Posts Tagged With: Museums

The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (October 11 – October 17)

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.


October 11


October 12


October 13


October 14


October 15


October 16


October 17


Bonus

Here are a few other tweets from this week that I thought might interest folks.


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (September 27 – October 3)

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.


September 27


September 28


September 29


September 30


October 1


October 2


October 3


Bonus

Here are a few other tweets from this week that I thought might interest folks.

On the first Friday of the month, the National Archives hosts an #ArchivesHashtagParty on Twitter. They encourage other archives and museums to tweet out pieces in their collection based around a different theme. This month’s theme was #ArchivesArt. Even though I’m not an archive, I sometimes take part in the fun showing off things in different collections.


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Lincoln Assassination On This Day (September 20 – September 26)

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite books, John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day by Art Loux, I’m documenting a different Lincoln assassination or Booth family event each day on my Twitter account. In addition to my daily #OTD (On This Day) tweets, each Sunday I’ll be posting them here for the past week. If you click on any of the pictures in the tweet, it will take you to its individual tweet page on Twitter where you can click to make the images larger and easier to see. Since Twitter limits the number of characters you can type in a tweet, I often include text boxes as pictures to provide more information. I hope you enjoy reading about the different events that happened over the last week.


September 20


September 21


September 22


September 23


September 24


September 25


September 26


Bonus

Here are a few other tweets from this week that I thought might interest folks.


That brings us up to today. Next Sunday I’ll write another post covering the #OTD tweets from this coming week. If you don’t want to wait until then and want to know each anniversary on the day it happens, follow me on Twitter! My username is @LinConspirators (Twitter has a character limit not only for tweets, but for usernames as well so I had to condense it). Even if you don’t want to join Twitter, you can still see my tweets by just visiting my Twitter page on the web. You can also see my tweets by looking at the sidebar of this website if you’re using a desktop or laptop computer, or at the bottom if you are visiting on a mobile device.

Until next week!

Categories: History, OTD | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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2020 Surratt Conference Cancelled

Following the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control to limit group gatherings, the Surratt House Museum has decide to cancel this year’s Surratt Society Lincoln Assassination Conference. The conference was originally scheduled for April 3 – 5, 2020, but is now cancelled in order to lessen the spread and impact of COVID-19 (coronavirus).

I was scheduled to speak at this year’s conference on the imprisonment of Dr. Mudd and the other conspirators at Fort Jefferson. As disappointing as the cancellation is, I wholeheartedly agree with the Surratt Society’s decision to put the welfare of its attendees first.

Those who have already registered and paid for the conference will receive a refund of their registration fees, as well as the fees for the Friday and Sunday bus tours if applicable. The Surratt House Museum will be sending out more information in the following weeks about the refund process. You can also contact them directly with any questions. Their phone number is (301) 868-1121.

The decision to cancel the conference was not an easy one, but was done in solidarity with the hundreds of other historical institutions and organizations who are canceling events in order to decrease the spread of this virus. As an annual conference, the Surratt Society looks forward to 2021 when we may all, once again, come together to share in our love of history.

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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.





























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A New Photograph of Dr. Mudd?

I’ve always been a big proponent of digitization efforts on the part of institutions. Scanning and putting materials online allows researchers to connect with items that they would not know existed otherwise. It was through a digital collection that I noticed that there was a third mug shot photograph of conspirator Michael O’Laughlen when most texts and historians were only aware of two. At the time, I had believed that discovery of a new photograph of a Lincoln conspirator had been a once in a lifetime find. Yet last night while doing some minor research regarding Fort Jefferson, the island prison of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, I believe I stumbled across another historic find and, once again, digitization efforts have made it possible.

In April of this year, I fulfilled my dream of visiting and camping at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. I took almost 2500 pictures while on the island and yesterday I went through some of them. Some of the pictures I took were attempts to recreate older photos of the Fort that I had seen in books. The goal was to match the old photo as close as I could and use them for side by side shots demonstrating the “Then and Now” of Fort Jefferson. Last night I was looking for high resolution copies of some of the older photographs in order to provide the best visuals I could. While searching for better quality images of National Park Service photographs, I came across a digitization site called the Open Parks Network.

Operating in partnership with the NPS and Clemson University, Open Parks Network is digitizing some of the National Park Service’s holdings of images and documents. In this manner they have digitized some of the collection of Dry Tortugas National Park. I was grateful to find that the Open Parks Network had several of the older images I needed and that they were available to download for free and were in the public domain.

Then, as I was scrolling through the items from the Dry Tortugas collection, I found this curious entry.

