By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved
This is the third installment in a four-part series by past Roundtable President John Fazio reviewing the current scholarship on the question of whether John Wilkes Booth and his band of conspirators, in their attempt to behead the Union government, acted independently or under the direction of the Confederate Secret Service and the top levels of the Confederate government, up to and including Jefferson Davis.
Part 1 of this series reviewed the nature of covert operations as generally practiced by nations and as specifically practiced by the Confederate Secret Service. Part 2 suggested the motives the Confederate government had for pursuing political assassination as a war tactic and argued that the Lincoln plot was actually part of a larger, official terror campaign waged by the Confederacy against the Union. Part 3, below, profiles Booth and traces his activities leading up to the assassination.
VII. Who was Booth?
What images typically come to mind when we hear the name John Wilkes Booth? We think of a young man, an actor by profession, good looking, trim, well dressed, wealthy, a ladies’ man, vain, racist, verbal, gutsy, impulsive and stupid. Interestingly, they all fit. The popular images of Booth are quite accurate.
He was born a bastard, on May 10, 1838. His father, pre-eminent tragic actor, Junius Brutus Booth, and his mother, Mary Ann Holmes, would not marry until his thirteenth birthday.
As a boy, and doubtless influenced by his father (he died when John was fourteen) and his older brothers, he was given to flowery speech and vainglorious expressions, signing his letters, for example, “Thine till death” and “Yours forever.” “I must have fame! fame!,” he cried, according to his sister, Asia. He dreamed of earning immortality by performing some incredible deed or by some extraordinary accomplishment. Asia wrote that he said he wanted to “do something…so he would never be forgotten, even after he had been dead a thousand years.”
He grew in years, but not in stature, not in wisdom. As for the great issue of the day, he was at odds with the rest of his family, all of whom were Unionists. His acquired skills were window-dressing: there was no substance behind them. Mentally and emotionally, he remained a child, given to outbursts of temper, like almost all children.
He became a fine horseman, an acrobat and a crack shot. He took up fencing and became quite good at it. He became a very handsome and talented man, with a strong voice, but because he had no maturity or wisdom to go with those attributes, he was a vain peacock.
In 1858, he joined the company of the Richmond Theater (Richmond, Virginia) and fell in love with the antebellum South, which reciprocated the sentiment. His belief in the natural superiority of the white race found its fullest expression here. He described American slavery as “one of the greatest blessings… that God ever bestowed on a favored nation.”
At the height of his career – at age 26, when his trigger finger sent a half inch of lead into Lincoln’s brain – he had earned as much as $30,000 a year (in 1860) – a prodigious sum in those days, more than most doctors and lawyers earned. He referred to his wealth as “sweet money” and “my beloved precious money.” Such success, of course, only confirmed his views of white supremacy and of his own superiority. His view of blacks was not only that they were inferior, but that they were despicable, an object not so much of scorn as of hatred. Is that not what one would expect of a spoiled brat, for he was exactly that, a “man” who had everything but the things that matter: intelligence, wisdom, maturity, character? And would we not also expect such a “man” to be contemptuous of working class whites (“trash”) and immigrants? And we would be right.
Though strongly pro-Confederate, of course, Booth did not join the Confederate army, believing, or so he said, that he could do more for the cause of Southern independence outside of the army than in it. So he smuggled medicine to the South, sometimes did a little spying and became an agent of the Confederate Secret Service. “My brains are worth twenty men,” he told his sister, “my money worth a hundred. I have free pass everywhere; my profession, my name, is my passport.”
Many called him “the handsomest man in America.” It was said that “women spoiled him.” One observer said that “John Wilkes Booth cast a spell over most men…and I believe over all women without exception.”
VIII. Booth’s Involvement
John Wilkes Booth was a Confederate Secret Services agent. It is not known, and may never be known, when or exactly under what circumstances he was recruited and accepted his role as such, but that he was an agent and was in regular contact with other agents, who had ties to the Confederate leadership, or who had ties to other agents who had such ties, has been firmly established. His sister, Asia, in her memoir, The Unlocked Book: A Memoir of John Wilkes Booth by His Sister, written before 1875, but not published until 1938, described her brother as “a spy, a blockade-runner, a rebel!”
Booth told Asia that he was involved in the “underground” and that the work demanded travel. The unexplained trips, the strange visitors at all hours, the callused hands “from nights of rowing,” to Asia it suddenly all made sense.
It is well known that some years before the assassination and especially in the months leading up to it, Booth had frequent meetings with other operatives, doubtless higher level, in Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. We may safely conclude that he didn’t have these meetings for the purpose of discussing theater.
