Picture This: A New Image of Michael O’Laughlen

At around 9:00 p.m. on April 17, 1865, a young, mustachioed man in handcuffs was brought to Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard and placed aboard a ship named the U.S.S. Saugus. The Saugus was lying at anchor in the middle of the water in preparation for its role of becoming an island fortress to hold those arrested as conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination. This 24 year old man, whose presence on board christened the Saugus as a prison ship, was named Michael O’Laughlen.

O'Laughlen from Harper's Weekly

O’Laughlen was a long time friend of John Wilkes Booth. The two grew up as boys together on Exeter St. in Baltimore, where the Booth’s lived across the street from the O’Laughlen family. Though Booth had a more personal relationship with Samuel Williams O’Laughlen, Michael’s older brother, Booth still had fond memories of Michael. As both Booth and O’Laughlen grew up, their lives went in different directions. Booth became a noted Shakespearean star, following in the footsteps of his father and brothers, while O’Laughlen ended up joining a Maryland regiment which fought on the side of the Confederacy. Much of O’Laughlen’s time in the Confederacy was plagued with illness and by 1862 he was back home in Maryland assisting his brother in the hay and feed business.

In the fall of 1864, Booth reconnected with his old friend and the charismatic actor easily convinced O’Laughlen to join his plot to abduct President Lincoln for the benefit of the Confederacy. Delays and inaction continued for several months and O’Laughlen eventually lost interest in the plot and returned to work with his brother. On April 13, 1865, O’Laughlen traveled from Baltimore down to D.C. in order to take in the Grand Illumination celebration with friends. He allegedly made a couple of attempts to meet with Booth on this date, but failed to connect with the actor. When the assassination occurred on April 14th, O’Laughlen was terrified due to his intimate connection with the assassin. O’Laughlen returned to Baltimore but, after a few days, realized that his arrest would be unavoidable and imminent. O’Laughlen was the only conspirator to have turned himself in, arranging his surrender at the home of his sister.

And so it was that Michael O’Laughlen was the first of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators to be placed aboard the Saugus, confined for his own protection away from mob violence that might do him harm but also in a condition that would prevent him from communicating with anyone. As other conspirators were arrested, they would be place aboard the Saugus as well, until the ship no longer had enough space to adequately isolate them all and the U.S.S. Montauk was brought alongside for additional space. O’Laughlen was kept aboard the Saugus during this time, confined to the ship’s head.

O’Laughlen was on the Saugus from April 17th until April 29th when all the accused aboard the ironclads were transferred to the Arsenal Penitentiary. The research of authors Barry Cauchon and John Elliott has shown pretty conclusively that during this period of confinement, photographer Alexander Gardner made four visits to the ships to photograph the conspirators. O’Laughlen’s mugshots were taken with the bulk of the other conspirators’ images on April 25th. The following are the two images previously known of Michael O’Laughlen:

Michael O'Laughlen Mug Shot Front

Michael O'Laughlen Mug Shot Profile

Until now, these two images were the only images we have ever found of Michael O’Laughlen. Mugshots such as these were used by artists to create engravings for the illustrated newspapers of the day. However as a low interest conspirator and one who was not involved in the actual assassination plot, few took the time to make an engraving of the mild mannered O’Laughlen. The public was far more interested in getting a look at Lewis Powell, the scoundrel who viciously attacked the Secretary of State, so far more impressive engravings were made of him.  One of the lesser known illustrated newspapers, the Washington Weekly Chronicle, contained engravings of most of the conspirators when they published their July 15, 1865 issue:

Washington Weekly Chronicle 7-15-1865

Though Lewis Powell took center stage, the Chronicle also provided this engraving of Michael O’Laughlen:

O'Laughlen Washington Weekly Chronicle

A detailed look will demonstrate that this particular engraving does not actually match either one of the two known mugshot photos of Michael O’Laughlen. It is somewhat similar to the hat-less photo of O’Laughlen, but this engraving shows more of his face than the original source image.

The easiest conclusion to draw is that the engraver added a little bit of their own artistic license when creating the drawing of Michael O’Laughlen. This is not unheard of. As a matter of fact, the large image of Lewis Powell in this edition does not match a known image of Lewis Powell. Despite the tagline that this engraving was based on a photograph taken especially for the Washington Weekly Chronicle, according to author Betty Ownsbey, this engraving of Lewis Powell appears to be a sort of composite between two images of Powell, instead.

