Posts Tagged With: John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes Booth and the real Billy Bowlegs

As I have mentioned before, I am currently in a graduate program working on a Master’s degree in American history. This is why updates here on BoothieBarn have been few and far between for the last year and will likely continue to be for a year or two more. This summer semester I took a class on American Indian History with Dr. Ned Blackhawk from Yale University. It was a very illuminating class and helped me develop a greater understanding of what American history truly is. For the final paper, each student was allowed to pick a subject of their choice. As always, I wanted to make a connection, even a small one, to John Wilkes Booth or the Lincoln assassination story. With the help of a Native friend on Twitter, we assembled a short list of some of the minor connections John Wilkes Booth had to Native Americans:

  • As a young child growing up at Tudor Hall, John Wilkes Booth and his siblings often invoked the imagery of Indians in their play. Asia Booth recalled her brother digging a large hole, the size of a trench, in the wooded area around Tudor Hall in search of Indian bones. Also, when riding his horse Cola di Rienzi around, Booth was known to spur him on with shouts of, “The Choctaws are after you, ride for your life!”

  • Located not far from Tudor Hall is The Rocks at Deer Creek. This natural rock formation was a common picnic and riding destination for the Booth children including John Wilkes Booth. Local legends stated that, in earlier years, the Susquehannock Indians occupied the area and performed ceremonies on the King and Queen Seat. In 1854, John Wilkes Booth wrote to his friend Samuel Williams O’Laughlen that, “the Indian’s where up here the other day with their great Bear.” A modern archeological study, however, was unable to find any significant evidence of Native American residency in the area.

  • While learning the acting profession in Richmond, John Wilkes Booth performed the role of Uncas, a Native American, in the play The Wept of the Wish-Ton-Wish which starred Maggie Mitchell. Researcher Angela Smythe has done a compelling amount of research into the story that a photograph of Booth in his Uncas costume once existed..

While interesting pieces of trivia, none of these connections really lent themselves to a research paper where Native Americans were the primary subject. However, there was one additional connection that had always piqued my curiosity. According to Asia Booth’s book on her brother,

“There was a celebrated Indian Chief named Billy Bowlegs, and Wilkes went by this name among his companions at [St. Timothy’s Hall in] Catonsville.”

John Wilkes Booth was even known to have used this boyish nickname in a letter he wrote to Samuel Williams O’Laughlen on April 30, 1854. In closing the letter signed it as “J.W.B alias. Billy. Bow. Legs”

Several books, including Art Loux’s John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, provide the brief context that Billy Bowlegs was a leader of the Seminole tribe in Florida. The assumption is that John Wilkes Booth was given this nickname because he was bow legged himself. But I wanted to know more about the real Billy Bowlegs even if only to understand how a group of teenage boys in Maryland had heard of a Seminole chief way down in Florida. So, in the end, I decided to wrote my final paper on the real Billy Bowlegs who I discovered was actually called Holata Micco by his people. I looked at his life before and during the time when John Wilkes Booth became his namesake. What follows is that final paper.

I must warn you that the paper is a bit long, there are no pictures, and there is no mention about John Wilkes Booth in the text. While the nickname inspired the research, the paper itself is an analysis of Holata Micco’s actions between the Second and Third Seminole Wars, the latter of which would ultimately come to bear his name. I am not an expert on the Seminole and had never even read about the Seminole Wars before starting this class. However, I did a great deal of research on Holata Micco for this paper and am proud of the finished product. While I’m sure there are inevitable errors in what is written below, they are unintentional. I present my final paper on Holata Micco, the real Billy Bowlegs, for anyone interested in learning more about a fascinating figure in American history whose name happened to become the childhood nickname of a Presidential assassin.


Holata Micco: Peacemaker for his People

By Dave Taylor

The Third Seminole War during the 1850s was the final major conflict between the United States and Native tribes in Florida. At the time, the conflict was often referred to as The Billy Bowlegs War, named for a leader of the Seminole who was known colloquially as Billy Bowlegs. Billy Bowlegs’ true name was Holata Micco, and he was a well-known leader of the Seminole people in the years prior to the conflict. When the war – largely characterized by hit and run guerilla warfare – broke out in 1855, Holata was seen as the main aggressor and tactician behind the Seminole’s last stand. The bloody events of 1855 through 1858, impressed upon the name of Holata Micco a legacy of conflict and warfare. However, a close examination of the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in the Third Seminole War demonstrates that Holata’s reputation for violence is not supported by his documented actions. Rather than playing the aggressor, Holata Micco was committed to the peaceful coexistence of the Seminole and the United States and made many sacrifices in his attempt to protect his people.

The Third Seminole War, like the one that preceded it, was a natural extension of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, ordering the relocation of Native tribes to areas west of the Mississippi. The act opened up vast quantities of previously held Indian land in areas of the eastern United States to white settlers. President Andrew Jackson, a strong proponent of the Act, knew that not all tribes would willingly move from their native lands and therefore backed up the act with the use of military force. Jackson viewed the act as one of compassion combined with an ultimatum. “I was satisfied that the Indians could not possibly live under the laws of the States,” Jackson wrote shortly after the passage of the act. “If now they shall refuse to accept the liberal terms offered, they only must be liable for whatever evils and dificulties [sic] may arise.”[1] The difficulties that stemmed from the Indian Removal Act were numerous and many tribes refused to leave the lands they had occupied for generations. In the territory of Florida, the Seminole fought a war against then General Jackson who had allied the United States Army with the Seminole’s rival tribe, the Lower Creek. That war, known later as the First Seminole war, stripped the Seminole of much of their land holdings in the panhandle and northern parts of Florida. The Seminole retreated to a reservation created by the United States government in the central part of the Florida peninsula despite the fact that the signatory Indian chiefs believed that the allocated land, “did not contain a sufficient quantity of good land to subsist them.”[2] A subsequent war, stemming from the Seminole’s resistance to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, decreased the tribe’s numbers and forced them to seek refuge in the Everglades and Big Cypress swamps, areas even less hospitable than the reservation they had been assigned years before.

It was at the end of the Second Seminole War that Holata Micco rose to prominence. As noted by the research of Kenneth Porter, a historian who specialized in African American frontiersman and the relationship between African Americans and the Seminole people, the age and lineage of Holata Micco are unknown for certainty. He was likely born between the years of 1808 and 1812 and was of some close relation, possible a nephew, to Micanopy, the leader of the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.[3] Holata’s ascension from warrior to a leadership position in the Seminole tribe came about due to Micanopy’s capture (under a flag of truce) in 1838 and the leader’s subsequent removal to the West. The Second Seminole War was a war of attrition that, through death, capture, and surrender, decimated the remaining population of Seminoles in Florida. General William Worth, the final U.S. commander during the Second Seminole War believed that 5,000 Seminole had been removed over the course of the seven years conflict.[4] Holata negotiated with General Worth at the end of the Second Seminole War, but he was not the sole leader of the around 400 remaining Seminoles. The war had broken the Seminole into different bands and different leaders had emerged within those groups. The idea that Holata Micco was the sole chief of the Seminoles and that he was responsible for all of the Seminole’s activities from this point forward was an erroneous assumption that was regularly repeated in the press in the years, and conflict, to follow. The lack of understanding regarding the complex interplay of powerful leaders among the remaining Seminole and the biased nature of the white press against the Native occupants of Florida caused Holata Micco to emerge in the eyes of the general populace as the main aggressor of the Third Seminole War.

