Prelude to a Project

Over two years ago, I came up with an idea for a project. I wanted to expand my knowledge of the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. While I was very familiar with the outcome of the trial and the big revelations that the different testimonies brought to light, my knowledge of the trial, as an event, had been lacking. The trial was such a large and inaccessible part of the assassination story to a person without any legal background. Even with my knowledge of the history of Lincoln’s assassination, attempting to read the trial transcript, and make sense of it all, was an intimidating prospect.

The original incarnation of this project still shied away from the transcript itself with my interest being drawn to learning more about the experiences of the individual conspirators while the trial was going on. While we have practically nothing from the 8 conspirators regarding their day to day thoughts on the proceedings, the daily newspapers of the time often contained descriptions of the conspirators’ appearances and little mentions of their actions on the prisoners’ dock. The first draft of this project was little more than a list of the witnesses who testified on each date, followed by these descriptions from the newspapers.

However, as I went on, I found that I needed to provide at least some summation, if only for myself, regarding what each witness was testifying about. Some of the witnesses, especially the important ones, were easy as I was already familiar with the relevance of their words. However the trial consisted of 347 unique witnesses and most of them gave testimony that is only comprehensible if you know the testimonies that preceded it.

With this in mind, the project expanded. I started reading the trial transcript, word for word. I am greatly indebted to the work of author William Edwards, who published the most detailed and accurate version of the trial transcript that exists. At over 1400 pages in length, I knew the task ahead of me was going to be long but I wanted to create a more interactive and, most importantly, accessible version of the trial. I took on the role of Benn Pitman, the court’s chief recorder who later published a one volume transcript of the trial using summarized testimonies. I wanted to do the same as Pitman but update it using the technology available to us. Over time, what started as a cheat sheet for myself, became an interactive resource for understanding and referencing the trial of the conspirators.

The end project, as you will soon see, consists of a day by day chronology of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. For each day of the trial, I have documented the proceedings, summarized the testimony of each witness, and included the descriptions and recollections of the individuals who took part in or visited the trial on each day. I have painstakingly researched the 347 witnesses, rectifying misspelled names from the transcript and doing my best to find visuals that represent them and their lives. I have been assisted in this by many of my friends and colleagues whose names appear in the acknowledgement section at the bottom of the trial home page.

Each day of the trial exists as its own page here on LincolnConspirators.com and they will be released on their corresponding anniversary here in 2020. In this way you will be able to experience the trial, day by day, in the same way those in 1865 did. This post was published on May 1, 2020 and so the page for May 1, 1865 is now available to read. It contains the announcement that, 155 years ago today, President Andrew Johnson released the orders to create a military commission to try the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The decision to try the conspirators in a military court rather than a civilian trial was, and continues to be, a controversial decision with many arguments to be made about its constitutionality. However, my purpose in this project is not to debate the legality of the trial. I am more concerned about the testimony that was given at the trial and the ramifications it had on the conspirators.

Using my own limited computer abilities, I have worked to make this project as interactive as possible. Starting with May 9th, the day in which the proceedings of the trial actually began, each individual page contains a Table of Contents at the top. Using this you can click to jump down to a specific witness or conspirator. Clicking entries on the Table of Contents will also provide you with direct links to those places in the page, making it helpful if you want bookmark or share a specific testimony rather than the whole page. When reading my summarized version of a witness’s testimony, the full name of the witness is always hyperlinked. Clicking on their name will take you to their full testimony in the historical transcripts so that you can read them for yourself. In addition, when witnesses are recalled or make direct reference to the prior testimony of others, I have included hyperlinks to the corresponding testimony in question. In this way you can quickly review and/or cross reference the sometimes contrary statements being made.

A sample Table of Contents for a day of the trial.

At the beginning of the trial, the court was held in closed session. Public and private uproar over the secrecy of the court caused the doors to be opened up to outside press and visitors starting on May 13th. Starting on this date, the Table of Contents grows to include the newspaper descriptions of the conspirators and known visitors to the court room. As the trial goes on and interest in the individual conspirators’ appearances wanes, there are less descriptions available. Near the latter part of the trial an attempt has been made to supplement these areas with general descriptions of the conspirators from undated sources.

For each day of the trial, I will be publishing a corresponding post here on LincolnConspirators.com containing a teaser of what occurred on this date 155 years ago. The posts will also contain a link to newly released trial page. I apologize in advance for blowing up your inbox with nearly daily posts for the next two months. The home page for the trial project, which contains links to the individual days, will always be accessible and available, though the links will not work until that specific day has arrived. By the end of June 2020 every day of the trial project will be accessible and will remain so.

I’m very much looking forward to sharing with you this project that has occupied too much of my time over the past two years. My hope is that this project will be a helpful resource for all who seek to learn more about the trial of the conspirators.

So, while we are still about a week away before the trial of the Lincoln conspirators officially began, I invite you to visit the Home Page of the project and take a look at the Witness List for the days to come. If you’re so inclined you can even take a look at the project’s Bibliography and read through the Introduction (which is pretty much just this post again).

In the end, I hope you will come back as regularly as you can during May and June to see how the conspiracy trial plays out, day by day.

Sincerely,

Dave Taylor

Categories: History, News | Tags: | 70 Comments

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70 thoughts on “Prelude to a Project

  1. Ernest Lawrence Abel

    Dave, as always you come up with innovative ways to make the Booth story more accessible.

  2. David Lassmn

    Fantastic work. Looks like you got yourself a book!

