Formerly Enslaved Voices in the Lincoln Assassination Trial

In the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, the U.S. government wasted no time in investigating the origins of the murderous plot. While the main perpetrator of the crime was known – the famous actor John Wilkes Booth had made no effort to conceal his identity as he leapt from the box at Ford’s Theatre and hurried across the stage – the simultaneous attack on Secretary of State William Seward by an unknown assailant spoke to a much larger, and terrifying conspiracy. In the hours following the attacks, officials found themselves conducting not only a massive manhunt, but also one of the most complex investigations the country had ever seen. While a modicum of justice would be served twelve days later when the lead assassin was cornered and killed trying to escape a detachment of Union cavalry, the question of who else was responsible for Lincoln’s death was of the upmost importance to the grieving nation.

In trying to find an answer to this question of culpability the War Department cast a wide net, ensnaring not only prospective conspirators but also witnesses of all classes and backgrounds with vital information to share. At the end of the War Department’s investigation, eight imprisoned individuals were put on trial for conspiracy in Lincoln’s murder in connection with leaders of the Confederate government who were still at large. Less than a month after Lincoln was shot, a military tribunal had been established and the first witnesses began to testify about the seven men and one woman the government believed were key members of John Wilkes Booth’s plot. The trial of the Lincoln conspirators was remarkable and controversial in many ways. It was a military tribunal rather than a civilian trial and, as such, the jury was a commission of nine Union military officers. Legal jurisprudence of the day prevented defendants from testifying. As assassination historian Michael Kauffman explains it, “While a suspect today might agree to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence, that practice was illegal in 1865,”[1] and so the eight conspirators sat in the courtroom each day unable to speak for themselves. However, one of the most remarkable aspects of the trial of the conspirators is the way in which the government brought forth formerly enslaved and free born men and women to testify in open court against the white defendants. In total, out of the 347 people who testified at the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, 29 of them were witnesses of color with several of them having been formerly enslaved by two of the conspirators, Dr. Mudd and Mary Surratt. By looking at the legal precedent of Black men and women testifying against white defendants and by analyzing the testimonies brought out by the formerly enslaved at the Lincoln assassination trial we can see the ways in which the prosecution and the defense sought to use Black voices to further their cases. In addition, we will evaluate some of the testimonies in detail to understand the risks these Black witnesses took in allowing their voices to be heard at the trial of the century.

It is important to point out the rarity of Black prosecution witnesses against white defendants in the Civil War era. According to lawyer Frazer Walton, Jr., author of A Hidden Indictment: What the Slaves and Freedmen Knew about the Lincoln Assassination, “In 1865, the legal system virtually prohibited a former slave or free black person from testifying against a white person in most state courts even though they were allowed to do so under federal law and therefore in federal court.”[2] The question of a Black man or woman’s competency as a witness, especially in relation to a white defendant, had been a subject of legal debate for many years. Many state courts throughout the country outright prohibited the testimony of Black individuals and federal courts located in those states often followed this precedent. The trial of the Lincoln conspirators took place within Washington, D.C. where a ruling from 1827 stated that, “a colored man is not a competent witness…against a colored man indicted jointly with white men.”[3] This decision demonstrated the District’s desire to prevent any testimony from a Black witness from having a deleterious effect on a white defendant. However, ten years later some progress had been made as the District ruled that, “a mulatto, born of a white woman, is a competent witness against a Christian white person.”[4] From these early legal decisions, it is clear that one’s competency to testify in D.C. courts was not based on education or other metric but was solely dependent on one’s degree of whiteness. The nation’s capital was a slave holding territory and its racial attitudes had much in common with the Southern states and its slavocracy. As in many other jurisdictions during the time, justice took a back seat to white supremacy. While Black men and women could testify against each other, the concept that a Black person’s word was in any way equal to the word of a white defendant was an idea representing the antithesis of the social order of D.C. and many other slave holding states. Though the allegorical figure of Justice is oftentimes portrayed as being blind, those in charge of meting out justice were very much influenced by their own racial perceptions and prejudices.

