Author Archives: Dave Taylor

The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (September 6 – September 12)

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.


September 6


September 7


September 8


September 9


September 10


September 11


September 12


Bonus

Here are a few other tweets from this week that I thought might interest folks.


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (August 30 – September 5)

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.


August 30


August 31


September 1


September 2


September 3


September 4


September 5


Bonus

Here are a few other tweets from this week that I thought might interest folks.

On the first Friday of the month, the National Archives hosts an #ArchivesHashtagParty on Twitter. They encourage other archives and museums to tweet out pieces in their collection based around a different theme. This month’s theme was #ArchivesOldSchool. Even though I’m not an archive, I sometimes take part in the fun showing off things in different collections.

On a personal note, for the last week and a half I have been cheering on Team USA at the Paralympic games in Tokyo. Many of my tweets have centered around the progress of the Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team, the defending gold medal winners from the 2016 games in Rio. My brother Robb Taylor is an assistant coach for the team in addition to his full time job as the head coach for Auburn University’s Wheelchair Basketball team. Last night, the men’s team beat Japan in the gold medal game! I can’t help but brag on my brother’s third Paralympic gold medal:


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tracing the Letters from John Wilkes Booth to Samuel Williams O’Laughlen

The earliest known writings of John Wilkes Booth consist of a series of letters he wrote in 1854 and 1855 when he was 16 and 17 years old. The recipient of these letters was Samuel Williams “Billy” O’Laughlen. Billy O’Laughlen was the elder brother of Michael O’Laughlen who would later join Booth in his plot to abduct President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth had met the O’Laughlen brothers after his father, Junius Brutus Booth, bought a house on Exeter Street in Baltimore in 1845. The purchase of this house was to appease Junius’ wife, Mary Ann Booth, who felt increasingly isolated at their Harford County farm year after year. Since 1840, the family had rented different homes in Baltimore during the cooler months and Mary Ann also found the schools in the bustling metropolis a better place to educate her growing children. The family still travelled back to their farm, especially during the warm summers and it was during these visits to Tudor Hall that a teenage John Wilkes Booth would write to his companion back in Baltimore. A total of eight letters from Booth to Billy O’Laughlen have survived through the years with a few of them having resurfaced in recent auctions.

In preparation for one of my upcoming daily tweets, I decided to devote September 14 to one of the letters Booth wrote to Billy O’Laughlen on that date in 1855. I am much indebted to the 1997 book by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper called, “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth. In this edited volume, Rhodehamel and Taper transcribed a large percentage of John Wilkes Booth’s letters to friends and family, including the known O’Laughlen letters. From their work we know the text of Booth’s letter:

Tudor Hall. Sept: 14th: 1855.

My Dear Friend,

I received you letter the other day. I thought you did not intend to write to me, by your delaying it so long. I should have written long ago but I was waitting till I heard from you. I tried to see you on the night of my debut. I saw Welch (I believe you know him) he said he would tell you to come out, but I expect he never did it. I am doing very well up here, but I am getting very tired of the country. I am thinking of moveing to Sebasterpol you know there is some excitement there. and yet the country has been lively lately and next week there are two pick-nicks going on. and on the 25 there is a very large ball to be held in Bel-Air, and there are Plenty of Pigeons, Patriges and Sqrirrels for shooting. we are thinking of moveing to Baltimore in the winter but are not certain. I will be in Baltimore anyhow in October if nothing happens. you must excuse this dull letter, but I feel very low spirited to day. Answer soon and try to write me a long letter. Give my respects to all who ask after me your Ever Affectionate Friend,

J. W. Booth

In this letter, Booth refers to his debut, which was the first time he took the stage in a professional manner. This occurred on August 14, 1855 where he played the role of Richmond from Richard III at Baltimore’s St. Charles Theatre. The performance was a benefit for his childhood acquaintance (and future brother-in-law) John Sleeper Clarke, who knew the Booth name would help draw in curious theatregoers and increase his box office proceeds. The mention of moving to the excitement in “Sebasterpol” is a reference to Siege of Sevastopol, a yearlong conflict in the Crimean War. Just a few days before Booth wrote this letter, Russian defenses had abandoned Sevastopol after heavy bombardment and massive casualties were inflicted on them by the Allies. The fall of Sevastopol essentially marked the beginning of the end of the Crimean War for the Russians. Booth’s desire to be part of something exciting and historic would be realized four years later when he left his acting career in Richmond to go and serve as a guard at John Brown’s execution.

