Chasing Lincoln’s Killer begins in 1865 at the end of the four-year Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln had led the Union forces against the Confederacy, which sought to secede from the Union. After Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, it seemed the war would soon be at an end. Lincoln, finally feeling a lightening of his presidential responsibilities, decided to take his wife Mary Todd Lincoln to the theater on April 14, which was Good Friday. Mary Todd had been depressed since the death of their son in 1862 and Lincoln wanted to spend quality time with her.
Meanwhile, one of the most celebrated actors in the country, John Wilkes Booth, was devastated by the Confederacy’s impending loss. Booth had plotted in late 1864 to kidnap president Lincoln and then use this hostage to affect the outcome of the war. He had travelled to Canada to meet with Confederate sympathizers and forge connections. He then made contact with the co-conspirators who would eventually be involved in the assassination: David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, the Surratt family and Dr. Samuel Mudd. The kidnapping plot had come to nothing, however, when the President changed his plans at the last minute. On March 4, 1865 and April 11, 1865, Booth watched Lincoln give his second inaugural address and a speech about voting rights for freed blacks. In each instance, he could have shot the president, but did not take the opportunity.
On April 14, 1865, however, Booth seized a chance. Visiting the Ford Theatre to pick up his mail, he heard the news that the president and Mrs. Lincoln would be attending the evening performance. He quickly contacted his co-conspirators from the 1864 plot. Booth planned for coordinated attacks against several members of the executive branch. Lewis Powell and David Herold would target Secretary of State Seward for assassination; George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Johnson; and Booth himself would kill President Lincoln in his box at the theater. Atzerodt said he did not want to go through with it, but agreed to the killing after Booth threatened him. Booth also contacted Mary Surratt, who rode from her Washington boardinghouse to another inn she owned in Maryland to prepare supplies that Booth planned to pick up later that night after killing the president.
That night at the theater, everything went according to Booth’s plans. He knew the layout of the theater and the action of the play, so he was able to smoothly navigate to the president’s box and enter it. He timed the shot of his pistol for a moment when the audience would laugh uproariously at a joke made by the leading actor. With a one-shot Deringer pistol, he shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head, sending a large bullet into his brain and mortally wounding him. Major Henry Rathbone, who was the president’s guest at the theater that night, was the first to react. He lunged toward Booth and was stabbed viciously as the assailant made his escape. Booth jumped off the side of the presidential box onto the stage. Because Rathbone was trying to seize him, Booth landed on the stage awkwardly, breaking his leg a couple inches above the ankle. Ignoring the pain, he yelled “sic semper tyrannis,” the Latin motto of the state of Virginia, meaning “thus always to tyrants.” He also shouted, “the South is avenged,” before fleeing out the back of Ford’s Theatre, menacing everyone in his way with his knife. Only one man tried to chase him, but Booth escaped on a horse he had waiting in the back alley. He rode quickly to a bridge leading across the river to Maryland and convinced the guard there to let him cross, despite a 9 PM curfew.
Confusion reigned in the theater, but a young doctor named Charles Leale rushed to the president’s booth. At first, seeing the stab wounds Major Rathbone had sustained, he assumed the president had also been stabbed. When he found no stab wounds on Lincoln’s body, he opened the president’s eyelids and could see from his pupils that there was a brain injury. Although he immediately concluded that the president would not survive, he managed to stabilize Lincoln’s condition. Oddly, he allowed an actress named Laura Keane to cradle the wounded president’s head in her lap. Leale then oversaw men carrying the president out of the theater; it would not be appropriate for Lincoln to die in a place of entertainment, especially not on a holy day for Christians like Good Friday. They found a room in a boardinghouse across the street.
Meanwhile, at the Seward mansion, Lewis Powell and David Herold came up with a plan to gain entry to the secretary of state’s house. Seward had been severely injured the week before in a carriage accident and was bedridden, so he would be vulnerable to attack. Powell carried a small package and told William Bell, the servant who answered the door, that it contained medicine which Seward’s doctor had asked him to deliver personally to the secretary. Bell refused to let Powell see the secretary, but eventually he discovered where the sick man was lying. Powell fought viciously with Seward’s two sons, Frederick and Augustus, as well as the army nurse who was sitting by Seward’s bedside and even his daughter Fanny. He slashed the secretary’s face with the knife, but failed to kill him. At the moment when he could have killed the army nurse, Sergeant Robinson, Powell suddenly felt mercy and merely hit him, declared that he was mad, and fled.
David Herold had been terrified by the screams coming from the Seward house and had run off, escaping along the same route taken by Booth and meeting up with his leader in Maryland. Powell, who did not know the city well, hid in a tree for two nights, unsure what his next move should be.
Atzerodt did not attempt to go through with the assassination of the Vice President. Foolishly, he did not realize that he would be implicated in the conspiracy anyway by materials found in Booth’s room.
The news of the two attacks spread from Ford’s Theatre and the Seward mansion by word of mouth. There was confusion in the streets as mobs of people told one another conflicting stories. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was notified by messenger of the attack on Seward and only heard that Lincoln had been attacked once he arrived at the Seward house to confirm the truth of this report. He immediately suspected that the Confederate authorities were behind the attacks and feared that other cabinet members were in danger. Seward went to the Petersen house and took control of the situation, securing the space around the president and launching an investigation into the two attacks. He heard from a number of sources at Ford’s that the famous, handsome actor John Wilkes Booth had been Lincoln’s attacker.
