24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Larry Holzwarth - December 12, 2019

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth carried these belongings in his pockets throughout his flight. At center is his “diary”. Wikimedia

15. Booth and Herold had tried to escape through the barn’s wall

When Booth heard the cavalry approach his first reaction was to escape. Rousing Herold, he attempted to force the door of the barn, but the lock was too strong, and the door was reinforced. He then tried to kick loose planks in the back wall of the barn, but his splinted leg prevented him from gaining enough leverage to kick strongly with his other leg. Herold tried, somewhat half-heartedly, as he had already decided that he was to give himself up to the authorities. While Richard Garrett was questioned by Conger and Baker, Booth and Herold remained quiet, hoping that the old man would send the cavalry on their way without the barns being searched.

When John Garrett informed Doherty that the fugitives were in the tobacco barn, armed, Doherty ordered him to enter the barn and disarm them. “They know you, and you can go in”, he was told, by Baker, who then called out to Booth, telling the fugitive that John Garrett was to enter the barn and relieve him of his weapons. After obtaining the key Baker opened the lock, and Garrett was thrust through the doorway to confront the man he had denied to shelter in the house, and instead locked in the barn, keeping him trapped as his pursuers approached.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Edward P. Doherty commanded the troop of cavalry which cornered the fugitives in Virginia. National Archives

16. Garrett asked Booth and Herold to surrender

Within the dark interior of the barn, lit only with moonlight through the cracks in the walls, Booth was invisible to Garrett, who stated, “Gentlemen, the cavalry are after you…You had better give yourselves up”. Booth responded by accusing Garrett of betraying him, and demanded he leave the barn or he would be shot. Garrett ran back through the door. Conger, Baker, and Doherty appraised the situation. Booth and Herold were armed, but opposing them were two dozen well-armed cavalrymen. Booth was crippled, he could not walk without the aid of a crutch, and he could not run at all. Histrionics aside, Booth was not believed to be willing to die as a martyr for a lost cause.

The three Union officers were well aware that Secretary of War Stanton preferred the President’s assassin be brought in alive. Only he could reveal the true extent of the conspiracy, including any potential links with the collapsing Confederate government and Jefferson Davis. Northern newspapers were speculating over Booth’s links to the confederacy, and if proven they could affect the manner in which the surrendering Confederates were treated by their captors. The officers decided to talk Booth and Herold into surrendering. Baker gave Booth fifteen minutes to consider his fate before the barn would be set afire.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
A fanciful depiction of Booth confronting federal troops in the tobacco barn. Wikimedia

17. Booth tried to negotiate with his pursuers in his last minutes

When Baker issued his ultimatum Booth called out from the barn door, “Who are you? What do you want? Whom do you want?” and received the reply, “We want you, and we know who you are”. The soldiers fanned out around the barn, and some reported they could hear Herold begging Booth to allow him to surrender himself. Booth finally called out, “…there is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad”, and was told in reply that he must first hand over his weapons. Booth tried to bluff, claiming Herold had no weapons, but the officers had by then learned from the Garrets what weapons were being carried by the fugitives.

The officers disagreed among themselves over whether to allow Herold to exit the barn without turning over his weapons. Finally, Doherty decided to accept his surrender, and positioned himself to the side of the door, allowing Herold to sidle out to captivity. As he did, Doherty clearly heard Booth whisper to Herold, “…don’t tell them the arms I have”. With Herold in custody, the officers debated whether to take Booth immediately, burn the barn as promised, or wait until daylight. Detective Conger sent John and William Garrett to set kindling along the walls of the barn, and John Garrett complied until an alerted Booth warned him to step away from the barn.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Boston Corbett fired the shot which fatally wounded Booth, claiming divine inspiration. Wikimedia

18. Booth asked for the cavalry to withdraw

The actions of the Garretts convinced Booth that the soldiers were not willing to await the dawn (it was about 3.00 AM) and called out that he was “a cripple”. He added, “If you will withdraw your men in line 100 yards from the door, I will come out and fight you”. He also suggested to Baker, whom he addressed as “Captain”, that he had passed up several opportunities to shoot him. Baker replied to Booth’s offer of combat, “We did not come here to fight you, we came to make you a prisoner”. Booth repeated his offer, with the distance shortened to fifty yards, which Baker likewise declined.