Always hoping to see the original, handwritten copies of John Wilkes Booth correspondences, I did a little searching to see if this September 14, 1855 letter had been sold at auction lately. While some of the other letters to O’Laughlen have been sold, it does not appear that this one has resurfaced publicly in the last couple decades so I could not find the handwritten version. Still, I was curious where these O’Laughlen letters came from in the first place.

In Rhodehamel and Taper’s book, they state that, “Around 1965, a Baltimore woman cleaning out a desk in her basement suddenly realized that the old letters she was burning were signed, ‘J. Wilkes Booth.’” Digging a bit future we find a newspaper article from the New York Post dated November 2, 1966 entitled “Lincoln & Booth Letters: Evil Will Outsell the Good” which describes an auction set for the next day by auctioneer Charles Hamilton.

Among the many treasures Hamilton was set to auction was a letter Lincoln wrote after this third Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 and three of the letters Booth wrote to O’Laughlen, including the September 14, 1855 one. As the name of the article implies, Hamilton gave his opinion that the Booth letters would sell for more than the Lincoln letter. “Evil is unfortunately always fascinating,” the auctioneer noted. “If you go to a zoo, you’re fascinated by cobras and rattlesnakes. If you have a choice of two books to read, you’d probably prefer ‘The Life and Cruel Deeds of Jesse James’ to a volume of sermons…I dislike the thought of a Presidential murderer’s letters being worth more than those of the President himself, but that’s what happens.” At the conclusion of the article, there is a brief mention of where Hamilton acquired the Booth material proving a little more context than Rhodehamel and Taper provided:

“The John Wilkes Booth letter came to Hamilton from Mrs. Agatha McCarthy, an elderly widow who discovered an old desk in the basement of her Baltimore home, which she said was ‘just full of Booth.’ She burned many of the old letters she found, before she recognized the bold signature: ‘ J. Wilkes Booth.’ Her home was owned previously by Thomas Jones, a co-conspirator with Booth in the Lincoln assassination, and somehow Booth’s old writing desk had resided for years in McCarthy’s basement.”

Now this entire explanation perplexed me. These are letters written by Booth to Billy O’Laughlen when he was a teenager. According to this article they were found by a woman in the basement of her home that used to be owned by Thomas Jones, the Southern Marylander who took care of Booth and Herold when they were hiding in a pine thicket during their escape. The mixture of these disparate figures into one story felt off to me. In addition, the article suggests that the desk in which the letters were found in Mrs. McCarthy’s basement was Booth’s writing desk. We are to believe that letters a young Booth mailed to Billy O’Laughlen somehow made their way back to Booth’s own writing desk and then into the hands of Thomas Jones in Baltimore.

To be fair, Thomas Jones did live in Baltimore after the Civil War. He can be found living there in the 1870 and 1880 censuses with his family. Jones was still living there in 1883/1884 when he was visited by journalist George Alfred Townsend (GATH) who interviewed him about his involvement in Booth’s escape. That interview resulted in the article “How Wilkes Booth Crossed the Potomac”, filling in the missing timeline in Booth’s escape.

So I decided to try and track down where, exactly, Thomas Jones resided while living in Baltimore. I used census records, Baltimore directories, and even the addresses on GATH’s telegrams to Jones, to plot the different places Thomas Jones lived during his decade and a half in Baltimore. After adjusting for the street numbering change that occurred in Baltimore in 1886, I determined all the modern addresses I could find for Jones’ whereabouts.

I then decided to try and track down Mrs. Agatha McCarthy and see where she lived. The first hiccup in my search for her was her name. Agatha’s last name was McCarty not McCarthy as the auction article stated. I know that’s a minor mistake, but it doesn’t help with overall veracity of the story when you can’t get the name of your provenance source right. With some digging I found that Agatha McCarty’s maiden name was Shipley, she was born on December 5, 1870 in Baltimore County. In 1899, she married Frank P. McCarty and moved to Baltimore where she would spend the rest of her life. In the 1900 census the newlyweds are living at 2709 Boone St. In 1905, the two moved just a bit south to 2409 Greenmount Ave. In 1913 they moved a block south on Greenmount Ave. By 1920, the couple had moved into their forever home at 636 Cokesbury Ave. Agatha McCarty would live here for the rest of her life (save for her final hospital stay) until her death in 1968 at the age of 97.

