Posts Tagged With: Conspiracy

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.

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“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 Murderer: John Wilkes Booth and the Plot Against Lincoln” at the ALPLM

Almost a year ago, I was contacted by representatives from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Though I was right in the middle of setting up my classroom for a new school year (at a brand new school, and grade, actually), I dropped everything to take the call from employees of such an esteemed institution. As part of their volunteer educational programming, the ALPLM asked me if I would be willing to come to Springfield in the upcoming year and give a talk about the assassin of President Lincoln. I suppose it is not difficult to ascertain what my response was. After a few victory laps around my minefield of classroom, I settled in for the long wait until summer.

Dave Taylor at the ALPLM 6-29-2016

Less than a month ago, on June 29, I was humbled to present my speech, “The Murderer: John Wilkes Booth and the Plot Against Lincoln” for the wonderful folks at the ALPLM. The museum was kind enough to record my presentation and put it on YouTube, and so I have embedded the video below. It misses some of the fancy animations I included in my PowerPoint but is of far better quality than I could have ever done. The video below includes the lively question and answer session that followed the speech where we cover several other Lincoln assassination topics beyond John Wilkes Booth.

In addition to the speech, Kate and I spent our time in Springfield visiting the Lincoln sites and viewing several of the ALPLM’s assassination related letters and artifacts. Altogether, the speech and visit to the ALPLM are among the highlights of my “career” as a “historian.” I would like to thank Jeremy Carrell, Barbara McKean, Samuel Wheeler, Dr. James Cornelius, David Grimm, and Chuck Hand for setting everything up and for their hospitality in, and around, the ALPLM.

It was truly an honor to speak at the ALPLM and, if you have the time, I hope you enjoy the speech below.

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“To Whom it May Concern”

On this date in 1865, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a telling letter written by John Wilkes Booth, the recent assassin of President Lincoln.

To Whom is Published

The letter is known to readers of the Lincoln assassination story as John Wilkes Booth’s, “To Whom it May Concern” letter. Its title is derived from the letter’s greeting which was appropriated by Booth from a letter written by Lincoln in July of 1864. At that time, a small delegation of “peace emissaries” representing the Confederacy had approached the Union government under the guise of facilitating a cessation of hostilities and possible re-unification of the nation under the condition that they be allowed to continue the practice of slavery. It was a difficult period in the war and Lincoln himself knew his chance of winning re-election later that year was slim. Knowing that Lincoln would never agree to their terms, the so-called “Niagara Falls peace conference” was a piece of propaganda for the Confederacy, which was more aimed to further diminish Lincoln’s approval and chance of re-election. Lincoln was likely well aware of conference’s true purpose and wrote to the “peace emissaries” that any discussion of peace must include the “abandonment of slavery”.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Knowing that his position would be viewed and lamented as stubbornness by the Confederacy and by the Democrats running against him, Lincoln decided to add further insult to injury by refusing to address the emissaries by name. Instead, Lincoln wrote his note “To Whom it May Concern,” diminishing the importance and respectability of the so-called “peace emissaries.” John Wilkes Booth subsequently used this somewhat insulting address in his own explanatory letter that follows.

The letter was published due to the efforts of Booth’s brother-in-law, John Sleeper Clarke. Following the assassination of Lincoln, Clarke and his wife, Asia Booth, recalled that John Wilkes had left a package of papers in the safe of their home in Philadelphia. Upon opening the package they found this letter, another addressed to his mother, Mary Ann Booth, and some oil stocks. As more and more Booths arrived at the Clarkes’ home (Mary Ann came from New York very soon after hearing the tragic news in order to comfort Asia, who was pregnant, and Junius Jr. arrived from an acting engagement in Cincinnati to be with the family), John Sleeper thought that the letters would be of help in proving the family’s innocence as to John’s plan. Clarke had copies made of both the To Whom it May Concern letter and the one addressed to Mrs. Booth. Then, accompanied by a member of the Philadelphia press corps, Clarke went to the office of William Millward, the Provost Marshal of Philadelphia.

