As the wounded and now-expiring president lay awkwardly on the carpet of the crowded box, there was an air of pain and panic from those standing helplessly around him, most of them uncertain and unprepared as to what is happening. However, outside the theatre John Wilkes Booth was now preparing his hurried “flight plan” for escape, to be joined later by the gullible and frightened co-conspirator, David “Davy” Herold.
It seems these fleeing fugitives had arranged an appointment at the dubious Surratt Tavern and previously: “Booth has instructed Mary to tell the tavern keeper John Lloyd, a heavy drinking and former Washington policeman to whom she had rented her country place, to get everything ready for the actor’s visit this evening.” Once there, the two would collect rifles and an important spyglass; it might be good news as far as they are concerned, but John Lloyd’s later litany of lies spewed out on a hot June day at the trial concerning what Booth and Herold had collected and concealed that fateful night would assist the prosecution to secure the hangman’s rope around the necks of four of the seated conspirators.
Earlier on that fateful Good Friday, after failing in his amateur attempt to assassinate Secretary of State Seward, Lewis Powell fled the scene of his crime like a scared rabbit and went into hiding. He would later arrive suspiciously on the doorstep of Mrs Mary Surrat’s boarding house at 10.30 pm with a suspicious shovel or pick axe held on his shoulder. Unfortunately for him, armed soldiers had arrived earlier and were searching this infamous boarding house, having been informed of the possible Booth/John Surratt connection, and Lewis Powell’s suspicious movements alerted them when he knocked on the door. After this, he would never go back to wandering the leafy streets of Washington as a freeman ever again.
The 21-year-old Lewis Powell/Payne would somehow later claim that Mrs Mary Surratt had asked him previously to prepare a ditch, yet when confronted with this information in the hall by the captain of the guard, she would vehemently deny it saying: “Before God, I do not know this man and have never seen him before. I did not hire him to dig a gutter for me.” He had in fact stayed frequently at her boarding house, posing convincingly as Reverend Wood; his father was a man of the cloth, it seems. Lewis Powell may well have previously been a spy operating for the Confederate Secret Service, it has been suggested, or maybe he was just a failed actor who liked dressing up. A big mistake, I suggest, by Mary Surratt being caught out in her lies. The Surratt boarding house must also have captured the imagination of most of her neighbours because there was jubilation throughout the city when General Lee surrendered his troops. Her house, however, apparently failed to display any festive Union flags. Also, the following day, when the death of the president was announced, her house displayed none of the traditional black bunting or black drapes usually seen adorning windows and doors as a mark of mourning and respect. This would certainly have made the police suspicious of where the Surratt household’s true loyalties indeed lay, or maybe she was just an attention seeker or whatever expression they used in those days. It would only have been a matter of days before “the law” came calling on the lady of the house again, only this time they would not leave empty-handed, as they had previously.
Drama at the Ford Theatre
At the theatre during the crowded pandemonium, Miss Laura Keene ‒ the popular star of the play ‒ had elbowed her way somehow up into the crowded box after witnessing and hearing the commotion in and around its limited space. Now lying before her was the president whom she may have met previously; he lay mortally wounded on the floor but was still breathing. To her, he would always be her president, but now he looked defenceless and alone: “The scene riveted Keene and excited her theatrical instincts.” Yet she was confused and concerned for his creature comfort and would enquire in a whisper if she could perhaps cradle his bleeding head in her lap if possible. Dr Charles Leale, the young 23-year-old U.S. assistant surgeon in attendance volunteered; he had only qualified some six weeks earlier. In uniform, he slowly turned towards a sobbing Mary Todd Lincoln, somehow silently requesting her agreement. Mrs Lincoln gave her consent, then turned towards Dr Leale to ask in a pleading voice: “Oh physician, is he dead? Can he recover?” He could only ponder her sadness before turning back to his patient. As regards Miss Keene’s many motives and of what she achieved that evening it has been written that: “She knew that history was being made in that box, and she had convinced herself that she must be a part of it.” Her place in history is now secure and it “closed the curtain on Laura Keene’s maudlin, private drama. Her fame guaranteed,” so writes author James Swanson.
Later she was seen in “disarray, hair dishevelled, not only was her gown soaked in Lincoln’s blood but her hands and even her cheeks where her fingers had strayed were bedaubed with the sorry stains. The actress who began the night in a light comic role now looked like an apparition from a nightmare.” There is some serious doubt that maybe those blood splatters on her dress were perhaps not only Lincoln’s blood because he had apparently bled very little from the head wound and perhaps most of it had emerged from the seriously wounded Major Rathbone who was still bleeding profusely from a deep arm “slash” delivered by a demented Booth. Clara Harris, the wounded major’s fiancée “who had seen the whole thing, never forgot the forceful swing of Booth’s practised and powerful arm.” Rathbone would naturally have been hovering close to the fallen president with so much of his own blood accidentally dripping onto Keene’s silk dress. This is an important possibility to consider and I think the suggestion does make sense.
Laura Keene’s dress was spared the drenching that saturated the garments of Fanny Seward and Clara Harris (Rathbone’s fiancée). Fanny and Clara’s dresses did not survive. But Laura Keene cherished the blood – and brain – speckled frock from that terrible night, according to James Swanson. In fact, she would later be detained with the confused cast of the play for questioning by the police, and it seems many from the audience as well! What a night it must have been for all concerned!
It was then decided, perhaps by collective decision, to journey with the president away from the frenetic atmosphere of the theatre, but surprisingly not to the empty White House as would have been expected. This latter option was apparently discounted due to the distance and the decrepit state of the roads. Instead, the unprepared Dr Leale had decided that a nearby boarding house would have to do. This spot was popularly known as the William Person boarding house, a three-story brick-constructed house, and was convenient for the caravan of medics to reach. Situated opposite the Ford Theatre it would now have to act as a makeshift basic field hospital to care for America’s dying commander-in-chief now arriving at the front door cautiously opened by one of the boarders, a Mr Henry Safford. The president was carried by the struggling bearers up the curved eight steps and was now seen in a collapsed, almost sitting position, yet his head hung listless down on his chest, and he looked dreadful. Lincoln was then taken to an unoccupied bedroom. It seems the room’s tenant was out celebrating the end of the war (but not Mrs Surratt! More on him later), and won’t this man have a surprise when he returns to his room from the city’s festivities of fireworks and fun!
