The Blackest Deed in American History
And now we come to that darkest day in the history of our Republic, April 14th, 1865. The Surrender of Lee, April 3rd, to the Little Smoking General
Grant, came like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky, and was a terrific
blow to the hopes of the South, as well as unexpected victory to the
North. The people were wild with enthusiastic joy. We can get some
conception of that word after four years to the bitterest civil war,
we, who have the news of the Armistice still fresh in our memories in
the recent World War which was several thousand miles away.
The figure of Abraham Lincoln will ever stand out on the page of our
history, never to be effaced, not only in the minds of the people of
his own country. but in those of the Peoples of the World, as the
savior of the New Concept of Government!
Lincoln, that great, sad-faced man, with his shoulders drooping under
the terrible burdens which he had patiently carried for four long
years, breathed a sigh of relief when he arose this bright balmy April
morning and gazed at nature's gay spring garb.
During breakfast with his family he had suggested to his good wife
Mary, that they two alone should take a long drive in the country which
called so strongly to this heavy laden man. Accordingly, after a few
preliminary office duties were gotten out of the way, the President
returned to the White House, and he and Mrs. Lincoln got into their
carriage and drove out through the city over the Potomac River bridge
into the country. The fruit trees were white with blossoms, the
roadsides green, and the very birds flitting in and out through the
hedges seemed to surpass themselves with their songs.
President Lincoln began to talk of their future. He confessed to her
that he would welcome the day when his administration would be over,
and they could return to private life, never to leave it again. "I have
managed, my dear, by strict economy, to save a little nest egg out of
my salary, so we will go back to Springfield to live, and I hope not
have to work quite so hard. We can visit with our friends and neighbors
and enjoy life a bit." Then he unfolded to her his plans to take up his
law practice again and the threads of life where he had left them when
he came to Washington, a little over four years ago. After driving
several hours, and being rested by the quiet of the country and sweet
breath of spring, this great simple-hearted, plain man and his wife
returned to the White House.
I cannot but contrast that last morning on earth of Abraham Lincoln and
his modest plans, with the conduct of Woodrow Wilson and his dozens of
trunks, which carried the elaborate wardrobes of himself and wife to
Europe. The sinful extravagance of this pedagogical upstart! It seems
almost sacrilegious to mention him in the same paragraph with Lincoln.
The day began for John Wilkes Booth with his usual trip to Graves
Theatre where he received his mail. This morning he had several
letters, and after chatting pleasantly with the members of the cast
present for rehearsal, as was his custom, he sauntered away toward the
Kirkwood house, now the Raleigh, where the Vice President was stopping.
He sent up the following card to Mr. Johnson, which is still, and
perhaps, always will remain a mystery:
"For Mr. Andrew Johnson:
Don't wish to disturb you; are you at home?
John Wilkes Booth."
After his call at the Kirkwood House, he went to the livery barn of J.
Pumphreys on C. Street, back of the National Hotel. Here he engaged a
horse to be ready that afternoon at four thirty o'clock. He had been in
the habit lately of hiring his horses here after he had sold his own a
few weeks previous. Upon this occasion he asked for a particular sorrel
horse which he preferred, but was told it was out at that time, so he
took instead a small bay mare. Booth was an expert horseman and fencer,
and spent a
great deal of his time in horseback riding and the latter amusement,
when he found a man who was skillful enough to interest him. After his
arrangement for the horse was completed, he spent a large part of the
day conferring with the other conspirators, who were in the city, Mrs.
Surratt, John Surratt, O'Laughlin, Herold, Spangler and Atzerodt.
The evening of this same day, April 14, 1865, on which Mr. Lincoln and
his wife went for their last drive in the country, the managers of
Ford's Theatre featured the fact in the local press that the President
and Gen. U.S. Grant would attend the performance of Our American Cousin
at that theatre in the evening. This would have been the first public
appearance of General Grant since the surrender of Lee, and the word
that the people would have an opportunity to greet their hero that
night at Ford's Theatre made a rush on the box office, and the
performance opened with a packed house.
