Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Larry Holzwarth - July 12, 2021

When Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, struck on the evening of April 14, 1865, he left little doubt as to his identity. The murderer leaped from the President’s box to the stage of Ford’s Theater before a full house. He passed an actor well-known to him as he fled toward the back of the theater. Before doing so, he turned dramatically to the audience, brandishing a knife. Some reported he shouted “Sic Semper Tyrannis“, the words of Brutus to the dying Julius Caesar, according to Shakespeare. It was also well-known as the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the late enemy of the Union. Before the dying President was carried out of the theater to the Petersen House across the street, the identity of the assassin was on the lips of onlookers.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The murderer of Abraham Lincoln was one of the most recognizable men in America in 1865. Wikimedia

John Wilkes Booth was arguably the most famous actor in America, what in a later day became known as a sex symbol. Yet he escaped the scene, and ultimately the city with relative ease. As he fled, an unknown attacker assaulted the bedridden Secretary of State, William Seward, in his home. It was a brutal attack with pistol and knife. Only Seward’s iron brace, supporting his body against injuries sustained in a carriage accident, saved his life. Fear of a coordinated assault on the government took hold. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge, a position he would not relinquish for some time. A nationwide search for John Wilkes Booth and any accomplices began before Lincoln breathed his last early the following morning. No other manhunt in American history to that time compared to what ensued.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The assassin’s identity was announced to the country within hours of Lincoln’s murder. Library of Congress

1. Washington remained a closed and guarded city at the time of the murder

Although Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia just days earlier, the Civil War had not yet ended. Washington remained an armed camp, albeit a relaxed one. The bridges to Virginia and Maryland remained under guard, with no civilian passage at that hour of the night. Booth shot Lincoln shortly after ten o’clock. He then raced from the theater out the back door, though nobody at the theater reported him limping. His horse awaited him, tended by a stagehand named Joseph Burroughs. Booth mounted and rode off through the streets, leaving turmoil behind. He rode past the Capitol towards the Washington Navy Yard Bridge (modern 11th street). There he encountered his first obstacle in his flight. Passage was not permitted after 9 PM. Booth calmly told the guard he had deliberately waited to pass at that hour, relying on the moonlight to guide him.

Having crossed successfully, Booth waited in the darkness for accomplices David Herold and Lewis Powell. Powell had been given the task of killing Seward, and Herold of guiding Powell to the Seward home, and thence out of Washington via the Navy Yard Bridge. When Herold heard the screams and sounds of violence in the Seward home he abandoned Powell, fleeing prematurely towards Maryland. Powell exited the Seward house bloodied and lost. He fled via alleyways and darkened streets, unsure of where he was going. Herold reached the Navy Yard Bridge sometime after Booth and talked his way past the guard. Though Booth was surprised to see Herold alone, he was reassured by the report of the attack on Seward, and the two continued toward their destination. Unwittingly they had left behind the first breadcrumbs on the trail which would lead federal authorities to them.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Authorities immediately suspected Booth associate John Surratt of being involved in the assassination. Library of Congress

2. Suspicion immediately fell on known associates of Booth

Lincoln lay dying in the Petersen boarding house through the night of April 14-15, surrounded by a growing group of onlookers. From an adjacent room, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge of the federal government. By midnight, orders to detain and question known associates of John Wilkes Booth had been sent to military police, Pinkerton agents, and the District Metropolitan Police Force. The latter had long suspected John Surratt of acting as a Confederate agent. Surratt, a frequent companion of Booth’s when the actor came to Washington, lived in a boarding house operated by his mother, Mary Surratt. Mrs. Surratt also owned a tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland (now Clinton) which she leased to an innkeeper. By two in the morning of April 15, Metropolitan Police detectives arrived at the boarding house, seeking to question John Surratt. He was not there, and the police left empty-handed.

