Abraham Lincoln: Part 1: “Crimes And Conspiracies”

Abraham Lincoln: Part 1: “Crimes And Conspiracies”

“My concern is not whether God is on our side but my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” A safe answer, it seems.

One hundred and fifty-two years ago on Good Friday, April 14th 1865, Mrs Mary Todd Lincoln (by the way she is credited, it seems, to being referred to as the First Lady of the White House) persuaded her tired yet jubilant husband to attend the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where a popular comedy Our American Cousin was being performed that evening to an excited sell-out audience.

It might take his mind off the deeply bitter Civil War, she suggested to friends, as the play was finally coming to a conclusion. In fact, Mrs Lincoln had lost a half-brother fighting on the Confederate side and through spiritualism, dangerously attempted to communicate with him and her dead son, a wicked exercise to attempt.

(Incidentally, in 2008, the play would be adapted to create an opera).

Lincoln was then presiding over the final days of the torturous and terrible Civil War with the so-called “rebellious Confederate South,” partly in retreat. Some historians of the Civil War period claim that Lincoln instigated the war himself. Now I’m not sure why, because the evidence is scant. Over 15,000 books have been written about him (can you believe?), 20% of them concerning the assassination. It seems that he is the most read subject in history, with the exception of Jesus Christ.

Some historians claim that his attempts to free the slaves (as we were always led to believe) had nothing to do with the popular misconception of the emancipation of the slaves, and that Lincoln was simply a petty tyrant and a war criminal according to some observers of the man, not to forget the inhumane treatment of civilians and captured soldiers in the Confederacy. There is some truth in some of these charges against him. An “American Stalin” was another accusing sobriquet used against him that I came across.

The gratifying news for this 16th American president days before that fateful visit to the theatre was that General Lee had finally surrendered his battle-weary troops in Virginia. Incidentally, General Lee’s pre-war home and estate had been seized by marauding Union troops previously during the War, but today it is better known as the Arlington National Cemetery, and yes, the family were fully compensated, I’m informed.

However, many other Confederate generals in service were still very active in prolonging the War for whatever “patriotic” reasons they had. The Civil War seemed to have aged Lincoln, bringing with it sleepless nights and vivid dreams plus nightmares of ghostly white sail ships. No, this is not Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, a popular kids’ video game, if you did not know.

Fondly known by friends as “father Abraham or honest Abe,” Lincoln agreed with his wife that an evening away at the theatre might be a pleasurable event, free from the pressures of the White House with all of its problems and nightly psychic occurrences. After all, he had not been sleeping too well. Many nights were broken, being plagued by nightmares and cold sweats and fears of the future. “Lincoln had always believed in and feared the power of dreams,” recalled a friend years later.

After signing pressing presidential papers that momentous evening, the 16th president finally departed with his wife for the theatre, travelling as always in their usual horse and carriage and destined for an evening enjoyment, or so they hoped. He actually knew this theatre rather well, having in the past taken his young son Willy to watch performances and rehearsals, and always seated discreetly from the rear of the house stalls. Sadly, Willy would die of typhoid fever in the White House in 1862, then aged only eleven. Another son, Thomas, would die years later in 1871, possibly of tuberculosis. And his eldest son, Robert, then an officer serving in the Union Army, was on army leave that Good Friday, staying with his family in the White House. Apparently, he declined an invite by his mother to accompany both of them to the Ford Playhouse.

However, more suspicious to me is that General Grant and Secretary of War Edwin “Mars” Stanton, originally one of Lincoln’s political foes and now the powerful Secretary of War, had once insulted Lincoln years before by calling him “that damned long-armed ape.” Now, on that momentous evening, he had also declined the president’s personal request to accompany Washington’s first couple to the theatre, citing other urgent matters to attend to (more on Edwin Stanton in later chapters).

So, the president and first lady departed to take their waiting seats for an evening’s entertainment, but President Abraham Lincoln will never return alive to the White House. Instead, he has an appointment with God, as one day we all will.

Never mind Lincoln! Are you ready to meet the Lord if your life is snuffed out like Lincoln’s? Over 7,000 die each hour; it could soon be your turn. You need to think about this question very seriously!

(Edwin P. Stanton, an American tsar)

I was concerned when I read of Lincoln’s family’s frivolous flirtation with spiritualists because the Holy Bible condemns this evil practice many times, for example in Isaiah 8:19 and Revelation 21:8, with many more Bible verses as well.