And so, here is my map of all the places I could find where Thomas Jones and Agatha McCarty lived in Baltimore. Jones’ residences are in yellow and McCarty’s are in red. At no point does it appear that Agatha McCarty lived in a home formerly occupied by Thomas Jones. The two never even lived in the same neighborhood of Baltimore. Now I suppose it’s possible that at some point after Jones moved back down to Southern Maryland a desk he owned might have been sold away or given to a neighbor and from there it somehow made its way to Mrs. McCarty. Furniture does have a habit of moving around. But even in that unlikely scenario, the question remains, “Why would Thomas Jones have Booth’s childhood letters?”

For the most part, Jones largely stayed quiet about his involvement with John Wilkes Booth in the aftermath of the assassination. He was arrested on suspicion and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington for a time but was eventually released. It really wasn’t until he consented to be interviewed by GATH in 1883 that he opened up about his role helping the assassin on the run. Eventually, Jones saw his claim to fame (infamy?) as an opportunity. In 1893, Jones published his own book entitled, J. Wilkes Booth: An Account of His Sojourn in Southern Maryland after the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his Passage Across the Potomac, and his Death in Virginia. It told of Jones’ work with the Confederate mail line during the Civil War and how Booth came to be under his care during the escape. Jones took his book to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair hoping to sell a bunch of copies, but the Yankees in the Land of Lincoln weren’t very good customers. The book was a financial flop for Jones who died two years later in 1895. Though the book doesn’t go into the history of John Wilkes Booth, is it possible Jones somehow acquired Booth’s childhood letters during his work on it? Possibly, but I think even this to be very, very unlikely. After a bit more research, I think I’ve come up with a more believable explanation.

Let’s take a look at the map of the Jones and McCarty residences again.

I’ve zoomed in a little bit and added a purple pin. That purple pin marks 419 E 20th Street. From 1890 through 1913, that was the home of a grocer turned carpenter who had always resided in Baltimore. The carpenter who resided here had gone through a lot, including the death of his younger brother. The reason for his brother’s death could be traced back to when a new family moved in across the street from his childhood home at 57 N Exeter in 1845.

Yes, I’m talking about John Wilkes Booth’s childhood friend, Samuel Williams “Billy” O’Laughlen. Even at the time of the assassination, the elder O’Laughlen was in the grocery business and was trying his best to get his younger brother, Michael, involved. Part of the reason Michael O’Laughlen was able to meet with Booth so often in D.C. was because he was doing work for his brother’s business there. The elder O’Laughlen transitioned to carpentry work after the Civil War and remained in Baltimore where he married and had children of his own. He died in 1915 at the age of 76 and is buried next to his brother and other family members at Green Mount Cemetery.

Looking at the map we can see that the home Samuel Williams O’Laughlen had for 23 years was in the same vicinity of where Agatha McCarty resided just off of Greenmount Ave. They’re not next-door neighbors, but definitely closer to each other than Thomas Jones ever was. Also, unlike Jones who resided in Baltimore years before Agatha McCarty moved to town, O’Laughlen was there at the same time as the later owner of the letters. For 13 years O’Laughlen and McCarty lived in the same area of Baltimore, just blocks apart.

I’m inclined to believe that Agatha McCarty got the Booth letters from Samuel Williams O’Laughlen not Thomas Jones. The letters had been written to O’Laughlen after all, and he likely retained them. How McCarty ended up with them is anyone’s guess. Maybe she knew the O’Laughlens from the neighborhood and received them directly or, as the original story goes, she found them in an old desk that had once belonged to them and somehow ended up in her possession. Regardless of how she came across them, we know that she did have them as of 1942. In that year an article was published about a Shipley family reunion, which Agatha McCarty nee Shipley attended. McCarty was a bit of a family genealogist and was mentioned in the article as having brought with her a file of 1,900 births and deaths in the family. The article also included the line that, “She also had a framed copy of a letter written by J. Wilkes Booth bearing his autograph eleven years before the death of Lincoln.”