John Sleeper Clarke

John Sleeper Clarke

Clarke asked the Marshal for permission to publish the letters and the circumstances surrounding their discovery in order to demonstrate that the family had no foreknowledge of John Wilkes’ crime. Millward approved the publication of the To Whom it May Concern letter for the next day but not the letter that John Wilkes wrote to his mother. Millward did not want anything published that might garner sympathy for the assassin. This was a let down to Clarke, as Booth’s letter to his mother more effectively demonstrated how completely unaware the family was as to John Wilkes’ intentions. While the To Whom it May Concern letter was published, it did not assuage the suspicion on the Booth family. Shortly after the letter was published, both John Sleeper Clarke and Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. were arrested and taken down to Washington, D.C. The youngest Booth, Joseph, would also be arrested leaving Edwin as the only male Booth not to be locked up. This series of events greatly bothered Clarke, who would complain about his improper treatment and the favored treatment of Edwin for the rest of his days. The assassination and the events that followed it marked the beginning of John Sleeper Clarke rejecting all things Booth, including his wife, Asia, whom he would grow to loathe.

Though not dated besides the year, Booth’s letter was likely written just following Lincoln’s miraculous re-election in November of 1864. The letter lays out John Wilkes Booth’s political and ideological beliefs and provides his reasons for his plan to abduct President Lincoln. Booth had started, sort of halfheartedly at first, to assemble a crew of conspirators in the summer of 1864 with the idea of abducting the President and taking him South. In this manner, Booth hoped to use Lincoln as a hostage to reinstate the prisoner exchange program between the Union and the Confederacy. This idea took on an increased importance in Booth’s mind after Lincoln’s surprise re-election on November 8, 1864. Immediately following this date, John Wilkes Booth began acting more in earnest and less than a week after the election, he was in Southern Maryland scouting the area and looking for others who might help him in his plot.

John Wilkes Booth Gutman 27

John Wilkes Booth

This letter, therefore, was written right at the beginning of Booth’s plot to abduct the President. It contains perhaps the most honest look into the mind and thoughts of John Wilkes Booth. In less than six months after this letter was written, the same motivations that led Booth to consider abduction, led him to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

"To Whom It May Concern" 1864 RG 60 Department of Justice Segregated Documents from Attorney General Letters Received, 1809-1870 Box 4 ReDiscovery Identifier: 6542

My Dear Sir                                                                                                                  1864.

You may use this, as you think best. But as some, may wish to know the when, the who, and the why, and as I know not, how, to direct, I give it (in the words of your master)

“To whom it may concern”

Right, or wrong, God, judge me, not man. For be my motive good or bad, of one thing I am sure, the lasting condemnation of the North.

I love peace more than life. Have loved the Union beyond expression. For four years have I waited, hoped, and prayed, for the dark clouds to break, and for the restoration of our former sunshine. To wait longer, would be a crime. All hope for peace is dead. My prayers have proved as idle as my hopes. ‘God’s’ will be done: I go to see, and share the bitter end.

I have ever held the South were right. The very nomination of Abraham Lincoln four years ago, spoke plainly – war – war upon Southern rights and institutions, his election proved it. “Await an overt act.” Yes till you are bound and plundered. What folly. The South were wise. Who thinks of argument and patience when the finger of his enemy presses on the trigger. In a foreign war, I too could

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 1 NARA

say, “Country right or wrong”, but in a struggle such as ours (where the brother tries to pierce the brothers heart) for God’s sake choose the right. When a country such as ours like this, spurns justice from her side, she forfeits the allegiance of every honest freeman, and should leave him untrammeled by any fealty soever, to act, as his conscience may approve.

People of the North, to hate tyranny to love liberty and justice, to strike at wrong and oppression, was the teaching of our fathers. The study of our early history will not let me forget it. And may it never.

This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same stand-point, held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us,) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness heretofore our wealth and power, witness their elevation in happiness and enlightenment above their race, elsewhere. I have lived among it most of my life and have seen less harsh treatment from master to man, than I have beheld in the North from father to son. Yet Heaven

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 2 NARA

knows no one would be willing to do, more for the negro race than I. Could I but see a way to still better their condition. But Lincoln’s policy is only preparing the way, for their total annihilation. The South are not, nor have they been, fighting for the continuance of slavery, the first battle of Bull-run did away with that idea. Their causes since for war, have been as noble, and greater far than those that urged our fathers on. Even should we allow, they were wrong at the beginning of this contest, cruelty and injustice, have made the wrong become the right. And they stand now (before the wonder and admiration of the world,) as a noble band of patriotic heroes. Hereafter, reading of their deeds, Thermopylae will be forgotten.

