Posts Tagged With: Ford’s Theatre

An Update Regarding John Wilkes Booth’s Knife

Back in December, I put up a post here on BoothieBarn which contained my research on the knife John Wilkes Booth used to stab Major Rathbone following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By consulting the period evidence that came out during the trial of the conspirators, it is my firm belief that Ford’s Theatre has been displaying the incorrect knife for years and that the correct knife is locked away at the NPS storage facility in Landover, MD.

If you haven’t read the piece, please take a few minutes to read the article and look at the evidence for yourself: https://boothiebarn.com/2018/12/31/cloak-and-daggers-cutting-through-the-confusion-of-the-assassination-knives/

The post itself was actually just a reprint of my original article on the subject which had been published in the Surratt Courier in March of 2012. Since that time, I have been trying to get Ford’s Theatre to acknowledge their unintentional error. In 2012 I sent the article to the National Park Service rangers at Ford’s and to representatives of the Ford’s Theatre Society. While I had a few individuals tell me that they found the evidence compelling, none felt they had the authority to make any changes. And so, for the past seven years, each time I take a group or a bus tour to Ford’s Theatre I am compelled to point out to the group that they should disregard the knife on display. When asked why Ford’s Theatre doesn’t make an effort to correct their mistake, I can only shrug my shoulders in reply.

Recently, however, there has actually been some progress regarding John Wilkes Booth’s knife. The Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service felt motivated to do their own investigating and last month they published an article on their blog regarding their exploration into the knives. I highly recommend you read their post before continuing with this one: https://www.fords.org/blog/post/which-knife-did-john-wilkes-booth-use-disentangling-the-lincoln-assassination-knives/

By looking at their accession and cataloging records the Ford’s Theatre team discovered what those of us who study some of these artifacts already knew – their records are incomplete and, at times, incorrect. Remember that after the trials of the conspirators, John Surratt, and the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, the pieces of evidence (like the knives) were locked away in the Judge Advocate General’s office. They stayed in the possession of the JAG for over 70 years but there was a distinct lack of orderly care and documentation of those artifacts. The items were regularly removed from their boxes in the JAG and shown off to visitors and reporters. When moths were discovered infesting some of the trial exhibits, the JAG carted the clothing of the assassins into a courtyard and burned it. Some pieces, such as Booth’s diamond stick pin, just mysteriously disappeared from the collection. The JAG was simply not a good steward of the trial exhibits. When the artifacts were finally turned over to The Lincoln Museum (Ford’s) in 1940, the people in the JAG didn’t really know what they had anymore. They wrote up a list which was filled with inaccuracies and that is what Ford’s has had to rely on for many years. Ford’s inherited messy records and a faulty catalog through no fault of their own.

My research, however, doesn’t rely on those faulty records. I drew my conclusions based on the period evidence of 1865 and 1867 which describes the knife Booth used on Major Rathbone. Those descriptions clearly show that the Liberty knife on display at Ford’s Theatre is not correct. Even the two authors of Ford’s article, David McKenzie and Janet Folkerts, seem to accept that my research on this is sound:

“In his post, Taylor presents additional evidence that the knife currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum, FOTH 3235 (the Liberty knife), is not the actual knife. He cites testimony of witnesses in the assassination investigation, the 1865 military tribunal and the 1867 trial of John Surratt to argue that FOTH 3218 (the Rio Grande knife) is the knife that Booth used to stab Rathbone, and not FOTH 3235 (the Liberty knife), the knife that is currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Between that evidence and what is in the curatorial files described above, we’re inclined to say, at the very least, that a good amount of evidence points to that conclusion.”

The Ford’s Theatre blog post addresses their messy records (which, again, is not their fault as they were originally given erroneous records regarding these artifacts) and acknowledges that the period evidence regarding the knives points to the conclusion that they have the incorrect knife on display.

And yet, the very next sentence in the post is, “But because the evidence is so messy, as Taylor notes, we aren’t prepared to make a definitive declaration.” I have a couple of problems with this sentence. First of all, as I have already stated, the evidence that is “messy” is not historical but curatorial. The accession records regarding the artifacts are inherently messy due to the manner in which they were stored for over 70 years. That is why it is so crucial to take the time to return to the historical evidence for these artifacts. While my article addresses the messy curatorial records, all of my conclusions are based on the historical records which are clear. John Wilkes Booth stabbed Major Rathbone with a Rio Grande Camp Knife that bore a small spot of rust that looked like blood on the blade.

The Liberty knife (shown below) currently on display at Ford’s Theatre does not fit that description. The Rio Grande Camp knife, known as FOTH 3218, currently in storage in the Museum Resource Center in Landover, does fit this description. While there is a bit of uncertainty regarding where the Liberty knife came from and its place in the trial exhibits, it is clear that it was not the knife Booth used to stab Rathbone.

Secondly, the claim that they, “aren’t prepared to make a definitive declaration” is, in itself, a declaration. It’s a declaration that when faced with choosing between incomplete accession and cataloging records or compelling historical evidence Ford’s Theatre will choose the former if it keeps the status quo. In the course of their post, Ford’s Theatre does not provide any historical evidence to support the Liberty knife as being the one that Booth used. Other than some newspaper accounts from the 1900s from journalists who went to see the artifacts in storage and were told inaccurate information from the clerks in the JAG office, I have never come across any historical evidence that attributes the Liberty knife to Booth. Without true historical evidence, how can Ford’s Theatre only commit that at some unspecified “future” the “on-site and online labels at Ford’s Theatre will reflect the ambiguity of the knives”? Even their claim that “Perhaps a future display could, like Taylor’s post and ours suggest, showcase both knives and lay out evidence to show our visitors how ambiguous historical evidence often is,” creates a false equivalency between Ford’s messy curatorial records and actual historical evidence from the period.

The historical evidence in support of FOTH 3218 as being the knife John Wilkes Booth used on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and as the one that was recovered from his body at the Garrett farm is not ambiguous. Messy accession and cataloging records should not supersede historical evidence at an institution committed to educating the public on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. While John Wilkes Booth’s knife may not rise to the same level of other artifacts like Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, the weapons and possessions of the assassins tell a crucial story of Lincoln’s effect on his fellow man.

I know that the employees of the Ford’s Theatre NPS and the Ford’s Theatre Society are good people. I have worked with them on projects and on Booth tours. I follow many of them on Twitter and know that they are professionals who value education and public history. I appreciate greatly that Ford’s Theatre has chosen to address this part of their collection in such a public way. As David and Janet state in their closing line, “transparency about artifacts like these knives can lead to discussions about what makes visitor experiences in museums ‘real’ and how the history of objects and places affect us in the present day.” Ford’s is to be commended for their professionalism and their ongoing work in acknowledging the complications in their own collection. But acknowledgement without subsequent action is meaningless. It’s the “thoughts and prayers” of the museum world.

To my friends at Ford’s Theatre NPS and the Ford’s Theatre Society: The wrong artifact is on display and has been for many years. With the historical evidence solely in favor of FOTH 3218 and your cataloging records expectantly inconclusive, the correct remedy is to remove the Liberty knife from display and replace it with FOTH 3218. By doing so you will show your visitors that Ford’s Theatre is an institution that actively improves its exhibits based on sound research, is open about the history of its collection and the uncertainties that exist, and demonstrates a commitment to using historical evidence to guide your public outreach.

In September, I will be taking my next busload of guests to Ford’s Theatre for the John Wilkes Booth escape route tour. My sincerest hope is that I will finally be able to point to FOTH 3218 in the case and rave about the wonderful professionals at Ford’s Theatre who acknowledged an error in their collection and used historical evidence to rectify it. The research has been done and the error has been acknowledged. All that’s left to do now is to fix it.


For those who are interested, what follows is the fairly long series of tweets I wrote shortly after I read the Ford’s Theatre blog post in May. I have expressed much of the same sentiments in what I wrote above, but I thought I’d include my original thoughts as well.





























Categories: History, News | Tags: , , , , , | 6 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

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , | 23 Comments

The Novice and John Wilkes Booth

On June 15, 1863, John Wilkes Booth began an acting engagement in St. Louis, Missouri. While Booth visited many different cities as a touring star, the audiences of St. Louis were very supportive of his efforts. This particular engagement was his fourth time playing in the city in only a year and a half. In addition to the audiences, Booth was also aided by the fact that he had a pretty decent connection in the St. Louis theater scene. During each of Booth’s engagements in the city, he performed at Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre.

Ben DeBar

Ben DeBar was essentially family to Booth. In 1840, Booth’s eldest brother, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. married Ben DeBar’s sister, Clementina. June and Clementina’s union did not last however because, in 1851, June took a page out of his father’s book and ran off with another woman. Despite this unpleasantness, Ben DeBar maintained a good relationship with John Wilkes Booth and the rest of the Booth family. Ben DeBar hired John Wilkes Booth for five different engagements in St. Louis, and when he opened another theater in New Orleans, Louisiana, John Wilkes was hired there as well.

The June 1863 engagement in St. Louis was like any other for the 25 year-old actor. The newspapers noted that Booth was, “nightly greeted by full and fashionable houses; his performance[s] eliciting the most enthusiastic applause.” Booth’s engagement was scheduled to last from the 15th to the 27th, a normal two week engagement.

After a few days in St. Louis, Booth was presented with an offer from an unusual source. A Missouri resident by the name of R. J. Morgan approached Booth asking him if he could take Booth’s place on the final night of his engagement. It was not unheard of for actors to make such requests of their peers though it was more common for actors to request the services of their peers for benefit performances or during emergencies. Being asked to surrender a performance was less common. This request was even more strange, however, because the solicitor was not even a fellow actor, at least not yet.

We know very little about the life of R. J. Morgan. His foray into theater begins and ends over the course of about a year. Four months prior to his proposition to John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was a relatively unknown man. He was born in England and at the beginning of the Civil War he resided in Missouri. In early 1863, he was briefly living in Davenport, Iowa. What his business was and why he was in Iowa is a mystery. Apparently, he was able to make somewhat of a name for himself as one who knew a little bit about European and American poetry. On February 17th, a group of citizens in Davenport wrote a letter to Morgan which was published in the newspaper. The men appealed to Morgan to honor them with a public reading of various poems known to him. One would expect that Morgan must have previously given private readings of poetry which motivated his friends and neighbors to ask for a public showing. Morgan accepted the invitation of the men stating, “I shall avail myself of the flattering invitation extended to me…” and “the entertainment proposed to be given, I trust you will look upon as an amateur affair, with little professional pretensions.” Morgan secured the use of Davenport’s Metropolitan Hall free of charge after insisting that the proceeds of the readings would not go to him, but would instead be donated to the needy families of absent Union soldiers. It might be a bit cynical but, given his later actions with Booth, it is not out of the realm of possibility that R. J. Morgan desired to start a career as an dramatic orator and organized the invitation and philanthropic gesture to work in his advantage.

On the night of February 24, 1863, R. J. Morgan presented his “Evening with the Poets”. He presented readings of 12 poems including Beautiful Snow, a piece also rendered by John Wilkes Booth from time to time. While the audience enjoyed Morgan’s readings, the turnout was a bit lackluster for his first time out. “The audience was not large,” the newspaper said, “but those who had the pleasure of listening to the reading of the selections on that occasion may count themselves fortunate…It is certain that the public greatly underestimated Mr. Morgan’s ability, else the Hall would have been filled…” Morgan stayed true to his word, however, and donated the night’s entire proceeds of $18 to the Adjutant General of Iowa. “Your request, that I will apply the amount to the relief of needy families of our absent soldiers shall be faithfully complied with,” the General wrote to Morgan (who subsequently had the note published in the newspaper).

This initial, charitable reading, kick-started Morgan’s new career as a dramatic reader. Four days after his debut, Morgan gave another evening of readings in Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Davenport. For his second reading he duplicated his first program entirely, but this time he took home the proceeds. After that, Morgan spent the next two months travelling around the Midwest giving readings in different cities. We have records of him performing in Iowa City, Muscatine, and Davenport, Iowa; Springfield and Jacksonville, Illinois; and in St. Louis, Missouri. He was apparently still in St. Louis when John Wilkes Booth came to town.

As Morgan’s readings went on, he began expanding his repertoire. He incorporated more and more Shakespeare, doing readings from Hamlet, Othello, and Henry IV. Coincidentally, while he was on the road, Morgan’s talents as a reader drew comparisons with a family of actors, a member of which would be shortly known to him. After a performance in Muscatine, Iowa the newspapers wrote, “The rendering and acting of Hamlet in his deathless soliloquies, was of that high and brilliant order that few attain who reach for it. The true life, energy and expression was breathed into it so faithfully that even a Booth or a Forrest might listen profitably.” After four months, Morgan apparently believed he was ready to move beyond being merely a reader and elocutionist. He wanted to be an actor and so he approached John Wilkes Booth in order to make that happen.

While Morgan’s correspondence to Booth doesn’t appear to survive, the two brief notes Booth wrote back to Morgan are housed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield as part of the Taper Collection. It’s clear that Morgan appealed to Booth to surrender the final day of his engagement so that Morgan could take his place and make his own theatrical debut. On June 22nd, Booth wrote to Morgan setting his terms for such a deal.

“Dear Sir,

I will agree to give up Saturday night 27th on condition you pay me fifty dollars $50 to be paid on or before Friday morning 26th

But it is understood I do not play myself these I consider very reasonable terms

Your respects

J. Wilkes Booth”

John Wilkes Booth was perfectly willing to surrender the last night of his engagement – for a price. The 1862/1863 theatrical season had been a good one for Booth and he did very well financially in Chicago earlier in the season. In December of 1862 he wrote to a colleague that he had made $900 his first week in Chicago and, as such, had averaged about $650 per week so far that season. If his success had held out for the rest of the season, $50 was somewhat generous on Booth’s part since he was making around $100 per performance on average. With only two engagements left in the season Booth may have been fine with taking an extra day off, and making $50 not to go to work wasn’t a bad plan.

