Posts Tagged With: Booth Family

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.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , | 10 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

“Could I But Hear Thy Voice”: Edwin Booth’s Poems to Mary Devlin

From the death of his father due to his missing guardianship, the murder of the President at the hand of his younger brother, and the financial loss of his opulent theater in New York City, Edwin Booth lived a life of unimaginable tragedy. Though incredibly successful and praised for his histrionic talents on the stage, the unlucky circumstances of Edwin’s life plagued him with constant melancholy and sorrow. Aside from his darling daughter, Edwina, it appears that the only source of true comfort and happiness that Edwin Booth ever felt was his treasured wife, Mary Devlin.

Mary Devlin and Edwin Booth first met on the stage in 1856. While it seems that both became interested in each other, young Mary was hesitant to engage with an actor of Edwin’s reputation. He was six years her senior and recently returned from several years on the rowdy west coast. When Edwin traveled on from their shared engagement as Romeo and Juliet in 1856, nothing developed further. When they reunited for a couple of engagements in 1858, however, it appears that a relationship began to form. In the end, Edwin proposed to Mary in 1859 and the two were married on July 7, 1860.

Mary Devlin Booth, possibly in her wedding gown

At some point during their 1858-1859 courtship, Edwin Booth composed two poems for Mary Devlin. He recorded them in an autograph album that Mary owned. The album is currently in the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library as part of the noted Taper collection. The state of Illinois has done a wonderful job digitizing many of the documents, letters, and images associated with the Taper collection, the album being among them.

In the available images of the autograph album, we can see that there are a total of four poems, two of which are written by others. Of the two Edwin poems, only one of them bears Edwin’s name at the end. While the second one is anonymous, it is clearly written in Edwin’s handwriting (whose chicken scratch is incredibly difficult to transcribe at times). As far as I can tell, these poems have never been in print before and I’m not sure if they have even been transcribed before now.

Here is Edwin’s first poem to Mary Devlin:

Amid the many gloomy scenes
The tragic Muse doth revel in
To cheer my path, she found the means
To place a merry (Mary) Dev’lin

The name’s too harsh for her dear self,
Where dwells us thought of evil in –
A merry, laughing, loving elf
I found but good this Dev’lin.

And she will prove in after age
A star – at least of spotless truth,
T’illume the darkness of our stage,
Or I’m a dutchman, Edwin Booth

This poem strikes a silly tone, playing off of Mary’s last name. And yet it also compliments Mary’s talents on the stage which Edwin is also known to have done in letters to his peers. He truly felt that Mary Devlin was a talented actress. Unfortunately however, since the reputations of actresses were so low in Booth’s day, the noted actor could not even bring himself to marry one. Edwin essentially made Mary Devlin retire from acting before he agreed to marry her. She spent much of 1859 into 1860, in semi-seclusion studying and learning how to be a high society woman.

Edwin’s second poem is a far more romantic composition. In it, Booth demonstrates his growing affection for Mary.

Could I my life begin anew
And o’er my fate might have the choice,
I’d be some object dear to you
Content – could I but hear thy voice.

I would not be a throne’d king
If from thy blessed sight removed,
But rather the most abject thing
With but the sense to know you loved.*

Free from glory’s empty strife
Your little caged bird I’d be,
A happy pris’ner all my life
If loved and petted, sweet, by thee.

This touching poem demonstrates the true feelings Edwin Booth had for his beloved. In the cruelest of fates, however, Edwin would suffer his greatest loss of all less than three years into their marriage. On February 21, 1863, Mary Devlin Booth died at the age of 22. She had been ill with abdominal pains for some time since the birth of their daughter Edwina a year before. To help with her recuperation, Edwin had rented a house in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Under the impression that Mary was recovering from her more recent bout, Edwin was performing in New York when she took a bad turn. He made it back to their home several hours too late and locked himself in the room with Mary’s body for hours. From these poems in particular, one can easily imagine the deep and heavy grief he bore with her unexpected passing at so young an age. While Edwin Booth would later remarry, he never got over the loss of “Mollie” – his one true love.


*Now, if you’re like me, the middle stanza bothers you. While the words “removed” and “loved” have the same endings, the words themselves do not rhyme. Since Edwin Booth was a very eloquent man, I kept second guessing myself as to this transcription. I even wanted to change the word “loved” to “true” so at least the line would partially rhyme with “removed”. However, after doing a little research I discovered that, in Shakespeare’s time, the words “removed” and “loved” DID rhyme. Our pronunciation of words like “remove” has changed over time into the oo sound (as in food) rather than the original short u sound as it makes in love. In Shakespeare’s day words like “remove” and “prove” both rhymed with “love” even though they do not match our modern pronunciations. It’s likely that Edwin wrote his poem using a bit of Original Pronunciation. Here’s a short video demonstrating the original pronunciation of Shakespeare ‘s Sonnet 116 which ends with a now nonexistent “love” rhyme.

Categories: History | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Lincoln Assassination Ephemera

When you first start researching and “doing history”, there are several new vocabulary words that you have to learn. In the same way that doctors have a long list of subject-specific jargon, so too, do historians. When dealing with artifacts, it’s key to know the items provenance, or personal history. How do we know this thing is what it claims to be? What evidence do we have of its journey from there to here? Historiography is the study of how history has been written. How has the study of a specific event or period changed over subsequent years or decades? How have the ideals and beliefs of historians during different time periods influenced their presentation and understanding of history? What does it mean to study history? One must be careful not to include anachronisms in their writing of history. These are items, places, phrases or customs that would not exist in the time period being discussed. One would not speak of President Lincoln in the Oval Office since the Oval Office did not exist in Lincoln’s day. The list goes on and on.

One of my favorite history jargon words is ephemera. It relates to items that were made to exist for a short period of time and not expected to be preserved or retained. An advertisement for a sale at a grocery store is an example of ephemera. Within a matter of days, the advertisement is no longer accurate and thus disposed. Ephemeral things are meant to be temporary and fleeting. This idea has evolved into digital platforms as well with apps like SnapChat being based around the idea that the pictures and videos sent over the app only exist for a short time before they cease to exist. Today marks the beginning of a brand new year and many of us may be eagerly disposing of our old 2020 calendars, they having served their purposes. While the vast majority of ephemeral things are disposed or destroyed in this way, examples of ephemera that have survived through the years can give us a unique look into the past.

Here are some examples of ephemera related to the Lincoln assassination story.


Newspaper classifieds for the Surratt boardinghouse

In 1853, John H. Surratt Sr. acquired a ten-room house located at 541 H Street in Washington, D.C. The elder Surratt never lived in this house and the family spent the next 11 years renting it out. By 1864, Mary Surratt struggled to keep up the family’s tavern in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The widowed Mary made the decision to move her family to this D.C. home and operate it as a boardinghouse. In addition to her often absent son John Jr. and her daughter Anna, several other boarders came to take up residence in the H street boardinghouse. On October 6, an 18 year old named Honora Fitzpatrick moved in and shared a room with Anna. On November 1, Louis J. Weichmann, a friend of John Jr.’s, moved in. Weichmann would come to be one of the key witnesses against Mary Surratt at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. Anxious for more boarders to help pay off some of her deceased husband’s many debts, Mary Surratt decided to advertise in the Evening Star newspaper. The excerpts above show some of the advertisements she ran in November and December of 1864 looking for additional gentlemen tenants. While John Wilkes Booth was never a lodger at the Surratt boardinghouse, his introduction to John Surratt in December of 1864 through the assistance of Dr. Mudd, made Booth a regularly visitor to the house on H street. For a short period, Mary did house conspirator Lewis Powell, though he was not living there at the time of the assassination. Like the many countless classifieds that appear and then disappear from newspapers each day, these ads would have been completely forgotten if not for their connection to the story of Lincoln’s assassination.


John Wilkes Booth’s check to himself

Talk about ephemeral! With online banking and online money transfer services, writing checks are a thing of the past. But even those of us who still write checks every once and awhile, have to admit that they are not things we generally hold on to once we cash or deposit it. But perhaps if you were a bank and had a check signed by a Presidential assassin just a few months before he committed his deed, you might hold onto it. John Wilkes Booth opened his account with Jay Cooke & Company on November 16, 1864 with an initial deposit of $1,500. This deposit occurred just a few days after Booth had returned from visiting Southern Maryland (and Dr. Mudd) for the first time. Over the next few months, he made different withdrawals on the account withdrawing the final balance of $25 on March 16, 1865, just a day after his meeting at Gautier’s Restaurant in which he laid out his abduction plot to all of his conspirators. The check above was a withdrawal of $150 made out to Booth himself on January 7, 1865. Two days later, Booth would make another deposit of $750. Part of this larger sum would be used to pay for part of the boat that was intended to be used to ferry the kidnapped Lincoln across the Potomac. In short, John Wilkes Booth’s account with Jay Cooke & Co. was where he kept the money he was using to finance his plot against Lincoln. This ephemeral check that Booth wrote to himself likely paid out some very real blood money. This check come from the collection of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


Telegram from the Ford brothers

There are many telegrams that are a part of the story of Lincoln’s death. As the main method of rapid communication across distances in the 1860s, John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators often communicated with each other via telegram. However, the telegram above does not come from Booth or any of his conspirators. Rather it was a note sent by two of the Ford brothers from Ford’s Theatre. Harry Clay Ford had been present at his theatre when Booth shot Lincoln. His brother, James Reed “Dick” Ford, had been present earlier in the day and evening, but was away at the moment of the assassination. At some point on April 15, Harry and Dick sent off this telegram stating that, “The President of the U.S. was assassinated by John Wilks [sic] Booth at our theatre last evening – see daily papers for full particulars.” Interestingly, the recipient of this telegram was Joseph Simonds, a friend of John Wilkes Booth’s who acted as his agent in the Pennsylvania oil region. Booth had recruited Simonds, a former banker from Boston, to help him in the oil business in 1864 and even though most of Booth’s investments had ended Simonds had stayed in the oil business. Simonds often sent mail to Booth care of Ford’s Theatre and so the Ford brothers may have felt compelled to alert Simonds of what had occurred as soon as possible. At the trial of the Lincoln conspirators all three men, Dick Ford, Harry Ford, and Joseph Simonds, would be called to testify about their relationship with Booth. This telegram is in the collection of the Library of Congress.