(Dr. Charles Leale in old age)
For some reason, this favoured room had apparently been previously occupied only the year before when John Wilkes Booth was himself performing at the Ford Theatre. Not only had he booked in at the same boarding house, but he amazingly occupied the same bedroom where the president now hovered between life and death. What a bizarre coincidence! Now inside the crowded room, Lincoln was laid diagonally on the bed due to his height (6’ 4”), and the long and lonely vigil began for those seated or standing around the borrowed bed (with many coming and going, it seems) as the president silently hovered between life and death.
Later he would be stripped of his clothes and tenderly wrapped in heavy army blankets with heated china hot-water bottles to conserve his body heat, and with additional bottles of brandy used to hopefully revive both Lincoln and some of the shocked onlookers. Also brought into the equation was a mustard plaster bath fitted around the president’s dying body. Outside the theatre, a crescendo of shouting was heard in the air as people grappled with the terrible news that: “They have shot the president….” “Kill the rebels”… “Kill the traitors” or “Oh no, it can’t be true.” Also heard as a lament would be: “Who did it and why?” These were just some of the confused and blaspheming voices lamenting that night’s events.
It seems the jubilation of the earlier surrender has turned into tears of shame, shock and sadness. Washington has never witnessed anything like this high drama being played out before them. Heard in the confusion of the boarding house was Mrs Mary Lincoln screaming: “They’ve killed him, they’ve killed him.” No one is sure who she was referring to or why. The grieving Mrs Lincoln had been followed into the sweltering room by a wounded Major Rathbone, his army uniform sleeve now soaked in blood, along with his shocked fiancé Miss Harris, and Miss Laura Keene bringing up the rear (yes, her again). Then “doctor Leale leaned in close to the president’s face and nods, he was still alive.” Mary Lincoln now agreed to depart the small sleeping room, but she would return later. Her eldest son Captain Robert Lincoln also arrived with Miss Clara Harris and Laura Keene (yes, her), all to wait and maybe pray with all eyes on Mrs Mary Lincoln staring into a coal grate. All silently prepared themselves for the doctor’s unrehearsed prognosis on the fallen president’s deteriorating condition, and most now painfully aware that it doesn’t look promising.
Later that evening, against the wishes of his friends, Vice President Johnson would arrive and go to Lincoln’s bedside and gaze soberly at the dying Lincoln. He departed soon after but before that, he would say a few silent words to Mrs Lincoln before wandering off into the night, probably never to see Lincoln alive again: “He will choose not to assert himself, instead he will leave it to Edwin Stanton to search for Lincoln’s murderers and bring them to a swift slice of justice.
“The doctors meanwhile probed the wound of the president with their bare, unsanitary fingers, sticking their pinkies inside Lincoln’s brain because there was work to do inside Lincoln’s brain.” Poor man and he’s not even dead yet! This crude procedure reads like a pre-autopsy examination, does it not? Meanwhile, 13 miles outside the city, John Wilkes Booths and fellow co-conspirator David Herold have now the empty dark road to themselves and both confident they would escape the pursuing police as they make for that drinking tavern owned by Mrs Mary Surratt in Surrattsville to collect those importantly needed firearms and a spyglass.
Booth’s escape incensed, but thrilled the nation. Photographs of him became so popular that the government soon banned their sales, and “fantasy prints showed Satan whispering in Booth’s ear moments before he shot Lincoln.” Seems they couldn’t get enough of Johnny Wilkes Booth, and wouldn’t he have loved such notoriety!?!
Throughout the night a procession of the high and mighty of Washington’s political and possibly Masonic circles arrived to look at the unconscious Lincoln. Edwin Steer, the author of Blood on the Moon, estimates over 58 people were wandering in and out of the stifling bedroom that night with additional household servants and others being “press-ganged” into carrying and emptying overflowing chamber pots throughout the night. I suppose someone had to do it and of course, with no indoor plumbing then operating in the house I can understand why. Oh, and thank goodness Dr Samuel Mudd wasn’t one of the attending doctors standing around Lincoln’s bedstead that night! But more on him later.
One important man who would arrive soon after the shooting and naturally place armed soldiers at the front door of the house and elsewhere throughout the city now on lockdown would be the Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton. In the next few frantic days in American history, this gentleman would become the most powerful “unelected” man in Washington, if not America, pulling all government strings towards himself without interference, it seems, from anyone. But what motivated him in what he attempted to achieve that night? Was it ambition or guilt, or perhaps both? It seems Stanton was a complex man in his private and public life. After his arrival: “The Peterson boarding house was (to become) the War Department tonight.”
After visiting the dying president’s bedroom, he would be informed by Dr. Leale: “It is hopeless. Mr. Stanton quickly commandeers the Peterson back parlour as the temporary seat of government. There he can also observe any coming and goings from the front entrance.”
If Lincoln’s failing body was in the fragile hands of the attending doctors, then America was in the capable hands of Edwin Stanton, with all power now being invested by himself into his hands. This lawyer’s grip was secure. Stanton would not cease, it seems, until the capture and punishment of Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators, and that included Mrs Mary Surratt. “Hundreds of telegrams were dispatched by Stanton and his minions that night. Soon the wire sang back with messages to Stanton from military commanders. We have received your news. We are obeying your orders.”
All Union soldiers quickly marched to the beat of Edwin “Mars” Stanton’s tempo. This man was to be obeyed, and without question, it seems! This to me is awesome, ambitious and naked power that perhaps even Abraham Lincoln never possessed or wanted for his own use from the Oval Office in the White House.
