Posts Tagged With: John Wilkes Booth

The Confessions of George Atzerodt

Of all the Lincoln assassination conspirators, George Atzerodt was perhaps the most prolific stool pigeon. After being arrested by the authorities, Atzerodt was quick to turn on his fellow conspirators and do his best to diminish the role he played in Lincoln’s death. The rule of law in 1865 prevented defendants from testifying and so Atzerodt hoped that by spilling his guts to investigators early he might become a primary trial witness instead of a defendant. Unfortunately for Atzerodt, this did not occur. He sung like a canary, named names, lied, and exaggerated only to find himself still put on trial and subsequently executed for having conspired with John Wilkes Booth.

Several days ago, reader Dennis Urban posted a comment on the trial testimony page for George Atzerodt. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dennis was having difficulty gaining access to three confessions associated to George Atzerodt. Namely, Dennis wanted to see Atzerodt’s April 25, 1865 confession given by him aboard the U.S.S. Saugus, a confession published by the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper on July 9, 1865, and a third confession published by the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser on January 18, 1869. Having assembled Dennis’ request, I was just going to reply to him with links to the documents he requested when I realized an assembly of the different Atzerodt Confessions with their transcriptions would make for a useful post. What follows are the known confession documents connected to George Atzerodt.


  1. Affidavit of Frank Munroe, April 23, 1865

After George Atzerodt was arrested in Montgomery County, Maryland on April 19 and brought to Washington, he was placed alongside many of the other arrested conspirators aboard an ironclad warship that lay at anchor in the Anacostia River. George Atzerodt was kept on the U.S.S. Saugus and the guard detail on the Saugus was commanded by Capt. Frank Munroe. According to Capt. Munroe, on the evening of April 22, Atzerodt asked to speak to him in order to give him a confession of sorts. The following is Capt. Munroe’s affidavit of the conversation he had with Atzerodt, made the next day:

“As well as I can recollect, last night one of my sentries on post over Atzerodt and Richter informed me that the former desired to see me. Atzerodt told me he had sent for me for the purpose of letting me know that he was innocent of any crime and also that he was instrumental in saving the life of the Vice President. Further that he was visited about three weeks since by a man named John Surrat at Port Tobacco Md. Surrat informed him that Booth was to open a theatre in Richmond, and also that they (Booth & Surrat) had a vessel to run the blockade and in both enterprises he was wanted. Atzerodt came to Washington with Surrat and was told by Booth that he must assassinate Mr. Johnson. This he refused to do and Booth threatened to blow his brains out unless he complied. He still refused, and returned to Port Tobacco. A second time Surrat came for him and he came again to Washington and took a room at Kirkwood’s. He was again asked to murder Mr. Johnson, and again refused. The day on which the President was killed a man named David Harrold (or Harrol) brought to Atzerodt’s room a knife and revolver and then left the Hotel. Atzerodt becoming frightened locked his door and walked down the street. He knew that the President’s assassination was spoken of, but did not believe it would be carried into effect. When he heard the deed had been accomplished, he took a room at the Kimmel House and the next morning went to Montgomery County to the house of his cousin (Richter) at which place he was arrested.

Frank Munroe”

During the trial of the conspirators, an attempt was made by George Atzerodt’s defense attorney, William Doster, to have Capt. Munroe testify about the confession he was given. It was Doster’s hope to show that Atzerodt had denied Booth’s demand that he murder Andrew Johnson. However, the prosecution objected to the words of the accused being testified to in such a way, and so Capt. Munroe did not get to say much on the witness stand. This affidavit is part of the National Archives’ Lincoln assassination files and can be viewed on the website Fold3, by clicking here.


  1. Atzerodt confession given to Col. Henry H. Wells, April 25, 1865

A few days after his confession to Capt. Munroe, Atzerodt talked to Col. Henry H. Wells. Wells was undoubtedly accompanied by an aide who took down Atzerodt’s confession either in shorthand which was later transcribed, or in longhand. The final document contains superfluous periods and a lack of capitalization. The confession is also non-linear, jumping back and forth between before and during April 14th. The substance and nature of the confession come undoubtedly from Atzerodt even though it is not signed. I have retained the spelling as presented in the original document, but remember that this was not written by Atzerodt and so it should not be used as a judge of his literacy.

“April 25, 1865

George A. Atzerodt says

I live at Port Tobacco. John H. Surratt came after me in the winter. I was at work & could not leave. it was after Christmas. he said he was going to get a great prize and he wanted me because I was acquainted with the Potomac. to go with him said he was going to run the Blockade. came again three weeks after, we came to Washington together he took me to his Mother’s and I staid one week. told me the other parties were over in New York and others in Baltimore. gave me no names there. I returned home again. went home and stayed one week and he wrote for me to come on. I came up in the Stage. Stopped at Kimmel House and Pa House 357 C. St. John Surratt came to the Hotel to take me to his Mother’s House. here I was introduced to Booth in Com. Genl’s ^of Prisoners^ office. nothing of importance was there said. we were to meet again at an early day. the day was not fixed. We met again but Booth went to New York before I saw him again. as I understood after he came back he came to Penna House and asked me how I would like to go into the oil business. I said I would like it if I had the Capital. he said dont mind the Capital I have that. I said I would as soon as not go into the business. I was drinking hard and he asked me not to drink so hard. He then went to New York again. J. Surratt came and borrowed some money of me. He was going to New York with a Lady. Surratt had two Horses at Howard’s Stable. one or both of the Horses came from down near Bryantown. he claimed to own them. one of them had a blind eye. it was a large bay Horse. the other was a smaller bay Horse. Surratt wrote to me from New York to sell the Horses this was I think in March. I sold the small Horse about a week after I got the order. Booth then returned from New York and he took me to a Lady’s House near the Patent Office. it is on the Corner of 9th & F st. it is a Hotel or Boarding House (Probably the Herndon House) he took me into the room and introduced me to a young man he called James Wood. this was after the fall of Richmond and two or three days before the President was killed and proposed to go to Richmond to open a Theatre if we could get passes. after that was over we took a walk on the Avanue. he told me to meet him that night at the same place: David L. Harrold came there that night. I came in at half past 7 oclock and told them I wanted to meet a young man on the Street who wanted one to go to the Theatre. I took him to the Street by the House left there and went in alone they saw they were going. Booth told me I ought not to bring any person near the House. we did not have much to say. we went out parted and went to the Theatre. Booth and Harrold said they were going out. dont know whether they did go or not. before we parted we agreed to meet the next day at the National where I could call or he would meet me at this House again. I went to the National at ½ past 10 oclock a.m. I think it was Thursday. he took me to his room. he then Spoke to me again about drinking so much I asked what he ment by it. he laughfed and said never mind. he then told me to go to the Kirkwood and get a Pass from V. President Johnston. he said he would be there with a man to recommend me. I went there registered my name and got a room and paid for one days board. that was on Thursday. about 3 oclock Harrold came there after me He said Booth and Wood wanted to see me. Wood is a tall man with black hair straight. He is a strong stout made man. no hair on his face. rather poor. he is rather a good looking man. I cant remember faces or features well enough to describe them. he had a wild look in his eyes. Saw him clean his teeth. he carried a toothbrush with him. think he had long legs. saw a Bottle of hairoil on his stand. think his arms was long. he was a large well built man. He wore Boots. wore a soft Hat. leed Color I think not black I am sure: we walked down the St. we were to have met in a Restaurant but Booth was not there and we met down at the National. he was not there. Harold went off & said he would find him. we were to wait. I got tired of waiting and left afterwards into Seventh St. and Stopped and drank at deferent Restruants. about half past five or near six oclock I went to the Kirkwood House and they told me a young man had called there for me. I took a chair and Harold came in and said Booth and Wood wanted to see me immediately. He then asked me if I had my Key. he wanted to go to my room and show me something. we went to the room and drawed a large Knife and a large Pistol out of his Boot and said let us go and see Booth and Wood. we went to their House on 9th St (Henderson House) and they then proposed the murder to me. Booth proposed that we should Kill the President. said it would be the greatest thing in the world. this was about half past Six or Seven Oclock on Friday. that Wood would go up to Seward’s House and Kill him – That he and Harrold had been and seen Andrew Johnston and found out where he was. he then asked me if I was willing myself to assist them. I said that I did not Come for that and was not willing to murder a person. They said they did not want me to do any act but only to show them the road into the lower part of Maryland and if I did not I would suffer for it. I said I would do all I could on the road. they said will you and I promised that I would. Booth then told me to get a Horse and stop near the Eastern Branch Bridge. we then came out: Herrold wanted me to go to the Kirkwood House and asked me if I had the Key of the room. I told him no. I did not go to the Hotel and we parted there & I have never seen them since. Some time in the morning Harrold came and wanted I should go down to Surrattsville. he said he Booth has some things there and wanted me to see after them. they were in Ms. Surratts old House Kept by Lloyd and I agreed to go. I went and hired a Horse at 1 Oclock. I got a small Bay Horse at a stable on 8th St. above Franklin St. about one Oclock and rode him till about three Oclock and then put him in Nailor’s stable and left him there till between six & seven Oclock. then I took him and rode out to the Navy Yard then back again to the Avanue where I got some Oysters and rode down to the Kimmel House. he took the Horse away rom the stable about ½ past 7 or 8 Oclock and did not take him back. I did not go to Sairattsville becase I could not see Booth that evening

They wanted I should show them the road to Indiantown on Maryland Point. they were to go to Sairattsville around Piscotoway and to strike the Potomac. they were to go through Bumpy Oak. To go to Bumpy Oak you have the road leading from Washington to Bryantown at Terbe [T.B.] which is about six miles from Sariattsville. you turn off to the right. It is about 25 or 30 miles from Turbe to Maryland Point the road leading from Turbe is not much traveled. I dont know any one at Maryland Point that would aid them to cross. I suppose after they got to Virginia they would go to the Confederate lines. Nanjemoy Creek runs down by Maryland Point.

Harrold was well acquainted with the Shores of the Potomac and I think if he got over to Piny Church or to the Bridges on the Port Tobo road near Bryantown. I would go to Maryland Point for it is the most direct and there are many Cross Roads.

I understood that Woods came from Virginia but dont know the County. I heard him Speak of Warrenton and Fauquier Co Wood was to Kill Seward, Booth the President and Harold V. P. Johnston. I last saw Sarrott about a week before the murder. dont know where he is but think he had gone to New York. I went up to Woods to the Navy Yard. about 12 Oclock after the assasfination went in a street Carr got in near the National & went up to the end of the road and then road back to the Depot and then walked up 4 ½ St. and there met a Stranger who asked me where he could find a Hotel to stop at and I told him to come to the Pa House and he did so. he was a stranger to me and I never seen him before and have not since. do not know his name. I dont know whether Ms Sarrott was in this businesf or not. I stopped in Mrs. Sarrott House for three or four days I think. they called me Port Tobacco. Booth and Harold sometimes spoke of Mosby and asked where he was. they also spoke of going to Canada after the assasfination. when Booth went to New York last he said he was going to Canada.”

A digitized copy of the original confession procured by Col. Wells can be seen by clicking here. Please note that on Fold3, the website that hosts the National Archives’ Lincoln assassination papers, this former microfilm reel is transcribed backwards so you will have to click to the left in order to view the next page of the confession.


  1. Atzerodt confession given to James McPhail and John L. Smith, May 1, 1865

Shortly after being transferred from the U.S.S. Saugus to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, George Atzerodt was interviewed by his brother-in-law, John L. Smith who worked as a detective for James McPhail, the Baltimore Provost Marshal, who was also present. Over the course of two hours, Atzerodt gave a lengthy confession to the men. This statement was “lost” for over 100 years until 1977, when it was discovered by Lincoln assassination researcher Joan Chaconas with the family of Atzerodt’s lawyer, William Doster.

