Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spinning the Web: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

David Herold
During the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth convinced two old friends, Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen, to join him in a plot to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln and hold him until the United States released thousands of captured Confederate soldiers.  Within months, Booth was actively recruiting other conspirators.

"Ned" Spangler
He enlisted a young drug store clerk named David Herold.  A native Marylander living in Washington with his widowed mother and a household full of sisters, Herold knew his way around Washington’s back alleys and Maryland’s back roads.  He also knew how to handle a gun.  Booth also renewed his acquaintance with Edmund (or Edman) "Ned" Spangler, who had once worked as a carpenter on the farm where Booth grew up. Spangler was a handyman at Ford’s Theatre.  Generous doses of the actor’s charm (plus generous doses of liquor) convinced him to run errands and do odd jobs for Booth.  While Spangler is often identified as a member of the conspiracy, it's quite likely he didn't really know what was going on and was little more than a “gofer” for his famous patron.

Dr. Samuel Mudd
By autumn 1864, after another trip to Montreal (and perhaps more contacts with the Confederate underground there), Booth took up more or less permanent residence in Washington.  He used his room at the elegant National Hotel as a base for his expanding operations.  He went for long rides in the Maryland countryside, sometimes claiming he was looking to buy horses or a piece of rural property.  In truth he was scouting potential escape routes.  He was also asking questions, learning who in the area supported the Confederate Cause and who was actively involved in clandestine Confederate operations.  On one such mission in November, he visited a Catholic church in Bryantown and was introduced to Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Southern sympathizer who also farmed, traded horses, bought and sold land.  Booth used Mudd as a sounding board about people living in the area.

John Surratt Jr.
Booth wanted to meet one of them in particular.  Along the way, someone somewhere whispered the name John Surratt in the actor’s ear.  Another native Marylander, Surratt ostensibly held a job at a Washington express company.  But after hours he quietly carried coded messages, led Confederate agents and directed smuggled medical supplies along the treacherous route from Canada to the Confederacy.  Surratt was in reality what Booth fancied himself to be – a bona fide agent of the Confederate secret service.  He was just the type of man Booth needed to pull all the loose ends of his plot together.

George Atzerodt
Surratt brought the last two conspirators into the fold.  George Atzerodt was a short, dumpy, ne’er-do-well most often described as “seedy.”  He lived in the Potomac River town of Port Tobacco (which also was his nickname), where he worked on carriages during the day.  At night he paddled a small boat across the Potomac, helping smugglers evade Union patrols.

Lewis Powell
Finally, there was one of the most enigmatic and fascinating members of Booth’s band – Lewis Thornton Powell.  A young former Confederate soldier with a strong chin, broad forehead, riveting stare and immense physical strength, he enlisted in a Florida infantry regiment early in the war.  He was wounded in 1862 and after his recovery, he returned to the Confederate Army until he was wounded again -- and captured by Union forces -- at Gettysburg.  He later escaped confinement and a murky 18-month period followed, during which he served under Col. John Singleton Mosby, the “Gray Ghost of the Confederacy.”  In January 1865 Powell arrived in Alexandria, Virginia and signed a loyalty oath to the Union under the alias Lewis Paine, the name history would remember him by for the next 140 years.

Louis J. Weichmann
Not everyone who was approached joined the conspiracy.  Actors Samuel Chester and John Matthews rebuffed Booth’s approaches and Dr. Mudd declined to take an active role.  Meantime, Surratt did his best to keep one man out of the plot – his roommate and former seminary classmate Louis J. Weichmann.  While he was a low-level employee in an obscure section of the War Department, Weichmann was also nosy and self-important.  He sensed Surratt was up to something but never figured out what it was.  (Later, after his own arrest, Weichmann would tell investigators he thought all secret comings and goings had something to do with Booth’s oil speculations.)

John Surratt was also responsible for another element of the conspiracy – a central location where the plotters could meet from time to time. He convinced his widowed mother Mary to open her boardinghouse at 541 H Street in Washington to his co-conspirators. There, frequent, unexplained comings and goings hardly seemed unusual.  The Surratt boardinghouse became the center of the conspirators' web.
Surratt Boardinghouse in Washington

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Today in the Lincoln conspiracy: May 30

Lewis Thornton Powell

Lewis Powell (also known as Paine or Payne) spent more time in military service than any other Lincoln conspirator.  He was wounded during the battle of Gettysburg and later rode with Mosby's Rangers in Virginia.

