The Blackest Deed in American History
And now we come to
that darkest day in the history of our Republic, April 14th, 1865. The
Surrender of Lee, April 3rd, to the Little Smoking General Grant,
came like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky, and was a terrific blow to the
hopes of the South, as well as unexpected victory to the North. The people
were wild with enthusiastic joy. We can get some conception of that word
after four years to the bitterest civil war, we, who have the news of the
Armistice still fresh in our memories in the recent World War which was
several thousand miles away.
The figure of Abraham
Lincoln will ever stand out on the page of our history, never to be
effaced, not only in the minds of the people of his own country. but in
those of the Peoples of the World, as the savior of the New Concept of
Lincoln, that great,
sad-faced man, with his shoulders drooping under the terrible burdens
which he had patiently carried for four long years, breathed a sigh of
relief when he arose this bright balmy April morning and gazed at nature's
gay spring garb.
During breakfast with
his family he had suggested to his good wife Mary, that they two alone
should take a long drive in the country which called so strongly to this
heavy laden man. Accordingly, after a few preliminary office duties were
gotten out of the way, the President returned to the White House, and he
and Mrs. Lincoln got into their carriage and drove out through the city
over the Potomac River bridge into the country. The fruit trees were white
with blossoms, the roadsides green, and the very birds flitting in and out
through the hedges seemed to surpass themselves with their songs.
began to talk of their future. He confessed to her that he would welcome
the day when his administration would be over, and they could return to
private life, never to leave it again. "I have managed, my dear, by strict
economy, to save a little nest egg out of my salary, so we will go back to
Springfield to live, and I hope not have to work quite so hard. We can
visit with our friends and neighbors and enjoy life a bit." Then he
unfolded to her his plans to take up his law practice again and the
threads of life where he had left them when he came to Washington, a
little over four years ago. After driving several hours, and being rested
by the quiet of the country and sweet breath of spring, this great
simple-hearted, plain man and his wife returned to the White House.
I cannot but contrast
that last morning on earth of Abraham Lincoln and his modest plans, with
the conduct of Woodrow Wilson and his dozens of trunks, which carried the
elaborate wardrobes of himself and wife to Europe. The sinful extravagance
of this pedagogical upstart! It seems almost sacrilegious to mention him
in the same paragraph with Lincoln.
The day began for
John Wilkes Booth with his usual trip to Graves Theatre where he received
his mail. This morning he had several letters, and after chatting
pleasantly with the members of the cast present for rehearsal, as was his
custom, he sauntered away toward the Kirkwood house, now the Raleigh,
where the Vice President was stopping. He sent up the following card to
Mr. Johnson, which is still, and perhaps, always will remain a mystery:
"For Mr. Andrew
Don't wish to disturb
you; are you at home?
John Wilkes Booth."
After his call at the
Kirkwood House, he went to the livery barn of J. Pumphreys on C. Street,
back of the National Hotel. Here he engaged a horse to be ready that
afternoon at four thirty o'clock. He had been in the habit lately of
hiring his horses here after he had sold his own a few weeks previous.
Upon this occasion he asked for a particular sorrel horse which he
preferred, but was told it was out at that time, so he took instead a
small bay mare. Booth was an expert horseman and fencer, and spent a great
deal of his time in horseback riding and the latter amusement, when he
found a man who was skillful enough to interest him. After his arrangement
for the horse was completed, he spent a large part of the day conferring
with the other conspirators, who were in the city, Mrs. Surratt, John
Surratt, O'Laughlin, Herold, Spangler and Atzerodt.
The evening of this
same day, April 14, 1865, on which Mr. Lincoln and his wife went for their
last drive in the country, the managers of Ford's Theatre featured the
fact in the local press that the President and Gen. U.S. Grant would
attend the performance of Our American Cousin at that theatre in
the evening. This would have been the first public appearance of General
Grant since the surrender of Lee, and the word that the people would have
an opportunity to greet their hero that night at Ford's Theatre made a
rush on the box office, and the performance opened with a packed house.
party did not arrive until nine thirty. When the tall, gaunt figure of the
tired-eyed President made his appearance in the flag-draped box, the house
went wild with delight, and the orchestra struck up Hail to the Chief;
the house arose as one body, and enthusiasm was inspiring. For several
minutes the cheering continued and the President bowed and bowed his
The absence of
General Grant was soon noticed, but this did not dampen the welcome for
the great man who had sent out, but a few days previous, the most
wonderful—the most extraordinary message to a conquered enemy the world
had ever heard, namely, for them to return to their homes, and help in the
reconstruction of the Republic. No punishment, no criticisms, no
bitterness, but just simply to return to their homes and set about
rebuilding what they had tried to destroy, in a spirit of
With charity for all and malice toward none.
