Posts Tagged With: Mary Surratt

Formerly Enslaved Voices in the Lincoln Assassination Trial

In the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, the U.S. government wasted no time in investigating the origins of the murderous plot. While the main perpetrator of the crime was known – the famous actor John Wilkes Booth had made no effort to conceal his identity as he leapt from the box at Ford’s Theatre and hurried across the stage – the simultaneous attack on Secretary of State William Seward by an unknown assailant spoke to a much larger, and terrifying conspiracy. In the hours following the attacks, officials found themselves conducting not only a massive manhunt, but also one of the most complex investigations the country had ever seen. While a modicum of justice would be served twelve days later when the lead assassin was cornered and killed trying to escape a detachment of Union cavalry, the question of who else was responsible for Lincoln’s death was of the upmost importance to the grieving nation.

In trying to find an answer to this question of culpability the War Department cast a wide net, ensnaring not only prospective conspirators but also witnesses of all classes and backgrounds with vital information to share. At the end of the War Department’s investigation, eight imprisoned individuals were put on trial for conspiracy in Lincoln’s murder in connection with leaders of the Confederate government who were still at large. Less than a month after Lincoln was shot, a military tribunal had been established and the first witnesses began to testify about the seven men and one woman the government believed were key members of John Wilkes Booth’s plot. The trial of the Lincoln conspirators was remarkable and controversial in many ways. It was a military tribunal rather than a civilian trial and, as such, the jury was a commission of nine Union military officers. Legal jurisprudence of the day prevented defendants from testifying. As assassination historian Michael Kauffman explains it, “While a suspect today might agree to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence, that practice was illegal in 1865,”[1] and so the eight conspirators sat in the courtroom each day unable to speak for themselves. However, one of the most remarkable aspects of the trial of the conspirators is the way in which the government brought forth formerly enslaved and free born men and women to testify in open court against the white defendants. In total, out of the 347 people who testified at the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, 29 of them were witnesses of color with several of them having been formerly enslaved by two of the conspirators, Dr. Mudd and Mary Surratt. By looking at the legal precedent of Black men and women testifying against white defendants and by analyzing the testimonies brought out by the formerly enslaved at the Lincoln assassination trial we can see the ways in which the prosecution and the defense sought to use Black voices to further their cases. In addition, we will evaluate some of the testimonies in detail to understand the risks these Black witnesses took in allowing their voices to be heard at the trial of the century.

It is important to point out the rarity of Black prosecution witnesses against white defendants in the Civil War era. According to lawyer Frazer Walton, Jr., author of A Hidden Indictment: What the Slaves and Freedmen Knew about the Lincoln Assassination, “In 1865, the legal system virtually prohibited a former slave or free black person from testifying against a white person in most state courts even though they were allowed to do so under federal law and therefore in federal court.”[2] The question of a Black man or woman’s competency as a witness, especially in relation to a white defendant, had been a subject of legal debate for many years. Many state courts throughout the country outright prohibited the testimony of Black individuals and federal courts located in those states often followed this precedent. The trial of the Lincoln conspirators took place within Washington, D.C. where a ruling from 1827 stated that, “a colored man is not a competent witness…against a colored man indicted jointly with white men.”[3] This decision demonstrated the District’s desire to prevent any testimony from a Black witness from having a deleterious effect on a white defendant. However, ten years later some progress had been made as the District ruled that, “a mulatto, born of a white woman, is a competent witness against a Christian white person.”[4] From these early legal decisions, it is clear that one’s competency to testify in D.C. courts was not based on education or other metric but was solely dependent on one’s degree of whiteness. The nation’s capital was a slave holding territory and its racial attitudes had much in common with the Southern states and its slavocracy. As in many other jurisdictions during the time, justice took a back seat to white supremacy. While Black men and women could testify against each other, the concept that a Black person’s word was in any way equal to the word of a white defendant was an idea representing the antithesis of the social order of D.C. and many other slave holding states. Though the allegorical figure of Justice is oftentimes portrayed as being blind, those in charge of meting out justice were very much influenced by their own racial perceptions and prejudices.

In April of 1862, however, a big change occurred with the passage of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. Ending slavery in the Nation’s capital had become an important goal of President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Though trapped in conflict, Lincoln was already looking to the future when the Southern states would return and needed a plan for what was to be done with slavery when that occurred. From the White House, Lincoln looked to his own backyard in trying to find a way to enact a controlled emancipation that he could possibly expand to the South under the right circumstances. Lincoln lobbied Congress hard for a compensated emancipation of those held in bondage in the nation’s capital. In this way, the federal government agreed to pay D.C. enslavers for their slaves, thus freeing enslaved men and women and lessening the financial loss to the enslavers. In many ways, the D.C. Emancipation Act was a prelude to Lincoln’s more famous Emancipation Proclamation which ostensibly freed those held in bondage in the Southern States without any sort of compensation to enslavers.

While compensated emancipation no doubt softened the blow of D.C. enslavers over the loss of their property, not all were willing to divest of those they enslaved. To rectify this, in July of 1862, a supplement was added to the D.C. Emancipation Act allowing for the enslaved to petition for their freedom themselves if their enslavers failed to do so. The final portion of this supplement stated that, “in all judicial proceedings in the District of Columbia there shall be no exclusion of any witness on account of color.”[5] This was to make sure that potential enslaved petitioners who applied for their freedom were not remanded back into slavery due to the lies of their enslavers who desired to keep them. Thus, it was from this supplement from the D.C. emancipation act that lay the foundation for the testimony of Black witnesses in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial three years later.

However, just because the law stated that witnesses could not be excluded on account of their skin color, this does not mean that prospective Black witnesses were free from prejudicial treatment. Post 1862, Black witnesses against white defendants were practically unheard of in D.C. other than in cases related to the Emancipation Act. As the government was preparing their case against the conspirators, they knew, from the onset that the testimony of Black witnesses would face undue scrutiny merely due to their race. As Walton states, “Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton and other Union officials were well aware that although blacks were permitted to testify in the federal courts and before federal juries, such testimony would probably be given little credence by juries permeated with Southern sympathizers.”[6] The span between what was legally allowed, and what would be given proper weight in the eyes of an all-white jury of D.C. residents was a problem for the War Department in terms of the testimony of its prospective Black witnesses. While the cases for some of the conspirators were fairly “cut and dry” with little question of a guilty verdict, for many of the others there was considerable room for reasonable doubt. This was especially true in the cases of Dr. Mudd (who set the assassin’s leg) and Edman Spangler (who worked as a stage carpenter and scene shifter at Ford’s Theatre). Of the prosecution’s 19 Black witnesses, 10 of them dealt solely with Dr. Mudd and the government’s efforts to portray him as a disloyal Confederate sympathizer who took an active role in treasonous behavior against the government. To help prove Dr. Mudd capable of involvement in the plot against Lincoln, the government was heavily relying on the testimony of some of the men and women he formerly enslaved. In the case of Edman Spangler, the government brought forth four Black witnesses connecting Spangler with Booth in the moments before the assassination at the theater. In the cases of these two conspirators in particular, there was too much of a risk in solely relying on a civilian jury to perform their duty detached from their own racial attitudes and prejudices. Walton contends that this knowledge, this fear of a white civilian jury finding any of the accused conspirators not guilty due to the racial prejudice against Black witnesses was a factor in the decision to try the conspirators in a military court with nine military commissioners rather than a civilian trial with a jury selected from a Southern sympathizing populace. In this way, “the government was reasonably certain the testimony of the black witnesses would be fairly weighed and considered,” Walton states.[7]

Yet, in practice, this idea of fairly weighing and considering the testimony of Black witnesses proved to be more of a hope than a reality. The only reason that we even know the identities of Black individuals who took the stand is not based solely on their testimony but due to how their words were recorded and delineated at the time. Both in newspaper accounts and in the official transcript of the trial authorized for publication by the government after its conclusion, all African American witnesses bore the addendum of “(colored)” beside their names before the start of their testimony. It demonstrates how, even in the realm of an extremely serious trial enacted by the highest levels of the government for the purpose of determining those responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln, the racial identity of the person on the witness stand still took precedent over their words. The commissioners themselves could see the witnesses and knew their skin color but it was still determined important enough for readers of the trial proceedings to have this information upfront. While such notations did nothing to alter the actual content of these testimonies, they were no doubt intended to alter the perception and context of the words. Such notes allowed white followers of the trial proceedings to prejudge what they were about to read based on their own racial attitudes. While such notes are helpful to us as historians in knowing the identities of witnesses who faced additional personal risk in taking the stand, it also demonstrates how, even in print, the racism of the past can be captured for posterity.

