On occasion I have been asked by folks what artifact or relic related to the Lincoln assassination I wish would just “turn up” someday. There are many, many missing things in the saga of Lincoln’s death and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.
- What exactly was the “calling card” that Booth presented to Charles Forbes that helped gain him entrance to the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre? Was it just one of Booth’s CDVS or, like some historians have theorized, did it have something to do with his secret fiancée, Lucy Hale?
- Whatever happened to the field glasses that Mary Surratt transported down to her tavern for Booth on April 14, 1865? Booth picked them up during his flight south and they were later recovered and even used at John Surratt’s trial but have disappeared since.
- What about the boat Booth and Herold used to cross the Potomac during their escape? It was recovered by the government and while one newspaper account claimed it was chopped to bits, a former curator of the Smithsonian is convinced he saw it on a collection list in the 1960s but subsequent searches have come up empty.
- The gun that Boston Corbett used to shoot Booth at the Garrett Farm was stolen from him shortly after he returned to Washington as a hero. Is it sitting on some Civil War collector’s shelf somewhere, with them being completely unaware how special their gun is?
I could go on and on.
As wonderful as it would be to have any of these (or numerous other) artifacts pop up, I think it would be hard to top the appearance of a newly discovered piece of writing by one of the conspirators regarding the assassination plot itself. That sort of first-person source is the real treasure for historians. In the Lincoln assassination we are glad to have the memoir of Samuel Arnold who described in his later years how the kidnapping plot against Lincoln was formed. In 1977, Joan Chaconas discovered a lost George Atzerodt confession among the papers of his lawyer, William Doster. It was one of several confessions Atzerodt gave hoping to become state’s witness (rather than defendant) at the conspiracy trial. Even the ringleader himself composed a few lines in his diary (pictured above) while on the run, helping to give us a small glimpse into his mindset.
As grateful as historians are for these sources, like the Greek myth of Tantalus, we will always be teased by the things seemingly in sight but out of our reach. One of these tantalizing, yet elusive, sources is the truly lost confession of David Edgar Herold.
Not to be confused with the available “voluntary statement” David Herold gave to authorities on April 27, 1865 shortly after his arrest, the missing Herold confession is one that Davy wrote while he was imprisoned and on trial. During their confinement, the conspirators were under the charge of General John F. Hartranft at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. Each morning, General Hartranft wrote a report to his commander, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, keeping him apprised of the events of the previous day. Gen. Hartranft kept a letterbook of his reports to Gen. Hancock, which was donated to Gettysburg College by his descendants in the 1960s. In 1983, Lincoln assassination author and researcher Betty Ownsbey, was made aware of this letterbook by the Special Collections curator at Gettysburg College. Like Joan Chaconas’ discovery of the Atzerodt confession six years prior, the discovery of brand-new, first-person material about the imprisonment and trial of the conspirators was a boon to historians. In 2009, an edited volume of the letterbook was published by Edward Steers and Harold Holzer making it even more accessible.
From Gen. Hartranft’s letterbook we learn that on May 18, at the conclusion of the trial for that day, David Herold was allowed to remain, “in the court a few moments in conversation with Judge Holt and his Counsel Mr. Stone.” Hartranft then informs Gen. Hancock that, “This prisoner desires to write out a confession. I would respectfully ask, if permission can be granted to take off his handcuffs and allow him this privilege between the sessions of Court.” After receiving this report on May 19, Gen. Hancock sent a response back to Hartranft granting permission:
The handcuffs of Herold can be removed till anytime sufficiently long for him to write a confession provided he is well guarded in the mean time. He should have quill pens and should be well searched before hand to see if he has anything on his person by which he might injure himself which might have been given to him by his friends.”
The next morning, before the court assembled, Davy Herold was taken into the courtroom and provided time to write. According to Hartranft’s report, “This morning Herold was taken into the Court room and his handcuffs removed, furnished him with quill pen, ink and paper. He continued writing until the Court began to assemble, – about 10.30 a.m. when his irons were replaced, and he seated in the prisoners dock.”