With Booth’s note in hand, Morgan approached Ben DeBar seeking permission to perform at his theater. Since Booth had given his blessing, DeBar consented. Morgan wanted his debut to be a benefit performance for himself, where he would be entitled to a share of the box office. On the back of the same note Booth had written, DeBar gave his terms.

“Mr. RJ Morgan

You can have the one half of the receipts of the theatre on Saturday night next over and above the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. You paying Mr. J W Booth fifty dollars for relinquishing the night to you.

B. DeBar”

With these agreements in hand, R. J. Morgan began preparations for his debut. He chose A New Way to Pay Old Debts as his play, where he would perform the role of Sir Giles Overreach, the main character and villain. Coincidentally, Sir Giles Overreach was a favorite character of John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. The elder Booth had performed the role over 320 times during his career.

On Friday, June 26th, Morgan paid John Wilkes Booth the $50 he was owed. Booth then jotted down a note for Morgan, which acted as a receipt.

“Reced. St. Louis June 26th / 63 of Mr Morgan fifty doll in consideration of giving up Saturday night as per agreement $50 –

J. Wilkes Booth”

The following evening, Saturday, June 27th, with tickets and playbills in hand, R. J. Morgan made his on stage debut as an actor. Whether John Wilkes Booth attended the performance of the man who took his place is unknown. By Monday Booth was already on route to Cleveland, Ohio for his next engagement.

A few days after the performance, a review in the St. Louis Democrat newspaper hailed R. J. Morgan’s outing a complete success:

“The debut of R. J. Morgan at the St. Louis Theatre last Saturday evening, in the arduous character of Sir Giles Overreach, was, in point of execution, a brilliant success. This was Mr. Morgan’s first appearance upon any stage, and his success more than excelled the high expectations of those who were familiar with him as a dramatic reader. From his first entrance upon the stage, the bold, bad man, the scheming, heartless villain, stood out so prominently that the individuality of the actor was forgotten…His style and acting are of that electric and startling character that carries an audience with him. Mr. Morgan has a good stage presence, a clear and distinct enunciation, a perfect command of himself, and walks the stage with ease and abandon of a veteran stager. We predict for him a brilliant career in the arduous profession which he has chosen.”

Another reviewer from a different paper, however, was a bit more critical of Morgan’s performance:

“Last night, a Mr. R. J. Morgan, who has gained somewhat of a reputation as a reader, attempted the very difficult part of Sir Giles Overreach, in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”; and, as might be expected, he made a failure, so far as making any favorable impression went. He knew the part, and had a good knowledge of the business; but there are very few old actors who can play the part with effect, and it is utterly impossible for a novice to do it, let his natural talent be what it may.”

Brilliant or failure, Morgan’s on stage debut worked in his favor. Though the 1862/63 theatrical season was wrapping up when he took the stage, the 1863/1864 season was just a couple months away. Somehow, perhaps through a good word from Ben DeBar or possibly even John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was hired by John T. Ford to become a member of the stock company at his Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. Morgan left the Midwest behind to follow his dreams on the east coast. The Holliday Street Theatre opened for the season on August 17th but Morgan didn’t grace the stage until September 1st. Despite being a stock actor, Morgan still found his name on the Holliday Street playbills from time to time. John T. Ford had a practice of publicizing his stock company and some took starring roles when the theater was in between star engagements.

But, while Morgan’s name could be found on several playbills during his time with Ford, he always played second fiddle to the star actors or veteran members of the company. Morgan acted in both Shakespearean tragedies and comedic farces. On November 28th the Holliday Street Theatre put on the comedy Our American Cousin which would gain infamy a year and a half later. Morgan played the more serious role of Sir Edward Trenchard.

For some reason or other, after December of 1863, R. J. Morgan left the Holliday Street Theatre. What caused Morgan to abandon his career as an actor is unknown. Perhaps he was unhappy with working as a subordinate stock actor. Maybe the fairly poor salary in that job wasn’t enough. Or perhaps he just missed his home. Whatever the reasons, by April of 1864, he had made his way back to St. Louis. On April 23rd, during a celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, R. J. Morgan returned to his roots and gave dramatic readings from Shakespearean plays. Five days later, on April 28, he gave an evening of dramatic readings as a benefit for the St. Louis Sanitary Fair. In October of 1864, he received a pass to leave and re-enter the military district of St. Louis.

From that point on, the life and dramatic career of R. J. Morgan returns to the anonymity from which he came. Even basic biographical data, like what the R & J stand for, is still a mystery. While there are possibilities as to his identity (there was an auctioneer named Rees J. Morgan who lived in St. Louis in 1865 and 1866), I have been unable to find definitive evidence of his life outside of 1863 – 1864. The bulk of what was presented here comes from some newspaper articles about his dramatic readings and a small collection of tickets and playbills from his career housed in the special collections department of Louisiana State University. How a collector in Louisiana acquired these few papers on R. J. Morgan’s life, I have no idea. The few items about Morgan and John Wilkes Booth that are now a part of the ALPLM’s Taper collection were almost assuredly once a part of the same collection that was later donated to LSU. Hopefully more information about R. J. Morgan will be found in the future.

In closing, while researching there were two interesting bits of trivia that I stumbled across. The first is that it is quite possible that R. J. Morgan, during his limited career with John T. Ford, may have actually performed at Ford’s Theatre. John Ford reopened his Washington theatre in August of 1863, after rebuilding it from a December 1862 fire. After its reopening, Ford would often pull from his Baltimore stock company when he needed extra performers in Washington. It’s very possible that R. J. Morgan was brought to Washington by Ford to supplement his new theater. R. J. Morgan was definitely in Washington, D.C. in January of 1864 because he received a military pass to visit Alexandria, Virginia during that time. What’s even more interesting to think about is the fact that John Wilkes Booth had an engagement at Ford’s Theatre in November of 1863, when Morgan was still employed by John T. Ford. Did Morgan have a chance to act beside the man who allowed him to get his start? Maybe.

Lastly, while R. J. Morgan’s connection to John Wilkes Booth, the first presidential assassin, and Ben BeBar, a member of the Booth family, has been established, amazingly Morgan also has a slight connection to the second presidential assassin. Remember that the event that put Morgan on the path to being an actor was that very first dramatic reading he was asked to do in Davenport in February of 1863. A group of the Davenport citizenry wrote to Morgan, with each man signing their name to the letter.

A total of 22 men affixed their names to the request, the last of which was a man named “J. W. Guiteau”. This man’s full name was John Wilson Guiteau. He was a Davenport lawyer and the older brother of Charles J. Guiteau, the future assassin of President James Garfield. It’s so strange that R. J. Morgan made both his dramatic reading and acting debuts because of the support of assassins and their families.

References:
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
The Albert Louis Lieutaud Collection – Louisiana State University Special Collections
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux
Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen Archer

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The Ford’s Theatre Orchestra

“More is probably known about the people who were at work in Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865, and about the topography of the theatre itself than of any other house in the world. We know the names, habits, and duties of every actor, stagehand, ticket-taker, box-office man, and usher*, and we know who many of the audience were.”

This quote comes from the doctoral dissertation of John Ford Sollers, the grandson of Ford’s Theatre owner, John T. Ford. While Sollers’ claim wasn’t quite true when he wrote it in 1962, thanks to modern scholarship, we now really do know a lot about the actors and stagehands of Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. However, despite the wealth of information historians have discovered, we still have one blind spot in our knowledge of the inner workings of the theater that night. This blind spot was even acknowledged by Sollers in his day, forcing him to add a footnote after the word “usher” in the quote above. The footnote attached to it admitted that:

“Unless further information has been found, we do not know the names or even the number of the orchestra”

Music was a crucial part of the theater experience in the Civil War era. Even during non-musical performances (like the comedic play Our American Cousin) an overture and entr’acte music were expected by audiences. Theaters were houses of entertainment and an orchestra was part of what you paid for when you bought your ticket. We know that Ford’s Theatre had an orchestra. We know that President’s Lincoln’s party, arriving late to the theater, was greeted by that orchestra. But how much do we really know about the musicians who played that fateful night?

The big challenge when it comes to determining the identities of the orchestra members at Ford’s Theatre, is that we lack any sort of list from the period. When John Ford Sollers was writing his dissertation about his grandfather, he had access to documents that had belonged to John T. Ford and even he could not come up with the names of any members of the orchestra aside from its director. Over the past week, with the assistance of fellow researcher Rich Smyth, I have assembled a partial list of those who were said to have been in the orchestra the night Lincoln was killed. The evidence supporting their attendance is, overall, extremely weak and varies greatly from man to man. Every name must be taken with a grain of salt and, aside from William Withers, we cannot guarantee that any of these men were actually present. With that being said, what follows is the list of the possible Ford’s Theatre orchestra members on April 14, 1865:

William Withers – orchestra director
George M. Arth – double bass
Scipione Grillo – baritone horn
Louis Weber – bass
William Musgrif – cello
Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin
Henry Donch – clarinet
Reuben Withers – drums
Henry Steckelberg – cello
Isaac S. Bradley – violin
Salvadore Petrola – cornet
Joseph A. Arth – drums
Paul S. Schnieder – possibly violin or trumpet
Samuel Crossley – violin
Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells

Below you will find little biographies of each man and the evidence we have about their presence at Ford’s Theatre. I’ve placed them in an order that arranges them from more likely to have been at Ford’s to less likely to have been at Ford’s. Judge the evidence for yourself as we explore the boys in the band.


William “Billy” Withers, Jr. – orchestra director

In 1862, when John T. Ford first remodeled the Tenth Street Baptist Church and opened it up as Ford’s Atheneum, he hired a musician named Eugene Fenelon to be his orchestra director. As director, Fenelon not only conducted the orchestra on a nightly basis, but was also tasked with the duty of recruiting and hiring musicians to ensure that Ford would have an ample sized band each night. In this capacity, Fenelon recruited local D.C. musicians. Fenelon remained as Ford’s orchestra director until a fire struck Ford’s Atheneum in December of 1862. The loss was a hefty one for John Ford at about $20,000. Consumed in the fire was a bulk of the orchestra’s instruments and music. While Fenelon stayed in D.C. during the process of rebuilding that followed, when the new theatrical season opened in the fall of 1863, Fenelon took a job as the orchestra leader of the recently opened New York Theatre in NYC. Ford was then tasked with finding a new orchestra leader for his new theater. He chose to put his faith in a 27 year-old violinst and Union veteran, William “Billy” Withers, Jr.

Withers was from a musical family and, at the beginning of the war, he and his father and brothers had joined the Union army and served as members of a regimental band. The bands provided music during marching and aided with the morale of the men. In the late summer of 1862, however, Congress passed a law abolishing regimental bands, feeling that the service had been abused by non-musical men trying to avoid regular duty and that the bands were not worth the cost during war time. Though Withers stayed on for some time after the dissolution of his band and acted as a medic, he was eventually discharged. Withers excitedly took up John T. Ford’s offer to be his new band leader. When the new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, Withers’ orchestra, and his experience playing patriotic music was complimented.

“The music under the leadership of Prof. Wm. Withers was highly pleasing, and the execution of the national airs gave a spice to the entertainment, which was fully appreciated.”

Ford’s Theatre had always had a healthy competition with their Washington rival, Leonard Grover’s National Theatre. As the two leading theaters in the city, the press abounded in making comparisons between the two houses. One way the theaters rivaled each other was with their orchestras. While a normal theater orchestra at the time would contain about ten musicians on a nightly basis, both Ford’s and Grover’s began advertising that their orchestras had been “augmented” to include more musicians. It appears that Withers continued to augment the orchestra during his tenure and found his growing of the band to be a point of pride. “Our orchestra under the Brilliant Leader Prof. William Withers, Jr. is considered second to no theatre South of New York,” proclaimed one Ford’s Theatre advertisement. Another highlighted the fact that the orchestra, “has lately been increased and numbers now nearly a Quarter of a Hundred first class Instruments,” and that it had been, “lately largely augmented and is now unsurpassed in numerical and artistic strength.” Billy Withers was a great asset to Ford during his first theatrical season. In addition to his duties as conductor of the orchestra, Withers would occasionally volunteer his services as a solo violinist for special occasions.

Theatrical seasons ended during the hot months, which left many musicians without jobs during the summer. Without the steady (albeit small) income from the theaters, musicians had to make their own arrangements. During this time, many teamed up with other musicians to play small concerts in music halls. With his connections, Withers was able to rent out bigger venues. During the summer of 1864, Withers and his orchestra played concerts at both Grover’s and Ford’s theaters. On July 10, 1864, Withers presented a “Concert of Sacred Music” at Ford’s during for which he brought in two vocalists and, “forty musicians of the best talent in the city, forming an array of talent such has never before appeared jointly in Washington.” The concert was well received and the proceeds helped the D.C. music scene make it through the lean summer.

When the 1864-65 theatrical season opened in the fall, Withers was rehired by Ford to be his orchestra director. The season started without a hitch but, in January of 1865, Withers experienced some unaccustomed criticism of his orchestra in the press. In comparing the two main D.C. theaters, a reviewer from the National Intelligencer stated that, “In some respects, Mr. Ford has done better. His theater has been uniformly dignified, and he has succeeded in procuring a different class of stars from those played by his competitor…but his stock company has not by any means been all that it should be, and his orchestra needs improvement.” It appears that, perhaps due to this critique, Withers began the process of augmenting the Ford’s Theatre orchestra again. His attention on the theater orchestra was a bit distracted however, as Withers was chosen to provide some of the music for President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration ball. He entered into a contract in which he would be paid $1,000 for forty pieces of music. Withers not only used the local talent at his disposal but also brought in musicians from New York. After the inauguration was over, it’s likely that a few of these musicians from New York were hired by Withers to augment the Ford’s Theatre band.