In April of 1862, however, a big change occurred with the passage of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. Ending slavery in the Nation’s capital had become an important goal of President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Though trapped in conflict, Lincoln was already looking to the future when the Southern states would return and needed a plan for what was to be done with slavery when that occurred. From the White House, Lincoln looked to his own backyard in trying to find a way to enact a controlled emancipation that he could possibly expand to the South under the right circumstances. Lincoln lobbied Congress hard for a compensated emancipation of those held in bondage in the nation’s capital. In this way, the federal government agreed to pay D.C. enslavers for their slaves, thus freeing enslaved men and women and lessening the financial loss to the enslavers. In many ways, the D.C. Emancipation Act was a prelude to Lincoln’s more famous Emancipation Proclamation which ostensibly freed those held in bondage in the Southern States without any sort of compensation to enslavers.

While compensated emancipation no doubt softened the blow of D.C. enslavers over the loss of their property, not all were willing to divest of those they enslaved. To rectify this, in July of 1862, a supplement was added to the D.C. Emancipation Act allowing for the enslaved to petition for their freedom themselves if their enslavers failed to do so. The final portion of this supplement stated that, “in all judicial proceedings in the District of Columbia there shall be no exclusion of any witness on account of color.”[5] This was to make sure that potential enslaved petitioners who applied for their freedom were not remanded back into slavery due to the lies of their enslavers who desired to keep them. Thus, it was from this supplement from the D.C. emancipation act that lay the foundation for the testimony of Black witnesses in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial three years later.

However, just because the law stated that witnesses could not be excluded on account of their skin color, this does not mean that prospective Black witnesses were free from prejudicial treatment. Post 1862, Black witnesses against white defendants were practically unheard of in D.C. other than in cases related to the Emancipation Act. As the government was preparing their case against the conspirators, they knew, from the onset that the testimony of Black witnesses would face undue scrutiny merely due to their race. As Walton states, “Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton and other Union officials were well aware that although blacks were permitted to testify in the federal courts and before federal juries, such testimony would probably be given little credence by juries permeated with Southern sympathizers.”[6] The span between what was legally allowed, and what would be given proper weight in the eyes of an all-white jury of D.C. residents was a problem for the War Department in terms of the testimony of its prospective Black witnesses. While the cases for some of the conspirators were fairly “cut and dry” with little question of a guilty verdict, for many of the others there was considerable room for reasonable doubt. This was especially true in the cases of Dr. Mudd (who set the assassin’s leg) and Edman Spangler (who worked as a stage carpenter and scene shifter at Ford’s Theatre). Of the prosecution’s 19 Black witnesses, 10 of them dealt solely with Dr. Mudd and the government’s efforts to portray him as a disloyal Confederate sympathizer who took an active role in treasonous behavior against the government. To help prove Dr. Mudd capable of involvement in the plot against Lincoln, the government was heavily relying on the testimony of some of the men and women he formerly enslaved. In the case of Edman Spangler, the government brought forth four Black witnesses connecting Spangler with Booth in the moments before the assassination at the theater. In the cases of these two conspirators in particular, there was too much of a risk in solely relying on a civilian jury to perform their duty detached from their own racial attitudes and prejudices. Walton contends that this knowledge, this fear of a white civilian jury finding any of the accused conspirators not guilty due to the racial prejudice against Black witnesses was a factor in the decision to try the conspirators in a military court with nine military commissioners rather than a civilian trial with a jury selected from a Southern sympathizing populace. In this way, “the government was reasonably certain the testimony of the black witnesses would be fairly weighed and considered,” Walton states.[7]

Yet, in practice, this idea of fairly weighing and considering the testimony of Black witnesses proved to be more of a hope than a reality. The only reason that we even know the identities of Black individuals who took the stand is not based solely on their testimony but due to how their words were recorded and delineated at the time. Both in newspaper accounts and in the official transcript of the trial authorized for publication by the government after its conclusion, all African American witnesses bore the addendum of “(colored)” beside their names before the start of their testimony. It demonstrates how, even in the realm of an extremely serious trial enacted by the highest levels of the government for the purpose of determining those responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln, the racial identity of the person on the witness stand still took precedent over their words. The commissioners themselves could see the witnesses and knew their skin color but it was still determined important enough for readers of the trial proceedings to have this information upfront. While such notations did nothing to alter the actual content of these testimonies, they were no doubt intended to alter the perception and context of the words. Such notes allowed white followers of the trial proceedings to prejudge what they were about to read based on their own racial attitudes. While such notes are helpful to us as historians in knowing the identities of witnesses who faced additional personal risk in taking the stand, it also demonstrates how, even in print, the racism of the past can be captured for posterity.