    • David,

      While there are several books on the trial and this project consists of more than enough material to warrant a book itself, I actually prefer the online format of this. In a book I couldn’t hyperlink to relevant testimony or outside sources to learn more. I’m hoping this form will make the trial less scary and more understandable than the traditional book format. Plus, this allows me to include a lot of pictures that would never fit in a book.

  3. Joseph Moore

    Wow – great work! Looking forward to reading more on this.

  4. Robert Summers

    Marvelous. This is a major contribution to the study of the Lincoln assassination. Now I know what I will be doing each day for the next two months under quarantine. Thank you for all your hard work, Dave. Bravo.

    • Bob,

      Thank you for all your help with Dr. Mudd and the testimony related to him. I would never have been able to complete this project without your assistance and wonderful research at https://www.muddresearch.com. You and Bob Bowser are THE Bobs when it comes to understanding ole Doc Mudd.

  5. Brian Anderson

    Dave — What a monumental task you’ve taken on! I look forward to following what you put out, especially the parts that involve John T Ford. Brian

    • Brian,

      Thank you for the kind words. Due to the impressive work of Thomas Ewing in defending Edman Spangler, so many of your historical friends at Ford’s Theatre make their appearance on the stand. You will certainly have a lot to read about as we get further along in the project.

  6. Ilka Knuppel

    Incredible research, Dave! Kudos!!

  7. Gene Cook

    Looking forward to this.
    Based upon the icons we have, do you have a BoothieBarn video game planned for the future?

    • Gene,
      Wordpress automatically creates random icons for commenters. They do have a very Space Invaders vibe.

  8. Gary

    OUTSTANDING!

  9. Art Candenquist

    We await with the usual bated breath…

  10. Ben Scheinhoft

    Are the summaries you’re using based on Pittman’s transcript. I have heard over the years that there is a second transcript not done by Pittman

    • Ben, there are actually three different period transcripts of the trial. The most famous one is the Pitman version since he was one of the court reporters to the trial and his published volume was considered the official account. However, to fit all of the testimony into one volume, Pitman condensed the testimony from the original question and answer format into narrative summaries. This makes it seem like the witnesses each presented their testimony in long monologues. Another transcript was published by T. B. Peterson and Bros out of Philadelphia. This version merely reproduced the testimony as it had been daily published by the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is full of misspelled names (John M. Floyd instead of John M. Lloyd) and also turned into narrative summaries near the end of the trial. Editor Benjamin Perley Poore published the most exact transcript of the trial in 1865 and 1866, however he stopped after the third volume because sales of the set were down. He maintained the full question and answer format of the original trial, but never published the last volume so the trial is incomplete. When providing links to the full testimony I usually link to Poore’s transcript but when we get towards the end of the trial, I’m forced to utilize Pitman. For my own work, I used William Edwards’ modern transcription. Edwards transcribed the original hand written proceedings of the trial that were presented to the commission and are housed at the National Archives. In this way, he has created the most accurate transcription of the trial that exists. For the latter part of the trial, Edwards transcription is the only complete source for what was said. The Pitman, Peterson, and Poore versions of the trial are all in the public domain and easily accessible through Google Books and Archive.org. But I do recommend Edwards’ ebook of his transcription for anyone who is going to do real research into the trial. https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Lincoln_Assassination_Trial_The_Cour.html?id=Myx3QihsH4IC

  11. Henry Land

    Thank you so much for your dedicated effort.

  12. Carol Van Gilst

    WOW, DAVE! Your initial feelings about tackling the transcript mirror my own. I tried to read Pittman but it was daunting because of its’ length…although the parts I read were fascinating. I didn’t have the time to devote to it.
    I look forward to reading your dailies- what a great idea!

    • The trial is such a behemoth and this project will certainly feel like that too at times. When the days of 20+ witnesses come, hopefully you’ll still stay with me.

  13. ucla2012

    Thank you, Dave! What an interesting project. I’m really looking forward to joining you for this fascinating journey.

  14. jett

    great idea

  15. Kelly Dawson

    TY Ilka Knüppel for sharing this link so I can learn more about my historical Surratsville neighbors & the trial of co-conspirators. I’m looking forward to some daily piece of history.

  16. Mark R.

    Great Story, I have a Peterson Brothers copy of the transcripts, 1865. It is signed and gifted to the Newport Barracks, KY Post Trader from General Kautz on April 1st 1865. The trial has always been a major point of fascination for me. Once again, Great Job.

  17. Diane E Adkins

    Wow, Dave!! This is just fantastic. I’ll look forward to reading this during our hunkering down in place. . Congrats!

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  19. Miriam Crispin

    Dave, as usual a thorough job well done!

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  21. Dennis D. Urban

    What an incredible effort. Can’t wait to read each day’s testimony. Not being critical but commenting; for each day’s witness list I’d like to see them in order of testimony rather than alpha order. Reason being to see what the prosecution was trying to establish with each group of witnesses. The witnesses certainly were called with a purpose in mind. Perhaps you could explain this with each day’s synopsis. Thanks again for your unbelievable effort!.

    • The witnesses will be presented in chronological order during each day of testimony. The only place where they are listed in alphabetical order is on the Witnesses by Date page which serves as an index of sorts. And, to be truthful, the calling of witnesses became rather random than purposeful as the trial went on. It really got down to whoever they had readily available rather than a thought out plan. That is one thing that makes the trial so difficult to follow without the context behind the testimony. Hopefully this project will alleviate that.

      • chiefden34gmailcom

        Thanks for the explanation, Dave. Others will find your explanation worthwhile as well.

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