“James Wood sometimes called Mosby boarded with Mrs. Murray an Irish woman on the corner of 9 & F St. in a three story house, front on the upper end of the P.O. and South End of Patent Office – with basement entrance on the left side going up 9th St. from Avenue. He was a little over six feet, black hair, smooth round face, gray coat black pants, & spring coat mixed with white & gray. Saw him last time on Friday evening about 5 o’clock with Booth. He sent letters to the post office with James Hall. He was brought from New York. Surratt told me so. He said he had been a prisoner in Balte. near the depot. He was arrested for whipping a negro woman. Mosby was Wood’s nick name – did not know him by any other name than mentioned. Gust. Powell now arrested in Old Capitol was one of the party. He went also by the name of Gustavus Spencer, Surratt and Spencer came from Richmond, together just after it had fallen.

James Donaldson, a low chunky man about 23 or 24 years of age, small-potted, dark complexion (not very) deep plain black suit; only saw him one time & this was Wednesday previous to the murder, he was having an interview with Booth and told him to meet him on Friday eve & he replied he would and left and went up Penn. Avenue towards the Treasury building. I was under the impression he came on with Booth.

Arnold, O’Laughlin, Surratt, Harold, Booth and myself met once at a saloon or restaurant on the Aven. bet 13 & 14 St.

The Saml. Thomas registered on the morning of the 15th April at Penn Hotel, I met on my to hotel, he was an entire Stranger to me. I left the Hotel alone on the morning of 15th of April. A Lieut. In room No. 51 will prove this. Surratt bought a boat from Dick Smoot & James Brawner living about Port Tobacco, for which they paid $300.00 and was to give one hundred Dolls. extra for taking care of it till wanted. Booth told me that Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns (Two Carbines) which had been taken to that place by Herold, This was Friday. The carriage was hired at Howards.

I saw a man named Weightman who boarded at Surratt’s at Post Office. he told me he had to go down the Country with Mrs. Surratt. This was on Friday, Also.

I am certain Dr. Mudd knew all about it, as Booth sent (as he told me) liquors & provisions for the trip with the President to Richmond, about two weeks before the murder to Dr. Mudd’s.

Booth never said until the last night (Friday) that he intended to kill the President.

Herold came to the Kirkwood House, same evening for me to go to see Booth. I went with Herold & saw Booth. He then said he was going to kill the President and Wood, the Secy. of State. I did not believe him. This occurred in the evening about 7 ½ o’clock. It was dark. I took a room at Kirkwood’s. Both Herold & I went to the room left Herold’s coat, knife, & pistol in the room and never again returned to it. Booth said during the day that the thing had failed and proposed to go to Richmond & open the theatre. I am not certain but I think I stayed one night at Kirkwood’s (Thursday) we were to try and get papers to Richmond from Mr. Johnson.

Booth spoke of getting the papers. He would get them out of the Theatre. Wood & Booth were apparently confidential with each other. Plenty of parties in Charles County knew of the kidnapping affair.

One of the men named Charles Yates, knew all about it, he went to Richmond during the winter he was to row the Presdt & party over.

Thos. Holborn [Harbin] was to meet us on the road and help in the kidnaping. Bailey & Barnes knew nothing of the affair unless Booth told Bailey & he told Barnes. Booth had met Bailey on “C” St. with me. I did not meet Booth or any of the party in Baltimore on or about the 31 of March.

Boyle also killed Capt. Watkins near Annapolis last month, was one of the party, in the conspiracy.

I repeat I never knew anything about the murder.

I was intended to give assistance to the kidnapping. They come to Port Tobacco (Surratt & Booth) several times and brought me to Washington. The pistol given me I sold or received a loan on it Saturday morng after the murder from John Caldwick at Matthews & wells, Store, High St. Georgetown. The knife I threw away just above Mrs. Canby’s boarding house the night of the murder about 11 o’clock when I took my horse to stable. I had the horse out to help to take the President. I did not believe he was going to be killed, although Booth had said so. After I heard of the murder I run about the city like a crazy man.

I have not seen Arnold for some time, but saw O’Laughlin on Thursday evening, on the Avenue at Saloon near near U.S. Hotel. He told me he was going to see Booth.

Wood did not go on the street in day time for fear of arrest. When he first came to Washington he boarded at Surratt’s. This was in Feby. He (Wood) went with Booth last of February to N. York.

Booth we understood paid the way. I know nothing about Canada. Wood told me he had horses in Virginia. Saml. Arnold & Mike O’Laughlin ought to know where the horses and pistols were bought.

Sam & Mike have a buggy and horse kept at stable in rear of Theatre. Booth had several horses at same place. I think the horses property was in Surratt’s name. I sold one of the horses & paid part of the money to Booth and part to Herold, who said he would see Booth about it. The saddle and bridle belonging to Booth is at Penn House, where I left it. I overhead Booth when in conversation with Wood say, That he visited a chambermaid at Seward’s House & that she was pretty. He said he had a great mind to give her his diamond pin. Herold talked about powders & medicines on Friday night at Mrs. Condby’s. Wood, Herold, Booth & myself were present. This was a meeting place because Wood could not go out for fear of arrest.

Kate Thompson or Kate Brown, as she was known by both names, put up at National & was well known at Penn House. She knew all about the affair. Surratt went to Richd with her last March & Gust. Howell made a trip with her to same place. This woman is about twenty yrs of age, good looking and well dressed. Black hair and eyes, round face from South Carolina & a widow.

I did not see Surratt for seven or eight days before the murder nor have I seen him since.

Miss Thompson or Brown had two large light trunks, one much larger than the other. Young Weightman at Surratt’s ought to know about this woman. This remark made by me in Baltimore on the 31 of March alluded to blockade running & privateering altogether & Booth said he had money to buy a steamer & wanted me to go in it.

I was to be one of them. In this way I was going to make a pile of money.

Booth said he had met a party in N. York who would get the Prest. certain. They were going to mine the end of Kirk House, next to War Dept. They knew an entrance to accomplish it through. Spoke about getting friends of the Presdt. to get up an entertainment & they would mix in it, have a serenade &c & thus get at the Presdt. & party.

These were understood to be projects.

Booth said if he did not get him quick the N. York crowd would. Booth knew the New York party apparently by a sign. He saw Booth give some kind of sign to two parties on the Avenue who he said were from New York. My Uncle Mr. Richter and family in Monty. Co. Md. knew nothing about the affair either before or after the occurrence & never suspected me of any thing wrong as I was in the habit of staying with him. My father formerly owned part of the property now owned by Richter. Finis.”

The original of this confession was sold at auction shortly after being discovered. Copies of the original can be found in the James O. Hall Research Center in Clinton, Maryland. I based this transcription of the lost confession from an appendix in Edward Steers’ book, His Name is Still Mudd.


  1. Memorandum by Col. John Foster regarding George Atzerodt, Undated

Col. John Foster aided the War Department in sifting through all of the evidence collected during the investigation and manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. In an undated 40 page document, Col. Foster, summarized the statements of over a dozen witnesses and associates of John Wilkes Booth, essentially tracing back his conspiracy and execution thereof. Included in the document is a summary of Atzerodt’s previous confession (or confessions). The following is Col. Foster’s interpretation of Atzerodt’s words.

“The Prisoner, George A. Atzerodt

In his confession stated substantially that between one and two months ago he was called on by John H. Surratt who informed him that he wanted him to go into a scheme by which a large sum of money was to be obtained, giving him to understand that it was a very extreme plan of blockade running without giving any further details. He stated that John H. Surratt induced him to come to this city to engage in this blockade running scheme. He came here, boarded at the house of Mrs. Surratt for a few days, during which time he was introduced to a man by the name of Wood, and also to Booth, and met David Herold, whom he had previously known & that they all of them had several interviews in his presence. In all of which references was made to this scheme of blockade running; but on none of the occasions were there any details given, nor did he have any idea how the scheme was to be completed until later in the afternoon of the evening of the assassination, when he was called to the room of Wood at that time boarding at the Herndon House, corner of 9th and F; that he found there Booth, Wood, alias Payne, and Harold; and then Booth told him that he was going to “kill Lincoln,” and Wood said that he was to kill Mr. Seward; and they proposed to him that he should kill Mr. Johnson. Atzerodt said that he refused to do so, but agreed to pilot them, which they requested him to do, as he was familiar with the county toward Port Tobacco.”

A digitized copy of Col. Foster’s summary can be seen by clicking here.


  1. Statement of George Atzerodt included in William Doster’s closing arguments of June 21, 1865

Having been unsuccessful in getting a confession of sorts included in the official testimony of the trial of the conspirators, William Doster used the time allotted for his closing arguments on June 21, 1865 to make sure Atzerodt’s story was told. Doster began his closing arguments by reading aloud this statement from his client. Doster no doubt assisted Atzerodt in composing this version of his confession, with the lawyer likely writing the whole thing after several interviews with his client. In this confession, Atzerodt openly admits that he was involved in a kidnapping scheme against Lincoln, but that he abandoned the plot once it became one of assassination.

“I am one of a party who agreed to capture the President of the United States, but I am not one of a party to kill the President of the United States, or any member of the Cabinet, or General Grant, or Vice-President Johnson. The first plot to capture failed; the second – to kill – I broke away from the moment I heard of it.

This is the way it came about: On the evening of the 14th of April I met Booth and Payne at the Herndon House, in this city, at eight o’clock. He (Booth) said he himself should murder Mr. Lincoln and General Grant, Payne should take Mr. Seward, and I should take Mr. Johnson. I told him I would not do it; that I had gone into the thing to capture, but I was not going to kill. He told me I was a fool; that I would be hung any how, and that it was death for every man that backed out; and so we parted. I wandered about the streets until about two o’clock in the morning, and then went to the Kimmell House, and from there pawned my pistol at Georgetown, and went to my cousin’s house, in Montgomery county, where I was arrested the 19th following. After I was arrested, I told Provost Marshal Wells and Provost Marshal McPhail the whole story; also told it to Capt. Monroe, and Col. Wells told me if I pointed out the way Booth had gone I would be reprieved, and so I told him I thought he had gone done Charles county in order to cross the Potomac. The arms which were found in my room at the Kirkwood House, and a black coat, do not belong to me; neither were they left to be used by me. On the afternoon of the 14th of April, Herold called to see me and left the coat there. It is his coat, and all in it belongs to him, as you can see by the handkerchiefs, marked with his initial, and with the name of his sister, Mrs. Naylor. Now I will state how I passed the whole of the evening of the 14th of April. In the afternoon, at about two o’clock, I went to Keleher’s stable, on Eighth street, near D, and hired a dark bay mare and rode into the country for pleasure, and on my return put her up at Naylor’s stable. The dark bay horse which I had kept at Naylor’s before, on about the 3d of April, belonged to Booth; also the saddle and bridle. I do not know what became of him. At about six in the evening, I went to Naylor’s again and took out the mare, rode out for an hour, and returned her to Naylor’s. It was then nearly eight, and I told him to keep the mare ready at ten o’clock, in order to return her to the man I hired her from. From there I went to the Herndon House. Booth sent a messenger to the “Oyster Bay,” and I went. Booth wanted me to murder Mr. Johnson. I refused. I then went to the “Oyster Bay,” on the Avenue, above Twelfth street, and whiled away the time until nearly ten. At ten I got the mare, and having taken a drink with the hostler, galloped about town, and went to the Kimmell House. From there I rode down to the depot, and returned my horse, riding up Pennsylvania Avenue to Keleher’s. From Keleher’s, I went down to the Navy Yard to get a room with Wash. Briscoe. He had none, and by the time I got back to the Kimmell House it was nearly two. The man Thomas was a stranger I met on the street. Next morning, as stated, I went to my cousin Richter’s, in Montgomery county.

George A. Atzerodt”

This statement is included in the Benn Pitman transcript of the trial of the conspirators along with the rest of Doster’s closing arguments.