I haven’t been able to find any other mentions of Mrs. McCarty and the Booth letters aside from this and the auction article from 1966. Whether there is any truth to her having burned several other letters before noticing the signature, we’ll never know.

In the end, this is an example of the inherit difficulties in tracing provenance of an item. For these specific Booth letters, their still uncertain line doesn’t really change much. The handwriting and contents of the letters from Booth and Billy O’Laughlen establish that they were, indeed, written by the future assassin of Lincoln. But for countless other artifacts, where the question of authenticity is less self-evident, establishing the provenance of the item and how it got from historical person or place to now is often filled with holes. Sometimes the best we can do is to lay out the evidence we have and acknowledge that it could be wrong or mixed up a bit as I think is the case here. In truth, far fewer things you see on display in museums are as iron-clad authentic as you might expect. This is not because museums are actively lying to you or trying to trick you, but because humans often leave poor or almost nonexistent records behind sometimes. Institutions do their best to engage in exercises like this to trace provenance, but as you can see, the process often raises more questions than it answers.

Finally, with all due respect to Mrs. McCarty knowing that the whole story of her flaming discovery may have been just a clever ploy by the auctioneer, please don’t go around burning old letters and documents you might find without looking at them first. You never know what valuable piece of history you might uncover.


P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to promote an upcoming book on John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln assassination from a familiar name. Coming twenty-four years after the publication of his edited volume of Booth letters, “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, John Rhodehamel is set to release a new book on September 7, 2021 called America’s Original Sin: White Supremacy, John Wilkes Booth, and the Lincoln Assassination.

I am very much looking forward to reading Rhodehamel’s work which explores Lincoln assassination through the lens of the white supremacist act it was. Here’s the publisher’s description:

“In this riveting new book, John Rhodehamel argues that Booth’s primary motivation for his heinous crime was a growing commitment to white supremacy. In alternating chapters, Original Sin shows how, as Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation and racial equality grew, so too did Booth’s rage and hatred for Lincoln, whom he referred to as “King Abraham Africanus the First.” Examining Booth’s early life in Maryland, Rhodehamel traces the evolution of his racial hatred from his youthful embrace of white supremacy through to his final act of murder. Along the way, he considers and discards other potential motivations for Booth’s act, such as mental illness or persistent drunkenness, which are all, Rhodehamel writes, either insufficient to explain Booth’s actions or were excuses made after the fact by those who sympathized with him.”

Terry Alford, the author of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, has already positively reviewed the book writing:

“This unique book combines Rhodehamel’s intriguing insights with the excellent characterizations and top-tier research that have always distinguished his work.”

With Alford’s endorsement, I’m confident Rhodehamel’s book will be a valuable addition to any Lincoln library and encourage any one interested in the Lincoln assassination to pre-order it from your favorite bookseller.

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The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (August 23 – 29)

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.


August 23


August 24


August 25


August 26


August 27


August 28


August 29


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Confession of David Herold

On occasion I have been asked by folks what artifact or relic related to the Lincoln assassination I wish would just “turn up” someday. There are many, many missing things in the saga of Lincoln’s death and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.

  • What exactly was the “calling card” that Booth presented to Charles Forbes that helped gain him entrance to the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre? Was it just one of Booth’s CDVS or, like some historians have theorized, did it have something to do with his secret fiancée, Lucy Hale?
  • Whatever happened to the field glasses that Mary Surratt transported down to her tavern for Booth on April 14, 1865? Booth picked them up during his flight south and they were later recovered and even used at John Surratt’s trial but have disappeared since.
  • What about the boat Booth and Herold used to cross the Potomac during their escape? It was recovered by the government and while one newspaper account claimed it was chopped to bits, a former curator of the Smithsonian is convinced he saw it on a collection list in the 1960s but subsequent searches have come up empty.
  • The gun that Boston Corbett used to shoot Booth at the Garrett Farm was stolen from him shortly after he returned to Washington as a hero. Is it sitting on some Civil War collector’s shelf somewhere, with them being completely unaware how special their gun is?