Composite Powell Engraving Washington Weekly Chronicle

So it seemed reasonable that the engraving of Michael O’Laughlen in this issue was also not based on an actual photograph, but instead on an artist’s extrapolation of O’Laughlen’s mugshot photographs.

It turns out, however, that this engraving actually isn’t an extrapolation or artistic license. Today, while searching through the online digital collections of the Huntington Library in California, I decided to click on a thumbnail that I assumed was one of the two common mugshot photographs of Michael O’Laughlen.

O'Laughlen Thumbnail Huntington

Immediately I was struck with the suspicion that something was wrong. It was a strange feeling to have. Before me was obviously the hat-less mugshot photo of Michael O’Laughlen, and yet, at the same time, it wasn’t right. As a longtime researcher and reader on the Lincoln assassination I have become so accustomed to seeing the same images over and over again. My accustomed brain was saying, “Yep, this is the same picture of O’Laughlen you always see,” but, at the same time, I couldn’t shake the idea that something was different. Suddenly, I had to see Michael O’Laughlen’s mugshot photographs, I needed to silence the voice saying something was wrong. I opened up my O’Laughlen Picture Gallery and stared at the mugshots. Then it hit me, this image was not the same as the traditional hat-less mugshot. I was surprised and ecstatic to see that this was the photograph that the Washington Weekly Chronicle engraving was based on. Here, at long last, was O’Laughlen’s missing mugshot photograph:

New Michael O'Laughlen Mugshot Huntington Library

New Michael O'Laughlen Mugshot 2 Huntington Library

Unlike the original hat-less photo, O’Laughlen’s face is angled more towards the viewer in this image. The fact that O’Laughlen’s chin is slightly blurry here also hints that he was moving, possibly turning, when the photo was taken.

While Michael O’Laughlen escaped formal execution at the conclusion the trial of the conspirators, his ultimate fate would be equal to it. While serving his life sentence at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, O’Laughlen was one of the many souls who contracted Yellow Fever in the fall of 1867. Despite the attentive care provided to him by his fellow prisoners, Dr. Mudd, Edman Spangler, and Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen perished from Yellow Fever on September 23, 1867. Dr. Mudd lamented that O’Laughlen had become a dear friend to him and that he would miss his, “warm friendly disposition” and, “fine comprehensive intellect.”

This newly discovered mugshot of conspirator Michael O’Laughlen gives us another, much needed angle on a man whose life was tragically cut short due to his involvement in John Wilkes Booth’s plot against Lincoln. It gives us an additional chance to look into the eyes of a young man who has realized that he allowed a charismatic friend to lead him down the path of his own destruction.

New Michael O'Laughlen Mugshot 3 Huntington Library

This image should also remind us that there are still new discoveries to be made. The book of the Lincoln assassination will never be completely written, and, as demonstrated here, it will never be completely illustrated either.

The Huntington Library Digital Collections
A Peek Inside the Walls: 13 Days Aboard the Monitors by John Elliott and Barry Cauchon
Betty Ownsbey
The Assassin’s Doctor by Robert K. Summers

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “Picture This: A New Image of Michael O’Laughlen

  1. Eva Lennartz

    Your post is great as always – and how creative are these pumpkins. Just have to ask – did you carve them?

    • Thank you, Eva. I bring out the Booth related pumpkin header every Halloween. I did carve all of them myself using craft (artificial) pumpkins that don’t decay. Every Halloween season I take them out and use them for decoration. I was hoping to carve another one this year but didn’t have the time.

  2. Wonderful find, Dave – and wonderful post as always! Great going –

    • Thank you, Betty.

      Did I misquote you in regards to the engraving of Powell on the Washington Weekly Chronicle? Do you think it is a real image that has been lost or a composite?

  3. Laurie Verge

    Great detective work, Dave. And once again, I am struck with how much O’Laughlen resembled Booth in facial features. I have often thought that he was better looking than “the handsomest man in America.”

    • John and Barry relate in their supplement that some of the sailors on board the Saugus thought that O’Laughlen was Booth himself and were contemplating lynching him until additional prisoners were brought on board.