On May 30, 1861, Powell left his family home and began his military career at the age of 17.  He enlisted in the 2nd Florida Infantry.  He served with that unit until he was hospitalized in November 1862.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Today in the Lincoln conspiracy: May 29

In the hope of reuniting the United States after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson renewed his predecessor's offer of amnesty for those who had fought on the Confederate side of the conflict.  Abraham Lincoln issued amnesty proclamations on December 8, 1863 and March 26, 1864.

On May 29, 1865, Johnson issued his own proclamation, granting "amnesty and pardon" to "all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion".  Well, not all of them.  Among those excluded from amnesty were former Confederate elected officials, governors of states that joined the rebellion, officers in the Confederate Army and Navy, and anyone who actively tried to sabotage U.S. commerce during the rebellion. 

There was another exception: "...all persons who, at the time when they seek to obtain the benefits hereof by taking the [loyalty] oath herein prescribed, are in military, naval, or civil confinement, or custody, or under bonds of the civil, military, or naval authorities, or agents of the United States as prisoners of war, or persons detained for offenses of any kind, either before or after conviction..."  In other words, those who were already locked up for their actions during the war could not seek a pardon under the terms of the proclamation.  That meant there would be no amnesty for the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Today in the Lincoln conspiracy: May 27

The lawyers representing the Lincoln assassination conspirators faced many hurdles.  Their clients were being judged by a military tribunal, not a civilian court.  The defendants were not permitted to speak on their own behalf.  And they were accused of plotting to kill the Commander-in-Chief that each member of the tribunal had served.  Defense attorneys were fighting an uphill battle.  Even so, they didn't always cover themselves in glory.

Take, for example, the testimony of Augustus Spencer Howell.  The attorney representing Mary Surratt called Howell to the witness stand on May 27, 1865.  The purpose of his testimony, apparently, was to cast doubt on the star prosecution witness, Louis Weichmann.  Howell testified he and Weichmann were both staying at the Surratt boardinghouse the previous February.  He claimed Weichmann professed his sympathies for the Confederate cause and even proclaimed his intention of moving to Richmond and getting a job in the Confederate War Department.  It was a startling accusation, considering Weichmann was a clerk at the United States War Department and a member of the home guard unit charged with protecting Washington from Southern attack.  Howell seemed to be suggesting Weichmann was some sort of secret Confederate agent, deep in the heart of the U.S. government.

The prosecution team, Gen. Henry Burnett on the right
The prosecution pounced.  Brigadier General Henry Burnett, the assistant judge advocate for the case, asked Howell, "What has been your business for the last year and a half?"  It seemed a harmless, routine inquiry.  But the defense vigorously objected.  When the court overruled the objection and the question was repeated, the defense objected again.  The court overruled it again.  What was it the defense was trying to keep out of the trial record?

Howell, it turns out, was a blockade runner.  He made several trips across the Potomac River, accompanying people to and from the Confederate capital of Richmond.  Howell denied he smuggled supplies, and denied acting as a courier.  But he admitted visiting Richmond every few months during the early years of the war.  And he had even made a trip to Richmond the previous February -- just days after he stayed at the Surratt boardinghouse.  Needless to say, Howell's testimony didn't carry a lot of weight with the tribunal.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 26

In early 1865, John Wilkes Booth was often seen around Washington riding a bay horse, notable because it had only one eye.  Conspirator John Surratt also used the one-eyed bay when it was stabled in the city.  On the night of the assassination, Lewis Powell rode the one-eyed horse to the home of William Seward, the Secretary of State.  Powell savagely attacked Seward with a knife, but he survived.

On May 26, 1865, the story of how Booth came to own the one-eyed horse was told to the military tribunal sitting in judgement of the Lincoln conspirators.  Thomas L. Gardiner related that he had been at his uncle's Maryland farm the preceding November when Booth arrived.  He was looking to buy a horse that, he said, would be good for pulling a buggy.  Instead, he bought the damaged saddle horse. 

