Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Larry Holzwarth - July 12, 2021

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The route followed by Booth and Herold as they fled Federal pursuit through Maryland and Virginia. National Park Service

11. The federals arrived at the Garrett farm in the dead of the night

Luther Baker, a cavalry officer and noted detective, arrived at the Garrett farm about two o’clock in the morning of April 26. Accompanying him were Conger and an attachment of federal cavalry. Rousing the Garretts, he demanded to know the whereabouts of the two men who had been at the house the day before. Richard Garrett replied he did not know, and that the men had not slept in the house that night. After threats of violence, including the placing of a rope around his neck, he continued to disavow any knowledge of pair’s hiding place. In fact, he did not know, having retired for the night prior to his son’s locking Booth and Herold in the tobacco barn. After movement was reported in one of the barns, one of the Garrett sons told Baker the two men he sought were in the tobacco barn.

Called upon to surrender, Booth refused. After it became evident the federals intended to burn the barn down, Booth called out to the federals. He informed them his companion wanted to surrender, though he would not. The Garretts produced the key to the lock on the barn doors, and David Herold entered into federal custody. He was handcuffed and shackled the moment he stepped out of the door. He would be in handcuffs for the rest of his life. Booth continued to ignore demands for his surrender, and after some time Conger ordered his men to fire the barn. Some accounts, including Garretts’, state he started the fire himself. At any rate, Booth remained in the barn, then unlocked, as the flames greedily spread across the aged, seasoned wood. Silhouetted by the flames, he offered an easy target, thought the soldiers were under orders not to shoot.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Boston Corbett shot Booth in violation of orders, though Stanton declined to punish him. Library of Congress

12. One of the soldiers shot Booth as he raged in the barn

Surrounded by flames, and combustible materials, Booth could be seen clearly by the soldiers outside the barn. In violation of his orders, which were to capture the assassin alive, Baker was dismayed to hear a shot ring out from outside the barn. Soldiers rushed into the flames to retrieve the fallen Booth. He was carried to the porch of the Garrett house. There he remained conscious, though paralyzed from the shoulders down. Baker and Conger ordered the shooter, Sergeant Boston Corbett, placed under arrest for violating orders. In his report to Edwin Stanton, Conger recommended severe discipline for Corbett, a position endorsed by Luther Baker. Corbett was taken to Washington, where Stanton interviewed him at the War Department. After the interview, Stanton ordered the charges dismissed, and referred to Corbett as a hero.

Booth lingered on the Garrett porch for about three hours, unable to even swallow the water soldiers poured into his mouth. According to Conger, he gasped out several words, including “kill me” several times. Near dawn he asked for his hands to be raised before his face and uttered, “useless, useless”. He died a few minutes later. Immediately following his death his body was carried by wagon to Belle Plain, where the monitor USS Montauk picked it up and conveyed it to the Washington Navy Yard. Following an identification process and an autopsy, which revealed asphyxiation from paralysis as the cause of death, he was buried on the grounds of the Old Penitentiary. Later the body was moved to another gravesite at the Washington Arsenal. In 1869 the remains were released to the Booth family, which reinterred them in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s pocket diary, in which he recorded his thoughts as he fled. National Park Service

13. Booth’s possessions at the time of his death were sent to the War Department

In Booth’s pockets when he died were several items, including the diary he kept during his flight through Maryland and Virginia. During the manhunt, other documents, including letters, diaries, appointment books, and other materials were seized from his room in Washington. Letters he had written and sent to family members and friends were also seized by federal authorities over the course of the search. Among them was a letter sent to his sister Asia, with an admonition it was to be opened only in the event of his death. During the manhunt, it was opened and released to the New York Times, which printed its contents before Booth was tracked down in Virginia. The letter justified his actions in his mind, and held that African slavery had been endorsed and supported by the Founding Fathers. To Booth, Lincoln was the cause of the Civil War, not secession.

