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

A New Chapter

In 2012, I moved from my home state of Illinois (The Land of Lincoln) to Maryland. I had been teaching in Illinois for two years and enjoyed it, but managed to get a job at an elementary school in St. Mary’s County Public Schools in Southern Maryland. The appeal of being able to live in the same area as the history that so fascinates me was almost all the encouragement a 24 year-old Dave needed to move across the country. And I have never once regretted the decision of leaving my family behind to embrace my passion. For the past nine years, I have been able to do so many things and explore the Lincoln assassination story in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve camped out in the woods that John Wilkes Booth passed through during his escape, given tours at the room where the trial of the conspirators happened, been interviewed on live TV and radio talking about the Lincoln assassination story, spent a night at the Booth family home, and, my favorite activity of all, I’ve taken 20 busloads of people down the John Wilkes Booth escape route tour for the Surratt Society. Being in Maryland has helped shape me as a historian and an educator.

With that being said, our priorities in life can change quickly sometimes. At the beginning of 2021, I was a recent divorcee who was asked to be interviewed on Vanished –  a podcast that was investigating the “Booth escaped and got turned into a mummy” conspiracy theory. The cohost assigned to me was Jen Taylor (no relation) and we had a great time essentially shredding the conspiracy theorists’ so-called evidence that a different man was killed in Booth’s place on April 26, 1865. After the podcast wrapped up, Jen and I continued to find excuses to talk to one another. One day, Jen had to take a long drive and decided to call me so that I could keep her company on her trip. We talked on the phone during her entire car ride, and after she got back home, and further into the night. Before long, I heard birds chirping and saw the sun was rising. We had talked for over 9 hours straight! Since then, I’ve talked and videochatted with Jen everyday. When my spring break from school came in March, I cancelled my planned trip to Fort Jefferson, to fly out to Austin, Texas to see her and her two amazing boys in person.

We both quickly realized that we had found our person and that we loved each other. It came fast and without warning but we knew that everything we’d experienced had been designed to lead us to each other. We had both been in bad marriages before and that’s how we knew we had finally found the selfless and committed partners we both deserved. Since March, I’ve flown out to Austin every other weekend. Eventually, Jen was able to make a trip to Maryland to see my neck of the woods. While taking Jen on part of the John Wilkes Booth escape route in May, I proposed to her on the banks of the Potomac at the spot where John Wilkes Booth and David Herold tried to cross.

We are in the midst of planning a wedding for next year in Granbury, Texas – the same town where the John Wilkes Booth imposter, John St. Helen, lived and allegedly confessed his identity to Finis Bates. In essence, Granbury is the birthplace of the “Booth escaped” theory and, if it wasn’t for that town and its notorious inhabitants spinning some yarns, Jen and I would never have met. I used to avoid the Booth escaped theory like the plague because it was so nonsensical, and now it’s a key part of my marriage origin story.

I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I can’t wait to start my life with Jen and her boys. I have a family waiting for me in Texas. Today was my last day at St. Mary’s County Public Schools and in two weeks (on the anniversary of the conspirators’ execution as a matter of fact) I will be leaving Maryland for good. I have truly loved living in such close proximity to the Lincoln assassination sites (and cemeteries) for the past nine years, but what I will miss most of all are the many wonderful friends I’ve made here in Maryland. I will sincerely miss you all, but my future is with my wife and stepsons in Austin.

Now before you worry too much, this does not mean I’m going to stop researching, writing and speaking about the Lincoln assassination. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m hoping to increase my output here in LincolnConspirators.com once I finish my Master’s degree in American history at the end of the year. I already have ideas for my thesis and am hoping it can turn into either an interesting feature here on the site or maybe, possibly, a book. In addition, Jen and I are planning to make a podcast series focused on the trial of the Lincoln conspirators.

In terms of talks and speeches, I’m planning on coming back to Maryland for the annual Surratt Society Conference, my talks at Tudor Hall, and other special events. My favorite thing in the world is narrating the Surratt Society’s John Wilkes Booth escape route bus tours and you better believe that I will fly back as often as they want me to get my fix. In addition, COVID has introduced us all to the virtual meeting and Civil War Roundtables. I am always available to do online and Zoom lectures to different groups.

In many ways, things will stay the same here on LincolnConspirators.com, I just won’t be living in Maryland anymore when I write about these things. At times I may have to reach out to the locals to go and snap a picture of a grave or something, but when I started this site I was living in Illinois so I know I can still do good research from afar. In the interim between posts, I still highly recommend you follow me on Twitter as I am always tweeting and retweeting Lincoln assassination material over there.

I’d like to thank you all for your continued support as I travel to a new state to start this new chapter in my life with Jen and her boys. You can take the Lincoln assassination researcher out of Southern Maryland, but you can’t take the Southern Maryland out of the Lincoln assassination researcher. To my local friends and students, take care of this state (and its graves) for me. Don’t worry, I won’t be a stranger.

Love,

Dave Taylor

Categories: News | Tags: , , , | 66 Comments

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.