Home of Dr. Samuel Mudd
Gardiner testified Booth was with another man that day -- Dr. Samuel Mudd, who lived a quarter-mile down the road from the Gardiner farm.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Today in the Lincoln conspiracy: May 25

On May 25, 1865, there was a bizarre courtroom confrontation during the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.  A defense lawyer found himself trying to impeach the testimony of his own witness.  And the witness eagerly admitted he had lied.

Surratt Tavern near Clinton, Maryland
George Cottingham was an Army detective who had arrested John Lloyd, the man who leased Mrs. Mary Surratt's tavern in Maryland.  He testified Lloyd had confessed to him that Mrs. Surratt visited the tavern on the day of the assassination and told him to have firearms ready for two men who would call for them.  John Wilkes Booth and David Herold arrived at the tavern late that night and asked for the weapons.

The testimony was a complete surprise to defense attorney Frederick Aiken.  He protested that during a pre-trial interview, Cottingham had told him Lloyd made no mention of Mary Surratt during his confession.  Cottingham admitted that's what he told  the lawyer.  "Undoubtedly," he proclaimed, "I told you a lie there; for I thought you had no business to ask me."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 24

An evening at the theater in 1862 meant just that.  Audiences were entertained for the entire evening.  There would generally be two complete plays performed -- a tragedy and a farce.  There would also be an orchestral overture and, between plays, a musical interlude featuring one or more vocalists.  Not a bad deal for 25 cents.

On May 24, John Wilkes Booth closed his 1862 Boston Museum engagement with a Saturday matinee.  Booth once again portrayed Claude Melnotte in the melodrama The Lady of Lyons.  The curtain rose at 3 o'clock.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Today in the Lincoln conspiracy: May 23

Many scholars dismiss John Wilkes Booth as a second-rate actor.  Some even place him in the third rank of his own family, behind his brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr. 

But the evidence is clear that the youngest of the acting Booth brothers was a shining star of his age.  It's instructive to note that at the beginning of his May 1862 engagement at the Boston Museum, his name appears at the bottom of the handbills promoting each play.  By the end of the run, the name "J. Wilkes Booth" was emblazoned across the top.

On May 23, Booth gave the final evening performance of his engagement in Boston.  He played the lead in Shakespeare's Richard the Third.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"A Lady, Very Dear to Me"

The Romance of John Wilkes Booth and Lucy Hale

The soldiers who killed John Wilkes Booth thoroughly searched his body.  From his pockets they recovered an appointment book he'd been using as a diary.  They also found five photographs.  Four of them depicted beautiful young actresses.  That was no surprise.  The stage star had a national reputation as a ladies' man.  The fifth photo, however, was a surprise.  It also depicted a young woman, but she was hardly beautiful.  Indeed, she seemed rather plain, even a little doughy.  Who was she?

Lucy Lambert Hale photo found on Booth's body
Her name was Lucy Lambert Hale.  "Bessie", as she was sometimes called, was the daughter of  John Parker Hale, a vocal abolitionist who served 20 years as a Congressman and U.S. Senator from New Hampshire.  And there is strong evidence to suggest that in April of 1865, she was engaged to marry Booth.

It's hard to imagine, from looking at her photo, that she was the type of woman who would attract -- much less ensnare -- a playboy like Booth.  But looks can be deceiving.  Lucy Hale had been breaking hearts since she was 12, when she started receiving love poems from a Harvard student named William Chandler.  She also captured the fancy of Oliver Wendell Homes Junior when she was 17.  After her father moved the family to Washington at the beginning of the Civil War, Lucy became a belle of Capitol society.  One of her more ardent admirers was Robert Todd Lincoln, the new president's son.

On Valentine's Day, 1862, Lucy received an anonymous letter.  The writer confessed, "You resemble in a most remarkable degree a lady, very dear to me, now dead and your close resemblance to her surprised me the first time I saw you...I shall always associate you in my memory, with her, who was very beautiful, and whose face, like your own I trust, was a faithful index of gentleness and amiability."  The missive was signed "A Stranger".

Her correspondent was none other than John Wilkes Booth, who was -- at that time -- preparing for a lengthy engagement at the Boston Museum.  Among the roles he would perform was the title character in the play "The Stranger".

In late 1864, Booth settled in Washington, taking rooms at the National Hotel.  It may not be a coincidence that among the other tenants was the family of Senator Hale, including his daughter Lucy, who would turn 24 on New Year's Day.  During the first months of 1865, Booth and Lucy were seen regularly in the hotel's public rooms.  She got him a ticket to attend Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4th.  Booth notified his mother that he was engaged to be married (her approval was grudging, at best) and his sister Asia confirmed the match.