Though titled, “Doctor Mudd at fort entrance, Fort Jefferson” it had the date of 1870 attached to it. Given that Dr. Mudd was pardoned and left Fort Jefferson in 1869, I was suspicious. I just assumed that some archivist or digitizer made a mistake somewhere, but I clicked on the entry anyway. This is the image I was presented with.

I, of course, immediately zoomed in on the figure sitting on the railing near the moat.

Now I receive a lot of pictures from people claiming to have a previously unknown photograph of John Wilkes Booth. At times I have been sent a prospective Lewis Powell or George Atzerodt to consider. I’ve also been given a couple of Dr. Mudds to peruse. Yet, despite the many folks who believe their mustachioed gentleman is John Wilkes Booth, I have never been presented with a new image of the conspirators (aside from the O’Laughlen one) that I felt was the real McCoy. Some have trouble accepting my opinion on their images and try to convince me that I’m mistaken. They provide “evidence” which “proves” their image is who they say it is. Some have even taken their images to so-called photography experts who have used scientific means to prove their image is genuine. But such claims have never changed my mind. All of the commissioned “proof” in the world can’t make my eyes see something that it doesn’t. I can speak about details in Booth’s face but, in the end, it just comes down to the basic question, “Does it look right”? Thus far, they never have. So I think it’s safe to say that I have a pretty discriminating eye when it comes to images of Booth and his conspirators.

It is for this reason that I am amazed to find myself saying that this image of Dr. Mudd looks right to me. I fully admit that the quality of the image is not great. The main subject is sitting farther back from the camera than would be optimal. His face is only partially turned toward the camera which impedes identification. And the notation of 1870 needs rectifying. Yet despite all of that, when I look at the gentleman in the picture I see Dr. Mudd. I see his mustache and his goatee (though trimmed a bit closer than in his other pictures). I see his slender build, made even more slender from the conditions of his imprisonment. And even though they are little more than pixels in this low quality image, I can still make out the light and aloof eyes that identify Dr. Mudd to me. In addition the pants and shoes the man is wearing closely, if not exactly, match the attire Dr. Mudd was photographed in while he was working in the carpentry shop at Fort Jefferson.

Let’s address the other aspects of the photo. After the uncanny resemblance to Dr. Mudd, there were a few things I noticed right off the bat. First, this is clearly a photo of a photo. At some point the original photo appears to have been tacked up on a wall or board somewhere and someone took a camera and photographed it. You can still see the tacks that held up the image in the corners.

Second, the original image looks like half of a stereoview photograph.  Stereoview or stereoscopic images are taken with a camera that has two lenses spaced beside each other. The camera captures two slightly different angles of the same subject. When viewed with a stereoviewer a three dimension image can be seen. This type of photography was popular in the Civil War era and beyond and can still be seen in the children’s toy, Viewmaster.  The closely cut right hand side of the image and the rounded top seem to imply that this image was taken with one side of a stereoscopic camera.

A stereoview card of Ford’s Theatre

Third, this photograph is old. When it comes to pictures of Fort Jefferson there are only a few that come from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. A large percent of the archived image of Fort Jefferson are from the 1930s onward. There are a few that were taken in the late 1890s and early 1900s when the Spanish American War made Fort Jefferson an important and useful fort again. Photography had also advanced quite a bit at that time which made photography easier, cheaper and more popular among amateurs. The presence of Union soldiers behind the Dr. Mudd figure and the good condition of the Fort itself show that this image most certainly could have been taken during Dr. Mudd’s imprisonment.

After going through all of the images in the Dry Tortugas collection that the Open Parks Network has digitized, I discovered that this was not the only image that shares the unique features mentioned above. I found eight other images of scenes around the Fort that are photographs of photographs and similarly appear to be parts of stereoview cards. You can view them here (1), here (2), here (3), here (4), here (5), here (6), here (7) and here (8). All the images show the Fort in the state of construction that it was in during the conspirators’ time there. One of the images is of the memorial for Dr. Joseph Sim Smith, the post doctor who died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1867 that Dr. Mudd took over for.

If this image was taken at the same time as the Dr. Mudd one, which would seem likely, this can help us date that picture to after 1867.

The back notation of 1870 is a discrepancy in all of this. As far as we know, Dr. Mudd never returned to Fort Jefferson after his pardon in 1869 and, even if he did, it would seem extremely unlikely he would return so soon after his release. Some of the images that look similar to the Dr. Mudd one also bear the notation 1870, but others from the same series do not. It is my opinion that those notations of 1870 cannot be taken as accurate. As stated before, the images are clearly pictures of pictures so we do not know what writing, if any, was on the originals. The fact that none of the 9 images in the series have any other notation on the back shows that not a lot of detail was given to recording precise information about what they show and when. Perhaps 1870 was an approximate (or circa) guess by a well-meaning Park Service employee who discovered the image years later.