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Upcoming Online Classes on the Lincoln Assassination!

Going through a bit of history withdrawal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? I know I certainly am. Other than a nice outdoor tour of Dr. Mudd’s cemetery that I ran back in October 2020, I haven’t done any history stuff “in the field” in over a year! With Booth escape route tours, in person conferences, and talks at museums like Tudor Hall and the Mudd House scuttled until larger portions of the population are able to get their vaccinations, we must continue to rely on technology in order to come together to talk history. That’s why I’m excited to highlight two different online classes that are coming up that anyone can take part in virtually.


The Lincoln Assassination: Southern Maryland and the Plots Against Abraham Lincoln by Bob Bowser for the College of Southern Maryland

The first class is coming up next week and is being run through the College of Southern Maryland, a local community college in the region. The name of the class is The Lincoln Assassination: Southern Maryland and the Plots Against Abraham Lincoln. It is being taught by a good friend of mine and a very knowledgeable historian, Bob Bowser. A fellow teacher, Bob earns his living teaching AP history classes to high school students in Charles County, Maryland. In addition, Bob is the President of the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Society. The Mudd House museum has made tremendous growth over the last few years as a result of the passionate work being done by Bob and the rest of the board. Bob has a true passion for the Lincoln assassination story and I’ve always leapt at the chance to take his walking tours of the Mudd house property and listen to his special talks. I know that Bob will do a phenomenal job presenting the story of Southern Maryland in the plot against Abraham Lincoln.

Bob Bowser conducting a walking tour of the Mudd House property in 2019.

Bob’s class takes place over the course of three days. The first one is on Tuesday, April 6, 2021 from 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm EDT. The second session is Thursday, April 7, 2021 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm EDT. The final class will take place on Saturday, April 10 from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm EDT. All of the classes take place online over Zoom. All you need to participate is a computer that is compatible with Zoom to see Bob’s presentations and take part in his discussions. I find Zoom very easy to use and when you sign up for the class you will receive instructions on the few things you need to do to get your computer ready. Many of us have already been using Zoom for work and other things during this pandemic so there is practically no set up at all.

In order to sign up for Bob’s The Lincoln Assassination: Southern Maryland and the Plots Against Abraham Lincoln class please visit the Personal Enrichment portion of the College of Southern Maryland’s website and select the History and Current Events category. From here you select the Lincoln Assassination course, add it to your cart, and then complete the registration process. The cost of the class (which goes to CSM for providing it) is $65.

At the time of this posting there are only 9 spots left for Bob’s class. So, if you are interested in joining it, I would recommend reserving your spot soon. If you do, I will be one of your classmates as I’m pretty sure I was the first person to stake a claim when Bob told me about it! I’m very excited to see what Bob is going to put together and know that it will be fascinating.

Dave Taylor and Bob Bowser with some very “on brand” face masks.


With the world starting to open up again and more people choosing to take advantage of in-person Road Scholar programs, the following online program has been cancelled.

The Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln by Dr. Samuel Wheeler for Road Scholar

In addition to Bob’s class next week, I also wanted to advertise a class that I will be helping with that will be coming up this summer. This class is called The Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln and is a five day course organized by the Road Scholar organization.

The class is being taught by Dr. Samuel Wheeler, a noted Lincoln expert and the former State Historian of Illinois and Director of Research and Collections at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The five day course offers virtual field trips to many sites associated with the life of Abraham Lincoln with Dr. Wheeler as your guide. For each “field trip”, Dr. Wheeler has recruited a different Lincoln scholar to join the class and share their knowledge about the 16th President. Among the expert guests that Dr. Wheeler has scheduled for this class are:

Dr. Catherine Clinton

Dr. Matthew Pinsker

Harold Holzer

and me!

While I definitely out of my league amongst these titans of Lincoln studies, I am honored that Dr. Wheeler thought of me to present the story of Lincoln’s assassination to his students. I first met Dr. Wheeler in 2016 when I presented at the ALPLM about John Wilkes Booth and he has been very supportive of my work ever since. The Road Scholar class is scheduled to run June 21 – 25, 2021 and each day begins at 11:00 am EDT. It is completely virtual and a detailed itinerary for each day can be found HERE.

The cost for this Road Scholar class is $499, which, admittedly, is pretty pricey. I know not everyone will be able to swing that and I wouldn’t want you to sign up for it only to listen to me blabber on. That being said, for you big Lincoln buffs, I know you will love this class and find it worthwhile to learn from and ask questions of Lincoln luminaries like Dr. Wheeler, Dr. Clinton, Harold Holzer, and Dr. Pinsker. I’m also hopeful I can make my day on the assassination an interesting and entertaining one. If you’re looking for something educational to do with your latest round of stimulus money or your tax return why not consider spending a week with Dr. Wheeler learning about Lincoln from the comfort of your own home?


I hope to see some of you during one of these two classes. As an educator I always stress to my students the importance of being a lifelong learner. We each have expertise and knowledge to share with others. As Chaucer wrote “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” I look forward to learning with and teaching some of you in the months to come.

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