Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Assassination Of Lincoln: Justice For The Conspirators Comes Fast & Hard

John Wilkes Booth had hoped that the simultaneous assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and two possible successors would throw the U.S. government into disarray and give the Confederacy a new lease on life. The president did indeed perish, although the other two attempts fell short or failed to come off, but the Union held and a massive dragnet brought Booth and his co-conspirators to bay. Booth himself was killed, while most of the others were strung up and hung 12 weeks later after a controversial trial.

Booth had made for the Navy Yard Bridge after mortally wounding Lincoln and galloping away from Ford's Theater, while David Herold crossed the span about an hour later after attempting but failing to kill Secretary of State William Seward.

They reunited at a tavern in Surattsville where co-conspirator Mary Surratt had stashed weapons for them and then went to the home of Samuel Mudd, a doctor, who determined that Booth's left leg was broken (when he jumped from the presidential box to the theater stage) and set the leg in a cast.

Mudd's exact role in the conspiracy remains murky (see sidebar below), but in any event Booth and Herold spent April 14, 1865, and part of the next day resting in the doctor's house and then hired a local man to guide them to
the home of Confederate sympathizer Samuel Cox. Cox in turn led them to sympathizer Thomas Jones, who hid them in a swamp near his house for five days until they could cross the Potomac River, ironically well after Union troops had begun combing northern Virginia for the men.

On April 21, ferryman Willie Jett took Booth and Herold across the river. Neither man made any effort to hide his identify, and Herold boldly declared, "We are the assassinators of the president. Yonder is J. Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln."

Five days later, investigators pulled Jett from his bed and he told them the men had been enroute to Port Royal and the home of "Mr. Garretts."

On April 26, Union soldiers tracked Booth and Herold to farm belonging to Richard Garrett, who had locked the men in his barn. Garrett at first claimed the men had "gone to the woods," but when investigator Everton Conger threw a rope over a tree and threatened to hang the farmer, one of his sons blurted out, "Don't hurt the old man; he is scared; I will tell you where the men are -- in the barn."

Conger gave the men five minutes to come out. Herold quickly surrendered, but Booth refused to give himself up. The soldiers then set fire to the barn and Sergeant Boston Corbett crept to within firing range and shot booth in the neck, paralyzing him.

The assassin was dragged out on to the steps of the barn where a soldier dribbled water into his mouth. "Tell my mother I died for my country," he whispered. Booth died two hours later on the porch of the Garrett farmhouse.

Meanwhile, Lewis Powell, who had led Herold to Seward's house before panicking and riding off, wandered the streets of Washington for three days before finding his way back to Mary Surratt's house in the capital on April 17. Military investigators were waiting for Powell and although Surratt denied knowing him, both were arrested.

George Atzerodt, who had gotten cold feet after being tasked with assassinating Vice President Johnson, hid out on a farm in Georgetown, but was tracked down and arrested on April 20, while with one exception the rest of the conspirators were arrested before the end of the month. The lone holdout was Confederate courier John Surratt, Mary's son, who made his way to Europe and Africa before he was finally apprehended in November 1866.

* * * * *
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had set up an office in the back parlor of the boarding house where Lincoln was taken to run the government and begin the dragnet for the conspirators even before he drew his last breath.

In the ensuing turmoil, dozens of people with only the most tangential ties to Booth and Herold were arrested and thrown into prison.

They included Louis J. Weichmann, who was a boarder at Mary Surrat's house and had informed the War Department of an earlier kidnapping plot against Lincoln. He was released and became an important prosecution witness. Booth's brother and theater owner John T. Ford also were apprehended but were released.

The suspects held for trial eventually were narrowed down to eight: Atzerodt, Herold, Mudd, Mary Surratt, Powell, Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlen (both of whom were involved in the kidnapping plot) and Edmund Spangler (who worked at Ford's Theater).

Mudd and Surrat were imprisoned at the Old Capitol Prison and the others on the ironclad vessels Montauk and Saugus, and then moved to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where the trial was to be held.

The eight were tried not in a civil court but by a nine-officer military tribunal, which was advocated by Stanton and had become a favorite if controversial method of dispensing justice of the late president's, as well as an echo of the imprisonment of alleged terrorists during the Bush administration. All but Mudd and Surratt were made to wear canvas hoods for the duration of their pre-trial incarceration.

The odds were well stacked against the defendants because of rules that required only a simple majority of the officer jury for a guilty verdict and a two-thirds majority for a death sentence. The defendants could not appeal to anyone other than President Johnson.

In an effort to implicate President Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders in the assassination, the prosecution suppressed some evidence and intentionally obscured the fact that there were two Lincoln conspiracies -- the kidnap plot hatched in 1864 with the support of top Confederate leadership that fell through when the president canceled plans to attend a play at a military hospital on the outskirts of Washington, and the subsequent assassination plan of which only the co-conspirators were aware.

All of the defendants were found guilty on June 30 following a seven-week trial at which 366 witnesses testified. Atzerodt, Herold, Powell and Surratt were sentenced to death by hanging while Arnold, Mudd and O'Laughlen were sentenced to life in prison and Spangler to six years.

Oddly, after sentencing Surratt to hang, the first woman to ever get the death sentence in a federal proceeding, five of the jurors signed a letter recommending clemency, but Johnson refused to stop the execution.

The hangings took place on July 7 at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, while O'Laughlen died of yellow fever in prison and Arnold, Mudd and Spangler were pardoned by Johnson in February 1869.

One of the pieces of evidence that prosecutors did not introduce was a small red book which Booth kept as a diary that Conger had found on his body.

In an entry written sometime between the assassination and his capture, Booth wrote:

"For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart."

IMAGES (From top to bottom): The hanging of four of the conspirators; A "Wanted" poster; Capture of John Wilkes Booth at the Garrett farm; Sergeant Boston Corbett; Mary Surratt's house; Secretary of War Stanton; The nine military commissioners; A hooded Samuel Arnold; President Jefferson Davis; Booth's diary.

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