The Presidential party did not arrive until nine thirty. When the tall,
gaunt figure of the tired-eyed President made his appearance in the
flag-draped box, the house went wild with delight, and the orchestra
struck up Hail to the Chief;
the house arose as one body, and enthusiasm was inspiring. For several
minutes the cheering continued and the President bowed and bowed his
The absence of General Grant was soon noticed, but this did not dampen
the welcome for the great man who had sent out, but a few days
previous, the most wonderful—the most extraordinary message to a
conquered enemy the world had ever heard, namely, for them to return to
their homes, and help in the reconstruction of the Republic. No
punishment, no criticisms, no bitterness, but just simply to return to
their homes and set about rebuilding what they had tried to destroy, in
a spirit of With charity for all and malice toward none.
The President and Mrs. Lincoln, upon receiving the regrets of General
Grant and wife, who had been called to the bedside of their daughter,
Miss Nellie, who was ill at a private boarding school in New Jersey,
had invited Major Rathbone, lately returned from the front, and his
fiancé, Miss Harris, daughter of Senator Harris, to accompany them. The
party seated themselves after the long ovation given the President, and
turned their whole attention to the pastoral comedy of which Mr.
Lincoln was very fond.
Miss Laura Keene was playing the star lead that evening, assisted by a
cast of prominent and capable actors, and the play went with a zest,
the audience receiving it with a gale of laughter as one funny scene
after another passed. The President chuckled quietly in his own
peculiar quizzical manner. While this brilliant scene was taking place
inside, a most unusual play was transpiring on the outside.
Sgt. Dye, a member of the government service, was sitting in front of
the restaurant next door to the entrance of the theatre on Tenth
Street, talking with some other men who were enjoying the warm evening
and their cigars, when a tall young man well dressed, stepped to the
front of the theatre on the sidewalk, and in clear tones called the
time. This did not attract any particular attention until he had
repeated it at an interval of every fifteen minutes for the third time,
at ten fifteen. He disappeared and Sgt. Dye's curiosity was aroused by
his strange conduct. He got up and started to walk in the direction the
young stranger had taken, when wild cries and confusion within the
theatre reached the street. "The President is shot," "The President is
killed," finally was clearly heard. The entrance doors burst open, and
men, insane with fright, bolted out giving the call to those on the
pavement, then rushed back in. It all happened quicker than it takes to
At a moment before the last call of the time in front of the theatre,
John Wilkes Booth, the popular young tragedian, stepped out of the
bar-room attached to the theatre on Tenth Street, where he had called
for several brandies, walked rapidly into the front lobby, passed the
doorman at the center aisle with a genial nod, calling him familiarly
by name, which was answered in the spirit which John Booth's greetings
generally were. He passed over the side aisle and started down when his
passage was barred by the arm of the head usher, who happened to be
talking with friends in the aisle. Booth put his arm across the should
of the man who had his back to him and peering into his face said, "Why
you don't want to keep me out, do you, old boy?" This was in the
melodious Booth voice, once heard, never to be forgotten. The usher,
swinging around said, "No, indeed, Mr. Booth. Allow me to present you
to my friends." Booth acknowledged the introduction graciously and
turning, sauntered down the aisle toward the box occupied by the
Presidential party, intent on the most cruel, cowardly murder in ail
the world's history.
He passed the man on guard, who for the moment left the door of the box and was watching the play from a seat nearby.
Booth entered the box, stealthily placing the board in the socket on
the inside which had been made ready that day, by Spangler, the stage
Booth's entrance was so quiet that it attracted no attention from any
of the party, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the stage where
only two people were—Laura Keen and Harry Hawks as Asa Trenchard. The
lines and situation were exceedingly funny and the house was
uproariously enjoying the comedy.