  1. “Dying Statement of Atzerodt”, Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 8, 1865

On the day after the execution of George Atzerodt and the three other condemned conspirators, the newspapers were filled with stories about their last hours. The following is an excerpt from a larger article about all of the conspirators. The article fails to give the identity of the person or persons to whom Atzerodt was supposed to have given this final confession, but implies that it was made to his spiritual advisors, Rev. Butler and Rev. Winchester. While it should be taken with a grain of salt, there is nothing out of the ordinary with this account.

“Dying Statement of Atzerodt

During the morning a female friend or sister of Atzerodt, from Port Tobacco, had an interview with him, she leaving him about eleven o’clock. He, during the morning, freely conversing with Dr. Butler and Mr. Winchester on religious topics, and before going to the gallows he made the following statement:

He took a room at the Kirkwood House on Thursday, in order to get a pass from Vice-President Johnson to go to Richmond. Booth was to lease the Richmond Theatre and the President was to be invited to attend it when visiting Richmond and captured there. Herold brought the pistol and knife to the room about 2 ½ o’clock on Friday. He (Atzerodt) said he would not have anything to do with the murder of Johnson, when Booth said that Herold had more courage than Atzerodt, and he wanted Atzerodt to be with Herold to urge him to do it. There was a meeting at a restaurant about the middle of March, at which John Surratt, O’Laughlin, Booth, Arnold, Payne, Herold and himself were present, when a plan to capture the President was discussed. – They had heard the President was to visit a camp, and they proposed to capture him, coach and all; drive through Long Old Fields to “T.B.,” where the coach was to be left and fresh horses were to be got, and the party would proceed to the river to take a boat. Herold took a buggy to “T.B.,” in anticipation that Mr. Lincoln would be captured, and he was to go with the party to the river. Slavery had put him on the side of the South; he had heard it preached in church that the curse of God was upon the slaves, for they were turned black. He always hated the n—-r, and felt that they (the negroes) should be kept in ignorance. He had not received any money from Booth, although he had been promised that if they were successful they should never want; that they would be honored throughout the South, and that they could secure an exchange of prisoners and the recognition of the Confederacy.

As soon as Atzerodt was informed of his sentence he betook himself to prepare to meet his God, and at once sent for a Lutheran minister, and Dr. Butler was called. He expressed surprise that more time was not allowed him, and just previous to his being led out to the scaffold expressed himself as not quite sure of having made peace with God.”

Click here to view the original Baltimore American article through Google Newspapers.


  1. “Confession of Atzerodt”, Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 10, 1865

Just two days after publishing their first, slightly truncated “deathbed” confession of George Atzerodt before he stepped onto the gallows, the Baltimore American newspaper supplied another one. This unique piece is a mixture between biography and confession that was said to have been “prepared by one who has known him since his arrest,” and that the details, “were given the writer by Atzerodt himself but a short time before his death.” The newspaper fails to give the identity of who wrote the piece. However, this biographical confession bears a striking resemblance to the next confession that follows later that was supposedly written by Atzerodt himself while in his jail cell. It’s possible that the Baltimore American got a hold of Atzerodt’s final confession (perhaps from William Doster) and published it in an edited form, supplementing it with information about Atzerodt’s life. The third person format of the confession should give us pause, however, as we don’t know how much of the confession truly came from Atzerodt and how much was substituted by the unknown writer. Lastly, this “confession” was widely printed in other newspapers including the Daily National Intelligencer.

“Several statements have been published by Washington correspondents of the New York Press purporting to be confessions of Atzerodt, containing some little truth and a great deal of falsehood. The following sketch of his life was prepared by one who has known him since his arrest, and the details of the plots to abduct and murder the President which are set forth below, were given the writer by Atzerodt himself but a short time before his death.

George Andrew Atzerodt was born in the Kingdom of Prussia in 1835; came to this country with his parents in 1844, and arrived in Baltimore, where he resided with his family for about one year, when, with his parents, he moved to Westmoreland county, Va. His father farmed and carried on his business, that of a blacksmith, at the Court House. Atzerodt was placed as an apprentice to the coach-making business at the Court House, where he learned the painting branch; remained at the Court House until 1856; went to Washington and worked for Mr. Young, and also for Mr. McDermott, well known coach makers. In 1857 he joined his brother in the coach making business at Port Tobacco. This continued for four years, when the firm was dissolved. After this he carried on painting in Port Tobacco until last fall, when he met with John H. Surratt and a man named Harlow. Surratt induced him to join in the conspiracy of abducting the President. Surratt, knowing the weak character of Atzerodt’s mind, was not long in gaining ascendancy over it. Atzerodt’s knowledge of men and the country in the vicinity of Port Tobacco, and, in fact, of all the counties bounding on the Potomac, gave to the conspirators a valuable assistant. He was well acquainted with Herold, whom he was not long in finding out, and who was also engaged in the conspiracy. Surratt went several times to Port Tobacco, and often sent for Atzerodt to come to Washington, where he was known to many as “Port Tobacco,” and leered upon as a very weak-minded man – in fact, was regarded as a very harmless and silly fellow. Surratt introduced him to Booth, who feasted him and furnished him with money and horses – the horses being held in the name of Surratt, who appeared to be the principal in the absence of Booth.

The first meeting where all the conspirators actively engaged was at a saloon on Pennsylvania avenue, called Getteer’s [Gautier’s]. At this meeting O’Laughlin, Arnold, Booth, Surratt, Herold and Atzerodt were present. The first attempt to abduct the President was to be on the Seventh street road. This was about the middle of March. They expected the President to visit a camp. O’Laughlin, Arnold, Payne, Surratt, Booth and Atzerodt were present. Herold left with a buggy with the carbines for T.B. The plan was to seize the coach of the President; Surratt to jump on the box, as he was considered the best driver, and make for T.B. by way of Long Old Fields, to the Potomac River, in the vicinity of Nanjemoy creek, where they had a boat waiting with men to carry over the party. The boat was capable of carrying fifteen men; a large flat bottom bateaux, painted lead color, which had been bought for the purpose by Booth, from two men named Brawner and Smoot. This plan failed, the President not coming as they desired. Herold went next morning to Washington. All things remained quiet for some time after this. Booth went North, Arnold and O’Laughlin to Baltimore, Payne (or Wood) left also for New York. A man named Howell was about this time arrested. This alarmed Surratt, as he left with a Mrs. Slater for the North. This was about the first of April. The next plan was to visit the theatre on the night the President was expected to be there. It was arranged that Surratt and Booth were to go to the box; Arnold, O’Laughlin and Payne were to get some important part in getting him out. Herold and Atzerodt were to have charge of the horses and an actor was to be secured to put out the gas. Booth represented that the best assistant he had was an actor. In this plan buggies and horses were to be used. A rope was procured and kept at Lloyd’s tavern, to be stretched across the road to impede the cavalry in the pursuit. The route this time was the same as before, expect they were to cross Eastern Branch Bridge. This whole affair failed and Booth said it is all up and spoke of going to Richmond and opening a theater, and promised Atzerodt employment in it in some capacity, Atzerodt was waiting or Booth to arrange his going to Richmond when the affair was renewed again. Atzerodt took a room at the Kirkwood House, Herrold called on him and left his knife and pistol and coat in the room, and told him Booth wanted to see him at the Herndon House, to which place he repaired in company with Herold. This was in the evening about 6 o’clock. They there were met by Booth and Payne. Booth told Atzerodt “You must kill Johnson.” Atzerodt demurred, when Booth replied: “Herold has more courage, he will do it. Go get your horses; what will become of you anyhow?” Atzerodt and Herold went down Ninth street together. Atzerodt said to Herold: “We must not disturb Mr. Johnson;” Herold laughed, and wanted the key of the room; it was refused by Atzerodt, who expressed himself fearful that harm would be done Mr. Johnson. Herold left him to go see Booth, and Atzerodt went to the Oyster Bay; Herold came after him and said Booth wanted to see him; Atzerodt promised to get his horse and go to Booth. Atzerodt did not return to the Kirkwood House that night. Booth told Atzerodt that Surratt was in city and had just left. Atzerodt did not see Booth after leaving him at the Herndon House, and roamed about the streets nearly all night, and first heard of the murder about 10 ½ o’clock, while passing up the Avenue. The cavalry were rushing by at the time in pursuit. He threw away his knife that night, and parted with his pistol next morning to a friend in Georgetown. Atzerodt had nothing to say at any of the former meetings. He knew nothing about the rope found with Spangler. He believed Spangler innocent, as far as he knew. Booth, when applied for money, would remark he had money in New York and would get some.

At one time, in the spring or late in the winter, a Mrs. Slater, Mrs. Surratt, John Surratt, and a Major Barron, formerly of the Rebel army, left Washington together. They got horses from Howard’s. Mrs. Surratt stopped at Surrattsville. The balance went to the Potomac. Major Barron returned. Atzerodt did not think Barron had anything to do with the conspiracy, although he was formerly in the Rebel army. One of Booth’s plans to obtain an entrance to the Secretary of State’s house was an invention which, if successful, would have involved others in his foul acts. He had made the acquaintance of a woman of strong Southern feelings living not far from the Secretary’s house, who was to make the acquaintance of a servant, to be introduced to Booth, and by this means he would learn something of the location of the rooms, &c. As far as known, it failed.

Atzerodt has been by the just sentence of the law doomed to death, and his execution has taken place. In the last moments he had the consultation of religion. His brother-in-law, brother and an intimate lady friend of the family, of Washington City, visited him. The age of his mother and the very delicate health of his sister made it prudent they should not see him, consequently they were not present, as described by some of the journals.

Atzerodt said Booth was well acquainted with Mudd, and had letters of introduction to him. Booth told Atzerodt about two weeks before the murder that he had sent provisions and liquor to Dr. Mudd for supplying the party on their way to Richmond with the President.”

Click here to view the original Baltimore American article through Google Newspapers.


  1. “Confession of Atzerodt” Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, January 18, 1869

Even though it was nearly four years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, the early months of 1869 were a busy time in our story. In the final days of Andrew Johnson’s time as a lame duck president he not only pardoned the surviving conspirators imprisoned at Fort Jefferson but he also authorized the bodies of John Wilkes Booth and the executed conspirators to be released to their families. What is also overlooked is the fact that 1869 marks the end of the government’s attempt to try John Surratt for his involvement in the assassination. John Surratt was in New York when Lincoln was killed and quickly escaped up to Canada where he stayed while his mother and the other conspirators were on trial. After the trial was over, he made his way to Europe and the Vatican. He was finally captured in Alexandria, Egypt at the end of 1866 and transported back to the U.S. He stood trial in a civil court for his participation with Booth, but his case ended with a hung jury in August of 1867. Nevertheless, the government continued to keep Surratt imprisoned until June of 1868 while they attempted to bring a new trial against him. It wasn’t until January of 1869 that the government essentially gave up on their case against John Surratt. With the “Surratt affair” seemingly ended for good, the Baltimore American newspaper decided that it was not time to publish a confession of George Atzerodt’s that was written in his cell before his death. This is almost certainly the same confession used to compose the odd biographical piece that constitutes number 7 on this list. The Baltimore American claimed that this confession and a statement made by Samuel Arnold were withheld until now, “under the expectation that they would be used in the trial of John Surratt.” Even in the hours before his death, George Atzerodt was naming names and trying everything he could to convince the government that he was worth more alive than dead. How much truth is in this confession (or any of them for that matter) will always be a matter of debate.

