May 12, 2020
Grabbing the railing to steady himself, President Abraham Lincoln leaned forward to get a better view of the orchestra pit. As the fictional play unfolded on the stage below, another all to real scenario was being written into history in his theater box.
At approximately 10:15 pm, John Wilkes Booth quietly opened the door to where the president, First Lady, and two guests were sitting. Completely undetected, the well-known actor raised his gun and pointed it at the president's head. Driven by his hatred for the man whose leadership defeated the South, Booth pulled the trigger. Lincoln’s hand grasped the American Flag decorating the Presidential Box as he fell. The President had succeeded in ending the institution of slavery that separated the country and called for Americans to now come together as one United States. For his efforts of unity, forgiveness, and equality for blacks, Lincoln was rewarded with a bullet to the head.
Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris shared the Presidential Box as the Lincolns’ guests. The major immediately grabbed Booth, but the assassin broke free from his grip, slashing the officer with a knife. Booth turned to escape, jumping twelve feet down to the stage. Rathbone lunged at him as he jumped, throwing Booth off balance. This caused Booth's spur to become entangled in the American flag, sending the killer unceremoniously to the stage, shattering his leg in the same way as his dreams of an independent South lay shattered.
Hobbling across the stage, Booth exclaimed, "Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (“Thus Always to tyrants!") Various witnesses also heard him declare, 'The South is avenged!", "Revenge for the South," and "The South shall be free!" With that, he fled out a side door and escaped on horseback.
Investigations began immediately. Dozens of suspects with even the slightest connection to Booth were arrested over the next few days. Statements were made and evidence was collected. In the end, eight people would stand trial for the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln: George Atzerodt, David Herold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler, Lewis Powell, Michael O'Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, and Mary Surratt. The remaining suspects were released with two, John Lloyd and Louis Weichmann, delivering pivotal testimony primarily against Mary Surratt.
Desiring a quick trial and expedient executions, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opted for a military trial. Under direction from President Andrew Johnson, Attorney General James Speed reviewed the constitutionality of trying civilians in a military court. He concluded the attack on the commander-in-chief established an act of war, legitimizing a War Department response. On May 1, 1865, Johnson ordered the trial to take place before a nine-person Military Commission, where five commissioners could convict and six votes could impose the death penalty.
Convening on May 8, the Military Commission first offered the accused legal counsel, however many lawyers refused to take their cases for fear of being called disloyal to the Union. Testimony from 371 witnesses began on May 12, 1865, and would last seven weeks. As witnesses took the stand, a much larger storyline unfolded with a list of players involved.
Their plan involved kidnapping President Lincoln and holding him hostage in exchange for the release of Confederate Prisoners of War (POW) as well as the end of the war. On March 15, 1865, the conspirators met at Gautier’s Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue to finalized a strategy for the 17th. Around this time, John Surratt Jr., a member of the Confederate Secret Service (CSS), David Herold and George Atzerodt delivered two carbines (rifles) to John Lloyd at his tavern in Surrattville which he leased from Mary Surratt, John's mother. The men instructed Lloyd to hide the carbines and he would be informed when they were needed. To their dismay, Lincoln changed his plans, forcing them to abandon the operation for the moment.
As they formulated their next attempt, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865. (see ) With the war over and the POWs coming home, the purpose for the kidnapping vanished. However, they still had reason to hate the president.
Lincoln addressed the citizens of Washington on Wednesday, calling for unity among the states. He also promoted equality for all blacks, which infuriated Booth, who attended the speech with Lewis Powell, former Confederate soldier and escaped POW from the second day of Gettysburg and CSS member. (see ) As they departed, he turned to Powell and vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make!” (see )
Learning that Lincoln would attend Ford’s Theater on Friday night, Booth immediately started organizing an assassination. The morning of the event, he gave Louis Weichmann, Surratt’s college friend who lived at Mary’s boarding house in Washington, money to rent a carriage to take Mary the two-hour ride to Surrattville to deliver a package to Lloyd. Weichmann waited for her for hours as she remained in the tavern, before witnessing her and Booth talking momentarily outside. Lloyd testified Mary informed him at that time that "the shooting irons" would be needed that night.