Whilst Secretary of War, Stanton had never had a lot of time for Lincoln, it seems. Their social backgrounds were so different. Hadn’t he called Lincoln “weak kneed” and been often patronizing to the president, although I’m not sure Lincoln even noticed or cared about Stanton’s sharp sarcastic tongue. However, that night when Stanton entered the boarding house we are informed that: “His nerves were jumping like devils. Always erratic, Stanton was now in a panic his energy sometimes brilliant sometimes rash. He believed himself to be the real ruler of the nation with his superior brain unlike the softer will of Lincoln. Yet ferocious headaches had racked the Secretary for years, asthma tore at his throat and a phobia which unbalanced his brain whenever he was near a corpse.” I can see how the corpse phobia would affect some people.
Now at 56 years old, destiny had led him to this house and his role in history was being played out all around him without a script or a director. He gazed down at the wounded Lincoln. Then turning and hearing Mrs Lincoln’s sobbing he ordered an aide to: “Get that woman out of here.” He was instantly obeyed and she, poor lady, would be taken and settled into a small cluttered parlour.” “Stanton was now Czar.” This man would not abdicate one iota of his naked power and privilege nor would he allow it to be taken from him. Destiny (he may convince himself) or God, for that matter, had designed him for this supporting role and he would disappoint no friend or fool in twisting its talents. Nor would he allow anyone to obstruct him or divert him in playing out the final scenes in this American tragedy. Edwin McMasters Stanton was a man with a mission, and “Mars” was in a hurry, it seems.
Stanton somehow, it seems to me, was rather slow off the mark in issuing orders in apprehending the suspect Wilkes Booth. After all, he had been identified after the shooting by most of the theatre staff and some of the audience. So, what was the delay? Stanton, I suggest, had also been made aware early that evening (perhaps by Col. Lafayette Baker, head of the self-styled national detective police, or one of his favourites) of potentially important street information from the colonel’s army of paid “informers” that named Wilkes Booth as the prime suspect, and it seems he had a suspicious connection somehow to a southern sympathizer, a certain John Harrison Surratt, the late postmaster of the tavern in Surratsville.
With this crucial information gained from who else but the military police, they would pay a surprise visit on April 14th to that “widow woman’s” boarding house, Mary Surratt’s establishment, and would inquire into the whereabouts of her son John. She would be unable to assist with their enquires as her son John was away, it seems, somewhere on business, possibly in Canada, or on “rebel business” perhaps.
Surprisingly, they departed, much to her relief, only to return later. It is odd to me that only hours after the Ford Theatre shooting, with the police politely knocking at Mrs Surratt’s front door, that they then departed quickly after a cursory search of the premises.
So, were they warned away and if so, by whom? Three days later on April 17th, they returned, now under the command of a suspicious Major W.H. Smith whose orders were clear and to the point: Arrest the residents and search the premises! Some new important information may be received by Lafayette Baker and with Stanton’s knowledge, led them to this house of treason. It did not look good for the Surratt house on 541, also known as 604 H Street, this being the house of many crimes and secrets, and all would be revealed.
Years later Major Smith would recall: “It was odd. Mrs Surratt did not ask even for what she was arrested for, and expressed no surprise or feeling at all.” All very strange in this Washington melodrama. As written earlier, the stupid co-conspirator Lewis Powell made an unexpected entry at the boarding house and would be taken away with the other tenants for further questioning. Included in this dragnet was an innocent Anna Surratt and other boarders, including an 11-year-old schoolgirl who lived alone without her parents at Mary Surratt’s. I wonder what this little girl’s sad story was.
Mrs Surratt would be immediately transported to the old capitol prison. Not so many others caught up in this drama! They would be held in cramped and stinking ship holds, these being the “Montauk and the Saugus.” Some earlier suspects would be released before the trial of the eight began, and these were the fortunate ones.
Later, the soldiers would search the boarding house and unearth “incriminating evidence,” it seems, including small arms ammunition, a photo of President Jefferson Davis and the coup de grâce: a picture of John Wilkes Booth hidden behind the picture frame. This would certainly go against Mrs Surratt and the other seven co-conspirators who would make their public appearances later in shackles before the nine seated military prosecution officers of the Union Army.
Interestingly, some years later General Thomas Maley Harris, one of the commission judges, wrote a book detailing his research that the church of Rome was implicated jn the president’s murder, and he always remained emphatic in this belief. And from what I have discovered so far, it seems the general was correct in his research about the wicked church of Rome!
Just a small insight that should be mentioned, I think, concerning the arrest of Lewis Powell, a.k.a. Payne: if he had not arrived unexpectedly on the doorstep of the Surratt boarding house that fatal night “he might have escaped Washington and vanished from history,” speculates James Swanson and I think he is correct in this view. And as for Powell’s insanity plea that was raised at the trial by his defence, it seems he suffered serious constipation cramps and just needed a simple laxative. Of course it didn’t help his defence when Secretary of State William Seward’s wife Frances Adeline died just two months after the attempted murder of her husband during the trial, either from a heart attack or perhaps from the shock of what she had seen brutally inflicted on her family when Lewis Powell crossed her family threshold with murder in his heart, only to fail miserably. All at a terrible price, it seems, for her and her young daughter and her sons as well.
Authors David Balsiger and Charles E. Selier Jr. claim: “Payne and Powell were separate individuals. The authors have obtained civil war service records on both individuals as well as confession statements by conspirators, Michael Olaughlin and George Atzerodt, stating that Payne and Powell were separate individuals here. The authors believe the new evidence indicates that Payne was arrested and framed for his cousin’s evil deeds.” Yet confusingly we are informed that: “within hours of Powell’s arrest William Bell, William Seward’s servant, had clearly identified Powell as the knife-wielding maniac.” There might be some truth in this presented information, but then is it not all part of the Lincoln conspiracy that has left so many unanswered questions that may never be convincingly answered and perhaps never will be.