If your favoured poison is tarot card readings, shaking chicken bones, looking at tea leaves, or experimenting with an Ouija board, then don’t mess with them. And if you’re into attending “spooky” séances on a wet afternoon, then get out of them all!! The road to Hell will be packed with people who played with this fire and burnt themselves, only to end up in the everlasting flames of Hell. You have been warned!

At 8.30 pm or 9.30 pm, Lincoln with Mary and two invited guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, entered the Ford vestibule. After a string rendition of “Hail to the Chief” from the orchestra pit, the Lincoln party settled into presidential box number 7, brightly prepared and festooned with flags and bunting and a fixed portrait of General Washington in pride of place on the balcony, no less.

That evening, the theatre was celebrating the one thousandth performance ofOur American Cousin, starring the then-popular Miss Laura Keene. She later would offer a unique act of kindness to the dying president that will eclipse anything she ever attempted on the American stage in the past or would in the future at any American venue.

But, for now, an American tragedy was about to commence that evening, and the rest (as they say) is history.

On a personal note, some 40 years ago I was researching the Lincoln shooting. The then-popular view was that John Wilkes Booth, rather like Lee Harvey Oswald, acted alone, and we got to read about the “single-shooter theory” as mentioned in the deeply flawed Masonic cover-up known as the “Warren Commission” of 1964. I do remember noticing the remarkable coincidences of both Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s murders.

Here are just a few for your perusal:

1)     Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Lincoln in 1860, and both men were involved in promoting black civil rights.

2)     Both men were murdered on a Friday in the company of their wives.

3)     Both men were mortally wounded by a bullet entering into the head.

4)     Both men were succeeded by their respective vice presidents’, both named Johnson, and both southerners: Andrew Johnson born in 1808, Lyndon Johnson in 1908.

5)     Kennedy’s secretary was a Mrs Evelyn Lincoln, and Lincoln’s occasional secretary was Mary Lincoln, his wife. Both women would grieve the loss of children; both women married in their early twenties.

There are of course many more strange similarities.

Both men’s killers (Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth) would themselves be murdered by a bullet. Neither would be brought to trial, and both were from the South. Both presidents were careless about their security, it seems. Both presidents had seven letters in their surnames. Although not a Freemason, Lincoln had applied for membership in 1860 but declined to be considered until after the election. He may or may not have been offered membership later in that first term of office. It seems the “Tyrian” lodge in Illinois made him an honourary member after his death, not sure why. (Reagan would also be made an honourary member later in life.) Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy, although not a Protestant Freemason, was probably a member of the Catholic Knights of St. Columba or Knights of Malta, both Catholic equivalents to the Freemasons (along with the Catenians).

During that momentous Friday morning, John Wilkes Booth had nonchalantly entered the Ford’s Theatre doors. After all, he was well known at this establishment and had previously acted there before President Lincoln, then in the audience in March of 1865 appearing in the “The Apostate.” That morning he had wandered in smoking his traditional cigar and would leave a half-smoked cigar in the theatre lobby when he entered that evening to murder the president in his box. However, that morning he had arrived to talk to the proprietor. Now, it seems Wilkes Booth’s brother had briefly managed his theatrical career, but this time the actor was simply calling to collect his usual fan mail, a popular perk that most itinerant actors frequently took advantage of. I suppose today Wilkes Booth would be as well known to the public as say, Brad Pitt, and in his day could command a staggering salary of $20,000. So, after all, he was no stranger to the staff of this soon-to-be notorious Washington theatre. He was not himself in the play performed that evening but knew it well enough to decide the appropriate time to murder the almost defenceless president. But with Wilkes Booth, it was all in the timing, the actor’s usual belief.

Later that day, Author James Swanson writes: “Booth heard the galvanizing news [that] in just eight hours the subject of all his brooding, hating and plotting would stand on the very same stone steps where he now sat reading his letter.” Now, Booth would be menacingly motivated in finally dispatching this president once and for all. Previously, he had failed with others in their attempt to kidnap Lincoln, then hoping that the captured 200,000+ Confederate prisoners of war would be released in exchange for President Lincoln. Of course, it never happened due to the diligence of Alan Pinkerton, who had little faith in the usually lackadaisical Washington police force and instead used his own men to guard the president. At the time, there was no Secret Service as we know it today; later they were recruited from the Treasury in 1901 after the assassination of President McKinley, Robert Lincoln (son of Abraham Lincoln) by chance also being there.