When I aided in the capture and the g execution of John Brown, (who was a murderer on our Western Border, and who was fairly tried and convicted, – before an impartial judge & jury – of treason, – and who by the way has since been made a God – I was proud of my little share in the transaction, for I deemed it my duty and that I was helping our common country to perform an act of justice. But what was a crime in poor John Brown, is now considered (by themselves) as the greatest and only virtue, of the whole

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 3 NARA

Republican party. Strange transmigration. Vice to become a virtue. Simply because more indulge in it. I thought then, as now, that the abolitionists, were the only traitors in the land, and that the entire party deserved the fate of poor old Brown. Not because they wish to abolish slavery, but on account of the means they have ever used endeavored to use, to effect that abolition. If Brown were living, I doubt if he himself would set slavery, against the Union. Most, in or many, in the North do, And openly curse the Union, if the South are to return and retain a single right guaranteed them by every tie which we once revered as sacred. The south can make no choice. It is either extermination, or slavery for themselves, (worse than death) to draw from. I would know my choice.

I have, also, studied hard to discover upon what grounds, the rights of a state to secede have been denied, when our very name (United States) and the Declaration of Independence, both provide for secession. But there is no time for words. I write in haste. I know how foolish I shall be deemed, for undertaking such a step, as this, where on the one side, I have many friends, and everything to make me happy. Where my profession alone has gained me an income of more than twenty thousand dollars a year. And where my great personal ambition in my profession has such a great field for labor. On the other hand- the south have

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 4 NARA

never bestowed upon me one kind word. A place now, where I have no friends, except beneath the sod. A place where I must become either become a private soldier, or a beggar. To give up all of the former for the latter, besides my mother and sisters whom I love so dearly, (although they so widely differ with me in opinion) seems insane. But God is my judge. I love justice, more than I do a country, that disowns it. More than fame and wealth. More – (Heaven pardon me if wrong) more than a happy home. I have never been upon a battlefield, but O my countrymen, could you all but see the reality or effects of this horrid war, as I have seen them (in every State, save Virginia) I know you would think like me. And would pray the Almighty to create in the Northern mind a sense of right and justice, (even should it possess no seasoning of mercy), and that he would dry up this sea of blood between us, – which is daily growing wider.

Alas, poor country, is, she to meet her threatened doom. Four years ago I would have given a thousand lives to see her remain, (as I had always known her) powerful and unbroken. And even now I would hold my life as naught, to see her what she was. O my friends if the fearful scenes of the past four years had never been enacted, or if what had been, had been but a frightful dream, from which we could now awake, with what overflowing hearts could we bless our God and pray for his continued favor. How I have loved the old flag can never, now, be known. A few years since and

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 5 NARA

the entire world could boast of none so pure and spotless. But I have of late been seeing and hearing of the bloody deeds of which she has been made, the emblem, and would shudder to think how changed she had grown. O How I have longed to see her break from the mist of blood and death that now circles round her folds, spoiling her beauty and tarnishing her honor. But no, day by day has she been draged deeper and deeper into cruelty and oppression, till now (in my eyes) her once bright-red stripes look like bloody gashes on the face of Heaven. I look now upon my early admiration of her glories as a dream. My love, (as things stand to day,) is for the South alone. Nor, do I deem it a dishonor, in attempting to make for her a prisoner of this man, to whom she owes so much of misery. If success attends me, I go penniless to her side. They say she has found that “last ditch” which the North have so long derided, and been endeavoring to force her in, forgetting they are our brothers, and that its impolitic to goad an enemy to madness. Should I reach her in safety and find it true, I will proudly beg permission to triumph or die in that same “ditch” by her side.

A Confederate, at present doing duty upon his own responsibility

J WilkesBooth

To Whom it May Concern Letter Page 6 NARA

References:
“Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” : The Writings of John Wilkes Booth edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper
NARA

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John Wilkes Booth and his Conspirators

Here’s my own addition to the conspirator collage family.


John Wilkes Booth and his Conspirators

There are two well known compilation images of the conspirators. One is the “Ring of Conspirators” which is featured in the Benn Pitman version of the trial transcript.

Ring of Conspirators

The other is a CDV image entitled, “Booth & his Associates”

Booth and His Associates

I took my inspiration from this latter image but made sure to add all of those tried for conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination, including Dr. Mudd.