The President and
Mrs. Lincoln, upon receiving the regrets of General Grant and wife, who
had been called to the bedside of their daughter, Miss Nellie, who was ill
at a private boarding school in New Jersey, had invited Major Rathbone,
lately returned from the front, and his fiancé, Miss Harris, daughter of
Senator Harris, to accompany them. The party seated themselves after the
long ovation given the President, and turned their whole attention to the
pastoral comedy of which Mr. Lincoln was very fond.
Miss Laura Keene was
playing the star lead that evening, assisted by a cast of prominent and
capable actors, and the play went with a zest, the audience receiving it
with a gale of laughter as one funny scene after another passed. The
President chuckled quietly in his own peculiar quizzical manner. While
this brilliant scene was taking place inside, a most unusual play was
transpiring on the outside.
Sgt. Dye, a member of
the government service, was sitting in front of the restaurant next door
to the entrance of the theatre on Tenth Street, talking with some other
men who were enjoying the warm evening and their cigars, when a tall young
man well dressed, stepped to the front of the theatre on the sidewalk, and
in clear tones called the time. This did not attract any particular
attention until he had repeated it at an interval of every fifteen minutes
for the third time, at ten fifteen. He disappeared and Sgt. Dye's
curiosity was aroused by his strange conduct. He got up and started to
walk in the direction the young stranger had taken, when wild cries and
confusion within the theatre reached the street. "The President is shot,"
"The President is killed," finally was clearly heard. The entrance doors
burst open, and men, insane with fright, bolted out giving the call to
those on the pavement, then rushed back in. It all happened quicker than
it takes to write it.
At a moment before
the last call of the time in front of the theatre, John Wilkes Booth, the
popular young tragedian, stepped out of the bar-room attached to the
theatre on Tenth Street, where he had called for several brandies, walked
rapidly into the front lobby, passed the doorman at the center aisle with
a genial nod, calling him familiarly by name, which was answered in the
spirit which John Booth's greetings generally were. He passed over the
side aisle and started down when his passage was barred by the arm of the
head usher, who happened to be talking with friends in the aisle. Booth
put his arm across the should of the man who had his back to him and
peering into his face said, "Why you don't want to keep me out, do you,
old boy?" This was in the melodious Booth voice, once heard, never to be
forgotten. The usher, swinging around said, "No, indeed, Mr. Booth. Allow
me to present you to my friends." Booth acknowledged the introduction
graciously and turning, sauntered down the aisle toward the box occupied
by the Presidential party, intent on the most cruel, cowardly murder in
ail the world's history.
He passed the man on
guard, who for the moment left the door of the box and was watching the
play from a seat nearby.
Booth entered the
box, stealthily placing the board in the socket on the inside which had
been made ready that day, by Spangler, the stage carpenter.
Booth's entrance was
so quiet that it attracted no attention from any of the party, all of whom
had their eyes fixed upon the stage where only two people were—Laura Keen
and Harry Hawks as Asa Trenchard. The lines and situation were exceedingly
funny and the house was uproariously enjoying the comedy.