By the way, have you ever noticed the logo that the Pinkerton national private detective agency uses? Under an all-seeing eye, it displays the words: “We never sleep.” Maybe Alan Pinkerton was a Freemason himself, perhaps having been initiated in Kilwinning, the so-called famed mother lodge in Scotland where Freemasonry was supposed to have emerged, as some have seriously suggested of its birth. Later, Alan Pinkerton would suffer a serious career fallout in Washington, possibly ignited by Edwin Stanton. Pinkerton would be replaced by a Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, chief of the national detective police (NDP) and another close colleague of Edwin Stanton. This previous spymaster Baker certainly knew a lot about the Lincoln assassination and later pointed an accusing finger at Edwin Stanton as part of the plot to murder Lincoln at this time.

I’m not sure Stanton was guilty of this accusation, but he may well have had prior knowledge of a plot instigated by Booth and others to murder Lincoln. Indeed some of Stanton’s later actions seem rather suspicious to me. Colonel Baker would die mysteriously, possibly by poisoning, in Washington some years later in 1868. A later medical report prepared some twenty years ago by Dr. Ray A. Neff, a professor at Indiana State University, stated that he: “performed an atomic absorption spectrophotometer analysis on strands of Lafayette Baker’s hair to determine the cause of his death on July 3rd 1868. Results showed that Baker died of arsenic poisoning (possibly) from a war department employee. And we know who was the head of that important department, don’t we!

Booth with this galvanizing news he had just heard at the Ford Theatre would quickly assemble his willing and naïve conspirators to aid him in this Good Friday fiasco that would later witness one man dead (the president) and another missing death by a whisker’s stroke (the vice president). These chosen few of Booth’s band would be his willing acolytes to bring about punishment for the South’s defeat and travails over those long war years under Lincoln’s liberal leadership, or so Booth thought.

(John Wilkes Booth, the Catholic assassin)

There is some doubt today if they all knew each other or had even met one other before that fateful Friday night. Some authors have suggested that Lewis Paine had not had the pleasure of meeting this ambitious actor, but there is evidence that the two had met and plotted and laughed at what they were to perform in their delusional and diabolical minds.

Let’s now look at the conspirators. I have to suggest, however, that not all of them signed up to eagerly murder the president, and some had of course been involved in the failed previous kidnapping attempt on Lincoln. But killing a president! Well, that’s another thing, they must have thought.

John Wilkes Booth, the conspiratorial black-eyed cheerleader of this motley crew, was only 26 years of age. Women adored him, men deplored him, and it is claimed he could be thoughtful and cruel, kind and conceited. Yes, he was also known as the most handsome man in America. Probably due to his professional credit, he was one of the most lucid Shakespearian actors then on the American stage, performing such memorable roles as Othello, Mark Anthony, Hamlet, Richard III and Romeo no less, as well as many other tragic classical roles added to this thespian’s portfolio. He had even starred in a now-forgotten melodrama calledMarble Heart with Lincoln in attendance, sitting in his box watching the performance. After Booth murdered the almost defenceless seated president and wounded Major Rathbone with his sweeping knife, the assassin launched himself toward the wooden stage below (from 11 or 12 feet), and now with an injured leg, he shouted definitely to shocked spectators: “Sic Semper Tyrannus” or “thus always to tyrants,” as remembered by Brutus in Julius Caesar.

I suggest this must have been his greatest and final stage performance ever to be witnessed on the open stage, and the only time he was not to be paid for his acting skills. And who knows, maybe he even had planned it that way. The conceit of the man was always alarming, it was remembered.

Previously, on April 11th, 1865, Lincoln gave a brief and unrehearsed message from the White House patio to an enthusiastic crowd and in the shadows, apparently also listening, was Wilkes Booth, who turned to a fellow conspirator standing next to him and uttered with menacing conviction: “That is the last speech he will ever give.” If nothing else, Booth was always a man of his word. Later, on that infamous Good Friday, he would be the most publicly recognized assassin in history for what he did.

So, who was in the know with the actor in his previous kidnap fiasco and later involved with the murder of President Lincoln? Here are some of the main acolytes:

Lewis Powell, aged 21 and son of a Baptist minister. A look at the posed “mug” shots of the arrested conspirators taken by Alexander Gardener shows that Powell is probably the most photogenic of that prisoner portfolio. He was also one of Colonel Mosby’s legendary Confederate rangers. Powell attended St. Timothy’s Hall Episcopalian School along with another young co-conspirator, that being Samuel Arnold. Both met and somehow came under the persuasive personality of John Wilkes Booth, as many others had before him, it seems.

