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.
The Spangler Family
Burial Location: Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pennsylvania
Connection to the Lincoln assassination:
In 1865, Ford’s Theatre carpenter and scene-shifter Edman Spangler was put on trial for his alleged participation in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Edman Spangler had known the actor John Wilkes Booth for several years and was one of the carpenters who assisted in the construction of the Booth family home, Tudor Hall, in Harford County, Maryland. Spangler’s friendship with Booth, his pro-Confederate sympathies during the war, and the fact that Booth often asked favors of Spangler (including the request for Spangler to hold his horse on the night of April 14th) caused Edman to be tried alongside the others who were involved in Booth’s plot against the government. In the end, the government could not prove that Spangler had any foreknowledge of the assassination plot but he was still found guilty of, “having feloniously and traitorously aided and abetted J. Wilkes Booth in making his escape.” For this, Edman Spangler received a sentence of 6 years in prison at Fort Jefferson.
Prior to his friendship with John Wilkes Booth, however, Edman Spangler had been born and raised in York, Pennsylvania. Edman’s family had been in York since his great grandfather, Baltzer Spangler* immigrated to the area from present day Germany in 1732. Baltzer was one of four Spangler brothers who established homes in the York area around this time. In 1760, Baltzer built a two-story brick mansion on what was then the outskirts of York.
After Baltzer’s death in 1770, this home was inherited by one of his sons, George Spangler, who was Edman Spangler’s great great uncle. The home stayed in the family until the 1840s when it was sold. By 1850, the home had been transformed into a school run by a British veteran of the War of 1812 named Charles Henry Bland. The school was known as Sherwood’s School and also colloquially as Bland’s Academy. Clarence Cobb, a former student who attended the academy in the former Spangler home later recalled that, “Bland’s boys learned but little and were taught less. There was no system, no regular course of study, nor recitation. Bland’s school failed utterly, at the last. The old gentleman secured employment thereafter, as a steward, at Fairfax Seminary, Va., back of Alexandria. I am informed that he lived to a great age. He believed in corporal punishment and plenty of it. Perhaps his extensive exercise as a whipping-master was the cause of his health, vigor and activity. He never whipped me as I think I may say I was a good boy, but, I thought, he used to whale the bad boys for fun.”
When giving his reminiscences of Bland’s Academy in 1916, Cobb also recalled one of his former classmates at the time.
“John Wilkes Booth, whom we always called Jack, attended school there for only a few weeks in 1853.”
Cobb is the only source we have that John Wilkes Booth spent time at Bland’s Academy. We do know from period sources that Cobb was a classmate of Booth’s when the two boys both attended the Milton Boarding School in Cockeysville, Maryland together from 1849 – 1852. Cobb gives a vivid description of Booth as a student while at the Milton Academy but doesn’t say anything specific about his time at Bland’s. If John Wilkes Booth did attend school in York it would have been in the fall of 1853 and also would have represented the end of his formal educational career. In his authoritative volume, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, researcher Art Loux stated that Booth “may have” attended Bland’s Academy, perfectly demonstrating the lack of supporting evidence. So, while it has not been proven with certainty, it is still somewhat eerie that a young John Wilkes Booth may have been educated, albeit briefly, in a home built by the ancestor of a future conspirator.
Sadly, the Baltzer Spangler house, home to the short-lived Bland’s Academy, no longer stands today. Instead, the 400 block of Prospect St. in York is the site of rowhouses.
Another son of Baltzer Spangler who inherited some of the property around the Spangler home was Edman Spangler’s grandfather, John Spangler. John and his wife, Margaret Beard, were the parents of eight children before John’s death in 1796. In the 1890s, when a Spangler genealogist was working on a book about his ancestors, he found an extraordinary relic among John Spangler’s belongings:
“In the old and handsome family Bible of John Spengler, was found by the writer a letter in German, alleged to have been written by God Himself and delivered by an angel at Madgeburg, Germany in 1783. It exempted the possessors from lightning, fire and water. A century ago it made a profound impression.”
The letter discovered in John Spangler’s bible was a fairly common document in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities at the time. Called a himmelsbrief or “heaven’s letter”, these papers were a mixture of Christian scripture and magic, claiming to ward off misfortune as long as the owners abided by the moral covenants instructed by the letter. In essence, these letters were an early form of chain letters with a healthy dose of Christian teachings to make them popular. The Madgeburg letter found in John Spangler’s bible was one of the most common versions of himmelsbrief. You can read more about these interesting chain letters here.
The second of John and Margaret Spangler’s children was William Spangler. William was born on September 21, 1785. He likely spent quite a bit of time in the old Baltzer Spangler home owned by his nearby neighbors and cousins. Around 1814, William married a woman named Anna Maria and they began their family together. They would have at least 5 children between the years of 1815 – 1825. The youngest of their children was Edman Spangler, born on August 10, 1825. Less than six months later, on February 12, 1826, Anna Maria Spangler died, leaving William a widower with several young children. To help support his young family, William Spangler became the sheriff of York County in 1827. He served a three year term which ended in 1830. William married again that same year. His new wife was named Sarah “Sally” Spangler. Sarah was a widow herself having been previously married to William’s first cousin once removed. She fulfilled the much needed role of mother to the Spangler children, including Edman. William and Sarah had one child of their own, Maria Jane, who was born in 1834.
