Edman Spangler: “I am entirely innocent”

On June 24, 1869, the New York World published the following account from Edman Spangler, the Ford’s Theatre carpenter and scene shifter who had recently returned home after an almost four year prison sentence at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas. While we have quite a bit of material from Spangler’s two other surviving peers in the form of Dr. Mudd’s letters to his wife and Samuel Arnold’s later memoir, there is little out there regarding the thoughts and experiences of the sole innocent “conspirator” who suffered at their side. The following article is one of the precious few pieces we have from Ned and covers his arrest, imprisonment, trial, and life at Fort Jefferson. Spangler devotes much of his space, as Arnold will later do, bringing attention to the horrible treatment of prisoners at Fort Jefferson, going so far as to name names in an effort to shame those who took part in acts of torture. While a long read, the article provides an intriguing look at the “justice” that Ned, and the other conspirators were forced to endure.


[From Our Special Correspondent.]

Washington, June 23.

Edman Spangler, who was tried and sentenced by a military commission in May, 1865, on a charge of being engaged in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, and pardoned by President Johnson, has prepared the following statement, asserting his innocence of all knowledge of the crime, and detailing the cruelties practised on the prisoners before and after conviction. Spangler was a scene-shifter at Ford’s Theatre, and was on the stage when John Wilkes Booth shot Mr. Lincoln and jumped from the box. He also at times took care of Booth’s horse. The evidence against him was of the flimsiest character, not being even circumstantial, for it did not appear in that trial, or in the subsequent civil trial of Surratt, that Spangler had any connection whatever with any of the other so-called conspirators. Most everybody believed him innocent then, and the Military Commission doubted his guilt by sentencing him to six years at the Dry Tortugas, and giving the others a life term. The Military Commission was organized to convict, and it convicted. Abundant testimony is now at hand to show the vast amount of perjury of that trial – perjury exacted by fear and dictated by malice. Spangler’s allusion to the witness Weichman being in the abduction plot is important. Weichman’s testimony, it will be remembered, hung Mrs. Surratt. The following is the statement sworn and subscribed to:

Statement of Edman Spangler.

I have deemed it due to truth to prepare for publication the following statement – at a time when I hope the temper of the people will give me a patient hearing – of my arrest, trial, and imprisonment, for alleged complicity in the plot to assassinate the late President Lincoln. I have suffered much, but I solemnly assert now, as I always have since I was arraigned for trial at the Washington Arsenal, that I am entirely innocent of any fore or after knowledge of the crime which John Wilkes Booth committed – save what I knew in common with everybody after it took place. I further solemnly assert that John Wilkes Booth, or any other person, never mentioned to me any plot, or intimation of a plot, for the abduction or assassination of President Lincoln; that I did not, in any way, so help me God, assist in his escape; and I further declare that I am entirely innocent of any and all charges made against me in that connection. I never new either Surratt, Payne, Atzerodt, Arnold, or Harold, or any of the so-called conspirators, nor did I ever see any of them until they appeared in custody. While imprisoned with Atzerodt, Payne, and Harold, and after their trial was over, I was allowed a few minutes’ exercise in the prison yard. I heard the three unite in asserting Mrs. Surratt’s entire innocence, and acknowledge their own guilt, confining the crime, as they did, entirely to themselves, but implicating the witness, Weichman, in knowledge of the original plot to abduct ! and with furnishing information from the Commissary of Prisoners’ Department, where Weichman was a clerk.[1]