While the first “colored” witness to testify at the trial of the conspirators took the stand on May 15 (the third day of testimony), the day with the largest number of Black witnesses came ten days later on May 25. On this date, the prosecution delved into the guilt of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd who was as much on trial for his assistance to John Wilkes Booth before the assassination as he was for the medical services he rendered during the fugitive’s flight. A large part of the prosecution’s case against Dr. Mudd was to show that the Maryland physician was disloyal and actively supported the cause of the Confederacy. To help them establish this case, the prosecution brought forth five witnesses on this date who had been enslaved by Dr. Mudd and two other men who had been enslaved by Dr. Mudd’s neighbors to testify against him. The first of these witnesses was Mary Simms who stated she had been enslaved by Dr. Mudd, “I think, four years, and left him about a month before Christmas gone.”[8] Simms was in her early twenties and had departed the Mudd farm shortly after the new state constitution came into effect in November of 1864 which abolished slavery in Maryland. During Simms’ testimony she was asked about Dr. Mudd’s actions over the course of the Civil War. Simms recalled that, during the summer of 1864, she had witnessed several men in Confederate gray hiding and camping out on the Mudd property with the doctor providing bedding and food to these men. Simms was often tasked with keeping a look out for Union soldiers when the men ventured close to the house to talk with the doctor or acquire supplies. Simms also noted that these men, “brought letters from Virginia…to Dr. Sam. Mudd,”[9] hinting that Mudd was illegally in contact with people in the Confederacy. This testimony was useful in demonstrating that Dr. Mudd was much more than a typical slaveholding Confederate sympathizer, but an active subversive agent for their cause.

Jars made by the men and women enslaved by Dr. Mudd. On display at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum

The next witness to take the stand after Mary Simms was her brother, Elzee Eglent. He was in his late twenties and was likewise asked questions about Dr. Mudd’s loyalty. Contrasting the experience of his sister, Eglent had escaped from his enslavement in 1863, a full year prior to the end of slavery in Maryland. As documented in the work of Dr. Mudd historian (and descendant) Robert Summers, author of The Doctor’s Slaves: Samuel Mudd, Slavery, and the Lincoln Assassination, “On Saturday night, August 29, 1863, with a full moon to guide their way, 40 slaves ran away from the farms of Dr. Mudd, his father Henry Lowe Mudd, and [his brother-in-law] Jeremiah Dyer.”[10] The Mudd family was one of the largest slaveholding families in Southern Maryland and this large, coordinated escape on the part of the enslaved greatly impacted the Mudd family’s personal wealth. Summers recounts that, “Jeremiah Dyer complained afterwards that because he lost so many slaves, he had to actually pay free workers to finish the tobacco harvest.”[11] According to Elzee Eglent’s testimony at the trial, one of the reasons he decided to take part in this mass escape was due to threats by the doctor to send him South to work on behalf of the Confederacy. His sister, Mary Simms, had mentioned this story in her own testimony stating that Dr. Mudd, “had a place in Richmond,” for Elzee, “building batteries,”[12] for the Confederates. When Elzee was questioned on the stand by the prosecution reiterating this occurrence, he provided another detail which was quickly objected to by Dr. Mudd’s defense attorney:

“Q. Did [Dr. Mudd] say anything to you before you left him about sending you to Richmond?
A. Yes, sir; he told me the morning he shot me that he had a place in Richmond for me.
Mr. Ewing. I object of the question and the answer, and I want my objection entered.”[13]

Despite the defense’s objection, Eglent was allowed to continue to testify about the threats Dr. Mudd had made about sending him to Richmond – shortly after the doctor had shot him. Lincoln historian Edward Steers wrote in his essay “Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses” that the mentioning of Dr. Mudd having shot Elzee was one of the prosecution’s line of attack, as they, “alleged that Mudd was a poor master who abused his slaves on more than one occasion.”[14] Yet, the details of how Elzee was shot by Dr. Mudd are not present in Eglent’s testimony. If the prosecution was truly trying to use this incident to damage Dr. Mudd’s reputation, as Steers contends, the lack of further questions on the matter appears to be a strange omission. Since the testimony of extraneous Confederates hanging around the Mudd farm demonstrated that the prosecution was looking for as much ammunition of their own against Dr. Mudd’s general character and loyalty, it is odd that they choose not to ferret out more details about Mudd shooting a man he enslaved. Elzee was not asked any follow up questions about the incident except to reiterate that the shooting occurred on the same day Dr. Mudd threatened to send him the Confederate capital.

Rifle owned by Dr. Mudd on display at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House Museum

While the prosecution did not choose to emphasize the shooting incident, Dr. Mudd’s defense was no doubt aware that this event could be damaging to their client. As too were Mary Simms’ own allegations that Dr. Mudd had whipped her repeatedly, including one time after slavery had been abolished which caused her to leave. After the remaining five formerly enslaved witnesses took to the stand reiterating that Dr. Mudd was known to have interacted with Confederate agents and openly spoke out against the Lincoln administration, sometimes in fiery tones, Dr. Mudd’s defense team knew that they need to counter this. To do this, Mudd’s defense team chose to fight with using quantity over quality. According to Summers, “The prosecution called 16 witnesses to testify against Dr. Mudd. The defense, led by General Ewing, called more than 60 witnesses to testify in his defense.”[15] The bulk of these defense witnesses for Dr. Mudd were white citizens of Charles County who testified that they had never heard Dr. Mudd say anything disloyal. Dr. Mudd’s own brother-in-law countered Mary Simms’ claim that Confederates were around the property in 1864 by stating that it was himself and some other men who had been around there back in 1861. However, Mudd’s defense did not solely rely upon white residents to counter the testimony of the formerly enslaved. After all, the jury for this trial was not comprised of D.C. residents who, until only three years ago, were possibly enslavers themselves and would, therefore, most likely take the word of any single white man over the testimonies of half a dozen former slaves. This jury was a nine member military commission of Union officers. Though not totally without their own racial prejudices, Thomas Ewing was wise enough to realize that he also needed to find Black residents of Charles County to help extricate the former enslaver on the prison dock from his troubles. Dr. Mudd was well aware of how unfavorably the testimony of his former slaves impacted him. A newspaper reporter covering the trial on May 25 noted that:

“During the testimony bearing on the case of Mudd he appeared considerably excited, rising frequently and stooping over the rail to make suggestions to his counsel. At first he wore a smile of derision, but as witness after witness of his late servants came forward to testify to the same facts, the smile died away and was supplied by an anxious look.”[16]

His many sins as an enslaver and a Confederate sympathizer were laid bare before a court with the power to hang him if they saw fit and Dr. Mudd experienced firsthand how the power dynamic has shifted away from the master’s hand and into the words of the formerly enslaved.