The Second Seminole War did not end with the complete surrender of the Seminole. Despite the heavy losses in population, the bulk of the Seminole still in Florida were just as committed to staying there as they had been in the beginning of the conflict. What Holata Micco negotiated with General Worth in 1842 was more of a truce than a surrender and this was only possible because the United States government had grown tired of the financial and human expense of attempting to hunt down the remaining scattered Seminoles in the Everglades. In an initial peace meeting with one of Holata’s representatives, General Worth made it clear that he wished to end hostilities with the Seminole and that would mean his army would no longer force the removal of Indians in the region. Worth told Holata’s representative that the President, “is willing his red children should remain in Florida or go to Arkansas as they may prefer,”[5] showing President Tyler’s willingness to ignore the Indian Removal Act in order to bring about a modicum of peace. While the negotiations were filled with inducements to motivate the Seminole to depart Florida, the ending agreement established that the Seminole and the few other scattered tribes were, “permitted for a while to plant and hunt on the lands” and, more importantly, that any white settlers who encroached on the, “Indians and their places of residence” would be, “subjected to removal.”[6] From the perspective of Holata Micco and his group, the Second Seminole War ended much in the same way as the first, with the Seminole being allocated a piece of land and being told they were allowed to remain despite outside desires for them to relocate. These terms were largely agreed to by the other remaining scattered groups of Indians. With hostilities ended, Holata Micco set to work on creating a home for his people among the swamps of the Everglades and the Big Cypress.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to the study of Holata Micco and the Third Seminole War is the lack of perspective from the Seminole themselves. Like too much of Native history, the material is overwhelmingly one sided. We lack any writings on the day to day life of the Seminoles after the Second Seminole War. However the conclusion that Holata sought to uphold the peace for as long as possible is supported as much by his non-actions as by his confirmed actions. Almost a year after the final peace negotiations were agreed to, General Worth wrote, “For eleven months, indeed since my announcement of August 14th, 1842, became known to the straggling bands, not an outrage or offensive act has been committed by Indians.”[7] After such heavy losses in the prior wars, the commitment to maintain peace was strongly held by the Seminole and, in peace, the organization of the tribe had coalesced around Holata Micco. General Worth wrote in November of 1843 that Micco was, “the acknowledged chief,” among the Seminole and that, “these people have observed perfect good faith, and strictly fulfilled their engagements.”[8] The peace between the Indians and the whites continued to hold which caused newspapers across the nation to announce that, “We hesitate not to say, that ‘the Florida war’ is not only ended, but that it will ‘stay ended.’ Emigrants may now seek a residence here with as much safety as in any part of the country.”[9] Peace brought an influx a new settlers to Florida and also caused older settlers to make their way into the sparsely inhabited interior of the state. As settlers encroached closer and closer to Indian land, federal authorities took steps to prevent further conflict from arising. Capt. John T. Sprague, the Indian Agent assigned to the region, aptly noted that any conflicts that might occur were likely to be the fault of white settlers failing to heed the boundary of the Seminole’s reservation. Sprague wrote in 1845 that, “there is a class of men destitute of property and employment, who for excitement and gain, would recklessly provoke the Indians to aggression,” and that, “the advice and example of the chiefs and subchiefs…has been salutatory, and will continue so, if unprovoked.”[10] It was Sprague’s belief that the influence of Holata Micco helped to keep the more aggressive Seminole warriors in line and committed to peace.

Even when occasional clashes did break out between usually young Seminoles and white settlers, Holata and his subchiefs took great pains to cool things down. In late 1846, news came to Capt. Sprague about an Indian raid on a farm. Sprague requested, and received, a meeting with the Seminole leadership including Holata Micco. In his report back to Washington, Sprague recounted that,

“these chiefs and their followers express the strongest friendship and have adopted vigorous laws to punish those who violate the relation existing between the whites and red men…They came into my camp prepared to receive kindness and extend it, evidently determined to avenge on the spot any manifestation of a contrary feeling.”[11]

Preserving the peace, which in turn meant continued freedom for his people, was of the utmost importance to Holata. In his report, Sprague also gave his personal impressions of Holata Micco and his influence over his people:

“This chief has been since the commencement of the Florida War a bold, resolute and unyielding leader. [He is] ambitious, and cunning, remarkably intelligent, speaking English with facility… With these peculiar qualifications and undisputed authority exercised in Florida with an auxiliary force or alone, this Indian would be a most formidable foe.”[12]

Despite Sprague’s assertions that Holata possessed “undisputed authority” over the Seminole, there were interior conflicts and politics within the remaining bands of Indians residing in Florida. When discussing the assembled chiefs, Sprague makes note of the absence of the Seminole leader Abiaka, known to non-Natives as Sam Jones. Abiaka had been elected “Grand War Chief” among the Seminoles in 1837 during the Second Seminole War. Sprague was disappointed that Abiaka, who was perpetually portrayed as a truly ancient leader of the Seminole, was unable to attend the meeting due to the weather. Sprague reported that his, “insisting upon seeing [Abiaka] tended to disparage the position and power of Holatter Micco, who in all respects, is qualified for supreme command which he exercises with skill and judgement.”[13] While Sprague goes on to express that Abiaka was, “without warriors, authority or influence,”[14] subsequent historians believe that Abiaka still held a degree of control over the Seminoles despite Holata having become the public face of tribe. James W. Covington, a historian who focused on the Seminoles, wrote that, “Persons like Sprague did not understand that though Billy Bowlegs had the largest band of warriors (fifty-four), and considerable political power, he lacked the religious influence of Sam Jones who had a following of only thirty-two warriors.”[15] In fact, much of the political power that Holata Micco was able to attain largely came from his continued interactions with the U.S. government and its representatives. Men like Gen. Worth and Capt. Sprague appreciated the ease in which they could communicate with Holata and sought to foster their relationship with him. It was Holata, not Abiaka, who had negotiated the end of the Second Seminole War and it was Holata who regularly met with federal authorities when asked. Though Holata had fought in the Second Seminole War he did not have quite the same “savage” reputation as the Grand War Chief Abiaka. Holata Micco became the desired point of contact between the U.S. and the Indians, and so they did all in their power to improve his standing. At the end of his 1847 report, Sprague recommended continued inducements to Holata not only out of hope that he would convince the rest of his tribe to emigrate, but because a relationship with Holata could prove useful to the U.S. in case of attack from without: “As a friend cherished by that which would contribute to his vanity, power, and independence, he could be relied upon to expel the intruders of whatever nation and become a faithful ally to those who secure his confidence and regard.”[16] For a time, at least, the government saw that it was better to have Holata Micco as a friend rather than an enemy.

Despite the machinations of settlers in attempting to bring about the forceful removal of the Seminole, the peace between the two groups held for almost seven years with any major conflicts. Then in July of 1849, three subsequent acts of bloodshed against white settlers shook the region. On July 12, 17, and 19th a rogue band of five Indians looted and burned three different groups of isolated homes, killing three men in the process. In two of the events, the band of Indians had first visited and traded in stores in the community before coming back with weapons. This tactic of scouting the scene before committing the crime put all settlers who came into contact with the Seminoles on guard and added to the hysteria of the times. While the loss of life deservedly escalated the response on the part of the U.S. government who sent extra troops down into Florida, it was far from the all-out war that the press of the day portrayed it to be. The newspapers seized on any and all news they could get about the “Indian depredations” even when such news was little more than hysterical gossip. On August 7th, the Springfield Republican erroneously reported that, “the Indians are preparing for a general war, and that during the past year they have provided themselves with large quantities of powder and lead…Billy Bowlegs is the master spirit and Chief of the hostile red-skins.”[17] This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that Holata Micco’s name would be used in conjunction with fears of a mass Seminole uprising in Florida.