Sometime before the play started, Booth gave Powell weapons and a horse. At 10:00pm, as Booth was making his way to the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater, Powell approached Secretary of State William Seward’s home as Herold held his horse. Knowing Seward remained in bed recovering from a recent carriage accident, Powell tried to enter the home claiming to have medication. Powell assaulted the doorman, Seward’s son, and a bodyguard as he forced his way in and upstairs. Reaching Seward’s room, Powell violently started stabbing him while shouting, “I’m mad, I’m mad!” The bodyguard and two others successfully pulled Powell away before he could deliver a fatal blow. He escaped down the stairs and out the door where he found his horse alone as Herold had already fled.
Meanwhile, Atzerodt tried to find courage at the bottom of a bottle. It wasn’t there. His task was to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson. That morning, Atzerodt checked into Kirkwood House where Johnson was staying. But instead of going to Johnson's room at the appointed time, Atzerodt spent the evening roaming the streets of Washington.
Likewise, Michael O'Laughlen was to assassinate General Grant, whom he allegedly thought was staying at Secretary Stanton’s home. The previous evening, he visited Stanton's house inquiring about the secretary's whereabouts. However, like Atzerodt, he lost his nerve and walked the city streets when the time came to act.
To ensure his escape from the theater, Booth sought the help of a stagehand named Edman Spangler, asking him to hold his horse, which Spangler then told fellow employee Joseph "Peanuts" Burroughs to do. When Booth fled the stage, Spangler stepped aside allowing Booth to run past him and out the door. As employees started identifying the suspect, Spangler told them, "Hush, you don't know anything about it," and "Shut up. What do you know about that? Hold your tongue."
Booth fractured his leg in the jump to the stage. Knowing he needed medical attention, Booth raced to the Potomac River to get across to Maryland with Herold traveling shortly behind him. The sentry believed their fake stories, allowing both men to cross despite restrictions for civilians doing so after 9:00pm. The two conspirators met up on the other side with their first stop being the tavern in Surrattsville. They retrieved the carbines and some whiskey from Lloyd before immediately heading to Dr. Mudd's home, arriving around four o'clock in the morning.
Mudd fixed Booth's leg and found a set of crutches for him. Booth shaved off his mustache before Mudd pointed the men in the right direction. That afternoon, the fugitives continued their trek to Virginia in hopes of receiving help from sympathetic Confederates. Arriving at another point on the Potomac River, they crossed together this time along with William Jett, whom Herold boldly confessed, "We are the assassinators of the President. Yonder is J. Wilkes Booth, the man who killed Lincoln.”
Herold and Booth ran for about two weeks as investigators gathered information about the conspiracy and their trail. On April 17, O’Laughlen voluntarily surrendered. Late that night, as police requestioned Mary Surratt, Powell arrived at her boarding house. When asked why he was there, Powell stated Mary hired him to repair the gutters, a claim she vehemently refuted along with denying even knowing him. Cumulated evidence, along with witnesses identifying Powell as Seward’s attacker, caused both to be arrested.
Jett told investigators Booth and Herold were hiding at Garrett’s farm. They surround the barn the two men held up in on April 26. Herold gave himself up before the barn was set on fire, but Booth refused to surrender. Booth, in all theatrical glory, approached the barn door with a carbine in his hand as the structure burned around him. Immediately shot, the wounded assassin was taken to the Garrett home where he demanded them to just kill him. Booth died hours later.
The trial of the eight conspirators ended on June 28, with deliberations starting the following day. The commissioners sent their verdicts and punishments to President Johnson, who signed them on July 5.
Edman Spangler: His defense attorney presented him as a simple man with no knowledge of the assassination. However, he did allow Booth to escape. He was found guilty of being an accomplice and sentenced to six years in prison.
Samuel Arnold: A letter from Arnold dated March 27, 1865, was found in Booth's hotel and tied him to the conspiracy. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He later admitted to his involvement in the kidnapping scheme but maintained his innocence in Lincoln’s assassination for the remainder of his life.
Michael O’Laughlen: Several incriminating telegrams were found from Booth to O’Laughlen. This evidence, plus witness testimony, led to a guilty verdict. He was sentenced to life in prison and died there two years later of yellow fever.
Dr. Samuel Mudd: When questioned by police, he vigorously denied knowing his patient was Booth. Several witnesses testified seeing him and Booth together the previous November and others confirmed Surratt and others visited Mudd at his farm. Finally, a witness placed Mudd at Mary Surratt’s home in March. These testimonies, along with others reporting his statements of hatred towards Lincoln, led to a conviction. He was spared death by one vote. Instead, he received life in prison. Mudd admitted to his escort of meeting Booth and lying to protect himself and his family on his way to prison. After the prison doctor succumbed to yellow fever, Mudd took his place.