Courtroom sketch of Dr. Mudd by commissioner Lew Wallace.

It can be argued that the practice and abuses of slavery was as much on trial as the assassination of Lincoln. One of the other defense attorneys, William Doster, who represented Lewis Powell attempted to help save his own client from the gallows by writing in his closing arguments that Powell’s willingness to attack the bedridden Secretary of State was a deleterious product of growing up in a slave society:

“In the State of Florida were two separate races–one white and the other black–of which the one was slave to the other, and Lewis belonged to the race which was master. It was a custom of this State for masters to whip their slaves, sell them, kill them, and receive the constant homage which the oppressed offer to the powerful. It was the custom of this State to whip and burn men who preached against the custom. It was the custom to defend this institution in meeting-houses, at political gatherings, in family prayers. It was the custom to hunt fugitives with bloodhounds–even those who tried to help them to freedom.”[17]

In this way, Doster tried to blame the actions of his client on the evils of slavery, using the inherit violence of the practice as having molded Powell into a weapon to be used for John Wilkes Booth’s purposes.

Period drawing of William Bell, the Black servant of Secretary of State William Seward, identifying Lewis Powell as his attempted assassin.

Contrastingly, Dr. Mudd’s defense team had to try their hardest to devalue the connection between slavery, disloyalty, and assassination, while faced with multiple formerly enslaved men and women personifying those connections. To this end, Thomas Ewing, one of Dr. Mudd’s lawyers, called his own Black witnesses to testify on behalf of Dr. Mudd. The first two Black witnesses that Ewing calls to defend Mudd are a married couple named Frank and Betty Washington. Frank Washington was the only person enslaved by Dr. Mudd who testified on his behalf at the trial of the conspirators. Frank had been sold to the Mudd farm in 1864, just months before slavery was abolished in Maryland. He continued to live on the Mudd farm after emancipation where he worked as a ploughman. Dr. Mudd also allowed Frank to bring his wife Betty to the farm where she served as a cook for the Mudd family. Unlike the testimonies of prosecution witnesses Mary Simms and Elzee Eglent, Frank Washington’s experience was a noticeably uncomfortable one. On the witness stand Washington barely answered any question posed to him beyond a “yes, sir” or a “no, sir.” When he did elaborate it was very rarely more than a single sentence. When asked about Dr. Mudd’s reputation with his “servants”, Washington replied, “He treated them pretty well.” Then asked how he, himself was treated by Dr. Mudd, Washington answered, “He treated me first-rate. I had no fault to find with him.”[18]

It is important to point out that Frank Washington had come to be enslaved by Dr. Mudd in the months after the doctor had shot and wounded Elzee Eglent who subsequently escaped. While Washington admitted to having heard about that incident, he had no opinion about it. It is also important to note that Frank had a vested interest in the continued welfare of Dr. Mudd as he and his wife Betty were still living on the Mudd farm at the time of the trial. The Washingtons were still employed by the Mudds as paid servants and this point was emphasized by the prosecution during their cross-examination. The prosecution’s unspoken idea that the Washingtons were conflicted witnesses due to their financial ties to the Mudds was clear to everyone in the courtroom. At one point, during Washington’s examination, a member of the military commission, the jury as it were, asked Frank what his wages were from the Mudd family. Frank answered the following:

“A. One hundred and thirty dollars a year.
Q. And something extra for this extra job?
A. I do not know.
Q. Has nothing been said about that.
A. Nothing that I know of.
Q. Do you not expect something extra for this job?
A. Well, I do not know.”[19]

The assumption was clear. Either Frank Washington and his wife were going to be paid by the Mudd family for this testimony or they were essentially being forced to testify on their behalf out of fear for their well-being and financial future. As a result of this implication, Frank Washington’s testimony did very little to counter the prior words of Mary Simms and Elzee Eglent. While no evidence exists that Frank and Betty Washington received any additional payment for their testimony, the couple continued to live at the Mudd farm even after Dr. Mudd went to prison. They are included in the 1870 census with the rest of the Mudd family. In 1880, Frank and Betty resided on a piece of property adjoining the Mudd farm, likely working as sharecroppers on the Mudd land. This speaks to the difficult position African American residents in rural areas like Charles County, Maryland found themselves in after the end of slavery.

The specific testimonies of the formerly enslaved at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators is not one that has gained a lot of attention in Lincoln assassination literature. The previously cited article by Ed Steers titled, “Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses”, was perhaps the first to look with any particular detail at the testimony of Black witnesses including the formerly enslaved. Even then, that article, written in 2000, was more designed around the effect the Black testimony had on Dr. Mudd rather than the testimony itself. Robert Summers, also previously cited, delves more into the enslavement that occurred at the Mudd farm and the testimony from the trial about it. These analyses are contained in Summers’ books The Doctor’s Slaves and The Assassin’s Doctor. Yet, Dr. Mudd was not the only conspirator who was an enslaver. Mary Surratt, who would become the first woman executed by the federal government for her role in Lincoln’s assassination, also enslaved men and women at her Southern Maryland tavern and property.

One of the upstairs rooms in her former tavern, now the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, is furnished to represent the sleeping quarters of one of the enslaved women Mrs. Surratt rented from another. The woman’s name was Rachel Semus and it was actually Mary Surratt’s defense who called her to the stand. Semus testified that Mrs. Surratt, “treated her servants very well all the time I was with her.”[20] Two years later, after Mary had been executed and her fugitive son had been captured and was being subjected to his own civilian trial, Rachel Hawkins nee Semus returned to the stand, testifying on his behalf as well. Likewise, many years later, when she was called “Aunt Rachel”, Hawkins was interviewed by a reporter where she maintained the innocence of her former master and the kind and benevolent treatment she received during her time working for Mrs. Surratt. In an article published by the Surratt House Museum’s newsletter in 2011 (the same time the small room of the museum was furnished to replicate the possible lodging she, and other enslaved people might have stayed in), information is given about “Aunt Rachel’s” life gleaned from her testimonies and newspaper interview. When discussing the context of Rachel’s defense of Mrs. Surratt the article states:

“A comment was one made by a staff member here at the museum that, ‘of course, Rachel would be intimidated into speaking well of Mary Surratt, both during the trial and afterwards.’ This can only be contested by realizing that in 1865, Rachel was a free woman and could speak her mind. If she harbored ill feelings about Mary Surratt, both trials would have been excellent opportunities to express them – with even the force of the War Department to protect her!”[21]

The issue with this messaging on the part of the museum is that it lacks the acknowledgment of the complex nature of slavery and its aftermath. The idea that any of the Black and formerly enslaved witnesses could truly “speak their mind” on the witness stand, especially when called as a defense witness, is hard to rectify. Like Frank Washington, Rachel Semus still lived within a community where her day to day activities were impacted by those who formerly enslaved her. Even if we take into account her much later interview in which she still supports Mrs. Surratt’s innocence and kindness as a master, it is vital that we address how slavery was not solely a physically violent practice but also a mentally manipulative one. Mrs. Surratt very well may have been kind to the men and women she hired and owned, but that does not change the fact that she took part in the systemic degradation of a group of people to deny them their personhood. Telling Rachel Semus’ story should include her defense of Mrs. Surratt as they are her words and should be heard, but these words also need to be placed into context with Mary’s role as an enslaver seen in the same light as Dr. Mudd’s act of shooting of Elzee Eglent.

Mary Swann had been enslaved by Samuel Cox of Rich Hill, where John Wilkes Booth and David Herold went after leaving Dr. Mudd’s farm. Mary Swann lied and told the pursuing authorities that Booth and Herold didn’t enter the Cox home. In this way she protected her former enslaver. Yet we shouldn’t use this as evidence that Samuel Cox was, in anyway, a “kind master”. Years earlier he beat one of the men he enslaved to death.