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John Surratt in The Days’ Doings

In December of 1870, John H. Surratt gave his first public lecture about his involvement with John Wilkes Booth and the plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. His hope was to turn his notoriety into a successful career as a lecturer. He gave speeches in Rockville, MD, New York, Baltimore and was scheduled to speak in Washington, D.C. when public outcry and his arrest put an end to dream vocation. In truth, his lecture did not provide any earth shattering revelations and the full text of his Rockville lecture can be read on Roger Norton’s Lincoln Assassination Research Site here.

Surratt Proposed Lecture

Regardless, John Surratt’s lecture was newsworthy. It was particularly suited for an illustrated newspaper across the ocean called The Days’ Doings. The Days’ Doings was owned by Frank Leslie, the namesake of the American illustrated newspaper, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Frank Leslie was a English immigrant and engraver whose real name was Henry Carter. While his American newspaper set the bar for quality for illustrated newspapers, The Days’ Doings was specifically made to fulfill the darker desires and interests of its readers. Joshua Brown, a historian on Frank Leslie and The Days’ Doings, said it best: “In short, with The Days’ Doings, Leslie could pursue a male readership with a repertoire of sex, scandal, sports, and violence that would have undermined the necessary propriety of his most valued publication.” As an example, I previously posted this cover from an issue of The Days’ Doings, which I think demonstrates the newspapers normal content:

Booths body

Publishing the words of John Surratt, an accomplice of the assassin, clearly fit the newspaper’s modus operandi. However, they found Surratt’s lecture too tame and lacking of drama. “He says very little of interest that was not known before,” the newspaper stated and, therefore, they supplemented the text by including several engravings: “The salient points of his lecture we have given pictorial interpretation”.

The article, which was published in The Days’ Doings on January 14th, 1871, contains a few abstracts from John Surratt’s lecture with far more space given to the lively “pictorial interpretations”:

Surratt Days Doings 1871

Surratt as a Spy

Booth Telling Surratt of his Plan

Surratt Booth Meting of Conspirators

Conspirators Waiting for Lincoln

Surratt Learning of Lincoln's Assassination

Surratt Mary Deserted

Surratt Learning of his Mother's fate

Surratt Booth Lincoln Abduction plan

References:
The Days’ Doings (January 14th, 1871) owned by Dave Taylor
Indiana Historical Society
The Days’ Doings: The Guilded Age in the Profane Pictorial Press by Joshua Brown

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Photographing the Conspirators

Reader littlecoco7 posed the following question under the Quesenberry post:

“This has nothing to do with this topic, but I would like to know out of all the conspirators who had their picture taken from Alexander Gardner, how come there was no photo of Mary Surratt taken?”

Thanks so much for the question littlecoco7.  The mug shots of the conspirators are very valuable resources to us now.  For George Atzerodt, Michael O’Laughlen, and Edman Spangler, these few shots consist of our entire photographic record of their lives.  While engravings and drawings were made of them during their time in the court room, we have yet to find other photographs of these individuals.  Even those who we do have additional images of, the mug shots are unique in showing them as they were almost immediately after the crime was committed.  Before delving into your question as to why Mary Surratt (and Dr. Mudd for that matter) were not photographed with the rest, let’s look into how and when the conspirators were photographed.

The best resource for information about the images of the conspirators is the team of Barry Cauchon and John Elliott.  These talented gentlemen are in the process of writing a highly anticipated book regarding the incarceration of the Lincoln conspirators.  One of my links on the side of this blog is to Barry Cauchon’s blog, “A Little Touch of History” while the pairs’ Facebook page about their book, “Inside the Walls” is here.  Barry and John presented some of their findings at the 2011 and 2012 Surratt Society Lincoln Assassination Conferences.  Their research was remarkable to say the least.  To keep their excited fan base content while waiting for the final publication of their book, they produced two supplementary booklets about their talking points.  The most recent one that they sold at the 2012 conference was entitled, “13 Days Aboard the Monitors” and delved into the mug shot photo sessions and the hoods worn by the conspirators.   All the information in this post can be found in this terrific booklet and is currently available for purchase through Barry and John and the Surratt House Bookstore.