Pressed flowers from Dr. Mudd’s island prison

Ephemeral objects go far beyond humanmade creations. Nature is the largest producer of ephemera as everything living must inevitably die. We treasure the sweet blossoms that appear in springtime because we know that their existence is short lived. So much of the beauty behind a flower is because it is fragile and temporary. As the saying goes, “To every thing there is a season.” Dr. Mudd spent some time during his many seasons at Fort Jefferson attempting to preserve some of the naturally fleeting floral specimens in his tropical island prison. He collected several examples of mosses, ferns, and flowers from around the Dry Tortugas and pressed them into an album that generally housed photographs. The album can be found at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum alongside some of Dr. Mudd’s other creations from his imprisonment.


Broadside advertising John Surratt’s lecture

Rather than today’s practice of putting on the same play or musical for a prolonged engagement lasting several weeks, in the Victorian era theater specific shows generally changed each night. The main draw of the stage was the celebrated touring actor or actress who was gracing the boards at that time. The audience came out to see a certain performer who chose which shows they wanted to perform in as the lead role. Each theater’s playbills were. therefore, extremely ephemeral items, meant to capture a single performance only. Instead of using a copy of one of the most sought after playbills in the world, an authentic copy of Ford’s Theatre’s Our American Cousin playbill from April 14, 1865, I decided to show off another rarity. This playbill of sorts advertises a lecture by John Surratt, the sole Lincoln conspirator to avoid conviction for his role in the President’s death. At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, John Surratt was in Elmira, New York. When he heard the news of what Booth had done and that he was wanted in connection with the crime, Surratt flew to Canada. He hid out in Montreal for most of the trial of his mother and other conspirators and was eventually safely transported to Europe. He was eventually discovered hiding out in the Vatican as a Papal Guard. He fled the Papal States but was eventually cornered and arrested in Alexandria, Egypt and extradited to the U.S. in 1867. John Surratt was put on trial but was given a civilian trial rater than a military commission like the one that adjudicated his mother and co-conspirators. The civilian jury of majority Southerners could not come to a decision and resulted in a hung jury. Surratt was then released from custody and returned to civilian life. In 1870, hoping to parlay his notable story into a lucrative speaking career, Surratt embarked on the lecture circuit. He told the story of how he had conspired with John Wilkes Booth to abduct President Lincoln, but denied having any knowledge of Booth’s plan to kill the President. He gave his compelling lecture in Rockville and Baltimore, Maryland, and even at the Cooper Union in New York City where Lincoln had given his 1860 speech that had propelled him to national prominence. The above broadside was for speech John Surratt planned to give on December 30, 1870 in Washington, D.C. This specific lecture never happened, however. A group of locals were outraged that Surratt would be allowed to give a speech detailing his involvement in the plot against Lincoln in the same town were the President was martyred. It is believed that someone in authority contacted Surratt before the speech could start and warned him that though he had been released by the government, he had not been formally acquitted. If he continued to make waves, the government would be happy to use his words against him and re-charge him for complicity in Lincoln’s death. As a result, John Surratt never made another lecture. This broadside for the lecture that never happened is from the collection of the University of Iowa.


Paperwork of Edwin Booth’s 1886 – 1887 tour

Not every financial record need be as doom and gloom as an assassin’s check. For example, here is a look at the inner workings of a far more celebrated touring star. This is the statement showing all of Edwin Booth’s expenses and income during the week of April 25, 1887. During this period of time, Booth was taking part in what is known as the Booth-Barrett Tours. From 1886 – 1890, Edwin and fellow actor Lawrence Barrett traveled around the country. The pair traveled over 14,000 miles and gave 233 performances. It’s fun to see the details of what the accounting for tours like this looked like. For this week of the tour, we can see what shows were produced and where, the total box office gross, and the amount Booth and Barrett received from their efforts. On the other side we see their expenses which included railroad tickets, the printing of playbills and advertisements, the purchase of calcium lights, telegrams, the expenses of their prop and wardrobe keepers, and even miscellaneous expenses like the repairing of a picture frame for $2. These bookkeeping records rarely survived long past their authors but demonstrate the importance of proper records in order to be successful as a traveling actor. This financial record comes from the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.


Advertisement for the “Booth” mummy

The post-mortem career of drifter David E. George has been the subject of many programs on the so called History Channel and others, but is hardly a new piece of pseudo history. As obliquely referred to on this broadside from the 1930s, it has been claimed that John Wilkes Booth escaped justice in 1865 only to take his own life 38 years later in Enid, Oklahoma. This ad portrays itself as a traveling exhibit of immense educational value that hopes to “correct American history” by showing that Booth had lived. With a name like the American Historical Research Society, I’m sure several people were convinced that they had been presented with the actual mummified remains of the assassin of President Lincoln. However, this advertisement is little more than an ad for snake oil. Despite its claim that one should not, “confuse this Exhibit with similar attractions that have been in carnivals and circuses,” that is exactly was this was. The “Booth” mummy had been traveling with carnivals since the the early 1920s and while it was now a solo attraction that visited towns and cities off the main thoroughfares, it was still little more than a sideshow hustle. The American Historical Research Society was nothing but an imaginary name incorporated by two hucksters of the mummy. They hoped the title would provide some legitimacy to their little sideshow attraction. But a pig is a pig, no matter how much lipstick you put on it! This advertisement for the “Booth” mummy exhibit comes from the collection of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


Shipping Invoice for Lewis Powell’s head

Most of us can’t wait to toss the shipping invoices that accompany our delivered online purchases. Like all receipts, shipping invoices are largely ephemeral, designed to survive the trip to their destinations. But in some cases, especially when it comes to historical artifacts, receipts can be used as a form of provenance to help prove where a specific item came from. In these cases, shipping invoices may become part of a formal record of an item. It’s perhaps not so surprising then that this shipping invoice from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. was retained when it accompanied a very unique relic in 1994. As stated on the paperwork, this invoice accompanied the transfer of the, “Human Cranium and Mandible of Lewis Powell/Payne” from the Smithsonian to a descendant of the Powell family living in Geneva, Florida. Noted as a matter of “repatriation”, this document represents the final trip that Secretary of State William Seward’s would-be assassin, Lewis Powell, took after his skull had been rediscovered among the Smithsonian’s anthropology collection in the 1990s. Through the help of historians Michael Kauffman and Betty Ownsbey, descendants of the Powell family took ownership of their ancestor’s remains and laid his skull to rest next to his mother in Geneva Cemetery. For more about Lewis Powell’s post-mortem travels click here. For a video I shot at Geneva Cemetery in 2020, check out this post. This shipping invoice comes from the collection of the Geneva History Museum in Geneva, Florida.

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Who’s to Blame?

In the collection of the The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History there is an 1865 diary written by Cyrena Hammond. At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, Cyrena was a 17 year-old resident of North Bergen, a small hamlet located about 20 miles west of Rochester in western New York. While there are many diaries that contain entries regarding the death of Lincoln, Cyrena’s actually speaks very little about the event in her day to day entries. The only mention of it is in her entry for April 19 which including the line, “The whole union is dressed in mourning today.” However, at the end of the diary, on the pages designed for keeping track of one’s money flow, Cyrena included a description of a Sunday school lesson she attended on April 29th. One of her neighbors, a man by the name of Loren Hill, addressed the Sunday school students and made particular comments regarding who was really to blame for Lincoln’s death. The following is an image of the diary pages and a transcription of what it says:

“The 29 of this month, Loren Hill, was trying to entertain the sabbath school with his talk which runs as follows

Every Girl should be brought up in sunday school. I have got four girls. They expect to become wives and in order to make them good wives they must be brought up in the sunday school. Most young girls that are ruined, are the cause of it all. They do more to ruin young men than young men do themselves. Had Mrs Booth been a real genuine woman Wilkes Booth would never have commited the deed he did. as long as I have any controll over my children they will attend the sunday school.

thus run his speech untill every body was disgusted.”

According to Loren Hill, the crime John Wilkes Booth committed was essentially the fault of his mother, Mary Ann Booth.

In Hill’s view, if Mrs. Booth had been a more “genuine” woman, John Wilkes would never had killed Lincoln. Hill preached that most of the ruin suffered in the world is the result of the moral failings of women and that they deserve the blame for whatever crimes their sons and husbands commit. As Cyrena points out at the end of her entry, everybody was disgusted by the overt misogyny of Hill’s preaching.

While I have seen many attempt to put the blame for Lincoln’s assassination on the shoulders of someone other than John Wilkes Booth, this was the first time I had ever read of someone being so callous as to blame poor Mrs. Booth for the crime of her misguided son. But even worse than blaming an innocent parent for the sins of her child was the way in which Hill attempted to use Lincoln’s death to preach that religious failings of women were the cause of men committing criminal acts. Such a sexist attack wrapped in doctrine reminded me of the ways in which enslavers used the Bible in order to justify the continued practice of slavery. Both are examples of the powerful using dogma to subjugate others to their will.

According to the 1870 census, Loren Hill, the women blaming lecturer, did indeed have 4 young daughters as he had stated. Their names were Emma, Francis, Mary, and Nora. Hill was a wealthy farmer in nearby Clarendon, NY with his real estate holdings valued at $12,000 and his personal estate at around $3,300. In the 1860s, he had been appointed as both Clarendon’s Assessor and Commissioner of Highways. He also served as the justice of the peace. Despite such social successes, when Hill died in 1883 he was allegedly completely broke. An 1889 book called the History of Clarendon by David Copeland stated that, “Hill was not worth one penny when he died, although he owned this farm when crops were good and prices high. When justice of the peace he said, in the presence of the author, ‘that he did not know whether his head was on his shoulders or on his feet,’ a lawsuit having turned him upside down in his own estimation.” Unfortunately the text does not give any more information and so we are left to only speculate as to which specific woman Loren Hill undoubtedly blamed for his own financial ruin.

