s Vigenère table only proves that the assassin at one point dabbled in a fairly common method of encryption. The prosecution failed to address that Booth did not possess any official Confederate keywords or messages and sought, instead, to incriminate the Confederacy by pointing out that Booth had the same ability to write in cipher as they did. However, possessing the same tool does not prove conspiracy. Unlike the prosecutors of the trial of the conspirators, we have the benefit of time and objectivity to thoroughly investigate pieces of evidence. John Wilkes Booth’s Vigenère table is an interesting document, but it is conclusive of nothing other than the assassin’s own enigmatic nature.


If, like BOOTH, you want to play around a bit more with a Vigenère cipher, feel free to decrypt the first example of ciphered text that I included in this post. The keyword for it isn’t hard to find.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cloak and Daggers: Cutting Through the Confusion of the Assassination Knives

In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, the authorities (both federal and local) took up the task of hunting down and collecting conspirators and evidence. Lincoln’s own wartime policies gave investigators unprecedented power to arrest and confiscate persons and things relating to his assassination. While casting such a wide net did succeed in capturing the members of Booth’s inner circle, it also inundated the War Department with mountains of evidence. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed three army officers; Colonel Henry Wells, Colonel Henry Olcott, and Lieutenant Colonel John Foster, to help manage and assess the ever increasing paraphernalia. In turn, they reported to Colonel Henry Burnett, who sifted through their materials to find the key evidence to be used in the trial of the conspirators.[1] The voluminous paper materials can be found in the edited book, The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers, while the original documents can be viewed online (and for free) at Fold3.com. This investigation, however, centers more on some of the collected artifacts found by the War Department: the knives.

During the initial round of evidence gathering, many edged weapons entered the War Department. A knife was collected from the home of a Ms. Mary Cook, a known Confederate sympathizer, who continually celebrated after the assassination and tore down the mourning crepe placed upon her abode.[2] Another knife was taken from a Sergeant Samuel Streett, an acquaintance of Michael O’Laughlen, who was accused of passing two women through his lines at Camp Stoneman on the night of April 14th.[3] A sword was removed from above the mantle at the home of Mary Surratt.[4] In addition to these unrelated weapons, the investigation also managed to acquire the weapons of the conspirators. A knife was found hidden underneath the sheets of a bed at the Kirkwood rented to George Atzerodt. Samuel Arnold was arrested with a knife. Knives belonging to both Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt were recovered on the streets of D.C. the morning after the assassination. Finally, the lead conspirator himself gave up a knife when he was shot in the Garrett’s barn. All of these knives, along with others not mentioned or as fervently documented, left the members of the War Department up to their knees in knives. Therefore, Colonel Burnett began his process of identifying the important items he would need in the trial of the conspirators.

In the end, Colonel Burnett would choose five knives to use in the trial. Four of those knives would be entered as exhibits for the trial, while one knife, Powell’s, was used merely for identification purposes. The handwritten exhibit list for the trial has the following knives listed:

“23. Knife (Atzerodt’s room Kirkwood House)”
“28. Booth’s knife”
“41. Atzerodt’s knife”
“62. Knife found at Mrs. Surratt’s house.”[5]

The selection of which knives to use as exhibits was done very skillfully. With the evidence before him, Burnett realized that, out of those involved in the actual assassination plot, the government’s case was weakest against George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt. Therefore, their blades were touted right along side that of the assassin’s.

During the trial, the first three knives were identified by their finders. Detective John Lee discovered the knife pictured above at Atzerodt’s room in the Kirkwood house. It was hidden, “between the sheets and the mattress.” [6] While found in his rented room and bed, the contents of Atzerodt’s “lost” statement indicate that the knife, along with the other contents found in the room, belonged to David Herold.[7] Further, the statement of Mrs. R. R. Jones (the wife of a bookkeeper at the Kirkwood) notes that, a little after ten o’clock on the night of the assassination, a man ran rapidly past her room, towards Atzerodt’s, and tried to open the door of a room “three different times”. Not being able to get in, the man ran back past her room and down the stairs.[8] This man is supposed to have been Davy Herold. He left his coat, knife, and pistol in Atzerodt’s room, and came to retrieve them for his flight south. Upon finding the room locked and empty, Davy assumed correctly that Atzerodt had lacked the courage to complete his task, and fled. This could explain why, at the Surratt Tavern later that night, Booth bragged to John Lloyd that, “we have assassinated the President and Secretary Seward.” He did not include the death of Vice President Johnson in his boast, as Davy had likely reported the locked and empty room. While the above scenario is just a theory, it is safe to say that the bulk of the contents in Atzerodt’s room at the Kirkwood were under the care of Davy Herold, including the bowie knife recovered. From this point on, the knife found by Detective Lee, probably belonging to Davy Herold, will be referred to as the “Kirkwood knife”. This will eliminate confusion between that knife, and the knife pictured below that Atzerodt himself tossed into the gutter after hearing the news of the successful assassination.

By the afternoon of July 7, 1865, all of the owners of the knives used in the trial were dead. The knives, along with the other pieces of physical evidence, were boxed up and stored. A year later, a request came in to the War Department from Secretary Seward’s former male nurse, Private George F. Robinson. Robinson was asking for a unique keepsake: he wanted the knife Lewis Powell used to stab him and three others. After being approved by Edwin Stanton, the knife was turned over to Robinson, the lone hero on that night of villainy, in July of 1866. Even though Powell’s knife was given to Robinson, this did not affect the four exhibit knives as Powell’s was not one of them. This fact is important to note. Much of the later confusion regarding the assassination knives comes from the assumption that the government retained possession of Powell’s knife. They did not. From 1866 to 1961 the knife was in the possession of the Robinson family. In 1961, the knife pictured below, along with other papers belonging to Private Robinson, were donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The knife still resides there today. Many journalists and researchers would include Powell’s knife in the government’s holdings during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and all would be incorrect in this matter.