Through the research of Barry Cauchon and John Elliott we believe that three photograph sessions occurred while the conspirators were imprisoned aboard the monitors Saugus and Montauk.  The first set of images were all taken of a standing Lewis Powell wearing the clothes he was found in and the clothes he was wearing when he attack Secretary Seward.  There were a total of six pictures taken on this day, April 18th.

Carte-de-visites of two of the six photographs taken of Powell on April 18th.

At this point in time, only two of the conspirators were being housed on the monitors; Michael O’Laughlen and Lewis Powell.

Gardner came back to photograph the conspirators on April 25th.  By this point all of the main conspirators except for Booth and Herold had been arrested.  Gardner photographed Powell again, along with Michael O’Laughlen, George Atzerodt, Edman Spangler, Sam Arnold and Hartman Richter.  Richter was a cousin of George Atzerodt’s and was hiding George in his house when the authorities caught up with him.  While Richter would be cleared of any involvement in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, in these early days of the investigation he was locked up and photographed with the main gang.

One of two O’Laughlen photographs from April 25th

One of two Spangler photographs from April 25th

One of four Powell photographs from April 25th

One of two Arnold photographs from April 25th

One of two Atzerodt photographs from April 25th

One of two Richter photographs from April 25th

Finally, on April 27th, Gardner returned for his last photograph session.  Here he took pictures of the recently captured Davy Herold and another conspirator Joao Celestino.  Celestino was a Portuguese ship captain with an intense hatred for William Seward.  It was thought he was involved with the attempt on the Secretary’s life but was later released as no evidence existed to connect him to Booth’s plan.

One of three Herold photographs from April 27th

One of three Celestino photographs from April 27th

It has also been written that Gardner and his assistant took one photograph of the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth.  The single print of the event was apparently turned over the War Department but has never been found.  If it was taken, it was either destroyed shortly thereafter, or still remains undiscovered somewhere today.

In the wee hours of April 29th, the conspirators on were transferred off of the monitors and into the Old Arsenal Penitentiary.

So, why didn’t Mary Surratt and Dr. Mudd get their pictures taken?  In short, they were not photographed because they weren’t there and their complicity in the affair had yet to be determined.  Though Mary Surratt had been arrested when Powell showed up at her boardinghouse at the most inopportune time, she was not imprisoned on the iron clads.  Instead, she and her household were sent to the Old Capitol Prison merely as questionable suspects.  The same held true for Dr. Mudd who joined others involved in Booth’s escape like Colonel Samuel Cox, Thomas Jones, and Thomas Harbin, at the Old Capitol Prison.  In the initial stages of the investigation, Mary Surratt and Dr. Mudd were not seen as conspirators.  It was not until more and more evidence arose pointing towards their foreknowledge and association with the assassin that they were treated less like witnesses and more like accomplices.

References:
A Peek Inside the Walls – “13 Days Aboard the Monitors” by Barry Cauchon and John Elliott

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Shooting Booth

While Boston Corbett has entered history as the man who avenged Abraham Lincoln in the morning hours of April 26th, 1865, Booth had another bullet enter his body some time before that date.  This shooting was courtesy of his own manager and agent, Matthew W. Canning.

Matthew W. Canning

By 1860, John Wilkes Booth had started to tire of playing supernumerary parts.  The pay was very small, and he longed to be recognized as a talented actor.  His brother, Edwin Booth, was being lauded as his father’s creative heir and was enjoying life as a bona fide star.  While lacking the training his older brother received through his father’s tutelage, Wilkes believed himself to be on par with his famous brother.  He set out for his own “star” tour.  The theatrical star system of the day allowed the lead actor and actress to receive a part of the profits for each performance, rather than a small set salary for the season that the stock actors received.  Being the son of the great tragedian Junius Brutus Booth and brother to the successful Edwin, Wilkes had an easier time than most finding himself an agent.  Despite his amateurish experience, his Booth name was guaranteed to bring in patrons.  Wilkes was invited to play as a star by a former Philadelphia lawyer turned theatrical manager, Matthew Canning.

Matthew W. Canning was in the process of building his own theatre in Montgomery, Alabama and saw the benefits of having a Booth as his star.