I was introduced to Cyrena’s diary through my current Master’s class on Historiography and used it to discuss social history. As an example of social history, the lives of Cyrena Hammond and Loren Hill demonstrate a story of gender and power in the Civil War era. Mr. Hill, the powerful and influential landowner, sought dominion over his daughters and other women by blaming the moral failings of women for the crimes of men. Cyrena (and apparently others) expressed disgust over these remarks but it appears the rebuke may have only been safe within the pages of a diary. Even the interactions of two neighbors in a rural area of New York at the time of Lincoln’s assassination can be valuable to social historians when viewed through the lens of gender roles and gender norms.

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John Wilkes Booth and the real Billy Bowlegs

As I have mentioned before, I am currently in a graduate program working on a Master’s degree in American history. This is why updates here on BoothieBarn have been few and far between for the last year and will likely continue to be for a year or two more. This summer semester I took a class on American Indian History with Dr. Ned Blackhawk from Yale University. It was a very illuminating class and helped me develop a greater understanding of what American history truly is. For the final paper, each student was allowed to pick a subject of their choice. As always, I wanted to make a connection, even a small one, to John Wilkes Booth or the Lincoln assassination story. With the help of a Native friend on Twitter, we assembled a short list of some of the minor connections John Wilkes Booth had to Native Americans:

  • As a young child growing up at Tudor Hall, John Wilkes Booth and his siblings often invoked the imagery of Indians in their play. Asia Booth recalled her brother digging a large hole, the size of a trench, in the wooded area around Tudor Hall in search of Indian bones. Also, when riding his horse Cola di Rienzi around, Booth was known to spur him on with shouts of, “The Choctaws are after you, ride for your life!”

  • Located not far from Tudor Hall is The Rocks at Deer Creek. This natural rock formation was a common picnic and riding destination for the Booth children including John Wilkes Booth. Local legends stated that, in earlier years, the Susquehannock Indians occupied the area and performed ceremonies on the King and Queen Seat. In 1854, John Wilkes Booth wrote to his friend Samuel Williams O’Laughlen that, “the Indian’s where up here the other day with their great Bear.” A modern archeological study, however, was unable to find any significant evidence of Native American residency in the area.

  • While learning the acting profession in Richmond, John Wilkes Booth performed the role of Uncas, a Native American, in the play The Wept of the Wish-Ton-Wish which starred Maggie Mitchell. Researcher Angela Smythe has done a compelling amount of research into the story that a photograph of Booth in his Uncas costume once existed..

While interesting pieces of trivia, none of these connections really lent themselves to a research paper where Native Americans were the primary subject. However, there was one additional connection that had always piqued my curiosity. According to Asia Booth’s book on her brother,

“There was a celebrated Indian Chief named Billy Bowlegs, and Wilkes went by this name among his companions at [St. Timothy’s Hall in] Catonsville.”

John Wilkes Booth was even known to have used this boyish nickname in a letter he wrote to Samuel Williams O’Laughlen on April 30, 1854. In closing the letter signed it as “J.W.B alias. Billy. Bow. Legs”

Several books, including Art Loux’s John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, provide the brief context that Billy Bowlegs was a leader of the Seminole tribe in Florida. The assumption is that John Wilkes Booth was given this nickname because he was bow legged himself. But I wanted to know more about the real Billy Bowlegs even if only to understand how a group of teenage boys in Maryland had heard of a Seminole chief way down in Florida. So, in the end, I decided to wrote my final paper on the real Billy Bowlegs who I discovered was actually called Holata Micco by his people. I looked at his life before and during the time when John Wilkes Booth became his namesake. What follows is that final paper.

I must warn you that the paper is a bit long, there are no pictures, and there is no mention about John Wilkes Booth in the text. While the nickname inspired the research, the paper itself is an analysis of Holata Micco’s actions between the Second and Third Seminole Wars, the latter of which would ultimately come to bear his name. I am not an expert on the Seminole and had never even read about the Seminole Wars before starting this class. However, I did a great deal of research on Holata Micco for this paper and am proud of the finished product. While I’m sure there are inevitable errors in what is written below, they are unintentional. I present my final paper on Holata Micco, the real Billy Bowlegs, for anyone interested in learning more about a fascinating figure in American history whose name happened to become the childhood nickname of a Presidential assassin.


Holata Micco: Peacemaker for his People

By Dave Taylor

The Third Seminole War during the 1850s was the final major conflict between the United States and Native tribes in Florida. At the time, the conflict was often referred to as The Billy Bowlegs War, named for a leader of the Seminole who was known colloquially as Billy Bowlegs. Billy Bowlegs’ true name was Holata Micco, and he was a well-known leader of the Seminole people in the years prior to the conflict. When the war – largely characterized by hit and run guerilla warfare – broke out in 1855, Holata was seen as the main aggressor and tactician behind the Seminole’s last stand. The bloody events of 1855 through 1858, impressed upon the name of Holata Micco a legacy of conflict and warfare. However, a close examination of the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in the Third Seminole War demonstrates that Holata’s reputation for violence is not supported by his documented actions. Rather than playing the aggressor, Holata Micco was committed to the peaceful coexistence of the Seminole and the United States and made many sacrifices in his attempt to protect his people.

The Third Seminole War, like the one that preceded it, was a natural extension of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, ordering the relocation of Native tribes to areas west of the Mississippi. The act opened up vast quantities of previously held Indian land in areas of the eastern United States to white settlers. President Andrew Jackson, a strong proponent of the Act, knew that not all tribes would willingly move from their native lands and therefore backed up the act with the use of military force. Jackson viewed the act as one of compassion combined with an ultimatum. “I was satisfied that the Indians could not possibly live under the laws of the States,” Jackson wrote shortly after the passage of the act. “If now they shall refuse to accept the liberal terms offered, they only must be liable for whatever evils and dificulties [sic] may arise.”[1] The difficulties that stemmed from the Indian Removal Act were numerous and many tribes refused to leave the lands they had occupied for generations. In the territory of Florida, the Seminole fought a war against then General Jackson who had allied the United States Army with the Seminole’s rival tribe, the Lower Creek. That war, known later as the First Seminole war, stripped the Seminole of much of their land holdings in the panhandle and northern parts of Florida. The Seminole retreated to a reservation created by the United States government in the central part of the Florida peninsula despite the fact that the signatory Indian chiefs believed that the allocated land, “did not contain a sufficient quantity of good land to subsist them.”[2] A subsequent war, stemming from the Seminole’s resistance to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, decreased the tribe’s numbers and forced them to seek refuge in the Everglades and Big Cypress swamps, areas even less hospitable than the reservation they had been assigned years before.

It was at the end of the Second Seminole War that Holata Micco rose to prominence. As noted by the research of Kenneth Porter, a historian who specialized in African American frontiersman and the relationship between African Americans and the Seminole people, the age and lineage of Holata Micco are unknown for certainty. He was likely born between the years of 1808 and 1812 and was of some close relation, possible a nephew, to Micanopy, the leader of the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.[3] Holata’s ascension from warrior to a leadership position in the Seminole tribe came about due to Micanopy’s capture (under a flag of truce) in 1838 and the leader’s subsequent removal to the West. The Second Seminole War was a war of attrition that, through death, capture, and surrender, decimated the remaining population of Seminoles in Florida. General William Worth, the final U.S. commander during the Second Seminole War believed that 5,000 Seminole had been removed over the course of the seven years conflict.[4] Holata negotiated with General Worth at the end of the Second Seminole War, but he was not the sole leader of the around 400 remaining Seminoles. The war had broken the Seminole into different bands and different leaders had emerged within those groups. The idea that Holata Micco was the sole chief of the Seminoles and that he was responsible for all of the Seminole’s activities from this point forward was an erroneous assumption that was regularly repeated in the press in the years, and conflict, to follow. The lack of understanding regarding the complex interplay of powerful leaders among the remaining Seminole and the biased nature of the white press against the Native occupants of Florida caused Holata Micco to emerge in the eyes of the general populace as the main aggressor of the Third Seminole War.

The Second Seminole War did not end with the complete surrender of the Seminole. Despite the heavy losses in population, the bulk of the Seminole still in Florida were just as committed to staying there as they had been in the beginning of the conflict. What Holata Micco negotiated with General Worth in 1842 was more of a truce than a surrender and this was only possible because the United States government had grown tired of the financial and human expense of attempting to hunt down the remaining scattered Seminoles in the Everglades. In an initial peace meeting with one of Holata’s representatives, General Worth made it clear that he wished to end hostilities with the Seminole and that would mean his army would no longer force the removal of Indians in the region. Worth told Holata’s representative that the President, “is willing his red children should remain in Florida or go to Arkansas as they may prefer,”[5] showing President Tyler’s willingness to ignore the Indian Removal Act in order to bring about a modicum of peace. While the negotiations were filled with inducements to motivate the Seminole to depart Florida, the ending agreement established that the Seminole and the few other scattered tribes were, “permitted for a while to plant and hunt on the lands” and, more importantly, that any white settlers who encroached on the, “Indians and their places of residence” would be, “subjected to removal.”[6] From the perspective of Holata Micco and his group, the Second Seminole War ended much in the same way as the first, with the Seminole being allocated a piece of land and being told they were allowed to remain despite outside desires for them to relocate. These terms were largely agreed to by the other remaining scattered groups of Indians. With hostilities ended, Holata Micco set to work on creating a home for his people among the swamps of the Everglades and the Big Cypress.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to the study of Holata Micco and the Third Seminole War is the lack of perspective from the Seminole themselves. Like too much of Native history, the material is overwhelmingly one sided. We lack any writings on the day to day life of the Seminoles after the Second Seminole War. However the conclusion that Holata sought to uphold the peace for as long as possible is supported as much by his non-actions as by his confirmed actions. Almost a year after the final peace negotiations were agreed to, General Worth wrote, “For eleven months, indeed since my announcement of August 14th, 1842, became known to the straggling bands, not an outrage or offensive act has been committed by Indians.”[7] After such heavy losses in the prior wars, the commitment to maintain peace was strongly held by the Seminole and, in peace, the organization of the tribe had coalesced around Holata Micco. General Worth wrote in November of 1843 that Micco was, “the acknowledged chief,” among the Seminole and that, “these people have observed perfect good faith, and strictly fulfilled their engagements.”[8] The peace between the Indians and the whites continued to hold which caused newspapers across the nation to announce that, “We hesitate not to say, that ‘the Florida war’ is not only ended, but that it will ‘stay ended.’ Emigrants may now seek a residence here with as much safety as in any part of the country.”[9] Peace brought an influx a new settlers to Florida and also caused older settlers to make their way into the sparsely inhabited interior of the state. As settlers encroached closer and closer to Indian land, federal authorities took steps to prevent further conflict from arising. Capt. John T. Sprague, the Indian Agent assigned to the region, aptly noted that any conflicts that might occur were likely to be the fault of white settlers failing to heed the boundary of the Seminole’s reservation. Sprague wrote in 1845 that, “there is a class of men destitute of property and employment, who for excitement and gain, would recklessly provoke the Indians to aggression,” and that, “the advice and example of the chiefs and subchiefs…has been salutatory, and will continue so, if unprovoked.”[10] It was Sprague’s belief that the influence of Holata Micco helped to keep the more aggressive Seminole warriors in line and committed to peace.