While the first “colored” witness to testify at the trial of the conspirators took the stand on May 15 (the third day of testimony), the day with the largest number of Black witnesses came ten days later on May 25. On this date, the prosecution delved into the guilt of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd who was as much on trial for his assistance to John Wilkes Booth before the assassination as he was for the medical services he rendered during the fugitive’s flight. A large part of the prosecution’s case against Dr. Mudd was to show that the Maryland physician was disloyal and actively supported the cause of the Confederacy. To help them establish this case, the prosecution brought forth five witnesses on this date who had been enslaved by Dr. Mudd and two other men who had been enslaved by Dr. Mudd’s neighbors to testify against him. The first of these witnesses was Mary Simms who stated she had been enslaved by Dr. Mudd, “I think, four years, and left him about a month before Christmas gone.”[8] Simms was in her early twenties and had departed the Mudd farm shortly after the new state constitution came into effect in November of 1864 which abolished slavery in Maryland. During Simms’ testimony she was asked about Dr. Mudd’s actions over the course of the Civil War. Simms recalled that, during the summer of 1864, she had witnessed several men in Confederate gray hiding and camping out on the Mudd property with the doctor providing bedding and food to these men. Simms was often tasked with keeping a look out for Union soldiers when the men ventured close to the house to talk with the doctor or acquire supplies. Simms also noted that these men, “brought letters from Virginia…to Dr. Sam. Mudd,”[9] hinting that Mudd was illegally in contact with people in the Confederacy. This testimony was useful in demonstrating that Dr. Mudd was much more than a typical slaveholding Confederate sympathizer, but an active subversive agent for their cause.

Jars made by the men and women enslaved by Dr. Mudd. On display at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum

The next witness to take the stand after Mary Simms was her brother, Elzee Eglent. He was in his late twenties and was likewise asked questions about Dr. Mudd’s loyalty. Contrasting the experience of his sister, Eglent had escaped from his enslavement in 1863, a full year prior to the end of slavery in Maryland. As documented in the work of Dr. Mudd historian (and descendant) Robert Summers, author of The Doctor’s Slaves: Samuel Mudd, Slavery, and the Lincoln Assassination, “On Saturday night, August 29, 1863, with a full moon to guide their way, 40 slaves ran away from the farms of Dr. Mudd, his father Henry Lowe Mudd, and [his brother-in-law] Jeremiah Dyer.”[10] The Mudd family was one of the largest slaveholding families in Southern Maryland and this large, coordinated escape on the part of the enslaved greatly impacted the Mudd family’s personal wealth. Summers recounts that, “Jeremiah Dyer complained afterwards that because he lost so many slaves, he had to actually pay free workers to finish the tobacco harvest.”[11] According to Elzee Eglent’s testimony at the trial, one of the reasons he decided to take part in this mass escape was due to threats by the doctor to send him South to work on behalf of the Confederacy. His sister, Mary Simms, had mentioned this story in her own testimony stating that Dr. Mudd, “had a place in Richmond,” for Elzee, “building batteries,”[12] for the Confederates. When Elzee was questioned on the stand by the prosecution reiterating this occurrence, he provided another detail which was quickly objected to by Dr. Mudd’s defense attorney:

“Q. Did [Dr. Mudd] say anything to you before you left him about sending you to Richmond?
A. Yes, sir; he told me the morning he shot me that he had a place in Richmond for me.
Mr. Ewing. I object of the question and the answer, and I want my objection entered.”[13]

