Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.
Burial Location: Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia
Connection to the Lincoln assassination:
Jake Rittersbach was a French immigrant who came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. His family settled in Pennsylvania and, after the Civil War broke out, 21 year-old Jake joined the 124th Pennsylvania Infantry. He served in the army for a period of 9 months before he was discharged. After leaving the service, Rittersbach found his way to Washington, D.C. where he sought out a way to make a living using his knowledge of carpentry. As he looked for a job, he took up residence at a boardinghouse owned by a Mrs. Scott on the corner of 7th and H streets in D.C. One of Rittersbach’s fellow boarders at Mrs. Scott’s home was another carpenter by the name of Edman Spangler.
Spangler made his living as a carpenter and a scene shifter at Ford’s Theatre. After about a year and a half in Washington, Jake Rittersbach found himself working side-by-side with Spangler when he too was hired by the Ford brothers to work as a carpenter in their theater in March of 1865.
It would have been impossible for Rittersbach, a Union veteran, not to have quickly picked up on the pro-Southern sentiments of his fellow coworkers at Ford’s Theatre. Many of the others engaged in backstage work supported the Confederacy and were mourning the recent events. Rittersbach often found himself quarreling with Spangler about their differing political views. Yet, they continued to do their work together, nonetheless.
Like the other employees of Ford’s Theatre, Jake Rittersbach was present backstage when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Rittersbach was situated right near Spangler on the stage left side (the side of the stage where the President’s box was located) when Booth fired the fatal shot. After Booth leapt to the stage and then made his way out the back door, both Spangler and Rittersbach followed in the direction of the commotion.
“That was John Booth!” declared Rittersbach. “Hush your mouth!” Spangler replied. “You don’t know whether it’s Booth or not.” In his reply, Spangler was speaking a likely truth. Rittersbach had been at Ford’s Theatre for such a short amount of time that he was not very familiar with John Wilkes Booth. It had only been earlier that day that Rittersbach had finally asked Spangler for the name of the actor he had seen around from time to time. Though Rittersbach ended up being correct in his identification of the assassin, in those hectic first moments, Spangler wanted only to protect a man he had known for years and worked alongside in the theater from being wrongfully accused. In the minutes after the assassination, Spangler grabbed his coat and exited out the same back door to search for John Wilkes Booth in hopes of proving this identification incorrect.
But, to Edman Spangler’s dismay, it was John Wilkes Booth who had shot Lincoln. This truth caused a lot of problems for the scene shifter who had known the Booth family since 1852 and who had done errands for John Wilkes, one of the few actors who treated stagehands with respect. Since the crime was committed at Ford’s Theatre and Spangler’s theatrical friendship was well known, Spangler was quickly identified as person of interest.
However, before Spangler found himself under arrest, Jake Rittersbach had already been laying the groundwork to incriminate him. Rittersbach spent the night of April 14-15 in the manager’s office of Ford’s Theatre. He was awakened in the morning by another stagehand named Louis Carland who was looking for Spangler. Rittersbach told his version of events to Carland but added that, upon claiming that it was John Booth who ran out the door, Spangler had slapped him in the mouth. Later, when back drop painter, James Lamb, reported to work, Rittersbach once again told him that Spangler had slapped him the night before. In the opinion of Tom Bogar, author of Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, “Rittersbach appeared intent on making sure everyone knew what he had experienced, but was too new to Ford’s to perceive how each would receive the information.”
When Rittersbach left to take his breakfast at his boardinghouse on Saturday morning, he found Spangler there. After failing to find Booth, Spangler had spent the night at the home of two of the actors, John and Kate Evans. After a few minutes at breakfast, policemen arrived at Mrs. Scott’s and took both Spangler and Rittersbach in for questioning. Rittersbach was released quickly while Spangler had to endure almost four hours of questioning before he was released. After hearing rumors that Ford’s Theatre would be burned, Spangler, Rittersbach, Carland and some of the other employees decided to spend the night. On Sunday morning, Carland took Spangler to the home of the Gourlay family, a family of actors who had been in Our American Cousin on the 14th. Jeannie Gourlay was engaged to the Ford’s Theatre orchestra director, William Withers, and both had been near Booth’s path when he escaped. Carland asked Withers and Jeannie if either of them had seen Spangler slap Rittersbach as had been told to him. Though the couple had been nearby neither one claimed to have seen any sort of slap between the two men.
Spangler, however, seemed unaware that Rittersbach was making plans to implicate him. On Monday, Spangler took his supper at Mrs. Scott’s boardinghouse and found Rittersbach waiting in the doorway for him when he was leaving. He suggested the pair take a friendly walk. According to Bogar:
“[The walk] lasted about a half hour, the main topic of conversation being Rittersbach’s desire to get some of the reward money being offered. Did Spangler know of any information they could use? Rittersbach said that he, too, had given a statement at police headquarters on Saturday (although no evidence exists that he did). Spangler, as trusting as the animals he befriended seemed completely unaware that Rittersbach had already implicated him to others. Back at their boardinghouse around sunset, the two men parted ways (for good, as it turned out), and Spangler went upstairs to rest…”
Edman Spangler was arrested, for the final time, about two hours after his walk with Rittersbach. He was placed in irons and imprisoned in the Carroll annex of the Old Capitol Prison. Later, Spangler would be moved to the iron clad warships that housed Booth’s core group of conspirators.