Even when occasional clashes did break out between usually young Seminoles and white settlers, Holata and his subchiefs took great pains to cool things down. In late 1846, news came to Capt. Sprague about an Indian raid on a farm. Sprague requested, and received, a meeting with the Seminole leadership including Holata Micco. In his report back to Washington, Sprague recounted that,

“these chiefs and their followers express the strongest friendship and have adopted vigorous laws to punish those who violate the relation existing between the whites and red men…They came into my camp prepared to receive kindness and extend it, evidently determined to avenge on the spot any manifestation of a contrary feeling.”[11]

Preserving the peace, which in turn meant continued freedom for his people, was of the utmost importance to Holata. In his report, Sprague also gave his personal impressions of Holata Micco and his influence over his people:

“This chief has been since the commencement of the Florida War a bold, resolute and unyielding leader. [He is] ambitious, and cunning, remarkably intelligent, speaking English with facility… With these peculiar qualifications and undisputed authority exercised in Florida with an auxiliary force or alone, this Indian would be a most formidable foe.”[12]

Despite Sprague’s assertions that Holata possessed “undisputed authority” over the Seminole, there were interior conflicts and politics within the remaining bands of Indians residing in Florida. When discussing the assembled chiefs, Sprague makes note of the absence of the Seminole leader Abiaka, known to non-Natives as Sam Jones. Abiaka had been elected “Grand War Chief” among the Seminoles in 1837 during the Second Seminole War. Sprague was disappointed that Abiaka, who was perpetually portrayed as a truly ancient leader of the Seminole, was unable to attend the meeting due to the weather. Sprague reported that his, “insisting upon seeing [Abiaka] tended to disparage the position and power of Holatter Micco, who in all respects, is qualified for supreme command which he exercises with skill and judgement.”[13] While Sprague goes on to express that Abiaka was, “without warriors, authority or influence,”[14] subsequent historians believe that Abiaka still held a degree of control over the Seminoles despite Holata having become the public face of tribe. James W. Covington, a historian who focused on the Seminoles, wrote that, “Persons like Sprague did not understand that though Billy Bowlegs had the largest band of warriors (fifty-four), and considerable political power, he lacked the religious influence of Sam Jones who had a following of only thirty-two warriors.”[15] In fact, much of the political power that Holata Micco was able to attain largely came from his continued interactions with the U.S. government and its representatives. Men like Gen. Worth and Capt. Sprague appreciated the ease in which they could communicate with Holata and sought to foster their relationship with him. It was Holata, not Abiaka, who had negotiated the end of the Second Seminole War and it was Holata who regularly met with federal authorities when asked. Though Holata had fought in the Second Seminole War he did not have quite the same “savage” reputation as the Grand War Chief Abiaka. Holata Micco became the desired point of contact between the U.S. and the Indians, and so they did all in their power to improve his standing. At the end of his 1847 report, Sprague recommended continued inducements to Holata not only out of hope that he would convince the rest of his tribe to emigrate, but because a relationship with Holata could prove useful to the U.S. in case of attack from without: “As a friend cherished by that which would contribute to his vanity, power, and independence, he could be relied upon to expel the intruders of whatever nation and become a faithful ally to those who secure his confidence and regard.”[16] For a time, at least, the government saw that it was better to have Holata Micco as a friend rather than an enemy.

Despite the machinations of settlers in attempting to bring about the forceful removal of the Seminole, the peace between the two groups held for almost seven years with any major conflicts. Then in July of 1849, three subsequent acts of bloodshed against white settlers shook the region. On July 12, 17, and 19th a rogue band of five Indians looted and burned three different groups of isolated homes, killing three men in the process. In two of the events, the band of Indians had first visited and traded in stores in the community before coming back with weapons. This tactic of scouting the scene before committing the crime put all settlers who came into contact with the Seminoles on guard and added to the hysteria of the times. While the loss of life deservedly escalated the response on the part of the U.S. government who sent extra troops down into Florida, it was far from the all-out war that the press of the day portrayed it to be. The newspapers seized on any and all news they could get about the “Indian depredations” even when such news was little more than hysterical gossip. On August 7th, the Springfield Republican erroneously reported that, “the Indians are preparing for a general war, and that during the past year they have provided themselves with large quantities of powder and lead…Billy Bowlegs is the master spirit and Chief of the hostile red-skins.”[17] This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that Holata Micco’s name would be used in conjunction with fears of a mass Seminole uprising in Florida.

Rather than preparing his people for war, Holata Micco’s response to the rogue raids of July, 1849 was perfectly in character with his behavior over the last seven years. Holata sought to cool tensions despite the hysteria. He was joined in this quest by Capt. John Casey, a veteran of the Second Seminole War and a man who had become the United States’ unofficial ambassador to the Indians in Florida. As increased troops mounted in Florida, Casey reached out to Holata hoping to make contact. It had been a month since the attacks and so Casey was fairly certain that these events had not been a prelude to all-out war. After some diplomatic arrangements Casey and Holata met, each flanked by their men, on September 18. Major General David Twiggs, who joined Capt. Casey at the meeting, wrote in his later report that:

“Bowlegs came on board my vessel, with a party of four or five warriors, repeated the statement made some time previous by his runner, that the outrages were perpetrated by a few outlaws, who would be given up to justice; that the nation had nothing to complain of on the part of the whites – were desirous of peace, and determined not to allow peaceable relations to be disturbed by the acts of individuals.”[18]

Twiggs’ assertion that Holata expressed the Seminole had “nothing to complain” about in terms of their treatment by the white settlers demonstrates Holata diplomatic sense. In truth, the Seminole had a lot to complain about, including the fact that the government had not upheld their end of the 1842 truce which called for the U.S. to enforce the Seminoles’ territory rights. Despite the U.S. creating a 20 mile buffer zone between the Seminole territory and the rest of Florida where no people could reside, white settlers had still moved into the area. One of the homes that was attacked during the July raids had been built within that zone.[19] In addition, even before the recent troubles, local laws and regulations had been passed restricting the Indians movements and access to trading centers. Holata had many grievances he could have aired with the Capt. Casey and Maj. Gen. Twiggs but he chose not to, placing the priority on quelling their apprehensions and fears.

The proposed surrender of the five rogue warriors who carried out these attacks was also a political move on the part of Holata Micco. Those responsible for the attacks were a band of warriors who were, ostensibly, under the control of Kapiktsootsee, a sub-chief of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief and Holata’s rival. Kapiktsootsee sought to replace Abiaka after the elder’s death but Abiaka favored another warrior causing Kapiktsootsee and a small band to leave Abiaka’s camp. Kapiktsootsee gave his men permission to hunt outside of the assigned territory and it was a small group of these rogue Indians that subsequently attacked the farms.[20] In agreeing to surrender those responsible, Holata was putting himself at odds with Abiaka. To ease repercussions from any internal conflicts, Holata brought Kapiktsootsee into the meetings with Capt. Casey and it was in this way that Holata got Kapiktsootsee to also agree to turn over his men. The date for the transfer of the prisoners was set for a month later, giving Holata and Kapiktsootsee time to capture and transport the rogue band.

Surrendering the men was not merely an act of justice for the Seminole but was considered an act of sacrifice. Gen Twiggs and Capt. Casey had made it clear that the warriors would be executed for their crimes, and it took all of Holata’s influence to convince Abiaka and the others that this was an acceptable cost to pay for continuing the peace. On the agreed upon day of transfer, Holata and some sixty warriors met with Gen. Twiggs and Capt. Casey. According to Gen. Twiggs’ report, Holata, “delivered the prisoners; said he had made severe laws to prevent the whites from being molested, and had now brought his young men that they might see how sternly he executed them.”[21] Holata was proving to his warriors that peace was of the utmost importance to the tribe’s well-being and that, in order to maintain it, he would willingly sacrifice anyone who would threaten that peace. This act of sacrifice was shown in the fact that three of the five murderers were turned over. The fourth had managed to escape during his capture. Holata presented the bloodstained rifle that the escaped warrior had been holding and dropped after being shot in the hand as he fled as evidence of the attempt. The fifth warrior had been outright killed during the attempt at his capture. As evidence of this, Holata presented Gen. Twiggs with a grisly reminder of his devotion to their continued peace: the dead warrior’s severed hand.[22]

The usually elusive Abiaka made the journey with Holata on the day of the prisoner transfer, but he refused to go aboard the army ship for the final exchange. Abiaka stayed on shore with Capt. Casey while Holata dealt with the General. Like Holata, Abiaka had seen many of his friends captured under flags of peace and he was not going to fall victim to the same fate. His presence was no doubt a message to Holata that while the younger man held favor with the whites, there was still power behind the elder. Such important decisions like sacrificing their own to the whites was not a move Abiaka would let Holata make unilaterally. In fact, according to historians Joe Knetsch, John and Mary Lou Missall, Abiaka had influence over who was given over to their deaths. In their book on the Third Seminole War, Knetsch et al. state that the third, “surrendered man hadn’t even been mentioned in the attacks. Instead of Panukee, one of the accused killers, the army was being handed a substitute, Pahay Hajo. Abiaki and other hard-liners had helped choose who would be turned over, and Panukee was probably someone’s favorite. Pahay Hajo, unfortunately, was not.”[23] Abaika’s presence and influence over the surrender of the prisoners again demonstrates that despite press reports citing that Holata Micco, “heretofore has exercised complete control,”[24] over the Seminole, the internal workings of the tribe were far more complex. Yet the desire on the part of the United States to make Holata Micco the face of the Seminole and subsequently their ally in emigration, caused Abaika’s influence to be commented on less in the ensuing years.