“The confession of Atzerodt was made in his cell in Washington, on the night before his execution. He asked for paper and it is written with a lead pencil, the disconnected manner of it indicating the state of mind of the prisoner…

Confession of Atzerodt Relative to the Assassination of President Lincoln

I had not seen John Surratt for about eight days before the murder. Booth told me a few days before the murder that he was in Washington. Kate Thompson, alias Brown, came from Richmond with John Surratt about the time that Richmond fell. He had come previously with Gustavus Howell, now in the Old Capitol Prison. Kate Thompson stopped at Mrs. Surratt’s and also at the National and Rinnel Hotels. This woman was about 21 years of age, spruce and neat, medium size, black eyes and fair complexion. She had a sister in New York, who, it was said, was a widow. Surratt was made known to her in New York by a signal conveyed by a small switch with a waxed end and a piece of red ribbon on the butt, handled horizontally through the fingers. This sign was given on a hotel pavement on Broadway. He went with her South, and hired a horse at Howard’s stables for the purpose.

Harold came to the Kirkwood House and left the knife, pistol and coat, on the evening of the murder. About half-past six o’clock, as I was about leaving, I having told the clerk to tell whoever might call that I was gone out. This was before Harold came in. Harold and I then went to the Herndon House, Mrs. Murray’s, corner of Ninth and F streets. It was then about 8 o’clock, and saw Booth, Wood and Payne in Wood’s room. Here the proposed murder was first mentioned. I refused to take part in it, when Booth said, “Then we will do it, but what will become of you? You had better come along and get your horse.” I then left them and went to the Oyster Bay on the avenue and stayed some time; then to the stable and got my horse and went up D street. This was about 10 o’clock. I called at the Rinnel [Kimmel] House and got a drink. I saw none of the party after we separated about 9 o’clock that evening. I then went out C street toward the Baltimore depot; went between the old and new Capitol, came on the avenue again, and concluded to come back. I rode down the avenue and the cavalry were dashing by me. This was the first I heard of the murder. I then went up Eighth street, left the horse at the stables opposite the Franklin House, and then went to the Herndon House, and heard a little boy talking about the murder. I then took a car and went towards the Navy Yard. This was about 11 o’clock, and I met two young men named Briscoe and Spates, with whom I had some talk. After walking some distance I took a car to the corner of Sixth street and Pennsylvania avenue. Here I met a man inquiring for a place to sleep at. I took him around to the Rinnel House, and we retired to one room with six beds in it. I left early next morning and passed through Georgetown on my way to Montgomery county. No one left the hotel with me.

I saw Mike O’Laughlin about a week before the President was killed. I never wanted O’Laughlin and Arnold’s aid, met O’Laughlin once or twice at Suthard’s and a few times in the street.

When we were at Murray’s, on the night of the murder, Harold said he had a letter from a printer to Andy Johnson. He said he was going to give it to him, and wanted me to give him the key of my room, which I refused to do.

Previous to the arrangement for the murder Booth heard that the President was to visit a camp. The coach was to be taken out Seventh street. Surratt was to jump on the box as he was the best driver, and drive through Old Fields to T.B. This was about the middle of March. O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, Payne, Surratt, Booth, Atzerodt and Herold went to T.B. with two carbines, and were to wait for us. They did so until midnight and returned to Washington the next morning. This failed. All was quiet then for some time. Booth went to New York, Arnold to Baltimore, O’Laughlin also, and Payne left for New York. After this Howell brought a woman across the Potomac. Howell was made prisoner, and Surratt took her North. About a week before the murder Booth told me that Surratt was in the Herndon House; on the night of the murder, the 14th of April, we were not altogether at the Herndon House. Booth told me Surratt was to help at the box, that he expected others in the box. Booth went from the Herndon House, down Ninth street. The words of Booth were “I saw Surratt a few moments ago.” All the parties appeared to be engaged at something on that night, and were not together. Booth appointed me and Harold to kill Johnson, in going down the street I told Booth we could not do it. Booth said Harold had more courage and he would do it. Harold and I were on Pennsylvania avenue together. I told him I would not do it, and should not go to my room for fear he would disturb Mr. Johnson. He left me to go for Booth. This was after nine o’clock. I went to the Oyster Bay, and Harold came in and said that Booth wanted to see me. Harold left me here. I promised to get my horse and come. I was not at the Kirkwood House after two o’clock. I have no recollection of being there after that. I had nothing to say at any of the meetings – One of the attempts was at the theatre; the gas was to be put out, &c. No discussion was had about failure, and what to do in that case. The coil of rope at Lloyd’s was to stretch across the road to trip the cavalry. I know nothing about Spangler’s rope; I believe him innocent. Booth told me an actor was to be the best assistant in the theatre to turn off the gas. Arnold and O’Loughlin were to grab the President and take him off; and Booth said, when applied to for money, he would go to New York and get some, as he had it there. Mrs. Surratt, Mrs. Slater, Major Banon and John Surratt left Washington together; got horses at Howard’s. Mrs. S stopped at Surrattsville. John Surratt and Mrs. Slater crossed and Banon and Mrs. Surratt came back. Banon was in the Rebel army. I don’t think Banon knew anything about the conspiracy. I sold a horse for Booth and thought the affair was about over. The murder was broached first on the 14th at night when Harold came for me. I did hear Booth say Lincoln ought to be killed. A widow woman was living near Mr. Seward’s, and Booth said by her influence he could get entrance to Seward’s house; through her influence with the chambermaid and house-servant. The girl at the house was good looking and knew the widow. Harborn [Thomas Harbin] was into it first; he came to Port Tobacco for me with John Surratt during the winter. The boat was at the head of Goose Creek and moved to Nanjemoy Creek. It was a lead-colored flat bottom boat, and will carry fifteen men. This boat was bought of James Brawner, the old man. Mrs. Slater went with Booth a good deal. She stopped at the National Hotel.”

Click here to view the original Baltimore American article through Google Newspapers.


As we read all of these confessions, it’s important that we remain critical of them. Some of these confessions are merely the interpretation of others of what George Atzerodt said to them, while others have questionable origins that should give us pause. Even the confessions we can attribute to being from the Atzerodt’s mouth contain numerous examples of exaggeration and outright lies. Atzerodt was literally trying to save his neck and so we must interpret his statements accordingly. I think it’s safe to assume that John Wilkes Booth never considered George Atzerodt to be an equal member in his conspiracy plot. Booth kept Atzerodt in line with a combination of grandiose promises and lies. George Atzerodt regurgitated the same and added his own when talking to authorities.  Still, taking these confessions together, we can gain a better idea of what was going on with John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators just before the tragic night of April 14, 1865.

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Conspiracy in Presidential Assassinations

I am continuing to work on my Master’s in American History degree from Pace University and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. They have a great online program designed specifically for K – 12 teachers and I have been enjoying it immensely. My most recent class, which ended today, was titled The Kennedy Era and was taught by Kennedy historian Barbara Perry. For my final paper for the class, I chose to write about the history of conspiracy in presidential assassinations. In the same way that I previously posted my final paper for my American Indian class last year, I thought I would share this one as well. I do not claim to be a Kennedy expert and the purpose of my paper is not to rehash the evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald. Rather, I wanted to cover the history of conspiracy and explain why conspiracy theories are so common in the study of presidential assassinations.


Since the founding of the United States of America, four presidents have met violent deaths at the hands of their fellow citizens. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy have all lost their lives through acts of public assassination. Their murders have occurred over a period of almost 100 years with the first assassination taking place in 1865 and the most recent having occurred in 1963. The men who became martyrs for the country they served came from distinctly different backgrounds and epochs in the American experiment and so, too, did their respective assassins. Despite these differences of time and character, there has been one overarching concept that can be found in the story and memory of each successful Presidential assassination – the involvement of conspiracy in their deaths. The nature of the first successful Presidential assassination in the United States set a historical precedent for conspiracy. That assassin, John Wilkes Booth, recruited literal conspirators to help him in his plan to not only assassinate President Lincoln, but other heads of the federal government. Since that time, the American public has returned to the idea of conspiracy when trying to make sense of subsequent reoccurrences of presidential assassinations. By looking at the history of real and perceived conspiracy in our country’s assassinations and the psychological effects of conspiracy theories on the general public, we can come to understand why, despite a preponderance of evidence implicating Lee Harvey Oswald and the sole murderer of President John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories regarding the murder of JFK continue unabated in the minds and memory of the public.

The history of conspiracy as a real and concrete part of American assassinations stems from the death of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent killing of his assassin twelve days later, a trial of eight of John Wilkes Booth’s alleged conspirators occurred. While there is much debate regarding the effect vengeance had on the meting out of justice in Lincoln’s case, there is no debate that a legitimate conspiracy existed in the death of our first president. At the same time that Lincoln was being shot at his box at Ford’s Theatre, William Seward, the Secretary of State, was viciously stabbed in his bed by a would-be assassin. “Coordinated assaults could mean only one thing: a conspiracy, and a well-developed one.”[1] The Union government’s primary goal in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death was to find all of those who had a hand in its execution, thus resulting in the trial of the conspirators. Of the seven men and one woman who were put on trial in 1865 for their involvement in Booth’s conspiracy, the evidence overwhelmingly supported knowledge of a plot for five of them. These men had been persuaded by Booth to join a conspiracy to abduct Abraham Lincoln from Washington and ferry him into the open arms of the Confederacy in Richmond. As the assassin himself wrote while on the run, “For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done.”[2] It was the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse and the impending end of the Civil War that caused Booth to change his plot from one of abduction to assassination. Some of those put on trial in 1865 joined him in the carrying out of Lincoln’s murder while some had left beforehand. Regardless of this distinction, in the eyes of the public, and the law, they were held vicariously liable for the death of Lincoln and the attempted assassination of William Seward. Their shared act of conspiracy first to kidnap and then to kill Lincoln bonded them together and showed to the public that the death of the Great Emancipator was not the act of a single man, but of a group. Occurred as it did, during the time of war in which a great many men had sealed themselves together in an act of rebellion against the United States, this conspiracy helped the public make sense of Lincoln’s death and put it into context. This established the precedential connection between presidential assassination and conspiracy in the minds of the American public.

However, it is important to point out that while there was a legitimate and established conspiracy involved in Abraham Lincoln’s death, the true precedent that was set in 1865 and became increasingly applicable to President Kennedy’s death in 1963 dealt with the assumption of a larger and more complex conspiracy. In his book, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, historian William Hanchett, devotes one whole chapter to the idea that the assassination of Lincoln was a “Grand Conspiracy” by the Confederacy. Even though the writing was on the wall regarding the collapse of the so called Confederate States, the open hostilities that had existed between the North and the South made the Confederates an extremely plausible, and even likely, scapegoat for the death of Lincoln. The investigation into Lincoln’s death led those at the highest heads of the government to vocally support the idea that Booth had acted not just of his own accord in support of the Confederacy, but as their approved agent. The final charges against the captured conspirators put on trial included the names of still at large officials of the Confederacy officially avowing that, “the assassination was the result of a grand conspiracy involving the Confederate leadership and the Copperhead Booth and his associates.”[3] Despite the government’s fully supported attempt to place the blame of Lincoln’s death at the feet of Jefferson Davis and other high ranking members of the Confederate government, their case was stymied by perjured witnesses and a lack of concrete evidence. Two future investigations including the 1867 impeachment investigation against President Andrew Johnson and the civilian trial of Booth conspirator John Surratt, once again failed to prove the existence of a grand Confederate plot. According to Hanchett, by 1869, “there was nothing left of [Judge Advocate General Joseph] Holt’s grand conspiracy except long-lingering bitterness.”[4]

So, too, was there the initial impression and belief that Lee Harvey Oswald’s crime was the result of a grand conspiracy with Communists being exchanged for Confederates as the puppet-master perpetrators. In the very first instance of Lyndon Johnson being addressed as “Mr. President” from a hallway inside Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, Johnson was asked by assistant White House Press Secretary Mac Kilduff if he could announce President Kennedy’s death to the public. Johnson first nodded yes, before countermanding with, “No. Wait. We don’t know whether it’s a Communist conspiracy or not. I’d better get out of here and back on the plane.”[5] It is telling that Lyndon Johnson’s first reaction to Kennedy’s murder was the assumption of a Communist conspiracy. While the United States was not overtly at war with the Communists in 1963 in the same manner they were at war with the Confederates in 1865, Lyndon Johnson perfectly encapsulates the impression Kennedy’s murder had on those in power and the general populace due to the heightened level of fear during the Cold War era. As Max Holland, a Kennedy assassination researcher and Warren Commission chronicler, noted, “The overwhelming instant reaction among those [national security] officials was to suspect a grab for power, a foreign, Communist-limited conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government.”[6] Immediate fear of the unknown in Kennedy’s death and the precedent of Lincoln’s death almost one hundred years earlier at the hands of an assumed grand conspiracy played into the public perception of what occurred in Dallas. The idea that Oswald was merely a cog in a Communist conspiracy was also influenced by another prior assassination – the death of William McKinley in 1901.

