Posts Tagged With: Witnesses

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

The Hidden History of James P. Ferguson

On April 1, 2017, I spoke at the annual Surratt Society Conference. The topic of my speech revolved around the hidden histories of some of the minor characters in the Lincoln assassination story. One of the subjects of that talk was James P. Ferguson, assassination witness and proprietor of the Greenback Saloon next to Ford’s Theatre. The following text comes from my speech and is presented in lieu of a Grave Thursday post.


James Patton Ferguson

Burial Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio

Connection to the Lincoln assassination:

In the assassination story, James P. Ferguson is known as being the man who owned the Greenback Saloon on the north side of Ford’s Theatre. Ferguson was well acquainted with the actor turned assassin, John Wilkes Booth. On the day of Lincoln’s assassination, in the late afternoon hours, Booth had showed off his escape horse to Ferguson and some of the Ford’s Theatre employees. That night, Ferguson secured two tickets to “Our American Cousin”. He had been told that General Grant was going to be the guest of the Lincoln’s that night and Ferguson wanted to see the great general. Ferguson secured seats on the balcony level opposite the President’s box in order to get a good view of its occupants. When the President arrived with different guests, Ferguson was disappointed but kept his eyes on the box hoping that Grant might join the party later. Ferguson was perhaps the only person looking at the President’s box when John Wilkes Booth entered and fired. He was one of the first witnesses to be interviewed and his descriptions of the events of that night are one of the best.

Hidden History:

James Patton Ferguson was born on August 20, 1828 in Highland County, Ohio. As a young man he had a roving restless nature. He found employment as a boatman on a river steamboat that ran between Cincinnati and New Orleans, he was elected as a policeman in Cincinnati until he was fired for being found asleep in a barrel while on duty, then he moved to New Orleans where he worked as a bartender. While he would continue to work as a bartender and restaurant keeper for the rest of his life, in the mid 1850’s Ferguson left his job in New Orleans and joined up as a soldier of fortune. Ferguson traveled down to Nicaragua to fight under the command of a man named William Walker.

William Walker

William Walker was a Tennessean physician and lawyer turned mercenary. He was a firm believer in both the practice of slavery and in belief of Manifest destiny. Walker sought to annex land in Mexico and Central America in order to create new American colonies that practiced slavery. These colonies would be ruled by Walker as republics in the hope they would later be accepted into the United States as additional slave states. In 1853, Walker successfully invaded the sparsely inhabited Mexican state of Baja and declared it the Republic of Lower California.

Walker planned to invade and annex the nearby Mexican state of Sonora but, in 1854, with his supplies running low, he retreated back to the U.S. Though he was put on trial for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794 which made it illegal for an American to wage a war against any country at peace with the United States, Walker was acquitted by a jury after only 8 minutes of deliberation.

While Walker had been fighting in Mexico in 1854, a civil war had broken out in Nicaragua.  The two groups fighting for control of the country were the Legitimist Party and the Democratic Party. After hearing about Walker’s incursion into Mexico, the leader of the Democratic party, Francisco Castellon, sought Walker’s help to defeat the Legitimists. Back then, Nicaragua, like Panama, was a crucial point for transcontinental trade. Walker saw the benefit of controlling Nicaragua and traveled down to “help” Castellon and the Democrats. On June 29, 1855, Walker with a group of about 45 mercenaries and 100 natives, seized the city of Rivas, Nicaragua. By October of 1855, Walker and his men had completely defeated the Legitimist army and had seized their capital of Granada. The civil war in Nicaragua had been won for the Democratic Party. News of Walker’s success traveled far and wide and apparently made an impression on the 27 year-old James P Ferguson. Ferguson left New Orleans and traveled down to Nicaragua to join Walker and his men.

As commander of the whole army, William Walker essentially ruled Nicaragua through a provisional president. Walker’s regime was even recognized as the legitimate government of Nicaragua by U.S. President Franklin Pierce. Though it is unknown when exactly James P. Ferguson joined the ranks of Walker’s army, we know it was at least by April of 1856. You see after the Nicaraguan Civil war ended with Walker’s army victorious, the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Honduras had growing concerns over their border. Walker’s well known desire to annex and expand his territory was a problem. In March of 1856, Costa Rica declared war not on Nicaragua but on Walker’s army of mercenary invaders. On April 11, 1856, the army of Costa Rica made attacked on Walker’s army in Rivas, the same city that Walker had seized when he first arrived in Nicaragua the year earlier. James P. Ferguson was in that battle which was later known as the Second Battle of Rivas. The Costa Rican army of almost 9,000 volunteers were too much for Walker and he was forced to retreat to his stronghold of Granada. At the end of the battle casualties were high on both sides. Though the circumstances are unknown, Ferguson is listed as one of those wounded during the battle.