Black and formerly enslaved witnesses at the Lincoln conspiracy trial took great personal risk in allowing their voices to be heard. Yet, in doing so they helped open the door for others. On July 7, 1865, the same day as four of the conspirators were executed, the National Daily Intelligencer newspaper in Washington, D.C. reported on an important murder case in Nashville, Tennessee where, “the only witness to the murder was a colored woman”. The witness had originally been ruled out as the state courts in Tennessee barred African Americans from testifying. The article reported that an appeal to this rule was being made by one of the most ardent secessionist judges in the region who was acting as a defense attorney. As precedent for allowing the Black witness to testify, the Tennessee lawyer noted that, “the government had admitted negroes to testify in many cases, especially at the conspiracy trial at Washington.”[22] While it does not appear that the lawyer was successful in getting this testimony admitted, it marked the beginning of other conversations and movements across the South. Public opinion on the matter started to change with the editors of the Shelbyville Union in Tennessee writing in October of 1865 that, “There is a good deal of discussion now in regard not only to negro suffrage, but negro testimony…we are against the former, so far at least as our state is concerned, but see no especial reason for objecting to the latter. We think the courts of justice should be open a very wide door for the admission of testimony.”[23] A dispatch from Nashville in December of 1865 stated that, “The House has been engaged to-day on the Negro Testimony Bill…They is a clear majority in favor of its passage, but some of its friends are absent. It was taken up by its enemies in hope of being able to kill it. They failed.”[24] Other states joined in in reconsidering the admittance of African American testimony. Mississippi started the process of changing their laws regarding Black testimony likely influenced by the trial in Washington with one dispatch in November noting, “The Mississippi House of Representatives has partly reconsidered its refusal to allow negro testimony against whites, and has in certain cases given them that privilege.”[25] While these advancements in the rights of African Americans were short lived as more restrictive policies emerged after the failure of Reconstruction, for a time, the actions of the 29 Black men and women who testified at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators not only helped in the pursuit of justice, but also contributed to the ever evolving progress of the nation.


Epilogue: This post was the final paper for my Master’s class entitled The Lives of the Enslaved. The focus of the class was to find and listen to the voices of the formerly enslaved in whatever form they can be found. In that spirit, and in conjunction with the project on the Lincoln conspiracy trial that I published last year, I invite you all to read the testimony of each of the 29 Black witnesses who testified. Not all of the men and women listed below had been enslaved, but they still risked a lot by taking the witness stand. Their names were:

Billy “Pomp” Williams
Joe Simms
John Miles
Mary Ann Turner
Mary Jane Anderson
James Walker
Joe Simms (again)
William H. Bell
William Bell (again)
Eleanor Bloise
Becky Briscoe
Frank Bloise
Robert Nelson
Mary Simms
Elzee Eglent
Sylvester Eglent
Melvina Washington
Milo Simms
William Marshall
Rachel Spencer
Betty Washington
Frank Washington
Baptist Washington
Baptist Washington (again)
George Booz
Julia Ann Bloise
Susan Stewart
Primus Johnson
Charles Bloise
Betty Washington (again)
Frank Washington (again)
George Booz (again)
Richard E. Skinner
Henry Hawkins
Rachel Semus


References

[1] Michael W. Kauffman,  American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 332.
[2] Frazer Walton, Jr., A Hidden Indictment: What the Slaves and Freedmen Knew About the Lincoln Assassination (Maitland, FL: Mill City Press, 2020), 67.
[3] Walton, Indictment, 67.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Supplemental Act of July 12, 1862,” National Archives, October 6, 2015, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/dc-emancipation-act/supplemental-act.html.
[6] Walton, Indictment, 68.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Benjamin Perley Poore, The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President (Boston: J. E. Tilton, 1865), 150.
[9] Poore, Conspiracy Trial, 152.
[10] Robert K. Summers, The Doctor’s Slaves: Samuel Mudd, Slavery, and the Lincoln Assassination (Middletown, DE: Self-Published, 2015), 37.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Poore, Conspiracy Trial, 153.
[13] Ibid, 157.
[14] Edward Steers Jr., “Dr. Mudd and the ‘Colored’ Witnesses,” Civil War History 46, no. 4 (2000): 329.
[15] Robert K. Summers, The Assassin’s Doctor: The Life and Letters of Samuel A. Mudd (Middletown, DE: Self-Published, 2014), 86.
[16] Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), May 25, 1865, 2.
[17] Benn Pitman, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (New York: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, 1865), 308 – 309.
[18] Poore, Conspiracy Trial, 314.
[19] Ibid, 320.
[20] Ibid, 548.
[21] Julia Cowdery, “Who was Aunt Rachel?” Surratt Courier 36, no. 2 (2011): 7 – 8.
[22] National Daily Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), July 7, 1865, 2.
[23] Nashville Daily Union, November 1, 1865, 2.
[24] Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1865, 2.
[25] Daily Illinois State Joural, November 22, 1865, 2.

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

Vanished: John Wilkes Booth

Last year I was contacted by a couple of podcasters named Jen Taylor and Chris Williamson who asked me if I would like to appear on their show, Vanished. The podcast originated as a deep dive into the mystery behind Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 and the many different theories about what happened to her and Fred Noonan. The entire season on Earhart was widely praised and the pair were specifically complemented on their unique format. Not only do Jen and Chris present the evidence on the different theories proposed by their guests, but they then take it to court, with each host advocating for a specific side. Jen is an actual defense attorney and this allows the pair to put these theories to the test and try them in a court of their own making. While looking for different cases to pursue for their second season, Chris stumbled across the John Wilkes Booth escape theory which posits that another man was killed at the Garrett farm on April 26, 1865. The pair then went about looking for guests who would like to talk in favor of and against this theory in order to put it to the test.

At first, I was reluctant to agree to be on a podcast about the “Booth” mummy. Those of you who keep up with the different TV documentaries that have aired in recent years about the Lincoln assassination know that the escape theory has been played to death. Practically every show covers this topic, with many being based solely around it. As a person who studies this history, this is very frustrating for me because pretty much all of those TV shows portray the escape theory as credible when all the evidence I know says the complete opposite.

I mean…seriously…don’t get me started

Despite my hesitation to take part in this podcast however, in the end I found myself swayed by the format Jen and Chris use. Unlike a 45 minute docudrama on the “History” channel, Jen and Chris really wanted to get into the nitty gritty and explore the reliability of the evidence. I found this very refreshing and really the best way to present a theory such as this one. So, I signed on to discuss the true history (as close as we can ascertain it) with Jen, the talented lawyer, on my side.

I have to say that I had so much fun being on Vanished. I recorded multiple hours with Jen as we first explored the story of Booth’s escape and death and then addressed the problems with the escape theorists’ evidence. Vanished is a long form podcast and several of the Booth episodes are multiple hours long. I would definitely encourage you to start at the beginning and hear the evidence from all of the guests, but I also understand that it is a time commitment, especially if you are new to podcasts. However, if you are interested and willing to sit through at least one 4-hour episode (and remember you can absolutely start and stop it to digest it in parts), I wanted to really highlight the “trial episode” of the series which just dropped. In it you will hear Chris interview Nate Orlowek, who has been championing the Finis Bates / John St. Helen / David E. George theory for almost 50 years. Then you will hear Jen cross examine Nate and his evidence. Then I make my second appearance on the show where I discuss the problems with the escape theorists’ evidence. This episode also includes an interview with Mark Zaid, the attorney who represented Nate Orlowek during the Booth exhumation hearing that occurred in the 1990s. It’s a jam packed episode and includes both Chris and Jen’s closing arguments. In my mind, if you can only listen to one episode, this is the one to tune in for:

Click this image to listen to Vanished: John Wilkes Booth episode 4 “Trial by Jury”

That being said, the prior episodes are also very good with one of them featuring my original appearance where I discuss the escape of Booth and his death at the Garrett farm. Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice is featured on another of the episodes and, in my opinion, really steals the show with her knowledge on Mary Surratt. I really recommend you give the whole series a listen. I think, taken together, it really demonstrates the different ways people think about and conduct historical research. Even when I listened to the folks I vehemently disagreed with, it helped me understand why they believe what they believe.

