“Treason Chokers” and “Wooden Overcoats”: An Eyewitness Account of the Conspirators’ Execution

On July 7, 1865, four of the convicted conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln were put to death on the grounds of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, D.C. The condemned prisoners consisted of Lewis Powell who had attacked and nearly fatally wounded Secretary of State William Seward, David Herold who had assisted and joined John Wilkes Booth on his ill fated escape after the shooting of the President, George Atzerodt who had been commissioned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but failed to make the attempt, and Mary Surratt the owner of a D.C. boardinghouse who assisted Booth by transporting field glasses to her Maryland tavern on the afternoon of the assassination.

The execution of these three men and one woman marked an ending in the country’s quest for vengeance after the death of the Chief Executive. Coming after a military trial which lasted for 8 weeks and heard from 347 witnesses, the end of the conspirators was well documented in the press of the day. Vivid descriptions of the hanging on that hot July afternoon were published in newspapers nationwide from Associated Press reporters and others on the scene.

But perhaps one of the most compelling accounts of that day’s events comes from one of the soldiers who was present at the Old Arsenal when the drops fell. This soldier’s name was William D. F. Landon. Originally a private with the 14th Indiana Infantry, he was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness and then transferred to the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers. In this way he was a member of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s corps with duty in and around Virginia and Washington. One thing that was unique about Sgt. Landon was his role as an unofficial field reporter for his local newspaper back in Indiana, The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun. Over the course of the war, Landon wrote many letters to the editor of the Western Sun documenting the life of a soldier along with the events and battles he took part in. He wrote all of these letters under the pen name of Prock, affording him a degree of anonymity to speak honestly about what he was witnessing.

From July through November of 1865 alone, Prock wrote a series of nine letters to the Sun about his experiences. Most notably is the letter he wrote on July 11, 1865 documenting his recent duty at the execution of the conspirators. This letter was published in the July 22, 1865 edition of The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun. If you would like to read Prock’s account in its original form, click here, otherwise what follows is a transcription made from the article.

This account provides us with a unique perspective on the execution of the conspirators written in a tone that is not to be found in any other descriptions of the event. There is a surprising amount of humor in what Prock writes. But it’s also an honest accounting, adding a degree of human realism to the otherwise stark proceedings.

“Camp First Regiment U.S. Veteran Vol.
Hancock’s Corps.
Near Washington, D.C., July 11, 1865

Dear Greene:

At 4 o’clock on the morning of the 7th inst. we marched with one day’s rations and “forty rounds” to the Arsenal, or Old penitentiary building, to take part in the “drop game.” As we filed into the enclosure and formed two sides of a square (the prison wall and the high brick parapet forming the other two) I observed first four graves and four “wooden overcoats;” then the scaffold, with two drops, and the four “treason chokers” swaying to and fro in the wind. I had not anticipated all this so soon, presuming the XEQtion would of course be a public one, and that having already marched five miles in a broiling July sun and through dense clouds of stifling dust, fancied our troubles but begun, and that we were to escort the wretches to some of the high and barren hilltops surrounding the city; we were all most agreeably disappointed and stood at ease, leaning on our well burnished arms and gazing with mere curiosity at the workmen putting the finishing touches to the “assassins’ derrick.” Guards being posted everywhere, we stacked arms and broke ranks. Some of the carpenters in the regiment lent a hand in adjusting beams and traces, occasionally tossing the boys a block that was sawn off, or a strip of scantling for a walking stick. A grand rush was always made for these by the “relic hunters of the Wilderness,” occasioning much amusement amongst the soldiery. In removing some caisson boxes, &c., from one part of the yard, a fatigue party captured a huge rat. He was immediately court-martialed, sentenced and (a miniature gallows being erected and a piece of fish line procured) hung – his carcass chucked into one of the pits near the coffins.

A piece of the conspirators’ gallows. From the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The prison wall is at least eighteen feet high and shut out not only the view from the Potomac, but the “ten knot” breeze that was filling more than one white sail on the broad stream. Occasionally a circling puff whirling over the enclosure would stir up everything that was laying around loose, dust included, and cause the “human hawsers” to writhe as I have seen wounded snakes before now.

Some hundred citizens were admitted – not twenty-five of them but what were attached to either the “press gang” or detective’s force of Washington City. All these “roosters” carried umbrellas, and soon had them spread skywards. The sentinels took revenge by quietly punching their sharp glittering bayonets through the “silk Sibleys;” so, had it rained, many a chap would have wondered why his “round-house” leaked so badly.