Before his own theatre opened, however, the Canning Dramatic Company toured the southern states starting in Columbus, Georgia.  The other actors in the company included the sisters Maggie, Mary, and Emma Mitchell and Samuel Knapp Chester, a man Booth later would attempt to include in his conspiracy.  Perhaps to save the Booth name for his own theatre’s success, Canning continued to bill John Wilkes Booth under his stage name, “J. B. Wilkes”.  While the lineage of the Canning Dramatic Company’s lead was becoming less and less of a secret with the press and the public, during the troupe’s entire run in Columbus, “Mr. Wilkes” was the star.

Mr. Wilkes’ first performance as a star occurred on October 1, 1860, playing Romeo to Maggie Mitchell’s Juliet.  His time in Columbus proved a success, with newspapers speaking of the company being, “much superior” from Canning’s last troupe and citing that, “Mr. Wilkes and Miss Mitchell are highly complimented.”  For an actor who had a shaky start as a stock player, Booth’s first star tour was everything he could have hoped for.  Until the night of October 12th that is, when Canning shot Booth.

The exact details on how the shooting occurred are varied.  A newspaper of the day, stated, “Mr. John Wilkes Booth was accidentally shot in the thigh at Cook’s Hotel.  Mr. Booth and Mr. Canning were practicing with a pistol, when it went off in Mr. Canning’s hand as he was letting down the hammer, inflicting a flesh wound in Mr. Booth’s thigh.”  A more amusing, though less likely account comes from The Mad Booths of Maryland by Stanley Kimmel: “The night he was to play Hamlet another actor was with him in his dressing room when Canning entered and jokingly threatened to shoot both of them.  The gun unexpectedly exploded and Wilkes ‘was shot in the rear.’”

The most reliable account, while written years after the fact and probably embellished with age, comes from Matthew Canning himself.  On January 19th, 1886 George Alfred Townsend, better known as GATH, published an interview he had with Matthew Canning in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“No doubt your readers smile at me for having so often in this correspondence brought up incidents concerning John Brown and Booth, the assassin.  The fact is that I have just got off my hands a piece of literary work concerning these parties, which has taken so much investigation that I have at times discharged my findings into correspondences.  I shall not have the amiable defect of Lot’s wife in ever looking behind me, and therefore, these notes will end with the work for which they were obtained.

Yesterday I saw Matthew Canning, who started with Booth on a starring tour as his manager, and he said to me as follows: ‘Edwin Booth asked me to give his brother Wilkes a star.  He was not, strictly speaking, a star: he was a member of my stock company and played as a star, but of course he did not get the profits a star would receive.  I had a little circuit in the Southern States, with Montgomery for its chief center, and I was building a theater down there when I happened to shoot John Booth.  I can tell you about that curious incident.  Booth was one of the best shots in the profession, and his special passion was his physical training and strength.  That may have led him into the crime in the way he committed it.  When I took him out he was quite a young fellow, and had been known in the profession before as Mr. Wilkes.  I made it a point with Edwin Booth that he should play under his family name, as it would draw me money.  We were at Columbus, Ga., and my theater was not finished and had given me a great deal of trouble.

‘I went into my room one day, and he said to me: ‘Now, you must let me nurse you.  You are fagged out.’ I told him I only wanted to go to sleep.  I laid down on the bed and was in a doze when he saw my pistol in my rear pocket.  Every body carried weapons down in that country, and so did I.  Seeing the pistol, Booth yielded to his passion for arms, and he drew it out of my pocket.  I could feel it glide from me, but was in that state that I did not resist or rise.  Although he had just said that I wanted rest and sleep, he pointed the pistol at an iron mark on a wall opposite and discharged it right there in the room.  Of course I sprang up, complaining that he excited me by that explosion.  He then said he wanted another shot, and I objected; but he seemed to have his mind on firing again to show his accuracy of aim.  The pistol had got rusted, and when I gave him a cartridge to put in it, it would not fit easily.  He took his knife and began to scrape the pistol and the cartridge, and while in the act of doing it, down came the lock in my hand and discharged the pistol, and the ball struck him in the side, barely missing the femoral artery and it lodged in his body.  We thought he would die, but he recovered in a few weeks.”

The wound Booth received from Canning was not just a flesh wound as the newspaper stated and would lay him up for some time.  Starting from the night of the accident until Booth’s return, the lead roles were played by John W. Albaugh, Canning’s stage and acting manager.  This gave Albaugh the opportunity to act alongside Mary Mitchell, the woman who would later become his wife.