In 1901, almost forty years after the death of Lincoln, our country suffered its third assassination of a President. William McKinley was struck down while shaking hands with a queue of well-wishers at the Great Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. A young man wearing what appeared to be a bandage around his right hand slowly made his way to the front of the line to greet McKinley. When McKinley reached for the man’s unbandaged left hand to order to shake it, two bullets emerged from a concealed pistol behind the handkerchief. The assassin was a 28 year old self-proclaimed anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Unlike his forbearer of John Wilkes Booth, Czolgosz made no effort to run or evade capture after his crime. Instead, he did little to prevent bystanders from subduing and even attacking him in their rage. When interviewed after his arrest about his crime, Czolgosz stated, “I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none…I am an anarchist, a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire.”[7] In the same way Communism had become the sinister enemy facing the United States in Kennedy’s day, by the end of the 19th century, the threat to the world was the concept of anarchism and its teachings. Anarchist violence had already deprived the world of many leaders during the era including the King Umberto I of Italy just the year before. Czolgosz had been inspired by the killing of Umberto, carrying an article about his assassination in his pocket and purchasing the same type of handgun used by Umberto’s assassin for use in his own murder of McKinley.[8] Czolgosz’s identification as an anarchist led to a crackdown on known anarchists including the arrest of many anarchist leaders. “Telegrams went out from Buffalo headquarters to Chicago police, who arrested [anarchist Abe] Isaak and his family that night, and [Emma] Goldman within the next couple of days, charging them with conspiracy in the President’s shooting.”[9] These actions were taken despite Czolgosz’s own insistence that he was acting under his own accord and that, even under possible torture, he did not, “implicate anyone else.”[10] In the end, the investigators could find no overt connection between other anarchists and the murder of McKinley. Leon Czolgosz was no doubt inspired by the anarchists’ movement and their portrayal of a utopian society where the suffering borne from class oppression would be replaced with a commune and leaderless existence where each person worked and provided for the well-being of the whole. He also took great motivation from the violent anarchists who were a distinct subset of the aforementioned intellectual breed who spoke mostly in hypothetical terms. The violent anarchists believed the only way to bring about the desired leaderless and utopian society was through the removal of all leaders through direct action. By killing McKinley, Czolgosz desired to prove his worth as an anarchist.

Due to Czolgosz’s status of a self-proclaimed anarchist and the subsequent arrest of anarchist leaders, it was easy for the press of the day to portray McKinley’s death as a conspiracy, even though such a view was not supported by the authorities. “There is reason to believe,” the New York Herald newspaper reported, “that other anarchists stand ready to complete the work of Czolgosz if the President recovers.”[11] Even after the mania stage of McKinley’s shooting and death subsided and the investigators officially dismissed any notion that others were directly involved in the president’s death, the idea of conspiracy remained present in explaining the assassin’s actions. At his trial, both the defense and the prosecution made note of how much Czolgosz had been effected by language and allure of the anarchist circles. While no other anarchist leaders were put on trial next to him (as had been the case in the death of Abraham Lincoln), anarchism, as a concept, was tried to the same degree in the court of public opinion.

In the same way John Wilkes Booth wrote sympathetically of the Confederacy and anarchist propaganda was loving collected by McKinley’s murderer, so, too, were Communist writings discovered in Lee Harvey Oswald’s home by investigators. Writing in his you are there style, lawyer turned author Vincent Bugliosi described the search of Oswald’s rooming house. “The detectives are particularly struck and alarmed by the stuff in Russian and the left wing literature. It’s not the kind of thing they find too often in Dallas. There’s a letter…in Russian from the Soviet embassy in Washington, and another from someone called Louis Weinstock of the Communist Party’s paper, the Worker.”[12] Throughout the investigation it became increasingly clear that, similar to the case of Leon Czolgosz sixty years earlier, Lee Harvey Oswald had been well educated in a system believed to be very much at odds with the Presidency of the United States. Yet, an education alone does not mean one was part of a conspiracy. Oswald may have been motivated by his Communist beliefs to murder Kennedy in the same way that Czolgosz was motivated by his anarchist beliefs, but legitimate investigations failed to uncover any overt connections between Oswald and a greater conspiracy.

In talking to reporters in the early hours of November 23rd, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade (of later Roe v. Wade fame) was asked, “Are you willing to say whether you think this man [Oswald] was inspired as a Communist or whether he is simply a nut or middleman?” Wade replied, “I’ll put it this way, I don’t think he’s a nut.”[13] The reporter who phrased this question was channeling another precedent set by presidential assassins in American history. While conspiracy had been an overarching theme and one that could be traced to Lincoln’s death in 1865, the question of mental instability had always gone hand in hand with conspiracy. There was a societal expectation that those who engaged in such heinous acts, such as the murders of the heads of state, must have suffered from severe mental disorders. This expectation was likely reinforced due to the case of another prior presidential assassin.

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot at a Washington, D.C. train depot by assassin, Charles Guiteau. A barely qualified lawyer by profession, Guiteau was a unique combination of religious zealot, grifter, and delusional dreamer. From an early age, Guiteau had grandiose dreams about his own self-worth and prospects for the future. When he became a lawyer (an easier task in those days than today) he filled his business cards with the names of well-known businessmen he had barely met and bragged that his office building had an elevator.[14] Ever trying to improve his lot in life, Guiteau attempted to drift into politics, a realm where a man of his assumed talents could truly prosper. During the Presidential election of 1880, Guiteau put himself firmly behind the Republican ticket and its candidate, James Garfield, hoping to hitch his own wagon to that of the prospective president. Before Garfield became the Republican nominee, Guiteau was convinced that U. S. Grant would take to the White House again and wrote a speech extolling the virtues of the former President and the need for his leadership once again. When Garfield, not Grant, became the nominee, Guiteau adapted his speech by merely changing the names and little else. Through shameless tenacity, Guiteau managed to convince Chester A. Arthur, Garfield’s running mate, to allow him to give a short stump speech for the pair in New York. According to historian Candice Millard, this insignificant act – the recitation of a hurried and half heard speech by a complete stranger – convinced Guiteau that he, “had played a pivotal role in putting Garfield in the White House, and that it should certainly guarantee him a position of prominence in the administration.”[15] When Garfield was elected to the Presidency, Guiteau truly believed his reward for all of his hard work was soon at hand and that an ambassadorship was in his near future.

Charles Guiteau arrived in Washington, D.C. the day after Garfield’s inauguration eager to attain the position he felt himself rightfully owed. Lacking any sense of tact or shame, he repeatedly wrote and visited the White House ready to be given an ambassadorship to France. He even met with President Garfield in the White House regarding his request, giving the President a copy of his speech and relating his own qualifications for the job. To Garfield, however, Charles Guiteau was just one of the many unqualified office seekers who flooded the White House looking for a handout. Garfield treated the man kindly the first time they met, but had no inclination to give him any sort of position. Months went by, with Guiteau making repeated calls to the White House and State Department, addressing many notes and letters to the President, though he never met with him again. At first, the delusional Guiteau truly believed that his application was being considered and reviewed and that his ambassadorship was only a matter of time. But the normal protocol of ignoring office seekers and waiting them out did not work with Guiteau. His delusions were of such a degree that he would not give up on his goal. Guiteau truly felt he deserved a consul position and that he would get one. Eventually, Secretary of State James Blaine lost all patience with the man and told him that he had, “no prospect whatever of receiving,” an appointment with the government and that he should, “never speak to me about the Paris consulship again.”[16]

Stung by Sec. Blaine’s response, Guiteau began writing to Garfield informing him that he must fire Blaine at once and that the man would cause his downfall if allowed to remain in his administration. He continued to visit the White House hoping to speak with Garfield but as Millard put it, eventually, “Guiteau’s eccentricity and doggedness turned into belligerence,” and he was barred from the White House.[17] Over the next few weeks, Guiteau’s mind began to reflect on his own mistreatment and further embraced a religious zealotry that he had learned from his youth. By the end of May, 1881, Charles Guiteau had convinced himself that God wanted him to kill James Garfield. “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to some one else, because I had brains and the nerve to do the work. The Lord always employs the best material to do His work,” Guiteau later explained.[18]

In the aftermath of Guiteau’s crime, which he finally enacted on July 2nd, the assassin was very vocal about how God had chosen him to remove Garfield. He was only an instrument of God’s will on earth and therefore he could not be tried or convicted by men. The conspiracy behind James Garfield’s death was quickly understood by the public to be the imagined conspiracy in Guiteau’s unstable mind between himself and God. Insanity was the conspiracy that satisfied the public in their quest to understand Garfield’s murder. Lincoln was killed by a group of conspirators, many men poised against one. Though Garfield was killed by a single man, that man was mad and completely outside the realm of normal society and expectation. There was no need to pin Garfield’s death on a more complex conspiracy in this case as the public more widely understood and accepted Guiteau as being crazy. Garfield’s death was still an event to be lamented and mourned, but there was no uncertainty behind it that required a specter of conspiracy for understanding.

Thus, when Dallas D.A. Henry Wade gave the press his opinion on November 23, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t, “a nut”, he gave credence to the only other mode of understanding that the public had experience with – conspiracy. Interestingly, this opinion also helped put into motion the event that would help to solidify the idea of conspiracy in Kennedy’s death: the subsequent murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. The owner of popular night clubs in Dallas and deeply affected by the President’s death, Ruby had been drawn to the police headquarters much like Charles Guiteau had been drawn to the White House for his ambassadorship. Through confidence alone, Ruby managed to gain entrance into the police headquarters and ingratiated himself with the press reporting on the assassination. He was present when Oswald was first brought before the press. “I felt I was deputized as a reporter momentarily,” Ruby later said.[19] Ruby introduced a disc jockey from the local KLIF radio station named Russ Knight to Henry Wade, the D.A. Knight later mentioned that, “Ruby was insistent that I ask Wade if Oswald were insane,” which he did and was informed that, “Oswald was not insane and that the President’s murder was premeditated.”[20] This information regarding Oswald’s sanity was important to Jack Ruby who already felt that Oswald deserved to die for what he had done to the country and Mrs. Kennedy. However, had the belief been that Oswald was of unsound mind through the police’s initial rounds of questioning, this may have made an impact on Ruby. It’s impossible to know for certain, but Ruby, who was accused of being mentally unstable himself after his own arrest, may have altered his plans to kill Oswald if he had reason to believe Oswald was not responsible for his actions. Without any such extenuating circumstances however, Jack Ruby took justice into his own hands and shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of live television crews as the assassin was being escorted through the Dallas police headquarters’ basement on November 24, 1963. Oswald was rushed to a hospital where he would be pronounced dead during emergency surgery about an hour and a half later and Jack Ruby was taken into police custody. As he was being taken up in the police headquarters’ elevator from the basement, Ruby stated to the policemen all around him, “Somebody had to do it, you guys couldn’t.”[21]

Lee Harvey Oswald died almost exactly 48 hours after his victim, President Kennedy. During his brief time in police custody, he denied having anything to do with JFK’s assassination and his few writings contain no reason for it. During his limited times in front of the press while being shuffled from different rooms at headquarters, Oswald feigned ignorance of the whole affair even going so far as to state the infamous, “I’m just a patsy!” line that conspiracy theorists continue to cling to today.[22] However, as many of those who interviewed Oswald before his death stated, it was obvious that Oswald was putting the police and FBI through the motions as a form of sick punishment or comeuppance for their former surveillance of him and his Communist activities. The police and press alike described Oswald’s attitude during his interrogations as “arrogant,” “defiant,” and “stoic.”[23] In the aftermath of his crime, Oswald was enjoying himself. He had brought a country to its knees and now had all the attention placed on himself. But the sense of power and control he maintained at the Dallas police station would not have lasted forever. Just before his ill-fated escort to the basement of the headquarters in order to be transferred to the county jail, Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels noted a change in Oswald’s demeanor. “I felt he was less arrogant,” Sorrells later said, “more ready to break.”[24] It seems likely that Oswald’s arrogant façade would have broken as the walls came closing in on him in county lock up and he was less available to the press to feed his desire for importance.