Despite the defense’s objection, Eglent was allowed to continue to testify about the threats Dr. Mudd had made about sending him to Richmond – shortly after the doctor had shot him. Lincoln historian Edward Steers wrote in his essay “Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses” that the mentioning of Dr. Mudd having shot Elzee was one of the prosecution’s line of attack, as they, “alleged that Mudd was a poor master who abused his slaves on more than one occasion.”[14] Yet, the details of how Elzee was shot by Dr. Mudd are not present in Eglent’s testimony. If the prosecution was truly trying to use this incident to damage Dr. Mudd’s reputation, as Steers contends, the lack of further questions on the matter appears to be a strange omission. Since the testimony of extraneous Confederates hanging around the Mudd farm demonstrated that the prosecution was looking for as much ammunition of their own against Dr. Mudd’s general character and loyalty, it is odd that they choose not to ferret out more details about Mudd shooting a man he enslaved. Elzee was not asked any follow up questions about the incident except to reiterate that the shooting occurred on the same day Dr. Mudd threatened to send him the Confederate capital.

Rifle owned by Dr. Mudd on display at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum

While the prosecution did not choose to emphasize the shooting incident, Dr. Mudd’s defense was no doubt aware that this event could be damaging to their client. As too were Mary Simms’ own allegations that Dr. Mudd had whipped her repeatedly, including one time after slavery had been abolished which caused her to leave. After the remaining five formerly enslaved witnesses took to the stand reiterating that Dr. Mudd was known to have interacted with Confederate agents and openly spoke out against the Lincoln administration, sometimes in fiery tones, Dr. Mudd’s defense team knew that they need to counter this. To do this, Mudd’s defense team chose to fight with using quantity over quality. According to Summers, “The prosecution called 16 witnesses to testify against Dr. Mudd. The defense, led by General Ewing, called more than 60 witnesses to testify in his defense.”[15] The bulk of these defense witnesses for Dr. Mudd were white citizens of Charles County who testified that they had never heard Dr. Mudd say anything disloyal. Dr. Mudd’s own brother-in-law countered Mary Simms’ claim that Confederates were around the property in 1864 by stating that it was himself and some other men who had been around there back in 1861. However, Mudd’s defense did not solely rely upon white residents to counter the testimony of the formerly enslaved. After all, the jury for this trial was not comprised of D.C. residents who, until only three years ago, were possibly enslavers themselves and would, therefore, most likely take the word of any single white man over the testimonies of half a dozen former slaves. This jury was a nine member military commission of Union officers. Though not totally without their own racial prejudices, Thomas Ewing was wise enough to realize that he also needed to find Black residents of Charles County to help extricate the former enslaver on the prison dock from his troubles. Dr. Mudd was well aware of how unfavorably the testimony of his former slaves impacted him. A newspaper reporter covering the trial on May 25 noted that:

“During the testimony bearing on the case of Mudd he appeared considerably excited, rising frequently and stooping over the rail to make suggestions to his counsel. At first he wore a smile of derision, but as witness after witness of his late servants came forward to testify to the same facts, the smile died away and was supplied by an anxious look.”[16]

His many sins as an enslaver and a Confederate sympathizer were laid bare before a court with the power to hang him if they saw fit and Dr. Mudd experienced firsthand how the power dynamic has shifted away from the master’s hand and into the words of the formerly enslaved.

Courtroom sketch of Dr. Mudd by commissioner Lew Wallace.

It can be argued that the practice and abuses of slavery was as much on trial as the assassination of Lincoln. One of the other defense attorneys, William Doster, who represented Lewis Powell attempted to help save his own client from the gallows by writing in his closing arguments that Powell’s willingness to attack the bedridden Secretary of State was a deleterious product of growing up in a slave society:

“In the State of Florida were two separate races–one white and the other black–of which the one was slave to the other, and Lewis belonged to the race which was master. It was a custom of this State for masters to whip their slaves, sell them, kill them, and receive the constant homage which the oppressed offer to the powerful. It was the custom of this State to whip and burn men who preached against the custom. It was the custom to defend this institution in meeting-houses, at political gatherings, in family prayers. It was the custom to hunt fugitives with bloodhounds–even those who tried to help them to freedom.”[17]

In this way, Doster tried to blame the actions of his client on the evils of slavery, using the inherit violence of the practice as having molded Powell into a weapon to be used for John Wilkes Booth’s purposes.

Period drawing of William Bell, the Black servant of Secretary of State William Seward, identifying Lewis Powell as his attempted assassin.