Stanton held Booth’s diary, written during his flight, over the course of the trial of the conspirators and for months afterwards. It eventually became lost in the files of the War Department. It was discovered in 1867, somewhat curiously at a time when another trial arising from the Lincoln Assassination was about to be held. At that time, numerous pages were found to be missing from the diary. In total, 43 sheets, accounting for 86 pages (front and back of each sheet) were missing. Forensic analysis indicated they had been cut out with a knife. Stanton claimed the sheets were missing when he received the diary in 1865. Others who had examined it at the time concurred. Still others speculated the sheets had been removed because of what they contained, and its usefulness in defending some of the conspirators, especially John and Mary Surratt.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s death in Virginia prevented him from being charged with the murder of Abraham Lincoln. National Archives

14. Eight conspirators were tried by a military tribunal beginning in May, 1865

Booth escaped from Washington on April 14, 1865, on a rented horse. After the assassination the livery owner who rented the animal to him was arrested as a possible conspirator. So was John Ford, operator of Ford’s Theater. Junius Booth, John’s brother and a noted actor, was arrested in Cincinnati by federal troops. The operator of Mary Surratt’s tavern in Surrattsville, who recognized Booth on April 14th, was placed in custody. In Maryland, Samuel Cox and Thomas Jones, who aided Booth and Herold but later cooperated with federal authorities, found themselves arrested (it was Jones who informed the authorities that Booth had fled to Virginia). Louis Weichmann, who drove Mary Surratt to Surrattsville to deliver weapons for Booth to pick up on his flight, was arrested at her Washington boarding house. He later testified as to the extent of the kidnaping plot.

None of them, and several scores of others, ever stood trial for their knowledge of or participation in the kidnaping plot or the assassination, or aiding the flight of the murderer. By the time Lincoln’s funeral train reached Springfield, Illinois on May 3, 1865, Stanton had all but one of the conspirators in custody. The sole exception was John Surratt, hiding in Canada. In May Stanton announced 8 conspirators would be tried by military tribunal, which he justified by citing the city had been under martial law at the time of the crime. Although legal scholars opposed the idea, Attorney General James Speed supported it. Speed was a long-time friend of Abraham Lincoln. Nine army officers were assigned to the tribunal, and a simple majority of five was all that was required for conviction. They decided the fates of eight of the conspirators.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
From left, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hanged on July 7, 1865. Library of Congress

15. All eight defendants were convicted by the tribunal in June, 1865

Samuel Arnold admitted his involvement in the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, but denied any involvement in the assassination. Convicted, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Dr. Mudd denied any complicity in either the kidnaping or assassination, but was convicted for having aided Booth. Years later evidence surfaced he had participated actively in the kidnaping plot. Michael O’Laughlen was accused of being in Washington to kill Ulysses Grant as part of the conspiracy. Though unproven, he was convicted for his role in the kidnaping plot. Ned Spangler briefly held Booth’s horse behind Ford’s Theater before handing the reins to Burroughs. Spangler was convicted for having been involved in the kidnaping plot. Burroughs was not charged. The other four defendants all received the death penalty for their participation in the plot. Among them was Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the federal government.

Herold, Atzerodt, Powell and Surratt all were sentenced to hang for their involvement. In recent years attempts have been made to present Mary Surratt’s sentence as unjust. Nonetheless, the evidence presented against her, both through testimony and physical evidence, created a strong case she was aware of both the kidnaping plot and supportive of it. She also met with Booth on the morning of April 14. Mary also lied to investigators when they came to her boarding house on April 15, seeking John Surratt. She informed them her son was in Canada, and had been for at least two weeks. The weight of the evidence against her was such that she was convicted unanimously, though five members of the tribunal recommended clemency due to her sex. Andrew Johnson refused to consider clemency. Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt, and Powell were hanged on July 7, 1865.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Some comnspiracy theorists believed Jefferson Davis to have been involved in the plot to kill Lincoln. Wikimedia

16. Conspiracy theories emerged almost immediately following Lincoln’s death

On the morning of April 15, 1865, the Nashville Union, published a story connecting Lincoln’s assassination with officers of the Confederate government. Soon other newspapers published articles speculating over the extent of the conspiracy. Some linked Booth to Jefferson Davis. Others suggested Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State for the Confederacy. The Benjamin scandal grew to include the Rothschilds, and their international banking empire. Members of the Republican extreme right wing promoted the idea Benjamin and the Rothschilds, prominent Jewish bankers, had Lincoln killed over his trade policies. The anti-Semitic and anti-immigration Republicans on the far right had long linked abolitionism in the North to Jewish influences, as well as Catholic influences. Such ideas flourished in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death. Over the years they expanded.

