My recent walking tour from Dr. Mudd’s house forced me to do some research on the man who was hired by John Wilkes Booth and David E. Herold to guide them across the swamp, Oswell S. Swann. As I mentioned in one of the videos, his name varies greatly in different texts and records: Oswell, Oswald, Ausy, Aussie, Oscar, Osborn, Ozzy, etc. He was born in Maryland in about 1835 and was a Wesort. A Wesort is a member of a group of people with tri-racial ancestry; Native American, Caucasian, and African American. Director of the Surratt House Museum, Laurie Verge, gives a good history of the Wesorts here.
According to Oswell Swann’s statement, he had heard about the murder of the President when Booth and Herold arrived at his house. However, he had no way of knowing that the two strangers before him were the parties responsible. It was around 9:00 pm on April 15th when Booth and Herold came up to Swann who was on foot. They asked him the way to Mr. [William] Burtles place, “Hogan’s Folly”. Burtles was a known Confederate sympathizer and his farm was used on occasion to shelter Confederate agents. Burtles’ home was only about two miles from Swann’s and the pair offered Swann $2 to guide them there. Before leaving Swann’s house, the pair asked Swann if he had any whiskey. As corroborated by David Herold in his account, Swann gave them whiskey and bread before mounting his own horse to leave. On route to Burtles’, the pair changed their minds. “They asked me if I could take them to Capt. Cox, if so they would give me $5 more.” Swann agreed to this and proceeded to take them, via Centerville Rd. (modern Route 6), across the swamp to Samuel Cox’s home of Rich Hill.
While on route, the small man, David Herold, did the talking. Noticing the crutch with the other man (Booth), “The small man said that the other man broke his leg.” Unlike the bragging the pair had done about their deed to John Lloyd at Surrattsville, it is extremely unlikely that Booth and Herold told Swann, a descendent of slaves, that the former had assassinated the Great Emancipator. If they had, the best case would have been that Swann would flee, leaving them again lost and without a necessary guide. For their own benefit, they would keep quiet to Swann about what Booth had done.
Just before reaching Cox’s house, however, Davy Herold made a threatening remark to Swann, perhaps hoping to keep him from telling anyone about this little nighttime sojourn. “Don’t you say anything. If you tell that you saw anybody you will not live long.” This was probably Swann’s first hint that there was something nefarious about these men. But Swann was a modest tobacco farmer with a wife and eight children. With so many mouths to feed he needed the money that these two men offered him for the simple job of taking them from one place to another, even if they did threaten him.
Booth, Herold and Swann got to Rich Hill around midnight and Swann states the pair were welcomed in by Samuel Cox and stayed inside for 3 or 4 hours. Swann waited patiently by the horses during this time, not because of any devotion to the men, but because he had yet to be paid! When Booth and Herold emerged from the house hours later, they put on a masterful charade for Swann’s benefit. The pair acted disgruntled as if they had been turned away. One of the men said, “I thought Cox was a man of Southern feeling.” Swann helped Booth mount his horse again and then managed to get the money owed to him. Perhaps hoping to undo their earlier threat and eliminate Swann’s suspicion of them, Booth and Herold paid Swann $12 for his help, $5 more than what they had agreed to on route. Once he had his money, Swann departed, leaving Booth and Herold mounted but still in Cox’s yard. Booth and Herold were subsequently escorted by Samuel Cox, Jr. to the nearby pine thicket where they awaited Thomas Jones. Swann returned home, seemingly unaware that he had just aided the assassins of the President.
Such unawareness could not have lasted long, however. As troops poured into Bryantown over the next few days, Swann must have thought about the two suspicious men who called upon him. But still, one of the men had a broken leg and neither of the suspects to that point were described as lame. It wasn’t until the 18th that detectives first looked into the report of two suspicious men had called upon Dr. Mudd to treat a broken leg. They returned to further question Mudd on the 21st and during this visit found the boot Mudd had removed from the injured man and noticed the name J. Wilkes inscribed on it. This was the first direct piece of proof that the man with the broken leg at Dr. Mudd’s was the assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
The news undoubtedly spread like wildfire and increased their patrols around Bryantown and the surrounding area looking for the fugitives. It was in the evening of April 23rd that Oswell Swann, now fully aware of the identity of the men he aided, went to a friend in Bryantown by the name of Joseph Padgett, so that he may help him alert the authorities of the information he possessed. No threat of retribution on Herold’s part or an extra $5 from Booth would keep him silent. He went to Colonel Wells in Bryantown and told him how he unknowingly led the fugitives to Samuel Cox’s house. At about midnight on the 23rd, the troops, led by Oswell Swann, departed Bryantown for Rich Hill. They arrived there at about daybreak and arrested Samuel Cox. Cox and his servant girl Mary Swann (no relation to Oswell) denied that Booth and Herold were ever permitted entry into the house. History would prove that they both lied and that Oswell told the truth. Nevertheless, like several others who unknowingly aided the conspirators, Swann was arrested and held in Bryantown until the 27th when he was forwarded up to Washington and held in the Old Capitol Prison. He was finally released on May 18th and returned home.