Surratt immediately fled, arriving in Canada two days later. The same day he arrived, military police returned to the boarding house to question Mary Surratt. While they were there, a man appeared, disheveled but wearing quality clothes, who claimed to be a ditch digger by the name of Lewis Payne. He stated he had been hired by Mrs. Surratt to dig a drainage ditch on the property. His arrival at the boarding house at 11:45 PM, his state of dress, and the fact that Mrs. Surratt denied knowing him led the police to take him into custody. An eyewitness to the assault on Secretary Seward identified the man as the attacker. Payne and Mrs. Surratt were held, the latter under suspicion of conspiring with the attacker. Stanton, through arrests and questioning, found an extensive conspiracy had existed to kidnap the President. Its extent remained unknown.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The Surratt boarding house, the site of the arrests of Mary Surratt and Lewis Powell. Library of Congress

3. Booth followed a preplanned escape trail through Maryland

During the plot to kidnap Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth met with co-conspirators in Washington and Maryland, including at the Surratt tavern. Arms, ammunition, food, and whiskey were stashed at the tavern, and other locations along his planned route. During the phase of the conspiracy when kidnapping the President was the goal, Booth scouted locations where he could hide the victim as they journeyed to Virginia. One such location, near Bryantown, was a small farm owned by Dr. Samuel Mudd. Following emancipation in Maryland in 1864, Mudd could no longer operate the farm profitably. At a meeting in Bryantown in March 1865, Booth expressed an interest in purchasing the property. No such sale took place, but Booth did send provisions to Mudd’s farm prior to the events of April 14, according to another conspirator, George Atzerodt.

Atzerodt had been assigned, by Booth, to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson in his room at the Kirkwood House, in Washington. Instead, he drank himself into near insensibility at the hotel bar, where he had the room directly above Johnson’s. He then staggered to another hotel nearby, obtained a room for the night, and passed out. During his brief staggering walk, he discarded his knife, an event which was seen by a woman who reported it to the police. The Metropolitan Police searched his room at the Kirkwood House, discovering a bank book which belonged to John Wilkes Booth. On April 15, an order for Atzerodt’s arrest went out, though the conspirator could not be found in Washington. He was arrested on April 20, in Germantown, Maryland, at the home of a relative. The police could not have asked for a more cooperative witness.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
George Atzerodt got drunk rather than kill Andrew Johnson and later told police of the abandoned kidnapping plot. Library of Congress

4. Thousands of federal troops and agents flooded into Eastern Maryland

Within days of the murder of Abraham Lincoln, police officers and detectives from New York and Philadelphia joined in the search for the growing number of conspirators. Interrogation of the guards who had allowed both Booth and Herold to pass the night of April 14 indicated they were bound through Maryland. Federal troops, both infantry and cavalry, scoured the region through which Booth had planned to escape. Gradually, his immediate movements became known to the hunters, including the fact that Booth had been injured, having broken his leg. Newspapers reported the assassin had caught a spur on the decorative bunting surrounding Lincoln’s box at the theater, causing him to lose balance. The actor’s leg was broken when he leaped from the box to the stage. Others, including Booth himself, offered a different story.

According to Booth, he broke his leg when his horse fell as he rode in Maryland while waiting for the arrival of Herold and Lewis Powell. Booth told this version to Herold, Dr. Mudd, and to associates at Surratt’s tavern when the fugitives stopped there. Booth prided himself as an actor on his athleticism and was well-known for staging daring leaps and falls in performing his various roles. Also, photographs taken following the assassination show the bunting still in place around the President’s box, undamaged. It also seems unlikely a man with the well-developed ego displayed throughout his life would claim to have fallen from a horse had such an event not occurred. Either way, by late in the day of April 15, the hunters knew they were searching for two men, traveling together, one of them with a broken leg. Hiding in Maryland thus proved a daunting proposition.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Edwin Stanton ordered hundreds of troops into the Maryland countryside in pursuit of Booth and Herold. Library of Congress

5. Booth’s early movements proved discouraging as he went through Maryland

Booth and Herold fled Washington to the southeast, arriving around midnight at Surratt’s Tavern. There they picked up a carbine, ammunition, and a set of good field glasses. All had been placed there through arrangements between Booth and Mary Surratt. They also encountered a boarder who knew Booth and later identified him as having been there. By the time they arrived at Surrattsville, as the small community was known, Booth was in considerable pain. Remaining at the tavern was an impossibility, and the fugitives left for the home of Samuel Mudd. Mudd later claimed he did not know the two men who arrived at his home in the early morning hours of April 15. Subsequent testimony of witnesses claimed he knew Booth quite well. Dr. Mudd set Booth’s leg, splinted it, and provided a room where the two men could rest.