In 1867, the trial of John H. Surratt, the escaped conspirator, began. The evidence boxes were reopened and many of the same witnesses from the initial conspiracy trial were recalled. The civil trial ended in a hung jury and Surratt was set free. About six months later, another trial was held and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was relived in that court room as well. That trial also acquits its defendant, President Johnson, who narrowly avoided impeachment. The assassination evidence, now having been taken out, examined, and disorganized twice since the conspiracy trial, was boxed up and stored again. This time, the storage lasted quite awhile.

In 1880, Representative William Springer of Illinois was one of the first to try to claim some of the Lincoln assassination artifacts. He introduced House Resolution 178 on January 23, 1880 calling for, “certain books and mementos in possession of the government to be placed in Memorial Hall of the National Lincoln Monument at Springfield, IL.”[9] It was quickly passed in the House and a Chicago Times journalist reported that it “will no doubt pass the Senate in a few days. The articles called for by the resolution are now in the office of Judge Advocate General Drum, in the War Department, and upon the passage of the resolution will be shipped to Springfield.”[10] While the resolution was eventually passed in both the House and Senate, the annual reports from the National Lincoln Monument Association in 1882 reflect what little became of it: “Concerning relics to be sent from the War and State Departments to Memorial Hall, the only article received thus far is one copy of, ‘Tributes of the Nations to the memory of Abraham Lincoln,’ and is the only one that can be spared. Hon. W. M. Springer has been untiring in his efforts to have the provisions in the joint resolution complied with, but obstacles have presented themselves at various points, and the probability is that we will never receive half of what was ordered in that resolution.”[11] Despite a resolution from Congress, the artifacts and knives stayed in storage as they were deemed too important to let go of, at least for now.

In May of 1899, Judge Advocate General Guido Lieber, was in the mood to do some spring cleaning. Particularly, he wanted to be rid of the trial relics: “These relics are now in a locked cabinet, in a storeroom of this office, in the sub-basement. Very frequently visitors obtain permission to see them, but, owing to the storeroom being filled with files, there are no facilities for showing them, and it takes the time of an employee of this office from his official duties for the purpose.”[12] Lieber contacted the Smithsonian (then called the National Museum) and they were “very agreeable” to receive the relics. Lieber then received permission from the Secretary of War, Russell Alger, to transfer the relics under one condition: the artifacts would forever remain “subject to the control of the War Department.” The Smithsonian did not care for this condition and, during the confrontation that followed, the War Department decided that, “the law did not authorize even a temporary removal of the exhibits.”[13] Again the relics stayed in the Judge Advocate General’s office.

The exhibits of the assassination trials displayed for a reporter in 1908.

The artifacts would not be freed from their tomb until 1940, 75 years after the assassination. By this time the National Parks Service was in control of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, using the space to exhibit Osborn Oldroyd’s collection of Lincolniana. The official exchange happened on February 5, 1940 when the office of the Judge Advocate General transferred over their materials to the Lincoln Museum (Ford’s). In the list of artifacts, there are four knives mentioned:

“Dagger with which Booth attacked Major Rathbone, and which he carried in his hand as he fled across the stage.”
“Knife used by Payne in his attempt to assassinate Seward.”
“Two knives secured from the effects of the conspirators”[14]

Under the control of thirteen different Judge Advocate Generals, the identities of the knives became scrambled and confused. Powell’s knife was not in the government’s possession and therefore was not turned over to Ford’s. The four knives that Ford’s received are the same four listed in the trial exhibit list. While, at times, it seemed that they were going to be transferred elsewhere, they never left the JAG’s office and the number of assassination knives being held by the government remained unchanged since Robinson was granted Powell’s knife in 1866. Since 1940, the National Parks Service has been trying to sort through this mess of knives with varying degrees of success.

Of all of the knives, the NPS has consistently been correct with their identification of Atzerodt’s knife and the Kirkwood knife. This is partially owing to the fact that the 1940 inventory correctly, but vaguely, lists these two as “Two knives secured from the effects of the conspirators”. If you would visit Ford’s today, you would see Atzerodt’s knife (FOTH 3234) and the Kirkwood knife (FOTH 3231) on display and correctly identified. The main problem and confusion with the knives lies with the assassin’s blade.

At Ford’s there is the above pictured, ornately etched, double edged knife, manufactured by Manson Sheffield Co. of England. It is just less than 12 inches long with a textured bone handle. This beautiful knife has the words, “America”, “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”, and “Liberty and Independence” etched on the blade. Due to this, Ford’s refers to it as the Liberty knife along with its artifact number FOTH 3235. Most visitors, however, know it by another name: Booth’s knife. According to the tag underneath it, this, “horn-handled dagger was used by John Wilkes Booth to stab Major Rathbone after shooting Abraham Lincoln.” No doubt, many have seen the irony of such a patriotic knife helping to commit such an atrocious crime. It makes a poignant impact on those who have seen it. Unfortunately, it’s also a lie. This is not the knife Booth used to stab Major Rathbone. This knife was not recovered from Booth at Garrett’s barn. This knife did not even belong to John Wilkes Booth.

To explain this confusion, it is crucial to look back at the statements and testimonies of those who were with, and captured, Booth. After Davy Herold was caught at the Garrett’s he was transferred to the monitor, Montauk. Here, he gave a statement skillfully trying to conceal his guilt. Though much of Davy’s statement must be taken with a grain of salt, he does produce the following about his traveling companion’s act: “[Booth said] he struck him [Rathbone] in the stomach or belly with a knife. He said that was the knife (pointing to the one which had been shown to the prisoner).”[15] Davy is stating that the knife recovered from Booth at the Garrett’s is the same knife he used to stab Rathbone. While Davy commits to this, he makes no mention of any ornate etchings on the blade of the knife. In fact, Davy, Everton Conger, Luther B. Baker, John “Jack” Garrett, and Boston Corbett all make mention of Booth’s knife in statements and testimonies, but merely describe it as a “bowie knife”. No mention is made of any noteworthy markings on the blade. The term “bowie knife” was used to describe any large hunting knife usually with a crossbar. It is similar to how a derringer, originally the specific maker of the firearm, came to refer to any small pocket pistol.