If you like this series of Vanished, definitely check out the other cases they have done and subscribe so you can follow along with the next one. They are planning episodes in the near future on hijacker D. B. Cooper and dreaded pirate Henry Every. You can access the show online or through any normal podcast provider like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc.

Also if you want to hear more from Jen doing her defense attorney thing, I highly recommend her standalone podcast, In Defense of Liberty. Jen takes historic court cases and explains how they contributed to criminal law in America. She is really good at taking complex legal ideas and presenting them to everyday folks in a compelling way. I’ve learned a lot from Jen through our discussions and have been fascinated by each episode of In Defense of Liberty I have listened to. Definitely give her a follow.

I’d like to thank Jen and Chris for having me on their show. While I’ve done other podcasts before, I really appreciated how deep they were willing to go in this case. It really wasn’t something I’d ever seen done before.

So, now it’s your turn to go tune in and listen to the evidence being presented. Did John Wilkes Booth really escape justice in 1865 and live out his life in Texas and Oklahoma before ending it all and being turned into a mummy? What is the evidence that the escape theorists have for their beliefs? And how do people like myself evaluate and assess what they bring to the table? Check out Vanished it get the fullest accounting that has ever been told about one of the strangest tales in the Lincoln assassination story.

Categories: History, News | Tags: , , , , , | 13 Comments

“Treason Chokers” and “Wooden Overcoats”: An Eyewitness Account of the Conspirators’ Execution

On July 7, 1865, four of the convicted conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln were put to death on the grounds of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, D.C. The condemned prisoners consisted of Lewis Powell who had attacked and nearly fatally wounded Secretary of State William Seward, David Herold who had assisted and joined John Wilkes Booth on his ill fated escape after the shooting of the President, George Atzerodt who had been commissioned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson but failed to make the attempt, and Mary Surratt the owner of a D.C. boardinghouse who assisted Booth by transporting field glasses to her Maryland tavern on the afternoon of the assassination.

The execution of these three men and one woman marked an ending in the country’s quest for vengeance after the death of the Chief Executive. Coming after a military trial which lasted for 8 weeks and heard from 347 witnesses, the end of the conspirators was well documented in the press of the day. Vivid descriptions of the hanging on that hot July afternoon were published in newspapers nationwide from Associated Press reporters and others on the scene.

But perhaps one of the most compelling accounts of that day’s events comes from one of the soldiers who was present at the Old Arsenal when the drops fell. This soldier’s name was William D. F. Landon. Originally a private with the 14th Indiana Infantry, he was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness and then transferred to the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers. In this way he was a member of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s corps with duty in and around Virginia and Washington. One thing that was unique about Sgt. Landon was his role as an unofficial field reporter for his local newspaper back in Indiana, The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun. Over the course of the war, Landon wrote many letters to the editor of the Western Sun documenting the life of a soldier along with the events and battles he took part in. He wrote all of these letters under the pen name of Prock, affording him a degree of anonymity to speak honestly about what he was witnessing.

From July through November of 1865 alone, Prock wrote a series of nine letters to the Sun about his experiences. Most notably is the letter he wrote on July 11, 1865 documenting his recent duty at the execution of the conspirators. This letter was published in the July 22, 1865 edition of The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun. If you would like to read Prock’s account in its original form, click here, otherwise what follows is a transcription made from the article.

This account provides us with a unique perspective on the execution of the conspirators written in a tone that is not to be found in any other descriptions of the event. There is a surprising amount of humor in what Prock writes. But it’s also an honest accounting, adding a degree of human realism to the otherwise stark proceedings.

“Camp First Regiment U.S. Veteran Vol.
Hancock’s Corps.
Near Washington, D.C., July 11, 1865

Dear Greene:

At 4 o’clock on the morning of the 7th inst. we marched with one day’s rations and “forty rounds” to the Arsenal, or Old penitentiary building, to take part in the “drop game.” As we filed into the enclosure and formed two sides of a square (the prison wall and the high brick parapet forming the other two) I observed first four graves and four “wooden overcoats;” then the scaffold, with two drops, and the four “treason chokers” swaying to and fro in the wind. I had not anticipated all this so soon, presuming the XEQtion would of course be a public one, and that having already marched five miles in a broiling July sun and through dense clouds of stifling dust, fancied our troubles but begun, and that we were to escort the wretches to some of the high and barren hilltops surrounding the city; we were all most agreeably disappointed and stood at ease, leaning on our well burnished arms and gazing with mere curiosity at the workmen putting the finishing touches to the “assassins’ derrick.” Guards being posted everywhere, we stacked arms and broke ranks. Some of the carpenters in the regiment lent a hand in adjusting beams and traces, occasionally tossing the boys a block that was sawn off, or a strip of scantling for a walking stick. A grand rush was always made for these by the “relic hunters of the Wilderness,” occasioning much amusement amongst the soldiery. In removing some caisson boxes, &c., from one part of the yard, a fatigue party captured a huge rat. He was immediately court-martialed, sentenced and (a miniature gallows being erected and a piece of fish line procured) hung – his carcass chucked into one of the pits near the coffins.

A piece of the conspirators’ gallows. From the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The prison wall is at least eighteen feet high and shut out not only the view from the Potomac, but the “ten knot” breeze that was filling more than one white sail on the broad stream. Occasionally a circling puff whirling over the enclosure would stir up everything that was laying around loose, dust included, and cause the “human hawsers” to writhe as I have seen wounded snakes before now.

Some hundred citizens were admitted – not twenty-five of them but what were attached to either the “press gang” or detective’s force of Washington City. All these “roosters” carried umbrellas, and soon had them spread skywards. The sentinels took revenge by quietly punching their sharp glittering bayonets through the “silk Sibleys;” so, had it rained, many a chap would have wondered why his “round-house” leaked so badly.

Finally, everything was in readiness and “Time!” called. The soldiers stood to their arms and the four culprits appeared on the scene. The usual formula was gone through with, lasting perhaps twenty minutes, when the ropes were adjusted, the white caps pulled over their heads, and they were literally jerked into Eternity. I have an idea that from the time a fellow feels the rope coiling round his neck till he is “hood-winked” and actually “rubbed out” of existence, ye past presents the finest – aye, perhaps the most terrible – panorama he ever witnessed. I have no desire to see it (when my turn comes for “going under”) “roped in,” with a frame of bayonets and bronzed, unsympathising faces.

Life having been pronounced extinct by the U.S. surgeons present, the yard was cleared of all but members of our regiment or division by order of Major Gen. Hancock; a “detail” was then made to take down the bodies and bury them. The soldiers performing this task whacked off as much rope from each dangling quirl as they could reach, and, cutting it into small pieces, threw it among their comrades below. The scramble for the twine far exceeded that for the blocks and scraps of wood an hour or two before.

Pieces of the ropes used to hang the conspirators. From the collection of the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

Two men scuffling good humoredly for a “rope-relic,” rolled into one of the freshly dug graves, and before they could extricate themselves half a dozen shovel fulls of earth had been thrown upon them by laughing comrades.

