Back at Ford’s Theatre, Stanton ordered one of Lincoln’s regular photographers to document the scene of the president’s assassination. That Easter would be known throughout the country as Black Easter by all those who lived through it. Those rejoicing because of the war’s end now mourned the president’s death. Ministers across the country gave sermons addressing the tragic killing.
The process of coming together as a nation to address the killing of Lincoln was beginning. It was important to those Lincoln had left behind that his legacy be preserved, along with a record of his assassination that would show that he had died for his principles.
Booth and Herold arrived at Cox’s home in the wee hours of the morning. Although it is unknown what Booth said to Cox, he must have confessed everything and used his skill as an actor to win Cox’s support. Cox decided to help Booth and Herold. He told them it was too dangerous for them to travel on or for them to stay at his farm. He showed them a pine thicket nearby where they could hide and told them to only answer if they were approached by someone who gave a specific three-note whistle. The two men went to the thicket, lay down on blankets and slept under the stars. They were awoken by the chirping of birds a few hours later. There was nothing to do but wait.
Booth was persuasive to Cox not only because he was an actor, but also because Cox was receptive to his message. Nevertheless, it was becoming more and more dangerous for the fugitives and for anyone who helped them. Cox could not risk having them stay in his house and he knew that if they were caught nearby he would be suspected. He took it upon himself to help them in crafting a strategy to evade manhunters. Booth and Herold had believed that they would need to move quickly to escape; now they were finding that this logic was incorrect. They would need to shelter in place.
Cox knew of a man who could help the two fugitives get across the Potomac. He sent his son to summon Thomas Jones. Jones was a veteran Confederate spy who had lost everything supporting the Southern cause. He had spent time in the Old Capitol Prison when he was suspected in the North of his pro-Confederate activities. He had also lost a great deal of money by buying Confederate bonds at the start of the war, and because his salary from the Confederate authorities went unpaid. Jones was unparalleled in his knowledge of rural Maryland and had helped ferry hundreds of spies across the river during the war. He knew exactly when to time a river crossing to escape notice. As soon as Jones heard that Cox wanted to see him, he wondered if it had something to do with Lincoln’s assassin. When Cox affirmed this suspicion, Jones weighed what to do. The war, after all, was over. Jones decided he wanted to see Booth and Herold before he decided whether to risk his life again for the South.
Thomas Jones was a man whom John Wilkes Booth could admire. Booth wished to become a hero with a dramatic and consequential life, but he lacked Jones’s real-world skills and ability to survive in the wild. Jones was also uncompromising in his support of the Southern cause, despite having already sacrificed his freedom for a period of time and lost much of his savings. Unlike Booth, who had never had to suffer poverty for the causes he believed in, Jones had been willing to be impoverished in the name of his principles. Booth had expected that all Southern gentlemen would have these attributes he so admired.
Jones rode to the edge of the thicket and whistled the three notes. Herold stepped forward, aiming his gun at Jones and demanding to know who was there. Jones told Herold that Cox had sent him, and Herold led Jones to where Booth was concealed deep in the undergrowth. Booth, his face twisted by the pain in his ankle, told Jones that he had killed the president and was determined to escape or die trying. More than anything else, he did not want to be taken into custody. Jones instructed the two men to wait in the thicket. They would have to stay there for a few days, until the manhunters had moved further South, before they attempted to cross the Potomac. In the meantime, he would bring them food. Booth, filled with curiosity about how Lincoln’s death was being portrayed, also requested that Jones bring them newspapers. Jones’ simple plan would work to foil the thousands of men pursuing John Wilkes Booth.
Now that the news of what Booth had done was circulating throughout the country, travelling during the daytime was too dangerous. This was especially the case in Maryland, which had not seceded from the Union. Once they crossed the Potomac into Virginia, they would be in Confederate territory. There, they thought that they would be able to depend on vetted contacts and sympathetic strangers for help. This new plan would depend on Jones to figure out the moment when it would be safe for them to seize the opportunity to try to move deeper into the South.
Meanwhile, George Atzerodt visited a friend named Hezekiah Metz in Maryland. Another guest of Metz’s asked jokingly if Atzerodt had killed the president. Atzerodt laughingly said yes. He also talked about the attack on Seward and his sons. Atzerodt left Metz’s for his cousin’s house, but unbeknownst to him, he had aroused one of Metz’s guest’s suspicions. This man would report Atzerodt to the local authorities.