Booth, after securing
the door from any interference from the outside, crept panther-like close
to the back of the President's chair, whipped out his derringer with his
right hand and a dagger with his left, placing the revolver just above the
back of the chair. There was a muffled report, a whiff of smoke, and the
President's head dropped upon his breast. The intruder darted toward the
railing in front of the box, but before he reached it, Major Rathbone,
horror-stricken, but not really knowing just what had happened, bounded to
his feet. He reached out to grab the assassin, who, dropping his revolver,
slashed viciously at him, warding him off by an ugly stab which cut his
sleeve from shoulder to wrist from which the blood spurted. With the
agility of the skilled athlete that he was, Booth sprang over the
balustrade of the box onto the stage twelve feet below, but his spur, for
he was in riding habit, caught in the large American flag which had been
draped around Stuart's Washington on the front of the box, and he fell to
the stage, breaking a small bone in his leg. He bounded to his feet
instantly and darted away from the stage past the petrified actors, out
through the rear door, where he mounted his horse which he had gotten the
candy butcher, called Peanuts to hold for him just before he
entered the front door a few moments previous. Jos. B. Stewart, a man from
the audience, who had taken in the situation before others in the audience
had recovered from their horror, scrambled to the stage yelling "Stop that
man" and rushed after the assassin, but just as Booth darted through the
alley door someone in the dark slammed it shut before Stewart reached it
and before he could get it opened, the man mounted his horse and dashed
madly away in the darkness.
Spangler, the stage
carpenter, the testimony developed, was the man who had slammed the door.
He had been heard to promise his assistance to Booth earlier in the
evening when he had dismounted from his horse. For this and disloyal
statements about the President which he had been heard to make, he
received a sentence of six years at the Dry Tortugas prison.
The gaunt body of the
dying President was tenderly carried out of the theatre on the door of the
box, which had been hastily pressed into service as a stretcher, across
the street to the three story brick house of a man by the name of
Peterson, who let his rooms furnished to the business men employed at the
stores and nearby theatres.
carried him to the bedroom in the rear of the hall on the first floor and
into a room occupied by a returned soldier, William Clark by name. The bed
was a single bed and the body of the President had to be laid diagonally
across on account of his great height.
The pitiful scene
here can scarcely be portrayed by words. The hysterical sobs of Mrs.
Lincoln and her constant cry of "Oh, why did they not take me. Why did
they take him?" was heart breaking.
Capt. Robert Lincoln
just returned from the front a few days before, was immediately summoned
from the White House, where he was entertaining a college classmate, to
the bedside of his dying father. He spent the time alternately trying to
comfort his mother in the front parlor and watching at the bedside of his
Soon the members of
Mr. Lincoln's cabinet had gathered in the sick room and Dr. Gurley,
Protestant minister, and Surgeon General Barnes, came as soon as possible
from the bedside of the Secretary of State Seward, the Surgeon having been
called there after Mr. Seward had been stabbed by Louis Payne. Mr. Seward
was now hovering between life and death. General Stanton, the cold,
severe, dignified man, who had never been known to show any emotion,
dropped on his knees at the foot of the President's bed, buried his face
in the covering and sobbed like a child. Charles Sumner, who, perhaps,
loved Lincoln with the deepest and most ardent love of them all, never
stirred from his place at the bed, holding his hand, and aiding the
physicians, and watching with bated breath for the slightest sign of
returning consciousness. But the wounded man never for one instant
recovered, and died without knowing what had occurred. From the moment the
physicians first reached him and found the wound, they knew it was fatal.
The President died a
few minutes after seven the next morning. Secretary Stanton as he watched
the life of the great man go out, turned to those in the room and said:
"And now, he belongs to the ages!"
At the same time that
Booth assassinated the President, Lewis Payne, known as the Florida
Boy, an athletic young giant, who some months before joined the
Conspiracy, rode up to the front of the residence of the Secretary of
State, William Seward, and tied his horse to the hitching post.
Mr. Seward had been
ill for three weeks, suffering from a fractured jaw, the result of the
running away of his team, and was under the constant care of male nurses.
Payne rang the bell
and it was answered by the colored butler. He told the latter that he had
been sent with some medicine which he must take to the sick room. The
butler refused to allow him to enter, saying that he had orders to allow
no one to go to Mr. Seward's room. The stranger, after a short struggle,
knocked him down, and went bounding up the stairs. He rushed into the sick
chamber, after felling each of the two sons of the Secretary, one of whom
had been in the service, the blow fracturing the skull of the younger man
from which he never fully recovered. He then sprang upon the sick man and
seriously stabbed him three times. By a superhuman effort the latter
struggled out of the bed with the assailant who left him in a heap on the
floor, bleeding from the wounds he had inflicted. After his murderous
assault on Secretary Seward, the ruffian rushed down the stairs, yelling
at the top of his voice. "I am mad, I am mad," and he very probably was.