For a time after the surrender of the prisoners, relative peace returned to Florida. The government was impressed by Holata’s commitment to remain peaceful but the events increased the calls for the Seminole’s emigration to Indian Territory. Even during the surrender meeting, Gen. Twiggs’ pressed upon Holata and his men to emigrate, portraying it as the only long-term solution. Holata, always the diplomat, expressed his desire to remain but said that he would consider the proposal. Over the next two years, various offers would be presented to Holata, many of which contained generous financial inducements if he could convince his people to emigrate. At times, Holata would make it seem like he was willing to emigrate but that he did not believe others in his tribe would. How much of this was Holata’s true feelings or merely a way to stall for time is uncertain. This strategy of publicly contemplating emigration was effective. From 1849 – 1852, newspapers regularly contained articles about the Seminoles’ imminent departure from Florida. Throughout this period, however, very few Indians made the choice to emigrate. Holata was aided in the year after the July 1849 raids by the presidency of Zachary Taylor. Taylor had actually fought against Holata and Abiaka in 1837 during the Second Seminole War and had an affinity for their bravery. In June of 1850, President Taylor met with Gen. Twiggs saying, “tell Bowlegs whenever you see him, from me, that if his people remain within their limits – & behave themselves, they shall never be disturbed while I remain in office.”[25] Sadly, President Taylor died less than three weeks after making that remark and his successor, Millard Fillmore, was less accommodating. The bulk of the Seminoles were content to stay in their Florida homes, much to the increased dismay of white settlers who feared them or coveted their land. New technology had been developed that could drain parts of the Everglades in order to create more farmland. Even the previously undesirable land held by the Seminole was now of value to settlers. As a result, the state legislature of Florida, unhappy that the federal government had failed in its duty to remove the Indians, passed laws to resupply and repopulate previously abandoned forts from the Second Seminole War. Florida was trying to force the hand of the federal government to fulfill its 1832 promise to remove all Indians from the region. In light of this, Holata Micco finally agreed to a proposal that Capt. Casey and the newly appointed Indian Agent for the region, Luther Blake, had presented to him repeatedly. Holata agreed to travel to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with the President.

Bringing Native American delegations to urban areas of the United States like New York City or Washington, D.C. was not a new phenomenon. It was practice used to intimidate native peoples and demonstrate the sheer power and resources of the United States. In his 1847 report regarding how to secure Holata’s friendship, Capt. Sprague had recommended such a journey stating, “he should see our numbers and the power of the country.”[26] As the cherry picked leader of the Seminoles, if the government could impress or intimidate Holata into motivating his people to emigrate, the expense would be far less than a return to warfare. At the end of August, 1852, Holata and his delegation of subchiefs, interpreters, and federal officials departed Florida, making their way by ship to D.C. Notably absent from the journey was Abiaka. When meeting with Luke Lea, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in D.C., Holata was asked about Abiaka’s absence. The following interchange was documented in the The Republic newspaper the day after the meeting:

The Commissioner. I should have been glad if you had brought Sam [Abiaka] along with you.
Abraham [an interpreter]. He wouldn’t come.
Billy Bowlegs interposed, saying he could not expect Sam Jones to come with them unless he had killed him and brought a piece of his flesh. [Laughter.]”[27]

While, as Holata jokingly points out, it would have been unlikely for Abiaka to have made the trip into enemy territory given his established fear of forced capture and emigration, it unlikely that Commissioner Lea was too upset at Abiaka’s absence. Holata was the key to solving the “Seminole problem” and Abiaka would only make their goal harder to attain.

While the government’s goal was to convince Holata to emigrate, Holata had a different purpose for making the journey. To the Seminole, the treaty they had arranged with General Worth in 1842, allowing them to continue to reside and hunt on their lands, was binding. It was this treaty that Holata had agreed to and it was the one that had brought them the subsequent years of peace. Holata told Lea that, “the old people who made the treaty in Florida [i.e. General Worth] are dead,”[28] and that he wanted to learn the truth about it. For years, Holata had been told by many officials, Captains Sprague and Casey included, that he and his people had no rights to their land, despite the treaty with Worth. To Holata, this trip to Washington was a fact finding mission and a test to see if the white men would uphold this prior agreement. All the inducements to emigrate west meant little if the government could not be trusted to keep its word to leave them alone once they got there.

On the next day, September 17, Holata and his delegation were granted an audience with President Fillmore, Commissioner Lea, Gen. Blake, and the Secretaries of War and Navy. Holata told the President that, “he came not to pay a mere visit of compliment, but to seek for justice.”[29] Holata reiterated the circumstances of his negotiations with General Worth in 1842 and of how Worth had told him that he had, “the authority of the President,” to make, “a treaty of peace with the Seminoles.”[30] This treaty, Holata pressed, told the Seminole to, “gather together, draw a line, and live within it… raise their children and keep hold of the country.”[31] President Fillmore listened to Holata respectfully, but when it was his turn to reply, Fillmore echoed the words Holata had been told before. What General Worth had arranged with the Seminole was a truce, not a treaty. Worth allowed the Seminole to return to the land temporarily but an earlier treaty, one signed in 1832, was still in effect. That earlier treaty stated that all Seminole were to be removed from Florida and that they no longer had any claim on the lands of Florida. In the paternalistic tone regularly used with Native groups, Fillmore stated that he was, “anxious only to do what is for the Indian’s good,” and that, “the inhabitants of Florida are increasing and will crowd on the settlements where the Indians live.”[32] According to Fillmore, the white settlers of Florida had a right to ask him to see the 1832 treaty upheld and that he would do so. The meeting was brief and allotted to little more than a polite ultimatum on the part of the President. After shaking hands with the President and withdrawing, it was observed that, judging by their expressions, two or three in the delegation took, “the remarks of the President rather hard.”[33]

At this point, it became clear to Holata Micco that any diplomatic solution for ending the U.S. government’s insistence on his people’s removal was not possible, at least not under the current President. Perhaps it was with the knowledge that Fillmore had been passed over for his own party’s nomination and that an election was scheduled in a two months that gave Holata hope that his successor might be more reasonable. If he continued to bide his time and not make trouble, perhaps he could make the peace last. So, Holata played the part the government desired of him. On September 20th, three days after his meeting with Fillmore, Holata signed an agreement made up by Commissioner Lea. The agreement stated that the delegation acknowledged that, “all the Seminoles in Florida are under obligations to remove,” and that the undersigned, “faithfully promise to give the said agent all the assistance in their power, so that the removal of all the Indians in Florida may be effected with the least possible delay.”[34] With no affixed deadline, the “least possible delay” must have seemed as meaningless to Holata as General Worth’s agreement now seemed to the Unitied States government. After signing the agreement Holata’s delegation was taken to New York City where they were welcomed as honored guests. They met the mayor of New York City and enjoyed the city’s celebrated theaters before returning home to Florida. According to Knetsch et al., after Holata’s visit to D.C. and New York, “Billy Bowlegs was the most famous Indian in America.”[35]

Upon his return to Florida, Holata and his people retreated further into the Everglades, rarely agreeing to talks with government authorities. It was Holata’s fame and prestige that allowed him to continually push back against inducements to leave. When he did agree to meet with Indian agents like Capt. Casey, he would reiterate his peoples’ desire to stay in their homes and his own refusal to leave without them. The presidency of Franklin Pierce did not bring any desired change of opinion in regards to the Seminole. Intermittent contact with Indian agents and a strict adherence to staying on their proscribed lands allowed Holata to slow the efforts of the government towards his people’s removal, but he could not stem the tide completely. By May of 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote the Capt. Casey informing him that, “the time for negotiating with the Florida Indians is past, and that coercive measures only will induce them to emigrate.”[36] Davis ordered the end of all trade with the Indians and began the surveying and sale of the Seminole territory to white settlers. The U.S. government instituted a strangle hold on the Seminole, increasing troops to the region, reactivating old forts near their lands, cutting new roads, and patrolling for Indians outside of their territory. Despite the increased numbers of soldiers, Holata and his people tried their best to prevent any situation that would lead to open hostilities. When surveyors came into Holata’s village, effectively to determine how the land would later be parceled out to white settlers, Holata greeted them in friendly terms. Lt. John T. Greble, a soldier who encountered Holata during this period of time, wrote to his parents that, “the Indians are perfectly peaceable, and are the best inhabitants of the State, according to my way of thinking…A group of politicians have represented that the country occupied by the Indians is the most fruitful in the world…and the Indians, accordingly, have to vacate, unless they change their minds in Washington when they learn the true nature of the country.”[37] Greble was not the only solider sent to Florida who felt that the forced removal of the Seminole was not worth the effort. Lieutenant Alexander Webb wrote in his journal of the terrible conditions in the Florida Everglades and his mystification at the government’s insistence the Seminole be removed, “Mosquitos awful! Fleas! Indescribable! Heat!! Don’t speak of it. This country should be preserved for the Indians of all the territories, and if the fleas and other vermin do not destroy them they might be left to live. I could not wish them all in a worst place.”[38] Yet, to the Seminole, the vermin infested place that Lt. Webb complained of was home. Holata Micco had spent the majority of the last thirteen years working to preserve this place for his people. Despite having retreated even further into the swamps of Big Cypress and the Everglades, the Seminole found that the United States still would not leave them alone. As was warned by one of Holata’s subchiefs in 1855, “if you pull a little dog by the tail back & forth – to & fro – he will finally get mad & bite you.”[39]