I was arrested on the morning of the 15th of April, 1865, and with Ritterspaugh (also a scene shifter) taken to the police station on E street, between Ninth and Tenth. The sergeant, after questioning me closely, went with two policemen to search for Peanut John (the name of the boy who held Booth’s horse the night before) and made to accompany us to the headquarters of the police on Tenth street, Where John and I were locked up, and Ritterspaugh was released. After four hours’ confinement I was released, and brought before Judges Olin and Bingham, and told them of Booth bringing his horse to the theatre on the afternoon of the 14th of April (1865). After his investigation I said: “What is to be done with me?” and they replied: “We know where to find you when you are wanted,” and ordered my release. I returned to the theatre, where I remained until Saturday, when the soldiers took possession of it; but as the officer of the guard gave an attache and myself a pass to sleep there, we retired at 10 P.M., and at 1 A.M. a guard was placed over me, who remained until 9 A.M. Sunday morning, when I was released. I did not leave the theatre until Sunday evening, and on our return this attache (Carland by name) and myself were arrested by Detective Larner. Instead of taking us to the guard-house he said he would accompany is home to sleep there, but we all went to Police Headquarters on Tenth street, and when Carland asked if we were wanted, an officer sharply said “No.” I returned to the theatre that night, and remained the next day till I went to dinner, corner of Seventh and G streets. That over I remained a few minutes, when Ritterspaugh (who worked at the theatre with me) came, and meeting me, said: “I have given my evidence, and would like now to get some of the reward.”

I walked out with Ritterspaugh for half an hour, and on returning to lie down left word that if any one called for me to tell them that I was lying down. Two hours after I was called down stairs to see two gentlemen who had called for me. They said that I was wanted down the street. On reaching the sidewalk they placed me in a hack and drove rapidly to Carroll Prison, where I was confined a week. Three days afterwards Detective, or Colonel, Baker came to my room, and questioned me about the sale of a horse and buggy (which belonged to Booth), and I told him all about it freely and readily. On the day following I was called into the office of the prison in order to be recognized by Sergeant Dye, who merely nodded his head as I entered and then he left. (Dye subsequently testified that he was sitting on the steps of the theatre just before Booth fired the shot, and to seeing mysterious persons about.) I was allowed on the fourth day of my imprisonment to walk about the prison yard, but from that evening I was closely confined and guarded until the next Saturday at midnight, when I was again taken to the office to see a detective, who said: “Come Spangler, I’ve some jewelry for you.” He handcuffed me with my hands behind my back, and guarding me to a hack I was placed in it and driven to the Navy Yard, where my legs were manacled and a pair of Lillie handcuffs placed on my wrists.

I was put in a boat and rowed to a monitor, where I was taken on board and thrown into a small, dirty room, between two water-closets, and on to a bed of filthy life preservers and blankets, with two soldiers guarding the door. I was kept there for three days. I had been thus confined three days on the vessel when Captain Munroe came to me and said: “Spangler, I’ve something that must be told, but you must not be frightened. We have orders from the Secretary of War, who must be obeyed, to put a bag on your head.” Then two men came and tied up my head so securely that I could not see daylight. I had plenty of food, but could not eat with my face muffled up. True, there was a small hole in the bag near my mouth, but I could not reach that, as my hands were wedged down by the iron. At last, two kind-hearted soldiers took compassion on me, and while one watched the other fed me.

On Saturday night a man came to me and, after drawing the bag so tight as to nearly suffocate me, said to the guard, “Don’t let him go to sleep, as we will carry him out to hang him directly.” I heard them go up on the deck, when there was a great rattling of chains, and other noises; and while I was trying to imagine what was going on, and what they intended to do, I was dragged out by two men, who both pulled me at times in opposite directions. We, however, reached a boat, in which I was placed, and were rowed a short distance, I could not say then where we stopped, for my face was still covered. After leaving the boat, I was forced to walk some distance, with the heavy irons still on my legs. I was then suddenly stopped, and made to ascend three or four flights of stairs; and as I stood at the top waiting, some one struck me a severe blow on the top of the head, which stunned and half threw me over, when I was pushed into a small room, where I remained in an unconscious condition for several hours. The next morning some one came with bread and coffee. I remained here several days, suffering torture from the bag or padded hood over my face.  It was on Sunday when it was removed and I was shaven. It was then replaced. Some hours after General Hartranft came and read to me several charges; that I was engaged in a plot to assassinate the President, and the day following I was carried into a military court and stood hooded before all of its members. I remained but a short time, when I was returned to my cell for another night and day and then again presented in this court. Mr. Bingham, Assistant Judge-Advocate, read the charges against me, and asked if I had any objection to the court, and I replied “No,” and made my plea of “not guilty.” They then wished to know if I desired counsel, and, when I answered affirmatively, General Hunter, the president of the court, insisted that I should not be allowed counsel. He was, however, overruled, but it was several days before I was permitted legal aid, the court in the meanwhile taking evidence with closed doors. On every adjournment of the court, if only for an hour, I was returned to my cell and the closely-fitting hood placed over my head. This continued till June 10, when I was relieved from the torture of the bag, but my hands and limbs remained heavily manacled.