He was lucky he was not killed, for, as they were retreating from Rivas, Walker ordered the bodies of the dead to be thrown into the city’s wells in order to poison the town’s water supply. This dastardly deed was very effective and resulted in a cholera epidemic after the battle had ended. The Costa Rican army unwittingly brought tainted water back with them when they returned home which resulted in a cholera epidemic that killed 10% of the country’s population.

The wounded James P. Ferguson left Nicaragua shortly after the Second Battle of Rivas and returned to the United States. Though he recovered, for the rest of his life, James P. Ferguson would walk with a limp.

After his return to the U.S., Ferguson went back to his chosen profession as a bartender. When the Civil War broke out, Ferguson, like many others, made his was to Washington, D.C. which had increased in size due to the war. In April of 1861, 33 year-old Ferguson married a woman named Martha who was about the same age as him. The pair settled down in D.C. where Ferguson came to run the Greenback Saloon.

Among the countless others who made Washington their home was a young couple named Sabret and Ann Cecil. The Cecils had three children. In 1862, Sabret died unexpectedly leaving Ann to raise their children Martha, Mary and John all by herself. To make ends meet Ann worked as a dressmaker. Somehow, the Fergusons came to know Ann and her children. Perhaps seeing the difficult situation Ann was in as a single mother and perhaps because James and Martha never had any children of their own, the Fergusons apparently offered to help Ann by caring for her middle daughter, Mary Ella, at the time. The Fergusons provided Ella with lodging and care and she became essentially one of the family. James Ferguson was very fond of 12 year-old and doted upon her greatly.

Martha Ferguson’s health was not always the greatest and that is the reason why, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was Mary Ella Cecil who was James P. Ferguson’s guest at Ford’s Theatre instead. Ferguson’s detailed account of the crime made him a hot commodity with his story being  carried in many of the newspapers of the day, while Ella doesn’t seem to have been interviewed at all.

A few months after the assassination, Martha Ferguson’s health worsened and so James suggested that his wife leave D.C. James arranged for Martha to stay with some friends of his in his home state of Ohio. With Martha gone, Ella went back to live with her mother Ann. While James was very dutiful in writing letters to his wife in the period shortly after her departure, over time his letters to her became less and less until they inexplicably stopped coming altogether. By late 1866, Martha heard some terrible news from some of her other acquaintances, her husband had apparently taken a mistress and was parading her around as his wife. Angry, Martha left Ohio and travelled back to D.C. to confront her cheating spouse. When she arrived in D.C. she found that James had left the city, apparently having learned of her return. She traced him up to Baltimore before learning he departed that city and gone back to D.C. just before she had arrived. Returning to D.C., Martha learned the identity of the woman who was her husband’s mistress. Filled with fury and anger, Martha knocked on a door that was located near 6th St and H St, right around the corner from Mary Surratt’s boarding house. When the door opened Martha Ferguson upbraided the girl who had ruined her life, Mary Ella Cecil.

Yes, it appears that at some point over the years, James P. Ferguson’s interest in Ella changed from guardian to suitor. It’s possible that Ferguson was interested in Ella romantically as far back as the assassination when Ella was only 14 years old. It seems increasingly likely that James Ferguson sent his wife away to Ohio in order to remove any barriers against his relationship with Ella.

James Ferguson was not present in the home that Ella shared with her mother, but unfortunately “Jimmy the canary was. You see, as a token of his affection, James had presented Ella with a lovely canary whom Ella named Jimmy after its donor. Martha, seeing the bird and hearing its name, was so enraged that, to quote to newspaper, “she took the bird and wrung its head off”.

Screaming ensued between Ella and Martha and Ella seized Martha in order to kick her out of the house. At this, Martha pulled out a revolver and aimed it at Ella’s chest. Martha pulled the trigger three times, but the gun did not fire. Someone intervened and prevented the two from fighting further while a police officer was sent for. Martha Ferguson was arrested and charged with assault and battery with intent to kill with her bail set at $1,000.