Meanwhile, Edwin Stanton issued countless crucial orders as secretary for war in the Lincoln cabinet, but this night in the Peterson house, one crucial order he would dispatch was for all Washington bridges to be sealed to prevent Booth from escaping, or maybe also to prevent still active Confederate spies from entering the darkened city, as the country lay still witnessing the pangs of a weary war with suspected agent provocateurs plotting among the community.
Amazingly, however, escapee John Wilkes Booth did seemingly crossing the Navy Yard Bridge by offering a bizarre password to an enquiring sentry, a certain Sgt. Silas Cobb, then on duty. That mysterious word was “TBR” and amazingly, as they fell from his parched lips, he was allowed to cross unchallenged. Later, David Herold would also find it simple to gallop over the same bridge. Another mystery rider that night and now entering this plot was a certain Edwin Henson, a suspected drug smuggler and friend of Wilkes Booth who also seems to have been able to ride across that same guarded bridge. It’s all amazing to me the amount of unchallenged outward traffic that night departing from a so-called locked down and secured Washington.
As regards the mysterious “TBR” uttered by Wilkes Booth. I can only speculate it means perhaps “Tobacco Road” where later coincidently, it seems, Wilkes Booth or someone else posing as him would be surrounded by soldiers in a large tobacco-curing shed, of all places. There he would be cornered to be smoked out and wounded at Garrett’s farm. But whom, I wonder, provided Booth with that “magical” escape password that led to his temporary freedom that night? Perhaps someone associated with the entourage of Andrew Johnson, the Vice President.
Another unexplained mystery from that night’s “comings and goings” that has never been satisfactorily explained is who “for hours after the murder blacked out commercial telegraph lines from Washington,” and on whose orders? Yet the local inhabitants of a hamlet in outer Washington had heard somehow that very afternoon of the shooting of the president, all very strange and rather similar to what happened hours before the Kennedy shooting in Dallas in 1963 when some headlines around the world proclaimed “Kennedy Dead.” All very bizarre in both cases.
Earlier that fateful Friday morning, John Wilkes Booth learned the staggering news relayed to him by an excited Henry Clay Ford that the president and his guests, with perhaps general Grant, would be attending his theatre that very evening to watch Laura Keene appear in the thousandth performance of Our American Cousin. Hearing this, Booth must have almost danced an Irish jig in excitement at what he had just learned about the man he had loathed for so long, the man he blamed for what this cruel Civil War had inflicted on his beloved “Gallant South” under Lincoln’s command.
After gathering some of his coterie of co-conspirators for briefings that evening he later decided to compose some final letters. Always cautious in promoting his conceited image, in room 228 at the National Hotel he now committed to paper some of his reasons for what was about happen to Lincoln. Once he had completed his task, he would sign his own name as well as add, perhaps as an afterthought, the names of Lewis Powell/Paine, David Herold and George Atzerodt.
Later, at 11:30 pm he would pay a visit to Mrs Surrat’s boarding house, probably to prepare and finalise his escape plans from the city, there with Mrs Surratt and maybe her son listening in rapt attention about what he wished to achieve for the south and himself of course. Unbeknownst to them both and silently watching was Lewis Weichmann, one of John Surratt’s old school buddy “who remembered that he witnessed his landlady and Booth in earnest discussion.” Later, back on the street, Booth encountereds a fellow actor, a Mr John Matthews. The two men were apparently old friends, with Matthews coincidently appearing that evening at the Ford Theatre in Our American Cousin, can you believe? Booth then sought a favour of this old friend and offered him a sealed letter requesting that it be sent to the National Intelligencer, a daily newspaper (now defunct), for the following day’s publication and for the attention of the editor James C. Welling, probably to be delivered by hand. “Matthews accepted the sealed envelope and slipped it into a coat pocket.”
That letter will be inserted in full into the final series of these articles on the Lincoln conspiracy. A second Booth letter seems to have arrived on the editor’s desk (not sure how). “The letter rambles on, disjointed, the product of an aggravated and anguished mind.” The letter attacks and names thirty-five speculators and politicians who, Booth claims, will exploit the now bloody and defeated southern states. The letter was never published.
Another letter will reach Vice President Johnson’s secretary Col. Browning, but was Browning really Booth’s friend (it has been asked), because now Booth blames Browning for not seeing him when he called at the “Kirkwood house” earlier. It seems he would quote poetry, maybe some Shakespeare, in his letter to the colonel. But the point of it all remains unknown unless, of course, both Browning and Johnson were personally involved in this presidential plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Perhaps this letter was written in some form of code known only to Booth and Browning. Didn’t Booth always love the dramatic? You also have to ask yourself, of course, who benefited most by removing a sitting president, and of course, it’s the immediate vice president, who would naturally occupy the departed king’s throne. But perhaps uneasy lay his own crown as well (in 1968, some years later, Johnson would be impeached). Politics, as they say, is a dirty business.
In their 1977 book The Lincoln Conspiracy, authors Balsiger and Sellier write that Lafayette Baker had written an undated letter to Secretary of War Stanton. It reads: “It is essential that I see you at once in regards to the card of Booth’s left for Andrew Johnson. I have most confidential information to relate concerning Booth’s acquaintance with president Johnson and others which you will find alarming. Your obedient servant Lafayette C. Baker.” I think this crucial letter proves that Booth was connected with Andrew Johnson and perhaps other cabinet members in murdering the defenceless President Lincoln at the Ford Theatre that night. However, I do not believe William Seward was in on this plot, although he may well have heard rumours about it. Did Edwin Stanton ever learn more about this “alarming” news from Baker? And if he did, would he have acted upon this “crucial” information or just sat on it? Well, who knows? I think by then, the die in the conspiracy had been cast and the future litany of lies that would be spewed out during the coming military trial was being written by complicit men and rehearsed to be recited later to perfection by them and their cohorts.