Rather than preparing his people for war, Holata Micco’s response to the rogue raids of July, 1849 was perfectly in character with his behavior over the last seven years. Holata sought to cool tensions despite the hysteria. He was joined in this quest by Capt. John Casey, a veteran of the Second Seminole War and a man who had become the United States’ unofficial ambassador to the Indians in Florida. As increased troops mounted in Florida, Casey reached out to Holata hoping to make contact. It had been a month since the attacks and so Casey was fairly certain that these events had not been a prelude to all-out war. After some diplomatic arrangements Casey and Holata met, each flanked by their men, on September 18. Major General David Twiggs, who joined Capt. Casey at the meeting, wrote in his later report that:

“Bowlegs came on board my vessel, with a party of four or five warriors, repeated the statement made some time previous by his runner, that the outrages were perpetrated by a few outlaws, who would be given up to justice; that the nation had nothing to complain of on the part of the whites – were desirous of peace, and determined not to allow peaceable relations to be disturbed by the acts of individuals.”[18]

Twiggs’ assertion that Holata expressed the Seminole had “nothing to complain” about in terms of their treatment by the white settlers demonstrates Holata diplomatic sense. In truth, the Seminole had a lot to complain about, including the fact that the government had not upheld their end of the 1842 truce which called for the U.S. to enforce the Seminoles’ territory rights. Despite the U.S. creating a 20 mile buffer zone between the Seminole territory and the rest of Florida where no people could reside, white settlers had still moved into the area. One of the homes that was attacked during the July raids had been built within that zone.[19] In addition, even before the recent troubles, local laws and regulations had been passed restricting the Indians movements and access to trading centers. Holata had many grievances he could have aired with the Capt. Casey and Maj. Gen. Twiggs but he chose not to, placing the priority on quelling their apprehensions and fears.

The proposed surrender of the five rogue warriors who carried out these attacks was also a political move on the part of Holata Micco. Those responsible for the attacks were a band of warriors who were, ostensibly, under the control of Kapiktsootsee, a sub-chief of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief and Holata’s rival. Kapiktsootsee sought to replace Abiaka after the elder’s death but Abiaka favored another warrior causing Kapiktsootsee and a small band to leave Abiaka’s camp. Kapiktsootsee gave his men permission to hunt outside of the assigned territory and it was a small group of these rogue Indians that subsequently attacked the farms.[20] In agreeing to surrender those responsible, Holata was putting himself at odds with Abiaka. To ease repercussions from any internal conflicts, Holata brought Kapiktsootsee into the meetings with Capt. Casey and it was in this way that Holata got Kapiktsootsee to also agree to turn over his men. The date for the transfer of the prisoners was set for a month later, giving Holata and Kapiktsootsee time to capture and transport the rogue band.

Surrendering the men was not merely an act of justice for the Seminole but was considered an act of sacrifice. Gen Twiggs and Capt. Casey had made it clear that the warriors would be executed for their crimes, and it took all of Holata’s influence to convince Abiaka and the others that this was an acceptable cost to pay for continuing the peace. On the agreed upon day of transfer, Holata and some sixty warriors met with Gen. Twiggs and Capt. Casey. According to Gen. Twiggs’ report, Holata, “delivered the prisoners; said he had made severe laws to prevent the whites from being molested, and had now brought his young men that they might see how sternly he executed them.”[21] Holata was proving to his warriors that peace was of the utmost importance to the tribe’s well-being and that, in order to maintain it, he would willingly sacrifice anyone who would threaten that peace. This act of sacrifice was shown in the fact that three of the five murderers were turned over. The fourth had managed to escape during his capture. Holata presented the bloodstained rifle that the escaped warrior had been holding and dropped after being shot in the hand as he fled as evidence of the attempt. The fifth warrior had been outright killed during the attempt at his capture. As evidence of this, Holata presented Gen. Twiggs with a grisly reminder of his devotion to their continued peace: the dead warrior’s severed hand.[22]

The usually elusive Abiaka made the journey with Holata on the day of the prisoner transfer, but he refused to go aboard the army ship for the final exchange. Abiaka stayed on shore with Capt. Casey while Holata dealt with the General. Like Holata, Abiaka had seen many of his friends captured under flags of peace and he was not going to fall victim to the same fate. His presence was no doubt a message to Holata that while the younger man held favor with the whites, there was still power behind the elder. Such important decisions like sacrificing their own to the whites was not a move Abiaka would let Holata make unilaterally. In fact, according to historians Joe Knetsch, John and Mary Lou Missall, Abiaka had influence over who was given over to their deaths. In their book on the Third Seminole War, Knetsch et al. state that the third, “surrendered man hadn’t even been mentioned in the attacks. Instead of Panukee, one of the accused killers, the army was being handed a substitute, Pahay Hajo. Abiaki and other hard-liners had helped choose who would be turned over, and Panukee was probably someone’s favorite. Pahay Hajo, unfortunately, was not.”[23] Abaika’s presence and influence over the surrender of the prisoners again demonstrates that despite press reports citing that Holata Micco, “heretofore has exercised complete control,”[24] over the Seminole, the internal workings of the tribe were far more complex. Yet the desire on the part of the United States to make Holata Micco the face of the Seminole and subsequently their ally in emigration, caused Abaika’s influence to be commented on less in the ensuing years.

For a time after the surrender of the prisoners, relative peace returned to Florida. The government was impressed by Holata’s commitment to remain peaceful but the events increased the calls for the Seminole’s emigration to Indian Territory. Even during the surrender meeting, Gen. Twiggs’ pressed upon Holata and his men to emigrate, portraying it as the only long-term solution. Holata, always the diplomat, expressed his desire to remain but said that he would consider the proposal. Over the next two years, various offers would be presented to Holata, many of which contained generous financial inducements if he could convince his people to emigrate. At times, Holata would make it seem like he was willing to emigrate but that he did not believe others in his tribe would. How much of this was Holata’s true feelings or merely a way to stall for time is uncertain. This strategy of publicly contemplating emigration was effective. From 1849 – 1852, newspapers regularly contained articles about the Seminoles’ imminent departure from Florida. Throughout this period, however, very few Indians made the choice to emigrate. Holata was aided in the year after the July 1849 raids by the presidency of Zachary Taylor. Taylor had actually fought against Holata and Abiaka in 1837 during the Second Seminole War and had an affinity for their bravery. In June of 1850, President Taylor met with Gen. Twiggs saying, “tell Bowlegs whenever you see him, from me, that if his people remain within their limits – & behave themselves, they shall never be disturbed while I remain in office.”[25] Sadly, President Taylor died less than three weeks after making that remark and his successor, Millard Fillmore, was less accommodating. The bulk of the Seminoles were content to stay in their Florida homes, much to the increased dismay of white settlers who feared them or coveted their land. New technology had been developed that could drain parts of the Everglades in order to create more farmland. Even the previously undesirable land held by the Seminole was now of value to settlers. As a result, the state legislature of Florida, unhappy that the federal government had failed in its duty to remove the Indians, passed laws to resupply and repopulate previously abandoned forts from the Second Seminole War. Florida was trying to force the hand of the federal government to fulfill its 1832 promise to remove all Indians from the region. In light of this, Holata Micco finally agreed to a proposal that Capt. Casey and the newly appointed Indian Agent for the region, Luther Blake, had presented to him repeatedly. Holata agreed to travel to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with the President.

Bringing Native American delegations to urban areas of the United States like New York City or Washington, D.C. was not a new phenomenon. It was practice used to intimidate native peoples and demonstrate the sheer power and resources of the United States. In his 1847 report regarding how to secure Holata’s friendship, Capt. Sprague had recommended such a journey stating, “he should see our numbers and the power of the country.”[26] As the cherry picked leader of the Seminoles, if the government could impress or intimidate Holata into motivating his people to emigrate, the expense would be far less than a return to warfare. At the end of August, 1852, Holata and his delegation of subchiefs, interpreters, and federal officials departed Florida, making their way by ship to D.C. Notably absent from the journey was Abiaka. When meeting with Luke Lea, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in D.C., Holata was asked about Abiaka’s absence. The following interchange was documented in the The Republic newspaper the day after the meeting:

The Commissioner. I should have been glad if you had brought Sam [Abiaka] along with you.
Abraham [an interpreter]. He wouldn’t come.
Billy Bowlegs interposed, saying he could not expect Sam Jones to come with them unless he had killed him and brought a piece of his flesh. [Laughter.]”[27]

While, as Holata jokingly points out, it would have been unlikely for Abiaka to have made the trip into enemy territory given his established fear of forced capture and emigration, it unlikely that Commissioner Lea was too upset at Abiaka’s absence. Holata was the key to solving the “Seminole problem” and Abiaka would only make their goal harder to attain.