Finally, everything was in readiness and “Time!” called. The soldiers stood to their arms and the four culprits appeared on the scene. The usual formula was gone through with, lasting perhaps twenty minutes, when the ropes were adjusted, the white caps pulled over their heads, and they were literally jerked into Eternity. I have an idea that from the time a fellow feels the rope coiling round his neck till he is “hood-winked” and actually “rubbed out” of existence, ye past presents the finest – aye, perhaps the most terrible – panorama he ever witnessed. I have no desire to see it (when my turn comes for “going under”) “roped in,” with a frame of bayonets and bronzed, unsympathising faces.

Life having been pronounced extinct by the U.S. surgeons present, the yard was cleared of all but members of our regiment or division by order of Major Gen. Hancock; a “detail” was then made to take down the bodies and bury them. The soldiers performing this task whacked off as much rope from each dangling quirl as they could reach, and, cutting it into small pieces, threw it among their comrades below. The scramble for the twine far exceeded that for the blocks and scraps of wood an hour or two before.

Pieces of the ropes used to hang the conspirators. From the collection of the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Two men scuffling good humoredly for a “rope-relic,” rolled into one of the freshly dug graves, and before they could extricate themselves half a dozen shovel fulls of earth had been thrown upon them by laughing comrades.

The bodies were placed in the “wooden overcoats” just as they fell, with the exception that the fatal nooses were taken off – the white “death-hoods” were not removed. I noticed the rope in every instance had cut to the bone.

Mrs. Surratt died without a struggle, merely a clenching of the left hand. Payne or Powell was on the “drop” next in order. He took great pains to place his toes right on the edge – stood straight as an arrow – said nothing to the lookers-on – gave a slight shrug of the shoulders when the coil fell about his bare neck, but not a tremor of a nerve or winking of an eye could be noticed. He died, to use the slang term, “game to the last.” Harrold and Atzerott were both half dead with terror and the consciousness of their awful situation. Their knees knocked together as they bade each other “good bye.” There was but a single disturbance that I saw during the day. One of the 6th regiment, U.S. Veteran Volunteers, Hancock’s corps, attempting to pass the guard at the outer gate with an empty canteen for water, was halted, and some words passed, when the sergeant of the guard coming up drew his sabre and stabbed the unarmed soldier in the face, putting out his right eye and giving him a dangerous if not fatal wound. The sergeant and the guard on at this post are from the “Veteran Reserve or Invalid corps” (our boys call them the Diarrhea Corps,”) and no troops “in the field” are on good terms with these d—-d overbearing “Invalids and hospital bummers” – that’s what’s the matter. Well my item is not finished yet: a brother of the wounded man, hearing of the uncalled for and cowardly act, came up and put an ounce and a half of cold lead into the brain-pan of the “reserve sergeant,” killing him instantly, and then walked cooly on to see after his brother’s wounds. That’s the right kind of vengeance, for you! – he had heard that his brother was mortally wounded and was determined on revenge first – that is as it should be!

Truly Yours,
Prock”

In an odd twist of fate, it seems that Prock unknowingly predicted his own death when he wrote, “when my turn comes for ‘going under’” in this letter. One year after the conspirators’ execution, then Lt. William D. F. Landon completely disappeared while stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While the army originally thought Lt. Landon may have just gone AWOL, he was never heard from again, not even among his friends and relations in Indiana. After an investigation by the army in 1867, it was concluded that Landon had met with an accident and died around July 8, 1866. According to a letter written by the Assistant Adjutant General to an inquiring Indiana congressman, “it is supposed that he was drowned while bathing in the Missouri river.” Seems like ol’ Prock went under the waves himself, almost a year to the day that he witnessed the conspirators bade their own final good byes.

Sources:
“Letter from ‘Prock’,” The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun (Vincennes, IN), July 22, 1865, 1.
“Prock’s Last Letters to the Vincennes Western Sun,” Indiana Magazine of History 35, no. 1 (1939): 76-94.
My thanks to Monique Howell at the Indiana State Library for directing me to the digitized copy of Prock’s letter in the Vincennes Western Sun.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on ““Treason Chokers” and “Wooden Overcoats”: An Eyewitness Account of the Conspirators’ Execution

  1. Richard Smyth

    Hi Dave,
    Great story! I guess the part about the soldier being stabbed in the eye is a little embellishment since it has never been mentioned before.

    • Rich,
      I tried my best to research that but came up empty. Perhaps if Prock gave me a little more detail about the men involved I might be able to find something. In truth, I want to believe him, but you may be right that it was a white lie.

  2. William B Canfield III

    Excellent research, Dave. Congratulations.

  3. tyboots

    a profound sadness came over me as i read prock’s letter as if i was right there witnessing the events.

  4. Leila Irene Wassom

    Sad, since none of the four executed killed anyone.

    • Linda Prindle

      Google “vicarious liability”

      • Paul David Hancq

        That’s a civil law standard under tort law, not criminal law. It would be better to Google “criminal responsibility for the conduct of another.”

  5. Paul Hancq

    “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
    — attributed to Philip L. Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post

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