On November 6, 1873, The Daily Graphic, an illustrated newspaper similar to Harper’s Weekly or Frank Leslie’s, published an article by one of their correspondents who went by the nom de plume, Laertes. The piece was partly an interview Laertes had with three of John Wilkes Booth’s former associates John McCullough, John T. Ford, and Harry Clay Ford. The Ford brothers were the owners and operators of Ford’s Theatre where the assassination took place with Harry Ford having spoken to and innocently alerted John Wilkes Booth of President Lincoln’s planned attendance at the theatre on April 14th. John McCullough was a fellow actor and close friend of Booth’s. The last time John Wilkes Booth performed onstage was in a benefit performance for McCullough on March 18, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre. All three men knew Booth well but were all very much shocked by the assassination. Laertes’ interview with these men doesn’t uncover any earth shattering revelations, but does produce some interesting reflections 8 years after Booth’s crime.
John McCullough described Booth as, “a wonderful compound of poetry, adventure, and disease.” McCullough recounted that one time in the spring of 1865 when he and Booth were sharing a room at the National Hotel in D.C., Booth had McCullough go out riding with him. “He imposed on my good nature by making me get on a horse, and ride here and there with him by forts, ferries, and bridges, saying, ‘Now, Johnny, if a man was to get in a tight place and have to break out of this city, there would be one opportunity.’ ‘What do I want to see that for, Booth?’ I used to say. ‘I prefer the leave by the cars. Besides, the broad of my back is all skinned by this pampered jade of Asia.'” McCullough also recalled how Booth, “was always practising gymnastics at Brady’s gymnasium.”
Interestingly, on the morning of the assassination, while Booth was at Ford’s Theatre getting his mail, he was conversing with Harry Clay Ford about Brady’s gymnasium. Harry Ford wished to go into partnership with Mr. Brady and was hoping that his brother John T. Ford, Booth, and the owner of the Star Saloon adjoining Ford’s, Scipione Grillo, would become investors in the endeavor. When talking to authorities in 1865, Harry recalled that on the morning of the assassination he asked Booth about about investing. Booth replied, “Harry, that is too much money. You can build a gymnasium for that.” Harry replied that the plan was to rebuild the gymnasium and make it better to which Booth replied noncommittally, “Well, I will see about it.” Just like everyone else in Booth’s life, Harry Ford did not know that Booth was low on funds due to his failed oil ventures, retirement from full time acting, and the expenses connected to his plot against the President. One wonders if he even had the funds to pay for his gym membership.
“Booth was crazy for fame,” John T. Ford told Laertes during his interview. He recounted the many plans Booth had concocted to kidnap the president and asserted that, “had General Grant come to the theatre with Mr. Lincoln that night, [Booth] would have shot them both.” John Ford concluded that Booth’s entire assassination plot was, “very vagarious and boyish,” and that it was only, “coincidence or good luck” that made it successful. John T. Ford also claimed that, in regards to the final disposition of the horses that Booth and Herold rode out of Washington, he had, “seen a person who saw the dead horses at the river side. The crows were already assembling for a feast. Suddenly a freshet came and carried the carcasses off on the tide. That’s the end of that mystery.”
In addition to this brief interview with three of Booth’s associates, the article also recalled a trip Laertes had made into Southern Maryland following the path of Booth’s escape. At the time of Laertes’ writing it was not yet widely known of the role Thomas Jones had played in secreting and then putting the assassins across the Potomac river. Still, even with this missing piece, Laertes had done a good job retracing the path of Booth including the villages of Piscataway, Port Tobacco, T.B., and Surrattsville. In Surrattsville, Laertes took the time to sketch Mrs. Surratt’s former tavern but for some reason, this illustrated newspaper decided not to include it. In Port Tobacco, Laertes saw George Atzerodt’s former carriage shop and met with Frederick Stone who had acted as defense counsel for David Herold and Dr. Mudd during the conspiracy trial. Laertes referenced that Dr. Mudd, “still resides at Bryantown, a sadder and a wiser man,” but doesn’t appear to have visited him. In describing the other surviving conspirators Laertes wrote:
“John Surratt has been recently married to a Miss Hunter, of Rockville, Md., a lady of a respectable country-side family. Like many surviving assassins, he feels that his crime has made a great man of him, although he was afraid to come to the rescue of his mother. Sam Arnold is in Baltimore, the worse for barroom wear, for the same reason; and poor old Spangles [sic], the scene-shifter, has got a great red nose on him for being treated so often. He takes it straight.”
The bulk of Laertes’ article, however, is actually devoted to a unique poem the correspondent wrote after concluding his tour of “Lower Maryland”. Inspired by the fields, forests, swamps, and rivers that Booth encountered on his escape, Laertes wrote a poem that he entitled The Imp of Nanjemoy. In it, the impish devil John Wilkes Booth is haunted by the word Nanjemoy throughout his ultimately failed escape from justice. For context, Nanjemoy Creek is a tributary of the Potomac River located in Charles County, Maryland. When John Wilkes Booth and David Herold failed to cross the Potomac the first time, they ended up landing in Nanjemoy Creek and spending about 48 hours there before trying to cross to Virginia again. Laertes knew about this part of the escape and it inspired him to write this poem.
