Update: JWB’s Note at the Archives

Yesterday, I found myself in Washington, D.C. for a time.  I braved the snow and waited, cold and wet, in line outside the National Archives for an hour.  When I finally got in, I made a beeline not for the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but rather for the special exhibit on signatures, “Making Their Mark”:

Making Their Mark exhibit card  My quest today was to see the note that John Wilkes Booth left for Vice President Andrew Johnson, hours before he assassinated President Lincoln.  In the online exhibit guide for “Making Their Mark” you can see a high resolution image of the front and back of the note:

Booth's note to Johnson


Back of Booth's note to Johnson

Fun fact: They do not allow you to take pictures inside of the National Archives.  This is particularly true in the rotunda where the lights are dimmed and there are many guards to protect our country’s charters of freedom from the damaging effects of flash photography.  The core documents to our freedom have faded so much over the years that this very much justified, despite the desire of many to take a selfie with the Bill of Rights.

Luckily, the “Making Their Mark” exhibit was not housed in the rotunda but, instead, in a special exhibit room with more lighting and only one patrolling guard.  While I take the rules of any museum very seriously (you should have seen the way I was giving the evil eye to some high school kids engaging in a snowball fight on the grounds of the Archives before I got in), I just couldn’t pass up the chance to snap a few photos of Booth’s note to share with you all.  If it helps, I did turn off the flash on my phone so that it would not harm the document in any way.  I hope the Archives will forgive me.

Booth's note display  I was both shocked with how small the actual note was.  It was smaller than my 2″ x 3 1/2″ business card that I carry around with me.  After I got back home, I decided that the note was a little bigger than 1 1/2 inches tall and almost 3 inches long.  Here’s a closer picture of the note with an approximate scale:

Booth's note with approximate scale

For some background, here is the conspiracy trial testimony of Col. William A. Browning, Andrew Johnson’s private secretary, in which he mentions the note:

“William A. Browning,
a witness called for the prosecution, being duly sworn, testified as follows:
By the Judge Advocate:
Q. Will you state if you are the private secretary of the President?
A. Yes, sir: I am.
Q. Were you with him on the 14th of April last?
A. I was.
Q. (Exhibiting a card to the witness.) What knowledge, if any, have you of that card having been sent to him by John Wilkes Booth?
A. Between the hours of four and five o’clock in the afternoon, I left Vice-President Johnson’s room in the Capitol, and went to the Kirkwood House, where I was boarding with him. Upon entering, I went up to the office, as was my custom; and I saw a card in my box. Vice-President Johnson’s box and mine were adjoining: mine was 67, his was 68. In 67 I noticed a card. The clerk of the hotel, Mr. Jones, handed it to me. This I recognize as the card.
Q. Will you read what is on it?
A. “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” It was in my box.
(The card was offered in evidence without objection and is marked exhibit no. 29.)
Q. You do not know anything about the handwriting of Booth?
A. No, sir.
Q. You had no acquaintance whatever with J. Wilkes Booth, had you?
A. Yes, sir: I had known him when he was playing in Nashville, Tenn. I met him there several times. That was the only acquaintance that I had with him.
Q. Did you understand the card as sent to the President, or to yourself?
A. At the time, I attached no importance to it. I had known him in Nashville; and, seeing the card, I made the remark, when it was handed to me by the clerk, “It is from Booth: is he playing here?” I had some idea of going to see him. I thought, perhaps, he might have called upon me, having known me; but, when his name was connected with this affair, I looked upon it differently. It was a very common mistake in the office to put the cards intended for me in the Vice-President’s box; and his would find their way into mine, they being together.”

Appropriately enough, even though I snapped a few more pictures of the note before we left, I was so nervous about being caught and possibly banned from the National Archives for life (a horrible punishment for a researcher) that all the rest of my pictures are blurry messes.  If you want nice pictures of the note, I refer back to the images of it from the “Making Their Mark” online exhibit guide.

“Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” at the National Archives, March 21, 2014 – January 5, 2015
“Making Their Mark” online exhibit guide
The Lincoln Assassination Trial – The Court Transcripts edited by William Edwards

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Update: JWB’s Note at the Archives

  1. John C. Fazio


    The conventional wisdom’s slip is showing, again. There is no evidence that Atzerodt lost his nerve in the Kirkwood, nor, as is so often said, that he spent his entire time there in the bar trying to bolster his courage with drink. There is, however, good evidence that he went there at the killing hour (i.e. about 10:15) and left within five minutes, per Fletcher, who was observing him. There is further good evidence that he and Herold were to support each other in the effort, though they each claim only the back-up role. Rather than losing their nerve, they most likely encountered a problem that they had not anticipated. Johnson may have had security at his door. Or he may have been unresponsive to knocking (asleep?), which is what Farwell found when he came to protect him after the assassination. As for the note, there is little to debate, if anything. Booth himself told Ruggles that he left it in the morning to compromise Johnson. The tragedian took a page out of Julius Caesar, i.e. Mark Antony’s “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, Take then what course thou wilt.” As we all know, it worked: Mrs. Lincoln was convinced he was complicit and his political enemies would make a lot of hay out of it later.


  2. Kathy Canavan

    Great photos on Booth sig

  3. Rich smyth

    Now you have presented me with another mystery. Who is Pvt. John xxxxx? Two letters in his name appear to be “in” – compare them with the word “into” in the line below his name.

    • Great minds think alike, Rich. I spent a good amount of time last night looking at the reward files for any privates who were looking for money in the capture of Atzerodt or were present at the Kirkwood house. I came up empty. The obvious answer should be John Lee, the detective who searched George’s room but the last name on the note is too long to be Lee.

  4. Tom K

    I still havent gotten the chance to see the note yet.

  5. RE: “Or he may have been unresponsive to knocking (asleep?), which is what Farwell found when he came to protect him after the assassination.”

    John, have you read Jerry Madonna’s “A Threat to the Republic?” Jerry has an interesting (unproven) speculation on what may have been going on in Johnson’s room.

  6. John C. Fazio


    Thanks for the follow-up. Yes, I did read it, but I do not recall what Jerry wrote in this connection. I’ll go back and check. Was this the supposition that the old coot was having a dalliance? A manage a trois? An orgy? Anything is possible. If so, they must have hidden under the bed or in the closet when Farwell finally entered the room. Or perhaps Farwell just left some things unsaid. I’ll check.


    • John C. Fazio


      I checked. Yes, well, Ella Starr is a possibility, but only that. No evidence. What is more interesting is that Atzerodt said Johnson’s door was unlocked “all night”, according to Doster. How would Atzerodt know that unless he tried the door? If he tried the door, which is the more reasonable conclusion: that he did so because he wanted to have a look at how nicely a Vice President’s suite would be furnished, or because he wanted to kill the Vice President, or at least came close to doing so before something went awry? I do not contend that Atzerodt was fully committed to murder. There is enough evidence to support the conclusion that he was a reluctant assassin, if for no reason other than the fact that escape from the Kirkwood after the deed was very problematic. But by sticking his head into the lion’s mouth at the appointed hour, he demonstrated some degree of commitment, did he not? His failure surely had much to do with his heading for the farm near Baltimore rather than following his comrades across the bridge, per Smoot.


  7. Tom K

    I saw the note.

  8. Pingback: John Wilkes Booth’s Movements at Ford’s Theatre | BoothieBarn

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