  4. Dennis Urban

    Amazing find; excellent eye. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Dennis Urban

    As I scrolled back and forth between the two images, I noticed O’Laughlen did in fact move to the left. Note the vertical seam of the ship’s ironwork in relation to his left shoulder. He must have been uncomfortable and repositioned himself. Wouldn’t you?

    • Dennis,

      I’m wondering if it is the photographer who moved instead of O’Laughlen. The reason I suggest this is because his clothes seem to be in the same position between the two photos with only the angle having changed.

  6. Susan Higginbotham


  7. Diane Adkins

    Wow! What a find. LOVE your blog….so very informative.

  8. Kathy Canavan

    The artist makes him looks better than he does in the photos that follow the drawing.

    • I think the first engraving does the best job capturing O’Laughlen, but I still think he looks better in the photographs than in the engravings.

  9. Great find, Dave! Kudos! Now to find another quilt.

  10. Julie

    Poor Michael- those sad eyes. Laurie’s right- I’ve always thought Davey Herold was the cutest of the Lincoln conspirators, but maybe I’m changing my mind now!

    • Julie,

      I also think there is a great deal of sadness in O’Laughlen’s eyes and that it is very apparent in the new photograph.

      Regarding the “cutest” conspirator, I’ll leave that up to you experts. 🙂

  11. Russell Lewis

    Wonderful work Dave, and a great post to read. Love the pumpkins too.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Russell. Who knows what new treasures might be hiding in your museum’s collection as well.

  12. Jim Garrett

    Upon careful examination of the “discovered” image, one can clearly see it is a hoax. Young Mr. Taylor has dressed up as Michael O’Laughlin and staged the picture. One can clearly see that this is a poor quality fake!!!

  13. Dennis Urban

    This is the first time in all my years of research and reading I have ever read of any one of the conspirators referred to as “cute”. What is the world coming to? Political correctness to the extreme. I get “the handsomest man in America” in reference to JWB. I can only image one of those Baltimore southern belles telling ML he is cute. Perhaps if that happened, he would not gave gotten into the mess he did.

  14. Laurie Verge

    Oh, Dennis… A good number of we ladies have discussed the physical attributes of several of the conspirators besides JWB. Lewis Powell usually heads the list, followed by O’Laughlen, Arnold, and Herold.

    “Everyone to their own liking said the old lady as she kissed the cow.”

  15. Dennis Urban

    I would like to see the two photos side by side if you can do that on this site. It looks to me like ML did in fact move. His manacled hands have dropped lower between his legs and his legs are spread farther apart to accomodate the new hand position. Also check the buttons on his vest against the coat line. The button on the lower right of the vest is slightly obscured by the coat while it is fully visible on the earlier photo. In the new photo it looks like a loose button on a thread is visible just below the bottom of the vest. The top portion of the clothing above the chest appears unchanged but it clearly looks like ML repositioned himself rather than Gardiner slightly moving his location. Makes no difference I suppose but I’ll bet ML was quite uncomfortable having these photos made. I suspect he also pursed his lips causing the chin distortion.

  16. “Thank you, Betty.

    Did I misquote you in regards to the engraving of Powell on the Washington Weekly Chronicle? Do you think it is a real image that has been lost or a composite?”

    Re: The Powell image – Mr. Hall and I searched for that image years ago when I bought the paper. We never came up with anything definite and we searched all records in the National Archives as well as Library of Congress, etc. Unless the image was broken and tossed, it was lost OR – you are right – it could simply have been an early “Photoshop” composite image…. head plus body equals new photo! Good catch!

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  19. Jeffrey Bloomfield

    Great piece of detective work on your part here. It reminds me of similar problems about photographs and possible new images in the Jack the Ripper Case. For example, while new photos do occasionally show up of victims of the Ripper (Annie Chapman) when they were not prostitutes, or new photos of suspects (Montague Druitt or James Kenneth Stephen) turn up, many pictures just have not been found. One that may interest “BoothieBarn readers is that of Dr. Tumblety, the wealthy quack who not only was a suspect in the Whitechapel Murders but had been arrested earlier (in 1865) been arrested as possibly being a Lincoln conspirator. Except for one wood block engraving in a newspaper of the splendidly mustachioed Tumblety, not a single verifiable photograph of the Doctor ever turned up.

    Jeff Bloomfield

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