It is not until the John Surratt trial that a notable description of Booth’s knife is made. Everton Conger gives the following testimony:

“Q: Will you state what articles you took from him?
A: …He had a large bowie-knife, or hunting knife, and a sheath.
Q: Do you know whose make that was?
A: No, sir; the knife has a name on it, but I do not know what it is.”

At this point Conger is going from memory. He has not seen any of the weapons, but recalls the knife had a name on it. He is then shown the weapons:

“(A bowie-knife and sheath and a compass were shown to witness, and identified by him as being taken from the body of Booth. A piece of map was also identified by witness as having been taken from Herold…”

Conger examines the knife and then later is asked how he can be sure it is the same one he recovered from Booth:

“Q: How do you identify the knife?
A: The knife has a spot of rust on it, about two-thirds the way from the hilt to the point, right where the bevel of the knife commences at the end.  It was said to be blood, but I have never thought it was myself.  It is the same shape and style of knife.
Q: Have you not seen other knives like it?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Have you not seen a great many like it?
A: No, sir; only a few.
Q: You put no marks on it?
A: No.  I have no means of identifying it except by the description I have given.
Q: You did not look at the name of the maker?
A: I do not know that the name of the maker is on it.  I have looked at it since and noticed the words “Rio Grand camp-knife” on it.  I have no means of identifying it except what I have stated, and my general recollection of the style of the knife”[16]

This blade does not bear any engravings or patriotic slogans. It is identified with the name “Rio Grand Camp Knife” and a “spot of rust” said to be blood. This testimony identifying Booth’s knife raises a question. Since Booth’s knife is not the Liberty knife, from where does the Liberty knife come from? This question can be answered by looking at the exhibit list from the conspiracy trial. The Atzerodt knife and the Kirkwood knife are identified and accounted for, so that leaves just two: “Booth’s knife” and “Knife found at Mrs. Surratt’s House”. Since, through Conger’s identification of the knife he helped take from Booth, we know that the Liberty knife is not Booth’s knife, it has to be the “Knife taken from Mrs. Surratt’s house”.

Aside from the description in the exhibit list and its corresponding tag from the JAG’s office, this Liberty knife from Mrs. Surratt’s is very elusive. The conclusion that this author has drawn, is that this knife was likely taken from Mrs. Surratt’s and never properly inventoried. This is not as unlikely as it seems. The Surratt boardinghouse was stripped of anything that could be used as evidence. In an inventory list dated April 24, 1865, the final item mentioned is a “Trunk and contents from Surratt House”. It is written in a different pen and lacks the numeration and specificity of the other items in that list.[17] In fact, the only record of what was in the trunk comes from its return to Anna Surratt on August 18, 1865. The receipt, noting the return of three pistol cases, a sword, one box of caps and other items, does not mention a knife. However it should not mention it because the knife, as an exhibit, would have been retained by the government.[18] While this is a theory, with the mounds of evidence procured during those days, a knife from Mrs. Surratt’s could have easily been overlooked and not inventoried. Therefore, the Liberty knife currently on display at Ford’s as Booth’s knife is not the assassin’s blade but likely an ornate knife recovered from Mrs. Surratt’s. It never belonged to the assassin, and, conceivably, it was never used to harm anyone.

What then, became of the assassin’s blade? According to the 1940 transfer list, four knives were turned over to Ford’s and yet only three are on display. Two of those are correctly identified, while the Liberty knife continues its impersonation of Booth’s knife. The current fate of Booth’s true knife is identical to what it was for over 75 years. Booth’s knife is in storage.

Stored as a generic “knife” with the rest of Ford’s overflow items, it is currently held in the National Parks Service Museum Resource Center in Landover, MD. There it sits, FOTH 3218, encased in protective foam, accompanied by its sheath. While the knife has been found, there is still a mystery to be solved.

Booth’s knife has not always been hidden away in storage. There was a time when it was displayed by Ford’s accurately as Booth’s knife. Books from the 1950s and 60s have pictures of the real, Rio Grand Camp knife, with a spot of rust on the blade, endorsed by the NPS as Booth’s. But suddenly, and inexplicably, it was replaced with the Liberty knife. With the worsening budget cuts the NPS has suffered over the years, the paperwork on the knives at Ford’s is disorganized and, most importantly, they lack a historian to sort it all out. No one seems to know why the knives were switched, but they all trust the unknown predecessor who did so. If the switch was made due to a mere clerical error, the knife doesn’t deserve to sit in storage for another 75 years. It is this author’s hope that this article will merit a re-examination of the knives and the evidence regarding their identification. Hopefully, Booth’s true knife will escape from storage once again and be restored to the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Booth’s real knife: FOTH 3218
Currently being held in Landover, MD

Dave Taylor examining Booth’s true knife in 2012.
Photographs by Jim Garrett.


[1] Edwards, W.C., & Steers, E. (2010). The Lincoln assassination, the evidence. (pp. xxii – xxiii).  Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

[2] Ibid, (p. 545).

[3] Ibid, (p. 1207).

[4] Ibid, (p. 1165).

[5] NARA. Trial exhibit list. Retrieved from website: https://www.fold3.com/image/249/7390964

[6] Poore, B. P. (Ed.), (1865). The conspiracy trial for the murder of the president, and the attempt to overthrow the government by the assassination of its principal officers. Vol. 1. (pp. 66) Boston, MA: J. E. Tilton and Company.