The bodies were placed in the “wooden overcoats” just as they fell, with the exception that the fatal nooses were taken off – the white “death-hoods” were not removed. I noticed the rope in every instance had cut to the bone.

Mrs. Surratt died without a struggle, merely a clenching of the left hand. Payne or Powell was on the “drop” next in order. He took great pains to place his toes right on the edge – stood straight as an arrow – said nothing to the lookers-on – gave a slight shrug of the shoulders when the coil fell about his bare neck, but not a tremor of a nerve or winking of an eye could be noticed. He died, to use the slang term, “game to the last.” Harrold and Atzerott were both half dead with terror and the consciousness of their awful situation. Their knees knocked together as they bade each other “good bye.” There was but a single disturbance that I saw during the day. One of the 6th regiment, U.S. Veteran Volunteers, Hancock’s corps, attempting to pass the guard at the outer gate with an empty canteen for water, was halted, and some words passed, when the sergeant of the guard coming up drew his sabre and stabbed the unarmed soldier in the face, putting out his right eye and giving him a dangerous if not fatal wound. The sergeant and the guard on at this post are from the “Veteran Reserve or Invalid corps” (our boys call them the Diarrhea Corps,”) and no troops “in the field” are on good terms with these d—-d overbearing “Invalids and hospital bummers” – that’s what’s the matter. Well my item is not finished yet: a brother of the wounded man, hearing of the uncalled for and cowardly act, came up and put an ounce and a half of cold lead into the brain-pan of the “reserve sergeant,” killing him instantly, and then walked cooly on to see after his brother’s wounds. That’s the right kind of vengeance, for you! – he had heard that his brother was mortally wounded and was determined on revenge first – that is as it should be!

Truly Yours,
Prock”

In an odd twist of fate, it seems that Prock unknowingly predicted his own death when he wrote, “when my turn comes for ‘going under’” in this letter. One year after the conspirators’ execution, then Lt. William D. F. Landon completely disappeared while stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While the army originally thought Lt. Landon may have just gone AWOL, he was never heard from again, not even among his friends and relations in Indiana. After an investigation by the army in 1867, it was concluded that Landon had met with an accident and died around July 8, 1866. According to a letter written by the Assistant Adjutant General to an inquiring Indiana congressman, “it is supposed that he was drowned while bathing in the Missouri river.” Seems like ol’ Prock went under the waves himself, almost a year to the day that he witnessed the conspirators bade their own final good byes.

Sources:
“Letter from ‘Prock’,” The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun (Vincennes, IN), July 22, 1865, 1.
“Prock’s Last Letters to the Vincennes Western Sun,” Indiana Magazine of History 35, no. 1 (1939): 76-94.
My thanks to Monique Howell at the Indiana State Library for directing me to the digitized copy of Prock’s letter in the Vincennes Western Sun.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

Lincoln Assassination Ephemera

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

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

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


Newspaper classifieds for the Surratt boardinghouse

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


John Wilkes Booth’s check to himself

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


Telegram from the Ford brothers

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


Pressed flowers from Dr. Mudd’s island prison

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


Broadside advertising John Surratt’s lecture

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


Paperwork of Edwin Booth’s 1886 – 1887 tour

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


Advertisement for the “Booth” mummy

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


Shipping Invoice for Lewis Powell’s head

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

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

The Testimony Regarding Mary Surratt

155 years ago on this day, four of the eight conspirators tried in the death of Abraham Lincoln ascended a hastily constructed set of gallows. Just one week earlier they had been convicted and sentenced to their death but had only learned about their fates the day before. The three men and one woman who climbed those stairs to meet their maker were Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary E. Surratt. When the drop fell right around 1:25 in the afternoon, Mrs. Surratt became the first woman executed by the federal government.

Over May and June of this year, I presented a day-by-day look at the Trial of the Lincoln Conspirators that led to this execution. I tried to make sense of the military trial that saw different witnesses haphazardly take the stand against different conspirators one after another. Today, I’m releasing the first of eight helpful resources that organizes the trial not chronologically as we experienced before, but this time based on the testimony against each of the individual conspirators. Rather than having to look through the entirety of the trial to gain an understanding of the specific evidence against a single person, all of the relevant testimony regarding each conspirator has been organized into an easily accessible and hyperlinked table. For the anniversary of her execution, I have decided to start with the testimony regarding Mary Surratt. The text that follows this paragraph contains the same information that will always be found on a standalone page of the trial project called Mary Surratt Testimony and can be accessed by clicking the picture of Mrs. Surratt on The Trial homepage. The organized testimony regarding the other conspirators will be published over the next month.


The following table shows all of the testimony given at the Lincoln conspiracy trial concerning Mary Surratt. Clicking on any of the witnesses’ names will take you to their corresponding testimony in the chronological Trial project.

The default arrangement of the witnesses in the table is by Relevant Testimony. This organizes the witnesses based on what specific aspect of the conspirator’s case was discussed. In the case of Mary Surratt, I organized the testimony into seven categories, labeled A – G. Descriptions of what each category means can be found after the table. The tabs on the bottom of the table allow you to view the witnesses arranged by Date and Alphabetically by last name.

Mobile users: Due to the smaller screen size on mobile devices, you will likely have to scroll left and right on the table to see the Relevant Testimony column.

Relevant Testimony descriptions:

A. John Wilkes Booth and the other Conspirators’ Presence at Mrs. Surratt’s Boardinghouse

In establishing Mrs. Surratt’s connection to John Wilkes Booth’s plot, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Louis Weichmann, one of the lodgers at Surratt’s D.C. boardinghouse. Weichmann testified at length about the presence of Booth and some of the other conspirators at the boardinghouse and how Mrs. Surratt sometimes met with Booth when her son, John, was not at home. The defense tried to show that, as a boardinghouse owner and hospitable woman, Mrs. Surratt’s interactions with Booth and the others was nothing more than politeness.

B. Mrs. Surratt’s Trips to her Tavern in Surrattsville on April 11th and April 14th

The other key witness against Mary Surratt was the tenant of her tavern property in Maryland, John M. Lloyd. Lloyd testified about Mrs. Surratt traveling down to Southern Maryland on April 11th and telling him that weapons hidden at the tavern would be needed soon. On April 14th, the day of Lincoln’s assassination, Mary traveled to her tavern with a package she had been given by Booth. She gave that package to Lloyd and allegedly told him to, “have the shooting irons ready, a party will call for them tonight.” Mrs. Surratt’s defense brought evidence to show that Mrs. Surratt was attempting to settle some debts during this period of time and that was the reasons she made these journeys.

C. The Reputations of Louis Weichmann and John M. Lloyd

As the two key witnesses against Mrs. Surratt, the defense made a great effort to show the questionable reliability of Weichmann and Lloyd. Evidence was presented to suggest that Weichmann may have been disloyal (or even part of Booth’s plot), while Lloyd was portrayed as a drunk of dubious trustworthiness.

D. The Reputations of Defense Witnesses Joseph Knott and John Zadoc Jenkins

In the same way that the defense attacked the credibility of two prosecution witnesses, the prosecution spent a lot of time attacking the character and loyalty of two defense witnesses, one of whom was Mrs. Surratt’s brother.

E. Pictures of John Wilkes Booth and Confederate Generals Found in Mrs. Surratt’s Boardinghouse

During the manhunt for Booth, Mrs. Surratt’s house was searched multiple times and during one of these searches images of Confederate leaders and a hidden photograph of John Wilkes Booth was found in Mrs. Surratt’s room. The prosecution wanted to use this to show Mrs. Surratt’s disloyalty. The defense got Mrs. Surratt’s daughter, Anna, to testify that the photographs belonged to her.