It gets interesting because it seems that later that night, after Booth’s friend and fellow actor John Matthews had witnessed the commotion that had gone from shock to sadness outside the Ford Theatre after the shooting of Lincoln, he may possibly have actually witnessed the dying president in transit from the theatre to the boarding house, but was unaware of who the escaping assailant was. Later, the poor man would nearly be lynched by an angry mob mistaking him for John Wilkes Booth and it seems there was indeed a similarity in appearance between the two men and maybe Matthews acted as an understudy for Booth in previous plays. More important is that even the baying crowd knew whom or had learned in some way or another that Wilkes Booth was the suspected shooter in the Ford Theatre and was responsible for the president’s wounds. Now with the fear of what he had heard about Booth and that he might be a prime suspect in the Booth connection he quickly returned to his rented room and opened the letter to read its contents, probably several times. Then he decided to destroy its contents by quickly tossing the letter into the fireplace where it would burn to ashes.
Fortunately, Matthews possessed an eidetic memory. After all, he is a trained Shakespearean actor and years later would be able to recite it to an enquiring journalist. Amazingly, it seems, his rented room was situated in the Peterson boarding house, of all places. In other words, as he destroyed Booth’s incriminating letter by consigning it to the flames of history, the dying President Lincoln was fading away fast just a few floors below Matthews’ room. If correct, this is amazing and I still find it difficult to believe these events took place. But the truth, they say, is stranger than fiction.
Now returning to the dramatic events after the shooting: an unprepared Dr Charles Leale would be a prominent player in one of the most iconic scenes portrayed in American history, maybe even more so than the gunning down of John F Kennedy in Dallas, and that’s saying something.
Six confused and shocked perspiring men, two of them being Dr Taft and Dr King, carried the tall fallen president, their own commander-in-chief, with Dr Teal leading the way, supporting the president’s dropping head. They finally departed the mayhem of the Ford Theatre and moved into the gathering crowd outside. There, the dancing gaslights cast a ghostly and unreal Luminas light on the now-paused presidential party which looked as if they were attending a wake, and in a strange sort of way they were, except the body they guarded wasn’t cold as yet. Surrounding them now was a gathering of onlookers of nearly one thousand Washingtonians, whose strained faces showed a shocking picture of sadness and traces of fear diluted with grief etched on so many enquiring faces. Some were praying silently, their dry lips moving in an unheard whisper. Many would lean forward and touch this wounded president as he was carried past them rather like touching a dead “saint’s” relic.
On Tenth Street outside the boarding house, I suspect it was probably unpaved with the then daily debris of a city being revelled and covering almost every inch including freshly dropped horse manure that had yet to be cleared away by refuse collectors, if at all. Dr Leale now slowly paused in the middle of the road and realized the agitated president was straining for air. He paused where he stood and still desperately searched for a safe house, his eyes alighting on a possible refuge. After furtive knocking on the oak door by a soldier, no one answered, at least not yet. No one was at home or wished to open that saving door. Dr Leale then acted quickly concerning the president’s laboured breathing and using his finger, he “yanks a blood clot from the hole in Lincoln’s head to relieve the pressure on the brain and tosses the gooey mass into the street. Fresh blood and brain matter oozed through Dr. Leale’s fingers.” Minutes later, this human caravan of death was slowly admitted into the Peterson boarding house then owned by William A. Peterson, a bespoke German tailor by trade.
The front door was slowly opened by one of the shocked tenants, who slowly admitted the uninvited guests. History would be acted out in this unlikely unassuming house in the long night ahead. But now the dying president was carried carefully up the eight steps, almost in a sitting position, it seems, to the open and now-welcoming front door. Some of the crowds stood outside silently watching and weeping and unknown to them: “This would be the last time Americans saw Abraham Lincoln alive,” writes James Swanson, and sadly Lincoln will never leave the house alive either.
Later, in the now silent boarding house, it had been a long exhausting night and at 7.20 am the following morning the 56-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s pulse began to deteriorate. There were possibly 22 people now standing silent and alert in that claustrophobic room, only able to watch and wait for the welcome end of their own discomfort and listen to the president’s agony as he gasped his last breath.
Mrs Lincoln was noticeably absent but Edwin “Mars” Stanton was not. He now stood erect like a silent sentinel at the bedside watching his president’s life slowly ebb away like a retreating tide deserting the shore. But just somehow, I suggest, he was a changed man after all of this, because he was now no longer Lincoln’s foe but a friend, albeit it a late one. From now on, he would do all he could to secure Lincoln’s place in history, commencing of course with the coming funeral arrangements to be tailor-made for a president in a manner fitting even for a king. It would be a display of grief previously unseen in this young republic yet to gain its supremacy.
At 7.20 am, exhausted and emotional Dr Charles, who had been at Lincoln’s side for 9 hours, placed his hand on the president’s right radial pulse. At 7.22 and 55 seconds, it was over. He was gone. “He is dead,” one of the doctors said. I suggest it was Dr Leale whose unexpected tenure as the president’s attending physician was now finally complete and his place in history now as secure as the Rock of Gibraltar.
There was silence for a few minutes, Lincoln’s pastor then summoned from the church (he very rarely attended) to recite a useless prayer over the corpse and “that later not even he could remember what he had said,” the pastor would sadly recall to friends who enquired of what he had uttered that morning.
It fell to Edwin Stanton to shatter the overwhelming silence by declaring: “Now he belongs to the angels.” Others claim that he whispered: “Now he belongs to the ages” to no one in particular. This sounds to me more like Edwin Stanton’s vocabulary.
The exhausted Dr Leale closed the dead man’s eyes, placing coins on each of the eyes and then drew up the sheet. It is reported he had held the dying president’s hand all night, a labour of love he would later remember when asked to recall that night at the Peterson boarding house.