Later that morning Mudd went into town, where he learned of the murder, the identity of the assassin, and the presence of federal troops in the vicinity. Dr. Mudd returned to his home, where he ordered the two men to leave immediately. Whether he provided them with directions to a possible safe house or not remains debated. Booth had already deviated from his planned escape route, and the presence of so many federal troops meant he would have to deviate from it still further. Using horses provided by Dr. Mudd, possibly pre-positioned by Booth during the kidnapping plot, the fugitives rode on a circuitous route, avoiding Bryantown, Maryland. Mudd had learned of federal troops using Bryantown as their base. Bound for the home of Confederate Colonel Samuel Cox, they quickly became lost on the unknown roads. Herold, for the first of many times, began to talk of surrender.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Dr. Samuel Mudd set Booth’s broken leg, though the assistance he rendered the assassin was limited. Library of Congress

6. Booth expected to be treated as a hero by Confederate sympathizers.

John Wilkes Booth considered his assassination of Abraham Lincoln as the finest appearance of his career on stage. As such, he expected to be greeted with applause and support by those sympathetic to the Confederacy. Instead, he found, to his great dismay, he was a hounded man, who few wanted to associate with. He first encountered this reaction when he and Herold stumbled upon a man in the dark while searching for the home of Colonel Cox. The man, a local named Oswell Swann, agreed to guide them to the Cox home, but only if he received payment for his services. He collected his fee and vanished into the night, leaving the fugitives to the hospitality of Colonel Cox. That hospitality consisted of a few supplies, including whiskey, and a servant to lead the men to a hiding place in the woods.

Cox informed Booth that he was to remain hidden in the woods until contacted. He then sent for Thomas Jones, a Confederate agent with experience ferrying spies and information across the Potomac River into Virginia. Jones visited the fugitives in the woods, where they concealed themselves in a pine thicket. He agreed to guide them across the Potomac, again for a fee, but told them it would be several days before he could do so. Federal troops combed the area, searching properties and interrogating citizens over whether they had seen two men traveling together. Instead of receiving the expected support and appreciation of the south, Booth found himself confined to a pine thicket. From newspapers provided by Jones he discovered he was widely considered a villainous murderer, rather than a Confederate hero. He lamented over his fate in a diary he kept in an appointment book.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Said to be the first wanted poster with photographs of the pursued, the government posted the rewards while Booth hid in Maryland. Wikimedia

7. The federal government offered a $50,000 reward for Booth as he hid in the woods

By April 20, 1865, federal authorities had most of the conspirators who had planned to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in custody. Several had had little to do with the assassination, though they were held anyway. Three were not, Booth, Herold, and John Surratt remained at large. The fact was announced by the War Department in a wanted poster released in Washington on April 20, which reported a $50,000 reward for Booth, and $25,000 apiece for Herold and Surratt. The latter was at that time in Canada, aware of his mother being in federal custody, and making plans to flee to Europe. Booth and Herold cowered in a pine thicket, relatively helpless. Booth spent his time drinking whiskey and scribbling in his makeshift diary over the unfairness of his reception. He believed his action had made him a martyr to the Confederate cause.

Although some believed the fugitives moved to cross the Potomac into Virginia on April 20, most evidence indicates the first attempt took place on the night of April 21. Jones’s guidance consisted of verbal instructions directing them to a waiting boat. Neither Booth nor Herold were experienced boatmen, and attempting to cross the Potomac at their chosen location required accounting for winds, tides, and a swift current. Not surprisingly, they failed. Booth noted in his diary entry regarding that night, “…last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving”. His overly dramatic entry exaggerated what may have been an encounter with USS Juniper, positioned in the river near their point of crossing. Juniper’s log did not include a report of chasing anything that night. Booth likely spotted the gunboat and discouraged, returned to the Maryland shore.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth eluded Naval gunboats and crossed the Potomac River into Virginia on April 23, 1865. Wikimedia

8. Booth finally crossed the Potomac River on April 23

By the time Booth returned to Maryland, support for him there was running out. The Surratt tavern and the Mudd farm were occupied with federal troops and agents. Known or suspected Confederate sympathizers were being rounded up. In Washington, interrogators had learned of the extent and scope of the kidnapping plot. Contacts made by Booth were detained for interrogation. Even his brothers, actors of note, were detained for questioning. The price on his head made Maryland untenable. His companion, David Herold, frequently mentioned surrender, as Booth noted with disdain in his diary. It had become imperative to move where Booth expected greater sympathy and support. In his mind, Virginia had been the heart of the Confederacy, whereas Maryland had remained in the Union, despite having been a slave state. In Virginia, he expected the hero’s welcome he believed he deserved.