In 1867 John Surratt was arrested in Egypt, and extradited to the United States for trial. By then, Washington was no longer under martial law, and he was tried in civilian court. He was acquitted. Following his arrest newspapers revealed he had received sanctuary from a Catholic priest in Canada. After his mother’s conviction and execution, Surratt fled to Europe, where he served in the Papal Guard at the Vatican. Recognized in 1866 and arrested, he escaped and fled to Egypt, where he was again arrested. At the time of his arrest he remained in his Papal Guard uniform. Right wing newspapers in the United States speculated over what appeared to be a clear link between the conspirator and the Catholic Church. During his trial, Booth’s diary reappeared, and the discovery of the missing pages drew further speculation, linking Edwin Stanton to the far-reaching conspiracy.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
John Surratt in the uniform of the Papal Zouaves, in which he was arrested. Library of Congress

17. Speculation over Stanton’s involvement exploded in the 1930s

In 1937, Otto Eisenschiml, an Austrian-born oil industry executive, published a work he claimed as the result of nine years of independent research into the Lincoln assassination. Titled, Why Was Lincoln Murdered? he postulated Edwin Stanton had headed the conspiracy, using Booth and others to decapitate the federal government and allowing Stanton seize control. According to Eisenschiml, Stanton intervened to ensure Ulysses Grant did not attend the theater with Lincoln that night. Stanton also refused to allow Thomas Eckert – a man who enjoyed demonstrating his ability to bend a poker over his arm – to accompany the Lincoln’s as a bodyguard. Instead, he assigned John Parker to guard the entrance to the President’s box. Parker spent most of the evening drinking in the bar next to Ford’s. He may have been there when Booth stopped at the bar for brandy before entering the theater.

Eisenschiml followed his work with several additional volumes, expanding on his theme that Stanton controlled the conspiracy. Several of his arguments were built over the missing diary pages, which he implied Stanton had removed. He also claimed that Stanton had ordered all bridges entering Washington closed on the night of April 14, 1865 except the Navy Yard Bridge used by Booth and Herold. That assertion was proved wrong by military records; all of the bridges were closed to civilian traffic after 9 PM, unless they bore a passed signed by the proper authorities. Eisenschiml’s theories led to numerous other conspiracy theories, and continue to do so in the 21st century. Nearly all of them agree John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot into Lincoln’s head. But some claim John Wilkes Booth did not die at Garrett’s Virginia farm. They claim he survived, living quietly in America, under another identity.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The President’s box at Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. National Archives

18. The strange saga of James William Boyd

James William Boyd served as a captain in the Tennessee Infantry until Union troops captured him in 1863. In 1864 his wife died, and Boyd requested clemency and a humanitarian release. He based his request on the need to care for his seven children. On February 14, 1865, Edwin Stanton personally approved his release. From that point, Boyd vanished. According to one son, the former captain used his freedom to escape the United States for Mexico. None of his children reported ever seeing their father again. In 1977 the book The Lincoln Conspiracy postulated Boyd was killed in Virginia. Boyd was said to bear a striking resemblance to Booth, who had acted, according to the theorists, without the foreknowledge of Stanton. Stanton had been a leader of the kidnaping plot, and the assassination caused the Secretary of War to move quickly to destroy incriminating evidence.

Boyd’s accidental death, if it was accidental, allowed Stanton to control both the identification and autopsy process. Booth was known to have a tattoo of the initials “JWB” on his hand; Boyd’s body bore a similar tattoo. Meanwhile, the real Booth fled in the direction of Harpers Ferry, half-heartedly pursued by Lafayette Baker. Another version of the theory had Booth removed from the kidnaping plot, replaced by Boyd. Enraged at his removal, Booth killed Lincoln, and Stanton orchestrated Boyd’s killing to cover up the earlier plot. Another version has Stanton taking advantage of Boyd’s accidental killing in Virginia, claiming the former Confederate officer was really Booth. In this version, Booth escaped, eventually to India. Still another version claims Booth survived, eluding the authorities, and lived out his life as David Elihu George. George made an alleged deathbed confession that he was, in truth, John Wilkes Booth.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
A mummified body claimed to be that of John Wilkes Booth decorated a funeral parlor for years before appearing nationally. Daily Mail

19. A mummified body toured America as that of John Wilkes Booth in the early 20th century

In 1877, a man believed to be dying and known as John St. Helen informed a lawyer, Finis L. Bates, he was in fact, John Wilkes Booth. St. Helen told Bates the assassination had been masterminded by Andrew Johnson, and that he escaped the pursuit and drifted across the West under several different aliases. St. Helen recovered, and vanished. In 1903, Bates saw an article describing the death by suicide of a man in Enid, Oklahoma. The article featured a post-mortem photograph of the man, known as David Elihu George. Allegedly, following an earlier, failed suicide attempt, George claimed he was John Wilkes Booth. According to Bates, the man in the photograph was the same as the man he had known as John St. Helen. For the next several years the mummified body of St. Helen/George decorated the front parlor of an Enid mortuary.