In the end, the Seminole finally bit back at the United States on December 20, 1855. After years of mounting pressure and encroachments into their territory a detachment of federal soldiers was attached by a band of Seminoles armed with rifles. Four army privates were killed in the skirmish that started what was to become known as the Billy Bowlegs War. For the next three years the public was transfixed as the vastly outnumbered Seminole enacted raids on detachments of soldiers in Florida. Yet, as much as Holata Micco’s name was spoken and written during that three year period, there is little evidence to support that he even took part in any of the raids committed by the Seminoles. Even the planning of attacks, if they were truly products of a centralized chain of command, would likely have come from the advice of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief. In truth, we don’t really know how the Billy Bowlegs War was enacted on the part of the Seminoles nor how much influence Holata Micco had in the carrying out of attacks. The name of the war is attributed to the fact that Holata was the publicly recognized leader of the Seminoles and that the first conflict of the war occurred just outside of Holata’s abandoned camp. As Knetsch et. al, point out, “Most whites assumed that because the attack took place near ‘Billy Bowlegs’s Camp’ that Holata must have led the attack, but it may be an erroneous assumption. Seminole bands had more than one camp, this one was deserted, and there is no record that Holata led the attack or was even in the immediate area.”[40]

In many ways, the name of the Billy Bowlegs War does not accurately represent the course of actions that resulted in the outbreak of hostilities. For over a decade, Holata Micco worked and sacrificed to maintain peace between his small group of Seminoles and the vast power of the United States. He curtailed his warriors’ freedom to keep them within an assigned territory. He surrendered, and even executed, his own people who were guilty of crimes against white settlers in the region. He appealed to the highest power of the United States personally, seeking justice and recognition of the rights of his group. And when all temptations were given him to betray his people, Holata held fast to the needs of his tribe. Even when the war drums were sounding in everyone else’s ears, Holata retreated his band further away from the conflict, hoping to wait out the true aggressors in inhospitable terrain. The conflict that Holata Micco’s people finally enacted was not the product of aggression, but reaction. Fighting back was the Seminole’s last resort in an attempt to thwart an invading force determined to remove them from their homes. Holata Micco had been a peacemaker for his people. He had been determined to maintain peaceful relations between the Seminole and the United States and it was the U.S. that betrayed that effort. The United States was the aggressor of the Billy Bowlegs War, yet, in the end, it was Holata Micco who sacrificed his name and reputation to the conflict.


[1] Andrew Jackson, Andrew Jackson to John Pitchlynn, August 5, 1830 (Letter: Library of Congress, Andrew Jackson papers, 1775-1874).
[2] “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians, 1823” in Indian Treaties, 1778 – 1883, ed. Charles Joseph Kappler (New York: Interland Publishers, 1972), 204.
[3] Kenneth Porter, “Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) in the Seminole Wars (Part 1),” Florida Historical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1967): 220 – 221.
[4] Weekly Globe (Washington, D.C.), April 9, 1842, 25.
[5] “Minutes of a Talk Held at Fort Brooke, July 22, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 517.
[6] “Order No. 27, August 11, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 519.
[7] “William J. Worth to the Adjutant General, June 19, 1843” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 666.
[8] John Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1847), 507.
[9] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), August 8, 1843, 3.
[10] Sprague, Florida War, 509 – 510.
[11] James W. Covington, ed., “The Florida Seminoles in 1847,” Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 24, no. 1 (1964): 51.
[12] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56.
[13] Ibid., 51.
[14] Ibid.
[15] James W. Covington, “Billy Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and the Crisis of 1849,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1990): 301.
[16] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56 – 57.
[17] Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), August 7, 1849, 2.
[18] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 31st Cong., 1st sess., (1849), “Message from the President of the United States,” 125.
[19] Joe Knetsch, John Missall, Mary Lou Missall, History of the Third Seminole War 1849 – 1858 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018), 34.
[20] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 39.
[21] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 134.
[22] Covington, “Crisis”, 307.
[23] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 44.
[24] Florida Republican (Jacksonville, FL), August 30, 1849, 1.
[25]Canter Brown, Jr., Florida’s Peace River Frontier (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991), 90.
[26] Covington, “Seminoles”, 57.
[27] The Republic (Washington, D.C.), September 17, 1852, 3.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), September 18, 1852, 3.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] United States House of Representatives, Executive Document No. 19, 32nd Cong., 2nd sess., (1853), “Message from the President of the United States,” 5 – 6.
[35] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 67.
[36] Lynda L Crist, ed., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 5, 1853 – 1855 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 66.
[37] Benson J. Lossing, Memoir of Lieut.-Col. John T. Greble of the United States Army (Philadelphia: G. T. Stockdale, 1870), 38 – 39.
[38] Alexander S. Webb, “Campaigning in Florida in 1855” Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States 45, no. 160 (1909): 423.
[39] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 82.
[40] Ibid., 100.

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

John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” Cipher

From the prosecution’s point of view, the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators had essentially two main goals. The first goal was to prove the guilt of the 7 men and 1 woman put on trial for complicity in the death of the President. The second goal of the trial was to put forth evidence to show that the assassination was sanctioned and supported by the leaders of the Confederate States of America. Establishing the Confederacy’s involvement proved a far harder task than the trying of the conspirators. In the end, the prosecution was hampered by unreliable and perjured testimony ultimately leaving the question of Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death to be a much debated topic even 150 years later.

The prosecution’s method of connecting the Confederacy to Lincoln’s assassination can be best described as “quantity over quality”. They brought out a multitude of witnesses and evidence to make damning claims about John Wilkes Booth’s Confederate involvement but very little of it holds up under scrutiny. For example, the very first witness called the stand was a former Confederate soldier named Henry Von Steinaecker. He testified about having met John Wilkes Booth in Virginia in 1863 and that, at that time, Booth was in communication with high ranking Confederate officials plotting the assassination of Lincoln. As the first witness on the first day of the trial, the prosecution was setting the tone for the entire proceeding. At the time of Steinaecker’s testimony, not all of the conspirators had defense attorneys and the lawyers that were present did not believe such testimony had much to do with their clients. There was no cross examination done on Steinaecker.

When, later in the trial, the defense tried to recall Steinaecker, they were told by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt that Steinaecker could not be located. In the end the defense called Steinaecker’s superiors in the Confederacy and both men testified that very little of what Steinaecker had testified to was true. Steinaecker had actually been a deserter from both the Union and Confederate armies and was serving a three year prison sentence in Fort Delaware when Lincoln was assassinated. Despite having written letters to both Lincoln and the Judge Advocate General asking to be released and offering his services, it was only after Lincoln’s death that Steinaecker wrote to the Judge Advocate General with his vital information about Booth and Confederate officials. After testifying Steinaecker was released from prison and disappeared. Steinaecker was the first of many prosecution witnesses who made grandiose claims about John Wilkes Booth and the Confederacy only to have his testimony questioned or disproven later.

In addition to using unreliable witnesses, the prosecution also presented material evidence in hopes of proving Confederate involvement in Lincoln’s death. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood pieces of material evidence the prosecution brought forth to tie Booth to the Confederacy was the assassin’s so-called “Confederate” cipher.

After the assassination of Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth’s rented room at the National Hotel was searched. Among his papers, most of which were mundane letters and memorandum, was this cipher which was written in Booth’s own hand. At the trial of the conspirators, this cipher was entered into evidence as Exhibit 7 and was portrayed as a physical link between John Wilkes Booth and the Confederate secret service. In addition to this paper cipher, the prosecution also entered into evidence a large cipher cylinder seized from the office of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond.

Thomas Eckert, the assistant Secretary of War under Edwin Stanton, was called to testify about these two ciphers. He stated that both the paper cipher found in Booth’s belongings and the cylinder found in Richmond were the same. Eckert then presented copies of Confederate letters that the War Department had intercepted during the war that had been written using the same cipher.

Taken at face value, this cipher found among John Wilkes Booth’s papers seems like a very damning piece of evidence. Eckert, the Union’s chief codemaker, testified that Booth’s cipher was the very same as the one used by the Confederacy, which seems to definitely prove that John Wilkes Booth must have had a strong connection to the Confederate States. In the years since the trial, John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” cipher has been used by different authors in their arguments that the Confederacy sanctioned Lincoln’s murder.

However, just like the testimony of Henry Von Steinaecker, the conclusiveness of Booth’s cipher connecting him to the Confederacy doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.

First off, the handwritten, alphabetic note found in John Wilkes Booth’s room is called a Vigenère table. The table is a tool used in order to encrypt and decrypt a message using a Vigenère cipher. It is true that the Confederacy did use a Vigenère cipher to encrypt secret messages during the war and that, fundamentally, Booth’s table is the same as the cylinder found in Richmond. But before making any conclusions it is important to understand how a Vigenère cipher works.

If you were to receive an encrypted note that had been written with a Vigenère cipher, you would be faced with something like this:

ISATFIOJXSFOFGLEOQBWISDUBUXCAUXWZDLTPCHAIKOLUPXOFLTPCGK

To anyone who intercepted your note, this message would appear to be lines of complete gibberish. Even if the person intercepting your note realized it was written in a code of some kind, they would almost certainly fail at decoding it.

In order to decrypt the note a person needs two things. The first thing would be a Vigenère table, much like the one found in Booth’s room. A Vigenère table is little more than the alphabet, written on 26 lines, with each new line being offset by one letter from the previous line. The Vigenère table is a tool used to help decrypt the message. The second requirement for decrypting a Vigenère cipher is knowing the keyword or phrase that was used to create the message. Let’s look at an example of how a message written in a Vigenère cipher could be decrypted using a table and keyword.