Oswald’s murder before he could express his reason for killing Kennedy and be put on trial for it created an uncomfortable hole in the minds and hearts of the American people. A similar hole had been created in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth was cornered and killed twelve days after shooting the President, but the trial and execution of his conspirators helped to satisfy the public in feeling that Lincoln had been properly avenged. Even though Charles Guiteau was deemed insane he likewise paid the ultimate price for murdering Garfield while Leon Czolgosz also suffered trial and execution for killing McKinley. After Oswald’s death on November 24, 1963 at the hands of a private citizen, Jack Ruby, the public lacked a person to punish properly for a President’s murder. Unlike Booth, Oswald did not have any conspirators to take his place. The government did its best to press on in making sense of Kennedy’s death, even as millions of private individuals struggled to do so. Less than a year after the assassination in Dallas, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy released their reports on the evidence in the case. Known as the Warren Commission, their report, “included an 888-page summary, twenty-six volumes of supporting documents, testimony or depositions of 552 witnesses, and more than 3,100 exhibits.”[25] The commission concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Why then, with such detailed and voluminous evidence pointing to Oswald as the lone gunman, is the story of President Kennedy’s death so fraught with outlandish conspiracy theories that place the blame on a multitude of others? As has already been discussed, Oswald’s denials, closely crafted words during his brief period in police custody, and the unexpected nature of his death created a lack of resolution in the mind of the public which often turned to suspicion and paranoia. Violent crime is something that a society is programmed to abhor. There is a natural tendency to attempt to dehumanize any perpetrator of an overtly violent act. This is one reason we often portray violent criminals as being “crazy” or “insane”. The label of insanity serves to help us feel separate from those who commit crimes. It reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and prevents us from having to face the possibility that we may be capable of the same violent act under different circumstances. Historian James W. Clarke, in his book American Assassins, took a psychological approach in writing about those who have tried to take the life of the chief executive. Clarke groups the different men and women into different categories based on their upbringings, life experiences, and character traits. In the case of Oswald, Clarke classified him as an, “anxious, emotional, and ultimately depressed person who is primarily concerned with his or her personal problems and frustrations and only secondarily with causes or ideals.”[26] While Oswald may have had political feelings about the United States’ treatment of Cuba and communism, he did not act out of a purely political ideal. He was not like Booth who was willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of the Confederacy, nor was he Czolgosz who sought to prove his worth to the anarchism community. Neither was Oswald a Charles Guiteau, so irrational that he was unable to grasp the response his crime would bring. Even after taking into account the many failed assassins that had preceded him, Clarke still determined Oswald to have been the first assassin of his type, making him an outlying point of data that could not be easily understood in his day.

In the end it has been Lee Harvey Oswald’s enigmatic nature that has helped conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death spread and grow. The day before he gunned Oswald down in the police basement, Jack Ruby verbalized the same thoughts that millions of people had (and continue to have) regarding the man who shot the President: “It’s hard to realize that a complete nothing, a zero like that could kill a man like President Kennedy. It’s hard to understand how a complete nothing could have done this.”[27] This true and honest assessment of Lee Harvey Oswald as “a complete nothing” is at the heart of all of the conspiracy theories in Kennedy’s death. Those who portray Oswald as a framed bystander, a patsy, or a merely the trigger finger of a shadowy organization suffer from the same inability as Jack Ruby to make sense of the incongruity between Oswald and his victim. Kennedy historian William Manchester makes the most eloquent argument regarding why many believe, and will continue to believe, that John F. Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy. Manchester invokes the image of a scale as a way in which we try to make sense of a great tragedy. Using the Holocaust as an example, he relates that, “if you put six million dead Jews on one side…and on the other side put the Nazi regime – the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state – you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals.” But, when it comes to the death of President Kennedy, the scale between Kennedy and the “zero” Oswald does not balance: “You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing it with martyrdom. He would have died for something.”[28] We have a psychological desire to balance that scale. Balance brings comfort and understanding. It reaffirms to us that society is just and stable and that only huge events and huge people can be at the cause of such massive suffering such as the loss of a President. And so conspiracy theorists look for more to put on Oswald’s side. They use misconstrued “evidence” and faulty reasoning to place Oswald on top of a massive house of cards, hoping to balance him with the greatness that is President Kennedy. But the truth is that the scales rarely, if ever, truly balance. Booth and his legitimate band of his conspirators don’t balance out the greatness that was Abraham Lincoln. Charles Guiteau’s insanity doesn’t balance out the promise that was James Garfield. Leon Czolgosz and his anarchism didn’t balance the representational American government that William McKinley embodied. In the end, conspiracy theories are nothing more than misguided coping strategies – faulty tools we invent for ourselves to help us make sense of what is actually a chaotic and random world. As strange as it seems, there’s a comfort in the concept of conspiracy. It creates a group of unspecified “others” that can be blamed or railed against when things go wrong or tragedies happen. But, as nice as this may seem, conspiracy theories also prevent us from developing real strategies for addressing and dealing with problems both in our public and private lives. Conspiracy theories provide a scapegoat for our troubles, but deny us a path for healing and growth. American presidential assassins share this in common with the conspiracy theorists in that each group fail to develop healthy means to interact with the world around them and choose, instead, to lash out at those they blame for their lack of control.

The idea of conspiracy has played a role in the public’s understanding of every assassination of an American president, but it has not always manifested the same way. In the introduction to his book, James Clarke wrote that, “many of the thoughts and emotions of some of the [assassins] may be disturbingly familiar to a good number; the beast slumbers in us all.”[29] In the case of President John F. Kennedy, for example, the conspiracy Lee Harvey Oswald was engaged in that led him to shoot from his sixth floor window in Dallas was not a conspiracy of men, but a conspiracy of neuroses from within his own mind. Oswald could not rectify his life and failures, and the 35th President of the United States paid the price.


[1] Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 24.
[2] Kauffman, American Brutus, 399.
[3] William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 64 – 65.
[4] Hanchett, Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 89.
[5] Vincent Bugliosi, Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 119.
[6] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 121.
[7] Jack C. Fisher, Stolen Glory: The McKinley Assassination (La Jolla (CA): Alamar Books, 2001), 93 – 94.
[8] Fisher, Stolen Glory, 9.
[9] Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 19.
[10] Rauchway, Murdering McKinley, 31.
[11] Fisher, Stolen Glory, 91.
[12] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 215.
[13] Ibid., 307.
[14] Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 59.
[15] Millard, Destiny of the Republic, 111.
[16] Ibid., 125.
[17] Ibid., 134.
[18] Ibid., 137
[19] Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 378.
[20] Posner, Case Closed, 379.
[21] Steven M. Gillon, Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (New York: Sterling, 2013), 127.
[22] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 256.
[23] Gillon, Lee Harvey Oswald, 78 – 79.
[24] Ibid., 119.
[25] Ibid., 137.
[26] James W. Clarke, American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 15.
[27] Posner, Case Closed, 377 – 378.
[28] Ibid., 469.
[29] Clarke, American Assassins, 16 – 17.

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

Looking at General Grant

Tonight marks the end of the History Channel’s three part miniseries about the life of Civil War lieutenant major general turned President, Ulysses S. Grant. Being without cable, I have yet to see to the miniseries myself, but I am looking forward to viewing it in the near future. However, thanks to the power of promos and Twitter, I have already been made aware of one part of the miniseries that airs tonight and deals with Grant’s connection to Lincoln’s assassination. The miniseries describes how General and Mrs. Grant declined the Lincolns’ invitation to join them at Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. Instead, the Grants decided to travel by train to New Jersey in order to visit with their children. The miniseries shows the following scene of the Grants riding in a carriage on their way to the train depot when a mysterious stranger stops them.

After this promo was posted on Twitter, one of my followers there, Ilka, asked me if this story of an unfriednly glance between John Wilkes Booth and Gen. Grant on April 14th was true. While I had heard of it before, I always took it to be an apocryphal account with no evidence to support it other than Mrs. Grant’s lively imagination. However, as I researched it this morning, I found that the story has more evidence going for it than I thought. What follows is a Twitter thread I wrote this morning highlighting my research into this story.

Here’s the text from Col. Porter’s reminiscences as included in the above tweet:

Here is Julia Grant’s memory of the event as included in the above tweet:

In response to my thread, fellow tweeter Darin Weeks shared his skepticism regarding the story which I fully understand.

I’m not ready to 100% declare that it happened either, but I responded to Darin that at least this story (unlike a lot of others) has evidence to back it up.

After responding to Darin, I realized that, if the story was true, it might help to explain why Booth wasn’t better armed when he assassinated the President at Ford’s later that night.

In the end, we’ll never truly be sure that John Wilkes Booth was the man who gave Gen. and Mrs. Grant such an unfriendly glance on the afternoon of April 14th, but evidence shows that it could have been!

Categories: History, News | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

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.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

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

An Update Regarding John Wilkes Booth’s Knife

Back in December, I put up a post here on BoothieBarn which contained my research on the knife John Wilkes Booth used to stab Major Rathbone following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By consulting the period evidence that came out during the trial of the conspirators, it is my firm belief that Ford’s Theatre has been displaying the incorrect knife for years and that the correct knife is locked away at the NPS storage facility in Landover, MD.

If you haven’t read the piece, please take a few minutes to read the article and look at the evidence for yourself: https://boothiebarn.com/2018/12/31/cloak-and-daggers-cutting-through-the-confusion-of-the-assassination-knives/

The post itself was actually just a reprint of my original article on the subject which had been published in the Surratt Courier in March of 2012. Since that time, I have been trying to get Ford’s Theatre to acknowledge their unintentional error. In 2012 I sent the article to the National Park Service rangers at Ford’s and to representatives of the Ford’s Theatre Society. While I had a few individuals tell me that they found the evidence compelling, none felt they had the authority to make any changes. And so, for the past seven years, each time I take a group or a bus tour to Ford’s Theatre I am compelled to point out to the group that they should disregard the knife on display. When asked why Ford’s Theatre doesn’t make an effort to correct their mistake, I can only shrug my shoulders in reply.

Recently, however, there has actually been some progress regarding John Wilkes Booth’s knife. The Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service felt motivated to do their own investigating and last month they published an article on their blog regarding their exploration into the knives. I highly recommend you read their post before continuing with this one: https://www.fords.org/blog/post/which-knife-did-john-wilkes-booth-use-disentangling-the-lincoln-assassination-knives/

By looking at their accession and cataloging records the Ford’s Theatre team discovered what those of us who study some of these artifacts already knew – their records are incomplete and, at times, incorrect. Remember that after the trials of the conspirators, John Surratt, and the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, the pieces of evidence (like the knives) were locked away in the Judge Advocate General’s office. They stayed in the possession of the JAG for over 70 years but there was a distinct lack of orderly care and documentation of those artifacts. The items were regularly removed from their boxes in the JAG and shown off to visitors and reporters. When moths were discovered infesting some of the trial exhibits, the JAG carted the clothing of the assassins into a courtyard and burned it. Some pieces, such as Booth’s diamond stick pin, just mysteriously disappeared from the collection. The JAG was simply not a good steward of the trial exhibits. When the artifacts were finally turned over to The Lincoln Museum (Ford’s) in 1940, the people in the JAG didn’t really know what they had anymore. They wrote up a list which was filled with inaccuracies and that is what Ford’s has had to rely on for many years. Ford’s inherited messy records and a faulty catalog through no fault of their own.