While the government’s goal was to convince Holata to emigrate, Holata had a different purpose for making the journey. To the Seminole, the treaty they had arranged with General Worth in 1842, allowing them to continue to reside and hunt on their lands, was binding. It was this treaty that Holata had agreed to and it was the one that had brought them the subsequent years of peace. Holata told Lea that, “the old people who made the treaty in Florida [i.e. General Worth] are dead,”[28] and that he wanted to learn the truth about it. For years, Holata had been told by many officials, Captains Sprague and Casey included, that he and his people had no rights to their land, despite the treaty with Worth. To Holata, this trip to Washington was a fact finding mission and a test to see if the white men would uphold this prior agreement. All the inducements to emigrate west meant little if the government could not be trusted to keep its word to leave them alone once they got there.

On the next day, September 17, Holata and his delegation were granted an audience with President Fillmore, Commissioner Lea, Gen. Blake, and the Secretaries of War and Navy. Holata told the President that, “he came not to pay a mere visit of compliment, but to seek for justice.”[29] Holata reiterated the circumstances of his negotiations with General Worth in 1842 and of how Worth had told him that he had, “the authority of the President,” to make, “a treaty of peace with the Seminoles.”[30] This treaty, Holata pressed, told the Seminole to, “gather together, draw a line, and live within it… raise their children and keep hold of the country.”[31] President Fillmore listened to Holata respectfully, but when it was his turn to reply, Fillmore echoed the words Holata had been told before. What General Worth had arranged with the Seminole was a truce, not a treaty. Worth allowed the Seminole to return to the land temporarily but an earlier treaty, one signed in 1832, was still in effect. That earlier treaty stated that all Seminole were to be removed from Florida and that they no longer had any claim on the lands of Florida. In the paternalistic tone regularly used with Native groups, Fillmore stated that he was, “anxious only to do what is for the Indian’s good,” and that, “the inhabitants of Florida are increasing and will crowd on the settlements where the Indians live.”[32] According to Fillmore, the white settlers of Florida had a right to ask him to see the 1832 treaty upheld and that he would do so. The meeting was brief and allotted to little more than a polite ultimatum on the part of the President. After shaking hands with the President and withdrawing, it was observed that, judging by their expressions, two or three in the delegation took, “the remarks of the President rather hard.”[33]

At this point, it became clear to Holata Micco that any diplomatic solution for ending the U.S. government’s insistence on his people’s removal was not possible, at least not under the current President. Perhaps it was with the knowledge that Fillmore had been passed over for his own party’s nomination and that an election was scheduled in a two months that gave Holata hope that his successor might be more reasonable. If he continued to bide his time and not make trouble, perhaps he could make the peace last. So, Holata played the part the government desired of him. On September 20th, three days after his meeting with Fillmore, Holata signed an agreement made up by Commissioner Lea. The agreement stated that the delegation acknowledged that, “all the Seminoles in Florida are under obligations to remove,” and that the undersigned, “faithfully promise to give the said agent all the assistance in their power, so that the removal of all the Indians in Florida may be effected with the least possible delay.”[34] With no affixed deadline, the “least possible delay” must have seemed as meaningless to Holata as General Worth’s agreement now seemed to the Unitied States government. After signing the agreement Holata’s delegation was taken to New York City where they were welcomed as honored guests. They met the mayor of New York City and enjoyed the city’s celebrated theaters before returning home to Florida. According to Knetsch et al., after Holata’s visit to D.C. and New York, “Billy Bowlegs was the most famous Indian in America.”[35]

Upon his return to Florida, Holata and his people retreated further into the Everglades, rarely agreeing to talks with government authorities. It was Holata’s fame and prestige that allowed him to continually push back against inducements to leave. When he did agree to meet with Indian agents like Capt. Casey, he would reiterate his peoples’ desire to stay in their homes and his own refusal to leave without them. The presidency of Franklin Pierce did not bring any desired change of opinion in regards to the Seminole. Intermittent contact with Indian agents and a strict adherence to staying on their proscribed lands allowed Holata to slow the efforts of the government towards his people’s removal, but he could not stem the tide completely. By May of 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote the Capt. Casey informing him that, “the time for negotiating with the Florida Indians is past, and that coercive measures only will induce them to emigrate.”[36] Davis ordered the end of all trade with the Indians and began the surveying and sale of the Seminole territory to white settlers. The U.S. government instituted a strangle hold on the Seminole, increasing troops to the region, reactivating old forts near their lands, cutting new roads, and patrolling for Indians outside of their territory. Despite the increased numbers of soldiers, Holata and his people tried their best to prevent any situation that would lead to open hostilities. When surveyors came into Holata’s village, effectively to determine how the land would later be parceled out to white settlers, Holata greeted them in friendly terms. Lt. John T. Greble, a soldier who encountered Holata during this period of time, wrote to his parents that, “the Indians are perfectly peaceable, and are the best inhabitants of the State, according to my way of thinking…A group of politicians have represented that the country occupied by the Indians is the most fruitful in the world…and the Indians, accordingly, have to vacate, unless they change their minds in Washington when they learn the true nature of the country.”[37] Greble was not the only solider sent to Florida who felt that the forced removal of the Seminole was not worth the effort. Lieutenant Alexander Webb wrote in his journal of the terrible conditions in the Florida Everglades and his mystification at the government’s insistence the Seminole be removed, “Mosquitos awful! Fleas! Indescribable! Heat!! Don’t speak of it. This country should be preserved for the Indians of all the territories, and if the fleas and other vermin do not destroy them they might be left to live. I could not wish them all in a worst place.”[38] Yet, to the Seminole, the vermin infested place that Lt. Webb complained of was home. Holata Micco had spent the majority of the last thirteen years working to preserve this place for his people. Despite having retreated even further into the swamps of Big Cypress and the Everglades, the Seminole found that the United States still would not leave them alone. As was warned by one of Holata’s subchiefs in 1855, “if you pull a little dog by the tail back & forth – to & fro – he will finally get mad & bite you.”[39]

In the end, the Seminole finally bit back at the United States on December 20, 1855. After years of mounting pressure and encroachments into their territory a detachment of federal soldiers was attached by a band of Seminoles armed with rifles. Four army privates were killed in the skirmish that started what was to become known as the Billy Bowlegs War. For the next three years the public was transfixed as the vastly outnumbered Seminole enacted raids on detachments of soldiers in Florida. Yet, as much as Holata Micco’s name was spoken and written during that three year period, there is little evidence to support that he even took part in any of the raids committed by the Seminoles. Even the planning of attacks, if they were truly products of a centralized chain of command, would likely have come from the advice of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief. In truth, we don’t really know how the Billy Bowlegs War was enacted on the part of the Seminoles nor how much influence Holata Micco had in the carrying out of attacks. The name of the war is attributed to the fact that Holata was the publicly recognized leader of the Seminoles and that the first conflict of the war occurred just outside of Holata’s abandoned camp. As Knetsch et. al, point out, “Most whites assumed that because the attack took place near ‘Billy Bowlegs’s Camp’ that Holata must have led the attack, but it may be an erroneous assumption. Seminole bands had more than one camp, this one was deserted, and there is no record that Holata led the attack or was even in the immediate area.”[40]

In many ways, the name of the Billy Bowlegs War does not accurately represent the course of actions that resulted in the outbreak of hostilities. For over a decade, Holata Micco worked and sacrificed to maintain peace between his small group of Seminoles and the vast power of the United States. He curtailed his warriors’ freedom to keep them within an assigned territory. He surrendered, and even executed, his own people who were guilty of crimes against white settlers in the region. He appealed to the highest power of the United States personally, seeking justice and recognition of the rights of his group. And when all temptations were given him to betray his people, Holata held fast to the needs of his tribe. Even when the war drums were sounding in everyone else’s ears, Holata retreated his band further away from the conflict, hoping to wait out the true aggressors in inhospitable terrain. The conflict that Holata Micco’s people finally enacted was not the product of aggression, but reaction. Fighting back was the Seminole’s last resort in an attempt to thwart an invading force determined to remove them from their homes. Holata Micco had been a peacemaker for his people. He had been determined to maintain peaceful relations between the Seminole and the United States and it was the U.S. that betrayed that effort. The United States was the aggressor of the Billy Bowlegs War, yet, in the end, it was Holata Micco who sacrificed his name and reputation to the conflict.