[7] Steers, E. (1997). His name is still Mudd: The case against Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd. (p. 122). Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications.

[8] Edwards & Steers. (p. 758).

[9] U.S. House of Representatives. (1880). Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, being the second session of the forty-sixth congress, begun held at the city of Washington, December 1, 1879, in the one hundred and fourth year of the independence of the United States. (p. 297) Washington City, DC: Government Printing Office.

[10] (1880, January 31). Assassination relics: A description of some of the articles Congress will order sent to Springfield. The Cleveland Leader, p. 3.

[11] Power, J. C. (1884). Annual reports of the custodian to the executive committee of the national Lincoln monument association, reports for nine years, from 1875 to 1883 inclusive. (p. 35) Springfield, IL: H. W. Rokker.

[12] (1899, May 24). The Booth relics, they are to be transferred to the national museum. The Minneapolis Journal.

[13] (1904, December 18). The first photographs of the mementos of Lincoln’s assassin. The Washington Times, p. 5.

[14] Copy of a list from the Judge Advocate Generals’ office dated February 5, 1940 in the files of James O. Hall.  From the James O. Hall Research Center, Clinton, MD.

[15] Edwards & Steers. (p. 682)

[16] (1867) Trial of John H. Surratt in criminal court for the District of Columbia. Vol. 1. (p. 308) Washington City, DC: Government Printing Office.

[17] Edwards & Steers. (p. 1166).  The handwritten page is viewable here: https://www.fold3.com/image/249/7361960

[18]Edwards & Steers. (p. 698).

Author’s note: A version of this article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of the Surratt Courier

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Grave Thursday: Mary Van Tyne

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.


NOTE: I know today isn’t Thursday. I’ve been swamped with getting ready for the new school year to begin and though I tried to get this out yesterday, I found I had to do a bit more research. Rather than wait another week to post it, I figured I’d just post it tonight instead. So enjoy this Friday edition of Grave Thursday.

Mary Ann Van Tyne

Burial Location: Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Mary Van Tyne, whose maiden name was Ricard, was originally born in England. We know she had moved to the  United States by 1833 for it was during that year that she married Dr. John P. Van Tyne in Maryland. By 1840, the pair had relocated to Washington City and quickly began building their family. By 1850, Mary and John were the parents of at least 5 children. In February of 1851, John Van Tyne died at the age of 44, leaving Mary a widow. She supported her family financially by working as a seamstress and dressmaker. As time went on, Mrs. Van Tyne even advertised her talents as a seamstress.

In 1857, Mary’s only remaining son, Charles, died at the age of 21. In the 1860 census, Mary Van Tyne is shown as a widow, working as a dressmaker with her four daughters: Mary, Kate, Florida, and Ellen.

During the Civil War, the population of D.C. boomed. Many homeowners made supplemental incomes by renting out rooms. Conspirator Mary Surratt would follow this route after relocating from her Maryland tavern to her D.C. town home. Mrs. Van Tyne, likewise started to rent out rooms and advertised her spaces in the D.C. papers.

In February of 1865, two men took up Mrs. Van Tyne’s offer of lodging and began renting one of her rooms. Their names were Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen and, unbeknownst to Mrs. Van Tyne, they were taking part in John Wilkes Booth’s plan to abduct President Lincoln.

While Mrs. Van Tyne did not have a lot of contact with her new boarders, she did get to know a few things about them. For instance, Mr. O’Laughlen told her that he was also known as McLaughlin, and that if she should receive any mail addressed as such that it should come to him. Once, when cleaning their room, she came upon a pistol but didn’t think much of it and merely placed it in a bureau drawer for safe keeping. Often, the two men would leave and go to Baltimore on a Saturday and not return to the city until Monday or Tuesday.

The two men were also frequently visited by a handsome man. The man would call at all times of day looking for the men and leaving messages for them. Finally, Mrs. Van Tyne inquired with her boarders about who the handsome man was. They informed her that he was John Wilkes Booth, the popular actor. Once, Mrs. Van Tyne overhead something among the men about business and she later asked Arnold what business they were in. Arnold replied that the three men were in the oil business together in Pennsylvania. Booth was a common visitor and often appeared to keep her boarders out late. Mr. Arnold and O’Laughlen had a night key which allowed them to come and go as they pleased. Since they were sleeping in a back bedroom on the first floor, she did not always know whether they were home or not.

Finally, on March 18th, Arnold and O’Laughlen told Mrs. Van Tyne that they were going to be leaving for good on Monday the 20th. They were off to the Pennsylvania oil fields, they told her. They mentioned that while they were anxious to leave that very night, Booth was performing at Ford’s Theatre and they wanted to see him. Mrs. Van Tyne expressed her own desire to see Booth perform. Grateful for the lodging Mrs. Van Tyne had given them, O’Laughlen gave Mrs. Van Tyne three complimentary tickets for Booth’s performance in The Apostate at Ford’s Theatre that night.

Mary Van Tyne neither heard from nor saw Mr. Arnold or Mr. O’Laughlen after they left on March 20th. After the assassination of Lincoln, the identities and movements of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators were traced. On May 5th, Mrs. Van Tyne was interviewed by Baltimore provost marshal, James McPhail. McPhail and his men were largely responsible for hunting down Arnold and O’Laughlen. Mrs. Van Tyne told all that she knew about the two men who stayed in her home.

Ten days later, Mrs. Van Tyne was among the first to be called to the witness stand at the trial of the conspirators. She testified about Booth’s common visitations to her home in search of Arnold and O’Laughlen. She was also asked to identify a picture of Booth as the man she saw. While she identified it, she also made the observation that the photograph presented to her was a poor likeness of the man and did not truly capture how handsome Booth was. After providing her testimony for the day, Mrs. Van Tyne returned home and back into obscurity.

