Booth and Herold rode through open country towards their safe house at Mary Surratt’s inn. They had outrun the spread of news; no one in Maryland yet knew that Lincoln had been shot. The news was spreading out from the theater as the fifteen hundred audience members spread out across Washington, notifying those in the government and people of their acquaintance. From near Seward’s mansion, meanwhile, the news began to spread about another assassination. Those who believed that Seward had been killed argued with those who had heard Lincoln was the victim, until eventually it emerged that both men had been attacked.
In the first hours after the two attacks, news moved only as quickly as it had been able to for thousands of years: as fast as people walking and riding could convey it. With none of the details of what had happened confirmed, already people were spreading the news. As stories seemed to contradict one another, the uncertainty gave rise to the sense of impending disaster in Washington, D.C..
The news reached Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a man Lincoln had entrusted through the war to shape the Union Army into an efficient fighting force. Earlier that evening, Stanton had visited Seward’s bedside. Only a couple hours later, messengers reached his house with the erroneous news that Seward had been murdered. Stanton was skeptical, but decided to ride to Seward’s house to investigate. Stanton arrived just after Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The two cabinet members heard the false news that Seward and his son Frederick had been killed and the true information that Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s. Welles immediately cursed the Confederates, saying they must be the ones behind the attacks. Stanton ordered that military guards be dispatched immediately to guard the homes of all other cabinet members and Vice President Johnson’s hotel.
With so much inaccurate news flying around, both Cabinet members headed directly to Seward’s house to see for themselves. This need to verify rumors likely led to even more congestion throughout the streets of Washington, as people flooded to the scenes of the crimes. In this moment, it seemed that the rising panic was a sign that some new and still unknown cataclysm might be coming. This may have increased the cabinet secretaries’ sense that a Southern conspiracy was likely behind the two attacks.
Welles and Stanton then rode a carriage towards Ford’s Theatre to learn whether the stories they were hearing about the president were true. As they approached, people ran in all directions through the streets. Near the theater, a big angry mob swarmed the street. A crowd watched as Dr. Leale instructed those carrying Lincoln to bring him outside. It was the last time the American public would ever see Lincoln alive.
The crowds likely heightened the feeling of panic and the sense of foreboding. At this moment when everyone in Washington was uncertain of what exactly was going on, it seemed possible that something much bigger than an attack on Lincoln and Seward might be at hand.
Thirteen miles away, Booth and Herold arrived at the Surratts’ tavern. In 1864, after her husband’s loyalty to the Union was questioned, Mary Surratt had rented the tavern, which served as an inn, saloon, and post office, to John Lloyd and moved her family to Washington. Herold dismounted and banged on the door, rousing Lloyd, who gave him the binoculars and shooting irons. Booth bragged to Lloyd that he was “pretty certain that we have assassinated the president and Secretary Seward.” The two men rode off towards a doctor to treat Booth’s injured left leg.
The arrangement for this smooth handoff at Lloyd’s was one of the few successful preparations for his escape that Booth was able to make in the eight hours between his discovery that Lincoln would be coming to Ford’s and his carrying out the murder. Had he thought more practically about what a fugitive might need, he might have thought to also bring some supplies for surviving outdoors and a change of clothes.
At the Petersen house, as other doctors arrived, Leale situated the wounded president in the room of a boarder who was out celebrating the war’s end. He ordered the gas in the room turned up, which lit the scene. Mary Todd Lincoln, grief-stricken, asked again and again, “where is my husband?” Eventually, Leale convinced her and the others to leave the room and give the assembled doctors space to do their work. But without a guard at the door, strangers seeking to see the wounded president entered the house and milled around, creating a chaotic situation.
Mary Todd’s shocked state reflected the chaotic scene outside the Petersen house and in the country at large. As the news spread through the streets that the president and Secretary Seward had been shot, many felt deep personal curiosity to know what was happening to their leader. They knew that Lincoln’s fate would directly impact their own and sought information desperately.
Unable to move through the crowd in their carriage, Stanton and Welles, despite the possible danger, got out and walked through the crowd, pushing towards the theater.
If an attack were planned against the entire cabinet, Stanton and Welles would have been marked men, with assassins hunting for them at that moment. Although they recognized this danger, they ignored it.
Lincoln’s eyelids were filled with blood, making him look as if he had been punched in the face. His feet were getting cold; his breathing was regular but heavy. The doctors placed a small chair by his bed and summoned Mrs. Lincoln. She begged her husband to live and to speak to her and their children, but he was unconscious and heard nothing. Leale sent for the president’s oldest son, for Lincoln’s family doctor, and the president’s pastor, Reverend Dr. Phineas T. Gurley. He also sent for a Nelaton probe, which would allow him to access the bullet in Lincoln’s brain.
The truth of her husband’s condition had not yet hit Mary Todd, but for all the others it was clear that they were assembling around the president’s deathbed. Lincoln could no longer speak either to those he loved or in defense of the causes he believed in. Those around him now needed to assure him a dignified death that would help to enshrine the principles for which he had lived.
Stanton arrived at the Petersen house and took charge of the situation. He could see that Lincoln would die. Now his goal was to protect the Union from what he assumed was a Confederate plot to kill Union leaders and then send a rebel army marching towards Washington. He made the Petersen house his temporary headquarters. He sent a telegram summoning General Grant back to Washington and ordered soldiers to clear the crowds away from the entrance to the house.