Booth, after securing the door from any interference from the outside,
crept panther-like close to the back of the President's chair, whipped
out his derringer with his right hand and a dagger with his left,
placing the revolver just above the back of the chair. There was a
muffled report, a whiff of smoke, and the President's head dropped upon
his breast. The intruder darted toward the railing in front of the box,
but before he reached it, Major Rathbone, horror-stricken, but not
really knowing just what had happened, bounded to his feet. He reached
out to grab the assassin, who, dropping his revolver, slashed viciously
at him, warding him off by an ugly stab which cut his sleeve from
shoulder to wrist from which the blood spurted. With the agility of the
skilled athlete that he was, Booth sprang over the balustrade of the
box onto the stage twelve feet below, but his spur, for he was in
riding habit, caught in the large American flag which had been draped
around Stuart's Washington on the front of the box, and he fell to the
stage, breaking a small bone in his leg. He bounded to his feet
instantly and darted away from the stage past the petrified actors, out
through the rear door, where he mounted his horse which he had gotten
the candy butcher, called Peanuts
to hold for him just before he entered the front door a few moments
previous. Jos. B. Stewart, a man from the audience, who had taken in
the situation before others in the audience had recovered from their
horror, scrambled to the stage yelling "Stop that man" and rushed after
the assassin, but just as Booth darted through the alley door someone
in the dark slammed it shut before Stewart reached it and before he
could get it opened, the man mounted his horse and dashed madly away in
Spangler, the stage carpenter, the testimony developed, was the man who
had slammed the door. He had been heard to promise his assistance to
Booth earlier in the evening when he had dismounted from his horse. For
this and disloyal statements about the President which he had been
heard to make, he received a sentence of six years at the Dry Tortugas
The gaunt body of the dying President was tenderly carried out of the
theatre on the door of the box, which had been hastily pressed into
service as a stretcher, across the street to the three story brick
house of a man by the name of Peterson, who let his rooms furnished to
the business men employed at the stores and nearby theatres.
The stretcher-bearers carried him to the bedroom in the rear of the
hall on the first floor and into a room occupied by a returned soldier,
William Clark by name. The bed was a single bed and the body of the
President had to be laid diagonally across on account of his great
The pitiful scene here can scarcely be portrayed by words. The
hysterical sobs of Mrs. Lincoln and her constant cry of "Oh, why did
they not take me. Why did they take him?" was heart breaking.
Capt. Robert Lincoln just returned from the front a few days before,
was immediately summoned from the White House, where he was
entertaining a college classmate, to the bedside of his dying father.
He spent the time alternately trying to comfort his mother in the front
parlor and watching at the bedside of his dying father.
Soon the members of Mr. Lincoln's cabinet had gathered in the sick room
and Dr. Gurley, Protestant minister, and Surgeon General Barnes, came
as soon as possible from the bedside of the Secretary of State Seward,
the Surgeon having been called there after Mr. Seward had been stabbed
by Louis Payne. Mr. Seward was now hovering between life and death.
General Stanton, the cold, severe, dignified man, who had never been
known to show any emotion, dropped on his knees at the foot of the
President's bed, buried his face in the covering and sobbed like a
child. Charles Sumner, who, perhaps, loved Lincoln with the deepest and
most ardent love of them all, never stirred from his place at the bed,
holding his hand, and aiding the physicians, and watching with bated
breath for the slightest sign of returning consciousness. But the
wounded man never for one instant recovered, and died without knowing
what had occurred. From the moment the physicians first reached him and
found the wound, they knew it was fatal.
The President died a few minutes after seven the next morning.
Secretary Stanton as he watched the life of the great man go out,
turned to those in the room and said: "And now, he belongs to the ages!"
At the same time that Booth assassinated the President, Lewis Payne, known as the Florida Boy,
an athletic young giant, who some months before joined the Conspiracy,
rode up to the front of the residence of the Secretary of State,
William Seward, and tied his horse to the hitching post.
Mr. Seward had been ill for three weeks, suffering from a fractured
jaw, the result of the running away of his team, and was under the
constant care of male nurses.
Payne rang the bell and it was answered by the colored butler. He told
the latter that he had been sent with some medicine which he must take
to the sick room. The butler refused to allow him to enter, saying that
he had orders to allow no one to go to Mr. Seward's room. The stranger,
after a short struggle, knocked him down, and went bounding up the
stairs. He rushed into the sick chamber, after felling each of the two
sons of the Secretary, one of whom had been in the service, the blow
fracturing the skull of the younger man from which he never fully
recovered. He then sprang upon the sick man and seriously stabbed him
three times. By a superhuman effort the latter struggled out of the bed
with the assailant who left him in a heap on the floor, bleeding from
the wounds he had inflicted. After his murderous assault on Secretary
Seward, the ruffian rushed down the stairs, yelling at the top of his
voice. "I am mad, I am mad," and he very probably was. He was entirely
under the control of the hypnotic influences of the wicked people in
whose power he had allowed himself to be.