As much as John T. Ford liked being the best, he and Leonard Grover had realized the costly arms race that dueling orchestras would cause them. It appears that some time over the last two years, the two theater owners had come to an mutual understanding regarding the size of their orchestras. Rather than continuing in attempting to one-up each other, they had put an unknown limit on each other in order to keep the houses equal. When Withers began increasing the size of the orchestra in early 1865, Ford objected, fearing it would break the truce with Grover. On April 2, 1865, Ford wrote a letter to his stage manager, John B. Wright:

“Respecting the orchestra I have promised and wish to keep my word to make my orchestra the same number that Grover has in his – will you notify Withers that for the rest of the season, I wish it reduced. The necessity of this I will explain and stisfy you – If Grover wants Withers – he can go – O can easily supply his place. Let us have the same Instruments that Grover has – my honor is pledged to this.”

Rather than run off to Grover’s National Theatre, as Ford thought might occur, William Withers stayed at Ford’s Theatre and likely reduced his orchestra as ordered.

In addition to being a band leader and talented violinist, Withers also composed music. He wrote several polkas and instrumental pieces which were sold by local music shops. Another piece that he composed that he had not published was a song called “Honor to Our Soldiers”.

With the Civil War coming to an end in April of 1865, Withers was looking for a chance to perform his own patriotic air, which featured vocalists. He had arranged for a quartet of vocalists to perform the song on the evening of April 15th. However, during the morning rehearsal for Our American Cousin on April 14th, Withers heard the news that the Lincolns, possibly joined by the Grants, were coming to the show that night. Performing his song in front of the President and General Grant would make for a much better debut and so he decided to perform the piece that night instead. Not having time to arrange for formal vocalists for that night, Withers was forced to rely on the talent around him. Withers tapped three of his coworkers to sing solos in the song: May Hart, Henry B. Phillips, and George M. Arth. May Hart was a new member of the Ford’s Theatre stock company having been recently transferred from the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. She was performing the minor role of Georgina that night. H. B. Phillips was the acting manager at Ford’s and it was his job to improve the quality of the stock actors. Phillips is credited as having written the lyrics for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. George Arth was actually a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra who is discussed later. In addition to these soloists, lead actress Laura Keene said she and other members of her company would be happy to sing along as back up.

As we know, the Lincoln party did not arrive at the theater on time. Knowing they were on their way, Withers was given instructions to play a longer than average overture in hopes they would appear. After 15 minutes elapsed without the Presidential party, the play began without them. When the Lincolns, Major Rathbone, and Clara Harris did make their appearance, the play was halted and Withers and his orchestra began playing “Hail to the Chief”. This was followed by a rendition of “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” as the Lincolns and their guests took their seats in the Presidential box. With that, the play went on.

Withers was initially promised that the performance of his song would occur during the intermission between the first and second acts. However, when the intermission came, he was told by stage manger John Wright that Laura Keene was not prepared to perform during this break and that the orchestra should play his normal intermission music instead. Though slightly annoyed, Withers was assured the song would be performed during the next act break. When the second act break came, however, Withers was once again informed that Laura Keene was not ready. When the third act began, Withers made his way out of the orchestra pit by means of the passageway that led under the stage. He was miffed that his song had been delayed twice. He made his way up one of the two trapdoors on either side of the stage and went to converse with John Wright backstage. Wright said that Withers should plan to perform the song at the conclusion of the play and that Laura Keene had already sent word to the Presidential party to please remain after the curtain fell. Angry at Wright, Withers spied Ford’s stock actress Jeannie Gourlay also backstage and went over to talk with her. It while was Withers was conversing quietly with Jeannie Gourlay about his troubles that the shot rang out.

What occurred next has been well documented. After shooting the President and slashing away Major Rathbone with his knife, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the Presidential box onto the stage. The only actor on stage at the time, Harry Hawk, turned and ran out of Booth’s path. Upon reaching the backstage, it was William Withers and Jeannie Gourlay who stood in the way of Booth’s exit.

“Let me pass!” Booth yelled as he slashed at Withers with his knife, cutting his coat in two places. Booth pushed past Withers and Gourlay, made his exit out the back door, and escaped on horseback into the Washington streets. Withers’ backstage encounter with Booth became a well known part of the assassination story and up until his death in 1916, the orchestra leader never passed up an opportunity to tell his tale. As far as evidence goes, William Withers’ attendance at Ford’s Theatre that night is airtight and even his slashed coat is on display in the Ford’s Theatre museum.

To read more on William Withers, pick up Tom Bogar’s book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, or check out the following articles by Richard Sloan and Norman Gasbarro.


George M. Arth – double bass

Like William Withers, George Arth came from a musical family. At least two of his brothers and his cousin were active in the D.C. music scene. In August of 1861, George Arth joined the U.S. Marine Band, known as The President’s Own band. Arth could play many instruments, but his role in the Marine Band was that of a bass drummer. With the Marine Band, Arth would perform at important events around Washington, often for the President or other dignitaries. The job wasn’t full time, however, and many members of the Marine Band had other jobs in the city as music teachers or as theater orchestra members. In 1864, while Laura Keene was renting out and appearing at the Washington Theatre in D.C., she hired George Arth to be her orchestra director for the engagement. The job was temporary, however, and when she left the city, George Arth went back to being just an ordinary orchestra member at Ford’s Theatre.

Arth must have had a good singing voice since, as pointed out earlier, he was one of the Ford’s employees that Withers pegged to help him in the singing of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”. While we do not have any record of Arth’s whereabouts during the assassination, we can safely assume he was somewhere on the premises preparing for the song when the shot rang out.

An additional piece of evidence we have that places George Arth at Ford’s that night is a letter he wrote in the days following the assassination. After Lincoln was shot, the theater was shut down and subsequently guarded. Members of the Ford’s Theatre staff were brought in for questions and some were arrested. On a normal night, it was typical for the musicians to leave their instruments in the theater, especially when they were engaged to play the next day. While Arth likely assumed that the next night’s performance at Ford’s Theatre wasn’t going to occur, in the chaos that ensued after Lincoln was shot he was apparently unable to retrieve his own instrument. Unlike some of the other musicians who may have carried their instruments out of Ford’s with them, Arth played the largest bowed instrument in the orchestra, a double bass. After the government locked down Ford’s and started guarding it, no one was able to take anything out of the premises.

On April 21st, Arth wrote a letter to the general in charge of the guard detail asking for permission to retrieve his trapped instrument.

“Respected Sir,

I beg of you to grant me a permit to enter Fords Theatre & bring from it mu double bass viol & bow belonging to me & used by me as one of the orchestra at said theatre – as it is very necessary to me in my profession & I am suffering for its use.

I am humbly your servant

George M. Arth”

Arth’s request was approved and he was allowed to retrieve his double bass. Arth remained in D.C. after the war and continued working as musician. He died in 1886 at the age of 48 from consumption and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


Scipione Grillo – baritone horn

A native from Italy, Scipione Grillo became a naturalized citizen in 1860. He originally made his home in Brooklyn, New York where he offered his services as a music teacher. By 1861, however, he had relocated his wife and kids to Washington and in July he joined the Marine Band. In addition to being a musician Grillo was a bit of a businessman. When John T. Ford rebuilt his theater after the 1862 fire, he devoted space on the first floor just south of the theater lobby to the creation of a tavern. As part of his property, Ford could lease it out for a profit and provide an easily accessible place for patrons to get drinks between acts. The tavern space was eventually leased by two Marine Band members, Peter Taltavul and Scipione Grillo, who co-owned the venture. They called their establishment the Star Saloon after the theatrical stars who would patronize it. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Taltavul’s time on duty and he acted as barkeep to the thirsty theater-goers. Taltavul has become famous for pouring John Wilkes Booth his last drink before the actor assassinated Lincoln.

Scipione Grillo’s partnership in the Star Saloon is often overlooked because he was spending that night in the orchestra instead of serving Booth. While Grillo was required to attend the trial of the conspirators during the entire month of May in 1865, he was never called to testify about his acquaintanceship with John Wilkes Booth and David Herold. It wasn’t until two years later, at the trial of John Surratt, that Grillo took the stand to state what he knew. During his routine questioning, Grillo was asked about whether he saw anyone out on the pavement of Ford’s during the show. He replied:

“No, sir. I was not out of the place myself. I was in the orchestra between the first and second acts; but in the third act we had nothing to do, (being always dismissed after the curtain is down,) and so I went out and went inside of my place.”

Grillo also stated that he was still inside of the Star Saloon when the assassination occurred. So, while he did not witness the assassination firsthand, he was among the members of the orchestra that night. Since it was part of the Ford’s Theatre building, the Star Saloon was also closed by the government, which ended Taltavul and Grillo’s business together.

Scipione Grillo appears to fall off of the map after his 1867 testimony. I have not been able to find any trace of him after that, but it is possible he, his wife, and children traveled back to Italy to live.


Louis Weber – bass

Louis Weber had been born in Baltimore in 1834 but his family moved to D.C. when he was four years old. He became a member of the U.S. Marine Band and played at the inauguration ceremonies for Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln. He was an active member of the Marine Band for 25 years.

In the same manner as George Arth, the evidence pointing to Weber being a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra was the return of his instrument by the government. While Weber’s original request does not seem to have survived, on April 28th, Col Henry Burnett (later one of the prosecutors at the trial of the conspirators) sent a telegram off to the general in charge of the Ford’s Theatre guards ordering him to, “send to this office, one bass violin the property of Louis Weber”. This order was fulfilled and later that same day, Louis Weber signed a receipt for his bass.

Weber lived out the remainder of his life in Washington. He died in 1910 from a stroke and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.


William Musgrif – cello

William Musgrif was born in England in 1812. After immigrating to America he settled in New York. As a musician, Musgrif was skilled in both the violin and the cello, but seems to have preferred the cello best. In 1842, Musgrif and his cello became founding members of the newly established New York Philharmonic. As part of the Philharmonic, Musgrif mentored younger players in the cello. By 1860, he, along with his wife and son, had moved to D.C. where he offered his skills as a music teacher. Musgrif was also the conductor for his own group in D.C. called the Mozart Society.

The evidence that William Musgrif also moonlighted as a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra comes from yet another letter written in the days after Lincoln assassination. William Withers had already written once and received a portion of his instruments that had been left at Ford’s that night, but he had not received all of them In May of 1865, Withers penned another letter asking for permission to get the “balance of my things” which included “sleigh bells, triangle, harmonica”. He also requested, “one instument, violocella, for Mr. Musgrive [sic]”

These items were inspected and then delivered to Withers. On May 7th, Withers signed a form stating her had received, “a lot of sleigh bells, a triangle, harmonica, and violincella being properties left at Fords Theatre on the night of the Assassination of President Lincoln.” Withers signed for both himself “and Mr. Musgive [sic]”.

William Musgrif continued to live in D.C. in the few years following the assassination. In 1868, an unfortunate incident caused Musgrif to make the acquaintance of another person who had been at Ford’s on April 14th. On February 19th, Musgrif was in the billiard room of the National Hotel observing a man named William Rogers, who was drunk. When Musgrif attempted to take the billiard balls away from the drunkard, Rogers “hit him over one of the eyes.” A police officer was summoned, arrested Rogers and proceeded to take down the 56 year old musician’s sworn statement. That responding police officer was none other that Officer John F. Parker, the man history has condemned for allegedly leaving Abraham Lincoln unguarded on the night of his assassination.

By the mid 1870s, William Musgrif had moved out to Colorado with his son. It is likely he died and was buried there.


Christopher Arth, Sr. – violin

Chris Arth was the cousin of George M. Arth, the would be soloist for “Honor to Our Soldiers”. His 1901 obituary, which is also one of the pieces of evidence for his presence at Ford’s Theatre, gives a good description of his life.

In addition to this obituary’s claim that Chris Arth was a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, there is also a 1925 article from a D.C. correspondent known as the Rambler which supports the idea. I’ve briefly touched on the Rambler before. His real name was John Harry Shannon and he wrote for the Evening Star newspaper from 1912 to 1927. His stories involved local interest pieces and often involved him travelling around Washington talking to old timers. In an article he wrote about the history of D.C.’s music scene, the Rambler included a letter that was written to him by John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union. You’ll notice that in the obituary above it states that Chris Arth was a member of the same union during his lifetime. Birdsell compliments the Rambler’s work and then poses a challenge to him:

“In this connection it may be possible that, during the course of your researches for the preparation of these writings, you may acquire a complete roster of the orchestra which played at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was shot. I have had inquiry for this from several sources. The first came from somewhere in California. I communicated with the Oldroyd Museum, and while they did not possess this information, they expressed a desire to acquire it.”

After this, Birdsell proceeds to give the list of names he has been able to determine.

“To date the partial roster, which I have is as follows: Leader, William Withers; violin, Chris Arth, sr.; bass, George Arth; clarinet, Henry Donch; cornet, Salvatore Petrola.”

After this list Birdsell makes the final statement that since the average orchestras at the time consisted of 10 instruments he believes he is only half complete. Birdsell was likely unaware of Ford’s and Grover’s mutually agreed upon augmented orchestras which were no doubt larger than ten musicians.

If we trust his obituary and Birdsell’s list, then Chris Arth, cousin of George Arth, was in the orchestra at Lincoln’s assassination.


Henry Donch – clarinet

Henry Donch was a native of Germany who moved to the United States in 1854. He lived in Baltimore and was also a member of the Annapolis Naval Academy Band before he moved to Washington. Donch joined the U.S. Marine Band in August of 1864.

The evidence for Donch’s presence at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot is the same as Chris Arth’s: the Birdsell list and his obituary:

An second obituary for Donch provided an additional detail regarding his alleged presence at Ford’s:

“Mr. Donch was a member of the orchestra at Ford’s Theater on the night Lincoln was shot. Mr. Donch, who was facing the assassin as he leaped from the box, always declared that Booth never uttered the phrase, ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis,’ which is attributed to him.”