As Herold had not yet completed his writing, on Sunday, May 21, an off day for the trial of the conspirators, he was allowed to once again go into the court room to finish. Hartranft wrote, “At 2.30 p.m. the prisoner Herold was taken into the Court room and furnished with writing material as before. He continued writing until 4.30 p.m. when he was returned to his cell and confined as usual.”
Aside from these references between Generals Hartranft and Hancock, we have no other sources of information regarding David Herold’s so-called confession, least of which is where it ended up. This is quite a shame because an honest perspective of the assassination and flight from justice from such a key participant like David Herold would be quite a benefit to historians. But, alas, the final fate of this conspirator’s confession is contrarily concealed.
In truth, because of the hard work done by authors like Betty Ownsbey in researching Lewis Powell’s background and Kate Clifford-Larson who explored the life of Mary Surratt, David Herold has become one of the conspirators that we know the least about. Despite playing such a vital role for the wounded Booth during his escape, history has largely written him off as little more than a “trifling boy” easily led off by Booth. This conclusion is based on the manner of defense that was used in his trial in an attempt to save his life and while there is some truth to these generalizations, they do not truly define the 22 year-old. It is hard to imagine that David Herold was “slow witted” as he was the most educated of the conspirators besides Dr. Mudd. Herold attended Georgetown College studying pharmacology and finished up his studies at the Rittenhouse Academy. He was even accepted to Gonzaga College but appears not to have attended. Yet, with a lack of sources, it can be difficult to flesh out Davy as a full person. Author Gore Vidal summarized the struggle when he admitted in the afterword of his novel Lincoln that, “As David’s life is largely unknown until Booth’s conspiracy, I have invented a low-life for him.”
While many people would spend the years after 1865 telling stories of their unique interactions with John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor turned assassin, very few have saved for posterity their thoughts on the D.C. pharmacist clerk who escaped with him.
One of the few who provided insights to David Herold’s early life was George Washington Baird, who was a year younger than Davy and went to school with him. In a letter Baird wrote in 1921 (after he had retired as a rear admiral in the Navy), he reflected on his childhood acquaintance:
“In 1850 when I was seven years of age, I went to school in Washington to two reverend gentlemen Cox and Marlot, who taught in the lower story of the Masonic Hall, Virginia Avenue and Fourth Street East. The boy who sat by me about my own age was David Herold, a little round headed, round eyed, round bodied boy, whose general rotundity was completed by a voice that rolled his R’s. I envied David his disposition in that he got along with the big boys so well. When a big boy imposed on David, he would escape with a funny remark which was called witty, which generally got a laugh, and David was called popular. When a big boy imposed on me, I hated him; I hate him yet. David’s father, Mr. [Adam] George Herold, and my father were members of Naval Lodge of Masons. The Herolds were members of Christ Church Episcopal. MY people were members of the Baptist Church. When I left that school about a year later, I lost sight of David. I heard he became a drug clerk.”
Another former schoolmate of David Herold was William Miller Clarke. Just three days younger than Davy, Clarke lived in the same neighborhood as the Herolds near the Washington Navy Yard. Clarke’s father ran a carpentry business making coffins and furniture but died when Clarke was only 6 years old. At 10 years old, Clarke started working for the ordinance department of the Navy Yard making gunpowder and percussion caps. This job no doubt put him into contact with Davy’s father, A. G. Herold who was the Chief Clerk of the Navy Yard.