Contrastingly, Dr. Mudd’s defense team had to try their hardest to devalue the connection between slavery, disloyalty, and assassination, while faced with multiple formerly enslaved men and women personifying those connections. To this end, Thomas Ewing, one of Dr. Mudd’s lawyers, called his own Black witnesses to testify on behalf of Dr. Mudd. The first two Black witnesses that Ewing calls to defend Mudd are a married couple named Frank and Betty Washington. Frank Washington was the only person enslaved by Dr. Mudd who testified on his behalf at the trial of the conspirators. Frank had been sold to the Mudd farm in 1864, just months before slavery was abolished in Maryland. He continued to live on the Mudd farm after emancipation where he worked as a ploughman. Dr. Mudd also allowed Frank to bring his wife Betty to the farm where she served as a cook for the Mudd family. Unlike the testimonies of prosecution witnesses Mary Simms and Elzee Eglent, Frank Washington’s experience was a noticeably uncomfortable one. On the witness stand Washington barely answered any question posed to him beyond a “yes, sir” or a “no, sir.” When he did elaborate it was very rarely more than a single sentence. When asked about Dr. Mudd’s reputation with his “servants”, Washington replied, “He treated them pretty well.” Then asked how he, himself was treated by Dr. Mudd, Washington answered, “He treated me first-rate. I had no fault to find with him.”[18]

It is important to point out that Frank Washington had come to be enslaved by Dr. Mudd in the months after the doctor had shot and wounded Elzee Eglent who subsequently escaped. While Washington admitted to having heard about that incident, he had no opinion about it. It is also important to note that Frank had a vested interest in the continued welfare of Dr. Mudd as he and his wife Betty were still living on the Mudd farm at the time of the trial. The Washingtons were still employed by the Mudds as paid servants and this point was emphasized by the prosecution during their cross-examination. The prosecution’s unspoken idea that the Washingtons were conflicted witnesses due to their financial ties to the Mudds was clear to everyone in the courtroom. At one point, during Washington’s examination, a member of the military commission, the jury as it were, asked Frank what his wages were from the Mudd family. Frank answered the following:

“A. One hundred and thirty dollars a year.
Q. And something extra for this extra job?
A. I do not know.
Q. Has nothing been said about that.
A. Nothing that I know of.
Q. Do you not expect something extra for this job?
A. Well, I do not know.”[19]

The assumption was clear. Either Frank Washington and his wife were going to be paid by the Mudd family for this testimony or they were essentially being forced to testify on their behalf out of fear for their well-being and financial future. As a result of this implication, Frank Washington’s testimony did very little to counter the prior words of Mary Simms and Elzee Eglent. While no evidence exists that Frank and Betty Washington received any additional payment for their testimony, the couple continued to live at the Mudd farm even after Dr. Mudd went to prison. They are included in the 1870 census with the rest of the Mudd family. In 1880, Frank and Betty resided on a piece of property adjoining the Mudd farm, likely working as sharecroppers on the Mudd land. This speaks to the difficult position African American residents in rural areas like Charles County, Maryland found themselves in after the end of slavery.

The specific testimonies of the formerly enslaved at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators is not one that has gained a lot of attention in Lincoln assassination literature. The previously cited article by Ed Steers titled, “Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses”, was perhaps the first to look with any particular detail at the testimony of Black witnesses including the formerly enslaved. Even then, that article, written in 2000, was more designed around the effect the Black testimony had on Dr. Mudd rather than the testimony itself. Robert Summers, also previously cited, delves more into the enslavement that occurred at the Mudd farm and the testimony from the trial about it. These analyses are contained in Summers’ books The Doctor’s Slaves and The Assassin’s Doctor. Yet, Dr. Mudd was not the only conspirator who was an enslaver. Mary Surratt, who would become the first woman executed by the federal government for her role in Lincoln’s assassination, also enslaved men and women at her Southern Maryland tavern and property.