On July 26, 1864, Booth was in Boston at the Parker House. There he met with three Confederate agents from Canada and one from Baltimore. On August 7 he was in Philadelphia, from where he went to Baltimore. Most of August he spent in New York City at the home of his brother, Edwin.
To New York, he is known to have traveled at least a dozen times for secret meetings. On one of these trips, in late 1864, he met with Samuel Knapp Chester, a fellow actor, and tried to recruit him into the abduction plan. He told Chester there were 50 to 100 people involved in the plan. Chester refused to join. Fifty to 100 is certainly an exaggeration (it could never have been kept secret with that number), but we may be certain that there were more than the number who were tried and convicted in May and June, 1865.
On October 27, 1864, Booth and Patrick C. Martin, a blockade-runner, went to the Bank of Ontario, in Montreal, to exchange currency. Booth traded $300 in gold coins for 60 pounds sterling and bought an exchange receipt for $455. He returned from Montreal on November 9 and opened an account at the Washington office of Jay Cooke & Co., Bankers, into which he deposited $1,500. This gave him the funds he needed to finance his work and, if need be, to escape abroad or into the Confederacy (when he left Montreal, he instructed Martin to ship his wardrobe south by way of Nassau) or even within the United States.
In early November he was in Charles County, Maryland, with Dr. William Queen and his family and Dr. Mudd. On November 14, he was back in Washington at the National Hotel, but in December he was back in Charles County, this time to solicit the help of Confederate agent Thomas H. Harbin, whom he met through Dr. Mudd. Harbin agreed to help and did help Booth in his escape after the assassination. Significantly, Harbin fled the country after the assassination, but returned to the United States in 1867 after the government’s failure to convict John Surratt persuaded him that it was safe to do so.
Further, through his co-conspirator, John Surratt, Booth had contact with superiors in Richmond itself. It is known, in fact, from Atzerodt’s confession, that Surratt went to Richmond in March, 1865. It is also known, by the testimony of Louis J. Weichman at the trial of the conspirators, that Surratt left Richmond on April 1, after meeting with Benjamin and perhaps Davis, returned to his mother’s boarding house in Washington with a substantial sum of money on April 3 and then left Washington for Montreal, arriving there on April 6. The following Monday, April 10, he received a letter from Booth advising him that their plans had changed and that he should proceed immediately to Washington. On April 14, the day of the assassination, he said later that he was in Elmira, New York, casing out the prisoner-of-war camp there on orders from Confederate operatives in Canada. Thirteen witnesses at his trial in 1867, however, seven of whom were personally acquainted with him, placed him in Washington on the night of the assassination, one testifying that he saw John in front of Ford’s Theatre during the performance coordinating the timing of Booth’s attack. In addition, Atzerodt said that on April 14 Booth told him that he had just seen Surratt earlier in the day.
The only thing about which there is no dispute is that he fled, first to Canada and then to Europe, where he remained in hiding for a year and seven months before being apprehended in Alexandria, Egypt, and transported back to the United States for trial. In my judgment, though not in the judgment of the prosecutors at his 1867 trial, whether he fled before the assassination or immediately after it, though not unimportant, is not as important as the simple and undisputed fact that he fled and left his co-conspirators, including his mother, to their fate, i.e. the gallows and the Dry Tortugas. An innocent man does not flee. An innocent man faces his accusers so as to clear his name, especially when his mother’s life is in great danger. His flight and concealment, therefore, are strongly probative of his guilt.
All of this strongly suggests that he carried a verbal order to Booth from Richmond when he returned to Washington from that city on April 3, together with funds to implement it, an order that may well have been to carry out the contingency plan, i.e. the decapitation of Northern leadership by multiple assassinations in the event of failure of the Harney mission. That Surratt then fled lends credence to this interpretation. Lending further credence is the fact that in 1902, on his deathbed, Louis Weichman, age 59, whose testimony at the trial of the conspirators had been critical to the prosecution’s case, swore that all of the testimony he had given at the trial was true. Weichman was a friend of John Surratt’s, was a boarder at the Surratt boarding house in Washington, knew all of the defendants, some better than others, and was privy to much of what had gone on – visitors, meetings, conversations – at the boarding house in the months leading up to the assassination.
