The day after the four conspirators were hanged, one soldier penned the following letter to his family back home in New York:
“Camp Stoneman D.C.
July 8th 1865
Darlings at home
Before you receive this you will probably have read all about the execution of the conspirator’s at the Washington Penitentiary yesterday. My regiment was on duty immediately in the yard and around the gallows. Consequently I had a fine view of the preparation and the final execution of the criminals. The yard was an enclosure by high brick walls and buildings of probably a half acre of ground. The gallows was erected at one corner about 30 feet from a door which lead into it from the prison. The platform was about ten feet high and the beam from which the ropes was suspended was about 10 feet above the platform. That portion of the platform for 4 feet which was a sort of trap door hung upon hinges and supported by a single prop which was to be knocked out from under them by a sort of battering ram. The prisoners were accompanied to the gallows by the officers in charge of the execution and their spiritual advisers. Who in behalf of each thanked the officers and soldiers who had charge of them for this uniform kindness to them. And after praying with them (and I never heard more eloquent and stirring appeals made to a throne of diving grace) they were caused to stand up on the fatal trap, where their arms were tightly tied behind them and their legs tied at the ankle and knees – the cap drawn over their face the rope adjusted and drawn tight around the neck the signal given and four unhappy victims were suspended in the air by the neck. I stood very near on horse-back where I had a good opportunity to see every motion. I did not discover the least motion of a single muscle on Mrs. Surratt – and but very slight on Atzerodt. Payne and Harrold did not pass off so quickly. Harrold showing signs of life for nearly five minutes and Payne for full seven minutes. After hanging for the space of 20 or 30 minutes they were taken down, laid in rough boxes, and buried near the foot of the gallows. Thus perished four of the greatest criminals our land has ever produced. And my only regret is that the balance of the band had not shared the same fate. It seemed hard indeed to see a person bearing the almost divine shape of woman lead out by men alone executed and laid away with none but the hands of rough soldiers to care for her. I never before saw such picture of absolute despair and fear upon the face of a human being. Mrs. Surratt was nearly unable to stand. In fact Payne was the only one of the party that showed any signs of courage or manliness. I see by the papers today that the clergymen who attended them express much hope that they passed from this to a better world. If so, how much better than they to their intended victims whom they endeavored to send into the presence of their God with one moment’s preparation. I hope it will be my fortune to witness the execution of Jeff. Davis, & then shall I, indeed, feel that the rebellion is crushed. And when you hear any one say that Jeff. will never be hung, “that Andrew Johnson is President and that he is supported by officers who are good and true,” in such hands we are safe. The day has come when we have in authority those who care more for their country than they do for themselves or party. And I trust that it may be long before any others shall obtain the reins of Government and seek again to draw us down to ruin.
Then I have written you a good long letter, at least, a long one. And shall have but very little room for anything else – though as tomorrow is Sunday I presume I shall write again. I wrote you a good long love letter but a day or two ago, as I shall not mail this till evening perhaps I will write a little more before I send it.
Give my love to all the friends. Kiss the dear children for me. Good day to you and God bless you all.
The author of this account is Sampson D. Stiles who was a member of the New York Cavalry. The photographic record does not show any soldiers on horseback as Stiles states he was, but it is know that General Hartranft requested cavalry members to report to him:
“Mil. Prison Wash. Arsenal
July 6th, 1865
I will require a Company of Cavalry in addition to the twenty sent me today. Will you be kind enough to order them to report to me at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning. I will need them only during the day.
Very Respectfully – Your Obt. Servt. –
Bvt. Maj. Genl. Gov. Com’dr. M.P.
So while we see no mounted soldiers in the execution photos, the request for Cavalry soldiers and the details in Stiles’ letter home gives the strong impression that he was there.
Stiles’ account comes from the James O. Hall research papers
The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators – Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft edited by Edward Steers and Harold Holzer
Excellent article, Dave! Where ever did you find this? It’s always gratifying to read eye witness’ accounts. A lot of things can be discovered in these primary sources. This is the first instance of anyone that I know of giving reference to the clergy’s stirring prayers. ” I never heard more eloquent and stirring appeals made to a throne of diving grace.” Extremely interesting. Surprising as well in that he suspected Davis to be hanged; if not to the proverbial “sour apple tree.’ Please let Barry Cauchon and John Elliot know about this….I’m sure that they’d love it as well!
Thanks, again Dave!