With it clear that Booth was not to surrender, the kindling already laid was lighted, and the weathered exterior of the barn quickly took fire. The flames illuminated the interior, and for the first time in the encounter, the soldiers could see their quarry inside the barn. Booth moved to the center of the barn, braced his rifle against his body with one hand, and supported by a crutched moved forward towards the door. Sergeant Boston Corbett, believing Booth was preparing to fire on one of his comrades, shot Booth with his pistol through one of the gaps in the wall.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Corbett and Doherty posed for this portrait following their return to Washington. National Archives.

19. Baker and Conger extracted Booth from the burning barn

The detectives entered the barn and dragged Booth away from the flames, while debating whether the actor, who was evidently paralyzed, had shot himself. Booth was carried to the base of the locust tree from which Richard Garrett had been threatened with hanging, less than an hour earlier. The President’s assassin struggled to speak, and Conger reported his words, which he repeated back to Booth to confirm, as “Tell mother, I die for my country”. The soldiers carried Booth to the Garrett porch, where he was given a pillow and lain on a mattress of straw. The actor could speak only in a weak whisper.

Corbett’s bullet, which had been fired against orders, had penetrated Booth’s neck, breaking several vertebrae. Booth attempted several times to cough, going so far as asking Conger to put pressure on his throat to help him, but he was unable to do so. Several times Booth asked the soldiers to kill him as the early morning moved towards the dawn; several times he was told that they wanted him to recover. Booth died just as the dawn was breaking on April 26, 1865, after a manhunt which lasted twelve days. The search for his killer took only minutes, Sergeant Corbett responded to a demand from his commander to know who fired the shot by replying “Providence directed me”.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s diary was missing pages when it was received by Stanton. Wikimedia

20. The missing pages from Booth’s diary

Booth’s diary, which was in his pocket as he died, arrived at Stanton’s house in Washington before his body reached the capital, carried there by Baker and Conger. There were also photographs of five women, which led to each of them being questioned to determine if any had prior knowledge of the assassin’s plans. Stanton, in a letter written to President Johnson in 1867, claimed that several pages had been removed from the book, which was an appointment book, cut out by a knife. Stanton’s examination of the diary was witnessed by Assistant Secretary of War William Eckert, who confirmed Stanton’s description of the condition of the diary when it came to his hands.

The missing pages from the diary gave rise to often-repeated myths that the pages had been removed while the diary was in Stanton’s custody, implicating the Secretary of War in the plot to kill the President. Others have claimed the pages were removed because they contained material which would have exonerated Mary Surratt. The pages have never been found. What they contained, or if they contained anything is unknown.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The conspirators were tried by military tribunal in a seven-week procedure. Wikimedia

21. The Military Tribunal and the conspirators

The trial of eight conspirators charged with complicity in the murder of Abraham Lincoln began on May 9, 1865, less than a month after the crime had taken place. The eight defendants were; Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Ned Spangler, Lewis Powell (Paine), Mary Surratt, and David Herold. The tribunal was headed by Major General David Hunter, one of its prominent members was General Lew Wallace, who later authored Ben Hur. The tribunal was authorized by President Andrew Johnson, who was the only resort to an appeal.

All of the defendants were under the shadow of the death penalty, which required a two-thirds majority vote of the nine members. A simple majority was all that was required for conviction on each charge. The defendants were tried simultaneously. Over 350 witnesses testified over the course of the seven-week trial, and in the end, all of the defendants were found guilty. Four – Surratt, Atzerodt, Powell, and Herold, were sentenced to death and hanged in July 1865. With the exception of Spangler, who received six years in prison for temporarily holding Booth’s horse, the others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s body was brought to Washington Navy Yard and USS Montauk for autopsy. Wikimedia

22. Making certain the assassin was the man killed at the Garrett farm

Booth’s body was conveyed by wagon to Belle Plain, placed on a steamer to Alexandria, where it was transferred to a tugboat. The latter carried it to the Washington Navy Yard and USS Montauk, which later served as a prison for the conspirators as they were rounded up. In Washington, Booth’s body was viewed and confirmed as he by ten individuals who had known him in life. Among them was Washington photographer Alexander Gardner, who had photographed the actor in life, and did so again in death. None of the persons who viewed the body expressed any doubt that it was John Wilkes Booth.