From Atzerodt’s confession we also know that Booth had traveled to New York at the end of February, 1865. We also know that Booth had traveled to Montreal just before the St. Albans raid (October 19, 1864) and stayed at least ten days in that city at St. Lawrence Hall. “The Hall” was probably the finest hotel in the city and had come to be regarded as the center of Confederate activities in Montreal. During this visit, Booth was allegedly seen with top Confederate agents, George N. Sanders and Patrick C. Martin. It is significant, too, that the prosecution’s three leading witnesses at the trial of the conspirators also placed Powell and Herold in Montreal. That all three witnesses were later shown to be perjurers does not necessarily discredit this testimony.
In February, 1865, the Confederate government changed its enciphering key from “Complete Victory” to “Come Retribution,” which strongly suggests that the highest levels of that government recognized that there would be no victory and had therefore made a decision to seek revenge against those Federal office-holders whom it perceived to be most responsible for the South’s agony and its impending defeat. In this connection, it is relevant to ask: how would retribution be accomplished if the South’s standing armies were disappearing? What form would it, could it, have taken? The answer that strongly suggests itself is assassination of those office-holders, because nothing less would constitute true retribution and revenge. But revenge, of course, as previously said, was only one motive among many for decapitation of the Federal government.
An abduction plan, conceived in Richmond in 1864, was in a very advanced state, including an action team (Booth, et al.), a route of escape from Washington to Richmond, and a security force to protect the escape routes and to aid the escapees. That the plan was approved at the highest levels of the Confederate Government is beyond question. After all, Booth couldn’t very well just show up in Richmond one day with the President in handcuffs. The plan failed because events did not favor it.
On March 4, Booth was present in the crowd at the inauguration of the President. An incident occurred when a man tried to follow the presidential party out of the east door of the Capitol rotunda toward the inauguration platform. He was intercepted and forcibly restrained by a Capitol police officer. When Booth’s picture was widely circulated following the assassination, this police officer claimed that the man who had caused the fracas was indeed Booth. The revelation resulted in a promotion for the officer for saving the President’s life at the inauguration, but there is no way of knowing if the man in question was really Booth.
In any case, on April 7, when in New York with his friend Sam Chester, Booth slammed the table and, according to Chester, said “What a splendid chance I had to kill the President on the fourth of March.” On another occasion Chester said Booth’s words were “What an excellent chance I had to kill the President, if I had wished, on inauguration day.” Again, there is no way of knowing if Booth was referring to the Capitol rotunda incident or if he meant, simply, that he was armed and had a good line of fire.
On March 17, Booth received word that Lincoln would attend a matinee performance of a play to be given for sick and wounded soldiers at Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of Washington, near the Soldiers’ Home. Booth alerted his cohorts, who went into action with a plan to accomplish the abduction when the President was either on his way to the hospital or on his way back to the White House. To their chagrin, however, when the carriage came into view it contained not Lincoln, but Salmon P. Chase. So they all returned to the city, thoroughly disgusted. It should be mentioned that at least one assassination scholar believes that the whole affair was a ruse invented by Booth to drill his team and also to get them to commit themselves to acts that could be deemed to be treason and thereby make renunciation of their part in any of his schemes less likely. This scholar, in my judgment, gives Booth credit for being a deeper thinker than he was. At least one other scholar believes that the incident never even happened. I believe it did happen, because, in addition to multiple attestations, John Surratt himself described the episode in his lecture, about which more later.
In March, 1865, something was happening in New York. Powell was there. So was Preston Parr. Booth came on the 21st. Atzerodt said Booth was getting money from New York. Booth returned from New York on the morning of March 25, probably with Sarah Slater, who was on her way to Richmond to deliver letters from General Edwin G. Lee, who was in Montreal, to Judah Benjamin.
Slater was one of the Confederacy’s top agent couriers. In late 1864, she paid a visit to the Surratt boarding house in Washington, stayed a day and a night and then left for Canada the next morning. Booth was a regular at the house, described often and widely, together with the Surratt tavern, as a “nest of spies,” frequented not only by spies but also by smugglers and dispatch carriers. At the trial of the conspirators, Weichman testified that Booth called frequently at the boarding house and held secret meetings with John Surratt and his mother and with men whom Weichman was sure were using false names and had some connection with the Federal government.
In a letter dated at Hookstown, March 27, 1865, Samuel Arnold wrote to Booth, disassociating himself from the abduction plan and advising him to desist and to “go and see how it will be taken in Richmond.” What “it” meant is not certain. This letter was found in Booth’s trunk, which was recovered from his hotel room immediately after the assassination. Also found in the trunk were a crudely drawn map of the Southern states, some personal correspondence and a sheet with letters and numbers on a hand-drawn grid, obviously the key to a cipher code.