Let’s say that I wrote this coded message to you:

O W A V U Z G Z N B T R D G S M N V F P N M M

In order to decrypt this message you would already need to be aware of the keyword or phrase that was used in making it. This was generally a word or phrase that had been agreed upon ahead of time or had been sent separately. It wouldn’t be very secure for the writer of the message to include the keyword with the encrypted message. For this message let’s say that our previously agreed upon keyword is: LINCOLN

Your first step towards decrypting this message would be to write the keyword LINCOLN, one letter at a time, above the ciphered text. When done, it would look like this:

Notice that you might run out of message before the whole keyword is completely used again, this is not a problem.

Each letter of the encrypted message now has two corresponding letters: the keyword letter and the original letter. Now all you need in order to decipher the message is your Vigenère table. Here is a more legible version of a Vigenère table, identical to the one Booth wrote.

For deciphering, you first use the keyword letter to find the right column on your Vigenère table. Then you move down the column until you find the corresponding message letter. This will give you the correct row. You move across that row to its beginning to find the first letter of the decrypted message.

So, in the example above, you would find the column that starts with L since our keyword, LINCOLN, starts with L. Then you move down the L column until you get to the letter O, which is the first letter in the message. Once you find O in the L column, you follow that row back to the beginning which shows you that it is in the D row. This tells you that the first letter in our message should be D.

To find the second letter in our message you would need to start in the I column since the second letter in LINCOLN is I. Then you would travel down the I column until you reach W, the letter in the original message. From there you follow the row back and discover the second letter in our message should be O.

This process of finding the keyword letter column, locating the encrypted letter in the column, then tracing the row back to learn the correct decrypted letter, is repeated for the remaining characters in the message. If you want to, grab a piece of paper and try to decipher the rest of the message yourself. When you’re ready to check your work, highlight the black text box below to reveal the decrypted message or scroll down to the first comment of this post.

DONT GO TO FORDS THEATRE ABE

Creating a message using a Vigenère cipher is very much the same as decrypting one. First you would write out the text you want to encrypt and place the keyword or phrase above it, letter by letter. Then, using the Vigenère table, you would located the correct column based on the keyword letter and the correct row based on the message letter. Where the corresponding column and row intersect gives you the encrypted letter for your coded message.

As far as creating secret messages go, a Vigenère cipher is a strong method of encoding as it really requires knowledge of the keyword in order to decode the message. In our example only the word LINCOLN as the keyword would result in the correct decryption. Deciphering a message without the keyword is technically possible, but very difficult to do. Ciphers with shorter keywords are more prone to codebreaking techniques that look for patterns and use math. But longer keywords or phrases strengthen the already strong encryption. The Confederacy utilized several key phrases for their Vigenère ciphers including OUR DESTINY IS ONE and COMPLETE VICTORY. COME RETRIBUTION was the key phrase used in Confederate ciphers in the final months of the war. It is important to point out that Vigenère ciphers were not a Confederate invention. This method of cryptography dates back to the 1500s and had long been prized as a code immune to being broken. This is why the Confederates used Vigenère ciphers in their secretive correspondences.

Going back to John Wilkes Booth, we find that it is accurate to say that the Vigenère table found among Booth’s papers matches the Vigenère cylinder found in Richmond. However the reason they are the same is because both the table and the cylinder utilize the same method of encryption. While every Vigenère cipher uses the Vigenère table to encrypt and decrypt a message, it is nothing more than a translation table. You can use the Vigenère table to encrypt a message using an infinite number of keywords. Claiming that Booth’s possession of a Vigenère table is iron clad evidence of his complicity with the Confederacy is akin to claiming that a specified individual is in cahoots with members of the Mafia because they both have the same numbers to choose from when they enter their PIN numbers at the ATM. They are using the same tool to encrypt information, but that alone does not prove anything.

“Still,” you might be thinking to yourself, “how does John Wilkes Booth even have knowledge of this secret agent stuff if he’s not working with Confederacy?” As pointed out above, the Confederacy did not invent the Vigenère cipher. Nor was knowledge of this cipher in any way a state secret. In fact, as the Civil War went on, the general public became more and more interested in the topic of codes and cryptography. In the same way that schoolchildren enjoy writing secret messages to their friends, writing in code became a fun activity with the Vigenère cipher described openly in this regard. Below is the beginning of 1864 article from the Newark Daily Advertiser explaining the exact process of creating a table and how to go about composing a message using the Vigenère cipher. Click the sample below for the full article.

As this article demonstrates, the Vigenère cipher was not an obscure method of cryptography known only to the Confederacy. It was an old but still relatively well-known method of composing encrypted messages.

We don’t know how John Wilkes Booth learned about the Vigenère cipher but it is clear that it appealed to his delusions of grandeur. After learning the Vigenère cipher, Booth reacted not like a trusted Confederate agent, but like an excited schoolboy. In Asia Booth’s book about her brother, she described how, in November of 1864, John Wilkes wanted to teach her the cipher but she did not like the propriety of it:

“He sat late with me on one of these nights – the last – and said to me, ‘Let me show you the cipher.’

When I understood what he meant, I said, ‘No, I shall not consent to any knowledge of that kind.’

But he added, ‘I might possibly need to communicate with you about my money affairs, and there is no need to let everyone know what I am worth.'”

Asia still did not consent to learning the cipher and the subject was dropped. This interchange, in which Booth is trying to brag to his sister about something that appears clandestine, seems to fit the self-aggrandizing that John Wilkes Booth demonstrated. It seems perfectly appropriate to his character for him to have learned something in the realm of cryptography in order to brag about it and show it off later. How could Booth have been trusted by Confederate officials with genuine Confederate keywords and phrases if he was so willing to teach the process to his own sister? In my opinion, Booth’s Vigenère table was just another prop he used to help him play the part of a secret agent because he had no such role in real life.

There is no evidence that John Wilkes Booth used his Vigenère table to encrypt or decrypt messages from the Confederacy or its leaders. There is no evidence that Booth was ever in possession of official Confederate keywords or phrases.  The government did not find anything in Booth’s papers that was written in any code that would have used the Vigenère table. Nor have any historians, to my knowledge, ever found anything in the papers of the Confederacy that could be considered an encrypted message from Booth.

Like a lot of the evidence dealing with the Confederacy at the trial of the conspirators, John Wilkes Booth’s “Confederate” cipher is far less definitive than what was testified to. Rather than proving a direct, physical link between Booth and high ranking Confederate officials in Richmond, Booth’s Vigenère table only proves that the assassin at one point dabbled in a fairly common method of encryption. The prosecution failed to address that Booth did not possess any official Confederate keywords or messages and sought, instead, to incriminate the Confederacy by pointing out that Booth had the same ability to write in cipher as they did. However, possessing the same tool does not prove conspiracy. Unlike the prosecutors of the trial of the conspirators, we have the benefit of time and objectivity to thoroughly investigate pieces of evidence. John Wilkes Booth’s Vigenère table is an interesting document, but it is conclusive of nothing other than the assassin’s own enigmatic nature.


If, like BOOTH, you want to play around a bit more with a Vigenère cipher, feel free to decrypt the first example of ciphered text that I included in this post. The keyword for it isn’t hard to find.

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

The Novice and John Wilkes Booth

On June 15, 1863, John Wilkes Booth began an acting engagement in St. Louis, Missouri. While Booth visited many different cities as a touring star, the audiences of St. Louis were very supportive of his efforts. This particular engagement was his fourth time playing in the city in only a year and a half. In addition to the audiences, Booth was also aided by the fact that he had a pretty decent connection in the St. Louis theater scene. During each of Booth’s engagements in the city, he performed at Ben DeBar’s St. Louis Theatre.

Ben DeBar

Ben DeBar was essentially family to Booth. In 1840, Booth’s eldest brother, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. married Ben DeBar’s sister, Clementina. June and Clementina’s union did not last however because, in 1851, June took a page out of his father’s book and ran off with another woman. Despite this unpleasantness, Ben DeBar maintained a good relationship with John Wilkes Booth and the rest of the Booth family. Ben DeBar hired John Wilkes Booth for five different engagements in St. Louis, and when he opened another theater in New Orleans, Louisiana, John Wilkes was hired there as well.

The June 1863 engagement in St. Louis was like any other for the 25 year-old actor. The newspapers noted that Booth was, “nightly greeted by full and fashionable houses; his performance[s] eliciting the most enthusiastic applause.” Booth’s engagement was scheduled to last from the 15th to the 27th, a normal two week engagement.

After a few days in St. Louis, Booth was presented with an offer from an unusual source. A Missouri resident by the name of R. J. Morgan approached Booth asking him if he could take Booth’s place on the final night of his engagement. It was not unheard of for actors to make such requests of their peers though it was more common for actors to request the services of their peers for benefit performances or during emergencies. Being asked to surrender a performance was less common. This request was even more strange, however, because the solicitor was not even a fellow actor, at least not yet.

We know very little about the life of R. J. Morgan. His foray into theater begins and ends over the course of about a year. Four months prior to his proposition to John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was a relatively unknown man. He was born in England and at the beginning of the Civil War he resided in Missouri. In early 1863, he was briefly living in Davenport, Iowa. What his business was and why he was in Iowa is a mystery. Apparently, he was able to make somewhat of a name for himself as one who knew a little bit about European and American poetry. On February 17th, a group of citizens in Davenport wrote a letter to Morgan which was published in the newspaper. The men appealed to Morgan to honor them with a public reading of various poems known to him. One would expect that Morgan must have previously given private readings of poetry which motivated his friends and neighbors to ask for a public showing. Morgan accepted the invitation of the men stating, “I shall avail myself of the flattering invitation extended to me…” and “the entertainment proposed to be given, I trust you will look upon as an amateur affair, with little professional pretensions.” Morgan secured the use of Davenport’s Metropolitan Hall free of charge after insisting that the proceeds of the readings would not go to him, but would instead be donated to the needy families of absent Union soldiers. It might be a bit cynical but, given his later actions with Booth, it is not out of the realm of possibility that R. J. Morgan desired to start a career as an dramatic orator and organized the invitation and philanthropic gesture to work in his advantage.

