Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Date Begun April 12, 1861
Date Ended April 9, 1865
Casualties Total: 1,032,200
Killed: 203,000
Died from other: 417,000
Wounded: 412,200
United States (Union)
34 star flag.png
President Abraham Lincoln
Vice-President Andrew Johnson
Secretary of State William Seward
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
Confederate States (Confederacy)
President Jefferson Davis
Vice-President Alexander Stephens
Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin
Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge
Secretary of the Navy Stephan R. Mallory
Military Leaders
Union Confederate

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln took place on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, just as the American Civil War was coming to a close. United States President Abraham Lincoln was at a play in Ford's Theater, Washington D.C., when he was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth.


Abraham Lincoln on February 5, 1865

Abraham Lincoln was the subject of death threats almost from the day he was elected president in November 1860. This made his trip to Washington and his 1861 inauguration all the more harrowing, at least to his bodyguards; at one point he switched trains in Baltimore and arrived at the Capitol in disguise. In the summer of 1862 an unknown assailant managed to fire a bullet at him, putting a hole in his stovepipe hat as he was riding in a carriage for the Old Soldiers Home just 3 miles north of Washington (TL 26, pg. 10).

As the Civil War was drawing to a close, there were many in the South who sought the means to end the war on their terms. Advertisements ran in Southern papers calling for the killing of the president, with the payment of large rewards to the men who made it happen. One such add was placed in an Alabama newspaper by George Washington Gayle, who promised his fellow Southerners that if funds were raised to a total of one million dollars, he would personally see to it that Lincoln's end was violent (TL 26, pg. 11). Both Lincoln's personal bodyguard, the barrel-chested Ward Hill Lamon, and the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, were fearful for the president, having heard rumors and more against Lincoln's life. Occasionally he would laugh off such rumors, and sometimes he would quietly acquiesce to heeding their advice. But during the years of war, he was often heading out to the War Department, usually walking alone (TL 26, pg. 11).

On the evening of April 11, 1865, Lincoln was entertaining Lamon and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who pressed him about the strange dreams he had been having. Lamon related what he said later:

"About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since."

The Booths

John Wilkes Booth

The king of the American stage during the middle part of the 19th Century was Junius Brutus Booth, a British-born actor who mesmerized the crowds with his thrilling and powerful renditions of Shakespeare, as well as leading a scandalizing personal life. He abandoned his wife in favor of a theater girl, Mary Ann Holmes, came to the United States in 1821, and resumed his acting career to great success, settling in the area of Baltimore, Maryland. Although he was totally devoted to Mary Ann, he would not marry her until 1851; by then they had produced ten children.

The four sons of Booth would try their hands on the stage. Junius Brutus Jr. would enjoy good, but not great, success on the stage before becoming a theater manager. Joseph's own success in acting was limited, and he would turn instead to the medical profession. Edwin Booth would surpass even his father in brilliance as an actor, giving performances in such plays as Macbeth and King Lear to such a high degree that critics would label him the finest American actor of the 19th Century.

But it was John Wilkes Booth who would place a stamp of theatrical glory on himself, no matter the cost. He was dashing on the stage, dazzling the audience with his impulsiveness and fiery acting. He traveled with a wardrobe valued at $15,000, and made sure his travels to the cities he performed in were also accompanied by a visit to the local photographer, where cartes de visite were made, so that he could hand them out to his many female admirers (TL 26, pp. 34, 60). “I am myself, alone,” he would say at least once, when claiming the accolades his ego sought. Unlike the rest of his family members, he was pro-Southern and pro-slavery; so much so that he once enlisted in a Virginia militia for a mere three weeks in 1859 so he could stand guard at the scaffold that would hang abolitionist John Brown.

The conspiracy

Booth also hated Lincoln with a vehemence, blaming him for the South’s misfortune. In the summer of 1864 he had developed a plot to kidnap the president near the Old Soldier’s Home, take him to Richmond, and ransom him in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war. Included in his conspiracy were childhood friends Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlin, John Surratt, and David Herald. George Atzerodt, a German immigrant who spoke bad English, was brought in as he operated a small ferry at Port Tobacco on the Potomac River that would have been used to take the president across. The planning for the kidnapping took place at a boarding house in Washington owned by John Surratt’s mother, Mary. Last to join the conspiracy was a young, hulking man of over 6 feet in height who could provide the muscle needed: Lewis Thornton Powell, a former Confederate soldier and cavalryman who fought at Gettysburg and once served in Mosby’s Rangers. By January 1865, just before he met Booth he had surfaced in Alexandria, Virginia, out of the war and signing an oath of allegiance to the Union, but with a change to his name that would become infamous: Lewis Paine.

On the day the kidnapping was to have taken place, March 17, 1865, Lincoln had changed his plans; he stayed in Washington. Booth’s plot had failed. He would turn to murder, which only heightened when news of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox reached him on April 9.