On October 19th, seven days after Booth was shot, Canning scheduled a benefit in his honor where he would receive most of the proceeds of the show.  It is likely Canning was attempting to assuage his guilt for shooting and disabling his lead actor.  Unfortunately, inclement weather in Columbus kept even the heartiest of theatre-goers away on the 19th, and so the benefit was rescheduled for the next day.  This was the company’s last day in Columbus and they performed Julius Caesar.  Booth’s injury kept him from performing in the whole play but, as a gesture of thanks for the city that supported him and celebrated him in his first starring engagement, Booth took the stage and recited Mark Anthony’s pivotal, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” speech.

From Georgia, the Canning Dramatic Company travelled to Montgomery, Alabama to perform in Matthew Canning’s own, appropriately named, Montgomery Theatre.  Though advertisements promised “Mr. John Wilkes” would make his debut on the 23rd of October, the night came and went without his appearance on stage.  The notoriously agile and active player was still not physically healed enough to perform.   He would not make his Montgomery debut until October 29th when he played the role of Pescara in The Apostate.

Though his wound forced him to be a little more reserved than his normal acting habits, the Montgomery audiences supported this young and talented actor.  When Booth played Hamlet, Canning’s theatre was filled to the brim with patrons.  Everyone came to see the son of Junius Brutus Booth, rival of Edwin Booth, and most agreed that, while he needed some refinement, he carried his father’s torch well.  During all of this time, however, John was still billed as “Mr. Wilkes”.

It does not appear that the transition from “Mr. Wilkes” to “J. Wilkes Booth” was instigated by John.  In fact, his star billing as “Mr. Wilkes” for weeks shows that he wanted to be celebrated for his own abilities.  In the end, John did not take the Booth name back; rather it was justly given to him.  The first billing of him as J. Wilkes Booth occurred on December 1st, when Maggie Mitchell presented a benefit in his honor.

His fellow actors had conferred his Booth name upon him and, after receiving such admiration in his first tour, he believed it to have been rightly bestowed.  He had proven himself worthy of the name Booth and would keep it for the rest of his career.

By mid-December, Booth’s time with Canning’s company was up.  He returned to Philadelphia to rest at the home his brother Edwin had rented for their mother and siblings.  Asia wrote to a friend on December 16th that, “John Booth is at home.  He is looking well but his wound is not entirely healed yet – he still carries the ball in him.”  With Canning as his agent, Booth accepted starring engagements in northern cities like Albany and Portland, Maine.  Eventually, he would become a hugely successful star and become his own agent, no longer needing Matthew Canning’s services.  Before that occurred however, the two men shared another experience that involved Booth shedding some blood:

The following is the continuation of GATH’s 1886 interview with Canning:

“Somewhere about 1862 I was playing Booth in Washington City, and he began to have a boil on the side of his neck.  It grew more and more inflamed, and at last was discernible from the house, and on his fine, youthful skin it made a bad impression.  So I said to him one morning: ‘Come here, John, and take a ride with me.  It is none of your business where I am going.’ I drove him to the house of Dr. May, a surgeon, and took him in there.  May looked at his neck and said: ‘Why, this is a tumor.  You will have to submit to an operation to be relieved of it.’ Booth said he would sit right down there and have it cut out.  The doctor said to him: ‘Young man, this is no trifling matter.  You will have to come when we are ready for you, when I have an assistant here.’

‘No,’ said Booth, ‘You can cut it out right now.  Here is Canning, who will be your assistant.’ He threw himself across a chair and leaned his head on the chair-back so as to throw up his neck.  ‘Now cut away,’ said he.  The doctor told me that if I was to assist in the operation that I must pull back the skin or flesh as he cut.  The first wipe he made with his knife nearly made me fall on the floor fainting.  The black blood gushed out, and he seemed to have cut the man’s neck partly off.  Booth did not move, but his skin turned as white as the wall.  The doctor continued to cut, and notified me that I was a remarkable assistant for an amateur.  Meantime my stomach was all giving away.  The first thing that happened was I rolled over and fell on the floor, and Booth from loss of blood reeled and fell off the chair.  When he came to the doctor told me that I was not as much of an assistant as he thought I was going to turn out to be.  Booth was laid up for about a month…”

This impromptu surgery left a discernible scar upon Booth’s neck.  That scar would be identified by Dr. May during Booth’s autopsy and is one of the many details that prove that Booth did not escape.