Mary Van Tyne continued to live in Washington, D.C.. By 1870, she moved out of her D street boardinghouse and began living with her daughter, Florida, who had married a man named Friebus. She would live with her daughter and son-in-law for the rest of her life. On December 18, 1886, Mary Van Tyne died of “valvular disease of [the] heart”. Her age at death is difficult to determine. Her obituary stated that she was “in her eighty-first year.” Her burial records give her an age of “80 years” and “5 months” at time of death. The census records did not really help the matter. Unlike many census records where women miraculously age less than a decade in the ten years span between censuses, Mrs. Van Tyne actually managed to age more than ten years between the 1860 and 1870 census. The 1850 and 1860 census records give her birth at about 1812 which would make her about 74 at her death. The 1870 and 1880 censuses give her birth at about 1806 which puts her back up at 80.

Upon her death, Mrs. Van Tyne was interred in Section P, Lot 202, Site 5 in D.C.’s Glenwood Cemetery. If Mrs. Van Tyne was marked with a gravestone upon her death, it no longer stands. Her burial lot is only marked by the gravestone of her daughter, Florida Friebus nee Van Tyne, who died in 1915.

GPS coordinates for Mary Van Tyne’s unmarked grave: 38.921110, -77.004470

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“Helped to Guard the Conspirators”

While doing a little searching tonight, I came across an interesting article from the December 15, 1902 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It highlights a Philadelphia resident named Isaac M. Marshall who claimed to have been among the guards detailed the watch over the Lincoln assassination conspirators during their trial and imprisonment. The article gives some candid thoughts that Corporal Marshall had about the conspirators, which I thought would be worth sharing.

Living at 3213 Mt. Vernon street is a veteran of the Civil War – Isaac M. Marshall – who was one of the guards of the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, and who has still a vivid recollection of how they looked and acted when on trial for their lives at the old Arsenal in Washington. “I was a member of Company I, of the Third Regiment, Hancock’s Veteran Corps, at the time,” he said yesterday to a reporter of The Inquirer. “We were camped outside the capital in 1865, and the morning after the great crime had been committed we got orders to watch all the approaches leading from the city. The entire regiment was given this duty and no one was allowed to go through the lines without establishing his or her identity, and that they had a right to pass on.

“Later on our company was at the Arsenal during the trial of the men and Mrs. Surratt. I remember all of the conspirators well. Lewis Payne, one of those who were hanged, always wore a knit shirt. He was stalwart and of athletic build and had an eagle eye. The stern look on his face never appeared to change. David E. Herold was handsome, and he knew it. He had long black hair and he frequently pushed it above his forehead. There were many young women present – admitted by card – and to some of these he frequently bowed. One of his peculiar actions was to raise his hands so that they could see his manacled wrists.

“Of Samuel B. Arnold, whose story of alleged cruel treatment I have read with deep interest, as it appears from day to day in The Inquirer, I want to say this: Whatever may have happened to him at the Dry Tortugas, he did not look as if he had suffered any before his trial occurred. On the contrary, he appeared to have been well fed and otherwise well cared for. You could scarcely tell what kind of a man he was. At times his countenance wore a look of defiance; then of sternness and again of unconcern. He was neatly attired, as were all the others, save Payne, who managed to change his clothes after the crime, assuming the garb of a laborer.

“Michael O’Laughlin, who also went to the Dry Tortugas, was the only one who seemed to be affected and sorry. George Atzerodt I didn’t pay much attention to. Dr. Mudd did not have the appearance at all of a physician or professional man. Mrs. Surratt was always veiled; sat immovable and looked like a statue. After the trial the Third Regiment was sent to Camp Butler, at Springfield, Ill., and I was there when the lamented Lincoln was buried…”

Marshall’s extended comment about Samuel Arnold is due to the fact that this article came out in 1902, the same year that Arnold allowed his lengthy memoirs to be printed in the newspapers after he had read his own obituary. In his memoir, Arnold complained at length about the treatment he received at the hands of the government. Marshall provides a small rebuff to Arnold’s claims that he was mistreated while in Washington (though considering the hoods Arnold and the others were forced to wear, you can’t blame him too much for complaining). The other descriptions of the Lincoln conspirators are very much in line with what other visitors of the trial observed.

While I can’t positively confirm that Isaac Marshall was one of the guards at the trial of the conspirators, it seems fairly likely he is telling the truth. The Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where the conspirators were imprisoned and tried, was largely manned by members of the Veteran Reserve Corps, which Marshall was a member. On the day of the execution of the conspirators, Marshall’s specific group, the Third Regiment, was assigned duty as sentinels from the northeast corner of the arsenal grounds extending along the east bank of the river. Members of the 3rd regiment were also stationed in a line 100 yards south of the prison grounds. So, at the very least, Marshall did have guard duty on the day of the conspirators’ death. Even Marshall’s claim to have been in Springfield when Lincoln was buried is possible. The Third Regiment wasn’t officially mustered out of service until December of 1865 and Abraham Lincoln’s remains were “buried” in a temporary vault in Oak Ridge Cemetery on December 21, 1865. Isaac Marshall may have had the unique experience of being present at both the execution of the conspirators and at one of Abraham Lincoln’s many burials.

Isaac Marshall died on July 6, 1919 and is buried in Fernwood Cemetery, outside of Philadelphia.

References:
(1902, December 15) Helped to Guard the Conspirators. Philadelphia Inquirer, p 5.

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Grave Thursday: Francis Dooley

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.


Francis Xavier Dooley

Burial Location: Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Connection to the Lincoln assassination: 

Trial testimony can be thrilling and insightful. Trial testimony can also be a complete waste of time. Regardless, the witness is forever written onto the pages of history, even if their contribution to the overall story is minuscule at best. Take this grave here. It looks ordinary and that’s because it is ordinary. It’s the grave of Francis Dooley, a pharmacist who was placed on the witness stand during the trial of the century to answer a question about candy. That’s essentially it. His testimony is one of the shortest given during the seven week trial of the conspirators.