As perhaps a harbinger of the misfortune to befall the Spangler family and the nation a few years later, Edman’s older brother Theodore Spangler died on April 15, 1852 at the age of 36. Thirteen years later would see the death of President Lincoln on the same date.
The news of Lincoln’s assassination spread quickly and, in a short while, the Spangler family in York began reading of their son and sibling’s name in connection with the great crime. William Spangler, now an old man of 79 years, wrote a letter to his son asking him to explain the circumstances he found himself in. Below is William Spangler’s letter to Edman with his numerous misspellings and complete lack of punctuation unaltered:
Dear Son This is to let you no that we are all in good Heath except my selfe I am Getting worse in my leg and Arm I can Scarcily do aney Work but I thank my God That my Bodey heath is Good I have no particulars to wright Onley this that our Family is in grate distres That your name is mentiond In So maney papers About you In this murder of the Chief President now if you Will gratfy us to hear of you The truth of the matter and The reason of your name in Almost everey paper in the Countrey You can certainly Let me no the truth about The Matter I expected A Letter from you as you might have reconsiled our Family much by Sending us the truth of all you no About it there is so much About it in the Nues that We cannot no the truth And as the[re] is So much Suspicen I dont want to wrigh More than I want to no wat you no about it if you Wright and think that your Letter is or may bee Suspicious Take it to the post office and Let it bee red by some of the Members of the post office My hand is so lame that I can scarceley hold the pen Dear Son Do answer this Imediatley From your Affecinate father God bee with you Wm Spangler”
What response, if any, Edman composed to his father is not known. In the end, William and the rest of the Spanglers in York read about the conspiracy trial and Edman’s subsequent six year prison sentence to Fort Jefferson.
Despite his advanced age, William Spangler lived long enough to see his son’s release from prison in March of 1869. Spangler, Dr. Mudd, and Samuel Arnold each received a pardon from outgoing President Andrew Johnson. The forth conspirator sentenced to prison at Fort Jefferson, Michael O’Laughlen, had died of a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1867. Spangler returned home but it’s not clear if he went to York. Shortly after his release he was right back at work as a theater carpenter for John T. Ford. A staunch believer in his employee’s innocence, Ford had bankrolled Spangler’s defense at the conspiracy trial and the efforts to get him released from prison. Likely out of appreciation, Spangler went to work at Ford’s Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore.
On July 7, 1873, Edman Spangler’s step-mother, Sarah Spangler, died in York at the age of 80. It is unknown if Edman attended her funeral. In September of 1873, the Holliday Street Theatre suffered a devastating fire which destroyed the building. When that happened, Spangler retired from the theater scene and bid goodbye to John T. Ford. Rather than making his way north to York, Spangler headed south to the farm of Dr. Mudd in Charles County, Maryland. Though strangers to each other prior to Lincoln’s death, the two had become friends during their shared imprisonment. Dr. Mudd welcomed Spangler into his home with open arms and even gave Spangler his own piece of land to live on and work. On February 7, 1875, at the age of 49, Edman Spangler died at the Mudd farm . On February 9th, he was buried by the Mudd family at the original St. Peter’s Cemetery.
William Spangler actually outlived his infamous son, but only by a few months. The elder Spangler died on October 28, 1875 at the age of 90. In 1882, Maria Spangler, the daughter of William and Sarah and half-sister of Edman Spangler, died and was buried with her parents.
Today, there are four Spangler gravestones standing in Section S, Lot 236 of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pennsylvania, all of whom are related to conspirator Edman Spangler.
There may be other Spangler relatives buried in the same plot as those pictured above such as Edman Spangler’s biological mother and his brother who died on April 15, 1852. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, a fire destroyed a large chunk of the records at Prospect Hill Cemetery. If additional Spanglers are buried in this plot unmarked, they are known only to God now.
In the end, it’s a bit unfortunate that Edman Spangler is buried so far away from the rest of his kin. York was such a big part of his family’s story and Prospect Hill Cemetery is filled with many more of his cousins, uncles, and aunts. Yet Edman Spangler lies in a small rural cemetery far away from any member of his family. Sent to prison for his alleged involvement in Lincoln’s death, it appears that, in at least one way, Edman Spangler never really came home.
The annals of the families of Caspar, Henry, Baltzer and George Spengler, who settled in York County, respectively, in 1729, 1732, 1732, and 1751 : with biographical and historical sketches, and memorabilia of contemporaneous local events by Edward W. Spangler (1896)
June Lloyd’s research on her Universal York blog
York County Heritage Trust
“J. Wilkes Booth at School: Recollections of a Retired Army Officer Who Knew Him Then” by James W. Shettel, The New York Dramatic Mirror, February 26, 1916 Part 1, Part 2
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux
Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD
Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA
Thanks to Colleen Puterbaugh at the James O. Hall Research Center for confirming Edman Spangler’s death date for me after I found conflicting newspaper obituaries claiming he died a week later.
*As was common at the time, many of Edman Spangler’s ancestors anglicized their names when they immigrated. Baltzer Spangler, for instance, was born, Johann Balthasar Spengler. The last name of “Spengler” would slowly change over a couple generations to “Spangler”. For ease of reading, I have used the anglicized names and modern surname of Spangler.