Despite a hearty search, I was unable to find any additional details about Martha’s arrest or even if she stood trial for what she had done. It is unlikely Martha went to jail for committing avicide against Jimmy the canary and though she intended to serious harm Ella, the fact that the gun did not fire also probably saved her. Regardless, Martha falls completely off the radar after her arrest, even to the point that James did not know where to find her. In spring of 1867, James sought to divorce Martha but the issued subpoena is returned as Martha was, “not to be found”.

In July of 1867, James took a legal notice in the National Intelligencer stating that if she does not appear within 40 days he will go through the divorce proceedings in her absence. There is no evidence that Martha ever comes forward and in December of 1867, the divorce is put on the docket in the D.C. courts. On February, 11, 1868, James P. Ferguson is granted a divorce against Martha. In what is likely a final insult to Mrs. Ferguson, James alleges that his reason for divorce is because Martha committed adultery in October and November of 1866 and was also addicted to drinking.

Fifteen days after his divorce from Martha, 39 year old James P. Ferguson married 17 year-old Mary Ella Cecil in DC. After losing his bar and restaurant the couple would move to Cincinnati and have three children together. James P. Ferguson died in 1897 while Ella lived almost 40 more years dying in 1936. They are buried together in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

That’s some of the hidden history of James P. Ferguson, saloon keeper, key assassination witness, Nicaraguan mercenary, and creepy adopted father/husband.

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , | 16 Comments

Julia Wilbur and the Saga of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

This is the second of two posts utilizing content gleaned from the diaries of Julia Ann Wilbur, a relief worker who lived in Alexandria, Virginia and Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. For biographical information on Julia Wilbur, as well as information regarding her diaries please read the first post titled, Julia Wilbur and the Mourning of Lincoln.


Witness to History: Julia Wilbur and the Saga of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Source: Haverford College

Julia Ann Wilbur, Source: Haverford College

When Abraham Lincoln’s assassination occurred on April 14, 1865, Julia Wilbur understood the impact it would have on the history of our country. When not working to provide relief to the thousand of newly freed African Americans residing in Alexandria and Washington, D.C., Julia Wilbur was a student of history. She traveled far and wide to visit places of historical importance, relished exploring the old burial grounds of a city, and found instances to mingle with those who were shaping her times. Therefore, she not only took the time to be a part of the mourning events for Abraham Lincoln, but she also went out of her way to document and even involve herself in the saga of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The following are excerpts from Julia Wilbur’s diaries detailing her interactions with the assassination’s aftermath.

Reporting the News

Like many citizens around the country, Ms. Wilbur took to her diary to report the latest news about the hunt for Booth and his assassins. Sometimes the news was good. Other times, Ms. Wilbur reported on the gossip that was on the lips of everyone in Washington.

April 15, 1865:

“President Lincoln is dead! Assassinated last night at the theater shot in the head by a person on the stage. The president lingered till 7 this A.M. so all hope is over. And Secretary Seward had his throat cut in bed in his own house, but he was alive at the last despatch. It is said an attempt was made on Sec. Stanton but he escaped. Many rumors are afloat, but the above is certain.

…Evening. Sec. Seward is comfortable, & may recover, his son Frederick is in a very critical condition, his son Clarence has only flesh wounds & is able to be about the house. There is a report that Boothe has been taken; that his horse threw him on 7th st. & he was taken into a house.— There is no doubt that it was intended to murder the President, the Vice Pres. all the members of the cabinet and Gen. Grant. & that the managers of the theater knew of it.”

April 16, 1865:

“Two Miss Ford’s were at the Theater at the time of the murder.”

[Note: These Miss Ford’s appear to be friends of Ms. Wilbur’s and unaffiliated with the Fords who owned Ford’s Theatre]

April 17, 1865:

“About noon we saw people going towards G. on the run. & we were told that two men had been found in a cellar dressed in women’s clothes. & it was thought they were the murderers, Miss H. & I walked up that way. They are probably deserters. We met them under guard; they were guilty looking fellows.

…We passed Seward’s House. A guard is placed all around it. & on the walk we were not allowed to go between the guard & the house. He was not told of the President’s death until yesterday. He seems to be improving. No news in particular. No trace of the murderers.”

Wilbur diary no trace of the murderers
April 18, 1865:

“Mr. Seward is no worse & Mr. F. Seward is improving.”

April 19, 1865:

“When Frances got ready about 12 M. we went out. (all about are posted notices, “$20,000 reward for the apprehension of the Murderer of the President.”)”