You see, after the assassination, a search was conducted of George Atzerodt’s rented room at the Kirkwood House hotel. Two of the objects found were a toothbrush and a piece of licorice. Apparently, Atzerodt’s attorney, William Doster, felt that Dooley would be able to shed light on these mundane objects. It turns out Doster was wrong. This is Francis Dooley’s entire contribution to the Lincoln conspiracy trial:

Perhaps Doster was hoping that George Atzerodt had frequented the pharmacy and Mr. Dooley would provide some insight into his character. This never came to be and Francis Dooley went down in history as the 1865 Candy Man whose testimony seemed to be completely pointless.

Today, visitors who wish to see a man whose sole claim to fame is getting less than five minutes of it, can visit the grave of Francis Dooley in Congressional Cemetery, not far from conspirator David Herold.

Here’s the part where I would usually write something insightful about how even the smallest anecdotes can shed their own light but, in actuality, the statement of Francis Dooley isn’t deep or thought provoking at all. However, it’s funny in its bizzarrity, reminds us that even the most profound moments in history can take strange paths, and gives researchers a good chuckle.

Until next time,

Kate

GPS coordinates to Francis Dooley’s grave: 38.881563, -76.979789

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , | 18 Comments

An Interview with Dr. Mudd

On March 20, 1869, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd walked in the front door of his Charles County, Maryland home. Such a return to one’s property would hardly be worth mentioning if not for the fact that it had been almost four years since the doctor had set foot on his farm. The last time Dr. Mudd was able to take in the land around him and the house which he called his home was on April 21, 1865, the day he was arrested for suspicion of complicity in Abraham Lincoln’s death. Since that time, Dr. Mudd had been imprisoned in nearby Bryantown, the Old Capitol Prison in D.C., and finally the Old Arsenal Penitentiary where he was put on trial by military commission. Found guilty, Dr. Mudd barely escaped with his life when he was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Fort Jefferson off of the coast of Florida. From July 24, 1865 through March 11, 1869, the desolate Dry Tortugas was the only home the prisoner, Dr. Mudd, had known. During his time on the island, he had tried (and failed) to escape, causing himself and the other Lincoln conspirators to suffer the consequences. In 1867, when a Yellow Fever epidemic swept the Fort causing his companion Michael O’Laughlen to die, Dr. Mudd volunteered his medical services and tended to the ill. With the  common belief of the day being that those infected with Yellow Fever were contagious, Mudd’s assistance to the sick was seen as a selfless and noble act. His actions worked in his favor to help him secure a pardon in the final days of Andrew Johnson’s presidency. Nine days after leaving Fort Jefferson, Dr. Samuel Mudd stepped through the threshold of his home to greet his waiting children.

Less than a week after his homecoming, Dr. Mudd heard an unexpected knock on his door. Though you might expect him to be incredibly wary of unannounced visitors, he opened the door and welcomed a small party of men inside. Among the group was a newspaper reporter from the New York Herald. The reporter and his party had come from Washington and had spent about eight hours making their way down to the isolated Mudd farm. They wanted to speak with Dr. Mudd about his experiences regarding John Wilkes Booth and the Dry Tortugas.

“…His face grew extremely serious and he answered that of all things he wished to avoid it was newspaper publicity, simply because nothing was ever printed in connection with his name that did not misrepresent him.”

Yet, despite his apprehension and claim he did not wish to speak about the events that cost the last four years of his life, in the end, Dr. Mudd and his wife did open up about their most famous visitors and their aftermath. The following is a transcription of part of the New York Herald article that was published on March 31, 1869, just a few days after speaking with Dr. Mudd. The entire article is quite long, with the first half dealing with the author’s slow trek to get to the Mudd farm from Washington. While filled with vivid and sometimes flowery details of the journey, for ease of reading only the parts relating to the interview with Dr. Mudd are featured below. If you are interested in reading the whole article, you can do so by clicking here or the headline below.

The interview (like all the statements and correspondences from Dr. Mudd) contains a variety of truths, half-truths, omissions, and outright falsehoods regarding Booth’s relationship with Mudd and his time at the Mudd farm. Still, this interview provides an interesting and personal view of one of the more debated conspirators in the Lincoln assassination story.

…We knocked for admission at the same door that Booth did after his six hours’ ride –it took us eight – and were promptly answered by a pale and serious looking gentleman, who, in answer to our inquiry if he were Dr. Mudd, replied, “That’s my name.” It was gratifying after so long a journey to find the man you sought directly on hand and apparently prepared to furnish you will the amplest stores of information regarding his connection with Booth, &c. Having stated the object of our visit – that the Herald led an interest in learning some particulars of his experience in the Dry Tortugas and his recollections of the assassination conspirators – his face grew extremely serious and he answered that of all things he wished to avoid it was newspaper publicity, simply because nothing was ever printed in connection with his name that did not misrepresent him.

“A burned child dreads the fire,” he exclaimed, “and I have reason to be suspicious of every one. It was in this way Booth came to my house, representing himself as being on a journey from Richmond to Washington, and that his horse fell on him. Six months or so from now, when my mind is more settled and when I understand that changes have taken place in public opinion regarding me, I shall be prepared to speak freely and fully on these matters you are anxious to know about. At present, for the reason stated, I would rather not say anything.”