After the trial was over, and the government opened up applications for those feeling they deserved a portion of generous reward money, an anonymous letter was sent to the War Department suggesting that Oswell Swann was deserving of some compensation:
In awarding & making provision of the reward offered for the providing and giving information relative to the assassins of the late beloved President Lincoln Is not Oswell Swann entitled to a portion; the moment he was aware that Booth & Herold past his house and pressed him in there service he gave information to the proper authorities that they had past the neighborhood of there place and crossed the Potomac which accelerated & hasten there arrest. Oswell Swann is an honest, correct man and deserves well.”
Perhaps this letter was commissioned by Swann himself to get a share of the reward money. Or maybe his friend Joseph Padgett, who had helped Swann give his information to the authorities, felt compelled to write on his behalf after seeing the misfortune and imprisonment that befell the, “honest, correct man.” Swann did not receive any reward money, but it is nice to think that some anonymous neighbor in Bryantown thought him deserving of some.
Oswell Swann died on May 2nd, 1890 at the age of 55. According to the death certificate he had been living in D.C. for the past ten years, residing off of Pomeroy Rd. in Anacostia. It took me forever to decipher the cause of death which ended up being the Greek word for tuberculosis. In a bit of serendipitous luck for me, as I was working on all of this, I got a call from Jim Garrett. Jim Garrett and his co-author Rich Smyth (both of whom are big supporters and commenters here on BoothieBarn) wrote the book, The Lincoln Assassination: Where Are They Now?, which documents the burial places of people associated with Lincoln’s death. Jim was out and about in DC when he called me, and I told him that I was looking at the death certificate for Oswell Swann which stated he was buried at Mt. Olivet cemetery. Mt. Olivet is the final resting place of Mary Surratt and John Lloyd among others. Jim was kind enough to stop by Mt. Olivet to check out the lead that Oswell Swann may be there. Jim and a cemetery employee had to go into the old, old books but, with the date of burial I provided him, they managed to find that Oswell is indeed buried in Mt. Olivet. It will take further digging to find out which specific section of the cemetery he is in. Oswell must have been close to destitute when he died as his grave is marked as a “free grave site” in the record books. Due to this, Oswell Swann’s grave will have no marker or headstone on it.
In 1869, a correspondent to the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper visited the country that I walked through a few days ago. There he spoke with, “an intelligent gentleman, living in the neighborhood of Doctor Mudd.” This correspondent’s unnamed informant recounted, with only limited accuracy, the story of Oswell Swann. Part of his narrative, however, correctly summarizes Swann and his role in Booth and Heorld’s escape. Of the terrain the fugitives found themselves in, the man stated, “Any one who has seen the country and appreciated its wild network of roads, can understand the demand [for a guide].” Booth and Herold had become lost, disorientated and needed help from anyone they could find to get them across the Zekiah Swamp. It was this need and sheer bad luck that brought Booth and Herold to Oswell Swann’s door. Enticed by an easy way to make some money, Oswell Swann agreed to take the two strangers where they wanted to go, “not knowing, of course, the sort of work he was contracting for.” Oswell Swann made an anonymous deal with the Devil, as it were, and though Swann tried his best afterwards to help the soldiers track him down, he still spent about a month in prison for it.
The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers
The Lincoln Assassination: The Reward Files by William Edwards
“Odd Letter” Cincinnati Commercial, May 3rd, 1869
James O. Hall Research Center
I’m sure Jim and Rich will add Oswell Swann to the next edition of their book, but why wait for that when you can just buy it now: http://www.amazon.com/The-Lincoln-Assassination-Individuals-Washington/dp/0983721386