National Hotel, Washington D.C.

John Parker Hale
Lucy's father had no use for his daughter's suitor.  John Parker Hale was a staunch Union supporter.  Booth was an acknowledged Southern sympathizer.  Hale hoped his second-eldest daughter would marry the president's son, not some mere actor.  After he lost his 1864 bid for re-election, Hale petitioned President Lincoln for an appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Spain.  Lincoln agreed and signed his formal commission to the post on the fateful day of April 14, 1865.  Hale may have been impelled to seek the job as a way to get Lucy away from Washington -- and Booth.

Robert Todd Lincoln
The couple met on the morning of the 14th at the National Hotel.  Lucy may have informed Booth that her father's appointment was now finalized and the family would soon sail for Spain.  She spent the afternoon brushing up on her Spanish (assisted by Robert Todd Lincoln).  Booth spent the rest of the day rousing his co-conspirators to action.  That night, he shot the president.

For a century and a half, historians have debated the Booth-Hale relationship.  Was the actor sincerely in love with the politician's daughter?  Was he merely using her to gain entree to the highest circles of society and government?  Did he see Lucy as his ticket not just to Lincoln's inauguration but to a close approach to the president himself?

Columnist J. Dennis Robinson offered an enticing conjecture that may illuminate the relationship.  He notes  there are several reports that Booth and Lucy exchanged rings.  And he recounts a story that, one night, Booth sat in a bar with an actor friend, repeatedly kissing Lucy's ring and cooing her name.  Robinson speculates that the anecdote sheds light on the assassin's final words.  After he was shot in Virginia on April 26th, Booth -- paralyzed from the neck down -- asked his captors to lift his hands toward his face.  "Then," the columnist writes, "Booth mumbled something that has been misquoted ever since.  It sounded like, 'Useless, useless.'  But they were garbled, gurgling sounds, whispered, barely audible according to witnesses."  Robinson points out there was a ring on the dying actor's hand, one he had kissed again and again.  "Booth was repeating his lover's name," Robinson concludes.  "He said, 'Lucy -- Lucy.'  He moved his dry cracked lips as if to kiss the ring a final time -- and died."

Matthew Brady photo of Lucy Lambert Hale in 1863
The government questioned everyone who had been associated with Booth before the assassination, and arrested many of them.  Lucy Lambert Hale, however, was never interviewed by investigators.  Her father issued a statement denying she'd ever been engaged to the assassin.  Then the family went to Spain.  Lucy spent five years in Europe, visiting France, Italy and Switzerland along the way.  She returned to the United States in 1870 to attend to her father, who was in failing health.  In 1874, at the age of 33, she finally married.  Her husband was William Chandler, a corporate attorney whose heart she had stolen when she was 12 years old and he was attending Harvard.   Chandler went on to serve as Secretary of the Navy and, in 1886, was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire.  She died in 1915.

Rear Adm. Theodore E. Chandler

Footnote:  Lucy's grandson, Admiral Theodore Edison Chandler, was a career Navy officer.  After serving in World War I, he helped outfit the Navy destroyer Chandler, named for his grandfather.  During World War II, he commanded ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.  He died in January of 1945 during a kamikaze attack on his flagship, the U.S.S. Louisville, about 100 miles from Manila Bay in the Philippines.


Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 22

The Boston Museum's breathless promotion of John Wilkes Booth continued through his final appearances during May of 1862.  Theater management urged patrons to buy tickets early for the remaining performances by "the young American tragedian".

On May 22, Booth portrayed Claude Melnotte, a gardener's son who falls for a wealthy young woman, marries her and then loses her, in The Lady of Lyons; Or, Love and Pride.  The play was written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1838.  Today, Bulwer-Lytton is best known for the prize named after him and awarded annually for particularly (and intentionally) bad writing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Twisted Roots: The Family of John Wilkes Booth

The short life of John Wilkes Booth is filled with drama, not all of it on stage.  Indeed, his personal story reads like fiction, from his birth as the son of a theater legend to his death as the most wanted man in America.