While the general consensus is that Booth did, in fact, utter the phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannis” after shooting the President, Donch’s contrary claim does not, by itself, prove him to be a liar. The eyewitness accounts from Ford’s vary widely and it’s possible that, in the confusion, Donch truly did not hear or remember Booth stating these words.

Coincidentally, Henry Donch would observe another Presidential assassin, though this time during the period after his crime. After Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield, Henry Donch was selected at one of the grand jury members in his trial.


Reuben Withers – drums

Reuben Withers was the younger brother of Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers. Reuben had joined the same regimental band as his brothers and father at the start of the Civil War, but similarly was sent back home when such bands were disbanded. He joined the ranks of his brother’s brass band and, it appears, the Ford’s Theatre orchestra.

In his older years, William Withers suffered from paralysis and was cared for by Reuben. The two elderly men shared a home and business together in the Bronx. Even in his paralysis, reporters came to hear the story of William Withers being stabbed by Booth on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. In at least interview, Reuben recounted his own remembrances of the night of April 14th:

“The President was a little late coming in. We had played the overture and the curtain was just going up when we saw him enter the stage box. Brother William immediately started us playing ‘Hail to the Cheif,’ then ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and there was a lot of cheering. Everybody was feeling good and happy…

After we had played the overture I left the theatre to catch the 9.20 train for Zanesville, O., and so I missed the actual scene of the great tragedy. I had been offered a better position to play in the band of Bailey’s circus, and I had fixed that night of April 14, 1865, as the time of my leaving Washington…”

Was Reuben Withers truly in the orchestra that night? After years of hearing his brother tell his tale, perhaps he just wanted to include himself in the narrative. Or perhaps he did tell the truth and left the theater before the crime occurred. We may never really know. Reuben Withers preceded his brother in death, dying in 1913. The house and business the Withers brothers owned still stands, albeit a bit modified, at 4433 White Plains Road in the Bronx.


Henry Steckelberg – cello

Henry Steckelberg was born in 1834 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1858 residing at first in New York. When the Civil War broke out he, like the Witherses, joined a regimental band in New York. After returning to civilian life, Steckelberg made his way to Washington and can be found in the 1864 D.C. directory listed as “musician”.

When Steckelberg died in 1917, his obituary stated that, “On the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination he was playing at Ford’s Theater. The orchestra was having an intermission when the tragedy occurred.”

An additional piece of evidence comes from the Steckelberg family. The genesis for this entire post was an email from Steckelberg’s great granddaughter asking if a list of the orchestra members existed. She told me about her family’s belief that her great grandfather played that night and that the family still owns Steckelberg’s treasured cello that he, assumingly, used. In addition, she was kind enough to send along a letter, written by Henry Steckelberg’s sister-in-law which supplemented his obituary. The relevant part of the letter states:

“On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, he [Steckelberg] was playing in the regular orchestra in Ford’s Theater. The assassin was a regular hanger on around the theater and he (Booth) often played cards with the orchestra members in the rehearsal room below the orchestra pit. His presence in the theater caused no notice. Booth was unemployed at the time, very jealous of his successful brother. He had no personal animosity toward Lincoln but wished to do something to draw attention to himself.”

It’s hard to tell if the writer of this letter was using knowledge she had obtained from Steckelberg or merely adding her own embellishments and beliefs about the Lincoln assassination story to the basic Steckelberg obituary. The latter part of the paragraph is entirely opinion and the former contains one factual error: there was no rehearsal room “below the orchestra pit” at Ford’s Theatre as the pit was the lowest you could get.

While there isn’t much to go on regarding Henry Steckelberg, his obituary does recount that the orchestra was on break during (and therefore didn’t witness) Lincoln’s assassination which is in line with what Scipione Grillo testified to in 1867. It’s possible that Henry Steckelberg was there after all.


Isaac S. Bradley – violin

Isaac S. Bradley was born in 1840 in New York. During the Civil War, Bradley joined the Union army where he served as a bugler in the 10th New York Cavalry. Bradley was discharged from the service on November 20, 1865. By 1868 he had moved to Dayton, Ohio where he married and started a family. He lived in Dayton for the remainder of his days, becoming a photographer. Bradley died on July 10, 1904.

While I have yet to find any period documentation of Bradley’s presence at Ford’s Theatre during his lifetime, in 1960, his elderly daughter Clara Forster was interviewed by a newspaper in her home of Anderson, Indiana. She stated that during her father’s military service he, “fell victim to a rheumatic ailment that hospitalized him for some time in Washington,” and that he, “was ready to accept the offer to play in the orchestra at Ford’s Theater in Washington because he had with him his own Amati violin…”

With her father’s antique violin in her hand, Mrs. Forster then recounted the story her father had told her of that night:

“We were playing very softly when suddenly a messenger came and told us to play louder. We had heard a shot and someone running across the stage above, but we thought nothing of it.

So we played louder, not knowing of the tragedy that had occurred overhead; not knowing that our beloved Abe Lincoln had been shot.”

The article went on to state that “the order to play more loudly was given in an effort to offset commotion caused by the shooting and to avert panic in the audience.” It’s important to note that Mrs. Forster’s account is in contradiction to the testimony of Scipione Grillo who made it clear that the orchestra was not on duty during the assassination.

Mrs. Forster was very proud of her father’s heirloom violin and described it in detail:

“Mr. Bradley was second violinist in the orchestra, playing with four other young soldiers who had served in the Civil War…

[The violin] had been given to him when he was about 10 or 11 years old. It had been acquired by his grandfather from the Cremonesis family in Italy, reported to have taught the famed Antonius Stradivarius the art of producing priceless violins.

Mr. Bradley was told that the instrument purchased by his grandfather, who served in the Revolutionary War, was made in 1637. A certificate inside the violin bears that date and the name of the maker.

Mrs. Forster reports that her brother, the late Frank Bradley, had the violin in his possession for some time and about 1914 refused an offer of $20,000 for it. During the past few years, Mrs. Forster made her home in Milwaukee, where a concert violinist and teacher became interested in the Amati violin and wrote an article about it for a national music publication. One of the amazing facts was that its owner had carried it with him through much of the Civil War and that it had not been damaged.”

Mrs. Forster appears to be the only source that her father was in Washington and a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that night. She was apparently quite convincing though, especially with her father’s violin as a witness. In the 1960s, when the National Park Service was preparing a historic structures report about Ford’s Theatre, Mrs. Forster wrote a letter to George Olszewski, the National Capital Region’s chief historian. Olszewski was convinced enough by Mrs. Forster’s letter that he included Isaac S. Bradley’s name in his partial list of orchestra members.


Salvadore Petrola – cornet

Salvadore Petrola, a native of Italy, came to the United States in 1855 when he was 20 years old. A talented cornet player, Petrola joined the U.S. Marine Band in September of 1861 and remained a member for the maximum time allowed, 30 years. As a band member in the 1880s, Petrola was the assistant conductor of the band, second only to its leader, John Philip Sousa. Petrola assisted Sousa in arranging music for the band and served as its primary cornet soloist for many years.

Despite a lengthy search, the only concrete evidence that I have been able to find to support the idea that Petrola was in the orchestra at Ford’s is the list of names John Birdsell, the secretary of the Musicians’ Protective Union, provided to the Rambler in 1925.

One additional fact could be taken as, perhaps, circumstantial evidence in favor of Petrola’s presence, however. The only instrumental solos contained on William Withers’ handwritten copy of his song, “Honor to Our Soldiers”, is for a cornet. In fact, the cornet gets three solos over the course of the song.

Is it possible that William Withers wrote so many solos for his cornet player because he was working with very talented, Salvadore Petrola? We’ll never know.


Joseph A. Arth – drums

Joseph Arth was the younger brother of Ford’s double bass player, George M. Arth. Like his brother and cousin, Chris Arth, Joseph was a member of the U.S. Marine Band. Like Salvadore Petrola, Joseph stayed in the Marine Band for 30 years.

Our only evidence for Joseph Arth’s presence at Ford’s Theatre comes from his wife’s obituary from 1940. Joseph married Henrietta Scala, the daughter of one time Marine Band leader, Francis Scala. Upon Henrietta’s death at 90 years of age, the newspapers highlighted that she was both the daughter and wife of noted Marine Band musicians. In referencing her husband, the obituary stated:

“She was the widow of Joseph A. Arth, drummer with the band during the same period. Files of The [Evening] Star report that Joseph Arth was the drummer in the pit at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was assassinated.”

It’s not much to go on, but perhaps Joseph was playing alongside his older brother George in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra that fateful night.

A pair of drumsticks in the Ford’s Theatre collection. These are said to have been present on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Could they have been used by Reuben Withers or Joseph Arth?


Paul S. Schneider – possibly violin or trumpet

Paul Schneider was born in Germany in 1844 and immigrated to the United States in 1861. During the Civil War he joined the Union army under the alias Ernst Gravenhorst. He served as a bugler for the 5th U.S. Artillery from January of 1863 until December of 1865. In the 1870s, Schneider moved to Memphis, Tennessee, initially working as a musician in the New Memphis Theatre before becoming a music teacher. In 1882/3, Schneider became the second director of the Christian Brothers Band, the oldest high school band still in existence. As director of the band, Schneider and his students performed at important events including playing for President Grover Cleveland in 1887 when he visited Tennessee. In 1892, Schneider was succeeded as director by one of his former students, but remained in Memphis and involved in the musical life of the city. He died in 1912.

I have been unable to determine the source of the claim that Paul Schneider was a part of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It appears to have come after his lifetime but is not well documented. In 2011, Patrick Bolton, the current leader of the Christian Brothers Band, published his doctoral thesis about the history of the band. The dissertation contains a large amount of information about each band leader and the growth of the band over time. While it gives a great biography of Paul Schneider, the information about his connection to Ford’s Theatre is limited:

“Schneider was also known for his skills as a violinist and performed in touring orchestras around the country, including one that performed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. On the evening of April 14, 1865 he has been placed in this historic theatre performing Hail to the Chief for President Abraham Lincoln before the fateful performance of the play, ‘Our American Cousin.'”

Bolton was a good researcher, but it appears that even he had difficulty in finding evidence for this claim. His phrasing of “he has been placed” demonstrates a degree of uncertainty. Likewise, the best reference Bolton could find to support this idea was from a 1993 newspaper article about the Christian Brothers Band which merely mentioned that Schneider had been a member of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra without any supporting evidence.

Without additional, period evidence, I have some serious doubts that Paul Schneider was present at Ford’s. However, the idea that one of their band leaders was a part of such a historic event is a point of pride to the Christian Brothers Band. When the band traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2014, they even presented a picture of Professor Schneider to Ford’s Theatre.


Samuel Crossley – violin

Unfortunately, despite best efforts, I have been unable to find any verifiable information about Samuel Crossley aside from the story I am going to recount. In 1991, the National Park Service received a donation to the Ford’s Theatre collection in the form of this violin.

The violin was said to have been played at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. A label inside the violin identified its previous owner, a Union soldier by the name of Samuel Crossley.

On February 11, 2009, at the grand re-opening ceremony for the newly remodeled Ford’s Theatre museum, noted violinist Joshua Bell played the song, “My Lord, What a Morning” on the Crossley violin. In the audience were President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Though I haven’t been able to find a recording of that performance, in videos of the President’s remarks, Bell can be seen in the background holding the Crossley violin.

More information about Samuel Crossley (and the provenance behind his violin) is needed.


Luke Hubbard – triangle and bells

Luke Hubbard was born in 1848 in Onondaga County, New York. In 1863, Hubbard attemptted to join the Union army but was rejected on account of being under the age limited (he was only 15 at the time). Not one to be deterred, Hubbard waited a year and then enlisted again, this time claiming he was 18 years old. Records verify that Hubbard served as a private in Company B of the 22nd New York Cavalry from July 1864 until he was discharged from service on October 18, 1865. Years later, Luke Hubbard claimed that an unexpected series of events during his tour of service caused him to not only be present at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but an acting member of the orchestra.

The following comes from two sources, an account that Hubbard gave during his lifetime and his subsequent obituary.

“That fall [1864] I was taken ill with fever and removed to Carver hospital in Washington. After I recovered, instead of being returned to my regiment and probably largely because of my youth as well as being in a weakened state, I was given a position in the Carver hospital band. In the army I had been a bugler. This hospital band furnished the music at Ford’s theater on the memorable night. I was playing the triangles and sat at the end of the orchestra under the box occupied by the presidential party…”

“The actor, John Wilkes Booth, was well known by the president, and when he was not in the piece being presented or when Booth was off the stage for a time, or between acts, he would often call on President Lincoln in his box, when both would witness the performance together, or sit and chat in the most friendly manner, so that he had no trouble gaining access to the box on the night of the conspiracy.”

“Many people have claimed that Booth said this or that when he jumped to the stage from the box, but with thirteen pieces playing at the time. I don’t think he could have been heard had he uttered any remark…

In a moment Mrs. Lincoln appeared at the edge of the box, waved her handkerchief to the leader of the orchestra, who raised his bow, a signal for the music to cease. Mrs. Lincoln was then heard to say, ‘The president has been shot.’

The members of the orchestra meanwhile not understanding the scene before them, saw Booth drag himself across the stage holding in one hand the revolver which had done its fatal work, and in the other grasped a knife for use in case the other weapon failed. As the door at the rear of the stage opened, the orchestra members who sprang to the stage saw two pair of arms sieze [sic] the injured man, the last that was seen of him. When the door was reached it was found to be locked on the outside, and by the time they reached the street through another exit the theater was surrounded by a cordon of soldier, and they were obliged to give their names and business at the theater that night.”