On April 14th, Lewis Powell (with the assistance of a nervous David Herold) was keeping watch outside the house of Secretary of State William H. Seward, then located on the east side of Lafayette Park (known as “the clubhouse” to Washington political insiders). In fact, Lincoln had gone to visit his injured friend, who was recovering from a road accident. Also seen at the house that evening was Edwin Stanton. Now, the conspirators’ feeble plan was for Lewis Powell to enter the house, claiming to have some required medicine for Seward and stating he had come from Dr. Verdi, the family physician. Then, after gaining entry, he was to locate the Secretary of State’s bedroom and kill the defenceless victim with pistol fire and, if required, to use the knife. But of course, events did not go to plan.

Secretary of State William H. Seward had previously bid for the presidency in 1860 and would the following year assist President Lincoln in preparing his inauguration speech and editing the famous Gettysburg address delivered by Lincoln in 1863. William Seward would also be prominent in the purchase of Alaska in 1867 from the bankrupt tsarist government for the princely sum of $7.2 million, eventually leading to Alaska becoming the 49th state of the Union. He also wanted to acquire Hawaii for the Union (now the 50th state) and the Virgin Islands. So, the two men were good friends and more than political rivals.

On that evening, however, the weakened William Seward was now lying on his sickbed: “His jaw broken in two places, right arm broken between shoulder and elbow, and deep bruises too numerous to count,” writes James Stanton. These painful wounds were from a carriage accident he had suffered on April 5th. He had also been fitted with a heavy neck brace and this, I believe, would spare his life later that evening. By his bed sat his young daughter Fanny.

(Brave young Fanny Seward with her father before the attack. Note his Masonic hand gesture!)

In the unprepared house that night, Powell’s terror and violence were used on two of Seward’s sons, as he viciously attacked them with a knife and pistol. An injured and retired police officer was also stabbed, and a State Department messenger in the house was wounded by a stab in the back. Four brave men would almost die in that terrible night of carnage.

Somehow, Powell reached Seward’s bedroom. Now, in near darkness, Fanny raced against Powell to reach the bed, trying to throw her slender body between the huge assassin and her helpless father. What a brave girl she was! Then, young terrified Fanny would bravely grapple with Powell on the bed and be violently thrown aside, then dazed would again attempt to save her beloved father. Seward finally rolled away from the knife and out of his sickbed, but in the attempt he suffered further injuries to his face from Powell’s blade, which had now slashed Seward’s cheek open so viciously that the skin hung from a flap, exposing his teeth and fractured jawbone. His cheek resembled a fish gill, but he survived although his daughter feared he was dead.

Powell miserably failed in murdering his victim and then made a hasty escape before saying quietly to himself: “I’m mad, I’m mad.” Seward, through unimaginable pain and the effects of shock as a wounded man, was lifted from the floor by Sergeant Robinson and laid tenderly in his bed. He whispered: “I am not dead; send for a doctor (Verdi), send for the police, close the house.”

I do wonder if he thanked the Good Lord for his escape from the jaws of death and for his precious daughter’s safety; she did survive but never fully recovered emotionally. Incidentally, those blood-stained sheets can be viewed today in Seward’s New York home in Auburn, and it’s open to the public. William Seward afterwards would be unconscious for sixty hours, but he would live. As for young Fanny, after looking at herself in her bedroom mirror, she saw that her hands, her arms, her long and pretty dress, were all drenched in blood. She could not stop screaming. And Seward would later remark to enquiring visitors that: “His good, brave girl had done well this night.” She certainly had.

Outside the Seward household, young David Herold had now beaten a hasty retreat after watching and hearing young Fanny shouting for assistance from her father’s bedroom window. To me, Miss Seward is one of the heroes of this wicked failed attempt to murder a defenceless, frail, and sick man in his bed that nauseous night and nothing could have prepared her for what she suffered that night both physically and mentally. Praise also to the courage of retired Sergeant Robinson. He must also be commended, I suggest, for his bravery. And what of his later bizarre request to Edwin Stanton to keep the discarded knife that Powell had used to stab Seward and himself, Stanton granting the unusual request.”

Later, a gold medal would be struck in Robinson’s honour and he would also be given $5,000 in cash by Congress. On the reverse of the medal, the engraver froze Robinson and Powell in perpetual combat, the assassin raising the knife high in the air while the sergeant held the striking arm at bay.” And Steward’s sons who fought so valiantly for their father’s life should also be commended for their brave action in saving him. So, it seems to me God had further plans for the recovering Secretary of State and maybe his two sons.

Powell and Herold, Booth’s two most loyal servants, had now failed Booth in carrying out his orders. Now each man must look out for his own safety, and their futures looked grim.