My research, however, doesn’t rely on those faulty records. I drew my conclusions based on the period evidence of 1865 and 1867 which describes the knife Booth used on Major Rathbone. Those descriptions clearly show that the Liberty knife on display at Ford’s Theatre is not correct. Even the two authors of Ford’s article, David McKenzie and Janet Folkerts, seem to accept that my research on this is sound:

“In his post, Taylor presents additional evidence that the knife currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum, FOTH 3235 (the Liberty knife), is not the actual knife. He cites testimony of witnesses in the assassination investigation, the 1865 military tribunal and the 1867 trial of John Surratt to argue that FOTH 3218 (the Rio Grande knife) is the knife that Booth used to stab Rathbone, and not FOTH 3235 (the Liberty knife), the knife that is currently on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Between that evidence and what is in the curatorial files described above, we’re inclined to say, at the very least, that a good amount of evidence points to that conclusion.”

The Ford’s Theatre blog post addresses their messy records (which, again, is not their fault as they were originally given erroneous records regarding these artifacts) and acknowledges that the period evidence regarding the knives points to the conclusion that they have the incorrect knife on display.

And yet, the very next sentence in the post is, “But because the evidence is so messy, as Taylor notes, we aren’t prepared to make a definitive declaration.” I have a couple of problems with this sentence. First of all, as I have already stated, the evidence that is “messy” is not historical but curatorial. The accession records regarding the artifacts are inherently messy due to the manner in which they were stored for over 70 years. That is why it is so crucial to take the time to return to the historical evidence for these artifacts. While my article addresses the messy curatorial records, all of my conclusions are based on the historical records which are clear. John Wilkes Booth stabbed Major Rathbone with a Rio Grande Camp Knife that bore a small spot of rust that looked like blood on the blade.

The Liberty knife (shown below) currently on display at Ford’s Theatre does not fit that description. The Rio Grande Camp knife, known as FOTH 3218, currently in storage in the Museum Resource Center in Landover, does fit this description. While there is a bit of uncertainty regarding where the Liberty knife came from and its place in the trial exhibits, it is clear that it was not the knife Booth used to stab Rathbone.

Secondly, the claim that they, “aren’t prepared to make a definitive declaration” is, in itself, a declaration. It’s a declaration that when faced with choosing between incomplete accession and cataloging records or compelling historical evidence Ford’s Theatre will choose the former if it keeps the status quo. In the course of their post, Ford’s Theatre does not provide any historical evidence to support the Liberty knife as being the one that Booth used. Other than some newspaper accounts from the 1900s from journalists who went to see the artifacts in storage and were told inaccurate information from the clerks in the JAG office, I have never come across any historical evidence that attributes the Liberty knife to Booth. Without true historical evidence, how can Ford’s Theatre only commit that at some unspecified “future” the “on-site and online labels at Ford’s Theatre will reflect the ambiguity of the knives”? Even their claim that “Perhaps a future display could, like Taylor’s post and ours suggest, showcase both knives and lay out evidence to show our visitors how ambiguous historical evidence often is,” creates a false equivalency between Ford’s messy curatorial records and actual historical evidence from the period.

The historical evidence in support of FOTH 3218 as being the knife John Wilkes Booth used on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and as the one that was recovered from his body at the Garrett farm is not ambiguous. Messy accession and cataloging records should not supersede historical evidence at an institution committed to educating the public on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. While John Wilkes Booth’s knife may not rise to the same level of other artifacts like Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, the weapons and possessions of the assassins tell a crucial story of Lincoln’s effect on his fellow man.

I know that the employees of the Ford’s Theatre NPS and the Ford’s Theatre Society are good people. I have worked with them on projects and on Booth tours. I follow many of them on Twitter and know that they are professionals who value education and public history. I appreciate greatly that Ford’s Theatre has chosen to address this part of their collection in such a public way. As David and Janet state in their closing line, “transparency about artifacts like these knives can lead to discussions about what makes visitor experiences in museums ‘real’ and how the history of objects and places affect us in the present day.” Ford’s is to be commended for their professionalism and their ongoing work in acknowledging the complications in their own collection. But acknowledgement without subsequent action is meaningless. It’s the “thoughts and prayers” of the museum world.

To my friends at Ford’s Theatre NPS and the Ford’s Theatre Society: The wrong artifact is on display and has been for many years. With the historical evidence solely in favor of FOTH 3218 and your cataloging records expectantly inconclusive, the correct remedy is to remove the Liberty knife from display and replace it with FOTH 3218. By doing so you will show your visitors that Ford’s Theatre is an institution that actively improves its exhibits based on sound research, is open about the history of its collection and the uncertainties that exist, and demonstrates a commitment to using historical evidence to guide your public outreach.

In September, I will be taking my next busload of guests to Ford’s Theatre for the John Wilkes Booth escape route tour. My sincerest hope is that I will finally be able to point to FOTH 3218 in the case and rave about the wonderful professionals at Ford’s Theatre who acknowledged an error in their collection and used historical evidence to rectify it. The research has been done and the error has been acknowledged. All that’s left to do now is to fix it.


For those who are interested, what follows is the fairly long series of tweets I wrote shortly after I read the Ford’s Theatre blog post in May. I have expressed much of the same sentiments in what I wrote above, but I thought I’d include my original thoughts as well.





























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

Cloak and Daggers: Cutting Through the Confusion of the Assassination Knives

In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, the authorities (both federal and local) took up the task of hunting down and collecting conspirators and evidence. Lincoln’s own wartime policies gave investigators unprecedented power to arrest and confiscate persons and things relating to his assassination. While casting such a wide net did succeed in capturing the members of Booth’s inner circle, it also inundated the War Department with mountains of evidence. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed three army officers; Colonel Henry Wells, Colonel Henry Olcott, and Lieutenant Colonel John Foster, to help manage and assess the ever increasing paraphernalia. In turn, they reported to Colonel Henry Burnett, who sifted through their materials to find the key evidence to be used in the trial of the conspirators.[1] The voluminous paper materials can be found in the edited book, The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers, while the original documents can be viewed online (and for free) at Fold3.com. This investigation, however, centers more on some of the collected artifacts found by the War Department: the knives.

During the initial round of evidence gathering, many edged weapons entered the War Department. A knife was collected from the home of a Ms. Mary Cook, a known Confederate sympathizer, who continually celebrated after the assassination and tore down the mourning crepe placed upon her abode.[2] Another knife was taken from a Sergeant Samuel Streett, an acquaintance of Michael O’Laughlen, who was accused of passing two women through his lines at Camp Stoneman on the night of April 14th.[3] A sword was removed from above the mantle at the home of Mary Surratt.[4] In addition to these unrelated weapons, the investigation also managed to acquire the weapons of the conspirators. A knife was found hidden underneath the sheets of a bed at the Kirkwood rented to George Atzerodt. Samuel Arnold was arrested with a knife. Knives belonging to both Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt were recovered on the streets of D.C. the morning after the assassination. Finally, the lead conspirator himself gave up a knife when he was shot in the Garrett’s barn. All of these knives, along with others not mentioned or as fervently documented, left the members of the War Department up to their knees in knives. Therefore, Colonel Burnett began his process of identifying the important items he would need in the trial of the conspirators.

In the end, Colonel Burnett would choose five knives to use in the trial. Four of those knives would be entered as exhibits for the trial, while one knife, Powell’s, was used merely for identification purposes. The handwritten exhibit list for the trial has the following knives listed:

“23. Knife (Atzerodt’s room Kirkwood House)”
“28. Booth’s knife”
“41. Atzerodt’s knife”
“62. Knife found at Mrs. Surratt’s house.”[5]

The selection of which knives to use as exhibits was done very skillfully. With the evidence before him, Burnett realized that, out of those involved in the actual assassination plot, the government’s case was weakest against George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt. Therefore, their blades were touted right along side that of the assassin’s.

During the trial, the first three knives were identified by their finders. Detective John Lee discovered the knife pictured above at Atzerodt’s room in the Kirkwood house. It was hidden, “between the sheets and the mattress.” [6] While found in his rented room and bed, the contents of Atzerodt’s “lost” statement indicate that the knife, along with the other contents found in the room, belonged to David Herold.[7] Further, the statement of Mrs. R. R. Jones (the wife of a bookkeeper at the Kirkwood) notes that, a little after ten o’clock on the night of the assassination, a man ran rapidly past her room, towards Atzerodt’s, and tried to open the door of a room “three different times”. Not being able to get in, the man ran back past her room and down the stairs.[8] This man is supposed to have been Davy Herold. He left his coat, knife, and pistol in Atzerodt’s room, and came to retrieve them for his flight south. Upon finding the room locked and empty, Davy assumed correctly that Atzerodt had lacked the courage to complete his task, and fled. This could explain why, at the Surratt Tavern later that night, Booth bragged to John Lloyd that, “we have assassinated the President and Secretary Seward.” He did not include the death of Vice President Johnson in his boast, as Davy had likely reported the locked and empty room. While the above scenario is just a theory, it is safe to say that the bulk of the contents in Atzerodt’s room at the Kirkwood were under the care of Davy Herold, including the bowie knife recovered. From this point on, the knife found by Detective Lee, probably belonging to Davy Herold, will be referred to as the “Kirkwood knife”. This will eliminate confusion between that knife, and the knife pictured below that Atzerodt himself tossed into the gutter after hearing the news of the successful assassination.

By the afternoon of July 7, 1865, all of the owners of the knives used in the trial were dead. The knives, along with the other pieces of physical evidence, were boxed up and stored. A year later, a request came in to the War Department from Secretary Seward’s former male nurse, Private George F. Robinson. Robinson was asking for a unique keepsake: he wanted the knife Lewis Powell used to stab him and three others. After being approved by Edwin Stanton, the knife was turned over to Robinson, the lone hero on that night of villainy, in July of 1866. Even though Powell’s knife was given to Robinson, this did not affect the four exhibit knives as Powell’s was not one of them. This fact is important to note. Much of the later confusion regarding the assassination knives comes from the assumption that the government retained possession of Powell’s knife. They did not. From 1866 to 1961 the knife was in the possession of the Robinson family. In 1961, the knife pictured below, along with other papers belonging to Private Robinson, were donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The knife still resides there today. Many journalists and researchers would include Powell’s knife in the government’s holdings during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and all would be incorrect in this matter.

In 1867, the trial of John H. Surratt, the escaped conspirator, began. The evidence boxes were reopened and many of the same witnesses from the initial conspiracy trial were recalled. The civil trial ended in a hung jury and Surratt was set free. About six months later, another trial was held and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was relived in that court room as well. That trial also acquits its defendant, President Johnson, who narrowly avoided impeachment. The assassination evidence, now having been taken out, examined, and disorganized twice since the conspiracy trial, was boxed up and stored again. This time, the storage lasted quite awhile.