One man at the Ford Theatre that night and apparently later present at the Peterson boarding house as well as Horatio O. Cooke, one of Lincoln’s successful spies and friends. After the war had ended in 1865, he became a professional magician and “near the end of his life, he became close friends with Houdini.” This is very interesting to me because just last week, dear sister Helen suggested and encouraged me to perhaps write something on Harry Houdini for the October newsletter, and I thank her for it. God willing, it will be completed.
Later, sitting alone in the bedroom with Lincoln, Edwin Stanton retrieved a small pair of silver scissors from his jacket pocket and cut a generous lock of hair, more than a hundred strands and sealed it in a small envelope for Mrs Mary Wells, the wife of the Secretary of the Navy and a friend of Mrs Lincoln. A nice but rather macabre gesture from a man who did not care to be around corpses, it seems.
The only evidence of how that bedroom appeared soon after the president had been taken away is seen in a grainy picture of the bedroom taken by one of the two enterprising boarders then living in the house, they being Henry and Jules Ulke. That photo taken with a tripod by the brothers lay undiscovered for nearly a century until found in a library cellar. Also unearthed and of interest was a possible historic picture of the president lying on his deathbed, again taken it seems by one of the Ulke brothers. This is yet to be confirmed, but it does bear an uncanny and striking resemblance to the departed president, does it not? Later, the landlord or someone else would discard one of the bloodstained pillows out of the window and into the street. It seems the landlord would decide later to charge visitors to view the bedroom, minus one of the bloodstained pillows, of course. Some people will do anything for money, won’t they?
Later that evening, a Mr William Clerk “the tenant of the room returns and find his room in a shambles. That night he climbed into Lincoln’s deathbed and fell asleep under the same coverlet that warmed the body of the dying president.” Amazing, I recall a story my late father told me that when he arrived in London in the mid-1930s, he was unable to find accommodation because of his Irish nationality. He frequently saw on boardinghouse windows a printed notice that stated: “Rooms to let but no blacks, Irish or dogs.” He also recalled that many beds were rented out by the hour, so as one worker came off a shift to go to sleep, the sleeping occupant would leave that (warm) bed to go to who knows where. But it seems that some considerate landlords did provide pillows to occupants, so things weren’t that bad, were they, in the “good” old days!!
After leaving the boarding house the deceased president would then be escorted under military guard to the White House and placed in a plain pine box. Someone remarked sarcastically that it resembled a shipping crate but “Lincoln would not have minded, he was always a man of simple tastes.”
Then at the White House, the corpse would be removed to the popularly named “Prince of Wales” bedroom to await autopsy by Edward Curtis and Joseph Barnes, both surgeons, of course. Afterwards, it seems that Mrs Lincoln requested a lock of her husband’s hair; this would be taken for the grieving widow by one of the attending surgeons and each man would be offered a lock of the president’s hair. After President Kennedy’s death, his wife Jackie also removed a lock of her husband’s hair as a keepsake as he lay in his casket. Then, during the hastily arranged autopsy, that fatal bullet or lead ball would pop out of the mucous, membrane or medulla, then land on a waiting silver dish. Today, it can be seen in a museum in Maryland and there is still some doubt of what the bullet actually weighs. Apparently, after the autopsy, one doctor removed and took home a small fragment of Lincoln’s skull and another doctor discovered some blood stains on his shirt, and amazingly both doctors would preserve and revere them later, so much so that they became treasured family heirlooms. This sounds so like Catholicism in their macabre veneration of blood and bones, all very unhealthy and non-Biblical as well. Then later the body would be professionally prepared for open display by paid embalmers.
Performing this task would be Dr Brown, the same technician who had embalmed the president’s eleven-year-old son Willie in 1863 after his sudden death of typhoid fever in the Green Room of the White House. It is then decided that Willie’s coffin would accompany his father’s on the long funeral train journey to Springfield. Before then, Lincoln would be dressed in the same clothes he had chosen to wear for his second inauguration. Someone said he had not worn these clothes since that day on March 4th 1865. Mrs Lincoln did not attend these preparations of her husband’s body nor was she present on the slow-moving train to accompany the coffins of her husband and her young son for entombment in the family mausoleum then being prepared in Springfield, being too distraught to leave her darkened White House bedroom. Poor woman, she must have been so emotional and in a fixed state of shock.
Now Edwin M. Stanton will offer “$100,000 REWARD! THE MURDERER of our late beloved President Abraham Lincoln IS STILL AT LARGE.” And in his future sights were John Wilkes Booth, John Surratt, his mother Mary and David Herold. But for them and other suspects, the manhunt was on and up and running.
Edwin Stanton needed help. By the third day, it had become obvious that he could not devote his time exclusively to the manhunt, as he had a lot on his mind. He had almost broken down after Lincoln died, but his brain was able to rule his heart. There were other concerns: a war to win. And without Lincoln at his side, Stanton had to go on alone. The new president (Johnson) was not ready to assume the role of commander-in-chief. Stanton had to arrange Lincoln’s majestic funeral and then send the body on an unprecedented national tour on the way home to Springfield. I do wonder what sustained him through all of these long hours because he must have also suffered days without sleep and always with some new military or state problem being brought to his office to ponder over and solve. Did he pray, I wonder, for courage and guidance from God? Was he a believer, who knows? But pull through this during the period of mourning for the nation he certainly did. These days, I suggest, would be Edwin Stanton’s finest hours, his glory days when he almost ruled America. He died in 1869 aged only fifty-five, the same year that John Wilkes Booth was removed from the secret grave that Edwin Stanton had consigned him to. Four years later, President Johnson ordered John Wilkes Booth’ body to be returned to his waiting family, then later being interred in Maryland with the deceased Booth family members.
Many today still visit John Wilkes Booth’s grave and place a small stone on its surface for some strange reason, and I know it’s a Jewish custom as well. I suspect that few will visit Edwin McMasters Stanton’s grave in Washington or know where it is or even care.