It was part of the plan that Michael O'Laughlin, one of the
conspirators from Baltimore, was to have murdered General Grant that
night. This was not possible, owing to the change in the General's
To Atzerodt, it fell to assassinate Vice President Johnson, but he
became frightened and spent the day riding into the country on a horse
from the livery barn in Washington, where he was found several days
after with relatives of his below Washington. He made a written
confession before he was executed which confirmed the presence of
Surratt in Washington that fatal day a fact, which nine reputable
witnesses had sworn to.
Booth familiarized himself with every road leading out of Washington to
the south, and had studied and planned his escape with careful
attention. It is not likely that he would ever have been caught, had he
not broken the small bone in his left leg in his jump. This was the
providential handicap, which hampered not only himself and Herold, but
those of his friends who were ready to assist him. There is not the
slightest doubt but that every mile of that wild ride had been planned
in advance—weeks in advance.
The intense agony which Booth suffered every moment, from the time he
first met with the accident when jumping from the box doomed his
chances of escape.
The little bay mare dashed madly along under the cruel urge of his
spurs as he sped over the bridge which spanned the Potomac to the
Bryantown road. He passed the soldier at the bridge, after having told
him his name, and was swallowed up in the blackness of the night. The
moon was veiled behind a huge bank of clouds. Presently the guard at
the bridge heard the clatter of another horse's hoofs approaching and
the horse and rider soon hove in sight onto the bridge. The guard
stopped him and asked him to give an account of himself before allowing
him to go on. This was Herold and in explanation he gave a false name
saying that he had been in bad company which delayed him from returning
home before sundown. He was permitted to pass. He cut his spurs into
his horse and sped along, finally catching up to the first rider,
Booth, before they reached Surrattville, whither they were expected by
the tenant Lloyd who had been visited by Mrs. Surratt that afternoon
who had instructed him (Lloyd) to "Have those shooting irons" and other
things ready, that they would be needed that night.
Herold drew up to the tavern, sprang from his horse and dashed madly
into the bar-room saying: "Lloyd, for God's sake, make haste and get
Lloyd testified at the trials that he gave the carbines which had been
left six weeks before with him to be called for later on; that Mrs.
Surratt had been driven down from Washington on Friday (the 14th) to
his house by Weichmann; that he met them on the road on his way to
Washington; that he got out of his buggy and went over to the side of
their buggy and after a few moments of conversation she told him to
"Have those shooting irons ready; that they would be called for soon."
Weichmann also testified that he overheard this order by Mrs. Surratt.
Mrs. Surratt brought with her on this trip (the day of the
assassination) a package containing Booth's field glass, to be handed
out when called for. Herold took a bottle of whiskey out to Booth, who,
owing to his suffering, did not come in. They only took one of the
revolvers, so Lloyd testified. Herold turned as he was about to drive
off and said: "I'm pretty sure that we have assassinated the President
and Secretary Seward."
The two riders put their spurs into their horses and set off down the
road to the little village of T. B. at full speed. The next stop was
made at the residence of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, where they arrived at four
o'clock on Saturday morning. This conspirator housed them and set the
bone in Booth's leg. He bound it up in splints improvised from pieces
of a cigar box, after which Booth was helped upstairs to bed where he
remained until the afternoon of the same day.
O'Laughlin had come to Washington on Thursday, the day before the
assassination, with three of his co-religionists who prepared to make a
perfectly good bullet-proof alibi for their friend O'Laughlin, which is
the rule with Roman Catholic criminals. They were so solicitous in this
intent that they overreached themselves and spoiled it.
The great grievance of the Catholic church is that Mary E. Surratt was
brought before a Military tribunal, instead of a civil court. The real
basis of this complaint, was however, that there could be no political
influence brought to bear on a military court, which the hanging of
four conspirators and life sentences of the three others bears out.
As it is not within the power of the writer to present the facts in any
simpler or more readable language than that used in the closing
argument of the special Judge Advocate, John A. Bingham, I shall rely
on excerpts from that document to give the facts.
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