In 1923, an elder Clarke typed a one page manuscript recounting his friendship with Herold. Unfortunately, the only copy of that manuscript that I have been able to locate are a few excerpts contained in a Civil War dealer’s January, 1987 catalog. At that point the manuscript was in the possession of dealer John Heflin in Brentwood, TN where he asked $150 for the manuscript. In his description of the lot, Heflin excerpted these lines from Clarke:
“Herrold and I were schoolmates in the primary school…I found him to be a boy of more than average intelligence…greatly surprised at his connection with Booth…Mr. Herrold, Sr. was a great hunter…when he went hunting he usually took David with him, so David became fully acquainted with lower Maryland…Booth evidently learned this through the Surratts and it was at Mrs. Surratt’s house that Dave first met Booth…”
Here Heflin breaks the excerpts, explaining how Herold was sentenced to be hanged on July 7, 1865. Heflin then states, “At the time of his execution and in response to a question by Reverend Olds, Rector of Christ Church at the Navy Yard, David replied,” and here continues with what appears to be excerpted material. What follows is a bit confusing as it appears to be Davy’s words as recalled by Rev. Olds and perhaps related to Clarke. The continued line states:
“Tell my mother and my sister that I did not know until John came out from the theater and got on his horse, exclaiming, ‘Dave, I’ve done it,’, Done what? I asked. ‘I’ve killed the tyrant,’ Booth replied…Recognizing that I would be torn to pieces if I remained, I went with Booth…across the Anacostia River…proceeded down towards Port Tobacco. Booth’s ankle…caused him great pain and I took him to a friend of mine, Dr. Mudd…the rest is history, we were cornered in a barn, Booth shot, and I surrendered…”
Once again we are tormented like Tantalus with what appears to be a partial confession of David Herold as recalled by a former childhood friend. And yet, without the full document and the valuable material signified by the ellipses we can’t really be sure where Clarke got his information. It may have come, as implied by Heflin’s description, from Dr. Mark Olds, the reverend who tended to Herold on the scaffold. But even if that is the case, this David Herold confession is third hand and comes 58 years after the event. Stories change a lot under those conditions. If only we had the actual document David Herold was seen writing in May of 1865. Even if that confession was just as elusive and crafty as Davy’s response to his interrogation on April 27, it would still add more to our understanding of this elusive conspirator.
So, if any of you folks happen to stumble across an old document, perhaps dated May 20 or 21, 1865, written in quill pen, and it just so happens to talk a little bit about escaping with John Wilkes Booth, please shoot me an email. I’d love to add you to the list of celebrated rediscoverers like Joan Chaconas, Betty Ownsbey, and Michael Kauffman who found the lost CDV of an older Mary Surratt. But even if all you find is a 1923 manuscript from a guy named William Clarke talking about an old childhood friend of his, I’d certainly be interested in that, too. Whatever you do, don’t keep it to yourself locked away so nobody knows. Because you know what they say, confession is good for the soul…and for history.
“Fun” fact: It took quite a bit of sleuthing to determine the author of the 1923 letter about David Herold. The only clue I had to go on was Mr. Heflin’s catalog which listed the author as Wm M Clarke. It was only after a few hours of searching through D.C. records, assembling a family tree, and scouring newspaper articles that I felt confident that William Miller Clarke was our man. He lived an interesting life beyond his friendship with Herold. Clarke claimed to have been offered a position in the Confederate army at the start of the war but turned it down later joining the Union. He stated he was a “bodyguard” at Lincoln’s first inaugural and that he was in Washington, D.C. at the time of the assassination. After leaving D.C. with his family, he moved to New York before settling in Boston. He was on the staff of Massachusetts Governor John L. Bates from 1903 – 1905 and, in the last decade of his life, was a popular speaker at different club meetings. An article from 1919, noted he presented a speech entitled, “Life of Lincoln,” which may have touched on his infamous schoolmate. In 1913 Clarke’s wife of 46 years, Ella, died. One would think that would be the end of romance for a 71-year-old and, for a time, it was. However, just shy of his 81st birthday, William Clarke got married again…to a 28-year-old bookkeeper name Bertha Davidson.
This marriage occurred in 1923, just a couple months before he wrote his manuscript about Herold so perhaps we have Bertha to thank for convincing him to write his memories of the conspirator down. Less than three years later, on April 11, 1926, William Clarke died and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. Bertha Davidson Clarke never remarried and died in 1980. She was not buried with Clarke and is, instead, with her parents in Glenwood Cemetery in Everett, MA.