The Imp in Nanjemoy
Dull in the night, when the camps were still,
Thumped two nags over Good Hope Hill;
The white deserter, the passing spy,
Took to the brush as the pair went by;
The army mule gave over the chase;
The Catholic negro, hearing the pace,
Said, as they splashed through Oxon Run;
“Dey ride like the soldiers who speared God’s son.”
But when Good Friday’s bells behind
Died in the capital on the wind,
He who rode foremost paused to say:
“Harold, spur up to my side, scared boy!
A word has run in my ears all day –
Merely a jingle, ‘Nanjemoy.’”
“Ha!” said Harold, “John, why that’s
A little old creek on the river. Surratt’s
Lies just before us. You halt on the green
While I slip in the tavern and get your carbine.”
The outlaw drank of the whiskey deep,
Which the tipsy landlord, half asleep,
Brought to his side, and his broken foot
He raised from the stump and slashed the boot.
“Lloyd,” he cried, “if some news you invite –
Old Seward was stabbed on his bed to-night.
Lincoln I shot – that long-lived fox –
As he looked at the play from the theatre box;
And it seemed to me that the sound I heard,
As the audience fluttered, like ducks round decoy,
Was only the buzz of a musical word
That I cannot get rid of – ‘Nanjemoy.’”
“Twenty miles we must ride before day,
Cross Mattawoman, Piscataway,
If in the morn we would take to the woods
In the swamp of Zekiah, at Doctor Mudd’s!”
“Quaint are these names,” thought the outlaw then.
“Though much I have mingled with Maryland men.
I have fever, I think, or my mind’s o’erthrown.
Though scraped is the flesh by this broken bone,
Every jog that I take on this road so lonely,
With thoughts, aye bloody, my mind to employ,
I can but say, over and over, this only –
The drowsy, melodious ‘Nanjemoy.’”
Silent they galloped by broken gates,
By slashes of pines around old estates;
By planters’ graves afield under clumps
Of blackjack oaks and tobacco stumps;
The empty quarters of negroes grin
From clearings of cedar and chinquopin;
From fodder stacks the wild swine flew,
The shy young wheat the frost peeped through,
And the swamp owl hooted as if she knew
Of the crime, as she hailed: “Ahoy! Ahoy!”
And the chiming hoofs of the horses drew
The pitiless rhythm of “Nanjemoy.”
So in the dawn as perturbed and gray
They hid in the farm-house off the way,
And the worn assassin dozed in his chair,
A voice in his dream, or afloat in the air,
Like a spirit born in the Indian corn –
Immemorial, vague, forlorn,
And disembodied – murmured forever
The name of the old creek up the river.
“God of blood,” he said unto Harold,
As they groped in the dusk, lost and imperilled,
On the oozy, entangled morass and mesh
Of hanging vines over Allen’s Fresh:
“The chirp of birds and the drone of frogs,
The lizards and crickets from trees and logs
Follow me yet, pursue and ferret
My soul with a word which I used to enjoy,
As if it had turned on me like a spirit
And stabbed my ear with its ‘Nanjemoy.’”
Ay! Great Nature fury or preacher
Makes, as she wists, of the tiniest creature-
Arming a word, as it floats on the mind,
With the danger of wrath and the wing of the wind.
What, though weighted to take them down,
Their swimming steeds in the river they drown,
And paddle the farther shore to gain,
Chased by gunboats or lost in rain?
Many a night they try the ferry
And the days in haggard sleep employ,
But every raft, or float, or wherry,
Drifts up the tide to Nanjemoy.
“Ho! John, we shall have no more annoy,
We’ve crossed the river from Nanjemoy.
The bluffs of Virginny their shadows reach
To hide our landing upon the beach!”
Repelled from the manse to hide in the barn,
The sick wretch hears, like a far-away horn,
As he lies on the straw by the snoring boy,
The winding echo of “N-a-n-j-e-m-o-y.”
All day it follows, all night it whines,
From the suck of waters, the moan of pines,
And the thread of cavalry following after,
The flash of flames on beam and rafter,
The shot, the strangle, the crash, the swoon,
Scarce break his trance or disturb the croon
Of the meaningless notes on his lips which fasten,
And the soldier hears, as he seeks to convoy
The dying words of the dark assassin,
A wandering murmur, like “Nanjemoy.”
Daily Graphic (New York, NY), November 6, 1873, 34 – 35. Accessible here and here.
William C. Edwards and Edward Steers, Jr., ed, The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 518.
Fascinating. Great research effort. Greatly appreciated.
Great back story Dave!
Poem brings thought of Civil War balloonist Thaddeus Lowe trying to impress Lincoln with the military use of a “blimp”.