To me, despite its problems, this photograph checks all the boxes. The original image was taken using period appropriate photography equipment. The condition of the Fort matches the period of time when the Lincoln conspirators were imprisoned there. The Dr. Mudd figure has the same facial hair and body type as the doctor and his clothes closely match an outfit Mudd was known to have had with him on the fort. Lastly, the specific location of this photograph at the fort makes sense for Dr. Mudd. For a large part of his imprisonment at Fort Jefferson, Mudd was housed in the cell right above the Sally Port entrance. The three vertical windows on the second floor of this image are the windows of Dr. Mudd’s cell. So this image captures not only a figure who looks like Dr. Mudd, but the location of his imprisonment, which seems purposefully planned.

The cell that Dr. Mudd, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen and Edman Spangler shared was located above the sally port entrance to Fort Jefferson and is marked by the three vertical windows.

Still, all of this evidence only proves that it is possible for this image to be of Dr. Mudd. In the end, we must all draw our own conclusions.

Personally, I believe that this is an unpublished and previously unknown image of Lincoln assassination conspirator Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. I’m very excited that digitization has allowed me to find this image and share it with all of you. I hope that it can be used to further our understanding of the life of Dr. Mudd and his time at Fort Jefferson.


EDIT: A couple of comments have been made expressing doubt that the figure is Dr. Mudd due to the fine nature of the subject’s clothing. On the face of it, it is hard to believe that a man who was imprisoned on a isolated island for 3 years and 9 months could look so immaculately dressed. The following is the comment I made in reply to that conclusion which shows why I think it actually makes perfect sense for Dr. Mudd to look so well presented:

“Please thank Rick Smith for his analysis of the clothing. He is a real expert on both civilian and soldier attire so I’m glad to see that this image matches the time period.

It appears that the only reason Rick is suspicious that the image is not Dr. Mudd is due to the cleanliness and fine quality of his outfit. You also seemed surprised by the niceness of his attire. However, we must remember that Dr. Mudd was furnished with clothes by Mrs. Mudd while he was in prison. He used one of his fine suit of clothes when he attempted to make his escape in 1865. Here’s a quote from the report about Mudd’s escape attempt which mentions Dr. Mudd’s clothing:

“Since he has been in confinement here, he has been employed in the Prison Hospital, as Nurse and Acting Steward. When he came here, it was noticed that he immediately adopted the same clothing as worn by other prisoners. Although he had good clothes of his own. On the day he attempted to escape he put on one of the suits he brought with him and in some way got outside the Fort to the Wharf…”

Shortly after his escape attempt, Dr. Mudd wrote home asking his wife to provide him (and his cell mates) with additional clothing. On October 5, 1865, Mudd wrote, “The only article of clothing I need is shirts. The Government furnishes flannel shirts, which I find very pleasant in damp weather, but very disagreeable and warm in dry sunshine. If the friends of Arnold and O’Laughlin should send a box of clothing to them, you may put in a couple of brown linen, or check linen, shirts and a couple pairs cotton drawers. You may not bother yourself to this extent if you anticipate an early release. My clothing is sufficient to come home in.”

At least one shipment of clothes arrived by December as he wrote then to his brother-in-law Jeremiah Dyer that he had received a shipment, “containing a quantity of fine clothes”. A similar letter written to Mrs. Mudd at the time also commented on the clothing shipment stating, “The clothing is finer than I need, besides I am not situated to wear them.

These accounts establish that while Dr. Mudd did possess some fine pieces of clothing while at Fort Jefferson, during his day to day prison life he generally wore the normal garb provided by the government. However, I would imagine that getting your photograph taken would be the one event that would lead you to put on your finest clothing. And, if we speculate that this image might have been taken shortly before Dr. Mudd left Fort Jefferson forever, it would make sense he would change into his finest suit for the journey home.”


EDIT #2: I neglected to mention that this picture of Dr. Mudd wasn’t the only treasure in the Dry Tortugas collection. Also included in the digitized images is this picture of the door to the dungeon that held Dr. Mudd and the other conspirators after Dr. Mudd’s escape attempt. In his later memoirs Samuel Arnold mentioned that the door was headed with the inscription “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind.” From this image of the original door we can see that inscription was a bit more succinct than Arnold recalled but just as foreboding:

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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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