I Escaped with John Wilkes Booth

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved

I escaped with John Wilkes Booth – a bit of an exaggeration since he escaped from Washington, DC – after assassinating President Lincoln – in 1865 and I did it in 2006, along with my son Rick and grandson Eric, as we took the “John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour” sponsored by the Surratt Society in Clinton, Maryland. Booth escaped on a rented horse – we escaped on a leased Greyhound.

This report on our Booth escape will only cover a few highlights of the 12-hour tour we took but I hope it will give you a sense of what it was like – back then and now on Booth’s erratic route.

Booth leaps to the Ford’s Theatre stage from Lincoln’s box, reportedly shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants” – the state motto of Virginia) before making his way through the wings and out to a waiting horse in the alley.

Obviously much has changed along his fateful journey from Ford’s Theatre to Garret’s farm over 12 days, however much remains almost the same especially many of the places he stopped or hid out as he desperately sought some refuge, trying to reach friendly soil and people. While our tour began when we got on the bus at the Surratt House early one Saturday morning, our escape didn’t begin until we had first toured Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House across from it where Lincoln died on the morning after Booth’s bullet entered his brain.

Ride with me now as we join Booth, just minutes after he “heroically” put a derringer behind the left ear of President Lincoln and pulled its trigger, as he runs out the back door of Ford’s about 10:20 that April 14th night taking the reins of his horse and riding down Baptist Alley.

The escape route Booth followed from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, through Maryland, and ending at Garrett’s Farm near Bowling Green, Virginia

After remounting our bus we looked down Baptist Alley and like Booth proceeded down F St. – with a brief side trip to what was the Surratt Boarding House at 614 H Street and is now a Chinese Restaurant. (Seward’s attempted assassin, Lewis Powell (Paine) was arrested at the boarding house.) It’s believed that from F St. Booth cut across Judiciary Square to Pennsylvania Ave. and then on to the Naval Yard Bridge at the foot of 11th St. Booth was soon followed by henchman Davy Herold. (Herold, standing guard outside Seward’s house, left the scene when bloody chaos erupted inside.) Assigned Andrew Johnson assassin, George Atzerodt, having given up his mission left DC the next day for his cousin’s house where he was arrested on April 20th.)

Booth, stopped by a guard at the bridge, gave his real name and although after hours was permitted to cross. Herold was also stopped – he gave his name as “Smith” and was also allowed to cross. The only one chasing them at this point was John Fletcher, who rented the horse to Herold. He saw Herold and followed him to get his horse back. He gave up his pursuit at the bridge. The bridge we cross by bus is not the old one but crosses almost exactly where the old one did.

After crossing, Booth and Herold, still apart, ride though the village of Uniontown (now Anacostia), Maryland turning up Harrison St. (now Good Hope Road) towards and between Forts Wagner and Baker finally coming together at their prearranged spot on Soper’s Hill. (Exact location unknown today.) From there they rode to Surrattsville (now Clinton) where they stopped at the Surratt House/Tavern – 10 miles from DC. It was here, to her tenant, John Lloyd, that Mary Surratt delivered Booth’s field glasses and carbines that afternoon with the instructions, “…have the shooting irons ready. There will be men here tonight to call for them.” (Actions and words that would later lead to her execution.)

Like Booth, we also stop at the Surratt Home/Tavern. It is beautifully maintained and well worth a visit on its own but special on this tour. One of its rooms served as the local Post Office and tavern. The tour of the home includes the upstairs space where the “shooting irons” were hidden in the walls.

The Surratt Home/Tavern in Clinton, Maryland

Booth/Herold arrived at the tavern about midnight with Herold saying to Lloyd, “Make haste and get those things.” Lloyd knew what things they meant. The fugitives took the field glasses, ammunition, one carbine and a few swigs of whiskey and left after Booth told Lloyd, “I am pretty sure we have assassinated Lincoln and secretary Seward.” (Booth declined a carbine saying his leg was broken.) Their immediate route after this stop is not known for sure – either to Horsehead and Gallant or further south towards Beantown – both routes would have taken them to their next stop at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Dr. Samuel Mudd’s home, Waldorf, Maryland

Our tour finds the Mudd house, still in its rural setting, sitting on a gentle hill looking much as it must have so long ago. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture Booth/Herold riding up to the door asking for help. The house itself is one of the best maintained historic homes I’ve ever been in – we’re led through its pristine furnished rooms by a well-informed guide. Among other things, the couch Booth first sat on when Mudd examined his leg and the bed he slept are still there. I manage to buy a souvenir from a great granddaughter of Dr. Mudd before we leave for a brief side trip to St. Mary’s Church. It was here that Booth was first introduced to Mudd and it’s here that Dr. Mudd is buried. (Rick, Eric and I return here the next morning for Sunday Mass.)

Dr. Mudd treated Booth’s broken left fibula, cutting off his boot to do so. The boot was later found by the cavalry chasing Booth. He told Mudd it was broken when his horse fell on him – later he wrote in his diary that he broke it jumping to the stage. Mudd’s treatment of Booth – who he knew was a wanted man – and his attempts to arrange transportation for him – while never turning him in – as well as his past association with Booth’s conspiracy, will later earn him a prison term.