Booth’s sources of information were astonishing, so good, in fact, that one must assume that one or more of them were Federal officers or employees at high levels. This conclusion receives support from Weichman’s testimony that Booth frequently held meetings at the Surratt boarding house with men whom Weichman was sure had some connection with the Federal government. Booth knew, or in any case thought he knew, when Lincoln was scheduled to attend a performance at Campbell Hospital on March 17, as previously said, though in this case his intelligence was faulty or Lincoln’s place was taken by Chase as a last minute change. The question that needs an answer, however, is: How did Booth learn of the scheduled visit to the hospital?
A better example is his learning that General and Mrs. Grant would not be joining the President and Mrs. Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, but would, instead, be taking a train north toward Philadelphia for the purpose of visiting family. The evidence is strong that Booth was so intent on murdering Grant as well as the President that night that he sent a man after Grant on the train. Between Baltimore and Philadelphia a man tried to force his way into Grant’s locked car, but was prevented from doing so by the train crew. Later, Grant received an anonymous letter stating that the writer was this man and that he gave thanks to God that he had not been successful. This episode receives corroboration from a statement made by Atzerodt, when at the home of Hezekiah Metz, in Baltimore, after he had departed Washington following the assassination, namely “If the fellow that had promised to follow Grant had done his duty, we would have got General Grant, too.” It was this statement, together with a few other ill-advised remarks by Atzerodt, that soon led to his arrest.
It seems likely that Booth’s plot included the assassination of Stanton too, though this attempt has received little coverage in the histories because the would-be assassin was never identified or apprehended. Two men passing Stanton’s house the evening of April 14 saw a tall man with a high hat hurriedly leaving Stanton’s stoop. The incident made the morning newspaper. When Stanton read it, he remarked to his very close friend, Hudson Taylor, a Washington book seller, that his doorbell was broken and that if it had been in good repair and the tall man had rung it, he, Stanton, had no doubt that the bell would have been answered and the man admitted and that he, Stanton, would have been assassinated. Apparently, the intruder, getting no response to the bell, assumed that no one was home and left, or perhaps, like Atzerodt, simply got cold feet. Further, a witness at the trial of the conspirators testified that Michael O’Laughlen, wearing black clothes and a slouch hat and claiming to be a lawyer, entered Stanton’s home the night before the assassination and inquired about the Secretary’s whereabouts. The witness stated that O’Laughlen remained in the hall for a few minutes before being asked to leave. Two other witnesses also reported seeing O’Laughlen at the Secretary’s home.
The possibility exists, of course, that one or both of these stories were fabrications and plants, designed to cover Stanton’s tracks. But in this case one has to believe, with Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, that Stanton was “deep in conspiracy.” That Stanton was the mastermind behind the assassination was the thesis of Otto Eisenschiml’s 1937 book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered?. I do not agree with this thesis. In my judgment, the evidence does not support it, though it is true that many questions involving Stanton are perplexing and unanswered. Jefferson Davis’s statement, upon learning of the assassination, that “…if the same (i.e. murder) had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would have been complete,” is very telling in this regard. As for Welles’s statement, it seems likely that the reference to “conspiracy” related to political maneuvering, to Stanton’s relationships with his peers, or, in any case, something other than conspiracy to kidnap or murder the President.
It is relevant to ask, too, how Booth could say to Powell and Herold, when the three had listened to Lincoln’s last speech given from the balcony of the Executive Mansion on April 11, 1865: “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” How could he be so certain that he would soon have an opportunity to murder the President and that he would be successful in accomplishing such a monumental and presumably difficult task?
Clearly, Booth had help, and not from his action team, who were elsewhere occupied, but from friends in the Federal Government, and probably in very high places, informants and co-conspirators who fed him valuable information concerning the President’s schedule and other goings-on in the Federal government. Clearly, too, Booth had his ducks in order, i.e. he had a very good plan, if not a foolproof one, a plan that offered a high probability of success. Consider, in this connection, that he entered Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night armed only with a single-shot Derringer and a dagger. Obviously, he did not anticipate having to fight it out with anyone in order to gain access to the President. To state the obverse, he knew with near certainty that one bullet would be all he would need, because that’s all he had! How did he know that no one who was armed and committed to protecting the President would bar his way?
Let us also ask how it was that Booth could be so certain of success that he could instruct Mary Surratt to be certain that the “shooting irons” were ready at the Surratt Tavern for pick-up on the night of April 14, which instructions Mary Surratt dutifully passed on to John M. Lloyd, her lessee of the tavern. Lloyd did in fact make the weapons and Booth’s field glasses available to Booth and Herold when they stopped there after the assassination on their way to Dr. Samuel Mudd’s home, though because of Booth’s condition, they took only one rifle rather than the two that were there.