Ford's Theater

Ford's Theater; the black crepe went up almost immediately after Lincoln's death.
The President's Box
Playbill for Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater, April 14, 1865
Actress Laura Keene
Booth on the stage at Ford's Theater, immediately after shooting the president.

On Friday, April 14, Booth learned that the president, his wife, and guests General Ulysses S. Grant and wife Julia would be attending the performance of Our American Cousin. Giving his men their orders, Powell was to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, and Atzerodt was to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson in his hotel room; Booth wanted the glory of killing Lincoln himself.

Lincoln failed to get the Grants to the theater; they declined his invitation. Lincoln then went to Stanton, asking for Major Thomas Eckert, a burly man who could provide a reasonable amount of protection in a fight, but he declined as well, citing work which needed to be done. Finally, Lincoln invited a young couple engaged to be married, Major Henry R. Rathbone and Clara Harris, the daughter of a New York senator.

Ford’s Theater that night was holding a performance of Our American Cousin, a comedy starring Laura Keene as a British dowager who believes that a visiting country bumpkin (played by Harry Hawk) is a millionaire. Good Friday was usually a slow night for the theater, but the cast, excited that they would entertain the president, prepared to entertain a full house (TL 26, pg. 73). The play was already in progress when the president arrived, and stopped when Lincoln was seen; the performers and audience rose and gave a standing ovation while the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief”. Inside their box, decorated that night with flags by the son of the theater’s owner, they were seated. Lincoln in a rocking chair on the far left, Mary in a chair next to him, and Major Rathbone and his fiancée on a small sofa to their right. Guarding the box was to have been John F. Parker, a White House bodyguard and member of the Metropolitan Police. Although there when the Lincolns arrived, he soon left his post, apparently intending to find a better seat to observe the play. Parker’s act of dereliction of duty, added to a record of similar occurrences as well as drunkenness on duty, would prove beneficial to Booth.

After a few drinks at Taltavul’s Star Saloon, Booth entered Ford’s Theater from the front and walked up the stairs behind the dress circle towards the president’s box, where Lincoln's counselor, Charles Forbes, admitted Booth to the box. Entering the first door, he slipped a wooden beam (which he had brought and hidden earlier in the day) under the door knob to prevent it from being opened, crept to the second door, and peered through a small hole, looking at the back of the chair Lincoln was sitting in. When the last seconds of 10:14 P.M. hits, he then opened it, and pulled out a single-shot Derringer pistol and a large dagger.

On the stage, a woman was speaking her lines.

”I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, that you are not used to the manners of polite society.”

Harry Hawk, as Trenchard:

”Heh, heh. Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal, you sock-dologizing old man trap!”

While the audience reeled with laughter, a gunshot was heard in the box. Then the audience looked up to see a young man leap out and land awkwardly on the stage, brandishing a knife, and shouting to the audience “Sic semper tyrannis!” before escaping across the stage. Major Rathbone, his left arm bloodied from the dagger, leaned out of the box yelling “Stop that man!” to no avail. Booth would exit the back of the building, mount his horse, and escape out of the city.

Inside it was pandemonium. Mary Lincoln had been screaming. Charles A. Leale, a 23-year-old surgeon who was employed by the Army hospital and familiar with gunshot wounds, was in the audience that night and was the first doctor on the scene. Running his hands through Lincoln’s hair, he discovered a half-inch hole in the back of his head and he pushed his little finger in and removed a clot, relieving pressure on the brain. Together with the assistance of two doctors, Doctor Albert King and Charles S. Taft, they managed to get the president breathing on his own, but when Laura Keene cradled Lincoln's head, it was already obvious to them that the wound was fatal.

Seven men picked up the mortally wounded President, then proceeded slowly down the staircase in Ford's Theatre, and slowly out of the theater, where an angry mob was outside, along with onlookers, holding torches and weapons. Dr. Leale described the events which followed:

"The crowd in the street completely obstructed the doorway and a captain, whose services proved invaluable all through the night, came to me, saying: "Surgeon, give me your commands and I will see that they are obeyed." I asked him to clear a passage to the nearest house opposite. He had on side arms and drew his sword. With the sword and word of command he cleared the way. We slowly crossed the street. It was necessary to stop several times to give me the opportunity to remove the clot of blood from the opening to the wound. A barrier of men had been formed to keep back the crowds on each side of an open space leading to the house. Those who went ahead reported that the house directly opposite the theatre was closed. I saw a man standing at the door of Mr. Petersen's house, diagonally opposite, holding a lighted candle in his hand and beckoning us to enter..."