If Rittersbach was hoping to get a piece of the reward money, it was in his best interest to continue to incriminate Spangler as an active party. Claiming that Spangler slapped him was a great way to cast suspicion. Perhaps Rittersbach hoped that, if Spangler was found to be an active conspirator in Booth’s plot, he would get some money out of his “assistance” to the authorities. It’s possible that Rittersbach had already laid the groundwork when he was briefly detained on Saturday. If this was Rittersbach’s plan, however, it seems that he changed his mind about it when he, himself was arrested. Jake Rittersbach was arrested one day after Spangler, Tuesday, April 18th. He was imprisoned in a communal room at the Old Capitol Prison and gave a brief statement. Despite the pains he had taken to inform others at Ford’s that he had identified Booth and that Spangler had apparently slapped him because of it, Rittersbach made no such claims in his statement. Rather, he told the prison superintendent that “he did not see [Booth’s] face and could not say who it was.”
So, we have this contradiction with Rittersbach. When the stakes were lower, Rittersbach told his fellow stagehands Carland and Lamb that he had identified Booth and that Spangler had slapped him. However, while under arrest, he denied having both recognized Booth and the slap. Perhaps protecting himself from any suspicion was worth more than trying to turn against Spangler. As the investigation continued and the authorities heard about Rittersbach’s prior statements to Carland and Lamb, they would take an active role to eliminate these contradictions.
A few years after the events, John T. Ford, who had also found himself locked up at the Old Capitol Prison, recounted an instance where significant pressure was put upon Rittersbach to re-implicate Spangler:
“Ritterspaugh [sic] – a witness- was brought before Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, at Baker’s office. Being questioned in regard to what happened on the stage, Ritterspaugh told that when Booth jumped from the box and ran across the stage, after firing the pistol, he (Ritterspaugh) said that that was Booth; and that Spangler turned and said: ‘Hush your mouth! You don’t know whether its Booth or not.’ Here Baker broke in on Ritterspaugh, saying: ‘By God, if you don’t testify to what you said to me before, I’ll put you among the rest, ‘ (meaning the prisoners.) ‘You said to me that Spangler, when you said ‘It’s Booth,’ said: ‘Don’t say which way he went.’
This bullying by Baker was perfectly calculated to shake Ritterspaugh’s nerves and cause him to think he believed he heard what he did not believe he heard.”
There may be some truth to Ford’s belief that Rittersbach was turned (perhaps rather easily based on his own actions before being arrested) against Spangler by the authorities. When Rittersbach was first put upon the stand by the prosecution at the trial of the conspirators on May 19th, he was not asked any questions about what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Instead, the prosecution only used Rittersbach as witness regarding Spangler’s arrest and the government’s seizure of his belongings. It was not until May 30th that the prosecution recalled Rittersbach to the stand to testify about the events at Ford’s Theatre. In the trial transcript, right before Rittersbach is brought back, it gives the following statement:
“The Judge Advocate, stated that, since the examination of Jacob Ritterspaugh [sic] for the prosecution, facts had come to the knowledge of the Government not known at the time that witness was examined, and he proposed now to recall that witness for the purpose of examining him in relation to the accused, Edward [sic] Spangler; and he applied to the Commission for permission to re-examine that witness.”
In his new testimony, Rittersbach became the key witness against Spangler. He testified about Spangler having struck him after he identified Booth. Rittersbach also changed Spangler’s words, claiming that Spangler said, “Don’t say which way he went!” and “For God’s sake, shut up!” None of Rittersbach’s testimony was ever supported by Jeannie Gourlay who stood near Rittersbach and Spangler when the exchange was supposed to have occurred. In what may be the most telling piece of evidence of all, Rittersbach was released from prison on the very same day he gave his damning testimony.
While Spangler’s defense attorney, Thomas Ewing, did a noble job of poking holes in Rittersbach’s version of events, he could not completely undo the damage it had done to his client. Mainly due to Jacob Rittersbach, Edman Spangler was found guilty of aiding and abetting in John Wilkes Booth’s escape and was sentenced to 6 years of hard labor.
While Spangler was taken to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas to serve his prison sentence, Jake Rittersbach largely fell from view. John T. Ford invited most of his former workers to help him re-open Ford’s Theatre but that was prevented and the government purchased the building. Some of the stagehands found employment in Ford’s Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore but it is highly unlikely Rittersbach was ever offered a position given what he had done to Spangler.
Despite everything that had happened, Jacob Rittersbach stayed in D.C. for over 30 years working as a carpenter. After the death of his wife, Rittersbach moved to Ohio, where, in 1901, he finally tried to get some money from the government for the events of April 14, 1865. Rittersbach appealed to his Congressman, Representative Charles Grosvenor, not for any reward money for Spangler’s conviction, but for the loss of his tools that were stolen after the assassination:
Rep. Grosvenor was apparently unsuccessful in getting Rittersbach his reimbursement in 1901 as the Congressman introduced the same bill in 1903. It is unknown if the bill ever passed.
By 1913, Jake Rittersbach had returned to the east coast. On June 12th of that year, he was accepted into the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers located in Hampton, Virginia. He only stayed in the home for three months before asking to be discharged. He re-entered the home on April 5, 1914 and lived there for over four years before he was transferred to the National Home in Dayton, Ohio. He resided there until 1920 when he was transferred back to Hampton.
Jacob Rittersbach died at the Soldier’s Home in Hampton on June 28, 1926. While some of his former coworkers survived him, at 86, Rittersbach was the longest lived of those working at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He was buried with a military stone in Hampton National Cemetery.
GPS coordinates for Jacob Rittersbach’s grave: 37.018650, -76.334817
Most of the information in this post came from Thomas Bogar’s wonderful book, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actor’s and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre. Please pick up a copy today to learn more about the many people who were working at Ford’s Theatre when their lives, and our history, changed forever.