F. The Arrest of Lewis Powell at the Surratt Boardinghouse

Conspirator Lewis Powell, who had attacked Secretary of State William Seward, had been arrested at the Surratt boardinghouse on April 17th, while detectives were there searching and making plans to take Mrs. Surratt and the rest of the household into custody. During this arrest, Mrs. Surratt denied ever having seen Powell before. It was later shown that Powell had stayed at the boardinghouse for a few days. The defense attempted to show that Mrs. Surratt suffered from bad eyesight in an attempt to explain her lack of identification.

G. Mrs. Surratt’s Loyalty and Christian Character

Mary Surratt’s defense called several individuals to testify about her reputation as a good, Christian woman and about times where she had demonstrated pro-Union attitudes. The purpose was to persuade the commissioners that Mrs. Surratt was not capable of being involved in such a plot as the assassination of Lincoln.

For the closing arguments in defense of Mary Surratt please click here.

Please remember that the Relevant Testimony descriptor is not meant to be definitive. In some instances, a witness might cover material from more than one category. For example, many of the witnesses were asked about Mary Surratt’s eyesight in the course of their other testimonies. Still, the attempt has been made to determine the most applicable category for each witness’s overall testimony.

Categories: History | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

“Helped to Guard the Conspirators”

While doing a little searching tonight, I came across an interesting article from the December 15, 1902 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It highlights a Philadelphia resident named Isaac M. Marshall who claimed to have been among the guards detailed the watch over the Lincoln assassination conspirators during their trial and imprisonment. The article gives some candid thoughts that Corporal Marshall had about the conspirators, which I thought would be worth sharing.

Living at 3213 Mt. Vernon street is a veteran of the Civil War – Isaac M. Marshall – who was one of the guards of the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln, and who has still a vivid recollection of how they looked and acted when on trial for their lives at the old Arsenal in Washington. “I was a member of Company I, of the Third Regiment, Hancock’s Veteran Corps, at the time,” he said yesterday to a reporter of The Inquirer. “We were camped outside the capital in 1865, and the morning after the great crime had been committed we got orders to watch all the approaches leading from the city. The entire regiment was given this duty and no one was allowed to go through the lines without establishing his or her identity, and that they had a right to pass on.

“Later on our company was at the Arsenal during the trial of the men and Mrs. Surratt. I remember all of the conspirators well. Lewis Payne, one of those who were hanged, always wore a knit shirt. He was stalwart and of athletic build and had an eagle eye. The stern look on his face never appeared to change. David E. Herold was handsome, and he knew it. He had long black hair and he frequently pushed it above his forehead. There were many young women present – admitted by card – and to some of these he frequently bowed. One of his peculiar actions was to raise his hands so that they could see his manacled wrists.

“Of Samuel B. Arnold, whose story of alleged cruel treatment I have read with deep interest, as it appears from day to day in The Inquirer, I want to say this: Whatever may have happened to him at the Dry Tortugas, he did not look as if he had suffered any before his trial occurred. On the contrary, he appeared to have been well fed and otherwise well cared for. You could scarcely tell what kind of a man he was. At times his countenance wore a look of defiance; then of sternness and again of unconcern. He was neatly attired, as were all the others, save Payne, who managed to change his clothes after the crime, assuming the garb of a laborer.

“Michael O’Laughlin, who also went to the Dry Tortugas, was the only one who seemed to be affected and sorry. George Atzerodt I didn’t pay much attention to. Dr. Mudd did not have the appearance at all of a physician or professional man. Mrs. Surratt was always veiled; sat immovable and looked like a statue. After the trial the Third Regiment was sent to Camp Butler, at Springfield, Ill., and I was there when the lamented Lincoln was buried…”

Marshall’s extended comment about Samuel Arnold is due to the fact that this article came out in 1902, the same year that Arnold allowed his lengthy memoirs to be printed in the newspapers after he had read his own obituary. In his memoir, Arnold complained at length about the treatment he received at the hands of the government. Marshall provides a small rebuff to Arnold’s claims that he was mistreated while in Washington (though considering the hoods Arnold and the others were forced to wear, you can’t blame him too much for complaining). The other descriptions of the Lincoln conspirators are very much in line with what other visitors of the trial observed.

While I can’t positively confirm that Isaac Marshall was one of the guards at the trial of the conspirators, it seems fairly likely he is telling the truth. The Old Arsenal Penitentiary, where the conspirators were imprisoned and tried, was largely manned by members of the Veteran Reserve Corps, which Marshall was a member. On the day of the execution of the conspirators, Marshall’s specific group, the Third Regiment, was assigned duty as sentinels from the northeast corner of the arsenal grounds extending along the east bank of the river. Members of the 3rd regiment were also stationed in a line 100 yards south of the prison grounds. So, at the very least, Marshall did have guard duty on the day of the conspirators’ death. Even Marshall’s claim to have been in Springfield when Lincoln was buried is possible. The Third Regiment wasn’t officially mustered out of service until December of 1865 and Abraham Lincoln’s remains were “buried” in a temporary vault in Oak Ridge Cemetery on December 21, 1865. Isaac Marshall may have had the unique experience of being present at both the execution of the conspirators and at one of Abraham Lincoln’s many burials.

Isaac Marshall died on July 6, 1919 and is buried in Fernwood Cemetery, outside of Philadelphia.

References:
(1902, December 15) Helped to Guard the Conspirators. Philadelphia Inquirer, p 5.

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

A Plaque for Mary Surratt

In June of 1917, a museum in Richmond, Virginia was given a memorial plaque. Measuring 15 inches high and 10 inches across, the bronze plaque featured a cast ivy design along the top, a central cross, four fleur-de-lis, and two small flowers. The tablet was a gift intended to be displayed on the wall of one of the rooms within the museum and spoke of the innocence of the executed Lincoln conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The plaque was commissioned by the Maryland Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was created by a Baltimore artist named Joseph Maxwell Miller at a cost of $100. The Maryland UDC presented the plaque to the White House of the Confederacy, then known as the Confederate Museum. Within the museum there were 11 rooms devoted to the 11 different states within the Confederacy along with three others for the Confederates from the sympathetic border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. This plaque was an addition to the Maryland Room within the Confederate Museum.

The ladies of the Maryland UDC were quite proud of this piece. In their end of the year report for 1917, the following paragraph was included.

“For many years we have wished to place a tablet in memory of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, of Maryland, an innocent woman who was tried and condemned by the Federal Government. This year we have accomplished our purpose, and the beautiful tablet of golden bronze, the work of Maxwell Miller, a young artist of Baltimore, is hanging in the Maryland Room in Richmond, with the inscription of her own words, “To God, I commend my cause!”

Aside from the fact that there is no evidence that Mary Surratt ever said the words the UDC attributed to her (and that the final plaque inscription doesn’t even bear that phrase), the plaque also puts the wrong date for Mary’s execution. Mary Surratt and the other condemned conspirators were executed on July 7, 1865, not the 9th as the plaque states.

It’s extremely fitting that, like the many other memorials and monuments created by the UDC and other Confederate groups, this memorial to Mary Surratt is a misrepresentation of history not just in fact, but also in intent. While there is an evidence based case to be made regarding Mary Surratt’s (possible) innocence, this plaque is not about portraying history as much as it is a tool for furthering the narrative of the Myth of the Lost Cause. It’s amazing how much the “murder” of Mary Surratt played into the narrative of Confederate organizations in the decades following her execution.