Lewis Powell (the not-so-gentle giant) did not seem to have prepared a feasible escape plan for himself at all, but would later walk aimlessly in and around Washington after abandoning his horse, even attempting to sleep in trees (if this is possible) and dozing in unsecured burial vaults. He may even have tried vainly to contact the other conspirators of Booth’s gang or attempted to reach an agent of Jefferson Davis without success. He then committed a huge mistake and decided to walk towards Mary Surratt’s boarding house, for whatever reason, in his confused mind. He knew it well, of course, having stayed there as a boarder many times himself under different aliases, one being the popular one of being addressed as “Reverend Wood.” Once there, at 11.45 pm his suspicious demeanour was noticed at the front door by one of the officers who had been dispatched to the house a second time to question Mary Surratt and other boarders at her house again. The police had previously searched for Booth and Surratt but in vain; neither were at home, it seems.

Now the lady would foolishly deny knowing who he was or why he had called at her house. Lewis had informed the questioning soldier that he had been asked to prepare a drain for her. The officer did not buy it. Then suddenly, the then-mighty Lewis Powell did something extraordinary. Inexplicably, meekly and without protest! He surrendered without a fight. After his arrest and detention, he would never walk the streets of Washington again as a free man. Unfortunately, Powell never gave a formal or public statement about those missing days before his arrest, so one can only surmise of what he hoped to achieve in his escape and where it all went wrong.

Powell and Surratt were quickly taken for questioning, with Mary Surratt beggingColonel H. H. Wells, one of Stanton’s manhunters to allow her to say her prayers. She fell to her knees and prayed silently. Edwin Stanton must have been euphoric then at the fast arrest of these important conspirators, now he only needed to find the archfiend John Wilkes Booth, but that would take a little bit longer, it seems.

George Atzerodt, aged 29 and son of German immigrants, suffered from an alcohol problem, but his important use to Booth was that he was able to navigate the waters of the Potomac’s dangerous swirls. He also had a knack with machinery. Booth would certainly require this man’s skills in attempting to escape from the north to safety in the south. It’s interesting to me that Booth didn’t flee towards Canada that evening, perhaps that was a bridge too far for him to cross in seeking sanctuary whereas others did take that opportunity.

Michael O’Laughlin aged 31 was another player in this drama. His family were old friends with the Booth family in Baltimore. He was an early “suspected” conspirator and would fall under Booth’s dangerous charm or charisma, it seems, and was also a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, along with Booth and others. Jesse James was also a member of that notorious group of plotters, and his name would crop up years later concerning John Wilkes Booth.

Samuel Arnold, aged 31, had been at school with Booth and O’Laughlin and would be involved with the failed attempt to kidnap Lincoln as a bargaining chip for the release of Confederate prisoners of war.

David Herold, aged 21 and perhaps with learning difficulties, was employed as a chemist’s shop assistant (I hope he never made up prescriptions!)

John H. Surratt Jr., aged 20, was a former Catholic seminarian (much more on him later) along with another plotter involved in the plot, Louis J. Weichmann aged 22. Both attended the same Catholic seminary. Weichmann’s important evidence for the prosecution at the conspirators’ trial would help place the waiting noose around Mary Surratt’s exposed neck. This young man has been described as “a large soft youth, with a sneaking, gossipy nature wrapped up in an almost saintly manner.” There has been the important unconfirmed suggestion that both Surratt and Weichmann were somehow involved in a homosexual tryst resulting in both of them leaving or being expelled from the Catholic seminary. It seems he actually shared a bedroom with John Surratt when visiting the mother’s boarding house during his Washington visit.

The War Department was then under the iron control of Edwin Stanton. It has been suggested that Weichmann may have been a paid spy for Edwin Stanton and fed important information about Wilkes Booth and the suspected conspirators to Edwin Stanton or Colonel Baker. He was at Mrs Surratt’s boarding house when the police originally arrived looking for Booth and John Surratt and may have tipped them off about the makeup of the house and its tenants.

Dr. Sam Mudd: now he is an interesting medic to me. He had met Booth some years before and was familiar with Booth’s plans to kidnap the president and I believe he went along with it and with the future murder of Lincoln. He would later foolishly treat the wounded Booth’s shattered leg in his own home. Later, under interrogation, he would deny he knew Wilkes Booth. I certainly think there is much more to learn about this mystery medic and his motives. I also do not understand why the death penalty was not used against him. Was he somehow being protected? And if so, by whom?

It seems there were others in the Lincoln plot, but all has been lost to history, with many escaping prison and the rope.