April 20, 1865:

“Numbers of persons have been arrested. but Booth has not been taken yet. Ford & others of the Theater have been arrested. The Theater is guarded or it would be torn down. If Booth is found & taken I think he will be torn to pieces. The feeling of vengeance is deep & settled.”

April 21, 1865:

“I went around by Ford’s Theater today. It is guarded by soldiers, or it wd. be torn down. There is great feeling against all concerned in it.— Mr. Peterson’s House opposite where the President died is an inferior 2 storybrick,—but the room in which he died will be kept sacred by the family. A number of persons have been arrested & there are many rumors; but Booth has not been taken yet.— Mr. Seward & son remain about the same.”

April 26, 1865:

“Report that Booth is taken.”

Learning of Booth’s Death from an Eyewitness

One of the more remarkable things in Ms. Wilbur’s diary is how she recounts the details of Booth’s capture and death. On April 27th she is able to give specifics of Booth’s death when such details did appear in papers until the next day. The reason for this is because Ms. Wilbur was able to hear the story firsthand from one of the soldiers of the 16th New York Cavalry, Emory Parady.

Pvt. Emory Parady in his later years

Pvt. Emory Parady in his later years

April 27, 1865:

“Booth was taken yesterday morning at 3 o clock, 3 miles from Port Royal on the Rappac., in a barn, by 25 of 16th. N.Y. Cav. & a few detectives. He was armed with 2 revolvers & 2 bowie knives & a carbine 7 shooter, all loaded. Harrold, an accomplice was with him. Neither wd. surrender until the barn was fired. Then Harrold gave himself up. & when Booth was about to fire at some of the party, he was shot in the head by Sargt. B. Corbett, & lived 2 ½ hrs. afterwards. He was sewed up in a blanket & brought up from Belle Plain to Navy Yd. in a boat this A.M. One of the capturers, Paredy, was here this P.M. & told us all about it.”

Collecting Relics

Julia Wilbur was fond of acquiring relics and would occasionally display her collection to visiting friends. The events of April 14th, motivated Ms. Wilbur to acquire some relics of the tragic event.

April 20, 1865:

“I purchased several pictures of the President, also Seward’s.

…Miss Josephine Slade gave me a piece of a white rosette worn by one of the pallbearers. Then Mrs. C. & I went to Harvey’s where the coffin was made. & obtained a piece of the black cloth with wh. the coffin was covered & pieces of the trimming. The gentleman who was at work upon the case for the coffin was very obliging & kind. This case is of black walnut, lined with black cloth, & a row of fringe around the top inside, I have also a piece of this box.”

April 21, 1865:

“Called on Mrs. Coleman. Then we went to Mr. Alexander’s & got some pieces of the cloth which covered the funeral Car. Then we saw an artist taking a Photograph of the car. which stood near the Coach Factory where it was made. We went there & Mrs. C. took of pieces of the cloth & alpaca. & a young man told us the Car would be broken up to day & he would save us a piece.

“…Then I went out again & obtained a board from the Funeral Car, which a workman was taking to pieces. & also some of the velvet of the covering. I intend to have this board made into a handsome box. & will make a pin cushion of the velvet.”

April 22, 1865:

“Went to see Mrs. Coleman. she gave me some of the hair of President Lincoln.”

May 2, 1865 (in Philadelphia):

“In all the shops are pictures of the President, & there are some of Booth.”

Booth drawing CDV 1865

October 12, 1865:

“Called at Ford’s Theater. got relic.”

October 18, 1865:

“Then Mrs. B. went with me to Ford’s Theater & we each obtained from Mr. Kinney who has charge of the building, a piece of the Presidents Box. The wood work where his knees rested when he was shot.”

A Visit to Richmond

Ms. Wilbur temporarily departed Washington in mid May of 1865. During that time she traveled to Richmond, with side trips to Petersburg and Appomattox, to provide relief work for the newly freed African Americans. Diary entries during her time in Richmond lament the poor living conditions of the black citizens and also discuss her own experiences in the city. One of my favorite anecdotes from that period is Ms. Wilbur’s recounting having tea with a family of free African Americans.

May 19, 1865:

“Took tea by invitation at Mr. Forrester’s. Quite a company. We drank from Jeff. Davis’s tea cups, eat with his knives & forks & eat strawberries & ice cream from his china saucers— I sat in the porch & looked at Jeff’s house not many rods distant, & tried to realize that I was in Richmond— The morning of the evacuation people fled & left their houses open. goods were scattered about the street, & Jeff’s servants gave this china to Mr. Forrester’s boys. That morning must have been one long to be remembered by those who were there. All night long there was commotion in the streets. Jeff. & his crew were getting away with their plunder.”