Stanton’s concern immediately became to ensure security both for the house where the president lay dying and for the North. He assumed that the assassinations were part of a well-planned out conspiracy and that the president’s assassination was only the first stage. He needed to both clear the crowds seeking information from around the house and to inform General Grant of the situation as quickly as possible.
Stanton then launched a criminal investigation into the attack. He would take the lead in this, while Vice President Andrew Johnson hung back. Stanton heard witnesses from the Ford Theatre; they all testified to that the shooter was John Wilkes Booth. Stanton then sent telegrams throughout Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Bridges were to be guarded and cavalry were to stop anyone trying to cross rivers by boat. Stanton also sent word to New York, requesting that detectives be sent to Washington.
As the Secretary of War, Stanton had more experience than most with the telegram’s potential to help in a complicated mission. He now began to harness this power to communicate with people across the country, giving them information they might need and orders to carry out. He also used telegrams to quickly recruit the help he would need.
Army Major General Halleck made plans for the imprisonment of the assassins. Since vigilante mobs would be likely to storm the Old Capital Prison, prisoners would be kept on a warship on the river in the Washington Navy Yard.
Even before the assassins were caught, the authorities had begun to consider the need to keep them safe until they could be brought to trial. This trial would be used to shape the public understanding of the crime and to shape the perception of Lincoln’s death as a martyrdom for principles.
The manhunt began while Lincoln was still alive. The murder weapon was retrieved from Ford’s, and Booth’s belongings were searched. Detectives found a letter to Booth from someone named “Sam,” which described a conspiracy against the Union.
The letter found in Booth’s possessions described an earlier conspiracy, but the letter suggested to authorities that they were dealing with a larger plan involving Confederate authorities.
Detectives who had heard about the connection between Booth and Mary Surratt went to her Washington boardinghouse in search of Booth and her son, John Surratt. A detective told the innkeeper the half-truth that Booth had killed the president and that Surratt had killed the secretary of state. Mary Surratt claimed not to know where her son was, while her boarder Lewis Weichmann told detectives that John Surratt was in Canada.
Given the suspicion that a larger conspiracy was underway, the authorities immediately began to come up with theories that included a wide net of conspirators and a good deal of advance planning. This uncertainty led them to treat suspects like John Surratt as guilty until proven innocent.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Lincoln wailed that she wished their young son Tad could see his father again before his death, and then she fell on the floor in a faint. Stanton cruelly sent her from the room.
Although at his life’s end Lincoln had hoped to turn his attention away from the principles that had consumed him in order to spend more time with his family, this opportunity was snatched from him and his family. Stanton, seeking to preserve a dignified atmosphere befitting the president’s office, was not sensitive to Mrs. Lincoln’s more personal concerns.
Booth and Herold reached an isolated farmhouse where Dr. Samuel Mudd lived. It was distant enough from Washington that Booth and Herold could rest there. Booth and Mudd knew one another from when Booth was hatching his plan to kidnap the president, whom Booth had hoped to take to Richmond and either trade for Confederate prisoners of war or use as a bargaining chip for the South in peace negotiations. In 1864, Booth had been given a letter by an operative he met in Canada introducing him to Mudd. Mudd had then introduced Booth to a neighbor who sold the actor a horse that he would need for his kidnapping scheme. Mudd went with Booth to Washington and introduced him to John Surratt. Mudd had then gone back to Maryland and awaited word from Booth about the kidnapping scheme, but word had not come. Mudd assumed that with the war at an end, Booth had ceased plotting against Lincoln.
Although the authorities were mistaken in their belief that Lincoln’s assassination had been part of a larger conspiracy, in making his escape Booth was relying on the contacts he had made while conspiring to kidnap Lincoln. Booth’s earlier conspiracy, however, had been rather unrealistic and those who joined him in planning it may not have been skilled or canny in the ways that would have been necessary to make it work. Nonetheless, until he got to the Deep South, Booth hoped to rely on these contacts.
Dr. Mudd now recognized Booth and set about to treat him. Booth’s leg had swelled, and his thigh-high boot could not be pulled off without causing him pain, so Mudd carefully cut the boot and removed it. Mudd then diagnosed Booth: he had broken the bone two inches above the ankle. Mudd made Booth a splint. Booth decided to spend the next day resting and recuperating at Mudd’s farm, knowing that he was still ahead of the news of his crime. Mudd had no idea that he was giving shelter to the president’s assassin. Booth himself still did not know the fate of the rest of his accomplices and their victims, or if the gunshot had succeeded in killing Lincoln. Nor did he know that he would be condemned in the morning newspapers for his act. As Booth and Herold slept, a cavalry patrol rode from Washington in pursuit of the killer.
Mudd had been a conspirator in Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln, but he had never consented to be part of a plan to assassinate the president. Because Booth was riding ahead of the news of what he had done, Booth could rely on this old connection without explaining the magnitude of his crime. Booth would show a callous disregard for the fate of co-conspirators throughout the periods before and after the assassination. He did not care about getting the informed consent of those who helped him; he only cared that his own ends were served.