Mary E. Surratt, the so-called “mother superior” of the conspiracy: this widow, aged 44, was the landlady of a popular and, I suspect, lucrative boarding house in Washington situated on 541 H Street (and yes, it still stands today, having been converted into a Chinese or Japanese restaurant, um very tasty). President Andrew Johnson famously called her role in these crimes “the nest that hatched the egg” or maybe it was his spin-doctor who coined this lasting phrase.

In the coming weeks, this mother of four had a great deal of explaining to do to the police regarding her suspected aid to Booth. It’s also no coincidence that four of the accused and maybe others in the plot shared the Catholic faith, with maybe even John Wilkes Booth being a recent convert, perhaps for his own personal reasons. According to some, he had in fact only converted three weeks before Lincoln’s murder. In this claim, I’m not sure about Booth or his motives and I doubt if religion came into his own self-absorbed orbit. However, Mrs Surratt had also been a complicit slave owner at the country tavern post office that she apparently owned and operated outside Washington City. And yes, that house is still there today, and yes, you can visit this “landmark” house.

After the Lincoln killing, Booth and Herold would together ride in haste to the tavern to collect concealed firearms and other personal effects before embarking on that southward journey they hoped would lead to freedom and perhaps fame for John Wilkes Booth.

The tavern landlord was John M. Lloyd who would later become an important prosecution witness against Mrs Surratt at the trial. I don’t think there was any love lost between these two in this melodrama for whatever reason and maybe it had something to do with her religion. But, of course, plots have to be nourished and watered if they are to flower and bloom. Planning is key for any final detail to succeed, and this affair carelessly “cooked up” by Wilkes Booth within a matter of hours it would naturally lead to nothing but death for him, with death also later visiting his co-conspirators, and of course first the President of the United States. But the Holy Bible warns that: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19b).

This dire warning is something Wilkes Booth would dismiss if indeed it ever entered his conceited mind, then quickly cast it aside, rather like one of his old used theatre ticket stubs.


That fateful day known to this fallen world as “Good Friday” (the day our Saviour died, to gloriously rise again three days later) was however traditionally a “slack day” at the theatre box office. I am sure that’s not the case today.

But on this evening, excited news apparently had reached the war-weary Washingtonians that the president and perhaps General Grant would be present for that evening’s sell-out performance. With over a thousand seats now occupied and perhaps standing room, the audience now waited for the president and his wife to be seated. General Lee had announced surrender, and jubilation was in the air. Nonetheless, the Lincolns were late in arriving, which must have added some sparkle to the atmosphere in the house during that historic night. Most of the paid patrons, if not all, would remember that dreadful evening for the rest of their lives rather like that Friday evening (but not Good Friday) when President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas in 1963. Do you remember it? I do. I was seated on a 109 bus in Croydon, South London when a passenger sitting in front of me turned and asked if I had heard the shocking news.

Although unconfirmed, it seems that John Wilkes Booth had previously “checked” out the empty presidential box earlier that day and may be drilled out a spy hole in the panel of the door to the box, and may also have had some possible assistance from Edman “Ned” Spangler, a 39-year-old Ford theatre scene shifter. He had known Booth and his family for about a dozen years and had done odd jobs for them. He would later tend to Booth’s waiting horse at the stage door exit, a dangerous thing to do. The police would later have him arrested for aiding the fleeing Booth because of this gesture. Booth had earlier used a prop from a wooden music stand to prop up the outer door, thereby preventing anyone on the outside from entering the box through the lobby door. Naturally, Booth did not want any complications to hinder his dramatic and theatrical escape from the theatre after the shooting. Always a “thrill seeker,” perhaps he now wanted to enhance his excitement, if that’s what you can call it.

Previously that evening, at 8 pm, Booth had given final orders to Lewis Powell and others perhaps by a brief note or at a group meeting to murder Secretary of State William Seward, then bed-bound as we know and recovering from a serious accident. Fellow conspirator George Atzerodt would be quickly dispatched to the Kirkwood House, where Vice President Andrew Johnson was residing, then alone and unguarded. All Atzerodt had to do was to knock on his door and, the moment Johnson opened it, plunge the knife into his chest or shoot him dead. For this, he too took a knife and a pistol, “a six-shot revolver.” Of course, Arnold failed to do this, having lost his nerve: the more he drank, the worse the plan sounded, even after being fortified by large glasses of alcohol to give him “Dutch courage.” He fled from the Kirkwood and was arrested some days later in his sordid hotel bedroom, and it is reported that: “He surrendered meekly not even asking why he was being taken,” strange behaviour.

Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War (Lincoln affectionately referred to him as “my Mars, god of war”) would soon arrest many other suspects from the audience in the theatre that night as well as the members’ cast of the play. Even the theatre owner was under suspicion. Stanton was a maniacal man with a mission who trusted no one. He believed none would escape the wrath he showed to all that happened on his watch, and he wanted blood! Of course, the starring role in this murderous melodrama would go to John Wilkes Booth. Hadn’t he always yearned and craved for lasting fame? And who knows? He must have now reasoned at last that his hour had arrived at the crowded theatre.

Now joining the president and his wife that evening was Major Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris (more on them later). I suggest that before entering the theatre, Wilkes Booth would have fortified himself with a pre-assassination glass of whisky or a mint julep, probably prepared at “The Star,” a popular tavern with the arriving and departing theatre crowd. Booth may have seen or bought a drink for the Lincolns’ useless White House bodyguard, a Mr. John Parker who was noticeably absent from his post outside the presidential box that evening when the dreadful deed was committed (mighty suspicious to me by his absence). Many have suggested that Parker was implicated somehow in the plot that night, but amazingly he seems to have escaped any consequences or instant dismissal for his lack of duty that night, and in the days afterwards, he seemed to be working as usual at the White House.

He would amazingly continue his future employment in the White House guard detail until being dismissed for drunkenness. He died in 1890, and naturally Mrs Lincoln blamed him for her husband’s murder. She didn’t think much of Andrew Johnson, her husband’s successor either, and would later call the Ford’s Theatre “that dreadful house, that dreadful house.” A very perceptive lady it seems.

Once Booth entered the hushed theatre without being observed (or so he thought), he then proceeded through the hall towards the presidential box, which he found to be unguarded, with Lincoln’s servant Charles Forbes seated nearby. Booth nodded to him and then showed him a visiting card that seemed to satisfy the servant’s curiosity; maybe he was a fan of Booth, like many others. Booth must also have known that Lincoln’s bodyguard Parker was not at his post, maybe having left him in the tavern next door slurping his beer.

This now leaves the coast clear for Booth to silently enter the box (there could have been some new thick-pile carpet fitted in the box that day that would have certainly deadened any sound). Inside, Lincoln was sitting comfortably in a rocking chair. Booth now observed him through a prepared peephole that he or someone has cut out that day. Then at 10.13 pm, he now silently entered the box and waited for the punch line from the play he had himself seen many times but apparently never acted in it. This punchline was delivered by an actor from the stage and normally brought an avalanche of laughter, thus simply drowning out the single shot fired by Booth.

Yes, he seemed to have thought of everything, hadn’t he? Now armed with a small Derringer .44 calibre pistol that almost fit his right hand and with a vicious Rio Grande camp knife clutched in the other, Booth prepared to place pressure on the trigger and stand dangerously close behind the unsuspecting Abraham Lincoln, then paused. History was about to be executed in more ways than one on that fatal Friday evening at the Ford.

(Original playbill with bloodstained at the bottom)

As the expected laughter exploded through the blue smoke of cigarettes and cigars and from the fog of the auditorium gas lights, Booth raised his gun and aimed at Lincoln’s unexposed head, then fired the projectile, which swiftly entered beneath Lincoln’s left ear, passing through the lateral sinus and then coming to rest behind his right eye. Lincoln silently slumped forward as if asleep, it seems. Major Rathbone, as a military man, recognized the sound of a gunshot and saw an intruder in the box and leapt to his feet to face the armed assailant, who shouted: “Freedom!” The two met, then grappled, with Rathbone being badly injured between the elbow and shoulder by the raised knife, with his own blood spurting out like a tap. Booth then prepared to jump some 12 feet from the box, a foolish thing to do, I suggest, but in his haste to escape Rathbone’s outstretched hands, his boot spur caught in a flag or bunting, causing him to land awkwardly on the stage, fracturing his left tibia several inches above the ankle, unbeknownst to him. Turning towards a stunned audience, with many thinking this was part of the play, Booth brandished the blood-stained knife on high, shouting those stirring words: “Sic Semper Tyrannus” or “Thus always to tyrants,” the proud state motto of Virginia and the motto of the famous 149th American fighter squadron.

Further adding to those stirring words, Booth then proclaimed: “The South is avenged.” Or so he hoped. But there was no applause, only shocked silence. Hadn’t he always adored the copious applause offered to him after so many previous performances in so many theatres, but tonight his audience was pained and perplexed? “What is going on?” they enquired of each other. Booth did not pause, but rushed towards the waiting exit where he was heard to say (to no one in particular): “I have done it.”