Meanwhile in Maryland, Booth was relieved to meet with Herold, a much better outdoorsman than he was. The two men picked up weapons from the inn in Surrattsville that Mary Surratt had arranged to have ready, then headed to the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd had been involved in the earlier conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, but Booth and Herold did not tell him now that they had just committed a much more serious crime. Mudd treated Booth’s injury and the two men decided to shelter at Mudd’s until the next night. The next day, Herold and Mudd went into the nearby town of Bryantown, where Herold hoped to secure a buggy to continue travelling south. Herold, however, saw the Thirteenth New York Cavalry, which was setting up the headquarters for the manhunt in Bryantown. He told Mudd he had changed his mind about getting the buggy and rushed back to Mudd’s farm to warn Booth. While going about his business in Bryantown, Mudd learned that Booth had killed the president, but he did not turn Booth in. Instead, he returned to his farm and prepared Booth to continue his escape. He sent the two fugitives to a man named Captain Cox, who he said would help them.
Captain Cox told Booth and Herold to hide in a pine thicket and secured the help of an experienced Confederate spy named Thomas Jones. Jones advised that the men wait in the thicket until the manhunters gave up searching the area and moved further south in pursuit of them. For four days, he brought them food and news. Booth was angry and disappointed at the reaction to his crime in the newspapers that Jones brought him. He had entrusted a letter in which he explained his motives to a friend, who he asked to deliver it to the newspapers. This explanation appeared nowhere; the friend had been too terrified to deliver Booth’s letter and had decided to burn it instead.
Back in Washington, investigators suspected Mary Surratt’s son John Surratt of committing the attack on secretary Seward. They were at the house questioning the occupants on April 17, when Lewis Powell knocked on Surratt’s boardinghouse door seeking refuge. Powell was arrested, as was Mary Surratt. Also arrested that day were Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold, two men who had been involved in the kidnapping plot and were implicated in a letter found in Booth’s hotel room. Then on April 20, George Atzerodt was tracked down at his cousin’s house. He gave a confession which implicated Dr. Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt in the plot.
Stanton had to focus on the final battles of the war and could not dedicate all his attention to the manhunt. He recruited a trusted friend, Colonel Lafayette Baker, to come down from New York to help lead the investigation. Baker was an egotistical man who rubbed many of the other investigators the wrong way with his obvious attempts to take all the credit for Booth’s capture. After April 20, when Stanton announced a $100,000 reward for the capture of Booth, Herold, and John Surratt, Colonel Baker was also interested in getting all the credit for the capture to cash in on the reward money.
On April 20, Thomas Jones saw the cavalry ride out of town and decided that tonight was the night for Booth and Herold to attempt to cross the Potomac into Virginia. Virginia, unlike Maryland, was Confederate territory. Although manhunters would be looking for them there too, the further they could get into the South, the safer they would be.
Jones supplied Booth and Herold with a boat and told them which way to row. They tried to pay him for all that he had done for them, but he refused to profit for aiding them. He finally accepted payment for the boat. Booth and Herold rowed on the river through the dark night, but eventually realized they were going the wrong way: they were still in Maryland. Luckily for them, Herold recognized their landing spot. The two men went to stay with nearby friends. They then wasted a full day before finally making the river crossing into Virginia on the night of April 22.
Across the river, they were helped by a woman named Elizabeth Quesenberry, who supplied them with horses. They then stopped at the farm of a man named Dr. Richard Stuart, whom Dr. Mudd had recommended they visit. Dr. Stuart disappointed Booth’s ideas of proper Southern hospitality, by feeding them but refusing to let them stay the night. With threats of violence, Booth forced one of Stuart’s neighbors to allow them to spend the night. The next day, the man’s son drove them to Port Conway. There they met three Confederate soldiers who pledged to help them, and they received a ride across the Rappahannock River deeper in Virginia from a fisherman named William Rollins.
The Confederate soldier Willie Jett took Booth and Herold to the farm of the Garretts, where they enjoyed a comfortable meal and bed. The next day, however, they sparked the Garretts’ suspicions by acting panicked at the sight of cavalry officers riding by. That night, the Garretts refused to let them sleep in the house, instead allowing them to stay in the tobacco barn. Unbeknownst to Booth and Herold, the Garretts locked them in the tobacco barn out of a fear that they would steal their horses.
Colonel Baker had heard a tip about the fugitives’ possible location and sent his cousin Luther Byron Baker to investigate along with Colonel Everton Conger and Lieutenant Edward P. Doherty. These manhunters spoke to William Rollins, who told them where they might find Willie Jett, who told the investigators where to find Booth.
Booth and Herold heard the sounds of the cavalry arriving, but were unable to escape the locked barn. Herold surrendered himself, but Booth refused to come out. The manhunters wanted to take Booth alive so that he could stand trial and be executed. They decided to force him to come out by burning down the tobacco barn. As the flames surrounded him, Booth prepared to shoot as many of the manhunters as he could. Instead, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him. Corbett said he had acted to defend his comrades. Booth died on the farm, while Herold was taken to Washington for trial.
Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt were sentenced to death and executed on July 6, 1865, while other conspirators received prison sentences. Today, visitors come to see Ford’s Theatre and remember John Wilkes Booth’s crime, but also to memorialize the principles for which Abraham Lincoln lived and died.