In 1907 Bates published The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth: Written for the Correction of History. Following publication, Bates acquired the mummified corpse and displayed it at state fairs, carnivals, and holiday celebrations across the country. The mummy continued to be a side show attraction into the 1950s, under various owners, the last of which was Jay Gould. Its current whereabouts is uncertain. What is known is that in the 1930s, Chicago doctors examined the body and declared that its broken leg, and scar on the neck, and a healed broken thumb were all consistent with known injuries to John Wilkes Booth. They declared the corpse genuine. They neglected to note the broken leg endured by the man in life was his right. When Dr. Samuel Mudd set Booth’s leg in the early morning of April 15, 1865, it was his left.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The extent of the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate historians and theorists in the 21st century. Library of Congress

  1. The remaining questions over the Lincoln assassination involve the extent of the conspiracy

Virtually everyone agrees Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy which evolved from one of kidnaping the President to outright murder. There is no evidence that the conspirators ever plotted to kidnap Seward and Johnson. Their planned murders arose in the mind of John Wilkes Booth after he realized kidnaping was no longer feasible. Not that it ever was. By the time the kidnappers were ready to attempt to realized their scheme, most of Northern Virginia was in firm Union control. Escaping to Richmond, then besieged by the Union army, would have been virtually impossible. It is only the extent of the conspiracy which remains subject to debate. Did it involve an international cabal of Jewish bankers? Did it reach into the Vatican? Was the Confederate government involved? Did Lincoln’s own cabinet ministers conspire to kill him? These questions and others are continually raised and debated.

Edwin Stanton died in 1869. William Seward survived the attacks of April 14, and lived until 1872, becoming famous for arranging the purchase of the Alaska Territory. Andrew Johnson lived until 1875, having become the first American President to be impeached. John Surratt, the only person tried and acquitted of being involved in the Lincoln Assassination, lived until 1916. After his acquittal he went on lecture tours, accusing government witnesses in his mother’s trial of committing perjury. He also claimed had he known of the seriousness of her predicament he would have come to her defense. The extensive international newspaper coverage of his mother’s trial meant he could hardly not have known she faced the death penalty. His lectures were among the first to hint there was more to Lincoln’s murder than Booth’s conspiracy. That belief has been a major industry ever since.

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

“Like the Scenes of Some Hideous Dream”: Lewis Powell’s Assassination Attempt on Secretary of State Seward”. Frank Jastrzembski, Emerging Civil War. April 14, 2020

“The Family Plot to Kill Lincoln”. David O. Stewart, Smithsonian Magazine. August 28, 2013

“The Trial: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators”. Edward Steers, ed. 2003

“American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies”. Michael W. Kauffman. 2005

“Biographic sketch of Mary Surratt”. University of Missouri-Kansas City, School of Law. Online

“Manhunt: The 12-Day Search for Lincoln’s Killer”. James L. Swanson. 2007

“John Wilkes Booth’s Escape”. Article and Maps, ESRI. Online

“The man who found John Wilkes Booth: Fremont’s E. J. Conger”. Article, Fremont News Messenger. September 23, 2014

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

“The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln”. Bill Jensen, Washingtonian. April 12, 2015

“The Closest Source We Have to Really Knowing John Wilkes Booth Is His Sister Asia”. Paige Williams, Smithsonian Magazine. March, 2015

“The Trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: An Account”. Prof. Douglas O. Linder, Famous Trials.com. Online

“The Enduring Enigma of the First Woman Executed by the U.S. Federal Government”. Erin Blakemore, TIME Magazine. June 30, 2015

“Assassins! A Confederate spy was accused of helping kill Abraham Lincoln. Then he vanished”. Article, The Washington Post. April 13, 2017

“Assassination and Obsession” Michael R. Beschloss, The Washington Post. January 5, 1992

“Dark Union, Bad History”. Edward Steers Jr, Joan Chaconas”. 2004

“The text of John Surratt’s 1870 Lecture at Rockville, Maryland”. John Surratt. Online

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