Let us ask, too, how Booth could be so certain of success that he would entrust a letter, detailing his murderous intentions and even naming his co-conspirators (Paine (Powell), Herold and Atzerodt), to his fellow actor John Matthews, with instructions to Matthews to have it published in the National Intelligencer “…unless I see you before ten o’clock tomorrow (i.e. April 15); in that case I will see to it myself.”
Clearly, Booth felt that it was more likely that he would succeed that evening, but he did hold open the possibility that he would not, in which case he would contact Matthews before 10:00 a.m. the next morning to retrieve the letter. It would appear that by so doing, Booth was taking a great risk, a risk that he might fail in his deed and then fail to make contact with Matthews before 10:00 .am. the following day, in which case the letter might well have found its way to the newspaper’s editors, thereby exposing Booth and part of his action team and, incidentally, making himself look quite foolish. It is reasonable to conclude that if Booth thought the risk was great, he would not have taken it. That he did take the risk is probative of his conviction that it was minimal.
The question that repeatedly begs to be asked is: How could Booth be so certain of success? The two answers that suggest themselves are: 1) He had help in high places and whenever he needed it, and 2) He was so well known that he could gain entry to almost anywhere just by identifying himself. As he said to his sister, Asia: “I have free pass everywhere; my profession, my name, is my passport.” Indeed, it may well have been his fame and his identification of himself by a carte de visite to Charles Forbes, the President’s footman and messenger and the only person who stood between Booth and the President at 10:20 p.m. in Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night, that got him past Forbes so easily. I say “apparently” because there is uncertainty as to who, if anyone, was guarding the Presidential box and where, exactly, Forbes was when Booth struck.
Also attesting to the presence in high places of traitors is the Harney mission. How is it that the New York people referred to in Atzerodt’s confession were so certain that they could get “friends of the Presdt. to get up an entertainment & they would mix it in, have a serenade & thus get at the Presdt. & party.” How could something as precise as that – the positioning of the President and other Northern leaders right where Harney’s explosives could tear them apart – be accomplished without inside help, and of a very persuasive and effective kind? And how would Harney and his men gain access to the White House to plant the explosives? And how did they know an entrance to the White House “to accomplish it through?” How, indeed, except by treachery. Harney and some of the 150 men detached from Mosby’s Rangers were on their way to Washington and the White House to carry out their diabolical scheme when he and some of the men were captured. One must assume, therefore, that some person or persons were busy in the capital arranging an entertainment that would draw in Northern leaders in coordination with Harney’s schedule.
Clearly, too, Booth had help after the fact from Confederate agents in Washington and in a chain that stretched from Washington to Richmond, who may have included the sentry (Silas Cobb) who allowed Booth and Herold to cross the Potomac at an hour when doing so was unlawful without a pass, which neither of them had. The sentry may have had instructions to let Booth pass. That may be why Booth give him his real name, though it is of course possible that he gave him his real name because “…my name is my passport.”
These various agents gave Booth and Herold aid, comfort and protection as they made their way south following the assassination. The names of these agents were known, but, except for Dr. Mudd, they were never prosecuted for their crimes. It is noteworthy that none of them betrayed Booth and Herold despite the enormous rewards offered for their capture. That suggests most strongly that they all knew what was coming, had committed themselves to a plan of action and would not renege on it.
At the trial, Richard R. Montgomery, allegedly a Federal spy, claimed to know most of the Confederate agents in Canada. He said that in January, 1865, Jacob Thompson told him of a plan to kill Northern leaders and that Thompson supported it, but was not allowed to proceed with it until Richmond gave a green light. Other witnesses testified that assassination was freely discussed by the agents in Canada and two of the witnesses claimed to have seen Booth talking to George N. Sanders of the so-called Canadian cabinet in Montreal. Henry Von Steinacker testified that he was actually present when Booth discussed assassination with Confederate officers.
A Canadian doctor, James B. Merritt, testified that in February, 1865, he heard Sanders describe an assassination plan that had the approval of Jefferson Davis. Sanders mentioned Booth and possibly Atzerodt as players. He said that Booth also wanted to avenge the hanging of John Yates Beall, Booth’s good friend and perhaps his cousin.