In researching this article for our ministry newsletter I have come to have a rather growing admiration and respect for Edwin Stanton, a man I knew nothing about before I started my research on Lincoln or had even heard of. I have none for the others who stood trial except for Anna Surratt and for young Fanny Seward (who died a year later after the terrible events in her family home). Both young ladies never fully recovered emotionally from those events of Good Friday in 1865. I suspect all involved with the assassination of Lincoln were probably unsaved, but for the born-again Bible-believer, the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10) beckons. All others will be summoned one day to stand before the Great White Throne Judgment as described in the Book of Revelation 20:11-15.
At the White House, in the confusing days before the funeral, Edwin M. Stanton watched events unfold, still dispatching his commands, nothing missing his eagle eye. He would prepare and promote Lincoln’s funeral with relish, taking it upon himself to perform this task with all the dignity his professionalism could show.
Throughout the long night, carpenters, painters and other journeymen would labour and toil in the White House to erect a seating plan for 600 invited guests. The coffin had now been replaced with a $1,500 mahogany design showcase, that simple packing case consigned elsewhere. The catafalque was assembled from walnut and now stood at 15 feet high with a domed canopy of black silk cloth covering it. On the walls of the East Room, the mirrors were draped in black alpaca and white crepe, a touch of superstition that was common in the day. An impressive sight indeed, but was there a Holy King James Bible on display? We can only hope so.
Bells would later toll and the crowds would gather to file past the open prepared coffin where the president’s head lay resting on a white silk pillow.
(Supposedly Lincoln on his deathbed)
Seen in the crowd of many mourners would be the 22-year-old Captain Robert Lincoln with his 12-year-old brother Tad. “His face swollen with tears, scarlet with bursting chokes,” is how a friend of the family remembered him. Earlier, Tad had asked the Navy Secretary: “Oh Mr. Welles, who killed my father?” Mrs Mary Todd Lincoln did not attend the service.
But for now, rehearsed religious rituals from paid church pastors would be heard, along with pitiful recited prayers and empty eulogies. Lincoln was not a religious man. His family were Baptists but it seems, he was a sceptic who naturally kept his views to himself for political reasons. Interestingly, he once remarked that the two books in his log cabin home were the Holy Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare and there’s nothing wrong with that, I suggest. During this time of mourning, many ministers in lofty pulpits in Washington, Chicago and New York would falsely equate him with Moses and even Jesus, which is blasphemous!
Of course, many were deeply upset that he should even be in a theatre at all and on “Good Friday” at that. One eloquent pastor put it like this to his parishioners: “Would that Mr. Lincoln had fallen elsewhere than at the very gates of hell, in the theatre to which, through persuasion, he reluctantly went.” All seemed to preach and proclaim that Lincoln had been forced to visit the Ford Theatre that night. This is not true. All of them were wrong in their condemnation of Lincoln and his theatre attendance. The man simply wanted to go to take his mind away from the war.
“The Service over, Abraham Lincoln’s trip to myth land began,” wrote one author. Well, myths have to be manufactured somewhere, don’t they, so why not a theatre or concert hall?
Eventually departing the White House, six white horses with black tassels and flounces would carry the hearse to the Capitol rotunda, the coffin was set on a high platform in a case of glass. All the silent and standing spectators would stare as it passed before their eyes. Few would forget this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle as it passed before them in solemn silent splendour. This was Lincoln’s lasting legacy, something I’m sure he would have abhorred.
Finally, under the impressive 180-foot-high rotunda, the murdered president’s coffin would be situated on a raised catafalque that, since that day, has been a required stand for each departed president’s coffin to be placed for inspection by the public. But now Lincoln’s bier will be covered by a canopy revealing a gilt eagle covered with crepe and perhaps some other mysterious religious hieroglyphics symbols on open display.
Such former presidents as Kennedy, Reagan and Eisenhower are three of the ten state ceremonies hosted at the famed rotunda. However, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon all declined this honour for private reasons. I doubt Lincoln would have demanded or desired for a funeral of this magnitude, or for it to be held in his honour. It will be interesting to learn in the future if Barack “Barry” Obama accepts or refuses this honour for his own coffin, or for that matter Donald Trump, and I think I know the answer to both of these questions.
Once the pomp and ceremony had ceased, the heavy coffin departed for the station to transport the president’s body on “the funeral train” to travel on a thousand-mile journey to Springfield, stopping at ten chosen cities on the way and passing through a hundred small towns and hamlets for the waiting public to watch the train steam by. It is estimated an amazing 25 million people who wished to pay their last respects watched the train on its journey, all run with military clockwork precision. Edwin Stanton would accept nothing less, but it was not all over yet.
The final journey
A nine-car rail carriage in no expense funeral train draped in black silk and Hessian (of course) with a large portrait of Lincoln fixed to the front of the engine now awaited at the station for these very important passengers to be delivered. The convoy would be equipped to cater for three hundred people invited along and amongst them, would be a skilled mortician and obliging undertakers all ready to perform their skills with the wax and lipstick and other tricks up their black frock coats. The open coffin was to be viewed at many appointed city stops and displayed in many locations on its journey to Lincoln’s final resting place.
Naturally, the decaying corpse would need constant work on the face for the president needs to look as if he were resting, rather like Sleeping Beauty. Thousands of waiting mourners would slowly and silently file past the cadaver at stations and town halls. Mrs Lincoln, it seems, would not be aboard the train. I do wonder if Dr Charles Leale was on board. He was, after all, in the honour guard for Lincoln’s body in Washington and I’m sure he would have seen it as his duty to accompany the deceased president to his final resting place. Was Laura Keene perhaps offered a golden ticket for the ride and if so, I hope she did not wear or bring along that blood-soaked dress that she displayed at the Ford Playhouse that fateful Good Friday.