In looking for period documentation regarding this plaque I searched the issues of the Confederate Veteran magazine. The magazine was founded in 1893, at around the same time the White House of the Confederacy was opened as a museum. Confederate Veteran later became an official publication for the UDC and other Confederate groups. I finally found a mention of the plaque in the July 1920 edition which stated, plainly, “The Baltimore chapter also placed in the Maryland Room, Richmond Museum, a tablet to Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, the only Memorial by any Chapter to this martyred woman.” The Maryland UDC may have placed the only physical memorial to Mary Surratt, but her “martyrdom” was a regular feature in the Confederate Veteran magazine. Mrs. Surratt’s case was often used in conjunction with other Confederate talking points devoted to perpetuating the Myth of the Lost Cause and the villainy of the North. Here’s just a sampling of the Mary Surratt mentions I found while searching the 1916 – 1920 editions of the Confederate Veteran. Please note: very little of what follows is factually accurate and the points that are accurate are largely misleading or given false equivalences. As such, what follows is made up almost entirely of Confederate revisionist propaganda which constituted the bulk of the Confederate Veteran magazine.

June 1916: “For years after Appomattox the South was the victim of slander and falsehood heaped high – the Surratt case, the Wirz trial (the two darkest blots on the country’s escutcheon), the Andersonville stories, the Fort Pillow massacre, and a host of others circulated by rabid politicians in an effort to justify the horrors of Reconstruction.

Time works wonders, though, and one by one these bubble lies have been pricked by the pen of fact. Every intelligent American, except a few who still prefer to remain in darkness so far as the War between the States is concerned, knows that the South did not fight to perpetuate slavery, that the right of secession was believed by statesmen North and South to be guaranteed by the Constitution, that the suffering among Union prisoners in the South was due primarily to the refusal of the Washington administration to exchange prisoners, that President Davis and other Confederate officials were horrified by the assassination of Lincoln, that Mrs. Surratt had nothing to do with that crime, that the burning of Chambersburg was in retaliation for the burning and destruction by Hunter and others in Virginia, and that Chambersburg and Lawrence were the only two Northern towns put to the torch by Confederates, where a score of Southern towns were burned by the invaders.”

August 1919: “Students of our national history cannot fail to observe the marked and unvarying absence of any reference or allusion to Mrs. Surratt in works relating to American biography, textbooks, cyclopedias, etc., prepared under the auspices of Northern scholars and controlled by Northern publishers. The typical pupil would never become aware of her existence if dependent upon the authorities to whom he looks for light and guidance…Let me again commend the memory of Mrs. Surratt to the devout perusal of those educational oracles of the South who are unable to control or restrain their eagerness to grovel in the earth at the feet of a triumphant enemy whose crowning garland and wreath of glory was the slaughter of an innocent woman.”

March 1920: “Among the crowning infamies associated with our national record three may be cited as unchallengeable, preeminent, and unique in their ghastly atrocity, the murder of Mrs. Surratt, the campaign of Sherman in the Carolinas, and the treatment inflicted upon President Davis by specific direction of the Federal government while a prostrate captive in his cell at Fortress Monroe.”

For organizations like the United Confederate Veterans, the UDC, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mary Surratt was an effective and useful recruiting tool. By taking the legitimate ambiguity regarding her knowledge of the assassination plot against Lincoln and the difficult legality regarding her trial and conviction, Confederate apologists slowly developed Mary Surratt into a martyr for their cause. Over time, they perpetuated the uncertainty regarding Mary’s guilt, transforming it into a near universal belief of her innocence. Once that was done, she was brought up constantly, becoming the epitome of the virtuous and innocent Southern woman who paid the ultimate price at the hands of the villainous North. In this way, Confederate groups could use Mrs. Surratt’s established infallibility to assist in the development of other false equivalences. In the 1916 excerpt from above, for example, Mary Surratt’s name sits in a list with the claim that the South did not fight the Civil War over slavery, thus helping this highly erroneous statement portray itself as just and legitimate as the established truth of Mrs. Surratt’s innocence.

The 1920 excerpt is perhaps the most telling of the Confederate Veteran‘s (and therefore the organizations attached to it) goals. When speaking of the three most heinous crimes ever committed in our nation’s history, the execution of Mrs. Surratt, the wartime crusade of General Sherman, and the shackling of Jefferson Davis while imprisoned, all superseded our country’s centuries-long abominable practice of genocide and rape known as slavery – a practice that the South absolutely fought to perpetuate. It is in this way that Mary Surratt’s claimed innocence did the most damage. Her agreed upon martyrdom allowed Confederate revisionists to literally whitewash the atrocities of the past, providing them with a virtuous, white, Southern woman to supplant the millions of enslaved men, women and children, who toiled and died in bondage.

The modern effort of reassessing and removing Confederate monuments of the past is a study of whose history was supplanted when these monuments went up in the first place. Whose story did our ancestors choose to elevate and whose did they choose to ignore? As a society we need to constantly be reassessing the actions and motivations of those in the past in order to create a better future. Even the White House of the Confederacy knew this to be true when they renovated their museum in the 1980’s. They transformed the museum from a collection of shrines to the different Confederate states, into a historic house museum which educates the public about the time period in which the Davis family lived there. Mary Surratt’s plaque has been off of the walls of the museum since 1988 with no “loss of history” having occurred as a result. The White House of the Confederacy has continued to reassess itself and its place in furthering the narrative of Confederate apologists. In 2013, the then Museum of the Confederacy merged with the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. Together they took the name of the American Civil War Museum and have been actively increasing their collections to house more artifacts relating to the Union and enslaved peoples. Their efforts are commendable, especially in the wake of backlash from the remnants of the UDC and other neo-Confederate groups that exist today.

This plaque to Mrs. Surratt is currently housed in the collection of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. The debate about Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln will continue to take place even without this memorial tablet on display and interested visitors can make research appointments to view this artifact as we did. It may seem like merely a plaque for Mary Surratt but, like so many other Confederate memorials, its a representation of the values of the people who commissioned it and, as such, no longer represents who we want to be as a nation. Let us, instead, continue to work to balance the scales of representation and allow other, previously suppressed stories of pain and perseverance rise from the overlooked depths and find their place in the historical narrative of commemoration.

References:
American Civil War Museum
Minutes of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy
Confederate Veteran magazine Volumes 24, 27, & 28

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 19 Comments

The Execution of the Lincoln Conspirators

The sun was bright and hot as Alexander Gardner tended to his equipment on July 7, 1865. The noted Civil War photographer had brought two cameras with him, one wet plate and one stereoscopic, with which to capture the day’s event. Gardner was lucky, due to his prestige he was able to set himself up in the cool shade of a nearby building overlooking the scene. From his vantage point, facing out of two windows on the second floor of an old shoe factory on the property, Gardner could take in the entire scene.

Men began trickling into the courtyard below. Most were soldiers on assigned guard duty, but there was also a notable contingent of civilians. Many were newspapermen, here to commit to writing what Gardner would record on glass. A few others had come, in spite of the oppressive heat, to see justice meted out. Gardner focused his cameras on the object around which all the men had gathered – a hastily built gallows. Over the course of the next thirty minutes or so, Gardner would take at least 10 photographs of the proceedings. Through his lens, the execution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt was recorded in haunting clarity.

By using high resolution versions of Alexander Gardner’s photographs available through the Library of Congress, one can splice most of the execution photographs together to recreate the final moments of the four condemned conspirators in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in vivid detail. NOTE: The animation is below but is a bit large so it might take a second to load, especially on mobile devices.

Alexander Gardner’s photographs of the hanging provide us with a glimpse of the past that no newspaper report can equally replicate. Combined with modern technology, these photographs bring realism to a story whose epilogue was written 153 years ago today.

Click to view the full sized composite image

References:
The post was inspired by the work of Barry Cauchon and John Elliott

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.