[1] Andrew Jackson, Andrew Jackson to John Pitchlynn, August 5, 1830 (Letter: Library of Congress, Andrew Jackson papers, 1775-1874).
[2] “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians, 1823” in Indian Treaties, 1778 – 1883, ed. Charles Joseph Kappler (New York: Interland Publishers, 1972), 204.
[3] Kenneth Porter, “Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) in the Seminole Wars (Part 1),” Florida Historical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1967): 220 – 221.
[4] Weekly Globe (Washington, D.C.), April 9, 1842, 25.
[5] “Minutes of a Talk Held at Fort Brooke, July 22, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 517.
[6] “Order No. 27, August 11, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 519.
[7] “William J. Worth to the Adjutant General, June 19, 1843” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 666.
[8] John Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1847), 507.
[9] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), August 8, 1843, 3.
[10] Sprague, Florida War, 509 – 510.
[11] James W. Covington, ed., “The Florida Seminoles in 1847,” Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 24, no. 1 (1964): 51.
[12] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56.
[13] Ibid., 51.
[14] Ibid.
[15] James W. Covington, “Billy Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and the Crisis of 1849,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1990): 301.
[16] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56 – 57.
[17] Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), August 7, 1849, 2.
[18] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 31st Cong., 1st sess., (1849), “Message from the President of the United States,” 125.
[19] Joe Knetsch, John Missall, Mary Lou Missall, History of the Third Seminole War 1849 – 1858 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018), 34.
[20] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 39.
[21] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 134.
[22] Covington, “Crisis”, 307.
[23] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 44.
[24] Florida Republican (Jacksonville, FL), August 30, 1849, 1.
[25]Canter Brown, Jr., Florida’s Peace River Frontier (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991), 90.
[26] Covington, “Seminoles”, 57.
[27] The Republic (Washington, D.C.), September 17, 1852, 3.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), September 18, 1852, 3.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] United States House of Representatives, Executive Document No. 19, 32nd Cong., 2nd sess., (1853), “Message from the President of the United States,” 5 – 6.
[35] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 67.
[36] Lynda L Crist, ed., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 5, 1853 – 1855 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 66.
[37] Benson J. Lossing, Memoir of Lieut.-Col. John T. Greble of the United States Army (Philadelphia: G. T. Stockdale, 1870), 38 – 39.
[38] Alexander S. Webb, “Campaigning in Florida in 1855” Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States 45, no. 160 (1909): 423.
[39] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 82.
[40] Ibid., 100.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” Cipher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISATFIOJXSFOFGLEOQBWISDUBUXCAUXWZDLTPCHAIKOLUPXOFLTPCGK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DONT GO TO FORDS THEATRE ABE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Grave Thursday: Mary Van Tyne

On select Thursdays we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


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

Mary Ann Van Tyne

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

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Piece of Crutch

Later this month, Heritage Auctions will be auctioning off a unique relic: a cross section piece from the crutch of John Wilkes Booth.

This piece of crutch is one among several lots in this auction that come from the family of noted Civil War photographer, Alexander Gardner. Gardner was responsible for photographing mugshots of the arrested conspirators and, later, documenting the execution of four of them. Accompanying this crutch piece is a handwritten note, likely written by Gardner’s daughter, Eliza, which states the history of the crutch piece.

“A piece of the crutch made from a broom handle for J. Wilkes Booth. Sawed up and given to the persons who were present at the Post-Mortem of Booth’s body on board the Monitor “Montauk”

My father Alexander Gardner and my brother Lawrence Gardner were both on board the Montior and saw Booths body taken away in small boat”

We know that Alexander Gardner and “an assistant” were brought on board the USS Montauk after John Wilkes Booth’s body had been brought back up to Washington. The long held story was that Gardner, assisted by another photographer named Timothy O’Sullivan, photographed the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth. According to the story, a single print of the autopsy photo was made, given to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and then lost to history. The allure of discovering this long missing Booth autopsy photograph (akin to the discovery of only known image of a visible Lincoln lying in his coffin) has been a goal of many researchers over the years. However, in 2013, impeccable research from John Elliott and Barry Cauchon for their “Inside the Walls” project on the imprisonment of the Lincoln conspirators helped explain why all efforts up to that point to locate the Booth autopsy photo had failed: it likely never existed. While all the evidence is nicely laid out in the duo’s third “A Peek Inside the Walls” supplement titled, “The Mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s Autopsy Photo“, the big discovery by John was an article that was published in 1891 from Lawrence Gardner. In the article, Lawrence Gardner decries the erroneous claims that John Wilkes Booth had not been killed. He then related his attendance as his father’s assistant on board the Montauk after Booth’s body had been placed upon it.

“The object of my father’s visit to the monitor was photography and the body in question was to be the subject. Did we take a picture? No! After everything had been prepared Gen. Eckert concluded that inasmuch as there was so little likeness in the remains to the photograph in existence of Booth perhaps it would be best not to make the picture and the plan was abandoned for that reason.”

Lawrence Gardner relates the same facts as practically everyone who viewed the deceased John Wilkes Booth’s remains – that his body underwent so much trauma and decay during his escape, death, and transport to Washington, that it looked very much unlike the living actor. This idea is often seized upon by conspiracy theorists as evidence of a patsy doppelganger who was killed in Booth’s place but Gardner, like the others who mentioned the poor condition of Booth’s body, is adamant that the body was properly identified. Asked by the reporter is it was actually Booth’s body, Gardner responded, “Of course it was. There could be no question about it,” and then proceeded to recount the different ways the remains were identified. With the decision being made not to photograph the decaying corpse of Booth, Lawrence and his father made three images of conspirator David Herold, who had been captured alongside Booth, before departing.

Included in the lot with the piece of Booth’s crutch is a Harper’s Weekly drawing of the autopsy scene. Affixed onto a page, a notation, likely from Eliza Gardner, identifies her father, Alexander Gardner, among the men present. It is joined by a short affidavit that (in my mind) gives further credence to Lawrence Gardner’s claims in his newspaper article.

“This is a copy of a pen & ink sketch made by my father Alexander Gardner and sent to Harper’s Weekly.

The Govt would not allow a photograph of this to get out, so the pen and ink sketch was made.”

Admittedly, Eliza Gardner’s phrasing that the government would not allow an autopsy photo, “to get out” is a bit ambiguous and open to interpretation. My own interpretation, however, reads this as a validation of Lawrence Gardner’s claim that no photograph was allowed to be taken at all. Instead, Alexander Gardner sketched the scene and inserted himself into it. This would also explain why the label for the drawing in Harper’s Weekly lacks the “from a photograph” tag that accompanies all the other engravings made from corresponding photographs.

I believe this auction lot supports the case against an autopsy photo being taken, and feel that there is more evidence on that side. And, yet, I can’t help but look at the Booth autopsy photograph like Santa Claus. Logically and factually I can admit that it most likely doesn’t exist, but that isn’t going to stop me from hoping that it might turn up someday.

Leaving the mythical autopsy photograph behind, let’s return to the crutch piece. Circular in nature, this cross section seems to support Eliza Gardner’s claim that it was once part of a “broom handle” or something like it. And yet, from Dr. Mudd’s statement to investigators, it appears that John Wilkes Booth’s crutches were even less sophisticated than that. In his April 21st statement to detectives in Bryantown, Dr. Mudd stated:

“The young man [Herold] asked me if I could fix up clumsily some crutches for his friend to hobble along with and I went down to the old Englishman [John Best] I had there who had a saw and auger, and he and I made a rude pair of crutches out of a piece of plank and sent them to him.”