“Mr. Hubbard was the third man to climb over the footlights and rush to the back of the stage, but the door was locked on the outside.”

Ironically, one of the most detailed accounts we have from a person who claimed to have been in the orchestra at Ford’s Theatre is also the least factual and least reliable. Very little of what Hubbard recounted is accurate. The orchestra was not playing when the shot rang out. Booth dropped the derringer pistol he used on Lincoln in the box and therefore did not have it on the stage with him. No one grabbed the injured Booth and pulled him out the rear door of Ford’s. The back door of Ford’s was not found to be locked from the outside after Booth passed through it. And perhaps the most egregious (and somewhat laughable) error of them all: John Wilkes Booth was not a friend of Lincoln’s nor did he often join the President in his theater box to “chat”.

As entertaining as it is, it’s probably safe to dismiss Hubbard’s account entirely. Still, it’s interesting that the instruments Hubbard claimed to have played that night, the triangle and bells, were two of the instruments William Withers asked permission to retrieve after the assassination.


The stage of Ford’s Theatre taken in the days after Lincoln’s assassination. The orchestra pit with music stands and sheet music still in place can be seen at the bottom of the image.

Compared with the stars who graced the stages of Victorian era theaters, the lives of theater orchestra members were without glamour or fame. While equally talented in their own specific roles, many of the men who provided crucial musical accompaniment led quiet and largely uncelebrated lives.

The names listed above are only possible members of the Ford’s Theatre orchestra, with some having much better evidence than others. We only know them because either they chose during their lifetime or their friends and family chose after death, to connect their names with one of the most notable events in our history. This desire to be remembered and connected to such important events leads some people to exaggerate or outright lie. On the reverse, however, it is possible that there were members who did not wish to have their whole musical careers boiled down to a single, traumatic night. How many orchestra members witnessed Lincoln’s assassination, but never talked about it publicly?

As time goes on, additional people who are claimed to have been in the Ford’s Theatre orchestra will no doubt be found. When that happens, we must judge the reliability of their evidence just like the names above. If you stumble across a new name, I encourage you to add a comment to this post so that others may evaluate the evidence.

The exact identities of those playing at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, will never be known for certainty. Just like in 1925 and 1962, we still do not have a reliable count of how many musicians were even there, and we likely never will.

Known and unknown, the orchestra members of Ford’s Theatre, under the direction of William Withers, have the distinction of having played the last music President Abraham Lincoln ever heard.

References:
The Theatrical Career of John T. Ford by John Ford Sollers (1962)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Tom Bogar
The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection
The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence edited by William Edwards and Edward Steers
The Trial of John H. Surratt, Vol 1
Catherine Adams – great granddaughter of Henry Steckelberg
Restoration of Ford’s Theatre – Historic Structures Report by George J. Olszewski
“The Oldest High School Band in America”: The Christian Brothers Band of Memphis, 1872-1947 by Patrick Joseph Bolton
Rich Smyth
The Art Loux Archive
Newspaper articles discovered via GenealogyBank
Most of the biographical information was compiled through the resources available on Ancestry and Fold3
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Mapping John Wilkes Booth’s Career

Prior to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was known as one of the preeminent actors of his day. Having come from a theatrical dynasty that included his father and brothers, Booth found great success as a touring star. His engagements in different cities were always well attended and, even in his early attempts, his talent in his chosen roles was commented on in the press.

The best works that delve into Booth’s theatrical career are John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux (2014)Rough Magic: The Theatrical Life of John Wilkes Booth by Deirdre Kincaid (2000), and Lust for Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth by Gordon Samples (1982). These texts establish an accounting of Booth’s travels as a touring star while also providing specific details about his engagements in the different cities of the nation.

Over the past week, I have completed an update to the Maps section of BoothieBarn. Utilizing the above named sources (specifically Art Loux‘s book), I have been able to mark the location of every theater John Wilkes Booth performed in during his career. Booth acted in a total of 42 different theater venues over his ten-year career, often returning to the same ones for repeat engagements. Of the 42 theaters Booth performed in, only one is still in operation as a theater with at least part of the structure the same as when Booth performed there. That single remaining venue is Ford’s Theatre.

The Montgomery Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama was the only other extant theater building John Wilkes Booth performed in besides Ford’s Theatre. It was demolished in 2017.

Not only are the vast majority of theaters that once dotted the major cities of the United States during the Victorian era gone, but, for most of them, there is not even a sign to mark where these historic centers of culture and entertainment once stood. Of the 42 venues John Wilkes Booth performed in, for example, only eight have some sort of historic marker or plaque near the site. Still, by using historic maps, city directories, and newspaper records, I have managed to pinpoint the exact location of each of these 42 theaters and provide GPS coordinates for them.

The different venues can be found by clicking on or zooming in on any of the Lincoln Assassination Maps that can be found on the Maps page. For ease of use, however, I have created the following table below that gives an outline of Booth’s theatrical career. Clicking on the hyperlinked name of any one of the theaters in the table will open its corresponding map and center it above the theater site. You can then click the pin to get more information about the theater and Booth’s time there. NOTE: After publishing this post, I’ve found that the theater hyperlinks will work without issue on actual computers and on mobile devices / tablets that DO NOT have the Google Maps app installed. If you have the Google Maps app installed, the hyperlinks may not open the maps as described. For IOS (Apple) users with the Google Maps app installed you can still open the maps by pressing and holding one of the hyperlinks lightly for a bit. Then press the “Open in New Tab” option that comes up. After doing this once, all subsequent clicks by you should load the maps in the browser rather than in the Google Maps app (thought you may have to zoom out/in to get the background map to load properly). My apologies for the inconvenience. The table works without issue on a desktop computer.

I have divided John Wilkes Booth’s acting career into four parts; his debut, his time as a stock actor, his time as a touring star, and his retirement / conspiracy period. After the table is a brief overview of these parts of John Wilkes Booth’s career.

John Wilkes Booth’s Acting Career

(1855 – 1865)

Assembled from John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux

 Click the theater name to open its location in Google Maps

Not included: Childhood theatricals or impromptu dramatic readings

Engagement

Start – End

City, State

Theater

Debut (1855)

August 14, 1855

Baltimore, Maryland

Charles Street Theatre

Stock Actor (1857 – 1860)

August 11, 1857 –

June 19, 1858

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Arch Street Theatre

September 4, 1858 –

October 30, 1858

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

November 1, 1858 –

November 13, 1858

Lynchburg, Virginia

Dudley Hall

November 15, 1858 –

February 12, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

February 14, 1859 –

February 24, 1859

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

February 25, 1859 –

May 16, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

May 17, 1859 –

June 15, 1859

Lynchburg, Virginia

Dudley Hall

June 17, 1859 –

June 25, 1859

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

June 27, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

September 3, 1859 –

October 15, 1859

October 17, 1859 –

October 22, 1859

Lynchburg, Virginia

Dudley Hall

October 24, 1859 –

November 9, 1859

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

November 14 1859 –

November 18, 1859

December 5, 1859 –

December 10, 1859

December 12, 1859 –

December 22, 1859

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

December 23, 1859 –

April 21, 1860

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

April 23, 1860 –

April 28, 1860

Petersburg, Virginia

Phoenix Hall

April 30, 1860 –

May 12, 1860

Norfolk, Virginia

Unknown

May 14, 1860 –

May 31, 1860

Richmond, Virginia

Marshall Theatre

Touring Star (1860 – 1864)

October 1, 1860 –

October 12, 1860

Columbus, Georgia

Temperance Hall

October 20, 1860

October 29, 1860 –

November 3, 1860

Montgomery, Alabama

Montgomery Theatre

November 16, 1860

December 1, 1860

January 21, 1861 –

February 2, 1861

Rochester, New York

Metropolitan Theatre

February 11, 1861 –

February 12, 1861

Albany, New York

Gayety Theatre

February 18, 1861 –

February 23, 1861

March 4, 1861 –

March 16, 1861

March 18, 1861 –

April 13, 1861

Portland, Maine

Portland Theatre

April 22, 1861 –

April 25, 1861

Albany, New York

Gayety Theatre

October 21, 1861 –

October 25, 1861

Providence, Rhode Island

Providence Theatre

October 28, 1861 –

November 9, 1861

Buffalo, New York

Metropolitan Theatre

November 11, 1861 –

November 18, 1861

Detroit, Michigan

H. A. Perry’s Metropolitan Theatre

November 25, 1861 –

December 7, 1861

Cincinnati, Ohio

Wood’s Theatre

December 9, 1861 –

December 23, 1861

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville Theatre

December 25, 1861 –

December 31, 1861

Indianapolis, Indiana

Metropolitan Hall

January 6, 1862 –

January 18, 1862

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

January 20, 1862 –

February 1, 1862

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

February 17, 1862 –

March 3, 1862

Baltimore, Maryland

Holliday Street Theatre

March 11, 1862

Baltimore, Maryland

Front Street Theatre

March 17, 1862 –

April 5, 1862

New York City, New York

Mary Provost’s Theatre

April 21, 1862 –

May 3, 1862

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

May 12, 1862 –

May 24, 1862

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Museum

June 2, 1862 –

June 21, 1862

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

June 25, 1862 –

June 30, 1862

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville Theatre

October 23, 1862 –

October 24, 1862

Lexington, Kentucky

Opera House

October 27, 1862 –

November 8, 1862

Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville Theatre

November 10, 1862 –

November 22, 1862

Cincinnati, Ohio

National Theatre

November 24, 1862 –

November 29, 1862

Indianapolis, Indiana

Metropolitan Hall

December 1, 1862 –

December 20, 1862

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

December 22, 1862 –

January 3, 1863

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

January 5, 1863 –

January 10, 1863

Indianapolis, Indiana

Metropolitan Hall

January 19, 1863 –

February 14, 1863

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Museum

March 2, 1863 –

March 14, 1863

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Arch Street Theatre

March 16, 1863 –

March 21, 1863

Baltimore, Maryland

Holliday Street Theatre

April 11, 1863 –

April 18, 1863

Washington, D.C.

Grover’s National Theatre

April 27, 1863 –

May 9, 1863

Washington, D.C.

Washington Theatre

May 18, 1863 –

June 6, 1863

Chicago, Illinois

McVicker’s Theatre

June 15, 1863 –

June 26, 1863

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

June 30, 1863 –

July 3, 1863

Cleveland, Ohio

Academy of Music

July 6, 1863 –

July 11, 1863

Buffalo, New York

Metropolitan Theatre

September 28, 1863 –

October 10, 1863

Boston, Massachusetts

Howard Athenaeum

October 12, 1863 –

October 13, 1863

Worcester, Massachusetts

Worcester Theatre

October 14, 1863 –

October 15, 1863

Springfield, Massachusetts

Music Hall

October 16, 1863 –

October 19, 1863

Providence, Rhode Island

Academy of Music

October 20, 1863 –

October 22, 1863

Hartford, Connecticut

Allyn Hall

October 23, 1863

Springfield, Massachusetts

Music Hall

October 24, 1863 –

October 26, 1863

Brooklyn, New York

Academy of Music

October 27, 1863 –

October 29, 1863

New Haven, Connecticut

Music Hall

November 2, 1863 –

November 14, 1863

Washington, D.C.

Ford’s Theatre

November 26, 1863 –

December 5, 1863

Cleveland, Ohio

Academy of Music

December 22, 1863 –

December 31, 1863

Leavenworth, Kansas

Union Theatre

January 5, 1864

St. Joseph, Missouri

Corby’s Hall

January 12, 1864 –

January 16, 1864

St. Louis, Missouri

Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre

January 18, 1864 –

January 30, 1864

Louisville, Kentucky

Wood’s Theatre

February 1, 1864 –

February 13, 1864

Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville Theatre

February 15, 1864 –

February 26, 1864

Cincinnati, Ohio

Wood’s Theatre

March 14, 1864 –

March 25, 1864

New Orleans, Louisiana

St. Charles Theatre

March 29, 1864 –

April 3, 1864

April 25, 1864 –

May 28, 1864

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Museum

Retirement / Conspiracy Period (1864 – 1865)

November 25, 1864

New York City, New York

Winter Garden Theatre

March 18, 1865

Washington, D.C.

Ford’s Theatre

Debut (1855)

As a child, John Wilkes Booth acted in kiddie theatrical productions put on by his brother Edwin and their Baltimore neighbors. He also took part in productions put on at the various schools he attended. However, Booth’s professional debut occurred on August 14, 1855, when he played Richmond in the battle scene of Richard III at Baltimore’s Charles Street Theatre. Booth was 17 years-old and the production was a benefit performance for his former childhood playmate turned actor, John Sleeper Clarke. Clarke would go on to marry Booth’s sister Asia in 1859. Booth did not tell his family about this performance ahead of time and, upon returning home to the family farm of Tudor Hall , he said to Asia, “Guess what I’ve done! I’ve made my first appearance on any stage, for this night only, and in big capitals.”

Stock Actor (1857 – 1860)

Despite making his debut in 1855, Booth did not immediately go into the acting profession. It wasn’t until two years later that John Wilkes Booth’s career of an actor truly began. Like practically all actors, Booth had to start at the bottom and learn the trade. He signed up as a stock actor in Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre. He worked a whole season at the Arch Street getting paid $8 a week. His roles were extremely small with little lines, and he rarely was important enough to be mentioned in playbills or reviews. Still, during this time he was learning the plays and gaining valuable experience from the star actors that would come to the Arch Street for their engagements. When the 1858 acting season began, Booth signed up to be a part of George Kunkel’s stock company of actors which paid him $11 per week. Kunkel’s group was based at the Marshall Theatre in Richmond but would occasionally travel to Petersburg and Lynchburg for engagements. Booth spent two seasons with Kunkel’s group, building his craft and experience. By the fall of 1860, John Wilkes Booth was about ready to strike out on his own starring tour.