Henry Safford, unlike the other boarders who went out that night, decided to spend the evening in the Petersen boarding house. In a 1903 letter, wrote:

"I had spent the evening reading in the front room when, about ten o'clock, hearing a disturbance outside, I went to the window and learned that Lincoln had been shot. I hastened down to the front door, and, while standing on the upper steps, the President was brought out of the theatre and into the street towards where I stood. Suddenly those carrying him seemed in doubt as to where they would take him. Quickly realizing the cause of their hesitation, although being alone in the house, I took the responsibility of crying out, "Bring him in here, Bring him in here", which invitation was immediately accepted and he was taken to the bedroom in the rear of the parlors and placed on a bed."

Mrs. Lincoln was escorted across the street by Major Rathbone, who had been bleeding severely from the knife wound in his arm. At the door to the Petersen House he collapsed due to loss of blood some time at midnight.

Mrs. Lincoln was joined by Elizabeth Dixon, a close friend of hers and Miss Harris, Rathbone's fiancée. Mary stayed in the Petersen House for the entire night. George and Helga Francis, who rented the front rooms were asked to go downstairs for the evening.

Secretary Seward

Lewis Thornton Powell, aka Lewis Paine
John Surratt

Minutes early at 10:10 P.,M., the same time that Booth prepared his mission to shoot at Lincoln by making his way to the box, a knock occurred on the door of William Seward’s home. William Bell, a black waiter, opened the door and encountered a large, baby-faced man with a hat pulled down far enough to conceal one eye. The man claimed to have a delivery for Seward, claiming the package contained medicine from Dr. Tullio Verdi. The doctor, the man claimed, had ordered him to deliver it to Seward personally.

The delivery man would not enter, or so Bell had ordered, but instead the man, Lewis Powell, forced his way in anyway, started up the stars, but was stopped by son Frederick Seward, who ordered him out the door. Powell pulled his pistol and pulled the trigger; when it misfired, he leapt at Frederick, beating him with the pistol until his skull fractured in several places, which caused him to collapse by the bedroom door where the Secretary of State lay recovering from a carriage accident the week before. Bell had already left the house, screaming “Murder, murder!” and headed to a nearby general’s office to raise the alarm.

At her father's bedside, Daughter Fanny Seward was shoved out of the way and Powell went to work with his Bowie knife, opening the secretary’s right cheek and the left side of his neck; the wounds would have been much worse had Seward not been wearing a metal neck brace for his previous injuries. By then, two more people who tried to stop Powell had been sliced open as he fled the house, leaving four people bloodied, but not dead. The main target, Secretary Seward, would recover and live seven more years.

George Atzerodt, increasingly unhappy about his role to kill Andrew Johnson, spent most of his time in his room at the Kirkwood House, one floor below where the Vice President was staying. 10:15 p.m. was the assigned time to carry out his mission. He let the time come and go as he made his way to the bar, preferring to down shot after shot of whiskey.

Last hours

During the night and early morning, guards patrolled outside to prevent onlookers from coming inside the house. A parade of government officials and physicians was allowed to come inside and pay respects to the unconscious President. One of the officials was the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, who recorded in his diary:

"The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed , which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored." (Welles, pp.286-7)

For medical treatment, the physicians continually removed blood clots which formed over the wound where the bullet had entered Lincoln's head. This process relieved the pressure on the brain and maintained breathing. However, the external and internal hemorrhaging continued throughout the night so that on the next day, April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., a doctor leaned over the president and felt his final breath. Lincoln was fifty-six years old.

The manhunt

Rewards for the capture of Booth and his accomplices totaled $100,000, the largest sum of money for wanted men at that time.
Dr. Samuel Mudd

Booth, when jumping from the box onto the stage, caught a spur on one of the flags; his awkward landing broke the fibula of his left leg. After limping out of Ford's Theatre, Booth mounted a horse that was being held by Joseph "Peanuts" Buroughs, an innocent theater employee. Booth rode down the alley, turned left up another alley, turned onto "F" Street, and headed toward the Navy Yard Bridge. Although the bridge was guarded by Sergeant Cobb and his detail, no passes had been required for crossing since the first of April. Thus, as the guards were there as a matter of routine rather than of necessity, Booth and fellow conspirator David Herold, who arrived separately, were allowed to pass without hindrance. The two men rendezvoused later and then headed to the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD) where they arrived shortly after midnight. At the tavern, they picked up supplies (including two Spencer carbines, ammunition, and field glasses) before continuing south. The pain of his broken leg would delay his escape, causing him to seek a doctor.