Dr. Samuel Mudd

I don’t think that Mudd had anything to do with the assassination. It becomes very clear as we follow Booth’s frantic escape that he had no preconceived plan for his escape other than picking up weapons at the Surratt House and getting to Virginia. – perhaps confirming that it was a sudden decision to assassinate Lincoln. While he may have had help during his escape from people that would have helped him in getting Lincoln to Richmond if kidnapped, none of these people were expecting him after the assassination. He was a ticking bomb that no one wanted to spend much time with.

Our bus follows the assassins’ trail as they headed toward the home of William Buttles, a Confederate agent southwest of Bryantown. However they got lost along the way and ended up at the home of Oswell Swann, a black tobacco farmer. After first asking him to take them to Buttles’ house, they change their minds and ask to be taken to the home of Samuel Cox. Swann took them south by way of Dentsville and then across the Zekiah Swamp to the Cox plantation, called Rich Hill, near the present town of Alton. Swann later reported that Booth/Herold were permitted to enter the Cox home but had to leave within four hours with one of them complaining, “I thought Cox was a man of southern feeling.” (They then paid Swann $12 for his services.)

We then visited the pine thicket area outside Alton where Booth/Herold hid out after leaving Rich Hill. While Cox may not have wanted them in his home, he did provide them with help sending food, newspapers (Booth learns he’s not a hero) and other information about the search. He also arranged for another Confederate agent, Thomas Jones, to help get them across the Potomac into Virginia. Jones came for the fugitives on the night of the 20th taking them to his home, Huckleberry. Their horses had been abandoned (some say shot and sunk in the swamp) so as not to give their hideout away so Booth rode Jones’ horse while Jones and Herold walked.) After getting food for them from his home Jones took them to an inlet and a small boat – Booth paid Jones $18 for the boat (20 years later Jones will tell his story in a book).

The site where Booth and Herold first tried (and failed) to cross the Potomac from Maryland into Virginia

We stopped to visit this area – now behind a religious retreat house. From its hill we could see the small inlet and Virginia two miles away across the Potomac River. We had to speak softly because of those praying and meditating on the retreat grounds – as softly as Booth and his cohorts must have spoken that night to avoid detection. It was easier to see and understand from our vantage point how Booth/Herold could have headed for Virginia and ended up back in Maryland – as they did that night.

Booth/Herold made it across on their second attempt the night of April 22nd arriving in Virginia where they are helped first by John Hughes with food and then by Confederate agent, Thomas Harbin. He arranges with another man to get them horses and to take them to Cleydael, the summer home of Richard Stuart who was recommended to them by Dr. Mudd. Our bus makes a stop here. Dr. Hughes, a wealthy man and Confederate supporter, knew of the assassination and wanted nothing to do with Booth/Herold but he did give them some food and directed them to the cabin of a William Lucas, a free black. Under duress, Lucas agreed to have his son, Charles, take Booth/Herold by wagon to the Port Conway ferry for $20 the following morning – April 24th.

Eric and Rick at Garrett’s Farm

At Port Conway, Booth/Herold encounter three Confederate soldiers to whom, after some discussion, they give their real names. The soldiers agree to help them cross the Rappahannock River to Port Royal – a colonial port town dating back to the Revolutionary War as we see when we visit there on our tour. Here they were taken to the Peyton House, the home of Randolph Peyton and his two sisters, Sarah and Lizzie. Randolph is not at home and Sarah refuses to take them in without her brother there. One of the soldiers then decides to take them down the road towards Bowling Green. He believes that Richard Garrett will put them up on his farm along the way.

The final stop on our tour is what was once the Garrett farm property. The Garrett house was left to rot in the 1920s and its last remnants removed just before WWII. The land on which the farmhouse stood is now between a divided highway (301) but its former location is well marked. Booth gave his name as James W. Boyd to Garret and was taken in for the night (Herold would leave for the night for some partying with the soldiers in Bowling Green). The following night Booth/Herold were asked to sleep in the barn – their last stop. It was here the pursuing cavalry found them (another story – well-told in Manhunt) leading to the surrender of Herold and the shooting of Booth after the barn was set ablaze the morning of April 26.

As we leave it’s easy to picture ghosts: Booth dying (Sic semper assassinus) paralyzed on the front porch of the Garrett house; Herold tied to a tree in the front yard with tired men in blue standing by. We return to the Surratt House ending a wonderful historic day – one of my best experiences of many as a student of the Civil War.

Booth’s journey ends at Garrett’s Farm where he is cornered in the barn, shot and killed by elements of the 16th New York Cavalry.

Note: The Surratt Society conducts these tours ($85), sometimes led by noted authors such as Ed Steers (Blood on the Moon) and Michael Kaufman (American Brutus), four times in the spring and three times in September (all information about the tour as of May 2020).

Click on a book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

Related links:
Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
Surratt House Museum
Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum
Official Report of the Capture of John Wilkes Booth at Civil War Home
The Death of John Wilkes Booth, 1865 at EyeWitness to History