With Lincoln’s final arrival into his hometown on May 3rd, his journey had now ended. Yet over the next few years, his body would be moved and relocated many times; there would even be a botched body snatch, can you believe? Later, Mary Todd Lincoln and two of her sons would finally be interred there with her husband. Captain Robert Lincoln would himself be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I personally suggest the Lincoln monument at Oak Ridge cemetery is way over the top, and I suggest that even good old “Abe” Lincoln would agree with me on this, well, I hope so.
Finally, there is an interesting little mention told in Nigel Blundell and Roger Boar’s book The World’s Greatest Ghosts and it concerns the fabled Lincoln train, so I quote it in full: “President Lincoln’s coffin was carried on a special funeral train, which stopped for eight minutes at each station along the route so people could pay their respects. Soon afterwards there were reports of a phantom train. It was draped in black and bore the president’s coffin. One carriage carried a band of skeletal musicians. As the ghostly train passed along the funeral route, clocks stopped for exactly eight minutes.” Well, make of this what you will!
Meanwhile, after escaping Washington John Wilkes Booth would be joined by a willing accomplice David Herold, with other shadowy conspirators also joining him on the trail. They would eventually be forced to seek medical aid, plus some warm food and shelter wherever they can find it. Once Booth sought fame and fortune; now he was a fugitive being hunted like a sewer rat. Once Booth had basked in thunderous applause and warm adoration, but now he could only fear the shame of being apprehended and caged like a lark and be gawped and pawed at. But for John Wilkes Booth, it may well be his final appearance, later played out at Garrett’s farm before an audience of invited soldiers no less. I suspect he had decided he would not be taken alive. But Edwin Stanton, now patiently waiting in his office in Washington for news of Booth’s capture, would be sorely disappointed if his quarry was dead. Hadn’t his personal hope always been to apprehend and arrest all of those willing conspirators who assisted Booth in the murder of the president and see them swinging from a rope and especially John Wilkes Booth?
However, once in the subdued post-Lincoln Washington era, the police hastily assembled a “dragnet” and Edwin Stanton’s fuelled obsession was now in overdrive, locating the other fugitive co-conspirators now under arrest. Also, it should be remembered, “Stanton and others were certain that Booth was merely the agent of a confederate conspiracy.” I think he was probably correct in this early assumption of what had happened leading up to the shooting at the Ford Theatre on Friday night. All that was missing so far for Stanton’s satisfaction was the capture and arrest of John Surratt as well. If you recall, he disappeared hours after the shooting in the theatre. And it seems that he was offered some important assistance of possible papal protection by the church fathers to desert the country. His sick mother, incidentally, was soon to be visited by these priests ministering and praying the rosary with her, as she now festered in a hot prison (much more on Surratt later).
Many others (innocent or not) were being detained as well in most of Stanton’s assorted military stockades and elsewhere in the capital. The evidence was often fabricated for those brought to trial and administered at the prepared illegal military court. It must also be remembered that Edwin Stanton was one of the first of Lincoln’s cabinet to arrive at his old friend William Seward’s home after the failed attempted murder of the old man and there he witnessed that: “The bed was saturated with blood then the rest of the nightmare came into focus: Fanny Seward, wandering like a pale ghost her dress dripping with blood.” I suspect this sight of the young girl whom he had known since she was a small child must have affected him more deeply that even he would realize.
The terrible sight and shock of his old friend lying bloodied and wounded on a soaked eiderdown must also have spurred him to track down those wicked men who had perpetrated these deeds on an old Cabinet friend and his innocent young daughter Fanny. They would be punished with the full force of the Government which was now secure in Stanton’s safe capable hands.
Incidentally, I have just learned by chance that 12-year-old Tad Lincoln was watching and enjoying the pantomime “Aladdin” at the Grover’s Theatre in Washington with his tutor when the terrible news was announced from the stage by the manager that his father had just been shot and perhaps be dead. Poor boy! It seems that all who sat or stood were standing around him could hear his pitiful sobbing in that shocked theatre. He would not be comforted! He was then rushed home to the White House. Sadly, his simple request to be allowed to be taken to the Peterson House to say goodbye to his beloved “Pa” was refused. I wonder who made that cruel and wrong decision. Six years later he himself was dead of tuberculosis. Also on that popular pantomime path was John Wilkes Booth, who would apparently hire a vacant theatre when possible for the coming Christmas season employing hundreds of fellow unemployed actors and musicians during those hungry years of the Civil War, thereby enabling many to earn money for that expensive overrated date in December that has nothing to do with the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Funny enough, one of the most popular productions Booth produced and probably directed himself was that old festive favourite “Aladdin,” and no, I don’t think I was ever taken to see it in my youth a hundred years ago.
They say justice is blind, don’t they? But it was never true in Edwin Stanton’s case. This driven, perhaps demented man who, it seems, at times never slept knew exactly what he desired and demanded of himself and of others who crossed his path in those post-assassination hours. The Secretary of War would now appoint himself as judge and jury in seeking swift atonement for the murder for his commander-in-chief and for this he would go that extra-long crooked mile (legal or not) to achieve this. With a hand-picked tribunal aiding him, he would probably succeed (he would argue this not only for himself but also for the Union and for Lincoln, the lost president who would never return). For Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, revenge would always be justified and always best served cold from a Hallmark silver platter. “But vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). We also learn that “Stanton did not suffer fools. He couldn’t.” Yet to me he was still very much a principal player in the ongoing open conspiracy concerning Abraham Lincoln’s death, and yes, John Wilkes Booth as well, concerning the mystery of whether he was in that barn that night when surrounded by Union soldiers or whether he was miles away, easily escaping to a new life and a new name. These are all unanswered questions that are being exhibited but must finally be exposed one day.
I also learned that “If any man sat at Lincoln’s right hand during the war of rebellion it was Edwin McMasters Stanton.” But for now, he was preparing to wage his own private battle on the suspected men and one woman who murdered Abraham Lincoln.
“He was determined to apprehend the criminals,” we are informed. But first, there would have to be a trial and its final outcome would be significant in American jurisprudence.
(Rare 1960s stamp of Lincoln)
To be continued….
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