Now John Best and Dr. Mudd may have been talented carpenters, but it would seem impossible that the two men could have transformed a rectangular plank of wood into two round crutches with circular grain patterns. The Gardner piece of crutch up for auction shows a tree’s circular growth rings and was clearly made from a tree branch or sapling. This is inconsistent with having been made from a wood plank.

Faced with this contradiction, one could easily make the assumption that the crutch piece up for auction was a fake, thus casting doubt on everything for sale from the Gardner family including this signed pass to the trial of the conspirators and  a lock of Lincoln’s hair. However, there is a very reasonable explanation as to why this piece of crutch does not match Dr. Mudd’s description: John Wilkes Booth had two pairs of crutches.

John Wilkes Booth’s first pair of crutches, and the ones that everyone thinks of, are the crude ones made for him at Dr. Mudd’s farm. While some sources place their creation solely on the part of John Best, the Mudds’ English handyman, Dr. Mudd, as demonstrated above, claimed he assisted in making them. These initial crutches were rough to say the least, and yet Booth managed with them during most of his escape. He and Herold managed to carry them on horseback from the Mudd farm to Rich Hill and thence to the Pine Thicket. When Thomas Jones put the two fugitives across the Potomac, the crutches came with them in their rowboat. In Virginia, Booth had the crutches when he evicted William Lucas from his cabin after being rebuffed by Dr. Stuart. And Booth still had these crutches when he first appeared at the Garrett farm on the afternoon of April 24, 1865.

Jack Garrett, the eldest son of Richard Henry Garrett, had been a Confederate soldier and had been wounded in the thigh at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in May of 1864. He had been sent home to the family farm to recuperate and during that time he acquired a good set of crutches. The crutches remained at the Garrett farm when Jack reported back for duty and were still there when he was discharged from service and returned home for good.  When John Wilkes Booth (known only as James W. Boyd to the Garretts) was invited to stay with the unsuspecting Garrett family on April 24, they noticed his poorly made and worn crutches. “He had a very rude pair of crutches,” Kate Garrett recalled years later, “but my brother had a good pair which he had used when wounded during the war, and he gave them to Booth.”

Booth was likely extremely glad to get an actual set of crutches and not have to suffer from Dr. Mudd’s makeshift ones any longer. The Garrett children were also happy that their guest made the upgrade as Richard Baynham Garrett, then a boy of ten, remembered:

“…The [crutches] he brought with him were so rough that my brother gave him a pair which he had used while a wounded Confederate soldier, and it was on these he was leaning when shot in the burning barn. The writer then a boy, took the old crutches and sawed them off and used them in play with the other children.”

As noted by Richard Baynham Garrett, John Wilkes Booth did not get to use his new crutches for very long. About 36 hours after receiving them, Booth was shot in the Garretts’ burning tobacco barn and dragged to the porch of their farmhouse where he died. From the existence of the Gardner relic, it appears that when the soldiers went into the barn to drag out Booth and attempt to extinguish the flames, they also took the time to pull out some of Booth’s possessions. We know this to be likely as the carbine Booth was holding when he was shot was retrieved from the barn. According to witnesses, Booth had been using the crutches given to him by the Garretts right up to the point when he was about to come out the barn shooting. It seems possible that the soldiers of the 16th NY Cavalry retrieved at least one of the crutches from the barn and brought it back with them to Washington. The crutch (or crutches) was then sawed into pieces and given as souvenirs to those assembled at John Wilkes Booth’s identification and autopsy. This could explain why the piece offered for sale by Heritage Auctions doesn’t match Dr. Mudd’s description of how it was made. If genuine, the piece offered for sale must be from the nicer crutches given to Booth at the Garrett farm.

Appropriately, it’s important to relate that this is not the only piece of John Wilkes Booth’s crutch that exists. At least one other crutch piece is still in private hands today.

Maude Motley speaking with Booth buff John C. Brennan in Bowling Green, Virginia. A young Michael Kauffman (author of American Brutus) is on the right wearing plaid.

Many who study the Lincoln assassination are familiar with the name of Ms. Maude Motley. In the early days of the John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tour, rather than concluding at the Garrett farm and travelling no further south, the bus would go all the way down to Bowling Green, Virginia before heading back. While Booth never made it to Bowling Green, that is the location of where Willie Jett spent the nights of April 24th and 25th, before he was rudely awakened at gunpoint by the Union cavalry and forced to give up Booth’s location. David Herold spent the night of April 24th south of Bowling Green at a private home before rejoining Booth on the 25th. In the early days of the tour, Ms. Motley, a Caroline County native, would meet the bus tour at their stop in Bowling Green.

In Bowling Green, Ms. Motley would tell the tour participants some of the local lore regarding the end of Booth’s life. For a time Ms. Motley’s mother boarded with Lucinda Holloway, Mrs. Garrett’s sister who was acting as a live in teacher when Booth was killed at her farm. Lucinda Holloway’s version of Booth’s death had been passed down to Ms. Motley through her mother and she enjoyed telling it. But more than anything else, however, Ms. Motley regularly met the bus in Bowling Green in order to show off her unique relic: a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s crutch.

Ms. Motley’s story regarding how she got the piece of crutch is really best told in her own words. Luckily we have a recording of her speaking about the death of Booth and her crutch piece from a talk she gave in 1979. Below is an excerpt from that recording which covers how she acquired the crutch piece.

As Ms. Motley related it, one of the charred crutches from the barn was chopped up and shared among the Garretts’ neighbors after the Union troops left on April 26th. One of the recipients of a piece of crutch was the father of Ms. Motley’s neighbor and it was that neighbor who gifted the piece to her. On one side of the crutch piece, which Ms. Motley had set with a metal tag, some charring can be seen, ostensibly from the fire that consumed the Garrett barn.

Ms. Motley’s provenance is pretty good with only one slight problem with the timeline of her story. The elderly neighbor who gave the piece to Ms. Motley was Ms. Reeta Gray. Her father, the one who was said to have received the piece at the Garretts’, was William Edward Gray. William Gray was about the same age as Jack Garrett and was also a Confederate soldier. Unlike Jack, however, William Gray had been captured near the end of the war when the Union took Richmond. Gray was being held as a prisoner of war in Ashland, Virginia on the morning of Booth’s death. He could not have, in Ms. Motley’s words, “rushed over” to the Garrett farm on account of the barn being on fire. William Gray signed his oath of allegiance and was released from custody the next day April 27th and was allowed to return home to Caroline County. Now despite this small discrepancy, it is still very possible that William Gray acquired a piece of crutch some time after his return, passing it down to his daughter who gave it to Ms. Motley.

Though impossible to prove or know for certain, I’d like to think that the two known pieces of crutch, Ms. Motley’s and the Gardner one, come from the two different sets of crutches Booth used. The Gardner piece looks like it came from a legitimate crutch as opposed to a piece of plank, which, assumedly, would make it part of the set given to Booth by the Garretts. Ms. Motley’s piece which looks a little more plank like (though the small size makes it impossible to truly tell) could have come from the set made by Dr. Mudd. “But wait,” you might be saying, “if Ms. Motley’s piece of crutch was from the set made by Dr. Mudd and then traded for a better pair, why would it show evidence of burning?” Well, the answer to that is simple: Booth’s original pair of crutches got burned (at least a little bit).

As we have established, after trading Dr. Mudd’s crutches for a better pair, the Garrett children took the homemade crutches and altered them for play. Ten year old Richard Baynham Garrett cut them to size and likely chased his younger brother and sisters around the farm with them. After the events of April 26th, however, the family feared anything associated with their visitors. According to a later account by Richard Baynham Garrett, “The morning after the killing, not knowing what might happen, he took them [the crutches] and burned them in the open fireplace of the kitchen.”