I could go on and on.

As wonderful as it would be to have any of these (or numerous other) artifacts pop up, I think it would be hard to top the appearance of a newly discovered piece of writing by one of the conspirators regarding the assassination plot itself. That sort of first-person source is the real treasure for historians. In the Lincoln assassination we are glad to have the memoir of Samuel Arnold who described in his later years how the kidnapping plot against Lincoln was formed. In 1977, Joan Chaconas discovered a lost George Atzerodt confession among the papers of his lawyer, William Doster. It was one of several confessions Atzerodt gave hoping to become state’s witness (rather than defendant) at the conspiracy trial. Even the ringleader himself composed a few lines in his diary (pictured above) while on the run, helping to give us a small glimpse into his mindset.

As grateful as historians are for these sources, like the Greek myth of Tantalus, we will always be teased by the things seemingly in sight but out of our reach. One of these tantalizing, yet elusive, sources is the truly lost confession of David Edgar Herold.

Not to be confused with the available “voluntary statement” David Herold gave to authorities on April 27, 1865 shortly after his arrest, the missing Herold confession is one that Davy wrote while he was imprisoned and on trial. During their confinement, the conspirators were under the charge of General John F. Hartranft at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. Each morning, General Hartranft wrote a report to his commander, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, keeping him apprised of the events of the previous day. Gen. Hartranft kept a letterbook of his reports to Gen. Hancock, which was donated to Gettysburg College by his descendants in the 1960s. In 1983, Lincoln assassination author and researcher Betty Ownsbey, was made aware of this letterbook by the Special Collections curator at Gettysburg College. Like Joan Chaconas’ discovery of the Atzerodt confession six years prior, the discovery of brand-new, first-person material about the imprisonment and trial of the conspirators was a boon to historians. In 2009, an edited volume of the letterbook was published by Edward Steers and Harold Holzer making it even more accessible.

From Gen. Hartranft’s letterbook we learn that on May 18, at the conclusion of the trial for that day, David Herold was allowed to remain, “in the court a few moments in conversation with Judge Holt and his Counsel Mr. Stone.” Hartranft then informs Gen. Hancock that, “This prisoner desires to write out a confession. I would respectfully ask, if permission can be granted to take off his handcuffs and allow him this privilege between the sessions of Court.” After receiving this report on May 19, Gen. Hancock sent a response back to Hartranft granting permission:

“Genl,

The handcuffs of Herold can be removed till anytime sufficiently long for him to write a confession provided he is well guarded in the mean time. He should have quill pens and should be well searched before hand to see if he has anything on his person by which he might injure himself which might have been given to him by his friends.”

The next morning, before the court assembled, Davy Herold was taken into the courtroom and provided time to write. According to Hartranft’s report, “This morning Herold was taken into the Court room and his handcuffs removed, furnished him with quill pen, ink and paper. He continued writing until the Court began to assemble, – about 10.30 a.m. when his irons were replaced, and he seated in the prisoners dock.”

As Herold had not yet completed his writing, on Sunday, May 21, an off day for the trial of the conspirators, he was allowed to once again go into the court room to finish. Hartranft wrote, “At 2.30 p.m. the prisoner Herold was taken into the Court room and furnished with writing material as before. He continued writing until 4.30 p.m. when he was returned to his cell and confined as usual.”

Aside from these references between Generals Hartranft and Hancock, we have no other sources of information regarding David Herold’s so-called confession, least of which is where it ended up. This is quite a shame because an honest perspective of the assassination and flight from justice from such a key participant like David Herold would be quite a benefit to historians. But, alas, the final fate of this conspirator’s confession is contrarily concealed.

In truth, because of the hard work done by authors like Betty Ownsbey in researching Lewis Powell’s background and Kate Clifford-Larson who explored the life of Mary Surratt, David Herold has become one of the conspirators that we know the least about. Despite playing such a vital role for the wounded Booth during his escape, history has largely written him off as little more than a “trifling boy” easily led off by Booth. This conclusion is based on the manner of defense that was used in his trial in an attempt to save his life and while there is some truth to these generalizations, they do not truly define the 22 year-old. It is hard to imagine that David Herold was “slow witted” as he was the most educated of the conspirators besides Dr. Mudd. Herold attended Georgetown College studying pharmacology and finished up his studies at the Rittenhouse Academy. He was even accepted to Gonzaga College but appears not to have attended. Yet, with a lack of sources, it can be difficult to flesh out Davy as a full person. Author Gore Vidal summarized the struggle when he admitted in the afterword of his novel Lincoln that, “As David’s life is largely unknown until Booth’s conspiracy, I have invented a low-life for him.”