He was entirely under the control of the hypnotic influences of the wicked
people in whose power he had allowed himself to be.
It was part of the
plan that Michael O'Laughlin, one of the conspirators from Baltimore, was
to have murdered General Grant that night. This was not possible, owing to
the change in the General's plans.
To Atzerodt, it fell
to assassinate Vice President Johnson, but he became frightened and spent
the day riding into the country on a horse from the livery barn in
Washington, where he was found several days after with relatives of his
below Washington. He made a written confession before he was executed
which confirmed the presence of Surratt in Washington that fatal day a
fact, which nine reputable witnesses had sworn to.
himself with every road leading out of Washington to the south, and had
studied and planned his escape with careful attention. It is not likely
that he would ever have been caught, had he not broken the small bone in
his left leg in his jump. This was the providential handicap, which
hampered not only himself and Herold, but those of his friends who were
ready to assist him. There is not the slightest doubt but that every mile
of that wild ride had been planned in advance—weeks in advance.
The intense agony
which Booth suffered every moment, from the time he first met with the
accident when jumping from the box doomed his chances of escape.
The little bay mare
dashed madly along under the cruel urge of his spurs as he sped over the
bridge which spanned the Potomac to the Bryantown road. He passed the
soldier at the bridge, after having told him his name, and was swallowed
up in the blackness of the night. The moon was veiled behind a huge bank
of clouds. Presently the guard at the bridge heard the clatter of another
horse's hoofs approaching and the horse and rider soon hove in sight onto
the bridge. The guard stopped him and asked him to give an account of
himself before allowing him to go on. This was Herold and in explanation
he gave a false name saying that he had been in bad company which delayed
him from returning home before sundown. He was permitted to pass. He cut
his spurs into his horse and sped along, finally catching up to the first
rider, Booth, before they reached Surrattville, whither they were expected
by the tenant Lloyd who had been visited by Mrs. Surratt that afternoon
who had instructed him (Lloyd) to "Have those shooting irons" and other
things ready, that they would be needed that night.
Herold drew up to the
tavern, sprang from his horse and dashed madly into the bar-room saying:
"Lloyd, for God's sake, make haste and get those things."
Lloyd testified at
the trials that he gave the carbines which had been left six weeks before
with him to be called for later on; that Mrs. Surratt had been driven down
from Washington on Friday (the 14th) to his house by Weichmann; that he
met them on the road on his way to Washington; that he got out of his
buggy and went over to the side of their buggy and after a few moments of
conversation she told him to "Have those shooting irons ready; that they
would be called for soon."
testified that he overheard this order by Mrs. Surratt.
Mrs. Surratt brought
with her on this trip (the day of the assassination) a package containing
Booth's field glass, to be handed out when called for. Herold took a
bottle of whiskey out to Booth, who, owing to his suffering, did not come
in. They only took one of the revolvers, so Lloyd testified. Herold turned
as he was about to drive off and said: "I'm pretty sure that we have
assassinated the President and Secretary Seward."
The two riders put
their spurs into their horses and set off down the road to the little
village of T. B. at full speed. The next stop was made at the residence of
Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, where they arrived at four o'clock on Saturday
morning. This conspirator housed them and set the bone in Booth's leg. He
bound it up in splints improvised from pieces of a cigar box, after which
Booth was helped upstairs to bed where he remained until the afternoon of
the same day.
O'Laughlin had come
to Washington on Thursday, the day before the assassination, with three of
his co-religionists who prepared to make a perfectly good bullet-proof
alibi for their friend O'Laughlin, which is the rule with Roman Catholic
criminals. They were so solicitous in this intent that they overreached
themselves and spoiled it.
The great grievance
of the Catholic church is that Mary E. Surratt was brought before a
Military tribunal, instead of a civil court. The real basis of this
complaint, was however, that there could be no political influence brought
to bear on a military court, which the hanging of four conspirators and
life sentences of the three others bears out.
As it is not within
the power of the writer to present the facts in any simpler or more
readable language than that used in the closing argument of the special
Judge Advocate, John A. Bingham, I shall rely on excerpts from that
document to give the facts.
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