Now that the news of Lincoln’s assassination had spread throughout the country, ordinary citizens were on high alert and eager to report any possible clues to the authorities. In some cases, this created false leads that distracted the manhunters, but in other cases it helped the manhunters find conspirators.
Meanwhile, Samuel Mudd was worried. He did not want to turn Booth in, but he knew that other people had seen Booth at his farm and that he would eventually be suspected. He came up with a plan. He would send his cousin George, who was not a Confederate sympathizer, to make a vague report to the authorities. George would report that two strangers had come to visit his cousin Samuel. In a stroke of luck, George delayed carrying out this task, giving Booth additional time without the authorities on his trail.
Samuel Mudd hoped to take advantage of the confusing atmosphere at the start of the manhunt. From the atmosphere in town, he understood that rumors were swirling around and that if he could create a lead that would not be very interesting to investigators, his true involvement might get lost in the fray.
In Washington, the manhunters were frustrated that they had no leads on Booth, only information on his accomplices. They had evidence that Booth was the killer and that Atzerodt had been supposed to kill the Vice President, but no idea how Booth had meant to escape. Although a man had given the name “Booth” to Sergeant Cobb at the bridge to Maryland, they had no idea where the killer had disappeared to after that. As time elapsed, the failure to catch Booth became an embarrassment for the government.
Booth’s capture was becoming an important matter of principle for the government. The authorities needed to bring Booth to court, try him publicly, and then execute him. This act of violence sanctioned by the state would counter Booth’s rogue assassination of the president. It would also, they believed, deal a blow to the Confederate cause that Booth meant to support by killing Lincoln.
On Monday, April 17, Thomas Jones brought food and newspapers to where Booth and Herold hid in the thicket. He also carried corn with him; if he was stopped by Union cavalry he planned to say he was just going to feed his wild hogs in the woods.
Jones, as a Confederate spy, had some of the same talents for deceiving people that Booth did as an actor.
Booth, despite the worsening condition of his leg, was happy to finally read about himself in the newspaper, relishing the reading as if it were a review of his performance in a play.
Booth had surely read about himself in the newspaper before, when reviews of his performances as an actor appeared, so seeing his name in print was not an entirely unfamiliar experience for him.
At that moment, the three men heard the familiar sound of cavalry horses. There was no time to escape. They were outnumbered, Herold had never been in a battle before, and Booth was injured, so there was no way they could have fought if discovered. Lucky for them, the cavalry did not explore the thicket, but rode by, passing only two hundred yards from the fugitives’ hiding place. Jones told Booth that this was all the more sign that Booth and Herold should stay put. Booth agreed, placing his full trust in Jones.
This close call demonstrated how much the danger of the fugitives’ situation was increasing as time passed. Although no dramatic confrontation with the cavalry occurred at that moment, Booth and Herold recognized that they would need to wait for the right chance to cross the river.
Also on the morning of the 17th, Dr. Mudd waited for troops to come investigate his cousin George’s report on the visit by two strangers. But George did not make that report until the next afternoon. Lucky for Booth and Mudd, Lieutenant Dana considered this lead old and irrelevant. He continued following other false leads. Mudd thought that the manhunters would soon leave Bryantown and the area around his farm, and perhaps his involvement would go undiscovered after all.
To Mudd, it seemed like his plan to slip under the manhunters’ radar was working and that he might escape discovery. This was true for the time being, but it seemed unlikely to last as larger and larger numbers of investigators joined the manhunt and as other clues began to suggest more about the trail the assassins had taken.
In the thicket, Thomas Jones told Booth and Herold that it was too dangerous for him to carry horse feed when he came to see them the next day. Herold led the horses to a quicksand pit a mile away, shot them, and watched their bodies get swallowed up. Herold and Booth prepared for another night in the thicket, even more vulnerable and dependent on Thomas Jones for help than before.
Once again, Booth and Herold faced the limitations of their preparations for their get-away. They had planned to move quickly on their horses to safety in the Deep South. Instead, feeding the horses while staying still in the thicket had become an unacceptable additional burden.