Having, however, convinced the doctor that it was with no motive to misrepresent his statements that we paid him this visit and tat between Booth’s case and ours there was no analogy, he invited us to pass the evening at his house and postpone our return to Washington till the morning. Left alone for a while in the parlor, an ample, square apartment, with folding doors separating it from the dining room, we began to feel an irresistible inclination to imagine two strangers on horseback riding up to the door in the dim gray of an April morning, the younger of the two lifting the other from his saddle and bother like evil stars crossing the threshold of an innocent and happy household to blast its peace forever, Dr. Mudd’s return disturbed our reveries.

The Doctor says he is thirty-five years of age, married in 1860 [sic], built the house in which he now lives after his marriage, owned a well stocked farm of about thirty acres, and was in the enjoyment of a pretty extensive practice up to the time of his arrest in 1865. The word went well and smoothly with him previous to that unhappy event. His house was furnished with all the comfort of a country gentleman’s residence. He had his horses and hounds, and in the sporting season was foremost at every fox hunt and at every many outdoor sport. He had robust health and a vigorous, athletic frame in those days, but it is very different with him now. Above the middle height, with a reddish mustache and chin whisker, a high forehead and attenuated nose, his appearance indicates a man of calm and slow reflection, gentle in manner, and of a very domestic turn. He says he was born within a few miles of this house, and has lived all his life in the country. His whole desire now it to be allowed to spend the balance of his days quietly in the bosom of his family. In his sunken, lustreless eye, pallid lips and cold, ashy complexion one can read the words “Dry Tortugas” with a terrible significance. In the prime of his years, looking prematurely old and careworn, there are few indeed who could gaze on the wreck and ravage in the face of this man before them without feeling a sentiment of sympathy and commiseration. “I have come home,” said the Doctor sorrowfully, “to find nothing left me but my house and family. No money, no provisions, no crops in the ground and no clear way before me where to derive the means of support in my present [unintelligible] condition.” There was no deception here. In the scantly furniture of the house and in the pale, sad countenance of the speaker there was evidence enough of poor and altered fortune. It was not evening and growing rapidly dark. A big fire blazed on the ample hearth, and Mrs. Mudd, an intelligent and handsome lady, with one of her children, joined the Doctor and ourselves in the conversation over the events of that memorable April morning after the assassination.

“Did you see Booth, Mrs. Mudd?” we inquired with a feeling of intense interest to hear her reply.

“Yes,” she replied, “I saw himself and Harold after they entered this parlor. Booth stretched himself out on that sofa there and Harold stooped down to whisper something to him.”

“How did Booth look?”

“Very bad. He seemed as though he had been drinking very hard; his eyes were red and swollen and his hair in disorder.”

“Did he appear to suffer much?”

“Not after he laid down on the sofa. In fact, it seemed as if hardly anything was wrong with him then.”

“What kind of a fracture did Booth sustain?” we inquired, addressing the Doctor.

“Well,” said he, “after he was laid down on that sofa and having told me his leg was fractured by his horse falling on him during his journey up from Richmond, I took a knife and split the leg of his boot down to the instep, slipped it off and the sock with it; I then felt carefully with both hands down along his leg, but at first could discover nothing like crepitation till, after a second investigation, I found on the outside, near the ankle, something that felt like indurated flesh, and then for the first time I concluded it was a direct and clean fracture of the bone. I then improvised out of pasteboard a sort of boot that adhered close enough to the leg to keep it rigidly straight below the knee, without at all interfering with the flexure of the leg. A low cut show was substituted for the leather boot, and between five and six o’clock in the morning Booth and his companions started off for a point on the river below.”

“How did Booth’s horse look after his long ride?” we inquired.

“The boy, after putting him up in the stable,” the Doctor replied, “reported that his back underneath the forward part of the saddle was raw and bloody. This circumstance tallied with Booth’s account that he had been riding all day previous from Richmond, and no suspicion arose in my mind for one instant that the man whose leg I was attending to was anything more than what he represented himself.”

“You knew Booth before, Doctor?”

“Yes,” replied the Doctor. “I was first introduced to Booth in November, 1864, at the church yonder, spoke a few words to him and never saw him afterwards until a little while before Christmas, when I happened to be in Washington making a few purchases and waiting for some friends from Baltimore who promised to meet me at the Pennsylvania House and come out here to spend the holidays. I was walking past the National Hotel at the time, when a person tapped me on the shoulder and, on turning round, I discovered it was the gentleman I was introduced to at the church about six weeks previously. He asked me aside for a moment and said he desired an introduction to John H. Surratt, with whom he presumed I was acquainted. I said that I was. Surratt and I became almost necessarily acquainted from the fact of his living on the road I travelled so often on my way to Washington, and having the only tavern on the way that I cared to visit. Booth and I walked along the avenue three or four blocks, when we suddenly came across Surratt and Weichman [sic], and all four having become acquainted we adjourned to the National Hotel and had a round of drinks. The witnesses in my case swore that Booth and I moved to a corner of the room and were engaged for an hour or so in secret conversation. That was a barefaced lie. The whole four of us were in loud and open conversation all the time we were together, and when we separated we four never met again.”

“You told the soldiers, Doctor, the course the fugitives pursued after leaving your house?”

“I did. I told them the route that Booth told me he intended to take; but Booth, it seems, changed his mind after quitting here and went another way. This was natural enough; yet I was straightway accused of seeking to set the soldiers astray, and it was urged against me as proof positive of implication in the conspiracy.”

“You must have felt seriously agitated on being arrested in connection with this matter?”

“No, sir. I was just as self-possessed as I am now. They might have hanged me at the time and I should have faced death just as composedly as I smoke this pipe.”

“What did you think of the military commission?”