During the night of April 23 Booth and Herold successfully crossed the Potomac River, arriving in Virginia near not far from the home of Thomas Harbin. Harbin had been approached as a possible resource during the kidnaping planning, but he hesitated to help them following the assassination. He provided horses, a few supplies, and refused them shelter. They then rode to the home of Dr. Richard Stuart, a relative of Robert E. Lee. Dr. Stuart refused them medical assistance (possibly violating his oath), or support of any kind. Instead, he sent them to a cabin occupied by a Black family. Booth, enraged at this lack of hospitality and the indignity of sleeping in a Black man’s home, so frightened the family they left the cabin to spend the night outside. The fugitives continued on their journey the next day when they finally encountered a stroke of luck.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The usually dapper Booth arrived in Virginia disheveled, and in an attempt at disguise had shaved off his mustache. Wikimedia

9. Booth traveled by wagon to the Rappahannock River

Booth’s diary entries describing his reception in Virginia continued to reveal his belief that his act had been justified. He whined repeatedly and at length of the mistreatment befalling him in Maryland and Virginia. On April 24 he encountered some Confederate soldiers returning to their homes, to whom Booth presented himself as John W. Boyd. Booth rode in a wagon, accompanied by the soldiers, to a ferry on the Rappahannock River at King George. After crossing the river the soldiers remained with Booth until they reached Bowling Green. There, Booth and Herold went to a farm owned by Richard Garrett. The Garrett family later told federal troops they were unaware of the assassination when the two men approached them, identifying themselves as former Confederate soldiers. They asked for food and temporary shelter, to which the Garrett’s complied.

Booth and Herold arrived at the Garrett farm on April 24, the same day a detachment of US Cavalry left Washington by steamboat to track down the fugitives in Virginia. Interrogation of several of the Marylanders who had encountered Booth led to the knowledge the fugitives has arrived there. The detachment was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger, an experienced intelligence officer. After a journey of almost 70 miles downriver on the Potomac the detachment arrived at Belle Plain, Virginia, around ten o’clock that evening. As they did, Booth and Herold were enjoying the hospitality of the Garrett’s just a few miles away. On April 25, Conger tracked down the Confederate soldiers still in the area, including one William Jett. Jett informed Conger he had led two men answering the descriptions of Booth and Herold to the Garrett farm. Jett was arrested for his contact with Booth.

Disturbing Facts About the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s companion during his flight, David Herold, in a photo taken sometime before 1865. National Archives

10. The Garretts grew suspicious of their guests throughout the day of April 25

On the first night of their stay with the Garretts, John Wilkes Booth and Herold had dinner with the family and slept in their home, Booth’s first night in a bed since his brief rest at Samuel Mudd’s house. According to an account written by Richard Garrett years later, only Booth arrived on April 24, dressed in the remnants of a Confederate uniform, and accompanied by William Jett. The following day, Booth, known to the Garretts as Boyd, rested in their home. During the day, the family learned for the first time of the assassination of President Lincoln, and the pursuit into Virginia. About four o’clock that afternoon, William Jett returned, accompanied by Herold, whom Booth introduced to the Garretts as Harris. Shortly afterward, a rider approached the Garrett home with the news of federal troops nearby. Both Boyd and Harris, armed with pistols, retreated to the nearby woods.

After a group of Union cavalry rode past the farm the fugitives returned, and offered cash in return for taking them, hidden in a wagon, to nearby Guinea Station. The Garretts refused. Instead, one of the Garrett sons approached a Black farmer with property nearby, extending the offer on behalf of Boyd. The farmer agreed, and told the fugitives he would bring his wagon to the Garrett farm at dawn the following morning. A suspicious Richard Garrett, the father of the family, ordered his sons to watch them closely, before retiring for the night. The brothers, concerned the pair of strangers may attempt to steal the family’s horses during the night, led them to a tobacco barn, where they arranged a bed of hay before locking them in for the night. They then slept in a nearby haybarn, where they would hear if their guests attempted to break out.

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 afterward. 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 kidnapping plot.

None of them, and several scores of others, ever stood trial for their knowledge of or participation in the kidnapping 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 kidnapping or assassination, but was convicted for having aided Booth. Years later evidence surfaced he had participated actively in the kidnapping 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 kidnapping 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 kidnapping 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 kidnapping 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 conspiracy 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 was 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 to 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 pass 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 kidnapping 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 kidnapping 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 sideshow 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 the 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

20. 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 realize 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:

“24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth”. Larry Holzwarth. History Collection. December 12, 2019

“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. 2006

“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 Story of the Last Surviving Witness to the Lincoln Assassination”. Mike Wood. History Collection. May 27, 2017

“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

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