But here’s the thing, like many other claims of priceless relics being destroyed, Richard Baynham Garrett didn’t go through with burning the entirety of Booth’s crutches. In fact, as a 25 year-old seminary student in 1880, Richard B. Garrett wrote a letter to then Judge Advocate General William McKee Dunn offering him some of the relics still in the family’s possession. In the letter he mentions still having a piece of Booth’s crutch.

Richard Baynham Garrett

“I have in my possession some very interesting relics of Jno. Wilkes Booth. It was at my father’s house in Va. that he was killed and I have preserved the relics. Among them are the mattress upon which he died, a piece of the crutch which he used, and a lock of his hair, cut off after his death…”

The Garretts were suffering financially at the time o this letter and Richard B. Garrett, needing money to continue seminary, was likely hoping the government would pay him for the relics. They declined and so the items stayed in the family.

It seems a distinct possibility that, if Richard B. Garrett retained at least one piece of Booth’s original crutches, that he may have saved and gave away other original pieces. Perhaps, rather than neighbors chopping of pieces of the “burned in the barn crutch” on the day of Booth’s death as Ms. Motely claimed, the Garretts, instead, gave away some salvaged pieces of Booth’s original pair of crutches from young Richard Baynham Garrett’s attempt to destroy the evidence. We will never really know for sure. Call it another, Santa Claus if you like, but I’d like to think the two known crutch pieces came from the two different sets of crutches, making both extremely unique.

Like Reeta Gray before her, Ms. Motley never married or had children of her own. When she died in 1989, Ms. Motley left her piece of crutch to her nephew. It may have changed hands a few times after that, but I don’t know that for sure. Today, the Motley piece of crutch is in private hands and is owned by a noted John Wilkes Booth authority.

Proxy bidding (early online bidding) for the Gardner crutch piece from Hertiage Auctions is already open with the actual auction scheduled for August 25th and 26th. For those of you interested in getting me a nice “Back to School” gift, bidding on the Gardner crutch piece starts at a very reasonable $2,500 ($3,125 including the buyer’s premium).

References:
Heritage Auctions
The Mystery of John Wilkes Booth’s Autopsy Photo by John E. Elliott and Barry M. Cauchon
The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd by Robert K. Summers
Garrett, R. (1907, December 29) The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Macon Telegraph Sunday, p 4.
Burr, F. (1881, December 11) John Wilkes Booth, The Scene of the Assassin’s Death Visited. Interesting Memories of the Garrett Family. A Full Narrative of the Tragic Events. Boston Sunday Herald.
The Art Loux Archive
Rich Smyth

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , | 21 Comments

John Wilkes Booth at the Bel Air Academy

The Bel Air Academy was one of the earliest institutions of learning that the future assassin of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, attended. Founded in 1811, the Academy, which was also known as the Harford County Academy, was one of many private institutions that existed in the 1800’s well before centralized school districts were the norm. The Academy catered mainly to the education of the locals in Harford County, but also advertised itself as a suitable boarding school for out of town pupils.

The exact date of John Wilkes Booth’s attendance of the Bel Air Academy is not known with exact certainty, but it appears to have started in about 1846, when Booth was eight years old. John Wilkes was joined at the school by his younger brother, Joseph, who was a little less than two years his junior.

In 1848, the Bel Air Academy received a new principal who also served as teacher. His name was Edwin Arnold. A native of Canada, Dr. Arnold was the son of Rev. Oliver Arnold, an Anglican pastor and Indian teacher in New Brunswick. Edwin Arnold was also ordained in the Anglican faith but resigned from the pastorate after eight years in order to devote his full time to teaching. Prior to becoming the principal of the Bel Air Academy, Dr. Arnold had served schools in New Brunswick; Freehold, New Jersey; Bordentown, New Jersey; Easton, Maryland; and Washington, D.C. When Dr. Arnold was chosen to lead the Bel Air Academy, he was highly spoken of by all his former schools. Edwin Arnold moved himself and his family next to the Bel Air Academy building. The principal’s son, Edwin, Jr. joined the school as one of his father’s pupils.

Edwin Arnold provided the students at the Academy a classical education based on the English tradition. The days were spent reading, memorizing, reciting, and learning the lessons of classic works of literature. For an extra fee, students could also receive instruction in the French language taught by another teacher whom Dr. Arnold hired for the purpose. Dr. Arnold was also fond of arithmetic, writing and publishing his own book on its proper instruction called Arithmetical Questions, a new plan, intended to answer the double purpose of arithmetical instruction and miscellaneous information. With the help of his colleague, the book was also available in French.

At the time of Dr. Arnold’s arrival at the school, and likely in the time preceding it, John Wilkes Booth was known as one of the school’s “day scholars”. This meant that, everyday, John Wilkes rode his horse from the family farm outside of Bel Air into town for school. Joseph Booth, on the other hand, lived with and lodged with Edwin Arnold and his family. Such accommodations cost more money, but Dr. Arnold highlighted the benefits of one-on-one after hours instruction and continual access to his library to student boarders. It appears that Mary Ann and Junius Booth decided that it was their youngest son, Joseph, who would make better use of such an arrangement as opposed to their less educationally inclined son, John Wilkes.

Joseph Booth

One of the Booths’ fellow students at the Bel Air Academy was a boy by the name of George Y. Maynadier. In the years that followed, Maynadier became an important figure in Harford County. As a young lawyer he was elected state’s attorney for the county from 1862 to 1867. In 1871, he was made a Harford County judge. Maynadier did another stint as state’s attorney from 1879 to 1887 and in his later retirement from civic duty, though he was still a lawyer, Maynadier was one of the editors for the local Bel Air newspaper, the Southern Aegis.

In 1902, as part of his editorial duties for the Aegis, Maynadier wrote an article about his time at the Bel Air Academy with the Booth brothers. Titled “Additional Reminiscences of the Booth Family”, George Maynadier’s account gives us our only glimpse into the Booths’ time at the Bel Air Academy. In the article he describes the differences between the two brothers:

“…John Wilkes and Joseph A. Booth, as I said, were both pupils of Dr. Arnold at the Bel Air Academy for the five [sic] years or a large portion of that time during which the writer attended that school. John Wilkes was by no means considered a studious boy – or as one inclined to take advantage to the full of his educational opportunities. Joseph A. was much more naturally that way inclined, that is, was much more studious. The two were very little alike in appearance – John Wilkes being much the handsomer in his face and figure. The clear cut lineaments of his face with slightly acquiline nose and altogether magnetic expression of countenance was such as once seen could never be forgotten or mistaken for anyone else. Joseph was a lighter complexion, of slender build, as the expression is, and of all together different shape of features and expression…John Wilkes was by no means deficient in intelligence and brains (very much in fact the other way), but was not “bookish”, which is all I mean, when I say he was not as a boy devoted to his studies…”

Maynadier’s description of John Wilkes as a less than studious boy is backed up by Asia Booth’s own notes on her brother. “He had to plod,” Asia wrote, “His was not a quickly receptive mind.”

In his narrative, Maynadier recalled a booze filled party that he, the Booth brothers, and even the principal’s son, Edwin Arnold, Jr., took part in at the close of a spring session. This event likely occurred in the spring of 1849.