“Well, it would take me too long to tell you. Suffice it to say that not a man of them sat on my trial with an unbiased and unprejudiced mind. Before a word of evidence was heard my case was prejudged and I was already condemned on the strength of wild rumor and misrepresentation. The witnesses perjured themselves, and while I was sitting there in that dock, listening to their monstrous falsehoods, I felt ashamed of my species and lost faith forever in all mankind. That men could stand up in that court and take an oath before Heaven to tell the truth and the next moment set themselves to work to swear away by downright perjury the life of a fellow man was a thing that I in my innocence of the world never thought possible. After I was convicted and sent away to the Dry Tortugas a confession was got up by Secretary Stanton, purporting to have been made by me to Captain Dutton on board the steamer, and was afterwards appended to the official report of my trial. This was one of the most infamous dodges practiced against me, and was evidently intended as a justification for the illegality of my conviction. I never made such a confession and never could have made it, even if I tried.”

“How did their treat you down to the Dry Tortugas?”

“Well, I feel indisposed to say much on that head. If I made disclosures of matters with which I am acquainted certain officers in command there might find themselves curiously compromised.”

“You did good service caring the fever plague, Doctor?”

“Well, I can say this, that as long as I acted as post physician not a single life was lost. My whole time was devoted to fighting the spread of disease and investigating its specific nature. I found that the disease does not generate the poison which gives rise to the plague. The difference between contagion and infection which I have discovered is that one generates the poison from which the fever springs and the other does not. Contagion, such a smallpox, measles, &c., generates the poison which spreads the complaint of yellow fever, typhoid fever and other such infectious diseases. It requires contact with the poison and not with the disease to infect a person, and if a thousand cases of fever were removed from the place of the disease no danger whatever need be apprehended. The Fever in the Dry Tortugas was of the same type as typhoid, and the treatment on the expectant plan – that, is watching the case the treating the symptoms as they manifest themselves.”

“Were you untrammelled in your management of the sick?”

“No, sir; there’s where I felt the awkwardness of my position. I was trammelled and consequently could not act with the independence a physician under such circumstances should have.”

The Doctor talked at considerable length on many other topics connected with his imprisonment. In replying to the remark that his feelings must have been greatly exercised at coming within sight of his old home and meeting his wife once more he said, with visible tremor, that words were entirely inadequate to express the overwhelming emotions that filled his mind. It appears that a few days before he left the Dry Tortugas a company of the Third artillery, who were on board a transport about being shipped to some other point, on seeing the Doctor walking on the parapet, set up three cheers for the man who periled his life for them in the heroic fight with the dread visitation of fever. We talked along till midnight, then retired to a comfortable leather bed, and, rising with the sun in the morning, started out homeward journey to Washington.

References:
(1869, March 31) Dr. Mudd. New York Herald, p. 10.

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Beyond the Courtyard

Good evening to the historically theatrical nerds out there.

As many of you know, yesterday was the anniversary of the Lincoln conspirators’ execution. Just prior to this, July 6th marked the reveal of the commission’s verdict to both the public and, more importantly, to the four people condemned to die the following day. On this July 6th, 153 years later, the Society for the Restoration for Port Tobacco (SRPT) hosted for their First Friday event “Beyond the Courtyard: The Final Hour of the Lincoln Conspirators.”

Set in Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary on the afternoon of the infamous hanging, the first person performance (written by Dave and me) had a four person cast, making it the largest of the Lincoln assassination themed reenactments done with the SRPT. Being a woman, I took on the role of Mary Surratt.

Dave, with all his impressive height, played Lewis Powell (called Paine by the other characters).

Bob Bowser, a board member and docent at the Dr. Mudd House Museum was David Herold.

Lastly, Southern Maryland naturalist Mike Callahan lent his German accent to the role of George Atzerodt.

Throughout the unfolding narrative, each person reflects on the various choices that drove them to conspire against the Union government, and the witnesses who brought those choices to light, until their tales intersect and lead to a collision of opinions and an outburst of violence. However, in the end, history still came with a vengeance.

Although we were all inside the Port Tobacco Courthouse, miles from Washington and in conditions much better than those suffered by the conspirators, it still felt eerie to be bringing a past back to life so soon before the anniversary of its haunting termination. Though over 150 years have passed, the echoes of the event which closed the Civil War can still be felt today.

Below you can view the program and see if you too can hear those reverberations of a time not so unlike our own. Please note that this was a staged reading and also took creative license with the dialogue. No incarceration accounts from the conspirators exist.

Local photographer, Eva Lightfoot, captured the great photos of the event that accompany this blog post. The rest of the album, along with other examples of her work, can be seen on her website.

Until next time.

-Kate

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The Execution of the Lincoln Conspirators

The sun was bright and hot as Alexander Gardner tended to his equipment on July 7, 1865. The noted Civil War photographer had brought two cameras with him, one wet plate and one stereoscopic, with which to capture the day’s event. Gardner was lucky, due to his prestige he was able to set himself up in the cool shade of a nearby building overlooking the scene. From his vantage point, facing out of two windows on the second floor of an old shoe factory on the property, Gardner could take in the entire scene.

Men began trickling into the courtyard below. Most were soldiers on assigned guard duty, but there was also a notable contingent of civilians. Many were newspapermen, here to commit to writing what Gardner would record on glass. A few others had come, in spite of the oppressive heat, to see justice meted out. Gardner focused his cameras on the object around which all the men had gathered – a hastily built gallows. Over the course of the next thirty minutes or so, Gardner would take at least 10 photographs of the proceedings. Through his lens, the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt was recorded in haunting clarity.

By using high resolution versions of Alexander Gardner’s photographs available through the Library of Congress, one can splice most of the execution photographs together to recreate the final moments of the four condemned conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in vivid detail. NOTE: The animation is below but is a bit large so it might take a second to load, especially on mobile devices.

Alexander Gardner’s photographs of the hanging provide us with a glimpse of the past that no newspaper report can equally replicate. Combined with modern technology, these photographs bring realism to a story whose epilogue was written 153 years ago today.

Click to view the full sized composite image

References:
The post was inspired by the work of Barry Cauchon and John Elliott

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