Charles A. Dunham, alias Sandford Conover (and alias Harvey Birch, James Watson Wallace, Franklin Foster, Isaac Haines (or Haynes), Henry Wolfenden, W.E. Harrison, George W. Margrave, John McGill and many other aliases), a correspondent for the New York Tribune, said he went to Montreal, where he met some of the Confederate officials. He said they told him of various plots against the North, one of which was a plot, led by Booth, to kill Lincoln and most senior officials in the Federal government. Dunham also testified at the trial of the conspirators that some time between April 6 and 9, 1865, he was in Thompson’s office when Surratt arrived from Richmond with letters from Davis and Benjamin. After reading them, Thompson tapped them with his hand and said “This makes the thing all right.”
All three (Montgomery, Merritt and Dunham) were later shown to have perjured themselves, but one has to ask, why? It is entirely possible that if the testimony was perjury it was the intentional kind intended to be exposed as such, thereby deflecting the guilt that otherwise would have attached to Davis, Benjamin, et al. Some Civil War historians have concluded that it was just that. If so, it worked. Davis was released on bail in May, 1867, was never tried and was included in Johnson’s sweeping Christmas pardons of 1868. If the alleged perjury was not intentional, one has to ask why the three witnesses would wish to implicate Davis if they knew he was innocent.
Dunham, with his dozen or so aliases, sounds like a double or triple agent secretly working for the Confederacy, and some historians have so concluded. Though he acknowledged that he had a personal grievance against Davis, he continued to insist that the testimony he gave at the trial of the conspirators was true, and Joseph Holt, one of the three judges in charge of the trial of the conspirators, supported him in this for the rest of his, Holt’s, life.
A book written in 1892 is instructive. In Assassination of Lincoln: A History of the Great Conspiracy (1892), Gen. Thomas M. Harris, a former member of the military commission that tried the conspirators, concluded “that the assassination of President Lincoln was the result of a deep-laid political scheme to subvert the government of the United States in aid of the rebellion; that it was not merely the rash act of Booth and his co-conspirators, to whom the work was entrusted; but that behind these stood Jefferson Davis and his Canada cabinet.” He was convinced of the veracity of the testimony of the government’s witnesses in 1865, even Dunham. That Davis and the Canadian cabinet were not tried did not mean that the government felt it did not have a case against them, but rather that the government had adopted the benign policy of condoning the past in the interest of reconciliation and moving on. No Confederate leaders were to be punished beyond being made ineligible to hold political office.
In 1901, Osborn H. Oldroyd, an Ohio soldier on duty in Tennessee at the time of the assassination, published The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He came to the same conclusion that Harris did. He said “Had the military court reached out a little further in its investigations…it would have implicated many persons holding positions of power and authority in the service of the Confederate Government.“ One cannot help but wonder why it didn’t reach out a little further and why Stanton (who was otherwise a bull of the woods about the assassination) and the military commission that tried the conspirators allowed so many who were complicit in the crime to get away with it.
Many who were undoubtedly complicit were allowed to go free because the government prosecutors couldn’t prove anything in the face of their denials, or so they said. These included Sarah Slater, Preston Parr, Clement Clay, Beverly Tucker, Jacob Thompson and Atzerodt’s friends, Walter Barnes and Henry Baily. It also included those who helped Booth and Herold during their escape after the assassination, including Oswald Swann, Samuel Cox, Thomas A. Jones, Elizabeth Quesenberry, Thomas Harbin, William Bryant, Richard Stuart and Charley Lucas.
After the assassination, Beverly Tucker, one of the members of the Canadian cabinet, said that he had never known or heard of any of those connected with the assassination. Jacob Thompson, another member, said that he had “never known or conversed or held communication, either directly or indirectly, with Booth…or with any of his associates, so far as I have seen them named …I knew nothing of their plans…I defy the evidence of the Bureau of Military Justice.” It is easy and tempting to say, in response to these denials, that Tucker and Thompson simply lied. And perhaps they did. But it is also quite possible that they didn’t lie; that, in fact, their insulation from Booth was such that they never actually met or conversed with him or any of his gutter snipes, which is to say that the insulation accomplished its purpose: it gave them plausible deniability.
If they could plausibly deny knowledge of Booth and his minions, what shall we say of Benjamin, Davis and Seddon, who were even farther removed from Booth and his team than the members of the Canadian cabinet were? The inescapable conclusion from all this is that, as so often happens in conspiracies, the grunts were hanged and imprisoned, but their superiors got away with murder, just as they had gotten away with treason and rebellion.