While many people would spend the years after 1865 telling stories of their unique interactions with John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor turned assassin, very few have saved for posterity their thoughts on the D.C. pharmacist clerk who escaped with him.

One of the few who provided insights to David Herold’s early life was George Washington Baird, who was a year younger than Davy and went to school with him. In a letter Baird wrote in 1921 (after he had retired as a rear admiral in the Navy), he reflected on his childhood acquaintance:

“In 1850 when I was seven years of age, I went to school in Washington to two reverend gentlemen Cox and Marlot, who taught in the lower story of the Masonic Hall, Virginia Avenue and Fourth Street East. The boy who sat by me about my own age was David Herold, a little round headed, round eyed, round bodied boy, whose general rotundity was completed by a voice that rolled his R’s. I envied David his disposition in that he got along with the big boys so well. When a big boy imposed on David, he would escape with a funny remark which was called witty, which generally got a laugh, and David was called popular. When a big boy imposed on me, I hated him; I hate him yet. David’s father, Mr. [Adam] George Herold, and my father were members of Naval Lodge of Masons. The Herolds were members of Christ Church Episcopal. MY people were members of the Baptist Church. When I left that school about a year later, I lost sight of David. I heard he became a drug clerk.”

Another former schoolmate of David Herold was William Miller Clarke. Just three days younger than Davy, Clarke lived in the same neighborhood as the Herolds near the Washington Navy Yard. Clarke’s father ran a carpentry business making coffins and furniture but died when Clarke was only 6 years old. At 10 years old, Clarke started working for the ordinance department of the Navy Yard making gunpowder and percussion caps. This job no doubt put him into contact with Davy’s father, A. G. Herold who was the Chief Clerk of the Navy Yard.

In 1923, an elder Clarke typed a one page manuscript recounting his friendship with Herold. Unfortunately, the only copy of that manuscript that I have been able to locate are a few excerpts contained in a Civil War dealer’s January, 1987 catalog. At that point the manuscript was in the possession of dealer John Heflin in Brentwood, TN where he asked $150 for the manuscript. In his description of the lot, Heflin excerpted these lines from Clarke:

“Herrold and I were schoolmates in the primary school…I found him to be a boy of more than average intelligence…greatly surprised at his connection with Booth…Mr. Herrold, Sr. was a great hunter…when he went hunting he usually took David with him, so David became fully acquainted with lower Maryland…Booth evidently learned this through the Surratts and it was at Mrs. Surratt’s house that Dave first met Booth…”

Here Heflin breaks the excerpts, explaining how Herold was sentenced to be hanged on July 7, 1865. Heflin then states, “At the time of his execution and in response to a question by Reverend Olds, Rector of Christ Church at the Navy Yard, David replied,” and here continues with what appears to be excerpted material. What follows is a bit confusing as it appears to be Davy’s words as recalled by Rev. Olds and perhaps related to Clarke. The continued line states:

“Tell my mother and my sister that I did not know until John came out from the theater and got on his horse, exclaiming, ‘Dave, I’ve done it,’, Done what? I asked. ‘I’ve killed the tyrant,’ Booth replied…Recognizing that I would be torn to pieces if I remained, I went with Booth…across the Anacostia River…proceeded down towards Port Tobacco. Booth’s ankle…caused him great pain and I took him to a friend of mine, Dr. Mudd…the rest is history, we were cornered in a barn, Booth shot, and I surrendered…”

Once again we are tormented like Tantalus with what appears to be a partial confession of David Herold as recalled by a former childhood friend. And yet, without the full document and the valuable material signified by the ellipses we can’t really be sure where Clarke got his information. It may have come, as implied by Heflin’s description, from Dr. Mark Olds, the reverend who tended to Herold on the scaffold. But even if that is the case, this David Herold confession is third hand and comes 58 years after the event. Stories change a lot under those conditions. If only we had the actual document David Herold was seen writing in May of 1865. Even if that confession was just as elusive and crafty as Davy’s response to his interrogation on April 27, it would still add more to our understanding of this elusive conspirator.