On one Sunday, while I was confined at this place (the Washington Arsenal), I was visited by a gentleman of middle stature, rather stout, with full beard and gold-framed spectacles. He noticed my manacles and padded head. I afterwards learned that he was Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War. It is proper to state that when the hood was placed on me, Captain Munroe said it was by order of the Secretary of War. My first thought was that I was to be hung without trial, and the hood was preparatory to that act.

The first time I ever saw Mrs. Surratt was in the Carroll Prison yard, on Capitol Hill. I did not see her again until we were taken into court the first day at the arsenal. My cell was on the same corridor as hers, and I had to pass it every time I was taken into court. I frequently looked into her cell, a small room about four feet wide by seven feet long. The only things in her cell were an old mattress laid on the bricks and an army blanket. I could see the irons on her feet, as she was generally lying on the mattress, and was the last one brought into court. She occupied a seat in court near the prison door. The seat was twelve inches high, and the chains between the irons on her feet were so short that she always had to be assisted to her seat. She was so sick at one time that the court was compelled to adjourn.

On the 17th of July, about midnight, I was conveyed to a steamboat, and arrived the next day at Fortress Monroe, and was thence taken to the gunboat Florida. The irons on my arms were temporarily removed, but Captain Dutton, in charge of the guard, ordered heavy Lillie irons to be placed on me, when General Dodd, chief officer in charge, more humanely countermanded his order and had the irons again removed from my arms. I was placed for security in the lower hold of the vessel, and compelled to descend to it by a ladder. The rounds were far apart, and, as the irons on my feet were chained but a few inches apart, my legs were bruised and lacerated fearfully. The hold where I was confined was close and dirty, but after two or three days I was allowed on deck in the daytime, but was closely guarded. I was allowed to speak to no one of the crew. We arrived at Fort Jefferson, on the Dry Tortugas, and were handed over to Colonel Hamilton, commanding, who placed me until the next day in a casemate. The next day I was brought before Colonel H., who informed me that he had no more stringent orders concerning me than other prisoners confined there.

I managed to get along comfortably for a while, though to some of the prisoners the officers were very cruel. One man by the name of Dunn, while helping in unloading a government transport, got hold of some liquor and imbibed too freely: for which he was taken to the guard-house and tide up to the window-frame by his thumbs for two hours. General Hill then ordered him to be taken down and be made to carry a thirty-two pound ball, but as the hanging had deprived him of the use of his thumbs, he was unable to obey. The officers, however, put two twenty-four pound balls in a knapsack, and compelled him to carry them until the sack gave away from the weight of the iron. He was then tied up by the wrists and gagged in the mouth by the bayonet from 8 P.M. till the next morning. He was then taken down and thrown into the guard-house, but was so exhausted that he had to be removed to the hospital. It was decided to amputate three of his fingers, but this was reconsidered. He lost, however, the use of his thumb and two fingers. This punishment was inflicted by Major McConnell, officer of the day, and was carried out by Sergeant Edward Donnelly.