Junius Brutus Booth
His father, Junius Brutus Booth, is a towering figure in the history of the American stage. Within months of his 1821 debut in the United States, the British-born tragedian was hailed as the greatest classical actor in the country, even though he was only in his mid-twenties. He settled in Baltimore and invested his growing fortune in a 150-acre spread in rural Maryland, which he dubbed "The Farm". There, he and Mary Ann Holmes would raise their children.

The elder Booth was universally regarded as brilliant. He was also universally regarded as “difficult”. He was prone to deep bouts of what we now know to be depression. He was also given to behavior characterized, charitably, as eccentric – crowing like a rooster from a theater balcony during a love scene, or strolling naked down a city street. And his capacity for liquor achieved legendary status. Theater owners tried to control his access to alcohol, sometimes locking him in a hotel room between performances in the hope of maintaining his sobriety. Booth overcame such obstacles, in one instance by pushing a straw through the keyhole in his hotel room door to sip from a bottle on the other side.
Mary Ann Holmes Booth

Back at "The Farm", Mary Ann presided over a growing brood of children. She would give birth to ten, six of whom survived childhood. The ninth entered the world on Thursday, May 10, 1838. He was named in honor of an English Member of Parliament who was a vocal supporter of American Independence. John Wilkes Booth, like Abraham Lincoln, was born in a log cabin.

The younger Booth and all his siblings were prohibited from attending his father’s plays. Even so, the household was steeped in the traditions of the classical theater and the figure of the often-absent Junius Brutus towered over it. The children and their mother spent summers on "The Farm" (later expanded and re-named "Tudor Hall") and winters in Baltimore.

It was in the city, when John Wilkes Booth was just eight years old, that a real-life drama shook the foundation of the Booth family. A young man arrived, claiming to be the son of the country’s most prominent actor. Local residents dismissed his claim, since the Booth family was well known in Baltimore. What they didn’t know was Junius Brutus had left a wife and son behind in  Europe.

The young man summoned his mother. Adelaide Delannoy Booth was so incensed to learn of her husband’s second life, she booked passage on the first ship to America. It sank. Undeterred, she jumped on the next available ship and finally arrived in Maryland to lay claim to her son’s birthright. Once in Baltimore, Adelaide learned her husband was not only famous, but also prosperous. She wrote her sister in Brussels, “I don’t want to do anything to prevent him from making money, so I shall wait till he returns… then my lawyers will go off on him like a bomb.”

Tudor Hall, the Booth country home, was constructed by the same contractor who built Ford's Theatre

The truth finally came out, aided by the rightful Mrs. Booth parading up and down before the Booth house on Exeter Street, screaming that the children inside were “bastards”. One can imagine the trauma such a display caused the young John Wilkes. To his credit, Junius Brutus had consistently provided financial support for the wife and son he had abandoned to run off with Mary Ann Holmes (who was a flower girl outside a London theater when they met).
Junius Brutus Booth with son Edwin, age 13

It took two years for the shocking drama to unfold. Adelaide finally agreed to a divorce, paving the way for Junius Brutus and Mary Ann to wed on May 10, 1851 – John Wilkes Booth’s thirteenth birthday.  A year and a half later, Junius Brutus Booth was dead, the apparent victim of his own excesses.

Today in the Lincoln conspiracy: May 21

"This young artist's histrionic efforts [have] never been equaled by any star..."  So thundered the Boston Museum during the final week of performances by John Wilkes Booth in May of 1862.

On May 21, Booth returned to the role of Charles de Moor in The Robbers: A Tragedy.  The 1781 melodrama by German playwright Friedrich Schiller depicts a violent struggle between two brothers, with strong anti-authoritarian overtones.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 20

The Boston Museum tirelessly promoted the appearances by John Wilkes Booth on its theater stage.  The young actor would perform seven different plays in Boston during May 1862.  Handbills proclaimed that his performances excited "extraordinary furore".

On May 20, 1862, Booth appeared in "the ever popular and pathetic play" The Stranger, Or Misanthrope and Repentance.  He played the title role.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 19

John Wilkes Booth wowed audiences and critics alike during a month-long Boston engagement in May of 1862.  He appeared in seven plays during the month.  On May 19th, he dominated the stage with his performance as Pescara, the villain of the melodrama The Apostate.