So, if any of you folks happen to stumble across an old document, perhaps dated May 20 or 21, 1865, written in quill pen, and it just so happens to talk a little bit about escaping with John Wilkes Booth, please shoot me an email. I’d love to add you to the list of celebrated rediscoverers like Joan Chaconas, Betty Ownsbey, and Michael Kauffman who found the lost CDV of an older Mary Surratt. But even if all you find is a 1923 manuscript from a guy named William Clarke talking about an old childhood friend of his, I’d certainly be interested in that, too. Whatever you do, don’t keep it to yourself locked away so nobody knows. Because you know what they say, confession is good for the soul…and for history.



“Fun” fact: It took quite a bit of sleuthing to determine the author of the 1923 letter about David Herold. The only clue I had to go on was Mr. Heflin’s catalog which listed the author as Wm M Clarke. It was only after a few hours of searching through D.C. records, assembling a family tree, and scouring newspaper articles that I felt confident that William Miller Clarke was our man. He lived an interesting life beyond his friendship with Herold. Clarke claimed to have been offered a position in the Confederate army at the start of the war but turned it down later joining the Union. He stated he was a “bodyguard” at Lincoln’s first inaugural and that he was in Washington, D.C. at the time of the assassination. After leaving D.C. with his family, he moved to New York before settling in Boston. He was on the staff of Massachusetts Governor John L. Bates from 1903 – 1905 and, in the last decade of his life, was a popular speaker at different club meetings. An article from 1919, noted he presented a speech entitled, “Life of Lincoln,” which may have touched on his infamous schoolmate. In 1913 Clarke’s wife of 46 years, Ella, died. One would think that would be the end of romance for a 71-year-old and, for a time, it was. However, just shy of his 81st birthday, William Clarke got married again…to a 28-year-old bookkeeper name Bertha Davidson.

This marriage occurred in 1923, just a couple months before he wrote his manuscript about Herold so perhaps we have Bertha to thank for convincing him to write his memories of the conspirator down. Less than three years later, on April 11, 1926, William Clarke died and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. Bertha Davidson Clarke never remarried and died in 1980. She was not buried with Clarke and is, instead, with her parents in Glenwood Cemetery in Everett, MA.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 16 Comments

The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (August 9 – 22)

A couple of weeks ago on my Twitter account I did a “On This Day” or “OTD” tweet regarding one of the possible days where John Wilkes Booth recruited his childhood friends Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen into his plan to abduct President Lincoln. While Arnold later wrote his belief that this initial meeting, “was in the latter part of August or about the first of September A. D. 1864,” Art Loux, author of John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, concluded that Booth couldn’t have been in Baltimore during that time and that the most likely day for this meeting to have occurred was on August 8 or 9. Having just been looking at Art’s book for another matter, I decided to mark the possible anniversary of this event on August 9th:

Since the 9th, I’ve proceeded to find other events to mark for each subsequent day. In this way, I’ve apparently started a daily #OTD post for events related to the Lincoln assassination, John Wilkes Booth, and the Booth family. I know only a limited number of my blog readers are on Twitter and so I’ve decided that each week, I will repost my tweets from the past week here on my blog so that everyone can see what anniversaries have occurred over the past week. This first post will have two weeks worth of material as I didn’t think of reposting them until today. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to the page on Twitter where you can click to make them bigger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last two weeks.


August 10

Bonus August 10 tweet from the Dr. Mudd House Museum (another great Twitter follow) reminding us of a certain stage carpenter’s birthday


August 11


August 12


August 13


August 14

Thank you so much to Eva Lennartz for sharing her photo of the Rathbones’ final resting place and for having discovered that their remains were not completely disposed of as was previously believed!


August 15

(Note: After I posted this tweet, my friend Steve Miller who is THE expert on Boston Corbett let me know that he doesn’t think Corbett was actually in the hospital for a month. Instead, Steve believes that Corbett was returning to the hospital regularly for outpatient visits. Thanks for the info, Steve!)