Lewis Powell: Powell’s lawyer used an insanity defense. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. While in jail, Powell tried to kill himself by banging his head against the cell wall to which he was forced to wear a padded hood until his execution.
George Atzerodt: Atzerodt was found guilty and sentenced to hang. During his last hours, he confessed to Reverend Butler that he participated in the kidnapping. Also, according to Butler, Atzerodt only became aware of the assassination plot just hours before and was assigned to back up Herold, who was charged with killing the Vice President. Right before the trap door sprung, Atzerodt declared, "May we all meet in the other world. God take me now."
David Herold: Despite being found with Booth, Herold’s lawyer tried to spare his life by arguing he was a man of low intelligence, a boy trapped in a man’s body, to which witnesses testified. Claiming he was mesmerized by Booth, Herold’s lawyer stated his client was easily led and manipulated by Booth, promoting one of Booth’s final statements as evidence: "I declare, before my Maker, that this man is innocent." The defense didn’t work and he was sentenced to death.
Mary Surratt: Mary’s conviction proved to be the most controversial, not only because she was a woman in her 40's, but many contended she was completely innocent. Critics argued the meetings at her boarding house were conducted by and involved her son, not her, believing she was unaware of the conspiracies. If true, her son evaded capture for a year and allowed his mother to be executed in his stead. Five commissioners appealed to Johnson to reduce her sentence, yet he is recorded as stating, she "kept the nest that hatched the egg." As her conviction hung heavily on the testimonies of Lloyd and Weichmann, one could argue they implicated her to cover their own involvement, possibly even receiving immunity for their testimony. However, enough additional statements and evidence proved enough to convict. She was the first woman to be executed in the United States of America.
The four conspirators sentenced to die for the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln were hanged on July 7, 1865.
John Surratt Jr.: Surratt was instrumental in recruiting conspirators but was in New York delivering cyphered documents from President Jefferson Davis as part of the CSS. He fled to Canada and then to Europe, avoiding capture until late 1866. He received a civilian trial which applied the same evidence used against his mother. However, the 12-man jury failed to reach an unanimous decision, resulting in a hung jury on August 10, 1867. The government finally dropped the charges. During a speaking tour a few years later, Surratt admitted to being involved in the kidnapping scheme but denied knowledge in the assassination.
Days before President Johnson left office, he pardoned the three surviving conspirators still in prison: Spangler, Arnold, and Mudd. Shortly after, Mudd gave Spangler five acres of land on which to live. Mudd’s and Mary’s descendants continued to maintain their ancestor’s innocence and still fight to have their names cleared.
Liberty, the conspirators convinced themselves they were doing God's Work by eliminating Lincoln from the earth, the man who they believed destroyed their lives by ending slavery. Today the same vile hatred is perpetrated against another Republican president with much of it generated by people who are terrified Donald Trump will end their sacred practice of abortion. (see and ) The hatred is so deep, many have called for his assassination, including Johnny Depp who asked “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?” (see and ) His statements referring to Booth's execution of Lincoln should have been condemned by all, yet the atmosphere in Hollywood and the media by 2017 just let it slide without even a raise of an eyebrow. We are experiencing a country that has not been this divided since the Civil War, not even during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Yet this time it’s not just North against South, states against states, or even blacks against whites, it’s neighbors against neighbors, families against families, and blood against blood. (see , , , , and )
While we want to believe such conspiracies against our president, especially ones from top leaders like Jefferson Davis, are rare, the recent release of documents from the past four years are proving otherwise. Private interviews and testimonies from high ranking officials in the FBI and Obama Administration are beginning to expose a coup against Trump which started during the 2016 election. (see ) Like with Lincoln, it was perpetrated by Democrats against a Republican and it goes all the way to the top: former President Barack Obama. Only time will tell if the key players will pay for their crimes as the Lincoln conspirators did.
Following King David’s example, as much as we may disagree with our leaders, it is not up to us to violently remove them from office. As God is always in control, it is not our job to take His place in such matters. Instead, He blessed us with a civil, nonviolent way to change leaders and we must work to use and preserve our right to vote. (see , , and ) Booth and the others thought they would be heroes. Instead, they made Lincoln a martyr, forever remembered in history as one of our greatest presidents.
Pray for your leaders, Liberty, no matter who they are, as God will use them as He sees fit regardless of their actions and policies. Pray for unity. Pray for forgiveness. Pray for healing.
That’s my 2 cents.