On the night of February 24, 1863, R. J. Morgan presented his “Evening with the Poets”. He presented readings of 12 poems including Beautiful Snow, a piece also rendered by John Wilkes Booth from time to time. While the audience enjoyed Morgan’s readings, the turnout was a bit lackluster for his first time out. “The audience was not large,” the newspaper said, “but those who had the pleasure of listening to the reading of the selections on that occasion may count themselves fortunate…It is certain that the public greatly underestimated Mr. Morgan’s ability, else the Hall would have been filled…” Morgan stayed true to his word, however, and donated the night’s entire proceeds of $18 to the Adjutant General of Iowa. “Your request, that I will apply the amount to the relief of needy families of our absent soldiers shall be faithfully complied with,” the General wrote to Morgan (who subsequently had the note published in the newspaper).

This initial, charitable reading, kick-started Morgan’s new career as a dramatic reader. Four days after his debut, Morgan gave another evening of readings in Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from Davenport. For his second reading he duplicated his first program entirely, but this time he took home the proceeds. After that, Morgan spent the next two months travelling around the Midwest giving readings in different cities. We have records of him performing in Iowa City, Muscatine, and Davenport, Iowa; Springfield and Jacksonville, Illinois; and in St. Louis, Missouri. He was apparently still in St. Louis when John Wilkes Booth came to town.

As Morgan’s readings went on, he began expanding his repertoire. He incorporated more and more Shakespeare, doing readings from Hamlet, Othello, and Henry IV. Coincidentally, while he was on the road, Morgan’s talents as a reader drew comparisons with a family of actors, a member of which would be shortly known to him. After a performance in Muscatine, Iowa the newspapers wrote, “The rendering and acting of Hamlet in his deathless soliloquies, was of that high and brilliant order that few attain who reach for it. The true life, energy and expression was breathed into it so faithfully that even a Booth or a Forrest might listen profitably.” After four months, Morgan apparently believed he was ready to move beyond being merely a reader and elocutionist. He wanted to be an actor and so he approached John Wilkes Booth in order to make that happen.

While Morgan’s correspondence to Booth doesn’t appear to survive, the two brief notes Booth wrote back to Morgan are housed in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield as part of the Taper Collection. It’s clear that Morgan appealed to Booth to surrender the final day of his engagement so that Morgan could take his place and make his own theatrical debut. On June 22nd, Booth wrote to Morgan setting his terms for such a deal.

“Dear Sir,

I will agree to give up Saturday night 27th on condition you pay me fifty dollars $50 to be paid on or before Friday morning 26th

But it is understood I do not play myself these I consider very reasonable terms

Your respects

J. Wilkes Booth”

John Wilkes Booth was perfectly willing to surrender the last night of his engagement – for a price. The 1862/1863 theatrical season had been a good one for Booth and he did very well financially in Chicago earlier in the season. In December of 1862 he wrote to a colleague that he had made $900 his first week in Chicago and, as such, had averaged about $650 per week so far that season. If his success had held out for the rest of the season, $50 was somewhat generous on Booth’s part since he was making around $100 per performance on average. With only two engagements left in the season Booth may have been fine with taking an extra day off, and making $50 not to go to work wasn’t a bad plan.

With Booth’s note in hand, Morgan approached Ben DeBar seeking permission to perform at his theater. Since Booth had given his blessing, DeBar consented. Morgan wanted his debut to be a benefit performance for himself, where he would be entitled to a share of the box office. On the back of the same note Booth had written, DeBar gave his terms.

“Mr. RJ Morgan

You can have the one half of the receipts of the theatre on Saturday night next over and above the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. You paying Mr. J W Booth fifty dollars for relinquishing the night to you.

B. DeBar”

With these agreements in hand, R. J. Morgan began preparations for his debut. He chose A New Way to Pay Old Debts as his play, where he would perform the role of Sir Giles Overreach, the main character and villain. Coincidentally, Sir Giles Overreach was a favorite character of John Wilkes Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. The elder Booth had performed the role over 320 times during his career.

On Friday, June 26th, Morgan paid John Wilkes Booth the $50 he was owed. Booth then jotted down a note for Morgan, which acted as a receipt.

“Reced. St. Louis June 26th / 63 of Mr Morgan fifty doll in consideration of giving up Saturday night as per agreement $50 –

J. Wilkes Booth”

The following evening, Saturday, June 27th, with tickets and playbills in hand, R. J. Morgan made his on stage debut as an actor. Whether John Wilkes Booth attended the performance of the man who took his place is unknown. By Monday Booth was already on route to Cleveland, Ohio for his next engagement.

A few days after the performance, a review in the St. Louis Democrat newspaper hailed R. J. Morgan’s outing a complete success:

“The debut of R. J. Morgan at the St. Louis Theatre last Saturday evening, in the arduous character of Sir Giles Overreach, was, in point of execution, a brilliant success. This was Mr. Morgan’s first appearance upon any stage, and his success more than excelled the high expectations of those who were familiar with him as a dramatic reader. From his first entrance upon the stage, the bold, bad man, the scheming, heartless villain, stood out so prominently that the individuality of the actor was forgotten…His style and acting are of that electric and startling character that carries an audience with him. Mr. Morgan has a good stage presence, a clear and distinct enunciation, a perfect command of himself, and walks the stage with ease and abandon of a veteran stager. We predict for him a brilliant career in the arduous profession which he has chosen.”

Another reviewer from a different paper, however, was a bit more critical of Morgan’s performance:

“Last night, a Mr. R. J. Morgan, who has gained somewhat of a reputation as a reader, attempted the very difficult part of Sir Giles Overreach, in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”; and, as might be expected, he made a failure, so far as making any favorable impression went. He knew the part, and had a good knowledge of the business; but there are very few old actors who can play the part with effect, and it is utterly impossible for a novice to do it, let his natural talent be what it may.”

Brilliant or failure, Morgan’s on stage debut worked in his favor. Though the 1862/63 theatrical season was wrapping up when he took the stage, the 1863/1864 season was just a couple months away. Somehow, perhaps through a good word from Ben DeBar or possibly even John Wilkes Booth, R. J. Morgan was hired by John T. Ford to become a member of the stock company at his Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore. Morgan left the Midwest behind to follow his dreams on the east coast. The Holliday Street Theatre opened for the season on August 17th but Morgan didn’t grace the stage until September 1st. Despite being a stock actor, Morgan still found his name on the Holliday Street playbills from time to time. John T. Ford had a practice of publicizing his stock company and some took starring roles when the theater was in between star engagements.

But, while Morgan’s name could be found on several playbills during his time with Ford, he always played second fiddle to the star actors or veteran members of the company. Morgan acted in both Shakespearean tragedies and comedic farces. On November 28th the Holliday Street Theatre put on the comedy Our American Cousin which would gain infamy a year and a half later. Morgan played the more serious role of Sir Edward Trenchard.

For some reason or other, after December of 1863, R. J. Morgan left the Holliday Street Theatre. What caused Morgan to abandon his career as an actor is unknown. Perhaps he was unhappy with working as a subordinate stock actor. Maybe the fairly poor salary in that job wasn’t enough. Or perhaps he just missed his home. Whatever the reasons, by April of 1864, he had made his way back to St. Louis. On April 23rd, during a celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, R. J. Morgan returned to his roots and gave dramatic readings from Shakespearean plays. Five days later, on April 28, he gave an evening of dramatic readings as a benefit for the St. Louis Sanitary Fair. In October of 1864, he received a pass to leave and re-enter the military district of St. Louis.

From that point on, the life and dramatic career of R. J. Morgan returns to the anonymity from which he came. Even basic biographical data, like what the R & J stand for, is still a mystery. While there are possibilities as to his identity (there was an auctioneer named Rees J. Morgan who lived in St. Louis in 1865 and 1866), I have been unable to find definitive evidence of his life outside of 1863 – 1864. The bulk of what was presented here comes from some newspaper articles about his dramatic readings and a small collection of tickets and playbills from his career housed in the special collections department of Louisiana State University. How a collector in Louisiana acquired these few papers on R. J. Morgan’s life, I have no idea. The few items about Morgan and John Wilkes Booth that are now a part of the ALPLM’s Taper collection were almost assuredly once a part of the same collection that was later donated to LSU. Hopefully more information about R. J. Morgan will be found in the future.

In closing, while researching there were two interesting bits of trivia that I stumbled across. The first is that it is quite possible that R. J. Morgan, during his limited career with John T. Ford, may have actually performed at Ford’s Theatre. John Ford reopened his Washington theatre in August of 1863, after rebuilding it from a December 1862 fire. After its reopening, Ford would often pull from his Baltimore stock company when he needed extra performers in Washington. It’s very possible that R. J. Morgan was brought to Washington by Ford to supplement his new theater. R. J. Morgan was definitely in Washington, D.C. in January of 1864 because he received a military pass to visit Alexandria, Virginia during that time. What’s even more interesting to think about is the fact that John Wilkes Booth had an engagement at Ford’s Theatre in November of 1863, when Morgan was still employed by John T. Ford. Did Morgan have a chance to act beside the man who allowed him to get his start? Maybe.

Lastly, while R. J. Morgan’s connection to John Wilkes Booth, the first presidential assassin, and Ben BeBar, a member of the Booth family, has been established, amazingly Morgan also has a slight connection to the second presidential assassin. Remember that the event that put Morgan on the path to being an actor was that very first dramatic reading he was asked to do in Davenport in February of 1863. A group of the Davenport citizenry wrote to Morgan, with each man signing their name to the letter.

A total of 22 men affixed their names to the request, the last of which was a man named “J. W. Guiteau”. This man’s full name was John Wilson Guiteau. He was a Davenport lawyer and the older brother of Charles J. Guiteau, the future assassin of President James Garfield. It’s so strange that R. J. Morgan made both his dramatic reading and acting debuts because of the support of assassins and their families.

References:
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
The Albert Louis Lieutaud Collection – Louisiana State University Special Collections
John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux
Junius Brutus Booth: Theatrical Prometheus by Stephen Archer

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

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