One of the upstairs rooms in her former tavern, now the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, is furnished to represent the sleeping quarters of one of the enslaved women Mrs. Surratt rented from another. The woman’s name was Rachel Semus and it was actually Mary Surratt’s defense who called her to the stand. Semus testified that Mrs. Surratt, “treated her servants very well all the time I was with her.”[20] Two years later, after Mary had been executed and her fugitive son had been captured and was being subjected to his own civilian trial, Rachel Hawkins nee Semus returned to the stand, testifying on his behalf as well. Likewise, many years later, when she was called “Aunt Rachel”, Hawkins was interviewed by a reporter where she maintained the innocence of her former master and the kind and benevolent treatment she received during her time working for Mrs. Surratt. In an article published by the Surratt House Museum’s newsletter in 2011 (the same time the small room of the museum was furnished to replicate the possible lodging she, and other enslaved people might have stayed in), information is given about “Aunt Rachel’s” life gleaned from her testimonies and newspaper interview. When discussing the context of Rachel’s defense of Mrs. Surratt the article states:

“A comment was one made by a staff member here at the museum that, ‘of course, Rachel would be intimidated into speaking well of Mary Surratt, both during the trial and afterwards.’ This can only be contested by realizing that in 1865, Rachel was a free woman and could speak her mind. If she harbored ill feelings about Mary Surratt, both trials would have been excellent opportunities to express them – with even the force of the War Department to protect her!”[21]

The issue with this messaging on the part of the museum is that it lacks the acknowledgment of the complex nature of slavery and its aftermath. The idea that any of the Black and formerly enslaved witnesses could truly “speak their mind” on the witness stand, especially when called as a defense witness, is hard to rectify. Like Frank Washington, Rachel Semus still lived within a community where her day to day activities were impacted by those who formerly enslaved her. Even if we take into account her much later interview in which she still supports Mrs. Surratt’s innocence and kindness as a master, it is vital that we address how slavery was not solely a physically violent practice but also a mentally manipulative one. Mrs. Surratt very well may have been kind to the men and women she hired and owned, but that does not change the fact that she took part in the systemic degradation of a group of people to deny them their personhood. Telling Rachel Semus’ story should include her defense of Mrs. Surratt as they are her words and should be heard, but these words also need to be placed into context with Mary’s role as an enslaver seen in the same light as Dr. Mudd’s act of shooting of Elzee Eglent.

Mary Swann had been enslaved by Samuel Cox of Rich Hill, where John Wilkes Booth and David Herold went after leaving Dr. Mudd’s farm. Mary Swann lied and told the pursuing authorities that Booth and Herold didn’t enter the Cox home. In this way she protected her former enslaver. Yet we shouldn’t use this as evidence that Samuel Cox was, in anyway, a “kind master”. Years earlier he beat one of the men he enslaved to death.

Black and formerly enslaved witnesses at the Lincoln conspiracy trial took great personal risk in allowing their voices to be heard. Yet, in doing so they helped open the door for others. On July 7, 1865, the same day as four of the conspirators were executed, the National Daily Intelligencer newspaper in Washington, D.C. reported on an important murder case in Nashville, Tennessee where, “the only witness to the murder was a colored woman”. The witness had originally been ruled out as the state courts in Tennessee barred African Americans from testifying. The article reported that an appeal to this rule was being made by one of the most ardent secessionist judges in the region who was acting as a defense attorney. As precedent for allowing the Black witness to testify, the Tennessee lawyer noted that, “the government had admitted negroes to testify in many cases, especially at the conspiracy trial at Washington.”[22] While it does not appear that the lawyer was successful in getting this testimony admitted, it marked the beginning of other conversations and movements across the South. Public opinion on the matter started to change with the editors of the Shelbyville Union in Tennessee writing in October of 1865 that, “There is a good deal of discussion now in regard not only to negro suffrage, but negro testimony…we are against the former, so far at least as our state is concerned, but see no especial reason for objecting to the latter. We think the courts of justice should be open a very wide door for the admission of testimony.”[23] A dispatch from Nashville in December of 1865 stated that, “The House has been engaged to-day on the Negro Testimony Bill…They is a clear majority in favor of its passage, but some of its friends are absent. It was taken up by its enemies in hope of being able to kill it. They failed.”[24] Other states joined in in reconsidering the admittance of African American testimony. Mississippi started the process of changing their laws regarding Black testimony likely influenced by the trial in Washington with one dispatch in November noting, “The Mississippi House of Representatives has partly reconsidered its refusal to allow negro testimony against whites, and has in certain cases given them that privilege.”[25] While these advancements in the rights of African Americans were short lived as more restrictive policies emerged after the failure of Reconstruction, for a time, the actions of the 29 Black men and women who testified at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators not only helped in the pursuit of justice, but also contributed to the ever evolving progress of the nation.