Another poor prisoner named Brown, was once excused by the doctor from work on the plea of illness, but the Provost Marshal insisted and finding him too ill and lacking strength made him carry a thirty-two pound ball. He staggered under the weight and was compelled from weakness to put it down. He was then taken to the wharf and with his legs tied behind him, a rope was placed around him and he was thrown into the water and then dragged out. This was done three or four times, he begging for mercy most piteously. He was finally jerked out of the water and ordered to return to his ordinary work. The poor wretch crept off apparently thankful or any escape from such torments. Captain Jos. Rittenhouse was officer of the day, and his orders were carried out by Corporal Spear.

During the latter part of last [sic] October I was placed in irons and compelled to work with an armed sentinel over me. I did not know the reason for this, for I was unconscious of having given offense, and had conformed to every regulation. I was then closely confined and allowed to communicate with no one for four months. The pretence for this, I afterwards learned, sprang from an attempt of Dr. Mudd to escape.

Colonel St. George Leger Grenfel, aged 65 years, was taken sick and went to the Doctor to get excused from work. The Doctor declined to excuse him. He then applied to the Provost-Marshal, who said that he could not excuse him if the Doctor couldn’t. Grenfel then tried to work and failed. They then took him to the guard-house, tied him up for half a day, and then took him to the wharf, tied his hands behind him, tied his legs together, and put a rope around his waist. There were three officers, heavily armed, who drove spectators from the wharf; I could see and hear from my window. The Colonel asked them if they were going to throw him into the water, and they answered, “Yes.” He then jumped in, and because he could not sink, they drew him out and tied about forty pounds of iron to his legs, and threw him into the water again, and then compelled him to go to work. The officers who had him in hand were, Lieutenant Robinson, Lieutenant Pike, and Captain George W. Crabb, assisted by Sergeant Michael Gleason, and assistant military storekeeper G. T. Jackson, who tied the iron on his legs. Captain Samuel Peebles tied up Grenfel for saying that “ he was capable of dong anything.” Colonel Grenfel was forced to scrub and do other menial work when he proved he was so ill as to have refused to eat his rations for a week. All of the officers hated Grenfel on account of a letter which appeared in a New York paper, which they said Grenfel wrote, about tying up the prisoner Dunn – which letter was truthful, as others and myself were witnesses to the details it related. One very stormy night Grenfel, with four others, escaped in a small boat and was evidently drowned near the fort. His escape was discovered but the storm was so severe that it was deemed too dangerous to pursue them, although a steamer was at the wharf. Grenfel frequently declared his intention of running any risk to escape, rather than, to use his own words, “to be tortured to death at the fort.” These are only two or three instances of the many acts of cruelty practiced at the fort. During my imprisonment at Fort Jefferson I worked very hard at carpentering and wood ornamental work, making a great many fancy boxes, &c., out of the peculiar wood found on the adjacent islands; the greater portion of this work was made for officers. By my industry in that direction, I won some favor in their eyes. I was released in March of the present year by executive clemency.

(Signed) Edman Spangler


[1] It’s interesting that Spangler states that all three male conspirators who were executed professed that Mary Surratt was innocent. While Lewis Powell is noted for having spoken in favor of Mrs. Surratt’s innocence, defense attorney William Doster, later wrote that David Herold expressed frustration during the trial that Mrs. Surratt’s defense seemed to be going so well. According to Doster, during the trial Herold remarked, “That old lady is as deep in as any of us.”

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Edman Spangler: “I am entirely innocent”

  1. Richard Sloan

    It was interesting to read that Spangler in frequently passing Mrs. Surratt during the trial noted that her legs were manacled.

    • Richard,
      Despite the claims from Clampitt and Aiken that Mary Surratt was never manacled during the trial, there are numerous period accounts that dispute this. While Mary never had to wear the Lillie iron handcuffs like most of the guys, she did have her legs manacled both in her cell and in the courtroom.

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