In 1880, Representative William Springer of Illinois was one of the first to try to claim some of the Lincoln assassination artifacts. He introduced House Resolution 178 on January 23, 1880 calling for, “certain books and mementos in possession of the government to be placed in Memorial Hall of the National Lincoln Monument at Springfield, IL.”[9] It was quickly passed in the House and a Chicago Times journalist reported that it “will no doubt pass the Senate in a few days. The articles called for by the resolution are now in the office of Judge Advocate General Drum, in the War Department, and upon the passage of the resolution will be shipped to Springfield.”[10] While the resolution was eventually passed in both the House and Senate, the annual reports from the National Lincoln Monument Association in 1882 reflect what little became of it: “Concerning relics to be sent from the War and State Departments to Memorial Hall, the only article received thus far is one copy of, ‘Tributes of the Nations to the memory of Abraham Lincoln,’ and is the only one that can be spared. Hon. W. M. Springer has been untiring in his efforts to have the provisions in the joint resolution complied with, but obstacles have presented themselves at various points, and the probability is that we will never receive half of what was ordered in that resolution.”[11] Despite a resolution from Congress, the artifacts and knives stayed in storage as they were deemed too important to let go of, at least for now.

In May of 1899, Judge Advocate General Guido Lieber, was in the mood to do some spring cleaning. Particularly, he wanted to be rid of the trial relics: “These relics are now in a locked cabinet, in a storeroom of this office, in the sub-basement. Very frequently visitors obtain permission to see them, but, owing to the storeroom being filled with files, there are no facilities for showing them, and it takes the time of an employee of this office from his official duties for the purpose.”[12] Lieber contacted the Smithsonian (then called the National Museum) and they were “very agreeable” to receive the relics. Lieber then received permission from the Secretary of War, Russell Alger, to transfer the relics under one condition: the artifacts would forever remain “subject to the control of the War Department.” The Smithsonian did not care for this condition and, during the confrontation that followed, the War Department decided that, “the law did not authorize even a temporary removal of the exhibits.”[13] Again the relics stayed in the Judge Advocate General’s office.

The exhibits of the assassination trials displayed for a reporter in 1908.

The artifacts would not be freed from their tomb until 1940, 75 years after the assassination. By this time the National Parks Service was in control of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House, using the space to exhibit Osborn Oldroyd’s collection of Lincolniana. The official exchange happened on February 5, 1940 when the office of the Judge Advocate General transferred over their materials to the Lincoln Museum (Ford’s). In the list of artifacts, there are four knives mentioned:

“Dagger with which Booth attacked Major Rathbone, and which he carried in his hand as he fled across the stage.”
“Knife used by Payne in his attempt to assassinate Seward.”
“Two knives secured from the effects of the conspirators”[14]

Under the control of thirteen different Judge Advocate Generals, the identities of the knives became scrambled and confused. Powell’s knife was not in the government’s possession and therefore was not turned over to Ford’s. The four knives that Ford’s received are the same four listed in the trial exhibit list. While, at times, it seemed that they were going to be transferred elsewhere, they never left the JAG’s office and the number of assassination knives being held by the government remained unchanged since Robinson was granted Powell’s knife in 1866. Since 1940, the National Parks Service has been trying to sort through this mess of knives with varying degrees of success.

Of all of the knives, the NPS has consistently been correct with their identification of Atzerodt’s knife and the Kirkwood knife. This is partially owing to the fact that the 1940 inventory correctly, but vaguely, lists these two as “Two knives secured from the effects of the conspirators”. If you would visit Ford’s today, you would see Atzerodt’s knife (FOTH 3234) and the Kirkwood knife (FOTH 3231) on display and correctly identified. The main problem and confusion with the knives lies with the assassin’s blade.

At Ford’s there is the above pictured, ornately etched, double edged knife, manufactured by Manson Sheffield Co. of England. It is just less than 12 inches long with a textured bone handle. This beautiful knife has the words, “America”, “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”, and “Liberty and Independence” etched on the blade. Due to this, Ford’s refers to it as the Liberty knife along with its artifact number FOTH 3235. Most visitors, however, know it by another name: Booth’s knife. According to the tag underneath it, this, “horn-handled dagger was used by John Wilkes Booth to stab Major Rathbone after shooting Abraham Lincoln.” No doubt, many have seen the irony of such a patriotic knife helping to commit such an atrocious crime. It makes a poignant impact on those who have seen it. Unfortunately, it’s also a lie. This is not the knife Booth used to stab Major Rathbone. This knife was not recovered from Booth at Garrett’s barn. This knife did not even belong to John Wilkes Booth.

To explain this confusion, it is crucial to look back at the statements and testimonies of those who were with, and captured, Booth. After Davy Herold was caught at the Garrett’s he was transferred to the monitor, Montauk. Here, he gave a statement skillfully trying to conceal his guilt. Though much of Davy’s statement must be taken with a grain of salt, he does produce the following about his traveling companion’s act: “[Booth said] he struck him [Rathbone] in the stomach or belly with a knife. He said that was the knife (pointing to the one which had been shown to the prisoner).”[15] Davy is stating that the knife recovered from Booth at the Garrett’s is the same knife he used to stab Rathbone. While Davy commits to this, he makes no mention of any ornate etchings on the blade of the knife. In fact, Davy, Everton Conger, Luther B. Baker, John “Jack” Garrett, and Boston Corbett all make mention of Booth’s knife in statements and testimonies, but merely describe it as a “bowie knife”. No mention is made of any noteworthy markings on the blade. The term “bowie knife” was used to describe any large hunting knife usually with a crossbar. It is similar to how a derringer, originally the specific maker of the firearm, came to refer to any small pocket pistol.

It is not until the John Surratt trial that a notable description of Booth’s knife is made. Everton Conger gives the following testimony:

“Q: Will you state what articles you took from him?
A: …He had a large bowie-knife, or hunting knife, and a sheath.
Q: Do you know whose make that was?
A: No, sir; the knife has a name on it, but I do not know what it is.”

At this point Conger is going from memory. He has not seen any of the weapons, but recalls the knife had a name on it. He is then shown the weapons:

“(A bowie-knife and sheath and a compass were shown to witness, and identified by him as being taken from the body of Booth. A piece of map was also identified by witness as having been taken from Herold…”

Conger examines the knife and then later is asked how he can be sure it is the same one he recovered from Booth:

“Q: How do you identify the knife?
A: The knife has a spot of rust on it, about two-thirds the way from the hilt to the point, right where the bevel of the knife commences at the end.  It was said to be blood, but I have never thought it was myself.  It is the same shape and style of knife.
Q: Have you not seen other knives like it?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Have you not seen a great many like it?
A: No, sir; only a few.
Q: You put no marks on it?
A: No.  I have no means of identifying it except by the description I have given.
Q: You did not look at the name of the maker?
A: I do not know that the name of the maker is on it.  I have looked at it since and noticed the words “Rio Grand camp-knife” on it.  I have no means of identifying it except what I have stated, and my general recollection of the style of the knife”[16]

This blade does not bear any engravings or patriotic slogans. It is identified with the name “Rio Grand Camp Knife” and a “spot of rust” said to be blood. This testimony identifying Booth’s knife raises a question. Since Booth’s knife is not the Liberty knife, from where does the Liberty knife come from? This question can be answered by looking at the exhibit list from the conspiracy trial. The Atzerodt knife and the Kirkwood knife are identified and accounted for, so that leaves just two: “Booth’s knife” and “Knife found at Mrs. Surratt’s House”. Since, through Conger’s identification of the knife he helped take from Booth, we know that the Liberty knife is not Booth’s knife, it has to be the “Knife taken from Mrs. Surratt’s house”.

Aside from the description in the exhibit list and its corresponding tag from the JAG’s office, this Liberty knife from Mrs. Surratt’s is very elusive. The conclusion that this author has drawn, is that this knife was likely taken from Mrs. Surratt’s and never properly inventoried. This is not as unlikely as it seems. The Surratt boardinghouse was stripped of anything that could be used as evidence. In an inventory list dated April 24, 1865, the final item mentioned is a “Trunk and contents from Surratt House”. It is written in a different pen and lacks the numeration and specificity of the other items in that list.[17] In fact, the only record of what was in the trunk comes from its return to Anna Surratt on August 18, 1865. The receipt, noting the return of three pistol cases, a sword, one box of caps and other items, does not mention a knife. However it should not mention it because the knife, as an exhibit, would have been retained by the government.[18] While this is a theory, with the mounds of evidence procured during those days, a knife from Mrs. Surratt’s could have easily been overlooked and not inventoried. Therefore, the Liberty knife currently on display at Ford’s as Booth’s knife is not the assassin’s blade but likely an ornate knife recovered from Mrs. Surratt’s. It never belonged to the assassin, and, conceivably, it was never used to harm anyone.

What then, became of the assassin’s blade? According to the 1940 transfer list, four knives were turned over to Ford’s and yet only three are on display. Two of those are correctly identified, while the Liberty knife continues its impersonation of Booth’s knife. The current fate of Booth’s true knife is identical to what it was for over 75 years. Booth’s knife is in storage.

Stored as a generic “knife” with the rest of Ford’s overflow items, it is currently held in the National Parks Service Museum Resource Center in Landover, MD. There it sits, FOTH 3218, encased in protective foam, accompanied by its sheath. While the knife has been found, there is still a mystery to be solved.

Booth’s knife has not always been hidden away in storage. There was a time when it was displayed by Ford’s accurately as Booth’s knife. Books from the 1950s and 60s have pictures of the real, Rio Grand Camp knife, with a spot of rust on the blade, endorsed by the NPS as Booth’s. But suddenly, and inexplicably, it was replaced with the Liberty knife. With the worsening budget cuts the NPS has suffered over the years, the paperwork on the knives at Ford’s is disorganized and, most importantly, they lack a historian to sort it all out. No one seems to know why the knives were switched, but they all trust the unknown predecessor who did so. If the switch was made due to a mere clerical error, the knife doesn’t deserve to sit in storage for another 75 years. It is this author’s hope that this article will merit a re-examination of the knives and the evidence regarding their identification. Hopefully, Booth’s true knife will escape from storage once again and be restored to the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Booth’s real knife: FOTH 3218
Currently being held in Landover, MD

Dave Taylor examining Booth’s true knife in 2012.
Photographs by Jim Garrett.


[1] Edwards, W.C., & Steers, E. (2010). The Lincoln assassination, the evidence. (pp. xxii – xxiii).  Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

[2] Ibid, (p. 545).

[3] Ibid, (p. 1207).

[4] Ibid, (p. 1165).

[5] NARA. Trial exhibit list. Retrieved from website: https://www.fold3.com/image/249/7390964

[6] Poore, B. P. (Ed.), (1865). The conspiracy trial for the murder of the president, and the attempt to overthrow the government by the assassination of its principal officers. Vol. 1. (pp. 66) Boston, MA: J. E. Tilton and Company.

[7] Steers, E. (1997). His name is still Mudd: The case against Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd. (p. 122). Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications.

[8] Edwards & Steers. (p. 758).

[9] U.S. House of Representatives. (1880). Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, being the second session of the forty-sixth congress, begun held at the city of Washington, December 1, 1879, in the one hundred and fourth year of the independence of the United States. (p. 297) Washington City, DC: Government Printing Office.

[10] (1880, January 31). Assassination relics: A description of some of the articles Congress will order sent to Springfield. The Cleveland Leader, p. 3.

[11] Power, J. C. (1884). Annual reports of the custodian to the executive committee of the national Lincoln monument association, reports for nine years, from 1875 to 1883 inclusive. (p. 35) Springfield, IL: H. W. Rokker.

[12] (1899, May 24). The Booth relics, they are to be transferred to the national museum. The Minneapolis Journal.

[13] (1904, December 18). The first photographs of the mementos of Lincoln’s assassin. The Washington Times, p. 5.

[14] Copy of a list from the Judge Advocate Generals’ office dated February 5, 1940 in the files of James O. Hall.  From the James O. Hall Research Center, Clinton, MD.

[15] Edwards & Steers. (p. 682)

[16] (1867) Trial of John H. Surratt in criminal court for the District of Columbia. Vol. 1. (p. 308) Washington City, DC: Government Printing Office.

[17] Edwards & Steers. (p. 1166).  The handwritten page is viewable here: https://www.fold3.com/image/249/7361960

[18]Edwards & Steers. (p. 698).

Author’s note: A version of this article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of the Surratt Courier

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