On Thursday, April 20, Thomas Jones saw the cavalry ride away. The manhunters had heard that the assassins were spotted in a different county. Jones brought the news directly to Booth and Herold, telling them it was now time to attempt the river crossing. Jones led Herold and Booth to his house. Booth rode a horse while the other two men walked. Jones brought them food and then immediately headed to the river. Jones had arranged for a servant to leave on the river. Jones waded into the river and found the boat, and then he and Herold helped Booth in. Herold sat in the bow to row, while Booth would steer. Jones showed Booth which direction to go on his compass, and warned the two men to hide the light from the candle he gave them so that they would not be noticed by patrol boats. Jones then told Booth the name of a contact across the river.
Jones had waited for the right opportunity to guide Booth and Herold on to the next stage in their escape. Now that the cavalry had ridden out of town, he thought that they would have a better chance of safely crossing the river. It might have aroused the authorities’ suspicions if it had been found out that Jones had crossed the river that night, so he could not escort them. But Jones brought them food and a boat, in addition to providing them with his deep expertise as a Confederate spy who had often smuggled people across the river. It was up to Booth to follow his directions and steer the boat.
As Jones pushed the boat off, Booth tried to give him a handful of Union bills. Jones refused the money, saying he had not helped them in order to profit. At last, he accepted eighteen dollars for the cost of the boat.
Jones returned to his farm, reassured to think that Booth and Herold would soon be in Virginia. He would never see the two men again. And little did he know, they were rowing in the wrong direction!
Once again, Booth’s skills proved to be too impractical to help him in the task he had undertaken. In the context of the theater, Booth could have acted the part of a fugitive killer beautifully, but to actually navigate a river at night was a different matter.
In Bryantown on April 20, investigators re-questioned Samuel Mudd. This time, Mudd said that the stranger had worn a false beard. Mudd also revealed that he had met John Wilkes Booth before, the preceding fall. This admission made Mudd’s story sound less convincing to the investigators: how could Mudd have failed to recognize Booth if he had already met the famous actor before and had even hosted him at his farm in the past. After hours of questioning, Mudd was shown a picture of John Wilkes Booth and said that, now that he thought about it more, the stranger had been John Wilkes Booth. After he agreed to sign a statement the next day, the exhausted Mudd was allowed to ride home. In the end, Mudd’s lies ended by delaying the investigators long enough to give Booth time to reach Virginia.
Mudd sought to stay loyal to Booth and the principles they shared, but he did not have the ability to lie convincingly to investigators. His lies became more complicated, tipping detectives off to the fact that he was feeding them bad information. Mudd began to cave under the pressure, unsuited as he was to lying to authorities. But although he was not a good liar, the time it took investigators to get a clear answer from Mudd turned out to be enough time to give Booth the opportunity to make it across the Potomac to Virginia.
Thomas Jones and Captain Cox were both eventually questioned and arrested because of their known Confederate sympathies. But the two men did not incriminate themselves, and the authorities had no witnesses to prove their involvement. They were both released. It was not until decades later, when Thomas Jones told his story to a journalist, that the part he played in Booth’s escape would become known.
The role played by two of the men who helped Booth the most during the manhunt was not exposed until decades after the fact. This suggests that there might be other accomplices to Booth’s escape whose role was never uncovered and whose story has been entirely lost to history.
Herold relished being on the move again as he rowed on the Potomac River. Booth checked the compass and saw that they were rowing the wrong direction. They had rowed north, instead of west and then south along the riverbank on the Virginia side of the river. They were still in Maryland and, what was worse, farther north, in a more dangerous area than they had been before their boat journey. It was the early morning. Herold recognized the area and knew of people who lived nearby with whom they could shelter. There, they received news and were fed.
Booth’s confidence in his own abilities, derived from his success on the stage, did not translate into practical skills that he needed for his real-world escape from manhunters. Luck was on the two fugitives’ sides once again, however, as they were able to find a place to shelter, despite still being in Maryland.
What Herold and Booth learned was not comforting. There were manhunters swarming the area. The reward offered by the War Department had brought out droves of troops and detectives. There was no way to escape except back across the river. Yet instead of moving to recross the river into Virginia that night, the two fugitives inexplicably waited another night in Maryland.
The uncertainty of the early days of the investigation had given way to much more organized teams of manhunters. Booth and Herold’s delayed departure may have happened at Booth’s request. Unused to the rigors of living outdoors, Booth would go on to convince Herold to shelter in place again.
Government forces were closing in on the fugitives. The knowledge that Booth and Herold had left from Mudd’s farm helped the manhunters narrow their search. It was also known that Booth was on crutches and that he had shaved his mustache. Information was spread quickly by couriers on horses and telegraphs. Soldiers were told to enlist the help of fishermen and others on the river to be on the lookout.