Touring Star (1860 – 1864)

Though Booth suffered a few mishaps during his first season as a touring star, it was during this period that he reclaimed the name of Booth and started garnering the attention of the theater world. As time went on, Booth’s technique improved and soon he found himself booking engagements in theaters across the nation. Even as a Civil War fractured the nation in two, John Wilkes Booth had no difficulty in finding theaters eager to have him appear. While generally celebrated everywhere he went, Booth found his greatest success in Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago, often returning to those cities for engagements. During the 1863-64 season Booth attempted a schedule of shorter engagements in some smaller cities and, while financially successful, the rapid pace exhausted him. When the acting season ended in May of 1864, Booth set his sights on an easier way to make money: the oil business. His attempt to make money in oil ventures occupied him during the summer of 1864, but he was not successful. It was also during this time that Booth’s mind turned to a devious plot against President Lincoln.

Retirement / Conspiracy Period (1864 – 1865)

John Wilkes Booth did not resume his touring career when the acting season began in the fall of 1864. To his questioning friends and family, Booth said he had become rich in the oil fields of Pennsylvania and no longer needed to act. This was a lie used to cover up his preoccupation on his abduction (later assassination) plot against Lincoln. Booth would perform on stage only two times during the last 11 months of his life. On November 11, 1864, John Wilkes Booth took part in a single performance with his brothers Junius, Jr. and Edwin. Known as the Booth Benefit performance of Julius Caesar, the proceeds of the performance went to the erection of a statue of Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park.

Then, on March 18, 1865, John Wilkes Booth made his final stage performance in a production of The Apostate at Ford’s Theatre. The performance was a benefit for his friend, actor John McCullough. Less than a month later, John Wilkes Booth returned to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, this time with a bloodied knife in his hand and a fatally wounded President slumped over in his theater box.

For more information about the stage career of John Wilkes Booth, please check out John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Arthur F. Loux.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 20 Comments

The Hidden History of Spencer Clark

On April 1, 2017, I spoke at the annual Surratt Society Conference. The topic of my speech revolved around the hidden histories of some of the minor characters in the Lincoln assassination story. One of the subjects of that talk was Spencer M. Clark, a witness at the conspiracy trial with a very scandalous past. The following text comes from my speech. Click here to read about another subject of the speech, James P. Ferguson.


Spencer Morton Clark

Burial Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

Spencer Morton Clark was the very first superintendent of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. At the trial of the conspirators Clark was called to testify regarding the pair of boots that had been confiscated from conspirator Lewis Powell. The day before Clark gave his testimony he was given one of Powell’s boots by the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and was asked to inspect them. Inside one of the boots was a mark of ink. After examining the boot under a microscope, Clark came to the conclusion that the mark of ink had been put there to obscure some sort of writing that lay beneath it. Using a bath of oxalic acid, Clark was able to remove the top layer of ink. He was clearly able to see the letters J W then a letter that was either a P or a B. He also determined the last two letters were th. Clark concluded that the written word that had been cover up was the name J W Booth. Unfortunately Clark left the oxalic acid on too long and the ink from the name was also dissolved away. However, Clark was supported in his assessment by two other treasury workers who were with him. Spencer Clark’s testimony at the trial was brief but worked to prove that the boots worn by Powell had either been owned or purchased by John Wilkes Booth.

Hidden History:

Spencer Clark was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1811. As a young man Clark entered into many business ventures all of which failed. He declared bankruptcy twice before gaining employment in D.C. in a position he was not qualified for. In 1860, Clark was made the Acting Engineer in the Bureau of Construction for the U.S. Treasury Department despite the fact that he was not an engineer. However Clark made a good impression on Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and was retained.

Salmon P. Chase was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury from 1861 – 1864

Clark’s employment in the Treasury department came at a monumental time. Prior to the Civil War the only legal tender in the United States were gold and silver coins produced by the Treasury. These coins were known as specie. However the costs associated with the Civil War were so high and the amount of gold and silver was limited. Lincoln and his government had to look elsewhere to find a way to finance the war. The decision was finally made to introduce paper notes to serve as legal tender bills. This is commonplace to us now, but back then it was highly controversial and even Lincoln only agreed to it as a necessary, yet unfortunate, war effort. The treasury at this time did not have the facilities to print their own notes and there was great fear that the practice of printing money would fuel corruption within the government. Therefore these early notes were printed by private companies and then sent to the Treasury in sheets. In his position in the Treasury, Clark and his clerks were charged with cutting out the notes, signing them on behalf of the treasury officials, and the imprinting each note with a seal.

Clark soon required a larger work force to handle the increased output of the notes. With most able-bodied men off fighting in the war, the Treasury became one of the first government agencies to hire a large number of female clerks. The women who joined the ranks were often teenagers and young women whose fathers were either off fighting or had been killed. The Treasury sought to hire only girls and women who demonstrated a true need for employment to help provide for their families. Over 300 women found employment in the Treasury department before the end of the war.

In July of 1862, Clark and his department were investigated by a Congressional committee over the government’s contracts for the notes and qualifications of its workers. The committee determined that the contracts signed by the government with the private printers resulted in an extravagance in the expenditure of public money. They also found that Clark was not qualified for his position and suggested his removal. Clark was retained however due to his familiarity with Secretary Chase and his other superior, Francis Spinner, who was the Treasurer of the United States.

Francis Spinner was the Treasurer of the United States from 1861 – 1875

In August of 1862, Clark was authorized to purchase the machines necessary for the government to print some of its own notes rather than buying all of them from private companies. This decision essentially established the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and resulted in Spencer Clark becoming its first Superintendent. Clark supervised the production of the $1 and $2 notes. Clark’s new bureau was also tasked with the printing of the government’s new fractional currency. These bills were worth less than a dollar and were meant to supplement the dwindling supply of specie. In the initial run of fractional notes only Thomas Jefferson and George Washington appeared.

Examples of U.S. fractional currency

Clark, it should be noted, did a good job of instituting better security measures to impede counterfeiting. In the second issue of fractional currency, Clark had a copper circle placed around the head of Washington and Jefferson. If the bill was photographed, this ring would come out as black, thwarting the counterfeiter. Yet despite the positive aspects Spencer Clark brought to his position, there were also many negative aspects. Clark’s investment in the government’s printing presses proved to be misplaced. The presses Clark acquired literally came from the lowest bidder and the quality was lacking. Broken presses were common and delayed their production. Clark was also very poor in his book-keeping. His incomplete records of production and distribution were troublesome to members of Congress who were already worried about the corruptible nature of printing the country’s money.

In late 1863, Secretary Chase began hearing rumors about his printing department. These rumors were not about poor books or broken machines, however. The rumors being spread were about Clark, his female employees, and “gross immoralities” that were occurring under his supervision. Chase, who still held aspirations of his own to become President, decided to look into the matter in order to prevent any political enemy from discovering something that might damage his future. Chase requested that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton lend him a capable investigator to look into the rumors. Specifically Chase requested the assistance of Lafayette Baker.

Lafayette Baker

Chase would come to regret his request to have Baker investigate. Baker had served as a detective, special agent, and finally as a special provost marshal under Stanton. While Baker made himself useful to the government, his methods and character were highly questionable. He was notorious for throwing those he believed of wrongdoing into the Old Capitol Prison without charge. The declaration of martial law during the war gave him the authority to do so. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Stanton would call on Baker again to help manage the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.

Lafayette Baker committed himself to his investigation into the Treasury and opponents of the administration could smell the scent of scandal brewing. Salmon Chase had hoped for a quick exoneration of his subordinates but that was not what Baker had in mind. Baker believed that the public demanded a full and detailed inquiry and he would not allow himself to be a tool for Chase’s benefit. Baker was far too much of a loose cannon to do Chase’s bidding and wrap up the investigation quietly. While Baker charged a couple of Clark’s clerks with corruption, his biggest accusations were about Clark himself whom he accused of committing sexual misconduct with his female workers. Baker gathered statements by female employees that added up to a very damning picture against Clark, a married man.

Ella Jackson stated that she and another female clerk had traveled to Philadelphia at the invitation of Clark and another male clerk in the department named Gustavus Henderson. In Philadelphia, Miss Jackson registered at a hotel under an assumed name and spent the weekend with Clark. She also stated that Clark often offered her beer in his private office late at night, though she insisted she never drank more than two glasses and was never drunk at work. Ada Thompson, an actress, provided further details of Clark’s affair with Miss Jackson by informing to Baker that, “During the month of December last, Miss Jackson seldom came home before two or three o’clock in the morning. She stated to me that during these times she did not work later than ten or eleven o’clock and that the balance of that time…she spent in Mr. Clark’s private office.” Thompson also stated to Baker that she had “often seen in Miss Jackson’s possession obscene books, pictures, and prints, which she…informed me were given to her by Clark.”

Baker interviewed and received a statement from another young woman who had been in the employ of Mr. Clark. This girl stated:

“Mr. S M Clark came to me in the office, and asked me to come to his private residence, at the same time informing me that his wife was in the country. I did not at first comply with his request. On the next Saturday night…I went to Mr. Clark’s house about eight o’clock in the evening…Mr. Clark and myself occupied the same room until morning…About two weeks after my first visit to Mr. Clark’s house, he again asked me to go to his house and spend another evening with him; this request I complied with. I recollect distinctly a conversation I had with Mr. Clark. He said his wife was very jealous and at one time told him that she believed the Treasury Department was nothing more nor less than a house of ill-fame…Clark paid me as high as forty dollars; these amounts were independent of my wages earned in the Department…I freely confess my shame and disgrace, trusting that no publicity will be given to my statement.”

Lafayette Baker did not heed this woman’s request for confidentiality. Slowly, different pieces of Baker’s investigation were being leaked to public. Secretary Chase was seeing the reputation of his department and himself sullied. Chase suspended Clark but stopped short of firing him. Chase wanted Clark to resign but the latter would not go so easily. “I think it right that the country should know that your confidence in my official management has not been misplaced,” Clark wrote in an open letter to Chase that was published in the newspaper. Clark claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated since he was a hold out from President Buchanan’s administration. Essentially Clark set it up that if Chase moved to fire him, it would be far more damaging to Chase and his prospects as it would be confirmation that he had allowed things to get so out of hand in his department. Chase was trapped. The allegations against Clark were so detailed and extensive that they were undoubtedly true, but Chase had to save face. And so Chase turned to the only thing left of him, partisan politics.

While Baker’s investigation failed to find any major examples of monetary corruption in the Treasury department, the reports surrounding Clark’s sexual malfeasance became blood in the water to opponents of Lincoln’s administration in Congress. An investigative committee was created. Chase however, was connected enough to make sure that the majority of the Congressmen placed on the committee were friends. While there were a few token Democrats to provide the illusion of impartiality, the chairman of the committee was Republican representative, and future President, James Garfield.

Representative James A. Garfield

Chase and Garfield had become extremely close with Chase considering Garfield to be the son he never had.  The Republican majority committee worked extensively to attack Baker’s investigation. Each political party now found itself in a strange place. The Democrats, who loathed Baker and his methods, jumped to Baker’s defense while the Republicans, who had relied on Baker many times to be the shady means to achieve their ends, turned against him. Baker, feeling betrayed by his friends released all the pages of his scandalous findings to the public. Many newspapers would not print the reports deeming them too depraved to print, but others published the ladies’ statements in all their depraved detail. A political cartoon of the day even included the scandal with a brazen gentlemen eyeing a group of young ballerinas preparing for the Treasury Department’s production of “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”.

One might think that with all of the uproar that was being caused in the Democratic newspapers over Clark’s misconduct and the release of Baker’s reports that it would be impossible for Chase, Clark, and the Republicans to come out unscathed. However, in the end, Lafayette Baker’s own over-zealousness in his investigation would cause his downfall.

In early May of 1864, right about when the congressional investigation began, one of the Treasury department’s female clerks, Maggie Duvall, suddenly died. Maggie was described as “a beautiful and attractive young lady, with auburn hair, somewhat freckled.” Baker did not believe this death was a coincidence. He believed that Maggie had been a victim of Mr. Clark and died as a result of an abortion. Baker was able to collect a statement from another clerk that seemed to support this idea. And so, against the heartrending protests of Maggie’s family, Baker had Maggie’s funeral halted and had her body sent to an examining committee of local physicians to check for signs of an abortion.

In the end, however, Baker’s gamble backfired. It was found that Maggie had died of consumption and that her “virtue” was still intact. When the press heard the news of what Baker had done, they crucified him for it. His desecration of the poor girl’s body against the wishes of her family and the way he had attempted to sully her reputation became more of an outrage that than Clark’s alleged actions towards the other women. The Republicans were amazingly able to refrain the issue and turn Baker into the enemy. When Garfield and his majority in the congressional committee released their report they alleged that most of the charges against Clark were fabrications created by Baker on behalf of private printing companies in New York who were unhappy with having lost their contracts to print the government’s notes with the establishment of Clark’s bureau. In the end, the committee found that Lafayette Baker, “by the aid of coerced testimony” and with the assistance of “female prostitutes associated with him” had set out to destroy the reputation of Spencer Clark.

Lafayette Baker was livid and challenged Garfield to produce any evidence that he was working behalf of printing companies, had coerced any testimonies, or had used female prostitutes to make his case. In truth, all of these charges were groundless but it didn’t matter. Garfield had managed to reframe the issue in the public mind to protect his friends and his party. The Treasury scandal just went away which is why Spencer Clark was still in his position as superintendent of the printing division when he was asked to examine Lewis Powell’s boot in 1865.

But we’re still not done with Mr. Clark. In fact, we haven’t even touched on the scandal he is most known for and the way in which he changed the course of American currency forever.