August 16


August 17

This one should look familiar.


August 18


August 19


August 20


August 21


August 22


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“J. Wilkes Booth. He Will Be Jarred”

On this date, August 17th, in 1903, The Enid Daily Wave newspaper published what I believe is the greatest piece of journalism related to the “Booth mummy” story. Seven months earlier, on January 13, 1903, a house painter and drifter named David E. George died by ingesting poison while staying in a room of the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma. Soon thereafter rumors began to circulate that George was actually John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln, having somehow escaped his death at the Garrett farm back in 1865. There is no credible evidence that David E. George was John Wilkes Booth but this piece of western folklore is just one of those fake stories that refuses to die.

Anyway, while waiting on someone to come and take possession of the deceased, David E. George was embalmed by Enid undertaker W. H. Ryan and set up in the shop of his employer, William Penniman. In this way it served as a tourist attraction and a free advertising of the undertaker’s embalming skills. It actually worked, with Ryan being poached by a rival undertaker a year later.

All the time while the George mummy was just hanging out at Penniman’s shop, the question of what the final disposition of the body would be was on the mind of local residents. There were repeated false rumors that government officials, members of the Booth family, or George’s actual relatives were going to show up “any day now” to take possession of the body, but these rumors never panned out.

And so it was that on August 17, 1903, The Enid Daily Wave made the bold announcement that a decision had finally been made on what to do with the body of “John Wilkes Booth”. According to the Wave, since the St. Louis World’s Fair (technically known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) was planned for the next year, it had been decided to make the body of “John Wilkes Booth” part of the displays in the Oklahoma pavilion at the fair. But how, might you ask would “Booth” be made to transport to the Fair? Well, like any other preserves, “Booth” was to be jarred:

J. WILKES BOOTH.

Final Disposition Of The Body Decided Upon. It Goes To The World’s Fair,

HE WILL BE JARRED

And Exhibited, The Same As Other Oklahoma Fruit. He Will Wink At The Audiance.

The final disposition of the well preserved remains of J. Wilkes Booth still lying in state, in an Enid morgue has been decided upon. Dr, Eugene Watrous who is one of the designate World’s Fair chemists, has been audthorized to order a preserving jar large enough to hold a man sitting up right. Just as soon as the large clear plate glass jar arrives Booth will be placed in it, in full dress suit, sitting on a chair. The jar will be filled with the same embalming fluid, used in the preservation of fruit, surrounding the body.

A pair of fresh and beautiful jet black eyes will be provided for Booth from which an automatic wire will extend through the cork of the jar down the back way, under the floor, in the Oklahoma World’s fair building, to a point where a button will be placed.

About every fifteen minutes during the fair, or when a large crowd gathers to look at Booth; President Joe Meibergen of the World’s Fair commission will step out, with his right foot over the button. making the following remarks, which he has already committed to memory: – “Ladies and Gentlemen: – you are now gazing on the remains of J. Wilkes Booth, the lawless outlaw who unlawfuly assasinated Abraham Lincoln. A man who has died twice, once in Virgina’ in 1865 and once in Enid, Oklahoma the best town on earth, in January 1903. My fellow countrymen the death of Booth is still in doubt, while he sits upright before you in a large glass jar, apparently dead, yet he seems to be alive. Watch me – by a simple motion of my right arm Mr. Booth will wink and throw his eye to the right or left as I may throw my arm.

Joe touches the button to suit the direction he wishes to make the eyes turn and the astonished crowds leave the Oklahoma building still in doubt as to the death of J. Wilkes Booth.

It is a great scheme. The Wave had no business to give it away, but the people have a right to know what is going on.

Sadly, like so many of the other predictions made by The Enid Daily Wave, the body of David E. George was not jarred nor was he displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair. In fairness, this whole article was likely intended by the Wave as a joke. Still, I find it amusing to imagine what some of the press reports would have been had the world actually witnessed a shifty eyed “John Wilkes Booth” eyeballing them menacingly from inside a giant Mason jar. Perhaps it would have looked something like this.

Nothing creepy about that at all.

Categories: History, Levity | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

The Imp in Nanjemoy

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.”

References:
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.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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