Posts Tagged With: Relics

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

Become a Patron of BoothieBarn

When this blog first started in March of 2012, it was little more than a shelf on which I could put the small research oddities and tidbits of information I came across. I was still new to the Lincoln assassination field and unsure whether this hobby would turn into anything constructive. Since that time, the community around this site has grown far beyond what I ever expected. As my followers have grown, I have worked hard to provide new and varied content all with the aim of educating others about the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. I am very proud at what I have accomplished here on BoothieBarn and, particularly, in the growing scholarship behind the posts I produce.

I am, first and foremost, a teacher and that is why BoothieBarn is, and always will be, an educational resource open to all. As an elementary school teacher, I feel there is no higher calling than using your talents to educate others. As I tell my students, everyone has the capacity of enriching the world around them by sharing their unique knowledge and abilities with others. I research, write, and speak about the Lincoln assassination because I enjoy sharing my passion with others.

BoothieBarn is not a commercial entity. I make no money in writing or producing content for this site. I have no book deals nor do I make any money from advertisements (in fact, I actually pay to keep ads off of this site). In addition, the majority of the speaking engagements Kate and I are asked to do are unpaid. This website, and the Lincoln assassination story in general, is a hobby for us and one that we enjoy, but there are some real costs associated with owning, maintaining, and producing content on BoothieBarn. In webhosting fees and research subscriptions alone, I spend over $400 a year. Even this is a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of books and travel to historic sites and museums when researching new leads. This admission is not a complaint at all, but is merely meant to demonstrate that all we do here on BoothieBarn is a true labor of love.

With that being said, I have decided to launch a Patreon page for BoothieBarn. Patreon is an online system that allows individuals to provide some financial support for the work being done by their favorite creators. The website operates a bit like those infomercials you see on TV where you make a pledge to donate a certain amount each month. You choose whatever amount you would like to give and, once a month, Patreon will charge your credit card that amount and give it to your chosen creator.

My reason for joining Patreon is the hope that some of you might consider becoming a patron of BoothieBarn and help provide some financial support towards the work that we do. Your pledge would help to offset the costs associated with owning BoothieBarn and conducting research for it. A pledge of any amount would truly help to lift some of the financial burden that creating content for this site entails (especially from the shoulders of a couple of newlyweds on a teacher’s salary). I am not expecting that we will ever be able to break even regarding the costs of our work, but every little bit makes an impact.

Those of you who chose to become a patron will not only have our deepest thanks, but also access to some patron-only material on our Patreon page. From time to time I will be adding images and short descriptions of some of the Lincoln assassination artifacts that we have seen in our travels. I’m calling this section “The Vault”, and we already have a few entries ready to go in the “Posts” section of the Patreon page. A recurring pledge of any amount grants you ongoing access to The Vault and the treasures inside. It’s our way of thanking you for your support.

I hope that you will consider becoming a patron of BoothieBarn and help us continue to provide thought provoking, educational material on Lincoln’s assassination. Please click the “Become a Patron” button below to be taken to our Patreon page to read our story. There you will find information on how the Patreon system works so that you can decide whether giving is something you feel you can do.

Even if you don’t have the means to contribute, I appreciate your continued support of our efforts here on BoothieBarn.

Sincerely,

Dave Taylor

Categories: News | Tags: , , , | 8 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

Grave Thursday: Francis Dooley

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


Francis Xavier Dooley

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

Connection to the Lincoln assassination: 

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Kate

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

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

A Plaque for Mary Surratt

In June of 1917, a museum in Richmond, Virginia was given a memorial plaque. Measuring 15 inches high and 10 inches across, the bronze plaque featured a cast ivy design along the top, a central cross, four fleur-de-lis, and two small flowers. The tablet was a gift intended to be displayed on the wall of one of the rooms within the museum and spoke of the innocence of the executed Lincoln conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The plaque was commissioned by the Maryland Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was created by a Baltimore artist named Joseph Maxwell Miller at a cost of $100. The Maryland UDC presented the plaque to the White House of the Confederacy, then known as the Confederate Museum. Within the museum there were 11 rooms devoted to the 11 different states within the Confederacy along with three others for the Confederates from the sympathetic border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. This plaque was an addition to the Maryland Room within the Confederate Museum.

The ladies of the Maryland UDC were quite proud of this piece. In their end of the year report for 1917, the following paragraph was included.

“For many years we have wished to place a tablet in memory of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, of Maryland, an innocent woman who was tried and condemned by the Federal Government. This year we have accomplished our purpose, and the beautiful tablet of golden bronze, the work of Maxwell Miller, a young artist of Baltimore, is hanging in the Maryland Room in Richmond, with the inscription of her own words, “To God, I commend my cause!”