At 4:00 a.m. on April 15, they arrived at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth received medical treatment for his injured leg and both men were extended hospitality by the Mudds. Early that afternoon Booth and Herold headed into the nearby Zekiah swamp and were guided by Oswell Swann, a free black. About midnight, Swann brought the two men to their next destination, the home of southern sympathizer, Colonel Samuel Cox, who provided them with food for the next four days. On April 20, Thomas A. Jones, Cox's adopted son, led them to the Potomac River. Instead of crossing the river to Virginia, they headed north on the Potomac and landed on the Maryland side at the home of southern sympathizer Peregrin Davis. The next night, they successfully crossed the river to Virginia, where they stayed at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Quesenberry, a woman who was well connected to the Confederate spy network. Thomas Harbin, an acquaintance of Booth and originally part of the plan to capture President Lincoln, took them to William Bryant and then to Dr. Richard Stuart's home. Stuart, however, did not allow the two men to remain at his home. Booth and Herold went to the cabin of William Lucas, another free black man, forcibly removing Lucas and his wife from the cabin for the night.

Unknown to Booth, the others in the conspiracy were rounded up within days. Powell had hidden in a wooden lot near the Old Navy Bridge for three days after his attack on Seward; he was quickly arrested as he entered the Surratt boarding house pretending to be a laborer. His small act further incriminated Mrs. Surratt, who was being led away at that time after her name came up from the many tips about Booth at her home. Atzerodt was found in his cousin’s home on the 20th, sleeping off a drunken bout. Spangler, O’Laughlin, and Arnold were already in jail by then. John Surratt, scouting a Confederate prisoner of war camp near Elmira, New York when Lincoln was shot, found out he was the subject of a $25,000 reward for his arrest. He quickly fled to Canada, then disappeared.

Dr. Mudd was arrested at his home on the 24th. While in Bryantown on the 15th he had heard of the news of the assassination; he later told a cousin of his treating Booth in his home, but did not recognize him. Federal authorities heard about the medical treatment; a search of the home revealed the boot Dr. Mudd had removed from Booth’s leg, and he was arrested.

On the morning of April 24, Booth and Herold left the cabin of William Lucas in a wagon driven by Lucas' son Charles. He drove the men about 10 miles to the ferry at Port Conway, in King George County, Virginia.

As Booth and Herold were crossing the Rappahannock River, they were greeted by three former Confederate soldiers. 1st Lt. Mortimer B. Ruggles, his cousin Pvt. Absalom R. Bainbridge along with Pvt. William S. Jett. Later Herold boasted to the soldiers that they had killed President Lincoln. Jett aided Booth and Herold by eventually finding shelter for the pair at the Garrett farm. Herold then left Booth at the Garrett farm with the three soldiers and headed for Bowling Green, Virginia. The men stopped at a tavern, described by some as a "house of entertainment," and continued chatting and drinking for several hours. Herold spent the night of April 23 at a nearby family farm. The next morning two ex-Confederate soldiers brought Herold back to the Garrett farm.

Meanwhile, twenty-five members of the 16th New York Cavalry unit, under the command of Lt. Edward Doherty, were following Booth's trail. Lt. Doherty had found out from a shad fisherman, Dick Wilson, that Pvt. Jett had been on the ferry with Booth on the morning of April 24. Doherty was also told that Jett had a girl friend in nearby Bowling Green and Jett could be found there.

Several hours after arriving at the Star Hotel, Detective Everton Conger, one of Doherty's men, forced Jett to reveal Booth's location. In the early morning hours of April 26, 1865, the column of soldiers arrived at the Garrett farm and were told by the Garrett's of two men sleeping in the farm's tobacco shed.

At first Booth refused to surrender, and about 4 a.m., the tobacco shed was set afire. The blaze allowed the soldiers to see Booth moving in the wooden building with a pistol and a rifle. It was at this point that Boston Corbett fired his own pistol, claiming later that it was to prevent Booth from killing more people (Corbett, a strange man who had castrated himself after a vision, would tell the world that God directed him to shoot Booth). Several soldiers dragged Booth, still alive, from the burning structure.

Booth had been shot in the neck. As he was laid on a wooden porch, he was found to be paralyzed from the neck down and whispering "tell my mother I did it for my country.” As he lay dying, he asked that his hands, so instrumental to his acting skills, be held up to his face. “Useless…useless” was his last words. He died at about 7:29 A.M. just 11 days and seven minutes after Abraham Lincoln's death.

The funeral

The death of Lincoln trigged an outpouring of grief that the whole of the country had never seen before. Within an hour of the return of Lincoln’s body to the White House, black cloth, crepe, and ribbons began sprouting from buildings across Washington. “It seemed,” said one citizen, “as if the whole world had lost a dear, personal friend.” 25,000 people would pass by the casket on April 18; churches were filled nationwide the next day, when funeral services took place. Lincoln and his son Willie, who had died two years before, were placed on board a special train on the 21st where they would make the long, 1,700-mile trip to Springfield, Illinois, and burial in Oak Grove Cemetery. Along the way, there would be stops in Philadelphia, in New York, in Cleveland, Chicago, and various other cities, mirroring the trip Lincoln took on his way to Washington for his first inauguration. Each of the them would have their own services. (TL 26, pg. 118-131)