Some authors have suspected that he shouted those Latin words from the box before he made his momentous jump downwards. But I do not think he would have had time to deliver his speech and fight off Rathbone’s furious attack as well. Perhaps he had it in mind to first address the audience seated below him with flowery eloquence from the presidential box, but it was not to be.

Timing is the basic requirement of any actor’s stage training, and Booth did what he could amongst all the confusion in the Ford Theatre that night. He departed and without an encore, it seems. Interestingly, Colonel Baker’s police later searched and ransacked Edman Spangler’s house for evidence tying him to the plot, discovering a heavy knotted rope. Was this, they suggested, perhaps to be used by the fleeing Booth to descend or swing from the box instead of jumping onto the wooden stage? Who knows!?!

At last, he must think of his safety in the so-called “Baptist Alley,” thus named because the theatre had previously been an abode of worship. He breathlessly and painfully hobbled out of that theatre turmoil, slowly mounted his waiting bay mare we are informed perhaps by Spangler, marked with a white star on her forehead, soon to gallop feverishly into the pages of history. Sadly, the horse was later destroyed by fellow conspirator and riding companion David Herold. Soon, the fleeing pair crossed separately over heavily guarded Washington Navy Bridge that night. For now, I find this to be a mystery, to be examined in a later chapter.

(Original reward poster with Herold’s name spelt wrong)

This was the final stage performance that John Wilkes Booth would ever perform alive again on any American stage. To the south, he would become a legend and a hero (and maybe still is!) and to the north, he was simply a liar and murderer and a “disgrace to the acting profession,” according to one actor/manager.

Most importantly, the 16th president of the Union was now fatally wounded and lying comatose in his chair. Pandemonium was now witnessed in the Ford’s Theatre, as the stunned and bewildered audience tried to grasp what had happened in their midst on that awful Good Friday evening of 1865, a year burned forever into the pages of history.

Seen earlier, loitering outside the front of the theatre, was a very important conspirator, namely, John Harrison Surratt, previously a Confederate courier and maybe Wilkes Booth’s number one assistant in the plot. This young man’s misplaced loyalties were certainly with the embattled South and always had been. That evening, the wily nervous 21-year-old (or someone fitting his description) was observed to be coordinating events outside the theatre by excited theatre-goers, and holding a pocket watch or stopwatch. He may even have been clutching an ebony rosary in one hand, as he was very religious after all (we always say get out of religion now and into a lasting relationship with Jesus Christ).

Perhaps the successful shooting of the president was somehow coordinated with the terrible attack at William Seward’s home by Lewis Powell. I suggest that as the distraught crowds later poured out of the grieving theatre, Surratt heard of what had occurred inside the building. Then, with hundreds of others, he waited and witnessed the dying president being carried by Dr. Leale and others out of the boarding house opposite the theatre. It must have dawned on Surratt what Booth had done and to an innocent man, and more importantly, that he was involved. Then, quickly in the next few hours, he would flee the locked-down city in panic, now aided by Catholic priests and maybe by a Jesuit to numerous parish safe houses, heading towards Canada. Later he would leave by ship under an assumed alias of John Watson (very original) and be taken to Europe, there to eventually arrive in Italy at the welcoming gates of the Vatican.

Once there, he would enlist with the “Papal Zouaves,” that colourful silly uniformed army of the Papal States. “Surratt blended in with the Catholic milieu, and he felt safely beyond the reach of the manhunters.” But this would all change dramatically for him the following year and end in an amazing court case brought against him by the U.S. government, leading to an even bizarre ending.

After Booth’s defiant deed, it would take an exhaustive 12-day manhunt initiated on the personal orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, some claiming that he has been America’s only dictator and the man who apparently kept his deceased wife in his bedroom in her coffin and conversed with her daily, and a deceased daughter in her bedroom using the same procedure. I do wonder what the servants in the Stanton house made of all this, if indeed true.

Now with over 2,000 serving soldiers at Edwin Stanton’s disposal and a generous reward offer thrown into this American tragedy, Stanton soldiers would search and secure John Wilkes Booth if possible, and until that day or hour would hunt him down like a rabid dog. Of course, this was never what the delusional John Wilkes Booth had ever wished for or wanted for his “rightful” place in history. Hadn’t he always demanded better things for his family and himself? But this was just the beginning of a mystery that perhaps ended with his death in 1865, or perhaps not. Maybe the story of John Wilkes Booth would offer another ending in 1903.

(Rare and unused 1965 stamp)

To be continued….


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(May 2017)