In June of 1864, just after the inquiry over Clark’s sexual misconduct ended, Congress approved the creation of a third issue of fractional currency. The first and second issues, which ranged from 5 cents to 50 cents, had only contained the portraits of Washington and Jefferson. The design process was a lengthy affair with dies having to be created by outside companies. During this time Secretary Chase resigned from his post. He was replaced by Maine Senator William Fessenden who became the new Secretary of the Treasury.

William Fessenden was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury from 1864 – 1865

Clark was in charge of the creation of the new fractional notes. It’s possible he was trying to curry favor with his new boss when he approached him with his idea for the portraits that should be placed on the new notes. Clark suggested that the notes contain the images of Secretary Fessenden, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury George Harrington, Controller of the Currency Hugh McCullough, and the Treasurer of the United States Francis Spinner.  Secretary Fessenden agreed to have his own face on one of the bills but told Clark to ask the other gentlemen for their consent. The other gentlemen were reluctant to the proposition but eventually agreed to it when they were assured by Clark that Secretary Fessenden wanted it so (which was a lie). In time Secretary Fessenden’s portrait appeared on the 25 cent note, and Treasurer Spinner’s portrait went on the 50 cent note.

Fractional currency notes bearing the likenesses of William Fessenden and Francis Spinner

These high value notes went into circulation but were not as common as the lower ones. The die for Controller McCullough’s note was damaged upon delivery to the Treasury and he, already being uncomfortable with the idea of being on currency, refused to allow Clark to order a new one. The design for Harrington’s note was apparently not yet in production. What occurred next is a little uncertain but end result was this:

A 5 cent fractional note bearing the likeness of Spencer Clark

Spencer Clark put his own face on the 5 cent fractional note. The story goes that the demand for 5 cent notes were so high that the treasury was under a time crunch to release the new issue of these bills. Strangely, or perhaps purposefully, Clark had originally planned for Francis Spinner to be on the 5 cent note but moved him to the less popular 50 cent note. Clark went up to Treasurer Spinner, told him of the almost completed design for the 5 cent note but lamented he had no portrait to put upon it. According to one story, Clark then said, “What head shall we use?” Clark asked Spinner, “the boys have got up a die with my head, what objection is there to using it?” Spinner then allegedly replied, “I have none”. Clark then went off telling people that he had the authorization of Francis Spinner to use his own image and he just so happened to have a die with his own portrait on it ready to go. However the truth is that Francis Spinner did not have the authority to approve designs nor did he claim to. When Secretary Fessenden saw the early proofs of the new 5 cent notes with Clark’s face, he rebuffed Clark. Clark then told him that it was Spinner who had insisted that Clark’s image be put upon the notes due to his years of faithful service to the bureau (which was a lie). The other story surrounding the placement of Spencer Clark’s face states that, when Clark approached Treasurer Spinner inquiring about who to put on the 5 cent note, he said something along the lines of, “Would the likeness of Clark do?” Spinner apparently believed that Spencer was referring to that great American explorer William Clark, of Louis and Clark fame. Spinner agreed to this and it was not until after the proofs were made that it was discovered that there had been a “misunderstanding”. Regardless of what really happened, due to the time constraints and demand for the bills, the production of the 5 cent notes with Spencer Clark’s face was allowed to continue.

As you might imagine, when these new 5 cent notes first appeared in public in February of 1866, there was quite an uproar. People had previous talked of the impudence of when Salmon Chase was placed on the $1 notes produced by the treasury and now here were fractional bills containing the images of three more treasury workers. Though George Washington was retained on the 3 cent and 10 cent notes, Thomas Jefferson had lost his place among our nation’s money completely.

Members of Congress were the most outraged especially considering the drama that had unfolded around Clark just two years earlier. The man had been rightfully accused of using his position to solicit sexual favors from his female subordinates and now he was the face of the 5 cent note. So, on March 1, 1866, Representative Martin Thayer of Pennsylvania added the following amendment to an appropriations bill for the Treasury:

“Hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”

Thayer humorously demonstrated how teachers all over the country will have to do away with their old table of Federal currency and learn the one currently promoted by the Treasury.

Rep. James Garfield expressed his disagreement with the amendment, initially citing his belief that money should represent the leaders of the day. However, his argument quickly shifted into a prolonged and flowery defense of Spencer Clark:

“Sir, I take pleasure in saying a word for an abused man, who is not here to answer his accusers; and I say it, too, remembering the declaration of an ancient philosopher, that people love to hear accusation better than defense. I do not hesitate to declare it as my opinion that when the history of our financial struggles during the later war shall have been written; when all passion and prejudice shall have died away; when the events of the present shall be seen in the clear light of veritable history, this man, whose picture is now sneered at; this man, so little known to fame, and so unfavorably spoken of among many members of this House, will stand out in that history as a man most remarkable for genius and ability, for having accomplished a work which will take its place among the wonders of mechanism and useful invention, and for having saved to the Treasury, by his skill and fidelity, millions of money. Whatever people please to say concerning S. M. Clark and his antecedents, he has done his country signal service; and, sir, I believe his merits will some day be recognized by the American people as they have been and still are by those who know what he has done and is still doing in the public service.”

Representative James Brooks from New York, the Congressman who had started the call to investigate Clark two years ago and served as one of Garfield’s token Democrats in the committee could not let Garfield’s aggrandizement of Clark go without a response.

Rep. James Brooks of New York

“What a eulogy he has pronounced upon a great hero of this war! When the name of Grant shall have faded away; when the magnificent victories of Sherman, from the mountains of Tennessee throughout all George, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, shall have been forgotten; … when even Lincoln shall have been buried with Julius and Augustus Caesar, there will arise one remarkable man; high on the horizon, and that is Clark, the printer of the public money!”

This response was met with laughter from the House. Garfield and Brooks then argued for some time about the past investigation into Clark before Brooks brought the attention back to the matter at hand.

“Sir, the honorable gentleman from Pennsylvania, Mr. Thayer is right. No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, all politics, and of all religions.”

In the end, the Representatives voted to put Rep. Thayer amendment in. When the amendment arrived in the Senate the only change made was to allow the current plates of notes to be used until their expiration in order to avoid the cost of halting production and purchasing new ones at this time. This was agreed to by both the Senate and House without dissent.

Finally on April 7, 1866, the appropriations bill was passed which contained the amendment banning living people from appearing on our money and stamps.

This policy still stands today. Coincidentally. the same appropriations bill that banned portraits of living people on money also approved the expenditure of $100,000 for the purchase of a property in Washington City “for the deposit and safe keeping of documentary papers relating to the soldiers of the army of the United States, and of the museum of the medical and surgical department of the army.” The property’s name? Ford’s Theatre.

Spencer Clark survived an investigation into his qualifications. He survived an investigation into his immoral and predatory behavior with his female clerks. Spencer Clark even survived the aftermath of the widespread embarrassment he had brought upon his government by putting his own face on money. However, could not survive one last scandal. On November 17, 1868, Clark tendered his resignation after an investigative committee found him guilty of…improper book-keeping. After leaving the Treasury, Clark acquired a position in the Department of Agriculture, eventually becoming the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Clark died on December 10, 1890 and is buried in Hartford, Connecticut next to his wife.

Spencer Clark was a failed businessman, a fake engineer, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a scumbag sexual predator, and man who put his own face on money. That’s quite a scandalous hidden history.

References:
The Enemy Within: Fears of Corruption in the Civil War North by Michael Thomas Smith – a fascinating book which details Spencer Clark and the Treasury Scandal

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

An Assassination Cane

An Interesting Artifact

The collection of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee contains many fascinating artifacts relating to the 16th President. Among their collections is a cupboard made by Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln; a china set owned by the Lincolns in their Springfield home; a lock of Willie Lincoln’s hair taken from his head after his death; and a massive archive of art, books, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera relating to Lincoln. One of the most famous artifacts in the museum, however, is an ebony cane topped with a sterling silver knob handle which bears the inscription “A. Lincoln”.

Compared to modern canes which are mainly used as functional tools to assist in walking and balance, this 35.5 inch long cane owned by Lincoln was solely a fashion piece. Short canes, or walking sticks, were very common accessories for men during the Victorian era. Many men carried canes as evidence of class and elaborate canes were common affectations designed only to impress or convey prestige. For example, Lincoln’s future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was often photographed with walking sticks. Since Booth would often give out these photographs to friends and admirers, the cane helped to subtlety reinforce his self-image as a member of high society.

While Lincoln was not known to crave prestige, canes were also often presented as gifts. Visiting dignitaries often received decorative canes as tokens of esteem. There are many accounts of Lincoln being presented with canes during his career as a lawyer and politician.

The question remains then, why is the Lincoln cane at the ALLM one of the highlights of the museum’s collection? What sets it apart from any number of canes that are said to have been owned or presented to Lincoln? Well, this cane is said to have been with Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Provenance

The Lincoln cane arrived in the collection of the ALLM on September 10, 1929. It was given to the museum by a former resident of Troy, New York named Joseph Mayhew. In his donation of the cane, Mr. Mayhew included two notarized letters conveying the history of the cane. One letter was written by Mr. Mayhew and the other was by his sister, Emma Cuenin nee Mayhew. The following is from Emma’s affidavit:

“In 1875 my father, Stephen Mayhew, was the proprietor of a grocery and meat market at the corner of Fifth and Ferry Streets, Troy, N.Y. After school I would often wait on the customers who came into the store. This was when I was about 11 years old.

I remember a man and his wife named Phelps trading at the store. Phelps was an actor. He would purchase groceries and meats and then charge them. When his bill amounted to about $40.00 and he was unable to pay he offered father Abraham Lincoln’s cane in lieu of the bill. Father accepted the cane as payment in full.

Phelps related how he became possessor of Abraham Lincoln’s cane, saying that he, Phelps, was an actor having a minor part in the play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. on the night President Lincoln was assassinated. In the excitement that followed Lincoln’s being shot Phelps entered the President’s box and seeing the cane in the corner where Lincoln left it he picked it up and kept it as a memento.

Father often carried the cane, making no secret that it at one time belonged to President Lincoln.”

Stephen Mayhew continued to own and display Lincoln’s cane to his friends and neighbors. According to the affidavits, the display of the cane caused jealously among a certain Troy resident who sought to claim the cane as his own.

“Some litigation was started concerning the cane, as a man named Kisselberg though he would like to gain possession of it. My father’s interests in the matter were defended by a lawyer named Palmer. After spending some money and time in the courts Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale in order that a clear title could be obtained. It was bought in for my father.

During the litigation a letter was written to Lincoln’s son concerning the cane, in which it was explained how father became possessor of it. Lincoln’s son replied, stating that as long as father had obtained it through an honest debt he was entitled to it.”

Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit contains a bit more detail regarding the legal battle concerning the cane, but fails to mention the detail regarding Robert Todd Lincoln’s involvement in the case:

“At a later date, when it became generally known that my father had the cane in his possession, it was seized by the local authorities. It was kept for a time by the Sheriff of Rensselear County and also in a jeweler’s safe. This jeweler’s name was Kisselberg and his place of business was on River Street in Troy, N.Y.

My father took legal action to recover the cane. He engaged a lawyer, named Palmer. Palmer caused the cane to be sold at Sheriff’s sale and bought it in for my father so that my father would have a clear title to it. The litigation cost my father between eighteen hundred ($1800.00) and two thousand ($2000.00) dollars.”

After recovering his property, Stephen Mayhew continued to own Lincoln’s cane. In 1914, Stephen gave the cane to Joseph. The elder Mayhew died in 1917.

With these two pieces of evidence in hand and a priceless, highly fought over, silent witness in their collection, the assassination cane has been a centerpiece of the ALLM’s collection for years.

Recently, I have been looking through my files relating to my own visit to the ALLM back in 2014. Though I was only able to spend a brief period of time researching in their archives, I was amazed at the breadth of their collection. I previously did a blog post about a letter owned by conspirator Samuel Arnold that is in the museum’s collection. In revisiting my files, I decided it would be worthwhile to publish a quick post about the Lincoln cane with the intention of bringing about some more awareness to this unique artifact. After a bit of research into this cane and the provenance behind it however, I have come to an unexpected conclusion.  I do not believe this cane was at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Research

Near the end of Joseph Mayhew’s affidavit he mentions that when his father finally presented the cane to him, it was also accompanied by, “a copy of ‘The Trojan Observer,’ a newspaper dated Monday, January 26, 1880, and published at Troy, N.Y. This newspaper contains an account with reference to the Lincoln cane.” It turns out that the seizure and legal battle concerning the cane was a newsworthy event. The local Troy papers talked about the recovery of the cane and how it would, undoubtedly, be returned to Robert Todd Lincoln. The story of Lincoln’s cane was reprinted across the country. The newspapers, likely getting their information from Stephen Mayhew, reported that the man who recovered the cane was named A. R. Phelps, the stage name of actor Alonzo Raymond Phelps. This name concurs with the Mayhew children’s statements years later. Also helpful to the Mayhews’ statements is the fact that Alonzo Phelps, for a brief period of time in the mid 1870s, did reside in Troy, NY as evidenced by his inclusion in a Troy city directory.

From this point onward, however, the evidence against the cane’s provenance begins to add up. By consulting Thomas Bogar’s impeccably researched book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, one finds that Alonzo Phelps did not perform in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre that night. He was not part of the Ford’s stock company and was not a member of Laura Keene’s visiting troupe. The idea that Phelps was acting at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s death is not supported by the evidence.

The question then becomes, if Phelps did not perform at Ford’s Theatre that night, was it possible for him to be there in the role of an audience member instead? Unfortunately, that does not appear to be likely.