Dr. John Frederick May

As stated, Booth and Canning would part ways when Booth felt comfortable on his own.  Though occasionally Booth would still contact Canning to help him make engagements.  Matthew Canning’s last meeting with Booth occurred in December of 1864.

During that time, Canning was in Philadelphia, as the agent to Vestvale, the actress.  Booth was in the city as well and asked Canning for a favor.  At that time, Canning was a bit perturbed at Booth as he had made several engagements on his behalf that Booth had cancelled.  As we know now, Booth’s mind was no longer on acting but on his “oil speculations” i.e. kidnapping President Lincoln.  He had already gained the support of two of his childhood friends, Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold, for the endeavor.  His next target was a friend from his initial days with Canning.  Booth wanted Samuel Knapp Chester in his conspiracy.

Samuel Knapp Chester

During their conversations, Booth spoke to Canning about his recent visit with Chester in New York.  He found out truthfully, that Chester was unhappy at his current theatre in New York, but lacked the ability to change it.  Chester was not a star like Booth and had a harder time finding engagements.  Booth had revealed to Chester his idea to kidnap Lincoln and ferry him into the open arms of the Confederacy.  Chester had refused to join his plot, but Booth was not a man to give up easily.  He hoped that assisting Chester in his career would motivate him to reconsider.  So, under the guise of a helpful friend, Booth asked Matthew Canning to convince John T. Ford to engage him at one of his theatres.  Ford owned theatres in Baltimore and Washington, which would bring Chester closer physically into the realm of the conspiracy.  Booth, desperate to get on Chester’s good side promised Canning he would, “give [him] anything if he would see Ford.”  After some convincing, Canning agreed to do what he could.  At first Ford was hesitant but a recent party had cancelled on him and so Chester was hired to take their place.  Canning wrote to Booth of his probable success in finding Chester a job at Ford’s.  He received a telegram back from Booth stating, “Don’t fail to hush that matter at once.”  This response puzzled Canning.  Did Booth mean to stop pursuing it because Chester had reconsidered?  He wrote Booth asking for clarification.  Booth responded back with, “The telegraph operator is an ass, he telegraphed ‘don’t fail to hush the matter’ when I wrote ‘fail to push the matter.’”

Despite being grateful to Booth for getting him a new engagement, Samuel Chester remained unmoved in his views on the kidnapping plot.  He would have nothing to do with it.

After Booth assassinated Lincoln, everyone relating to him was rounded up, including Matthew Canning.  Canning had the luck of being arrested in Philadelphia by a former actor turned solider with whom he was friendly.  Canning immediately wrote out a statement regarding his history with Booth.  While arrested on the night of April 15th, Canning was allowed to retrace his footsteps and collect signed affidavits to his recent whereabouts in the presence of Capt. John Jack, the former actor.  Only after all of this was done was Canning sent to Washington.  He was placed in the Old Capitol Prison and shared a room with John Ford.  His thorough paperwork helped him and he was released from prison on April 28th upon taking the oath of allegiance.

Canning died on August 30th, 1890 at the age of sixty.  He was a theatrical manager and agent to the end, dying in a New York hotel room while managing his “The Blue and the Gray” acting company.  His body was shipped back to his native Philadelphia and he was buried in Woodlands Cemetery there.

While Canning may have felt guilty in 1860 for accidentally shooting his star and main attraction, after the events of April 1865 he may have adopted the same “what if” beliefs as another veteran actor:

“‘If’ that shot had been fatal he would not have lived to plunge his country into the depths of despair and mourning, nor crushed with most poignant anguish those who loved him best; he would not have lived to ‘pour the sweet milk of concord into hell’, to fire the shot that shook the foundation rock upon which his country lived.”

References:
GATH’s Special Dispatch to the Enquirer – Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan 19, 1886
Lust for Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth by Gordon Samples
The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers
“Right or Wrong, God Judge Me”: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper
The Mad Booths of Maryland by Stanley Kimmel
Article images from GenealogyBank.com
Matthew Canning’s handwritten affidavits are available on Fold3.com in the Turner/Baker papers (must be a paying member to view)
The article containing the ending quote is here.
An additional article recounting Matthew Canning’s arrest is here.

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