So too did John Surratt get away with murder. Here is as vile a character as has ever polluted the pages of history. He unquestionably participated in the plots to kidnap and murder Lincoln, the former by his own admission. Then he fled the country, leaving all of his comrades and his mother to their fate, i.e. the hangman and the Dry Tortugas.
When abroad, he resorted to one subterfuge and disguise after another to escape justice. When he was finally captured and returned for trial, he received the benefit of a Supreme Court decision that had come down during his absence, namely Ex parte Milligan, which held that military commissions had no authority to conduct trials if civil courts remained open. He then, in a civil court, received the further benefit of a hung jury, with eight Southerners on the jury voting for acquittal and four Northerners voting for conviction, which gives us some idea of how successful a trial of Davis would have been in Virginia. He then received the further benefit of a statute of limitations which prohibited a second trial for treason.
As if all of this were not injustice enough, he then traded on his notoriety by giving a series of lectures, for a fee, on his wartime activities, which lectures were a tissue of self-serving declarations and outright lies. Indeed, his falsehoods are so transparent, so palpable, that they fairly jump off the page. Need I say that the fact that he expressly and completely exonerated the Confederate government of any complicity in his crimes is proof positive of its complicity? Is it not significant that none of the other conspirators addressed the issue of complicity of the Confederate government, that the only one to do so was the one who traveled regularly between Washington and Richmond, which is to say the only one who really knew. The others didn’t address the issue because, not having had direct contact with intermediaries between them and Davis, they didn’t know. If Surratt had been as ignorant as they, he too would have said nothing about it. The fact that he felt it necessary to exonerate the Confederate leadership is therefore strongly suggestive of its complicity.
The real truth about this despicable man is to be found not in his lectures, but in conversations he had with Dr. Lewis J. A. McMillen and with Henri Beaumont Ste. Marie, in which his tongue was loosened somewhat by the fact that he was safely away from American soil, in foreign waters and lands, by a naïve and misplaced confidence in both men, and perhaps by alcohol, inasmuch as he was known to drink heavily on occasion.
McMillen was the surgeon on board the Peruvian, on which Surratt, using the name “McCarthy,” sailed from Quebec to Liverpool. Surratt was placed in his care by those who sheltered him while he was in Canada and who arranged for his conveyance abroad. (He was hidden and protected in Canada by Catholic clergy, a fact that has spawned a theory of complicity of the Catholic Church in the assassination, a theory that I reject because there is almost no evidence for such a conclusion, though it is puzzling that Catholic clergy would hide and protect him. It is also puzzling that Surratt was given a Solemn High Requiem Mass upon his death in 1916, an honor usually reserved for Catholics of great prominence or achievement.) During the long and tedious voyage, it became obvious to McMillen, from Surratt’s behavior, that his charge was running from something. Asked by McMillen what he had done, Surratt said “If you knew all the things I have done, it would make you stare,” or something similar to that. Later he told the doctor that he had, for a considerable period prior to the assassination, carried dispatches and money from Richmond to Confederate agents in Canada, that on one occasion he had carried $30,000 and on another $70,000 and that he had arrived in Montreal on April 6, 1865, with dispatches from Davis and Benjamin. These revelations accord well with Dunham’s testimony at the trial of the conspirators, when he said that he was in Thompson’s office when Surratt arrived from Richmond, sometime between April 6 and 9, 1865. They also accord well with Surratt’s later lecture in which he said that United States detectives had no idea how to search suspects, not to suggest that his lecture was particularly credible; on the contrary, it is filled with lies, as previously said.
Surratt then told McMillen, in connection with the assassination, that he had received a letter from Booth at Montreal, in the beginning of the week of the assassination, i.e. Monday, April 10, which was written in New York. The letter called upon him to return to Washington immediately because it had become necessary, Booth said, to change their plans and to act quickly. He started at once for Washington and telegraphed Booth in New York from Elmira. Booth, however, had already left for Washington. Without actually placing Surratt in Washington on the day of the assassination, because doing so is fraught with difficulty, it must be said that it is strange that Surratt, if he had received the letter from Booth that he said he had, wouldn’t follow Booth’s instruction to return to Washington, but instead detour to Elmira and stay there through the date of the assassination. In any case, before the two men parted, Surratt revealed his true identity to McMillen and asked him, upon his return to Canada, to contact a party in Montreal for money and to bring the same to him when McMillen returned to Europe.