Nonetheless, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rumors of Booth’s escape from the manhunt persisted. In 1869 Booth’s body was released to his family (it had been interred in a Washington prison) and was again positively identified by family members and associates in life, including John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theater at the time Lincoln was assassinated. He was buried in the Booth family plot in Baltimore, though his grave is unmarked. Rumors that Booth was not the man killed at Garrett’s farm in 1865 continued into the 21st century, despite overwhelming evidence that he was.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The War Department confiscated Ford’s Theater after the assassination. National Archives

23. Ford’s Theater became another of Booth’s victims

Immediately following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ford’s Theater, which had opened in 1863, was seized by the federal government. Congress eventually paid owner John T. Ford compensation for the building and ordered that the site never again be used for public entertainment. The War Department assumed control of the building, and it was used for records storage, with offices maintained on the second floor by the Surgeon General’s office. In 1887 the entire building was used as office space for War Department clerks.

The front façade collapsed in 1893, killing 22 government workers, and the building was repaired and continued to be used as a records storage facility. In 1911 the building was abandoned. Eventually, after having passed between several government bureaucracies it became part of the National Park Service. Along with the Petersen House across the street, it is part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Not until John Dillinger would a larger manhunt be conducted in the United States. Wikimedia

24. The manhunt for Booth was the largest in American history until 1933

The search for the killer of Abraham Lincoln remained the largest in the history of the United States until John Dillinger escaped from custody in 1933 and was eventually killed in 1934. Well over 1,000 federal troops, provost marshals, hired detectives, and the Washington police took part in finding Booth and his accomplices, and hundreds were swept up in dragnets in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Eventually, it reached into Egypt, where John Surratt, son of the hanged Mary, was finally arrested and extradited to America.

Surratt was tried in a civilian court, rather than before a military tribunal, and was released after a mistrial in 1867 (hung jury) He was never retried. His was the final trial resulting from the Lincoln assassination and the only one conducted in a court of law. In 1869, President Johnson pardoned the other three surviving Lincoln conspirators, Dr. Mudd, Spangler, and Sam Arnold.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies”. Michael Kauffman. 2004

“The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies”. William Hanchett. 1983

“Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer”. James L. Swanson. 2006

“The Flight of John Wilkes Booth”. Marjie Riordan, Bay Weekly. Online

“The Escape Route of John Wilkes Booth”. Maryland Office of Tourism. Online

“John Wilkes Booth Original Plan to Save the South”. Video, Smithsonian.com. Online

“The Booth Obsession”. Gene Smith, American Heritage Magazine. September, 1992

“Lincoln’s Assassination”. Interactive article, Ford’s Theater. Online

“Route of John Wilkes Booth”. Potomac River Guide. Online

“Material Evidence: John Wilkes Booth”. Article, Lincoln’s Assassination. Ford’s Theater. Online

“In hot pursuit: The escape route of John Wilkes Booth”. News Interactive, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Online

“The Final Hours of John Wilkes Booth”. James L. Swanson, Smithsonian Magazine. April 8, 2015

“American Characters: Boston Corbett”. Richard F. Snow, American Heritage Magazine. June/July, 1980

“End of a Manhunt”. Richard B. Garrett, American Heritage Magazine. June, 1966

“Assassination!” Philip B. Kunhardt Jr, American Heritage Magazine. April, 1965

“Documenting the Death of An Assassin”. Ashley Luthern, Smithsonian.com. May 5, 2011

“The FBI Investigated John Wilkes Booth – in the twentieth century?” Jack El-Hai, Wonders and Marvels. Online

“Trial of the Conspirators”. Article, Lincoln’s Assassination. Ford’s Theater. Online

“Identification and Autopsy of John Wilkes Booth: Re-examining the evidence”. Leonard F. Guttridge, Navy Medicine. January-February, 1993.

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