Epilogue: This post was the final paper for my Master’s class entitled The Lives of the Enslaved. The focus of the class was to find and listen to the voices of the formerly enslaved in whatever form they can be found. In that spirit, and in conjunction with the project on the Lincoln conspiracy trial that I published last year, I invite you all to read the testimony of each of the 29 Black witnesses who testified. Not all of the men and women listed below had been enslaved, but they still risked a lot by taking the witness stand. Their names were:

Billy “Pomp” Williams
Joe Simms
John Miles
Mary Ann Turner
Mary Jane Anderson
James Walker
Joe Simms (again)
William H. Bell
William Bell (again)
Eleanor Bloise
Becky Briscoe
Frank Bloise
Robert Nelson
Mary Simms
Elzee Eglent
Sylvester Eglent
Melvina Washington
Milo Simms
William Marshall
Rachel Spencer
Betty Washington
Frank Washington
Baptist Washington
Baptist Washington (again)
George Booz
Julia Ann Bloise
Susan Stewart
Primus Johnson
Charles Bloise
Betty Washington (again)
Frank Washington (again)
George Booz (again)
Richard E. Skinner
Henry Hawkins
Rachel Semus


References

[1] Michael W. Kauffman,  American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 332.
[2] Frazer Walton, Jr., A Hidden Indictment: What the Slaves and Freedmen Knew About the Lincoln Assassination (Maitland, FL: Mill City Press, 2020), 67.
[3] Walton, Indictment, 67.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Supplemental Act of July 12, 1862,” National Archives, October 6, 2015, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/dc-emancipation-act/supplemental-act.html.
[6] Walton, Indictment, 68.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Benjamin Perley Poore, The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President (Boston: J. E. Tilton, 1865), 150.
[9] Poore, Conspiracy Trial, 152.
[10] Robert K. Summers, The Doctor’s Slaves: Samuel Mudd, Slavery, and the Lincoln Assassination (Middletown, DE: Self-Published, 2015), 37.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Poore, Conspiracy Trial, 153.
[13] Ibid, 157.
[14] Edward Steers Jr., “Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses,” Civil War History 46, no. 4 (2000): 329.
[15] Robert K. Summers, The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd (Middletown, DE: Self-Published, 2014), 86.
[16] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), May 25, 1865, 2.
[17] Benn Pitman, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (New York: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1865), 308 – 309.
[18] Poore, Conspiracy Trial, 314.
[19] Ibid, 320.
[20] Ibid, 548.
[21] Julia Cowdery, “Who was Aunt Rachel?” Surratt Courier 36, no. 2 (2011): 7 – 8.
[22] National Daily Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), July 7, 1865, 2.
[23] Nashville Daily Union, November 1, 1865, 2.
[24] Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1865, 2.
[25] Daily Illinois State Joural, November 22, 1865, 2.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Formerly Enslaved Voices in the Lincoln Assassination Trial

  1. Gary Gilbert

    great stuff as always Dave……

  2. Rich Smyth

    Great research Dave!

  3. Graham Baldwin

    Thanks for the inciteful article, Dave. As usual, it was very thorough. I am sure your research also disclosed that racial prejudice was not the only hindrance to the search for truth in the courtrooms of mid 19th Century America. Despite the fact whites were viewed as legally competent to testify, ethnocentrism often reared its ugly head. Reviews of court transcripts, newspapers, books and other literature of the times often reflect a virulent animus toward witnesses who were non-Christian, of foreign birth or who were naturalized citizens of the United States, inferring that their status alone sufficed to make their credibility suspect.

    However, having said that, I am of the opinion that it is incumbent upon a modern historian or researcher, while striving to immerse himself/herself in the mores of the times to better understand them, to remain mindful that prejudice, bias, and other human foibles are universal. Otherwise, he/she runs the risk of imbuing a witness’s testimony with an aura of credibility simply because that witness’s contemporaries wrongfully discredited him on the basis of race or ethnicity.

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