The timing of these communications may be very significant. Until late March and even into April, Booth was thinking in terms of abduction. At some point, probably after the evacuation of Richmond on April 2, or certainly no later than Lee’s surrender on April 9, Booth must have been apprised of the Harney mission and given orders to approximate the results of that mission in the event of its failure. When he wrote to Surratt in Montreal, he could not have known of Harney’s arrest because Surratt said he didn’t receive the letter until April 10, the day Harney was arrested, so Booth must have written the letter some time around April 5 or 6, after the fall of Richmond, but before Appomattox. The urgency in the letter suggests three things: 1) The decisiveness of the change in plans; 2) The necessity of quick action; and 3) The need to be in Washington to accomplish their deed, rather than in New York and Montreal. All of these imperatives are consistent with an order to Booth to proceed with the decapitation by multiple assassinations in the event of the failure of the Harney mission. The wording of Booth’s letter, i.e. that it had become necessary to change their plans and to act quickly, suggests direction from an outside source or sources rather than something that Booth had willy-nilly decided to do of his own volition.
In early 1866, Henri Beaumont Ste. Marie recognized Surratt when he, Surratt, was serving as a Zouave in the Papal army at Veroli, Italy. The meeting may not have been completely accidental; there is evidence that Ste. Marie had pursued Surratt, probably for reward money. They were friends. Surratt had been introduced to Ste. Marie by Weichman while on a visit to their old college (St. Charles College) in Maryland three years earlier. At their first meeting, Surratt told Ste. Marie that Lincoln would surely pay for all the men who had been killed in the war. At their second meeting, in Italy, he told Ste. Marie that “We have killed Lincoln, the nigger’s friend.” In lamenting the death of his mother, he said “Had it not been for me and Weichman, my mother would be living yet.” Then, addressing the murder, he said that Booth and his underlings (the “conspirators”) had acted under orders from men who were not yet known. Asked by Ste. Marie if he knew Jefferson Davis personally, Surratt said “No,” but that he had acted under instructions from persons who were under Davis’s immediate orders, a statement that exactly dovetails with the principle of insulation, or buffering, previously spoken of. Asked point blank by Ste. Marie if Davis had anything to do with the assassination, Surratt answered “I am not going to tell you,” which is as clearly an affirmative answer as if he had said “Yes.” St. Marie said that Surratt told him that he was in “New York” on the day of the assassination, “prepared to fly as soon as the deed would be done.” Both McMillen and Ste. Marie testified at Surratt’s trial in 1867.
Worst of all, while almost all the players in the drama died prematurely, John Surratt lived a full life, not dying until 1916, at the age of 72. In his lectures, he was merciless in his criticism of government prosecutors. “Never in my life,” he said, “did I come across a more stupid set of detectives than those generally employed by the United States Government. They seemed to have no idea whatever how to search men.”
Though accusing him of perjury, Surratt admitted that Weichman was not involved in any plots because, he said, Weichman could neither ride nor shoot. This admission gave credence to Weichman’s testimony, which was later given still further credence, as previously said, by his deathbed declaration. Weichman testified, let us remember, that Booth and all of his team, including Dr. Mudd and Mrs. Surratt, were guilty of conspiracy to murder the President. Mrs. Surratt’s guilt also received support from Atzerodt’s confession.
What, let us plainly ask, was he running and hiding from? Clearly a man who would go through so much trouble, take so much time and tear up his previous life, to conceal his whereabouts, must be trying to escape from something truly dreadful. In this connection, what was he referring to when he said to McMillen “If you knew all the things I have done, it would make you stare.” Shall we suppose that he was referring to the fact that he couriered money from Richmond to Canada? Hardly. That’s a very small potato, one that would never justify fleeing so far and for so long as Surratt did. Perhaps he was referring to the five or six forlorn and half-starved Union prisoners of war whom he and Sarah Slater murdered in cold blood on their way to Richmond in late March, 1865, according to McMillen. The Union men had escaped from a Confederate prisoner of war camp and were trying to reach their lines when they had the bad fortune to run into Surratt and Slater, the latter a Southern spy and blockade runner. They and the heavily armed men they were traveling with might have let the pathetic creatures crawl back to their lines, but at Slater’s suggestion, they were murdered on the spot. More likely he was referring to the direct role he played in the assassination. Thirteen witnesses at his trial, seven of whom knew him personally, placed him in Washington on the day and night of the assassination. One, a Sergeant Dye, identified him as being in front of Ford’s Theatre on the night in question, conferring from time to time with an elegantly dressed man and a “ruffian-looking fellow” and coordinating the timing for the attack.
The fourth and final article in this series wraps up this analysis of Confederate complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and addresses why all of it still matters 145 years later.
Sources: The sources that were used for this four-part article are listed in part 4.