The remains of Booth took a different route. His body was wrapped in a saddle blanket and loaded onto a wagon for a trip to the Potomac, where a steamer awaited to take him to the Washington Navy Yard. The day after Lincoln was buried Booth was hoisted to the quarterdeck of USS Montawk, and there, stretched on a plank, it was identified by acquaintances, witnesses, and doctors possitively as that of the actor before being secretly buried within the Old Penitentiary on the Washington Arsenal grounds. [1]

The trial

Anchored in the Potomac near the Washington Arsenal, the ironclads USS Montawk and USS Saugus held six of the nine surviving conspirators, were brought topside from the holds long enough for Alexander Gardiner to take these photos. Top row (l-r) David Herold, Edman Spangler, Lewis Powell; bottom row (l-r) George Atzerodt, Michael O'Laughlin, Samuel Arnold. Mrs. Surratt and Dr. Mudd were held in Washington; John Surratt had fled to Canada.

On May 1, President Johnson issued an order that all of the conspirators would be tried, not in a civilian court of law, but by a military commission, which consisted of:

  • Lieutenant Colonel David R. Clendenin
  • Brevet Colonel C.H. Tompkins
  • Brigadier General T.M. Harris
  • Brigadier General Albion P. Howe
  • Brevet Brigadier General James A. Ekin
  • Major General Lew Wallace
  • Major General David Hunter
  • Brevet Major General August V. Kautz
  • Brigadier General Robert S. Foster
  • the Honorable John A. Bingham (Special Judge Advocate)
  • Colonel Henry L. Burnett (Special Judge Advocate)
  • Brigadier General Joseph Holt (Judge Advocate and Recorder)

The Commission convened in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where the conspirators had been housed several floors below (with the exception of Mrs. Surratt, the accused had previously been hooded, shackled, and locked in the holds of the ironclads Saugus and Montawk, then anchored in the Potomac). On May 9 they were brought before the Commission, where the charges were read, detailing conspiracy to kill the president, the vice-president, the secretary of state, and General Grant. Powell was also charged with attempted assassination (Seward). They entered pleas of not guilty. When asked if they requested the services of attorneys, they all replied yes, but were given just two days to obtain them. The attorneys were:

  • Thomas Ewing, Jr (Arnold, Spangler, Dr. Mudd,)
  • William E. Doster (Atzerodt, Powell)
  • Frederick Stone (Herold, Dr. Mudd)
  • Walter S. Cox (O’Laughlin)
  • Frederick Aiken, John W. Clampitt, and Reverdy Johnson (Mrs. Surratt)

Of the attorneys, Thomas Ewing was the son of a senator and a former chief justice on the Kansas Supreme Court; he was also the brother-in-law of General William T. Sherman. Reverdy Johnson was a former Maryland Attorney General, as well as a former member of Congress. An attorney so respected, his credentials included practicing before the United States Supreme Court. But his services before the commission consisted of an advisory role, and even in that he limited it to just a few occasions, the result of an insult leveled upon him by one of the commissioners which questioned his Union loyalty.

Over the course of the following six weeks, 350 witnesses were brought before the Commission, most of whom were brought in either for or against the two whose guilt in the affair was in dispute: Dr. Mudd and Mrs. Surratt. Mudd’s crime was that he knowingly aided in the flight of Booth, hindered the search for Booth, and openly sympathized with the subject of killing Lincoln throughout the war (as did many individuals, both North and South); Mrs. Surratt may have been guilty of only running a boarding house where the conspirators stayed. Indeed, she conversed many times with the handsome, famous actor about various things, but her guilt may have gone no further than that. Had she been given the total services of Reverdy Johnson, had her son been there to speak on her behalf, she may have been acquitted. [2]


July 7, 1865: left to right, seated, are Mary Surratt (under the umbrella), Lewis Powell (behind the beam), David Herold, and George Atzerodt.

The seven week-long trial was over. On June 29, 1865, the Commission met in a secret session to begin its review of the evidence. A majority vote was required for any guilty verdict, and a death sentence required the votes of at least six members. The next day, the Commission read the verdicts:

  • Dr. Samuel Mudd: life in prison at hard labor.
  • Samuel Arnold: life in prison at hard labor.
  • Michael O'Laughlin: life in prison at hard labor.
  • Edman Spangler: six years at hard labor.
  • David Herold: death by hanging.
  • Lewis Powell: death by hanging.
  • George Atzerodt: death by hanging.
  • Mary Surratt: death by hanging.

Despite protests of "her sex and age", President Johnson refused to commute Mary Surratt's sentence to life, accepting the Commission's findings on July 5. The hanging was set for two days later. Mrs Surratt's lawyers would work feverishly in her behalf, eventually succeeding in convincing Judge Wylie of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to issue the writ of habeas corpus. But Johnson would have the last word, when he gave an order suspending habeas corpus, specifically for this case.