“I well remember a school boy incident in which the brothers, John Wilkes and Joseph figured and which if I am not mistaken, the president of the Board of County Commissioners and others of my contemporaries of the Academy in the regime of Dr. Arnold, now resident hereabout, can recall as well as myself. A debating club had existed for a long time at that institution and thereby in the way of dues etc. a fund of some size, comparatively, had accumulated. As the spring of the year and short evenings were approaching, and we had concluded to suspend the club at least for a while, the question arose what to do with our money. It was soon resolved that we would “blow it in” in a grand “blow out” at our last meeting, prior to suspending altogether. Accordingly, the day scholars procured to be prepared at home and brought with them sundry cakes and confections and so forth, and Hughey Rogers, barkeeper at the Harford House, was seduced by the larger boys (some of them in fact young men) into making divers pitchers of hot stuff (it was cold weather) or cogent quality. So on the night in questions, the matter having been carefully concealed from Dr. Arnold, the affair came off. The Doctor’s son, one of the good boys of the school, had been taken into our plans in order to insure his secrecy, as we well knew he otherwise would “blow” on us if he found it out. The Booth boys, I remember, were among the chief promoters and leaders in the affair, although they were most efficiently seconded and encouraged by others fully as much inclined for mischief and a “good time” as themselves. Well, it is only necessary to say, that after partaking of the refreshments provided, including Hughey Rogers’ “hot stuff,” which was freely imbibed, pandemonium broke loose at the old Academy and continued loose until midnight. Card playing and shouting (it would be a misnomer to say singing) of songs interspersed with blood curdling yells and whoops such as only boys can emit, made up the bulk of the proceedings on the festive occasion. This was Friday night and you can imagine our consternation on the following Monday morning, when on the assembling if school we learned from his own lips that we had been visited, unknown to ourselves, by the venerable Dr. Arnold himself. He had expected something and made a personal inspection and fairly caught us all in crimine delicto. The only thing that saved us from being expelled was that so many were engaged in the affair, equally guilty, that expulsion as a punishment would have broken up the school. We received, however, such a lecture as made us thoroughly ashamed of our conduct…”

For reference, at the assumed time that this rambunctious party of boys occurred John Wilkes Booth, George Maynadier, and Joseph Booth were 11, 10, and 9 years-old, respectively. While Dr. Arnold did not expel any of the party participants (the inclusion of his own 8 year-old son caused difficulty in that), the spring session of 1849 proved to be John Wilkes Booth’s last at the Bel Air Academy. In the fall of 1849, John Wilkes Booth was sent by his parents to the Milton Boarding School in Cockeysville, Maryland. It appears, however, that Joseph Booth stayed on at the Bel Air Academy with Dr. Arnold for a couple more years before the brothers were reunited in school together at St. Timothy’s Hall in Catonsville, Maryland in 1852.

The Bel Air Academy building (with later additions) still stands today.

Dr. Arnold continued as the head of the Bel Air Academy until either 1853 or 1854. In November of 1854, he became the principal of Elkton Academy, which was located about 30 miles east of Bel Air. Coincidentally, in the fall of 1854, Asia Booth wrote a note to her friend Jean Anderson stating that, “Joe goes to school in Elkton, Cecil County”. It appears that Joseph Booth was, for a time, returned to the tutelage of Dr. Arnold.

While John Wilkes Booth had ended his formal education in 1853, he was still seen from time to time around Bel Air. Even after he started his stage career, Wilkes returned to his former hometown. He spent most of the summer of 1861 in isolation in Bel Air, renting a hotel room and memorizing plays. In his article, Maynadier recalled a run in with Booth during this time.

“I remember on one occasion whilst a party of us younger men were gathered on the upper porch of the dwelling house now occupied as a store by Mr. C. C. Rouse, sometime in the sixties [likely 1861], discussing politics and what not, on a July afternoon, when everything seemed to be in repose and quiet prevailed all around, we were suddenly startled by a terrific explosion and crash as if a mine had been sprung in our midst. On leaping to our feet, it was discovered that Mr. John Wilkes Booth had espied our assemblage from the porch of the adjoining hotel, and procuring all the ‘torpedoes’ left over from the fourth of July, had hurled them in our midst to enjoy the effect of the explosion.”

It appears that Booth couldn’t help playing a trick on his old Bel Air Academy chums.

Dr. Arnold, meanwhile, had departed the Elkton Academy in April of 1856 and traveled to the north Baltimore suburb of Mount Washington, where he had set up his own school, the Rugby Institute. The start of the Civil War greatly reduced the number of enrolled pupils and Arnold was forced to close the Institute down in August of 1861. During the war, Dr. Arnold and his family took up residence in Calvert County in Southern Maryland where he became a farmer. At war’s end he resumed his career as a teacher, heading up the Salisbury Institute on Maryland’s eastern shore while his family stayed in Calvert County. Dr. Arnold’s daughter died in 1869, and the 64 year-old teacher ended his educational career that same year. The one time teacher of John Wilkes Booth died at his Calvert County home on March 11, 1874 and was buried next to his daughter.

In his 1902 article about the Booth brothers, George Maynadier included a cryptic note about another of their Bel Air Academy peers. Giving only initials, Maynadier recalled one of the bullies at the school who was acquainted with John Wilkes and who, in the days after Lincoln’s assassination, ended his own life under mysterious circumstances:

“But my paper is drawing out too long – One other matter which may or may not be authentic, I will set down here and then close these meager additions to the already voluminous Booth reminiscences. At the time when John Wilkes and Joseph A. Booth were pupils at the Academy, there lived in Bel Air a family by the name of L— (I do not for obvious reasons mention the name.) The eldest son, about the age of John Wilkes Booth, was also a pupil at the Academy and intimate with the latter. He was likewise the most notorious of all the boys and young men at school or in the village, as the ringleader of everything desperate and reckless. In those days I was afraid of him, as all the smaller boys were, who often, ‘tasted his quality’ in the shape of a cuff on the head or a punch in the ribs and so forth – consequently, it may be, that he was not so desperate and bad as I thought him to be, but simply reckless and thoughtless of consequences. However, sometime prior to or during the first years of the war, he left Bel Air and removed to Baltimore or Washington, I do not remember which, and turned up at the latter place as an attache, in the medical or drug division of some of the departments of the army. –And here comes the story.- It will be remembered that immediately on the occurance of the assassination, strict lines were drawn and no one was suffered to leave the City unless by special permit. G—– L—, it was said made an effort within a day or two after the tragedy, to get through the lines. He failed and on being repulsed several times, returned and matters in his case culminated by his TAKING HIS OWN LIFE, for what reason, no one apparently knew. This matter was given no prominence that I ever observed, at the time, nor have I heard it commented on to any extent since – But it was, if true, a curious coincidence, that an old schoolmate and intimate associate of former days of John Wilkes Booth, and of the character of man of L—, should have acted as above stated if indeed the matter is true as I have heard it. ‘I tell the tale as ‘twas told to me,’ is all the comment I have to make…”

The name of the schoolmate whom Maynadier refused to provide the full name of was George B. Love. In addition, his recollection of the events regarding Love’s death are correct and George Love did commit suicide after being captured trying to cross the Union lines out of Washington after the assassination of Lincoln.

George Love’s story is a fascinating one that I would love (no pun intended) to tell you. However, as I was working on this blog post I discovered that fellow researcher and author Susan Higginbotham had already beaten me to the punch. Unbeknownst to each other, we were both researching Love’s story at the same time. Susan had visited Love’s grave in Baltimore Cemetery and when I emailed her today asking for permission to use her photo of his grave in this blog post, she informed me of the similar path we had been taking. So, rather than telling you the story of George Love here, you’re all going to have to wait a month until Susan’s article titled, “The Strange, Sad Case of George B. Love” is published in the August 2018 edition of the Surratt Courier. Susan has done a marvelous job delving into Love’s life and mysterious death. If you’re not already a member of the Surratt Society, sign up today so that you won’t miss out on getting Susan’s excellent article.

The old Bel Air Academy building, the place where George Maynadier, George Love, Joseph and John Wilkes Booth, and many others received their early education still stands in Bel Air. Now offices for a law firm and others, a small historic plaque above the door gives the name of what this building once was. For about three years, John Wilkes Booth plodded through classical literature and arithmetic here. Perhaps if he had spent less time at play and more time at his studies, these walls could have changed the course of history.

References:
(1902, March 7) Additional Reminiscences of the Booth Family. Southern Aegis, p 4.
Bel Air Academy – Maryland Historical Trust Inventory
Harry Ransom Center
Karen Needles of the Lincoln Archives Digital Project who acquired information about George Love for me
Susan Higginbotham

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.