Booth was proclaimed "the handsomest man in America"

It was a role Booth would return to again and again.  His final stage performance -- four weeks before the Lincoln assassination -- was as Pescara in The Apostate at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 18

Eight people accused of participating in the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln went on trial before a military tribunal on May 10, 1865.

Military tribunal for the Lincoln conspirators

During the seven-week trial, the tribunal heard from hundreds of witnesses, but not from the defendants.  Under the terms of the tribunal's presidential commission, the accused were not permitted to speak in their own defense.

On May 18, a telegraph operator named A.R. Reeves testified at the trial  He told the tribunal that he transmitted a message from New York to Washington, addressed to Lewis Weichmann, a key prosecution witness.  The telegram was sent by John Wilkes Booth on March 23, 1865.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Meeting of Confederates

By mid-summer 1864, John Wilkes Booth is living a dangerous double life.  He is a very public personality, a theatrical star whose off-stage performances and dalliances generate as much gossip as his on-stage appearances generate rave reviews. Yet he also has a very private life.  He is part of a ring that smuggles supplies to the Confederacy. How great a role he plays is subject to on-going debate, but there is no doubt he is deeply enough involved that if he is caught, he will hang. His smuggling operations bring him into contact with other operatives of the Confederate secret service. He even travels to Montreal, a hotbed of Confederate intrigue, to meet with the leaders of the Southern underground.  But he wants to do more.  He wants to be more.

Booth, who has been schooled all his life in the theatricality of the grand gesture, wants to make his mark on history.  When the story of the Civil War is told to future generations, he wants its hero to be John Wilkes Booth.  And that summer, he concocts a scheme that will assure him a leading role in the history of his beloved South.

Booth plans to abduct President Lincoln and hold him for ransom. He is not after gold – he is after men. He will free Lincoln only if all captured Confederate troops are released from Union prisons. As the tide of the war continues turning against the South, it becomes clear the North has an unassailable manpower advantage. The Confederacy cannot win a war of attrition. If Lincoln can be apprehended, the North might be willing to swing open its prison gates and free tens of thousands of Southern soldiers. Even now, it sounds like a desperate act. Among some Southerners, desperation appears to be the last hope for victory.

Having cast himself as the star of the heroic drama, Booth now takes on the roles of director, producer and scenarist.  His years on the stage have taught him that no production can be mounted as a true "one man show".  He will need a supporting cast.

Samuel Bland Arnold
His next step is -- in hindsight -- an obvious one.  He reaches out to people he knows.  Booth contacts Sam Arnold, a former classmate turned Confederate soldier (he either mustered out for health reasons or deserted) now working on his brother’s farm in Maryland.  And he sends word to Michael O’Laughlen, a former Booth family neighbor in Baltimore and former Confederate solider, who is also living off work his family provides. Both men are miserable and aching for something new.  Booth provides it. 
Michael O'Laughlen Junior

The actor invites his two old friends to join him at a fancy Baltimore hotel in that summer of 1864.  It's easy to imagine their meeting.  The three young men -- Booth at 26, O'Laughlen just turned 24, Arnold 29 -- drinking, swapping stories, reliving "the old days".   The former soldiers may have shared stories of the battles they fought.  Perhaps Booth revealed his secret life -- portraying himself as a valiant and indispensable agent of the Confederate secret service.  And then, he unveils his plan -- the bold stroke that can save the Confederacy.

No one knows if it was the strong ties of friendship, the audacity of the proposed kidnapping, or just the famous Booth charm.  Whatever the reason, Arnold and O’Laughlen leave the meeting as the first members of the conspiracy.

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 17

Dr. Samuel Mudd

Dr. Samuel Mudd is one of the most controversial characters in the Lincoln conspiracy.  He was accused of aiding assassin John Wilkes Booth, specifically by setting his broken leg on the morning after President Lincoln was shot.  Mudd claimed he didn't know the man was Booth.

On May 17, 1865, two Army detectives, Simon Gavacan and William Williams, testified about Mudd's arrest at the trial of the conspirators.  The detectives recounted the doctor's denial of setting Booth's leg and his denial that Booth had been at his farm in Maryland on April 15.  They also testified that, upon searching Mudd's home, they found a boot bearing the inscription "J. Wilkes".

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 16

Ford's Theatre under armed guard in 1865

An employee of Ford's Theatre provided gripping testimony at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators.