On July 7, the four condemned prisoners mounted the steps of the gallows at the Old Capitol Prison; just after 1:30 in the afternoon after last rites were said in a hot, sweltering afternoon, soldiers below knocked out the support beams. After an hour-long hanging, their bodies were cut down, placed in four ammunition boxes and buried in graves just feet from the gallows. Edwin Stanton would have the last word: "We wish to hear their names no more."

Alleged conspiracies

Because the death of Lincoln on the eve of Union victory in the Civil War shocked the nation, it inevitably spawned a litany of theories as to who was involved in the plot to kill him, beyond Booth's small cadre of accomplices. Most are based upon assumption and supposition; some are based upon the fantastic; but nearly all base themselves within one of three main theories: a conspiracy with direct involvement of the Confederate government; a grand conspiracy involving the highest levels of the United States Department of War; and a theory that Booth was ordered to kill Lincoln by the Roman Catholic Church.

Confederate Grand conspiracy

The first people blamed in Lincoln's death were, naturally, members of the Confederate government. Booth's cry of "Sic Semper Tyrannus!" was considered a clue to this "grand conspiracy," as they called it. Edward Bates, former Attorney General, stated the killing "...was not the work of one man." Fearing of reprisals against surrendering Southerners, news of the assassination was withheld from everyone on the battlefield except the commanders. Just days later, on April 17, General William T. Sherman met with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston prior to his surrender. "The perspiration came out in large drops on his forehead," Sherman related in his memoirs about Johnston when shown the telegram, "and he did not attempt to conceal his distress. He denounced the act as a disgrace to the age, and he had hoped that I would not charge it to the Confederate government." While Sherman did not believe that Confederate military officers could do such a thing, he doubted the integrity of Confederate politicians.

The Confederate conspiracy theory arose almost immediately. When Booth’s room was searched coded letters were found in his trunk, tying him to the Confederacy. In his confession, Atzerodt claimed Booth knew of a bomb plot against the White House; this had failed when the bomber was discovered and arrested on April 10 before he could have carried it out.

Certainly, the killing of Lincoln was viewed by the Confederate government as a legitimate target during war, only heightened by a failed Union raid on Richmond in March, 1864 that had been approved by Lincoln, apparently to release Union prisoners and distribute leaflets. When papers were found on the body of one of its commanders, Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren, indicating the assassination of President Davis and other key officials was to have been carried out instead, it was widely viewed as Lincoln ordering assassination, resulting in, according to theorists, a Confederate quid pro quo. Certainly a high-level Confederate involvement has been acceptable over the years, with Booth in the position he always wanted to be in: a Confederate hero.

War Department conspiracy

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, cast as both hero and villain in the various conspiracy theories

Chemists are those who make improvements to the human standard of living, from medicine to agriculture to the mundane, but fame to a chemist is hard to come by, and it was for fame that Otto Eisenschiml changed his career to historian. In 1937 he wrote and published Why Was Lincoln Murdered?, giving the nation a new perspective on the assassination: that it was the work of a grand conspiracy in which the chief suspect was the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Eisenschiml, after amassing a small fortune in chemistry, set about traveling the country, becoming fascinated by the battlefields of the war, and Lincoln's murder in particular. In the course of his research he discovered many odd happenings that needed explanation. Among them were:

  • The only road not guarded by troops out of Washington following the assassination was the one Booth used in his escape.
  • John F. Parker, the man assigned to guard Lincoln at Ford's Theater, was not even questioned or disciplined when he left his post.
  • Eighteen pages of Booth's diary went missing while in Stanton's custody.
  • Telegraph lines from Washington were cut some two hours after the assassination.
  • A photograph of Edwin Booth was circulated among government searchers as John Wilkes Booth.
  • Grant declined the invitation to the play for mysterious reasons.

It was these unexplained facts that, according to Eisenschiml, led him to believe that Stanton himself had orchestrated the killing because he was opposed to Lincoln's terms for ending the war; that he was aligned with the Radical Republicans who wanted harsh terms for the South. Stanton, apparently not wanting the killing to go awry, ordered Grant to New York; ordered Major Eckert to some other duty where he could use his services to protect the president; ordered a known drunkard and derelict to stand guard at the president's box, knowing he would abandon it.

According to this scenario, Stanton's plans did go awry: they had shot the wrong man at the Garrett Farm on April 26. Booth somehow got away (according to some accounts, lived on until his 90's, dying in Enid, Oklahoma, only to have his body mummified and displayed in sideshows); in his place was a former Confederate soldier, James William Boyd, who bore somewhat of a resemblance to Booth. In order to cover up that mistake, Stanton made it known that the body of Boyd on the Montawk was that of Booth.