The entry for A. R. Phelps in the 1870 edition of Brown’s History of the American Stage states that, “in 1854 [Phelps] sailed for California, in company with the Denin Sisters, where he opened in ‘Love’s Sacrifice,’ on April 10 of that year. He remained on that coast, playing through California, Oregon, Nevada, etc., until 1866, when he took the overland trip to New York.” Further research demonstrates Phelps’ long residence in California where he worked as both an actor and a theater manager. In 1856, for example, A. R. Phelps and fellow actor Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. leased the Union Theatre in San Francisco. Among the actors the business partners brought in that season was June’s younger brother, Edwin Booth, who was just beginning his starring theatrical career.

Phelps stayed in California during the course of the Civil War and the evidence indicates that Phelps was likely still in California when Lincoln’s assassination occurred. In addition to the entry in Brown’s History of the American Stage which states that Phelps did not return east until 1866, we also find A. R. Phelps’ name in the 1864 and 1865 city directories for San Francisco. Newspaper advertisements also indicate that he was performing at the Metropolitan Theatre in San Francisco as late as March of 1865. With the journey between San Francisco and New York lasting about a month in those days, it is extremely unlikely Phelps was on the correct coast when Lincoln was assassinated. The bulk of the evidence points to him still being in California when Lincoln was killed.

With it having been established that Phelps was not performing at, or likely even near, Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the provenance of the “assassination” cane is dealt a significant blow. What is interesting, however, is that this is not the first time the authenticity of the cane has been questioned. In fact, the true history of the cane may have very well been established back in 1880 when the initial reports went out about its recovery from Stephen Mayhew. An article, originally published by the Troy Evening Standard and reprinted by other newspapers across the country, gives a different history of where this cane came from:

“Many years ago, when President Lincoln was a poor lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he carried about with him a plain ebony cane, with a silver ferrule, marked ‘A. Lincoln.’ The cane may have cost $5.

When Lincoln found himself in Washington he still carried the old ebony, being loath to part with his old friend. One day a delegation of friends waited upon and presented him with an elegant modern cane with an elaborately engraved gold handle. He accepted the gift more to accommodate his friends than to please himself. The old cane was given to a trusty valet who often frequented a prominent restaurant in Washington, where nightly assembled many professional men, actors, lawyers and musicians. Among the number was A. R. Phelps, the first manager of the Grand Central Theatre. Hard pushed for money, the valet pawned the cane with the proprietor of the restaurant, and from the latter it passed into the hands of Phelps. In his vocation as a theatrical manager and actor Phelps struck Troy some three or four years ago, and assumed the management of the Grand Central Theatre for Thomas Miller, the proprietor. Finally adversity overtook him. Misfortune fell heavily upon him, and he with his wife and six children was left in the direst distress, and he pawned the cane to a down-town citizen for $25. He then left town and has not since been seen here…”

If accurate, this article paints a very different story as to the circumstances surrounding Alonzo Phelps’ attainment of Lincoln’s cane. Rather than having retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre, Phelps is said to have received the cane as a gift from a restaurant proprietor in Washington on an undetermined date. In addition, the article claims that the cane was one purchased by Lincoln himself while living in Springfield and given away by the living Lincoln when he received a different one in Washington. While the article does not provide any sources for the history behind Lincoln’s cane, it is clear that at least some research was undertaken in its reporting. The article gives the circumstances of Phelps’ residence in Troy in the mid-1870s stating that he was the theatrical manager of the Grand Central Theatre. This appears to be backed up by a January 20, 1877 article in the New York Clipper which announced that Phelps was to receive a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central Theatre.

However, there are some small discrepancies in the article as well, such as the amount Phelps owed to Mayhew ($25 vs $40) and the number of children Phelps had at the time (6 vs 5). In addition, the article goes on to recount the involvement of Robert Todd Lincoln in attempting to recover the cane:

“Robert T. Lincoln, son of the dead President, learning that the cane was in this city, corresponded with Chief Markham with a view of obtaining possession of it. Yesterday morning Markham received track of its whereabouts and served a search warrant upon the proprietor of a meat market at the corner of Federal and North Fourth streets. There the cane was recovered. In the police court yesterday afternoon, before Justice Donohue, the matter of the disposition of the cane was taken up, and postponed for two weeks. It is supposed Phelps gave the cane as security for the meat consumed by his family.”

According to this article, Robert Todd Lincoln was taking an active role in the recovery of his father’s cane. This is in contrast to the Mayhews’ statements which claim the seizure of the cane was brought upon by a jealous and covetous neighbor and that it was a letter by Robert Lincoln which allowed them to retrieve the artifact. After some further digging, however, it appears that neither set of these circumstances are true.

Between 1903 and 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln maintained a correspondence with a former journalist named Isaac Markens of New York. Markens was studying Abraham Lincoln and wrote many letters to Robert asking him questions about his father. Markens published a few pamphlets on Abraham Lincoln and was said to have been working on a full biography of the President that was never completed. In the 1960s, the 82 letters written by Robert Lincoln in answer to Isaac Markens’ questions were donated to the Chicago Historical Society. In 1968, the CHS published the bulk of the letters as a book titled, A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Letters by his Oldest Son. While the book does not contain the original letters Markens sent to Robert, it seems clear that at one point Markens came across one of the 1880 newspaper stories regarding the assassination cane and decided to ask Robert about it. The following is part of a letter Robert Lincoln sent to Markens on January 25, 1918 in which he discusses the cane:

“The story about the cane is queer. I think I should have remembered any such events as are described in it if they had occurred, and I do not. I do not think there is a word of truth in the story. I do not own any cane ever possessed by my father, and I never took any interest in any such cane. He never used a cane himself at all. At various times in his life there were presented to him canes. I remember such things, but he never cared anything about them, and gave them no attention. I think it is true that after his death my mother gave away to servants some canes which had come to him in Washington, for which none of us had any regard whatever. Such canes may be in existence, but they possess no real interest in connection with my father.

Very sincerely yours,

Robert T. Lincoln”

In this letter, Robert Lincoln makes it clear that he never had any involvement regarding a cane belonging to his father. This is in contrast to both the newspaper articles and the affidavits from the Mayhews. Nevertheless, Robert Todd Lincoln is a more reliable source on these matters than the other two and his statement must carry the most weight.

Conclusions

We are left with an “assassination” cane whose provenance is full of holes and half-truths. Each piece of the story can be broken down into categories of likely and unlikely.

It seems likely that Alonzo Phelps gave Stephen Mayhew a cane in exchange for a debt the actor owed the grocer. This piece of the story is consistent across all sources and there is evidence that places Phelps in Troy during the applicable time period.

It seems highly unlikely that Alonzo Phelps retrieved the cane from the President’s box at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Evidence proves that Phelps was not performing at Ford’s Theatre in direct contradiction to the claims of the Mayhew family. Given Phelps’ established residence in California up until March of 1865, it seems incredibly unlikely that he was even in Washington, D.C. that fateful night.

It is unlikely that this cane was even carried by Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. For this point we have two pieces of evidence. The first, and admittedly weaker, piece of evidence is Robert Lincoln’s assertion that his father did not regularly carry a cane. Since Robert was not a witness to his father’s assassination, this piece alone does not prove much. However, there was an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination who publicly disputed the idea that Lincoln carried a cane with him that night. After the story of Lincoln’s cane was published across the country in 1880, a brief retort was published in Washington, D.C.’s the Evening Star. The article stated, “The story telegraphed from Troy about the recovery of a cane stolen from Mr. Lincoln’s box in the theater on the night of his assassination, is pronounced by Mr. Charles Forbes, who was an usher at the White House at the time, to be false, as Mr. Lincoln had no cane with him.” Though the brief article failed to mention it, Charles Forbes was far more than just a White House usher. Forbes had accompanied the Lincoln party to Ford’s Theatre that night and he was the one sitting outside of the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth approached. Booth presented Forbes with a calling card of some sort and Forbes allowed Booth entry into the box. Forbes is a very reliable witness in this matter and his claim that Lincoln had no cane with him that night is further evidence against the cane’s reported history.

Charles Forbes, the man who sat outside of Lincoln’s box and allowed John Wilkes Booth to enter. He denied Lincoln carried a cane that night.

After looking at all of the evidence, I do not believe the “assassination” cane held by the ALLM was ever with Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The most likely history of this cane, in my mind, was largely laid out by Robert Lincoln. We know that Abraham Lincoln was presented with many canes during his lifetime. The Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection contains an entire file folder of clippings relating to Lincoln canes. In addition to ones gifted to him, Lincoln himself was known to present canes as gifts. In 1864, for example, 19 silver headed ebony canes were purchased by the government and presented to the 19 governors of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico. Each of these canes were engraved with the name of the governor and also the name of the President “A. Lincoln”. In his letter, Robert Lincoln mentions how, after his father’s death, Mary Lincoln gave away canes that had been presented to her husband. I believe a situation similar to this likely occurred with the cane at the ALLM. Somehow, perhaps from a restaurant owner in D.C. as the newspaper account stated, Alonzo Phelps acquired a cane that had, at one time, been owned or presented to Abraham Lincoln. Phelps cherished the cane until he was forced to part with it in Troy in the 1870s to Stephen Mayhew. Over time, either through outright lies or faulty memories, the story of the cane morphed, giving it a far more dramatic backstory. Lincoln Memorial University was more than happy to acquire this unique piece for their growing Lincoln collection and the two notarized statements from the Mayhew children were provenance enough in the 1920s. However, with the help of modern tools and resources, we can more deeply investigate the provenance behind artifacts like the Lincoln cane. While such investigations may lead to disappointing conclusions, like the debunking of a cherished Lincoln artifact, the process is an important part of evaluating and reevaluating what we think we know about the past.

References:
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM)
Provenance records for President Lincoln’s cane at the ALLM (80.0379)
Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas Bogar
San Francisco Theatre Research: Theatre Buildings Vol. XV Part 1 edited by Lawrence Estevan
History of the American Stage (1870) by T. Allston Brown
San Francisco City Directory, Oct 1864 and Dec 1865 accessed via Ancestry.com
“Lincoln’s Cane” Troy Evening Standard article reprinted in the San Francisco Bulletin, February 2, 1880
A Portrait of Abraham Lincoln in Letters by his Oldest Son edited by Paul M. Angle with assistance of Richard G. Case
Charles Forbes Statement in the January, 23, 1880 edition of the Evening Star
Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection: Canes Owned by Lincoln file, Cane – Assassination file
“At the Griswold Opera-House, Troy, N.Y. …The veteran actor and manager A. R. Phelps, and wife, who recently resigned from the Griswold Opera-house, are to be the recipients of a complimentary benefit at the Grand Central.” – The New York Clipper January 20, 1877

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Replica Booth Diaries for Sale Again!

Looking for that special gift for the Lincoln assassination aficionado in your life? How about a replica of the diary John Wilkes Booth used during his 12 day escape?

A few years ago, I assisted a prop maker named Pasquale Marsella to create near perfect replicas of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Using photographs of the diary that were taken during the 1970s, Mr. Marsella was able to reproduce the interior of the diary with amazing detail. The interior of these replicas contained Booth’s own handwriting and duplicated the number of missing and torn pages exactly. Mr. Marsella created only a limited number of diaries and quickly sold out of them. I was fortunate enough to purchase one of the diaries, as did the Surratt House Museum, which keeps the replica on display in their visitor center.

Replica Booth diary on display at the Surratt House Museum

In the years since Mr. Marsella’s first run of diaries, demand for the replicas has been high. In 2015, I was contacted by producers at the Smithsonian Channel who were hoping to get their own replica diary for use in a documentary. I had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left. Instead, I agreed to lend them my replica diary for use in their documentary, Lincoln’s Last Day:

Over the last few years I’ve had several other folks contact me hoping they could purchase diaries, and I sadly also had to inform them that Mr. Marsella had no more left and wasn’t making them anymore. However, Mr. Marsella has recently decided to do another run of his diaries which are available for purchase!

In this second run of diaries, Mr. Marsella has made some improvements from his earlier design. The new replicas utilize a higher quality leather which is softer and gives the diary an older look and feel than previous models. Further, Mr. Marsella is including a more accurate piece of brass on the outer part of the diary. During the last few years, Mr. Marsella has improved his technique for aging paper, giving these new diaries a more authentic “old” look to them. Lastly, the interior pockets marked “Postage” and ” Tickets” are no longer just sewn on displays, but fully functioning pockets like on the real diary.

One of Pasquale Marsella’s new, second run of John Wilkes Booth diaries

This second run of replica John Wilkes Booth diaries consists of only 30 diaries, several of which have already been sold. The limited amount is due to the time consuming process of detailing and tooling the leather, which Mr. Marsella does himself.

Mr. Marsella is selling his limited number of John Wilkes Booth diary replicas for $375 each plus $30 shipping. Payment is accepted through PayPal. Due to the nature of his work, Mr. Marsella will need 25 days from receipt of payment to complete each diary. If you are interested in purchasing a replica diary, please email Mr. Marsella directly at pasqualemarsella@yahoo.it and he will give you instructions on how to pay through PayPal.

If you have any questions about the diaries feel free to leave a comment below or email Mr. Marsella directly. As an owner of one of Mr. Marsella’s replica diaries, I can say that his workmanship is impeccable. I have used this diary as a prop during my own reenactments as John Wilkes Booth, I’ve brought it along with me to speeches, and I always carry it when I give the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour. You should see the interest in people’s faces when I pass around my handmade, Italian crafted (Mr. Marsella lives in Italy) replica John Wilkes Booth diary. Everyone on the bus enjoys leafing through the pages and seeing John Wilkes Booth’s handwriting duplicated exactly. They have no idea that the piece is so exactly duplicated that even the missing and torn pages in the replica match the real McCoy in the Ford’s Theatre museum. My diary has passed through many hands in the 4 years that I have had it and it’s holding up great.

Yours truly showing off his own replica Booth diary while presenting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois

I truly enjoy giving Mr. Marsella some free advertising and assisting him in selling his diaries because he provides such a unique and well-crafted piece that you can’t get anywhere else. Get yours today before they’re gone once more.

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