Aside from the fact that there is no evidence that Mary Surratt ever said the words the UDC attributed to her (and that the final plaque inscription doesn’t even bear that phrase), the plaque also puts the wrong date for Mary’s execution. Mary Surratt and the other condemned conspirators were executed on July 7, 1865, not the 9th as the plaque states.

It’s extremely fitting that, like the many other memorials and monuments created by the UDC and other Confederate groups, this memorial to Mary Surratt is a misrepresentation of history not just in fact, but also in intent. While there is an evidence based case to be made regarding Mary Surratt’s (possible) innocence, this plaque is not about portraying history as much as it is a tool for furthering the narrative of the Myth of the Lost Cause. It’s amazing how much the “murder” of Mary Surratt played into the narrative of Confederate organizations in the decades following her execution.

In looking for period documentation regarding this plaque I searched the issues of the Confederate Veteran magazine. The magazine was founded in 1893, at around the same time the White House of the Confederacy was opened as a museum. Confederate Veteran later became an official publication for the UDC and other Confederate groups. I finally found a mention of the plaque in the July 1920 edition which stated, plainly, “The Baltimore chapter also placed in the Maryland Room, Richmond Museum, a tablet to Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, the only Memorial by any Chapter to this martyred woman.” The Maryland UDC may have placed the only physical memorial to Mary Surratt, but her “martyrdom” was a regular feature in the Confederate Veteran magazine. Mrs. Surratt’s case was often used in conjunction with other Confederate talking points devoted to perpetuating the Myth of the Lost Cause and the villainy of the North. Here’s just a sampling of the Mary Surratt mentions I found while searching the 1916 – 1920 editions of the Confederate Veteran. Please note: very little of what follows is factually accurate and the points that are accurate are largely misleading or given false equivalences. As such, what follows is made up almost entirely of Confederate revisionist propaganda which constituted the bulk of the Confederate Veteran magazine.

June 1916: “For years after Appomattox the South was the victim of slander and falsehood heaped high – the Surratt case, the Wirz trial (the two darkest blots on the country’s escutcheon), the Andersonville stories, the Fort Pillow massacre, and a host of others circulated by rabid politicians in an effort to justify the horrors of Reconstruction.

Time works wonders, though, and one by one these bubble lies have been pricked by the pen of fact. Every intelligent American, except a few who still prefer to remain in darkness so far as the War between the States is concerned, knows that the South did not fight to perpetuate slavery, that the right of secession was believed by statesmen North and South to be guaranteed by the Constitution, that the suffering among Union prisoners in the South was due primarily to the refusal of the Washington administration to exchange prisoners, that President Davis and other Confederate officials were horrified by the assassination of Lincoln, that Mrs. Surratt had nothing to do with that crime, that the burning of Chambersburg was in retaliation for the burning and destruction by Hunter and others in Virginia, and that Chambersburg and Lawrence were the only two Northern towns put to the torch by Confederates, where a score of Southern towns were burned by the invaders.”

August 1919: “Students of our national history cannot fail to observe the marked and unvarying absence of any reference or allusion to Mrs. Surratt in works relating to American biography, textbooks, cyclopedias, etc., prepared under the auspices of Northern scholars and controlled by Northern publishers. The typical pupil would never become aware of her existence if dependent upon the authorities to whom he looks for light and guidance…Let me again commend the memory of Mrs. Surratt to the devout perusal of those educational oracles of the South who are unable to control or restrain their eagerness to grovel in the earth at the feet of a triumphant enemy whose crowning garland and wreath of glory was the slaughter of an innocent woman.”

March 1920: “Among the crowning infamies associated with our national record three may be cited as unchallengeable, preeminent, and unique in their ghastly atrocity, the murder of Mrs. Surratt, the campaign of Sherman in the Carolinas, and the treatment inflicted upon President Davis by specific direction of the Federal government while a prostrate captive in his cell at Fortress Monroe.”

For organizations like the United Confederate Veterans, the UDC, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mary Surratt was an effective and useful recruiting tool. By taking the legitimate ambiguity regarding her knowledge of the assassination plot against Lincoln and the difficult legality regarding her trial and conviction, Confederate apologists slowly developed Mary Surratt into a martyr for their cause. Over time, they perpetuated the uncertainty regarding Mary’s guilt, transforming it into a near universal belief of her innocence. Once that was done, she was brought up constantly, becoming the epitome of the virtuous and innocent Southern woman who paid the ultimate price at the hands of the villainous North. In this way, Confederate groups could use Mrs. Surratt’s established infallibility to assist in the development of other false equivalences. In the 1916 excerpt from above, for example, Mary Surratt’s name sits in a list with the claim that the South did not fight the Civil War over slavery, thus helping this highly erroneous statement portray itself as just and legitimate as the established truth of Mrs. Surratt’s innocence.