Eisenschiml's theory falls apart on closer examination. Grant declined the invitation, not on Stanton's orders, but on advice from his wife, Julia. Antipathy, not friendship, existed between Julia and Mary Lincoln, largely as a result of Mary's caustic temper; Julia for her part could not stand to be in the same room with her. Parker's reason for leaving his post is not set; he was on record has having been reprimanded various times in his short service, but it was also entirely within Lincoln's character to tell the young man to go enjoy the play, assuming Lincoln did exactly that. The only road used by Booth, the one across the Navy Yard Bridge, was open, as was every other road. Passes were not needed as of April 9, by Lincoln's order. As to Booth's double, the man known as Boyd was recorded to have died January 1, 1866, as attested by family members and a Tennessee newspaper.

Belief in Eisenschiml’s theory naturally caused others to create their own explanations as to how the War Department conspiracy was carried out. More often than not, each thesis would hinge upon assumption, based either on evidence overlooked, evidence implied, or both. In one spectacular case it not only involved both, but a reckless self-aggrandizement and promotion.

“We have advanced the Lincoln Assassination study more in one year then it has been advanced in the previous 112 years” wrote authors David Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier, Jr. in the preface of their 1977 book The Lincoln Conspiracy. Both authors claimed to have exposed a “massive cover-up by government officials from ever learning the real truth about the assassination,” similar, they stated, to government actions in John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Balsiger and Sellier were able to discover the “truth” due to a reliance on primary-source documents and material overlooked or ignored by historians, one of which was the eighteen missing pages from Booth’s diary, which they said was found in the home of one of Stanton’s descendants.

The questions they had raised in The Lincoln Conspiracy were a repeat of the same questions posed by Eisenschiml some forty years before. Readers were promised, as well as audiences for a simultaneously-released theatrical documentary film, that new evidence would be shown that would settle those questions once and for all. But after all was said and done, after a media blitz for both the book and film, after the authors received honorary doctorates and the film a prestigious prize, the impact of The Lincoln Conspiracy was less than expected. Further complicating matters was the fact that no new evidence was ever presented by Balsiger and Sellier at all. The most damning evidence against the claims presented in The Lincoln Conspiracy was the revelation that few, if any, primary sources were used in their work; what they actually used were either copies or transcripts. The missing Booth pages, which by the end of the 1970s had been established that they were never in the possession of Stanton’s descendants, much less known of by them, turned out to have been a 3,000 word transcript for which they had paid the “owner” some $6,500. In the end, after being exposed for what it was by leading historians from both the Civil War Times Magazine and the Lincoln Historical Association, all Balsiger and Sellier succeeded in doing was to bury Eisenschiml’s thesis once and for all. (Hanchett, pp. 226–233)

Roman Catholic conspiracy

The third conspiracy theory which gained ground within years of the assassination was the theory that Lincoln was killed on orders of the Roman Catholic Church. The feeling of Americans from at least the Andrew Jackson administration was that the Catholic Church was a threat to American democracy, which increased with the arrival of waves of Irish immigrants as a result of the Potato Famine of the 1840s; that the Church was involved in a plot to kill the president was heightened by a newspaper reporter named George Alfred Thompson who stated within a month of the killing that all the conspirators passing through the doors of the Surratt house were Catholic. Despite the fact that only the Surratts and Dr. Mudd were Catholic, Thompson's error stuck, and his accusation circulated as though it was a fact. It did not help the Church's situation in that regard when John Surratt was discovered in the Vatican in 1868, wearing the uniform of the Swiss Papal Guards (he was subsequently brought to trial and acquitted).

In 1886, a former (and possibly defrocked) Roman Catholic priest named Charles Chiniquy published Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, an account of his life, and the trials he faced, while serving the Catholic Church. Although he devoted little to Lincoln, he emphatically stated that "...the president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by the priests and Jesuits of Rome." For Chiniquy it began when he asked Lincoln to defend himself in a "personal impropriety" lawsuit brought against him by a friend of his former bishop near Kankakee, Illinois, in the 1850s. When the verdict was read, and Chiniquy emerged the victor, he pointed out the faces of his accusers and told Lincoln that he read "a sentence of death." He would visit the White House three times while Lincoln was in office, or so he claimed; he quoted Lincoln as having said "This war would never have been possible without the sinister influence of the Jesuits. We owe it to Popery that we now see our land reddened with the blood of her noblest sons." What Chiniquy faced between himself and his former Catholic superiors prior to 1860 may or may not be true; what is known is that, according to White House records, Chiniquy was never in the building. He did write to Lincoln on occasion, but nothing close to a level of friendship that was described in his book. Contradicting completely what Chiniquy had written, the Illinois lawsuit case Spink v. Chiniquy was trivial; it was nothing more than simple slander, and as with most of his cases, Lincoln settled this one out of court on amicable terms to both parties. [3][4]