On May 16, 1865, John "Peanuts" Burroughs described how he came to be holding the reins of John Wilkes Booth's horse at the moment the president was assassinated.  Moments later, Booth ran out of the theater's back door, grabbed the reins from Burroughs, hit him with the butt of his knife and kicked him before galloping into the night.  Burroughs also recounted anit-Union comments made by accused conspirator Edwin "Ned" Spangler earlier in the day.

Today in the Lincoln Conspiracy: May 16

During the month of May 1862, John Wilkes Booth appeared in a series of plays at the Boston Museum.  On May 16, he starred in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, a role that had helped vault his elder brother Edwin to national acclaim.

The Booth brothers (left to right) John Wilkes, Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr. 

Booth was warmly greeted by the Boston theater set.  One newspaper reviewer called him "the most promising young actor on the American stage".  He turned 24 years old during his run in Boston.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Leading Man

Imagine you're shopping  at the mall and you look up to see, standing beside you, Brad Pitt. He smiles, introduces himself and strikes up a conversation. Then he invites you join him for dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants, followed by a nightcap at a nearby watering hole. As you relax with your favorite beverage, he leans close and says: “You know, I’m about to embark on a very special project and I think there is job that would be just perfect for you.”

Congratulations!  You have just joined a conspiracy against the President of the United States.

The notion that a marquee actor of Brad Pitt's stature might plot against the president may seem outrageous today.  Indeed, it was no less outrageous in the 1860's.  But it happened.  And the leading man of the drama was the Brad Pitt of his day.  His name was John Wilkes Booth.

He was -- quite literally -- born for the stage.  The ninth child of legendary tragedian Junius Brutus Booth, John Wilkes made his theatrical debut at the age of 17.  It was not a success.  But over the next several years, with coaching from his older brother Edwin, John Wilkes developed an energetic acting style that, coupled with his darkly handsome good looks, made him America's first matinee idol.  By 1863, he was arguably the country's most successful actor, earning the princely sum of $20,000 that year.  He was such a powerful draw that when he appeared on stage at Ford's Theatre in November of that year, the President of the United States was in the audience to cheer him on.  A year and a half later, Booth and Lincoln would meet again in that same theater, under very different circumstances.

Generations of school children have been taught that Abraham Lincoln was killed by a "failed actor" driven to madness.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  John Wilkes Booth was a star of the first magnitude and a member of America's premier theatrical family -- the Barrymores or Fondas of their day.  His participation in a plot against the president was a shock to Americans in 1865.  It was as shocking as Brad Pitt's (hypothetical) role in a criminal conspiracy would be to Americans today.

The Thrill of History

The Lincoln Conspiracy provides the setting for the historical thriller, THE CURSE OF CAIN.

The Conspiracy To Kill The President

Four U.S. presidents have died at the hands of assassins.  Only one of them was the proven victim of a conspiracy.  Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded while attending a play in Washington on April 14, 1865.
His killer crept into the president's box at Ford's Theatre and shot him in the back of the head with a derringer.  The assassin made a fittingly theatrical exit -- leaping from the box onto the stage and shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!"  ("Thus always to tyrants!")  He ran across the stage, dashed out the back door of the theater and mounted a waiting horse, then galloped away.  Many witnesses immediately recognized the killer.  He was John Wilkes Booth, a renowned actor and member of America's most prominent theatrical family.
Although Booth apparently was the only person involved in the actual murder of Abraham Lincoln, he was not acting alone.  He was the mastermind of a much larger plot to destabilize the government of the United States and to prolong the Civil War.

In the weeks following Lincoln's death, government forces tracked down everyone connected with Booth.  They also scoured the countryside around Washington for the assassin.  They found him on April 26, 1865, hiding in a barn near Port Royal, Virginia.  When he refused to surrender, a soldier defied orders and shot him dead.

Eight alleged Booth conspirators went on trial May 1, 1865 before a military tribunal convened by the new president (and another target of the conspiracy) Andrew Johnson.  Seven weeks later, all eight were convicted.  Four were sentenced to death.

They were hanged on July 7, 1865 at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington.  Among them was Mary Surratt, the first women ever executed by the United States government.  Her role in the plot is still hotly debated.  But on one point there is no debate.

Abraham Lincoln, the first U.S. President slain while in office, was the target of a well-developed conspiracy.