The 1920 excerpt is perhaps the most telling of the Confederate Veteran‘s (and therefore the organizations attached to it) goals. When speaking of the three most heinous crimes ever committed in our nation’s history, the execution of Mrs. Surratt, the wartime crusade of General Sherman, and the shackling of Jefferson Davis while imprisoned, all superseded our country’s centuries-long abominable practice of genocide and rape known as slavery – a practice that the South absolutely fought to perpetuate. It is in this way that Mary Surratt’s claimed innocence did the most damage. Her agreed upon martyrdom allowed Confederate revisionists to literally whitewash the atrocities of the past, providing them with a virtuous, white, Southern woman to supplant the millions of enslaved men, women and children, who toiled and died in bondage.

The modern effort of reassessing and removing Confederate monuments of the past is a study of whose history was supplanted when these monuments went up in the first place. Whose story did our ancestors choose to elevate and whose did they choose to ignore? As a society we need to constantly be reassessing the actions and motivations of those in the past in order to create a better future. Even the White House of the Confederacy knew this to be true when they renovated their museum in the 1980’s. They transformed the museum from a collection of shrines to the different Confederate states, into a historic house museum which educates the public about the time period in which the Davis family lived there. Mary Surratt’s plaque has been off of the walls of the museum since 1988 with no “loss of history” having occurred as a result. The White House of the Confederacy has continued to reassess itself and its place in furthering the narrative of Confederate apologists. In 2013, the then Museum of the Confederacy merged with the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. Together they took the name of the American Civil War Museum and have been actively increasing their collections to house more artifacts relating to the Union and enslaved peoples. Their efforts are commendable, especially in the wake of backlash from the remnants of the UDC and other neo-Confederate groups that exist today.

This plaque to Mrs. Surratt is currently housed in the collection of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. The debate about Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln will continue to take place even without this memorial tablet on display and interested visitors can make research appointments to view this artifact as we did. It may seem like merely a plaque for Mary Surratt but, like so many other Confederate memorials, its a representation of the values of the people who commissioned it and, as such, no longer represents who we want to be as a nation. Let us, instead, continue to work to balance the scales of representation and allow other, previously suppressed stories of pain and perseverance rise from the overlooked depths and find their place in the historical narrative of commemoration.

References:
American Civil War Museum
Minutes of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy
Confederate Veteran magazine Volumes 24, 27, & 28

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 19 Comments

Booth’s Richard III on Stage

Two years ago, Eric Colleary, Curator of Theater and Performing Arts at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, collaborated with Beth Burns of the Austin based theater company, Hidden Room Theatre, to conduct a staged reading of Richard III based on a promptbook in the collection of the Ransom Center that was once owned and annotated by John Wilkes Booth. The staged reading (which can be viewed by clicking this link) was a great success. Since that time Eric, Beth, and the Hidden Room Theatre company have continued their collaboration and have managed to turn Booth’s promptbook into a full production that will soon take the stage.

For those of you who live in the Austin, Texas area, this is a wonderful opportunity to essentially go back in time and experience live theater as it was in the 1860s.  Over the past few months, the entire creative team behind the production has conducted in-depth research on theater history and dramatic techniques in order to make this show as accurate to the period as possible. A few days ago, Eric and Beth took part in a fascinating discussion / question and answer session regarding how their collaboration came about and the impressive work being done to bring it to fruition.

As you can see, despite its title, the upcoming production of Booth’s Richard III is far more than just a re-enactment of John Wilkes Booth’s edits to Shakespeare’s (really Cibber’s) work. Instead, it is a rare look into the type of acting and production that was commonplace in the 1800s but is almost completely lost today. John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook is a time capsule of theater history and it is a rare event to see such a piece of history brought back to life. The Hidden Room Theatre in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center will be performing Richard III at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater for only eight performances starting on Friday, June 15 and running through Saturday, June 30. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please click this link or the image below:

For those of you who, like me, are no where near Austin, Beth Burns mentioned in the question and answer session that she is hoping one of the shows will be recorded and later made available online. While I am grateful for that, I know a recorded show will not be able to replace the total immersive effect of witnessing it firsthand. Beth also mentioned her hope that this show may live on in the future as an educational tool for college and university theater companies that wish to re-enact theater history. So there is chance Booth’s Richard III could be do a bit of touring if interest is high. Though I know it is a bit of a pipe dream, I, for one, would love to see this show produced by the Ford’s Theatre Society on their historic stage.

In closing, I would ask that any of you who are able to get to Austin during the show’s run and see Booth’s Richard III to please report back to those of us who were not so fortunate. The comment section will definitely be open. I’d love to hear your thoughts on experiencing 1860s theater just as people like Mr. Lincoln would have.

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