In 1891 Benedict Guldner, a Jesuit priest in New York City, had written to Lincoln's former personnal secretary John G. Nicolay and asked for information about what he called a "libellous pamphlet" then circulating in Germany and "originally written in this which the author maintains that the assassination of President Lincoln was the work of Jesuits." Nicolay had consulted with Lincoln's other personal secretary, John Hay, as both were by then aware of the writings of Chiniquy and the Roman Catholic conspiracy. Both declared the pamphlet - and the conspiracy allegations - to be blatantly false. Nicolay replied to Guldner:

"To [y]our first question whether in our studies on the life of Lincoln we came upon the charge that 'the assasination of President Lincoln was the work of Jesuits', we answer that we have read such a charge in a lengthy newspaper publication. To your second question, viz: 'If you did come across it, did the accusation seem to you to be entirely groundless?', we answer Yes. It seemed to us so entirely groundless as not to merit any attention on our part." [5]


John Surratt would survive to the age of 72, giving the occasional lecture about the assassination. The one question that he did not give a satisfactory answer to was why he abandoned his mother to the gallows.

Edman Spangler, Michael O'Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, and Dr. Mudd existed as best they could at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. A malarial epidemic in 1867 would claim O'Laughlin, the prison doctor, and a few others; filling in was Dr. Mudd, who worked feverishly to stem the epidemic. Mudd and the remaining conspirators were pardoned by President Johnson in one of his last official acts before leaving office, and Mudd found himself taking care of Spangler, who was dying of tuberculosis, at his Maryland home. Dr. Richard D. Mudd of Saginaw, Michigan would take up the case of complete exoneration for his grandfather until his own death in 2002 at the age of 102.

Major Rathbone married Clara Harris in 1867. His failure to protect the president haunted him for the remander of his life; it eventually drove him mad, causing him to kill Clara in 1894. He spent the remaining years of his life at an insane asylum.

Boston Corbett became somewhat of a celebrity, immigrating to Kansas in 1878 and being appointed the doorkeeper to the state legislature in Topeka. Suspected of being mad (he once worked with mercury in the hat trade), he demonstrated his insanity there by living out of a hole dug out of the Concordia countryside and pulling his guns out at the state legislature. Declared insane, he escaped from an asylum and vanished from history.

Secretary William H. Seward would survive the attempt on his life by seven years; his wife and daughter Fanny would not, the shock of the attack would claim both in less than a year. "Seward's Folly" would be his future claim to fame, as his purchase of Alaska was called.

Edwin Booth would temporarily retire from the stage within days of his brother's act. For the rest of his life, he carried a letter in his pocket from Colonel Adam Badeau, an officer on the staff of General Grant, thanking him for saving the life of Robert Todd Lincoln while at a train platform in New Jersey. Returning to the stage after a year’s absence would result in America gaining the greatest Shakespearian actor of the 19th century, but his younger brother’s act of murder would forever be an open wound; only the presence of Badeau's letter would keep Booth from committing suicide. [6]

Laura Keene had a successful career as an actress, theater manager, producer, and publisher of a weekly art journal before she died of tuberculosis at the age of 47 in Montclair, New Jersey on November 4, 1873.

Robert Todd Lincoln would survive into adulthood, becoming the president of the Pullman Car Company, a wealthy Vermonter, and carry a passion for golf. Sadly, he would also be a witness to the assassinations of presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley.

John F. Parker, the guard who left the president's box at the theater and whose record bore several cases of dereliction and misconduct, reported for duty the morning of April 15 with a prostitute in tow, only to find out Lincoln had died. He was dismissed from the police force on August 13, 1865, when he was found sleeping on duty. No charges were ever brought against him related to the assassination. He died in Washington of pneumonia on June 28, 1890.

The remains of John Wilkes Booth would stay secretly buried in the Old Capitol Prison for two years after the trial; they were disinterred, identified, and returned to Baltimore for burial by the Booth family. Occasionally, a court is petitioned with the request of exhuming the remains to see if they are truly Booth's, or that of a double according to Eisenschiml's theory. Each time the request is denied.

General Lew Wallace, on the board of the military commission that tried the conspirators, would find fame as the governor of New Mexico, becoming the foil for an outlaw named Billy the Kid, and writing a classic tale about the Christ, Ben-Hur.


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  • Time-Life Books, The Civl War, vol. 26 (The Assassination), Time, Inc. New York (1987)
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York (1954)
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon and Schuster, New York (2005)
  • Hanchett, William. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, University of Illinois (1983)
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln, Jonathan Cafe (Random House), London (1995)
  • Bak, Richard. The Day Lincoln Was Shot - An Illustrated Chronicle, Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas (1998)
  • Bryan, George S. The Great American Myth, Carrick and Evans, Inc. New York (1940)
  • Chamlee, Roy Z. Lincoln's Assassins - A Complete Account of Their Capture, Trial and Punishment, McFarland and Co., Jefferson, NC (1990)
  • Oldroyd, Osborn H. The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, privately published, Washington, DC (1901)