“Thought I might as well see some thing of this important trial”

Admission to the Conspiracy Trial

Ms. Wilbur returned to Washington, D.C. in mid-June.  Once back home, she quickly resumed her habit of engrossing herself in the historical proceedings happening around her. In June of 1865, such historical proceedings could only be the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. Before attending the trial however, Ms. Wilbur first visited the conspirators’ former site of incarceration.

June 17, 1865:

“In P.M. went to Navy Yard. Went on to the Saugus & the Montauk.

…The Saugus weighs 10 hundred & 30 tons, draws 13 ft. water & its huge revolving turret contains 2 guns wh. carry balls of 470 lbs. It is 150 ft. in length, pointed fore & aft & its 83 deck & sides plated with iron. The turret, pilot house— smokestack & hatchways are all that appear on deck & in an engagement not a man is visible. It has been struck with heavy balls & deep indentations have been made on the sides of the turret. Once a heavy Dahlgren gunboat during an engagement, The Saugus did service at Fort Fisher.— There are 13 engines in this vessel.

We went below & saw the wonders of the interior. Booth’s associates were confined on this vessel for a time. Booth’s body was placed on the Montauk before it was mysteriously disposed of.”

Then, on June 19th, Julia Wilbur attended the trial of the conspirators:

“At 8 went for Mrs. Colman & got note of introduction to Judge Holt from Judge Day & proceeded to the Penitentiary.

Thought I might as well see some thing of this important trial.

Mr. Clampitt read argument against Jurisdiction of Court by Reverdy Johnson.

It was very hot there. Mrs. Suratt was sick & was allowed to leave the room & then they adjourned till 2, & we left. Mrs. S. wore a veil over her face & also held a fan before it all the while.

Harold’s sisters (4) were in the room. The prisoners excepting Mrs. S. & O’Laughlin appeared quite unconcerned. They are all evidently of a low type of humanity. Great contrast to the fine, noble looking men that compose the court.”

Ms. Wilbur’s diary entry concerning the courtroom is valuable not only due to the descriptions she gives of Mrs. Surratt and Michael O’Laughlen, but also because she took the time to sketch the layout of the court when she got home:

Wilbur diary Courtroom layout 1

Wilbur diary courtroom layout 2

“This was the position of the court.

It was an interesting scene, & I am glad I went, although it is so far, & so hot.”

These diagrams are fascinating and help us solidify the placement of the conspirators and members of the military commission in the court room.

Reporting on the Execution

It is likely that the excessive heat in the courtroom convinced Ms. Wilbur that she did not need to attend the trial again.  However, she did keep up with the proceedings and reported on the sentencing and execution of the conspirators (which she did not attend).

July 6, 1865:

“The conspirators have been sentenced. Payne, Harold, Atzerott & Mrs. Surratt are to be hung to morrow. O’Laughlin, Mudd, & Arnold to be imprisoned for life at hard labor, & Spangler to State prison for 6 yrs.”

July 7, 1865:

“Hottest morning yet. Martha ironed, & the whole house has been like an oven. It was too much for me. I could not work.— The days pass & nothing is accomplished— This eve. F & I took a walk.

— About 1 P.M. The executions took place in the Penitentiary Yard. A large number of people witnessed them. They were buried within a few feet of the gallows. It is all dreadful, but I think people breathe more freely now. They are convinced that Government means to punish those who deserve it. Jeff. Davis friends may feel a little uneasy hereafter.”

Facesofdeath

Unfortunately, it does not appear that Ms. Wilbur had any reaction to the death of Mary Surratt, a middle aged woman like herself.  In fact the very next day Ms. Wilbur mentions walking past Mrs. Surratt’s house without any commentary.

July 8, 1865:

“Then passed Mrs. Surratt’s house on the way to Mr. Lake’s, where we had a pleasant call.”

It’s likely that Ms. Wilbur agreed with Mrs. Surratt’s fate as Ms. Wilbur was very against those who held “secesh” sympathies.

Attending Henry Wirz’ Trial

Julia Wilbur continued her habit of attending historic trials in the city, by attending the trial of Andersonville prison commandant, Henry Wirz. After Henry Wirz’ execution she once again invoked the Lincoln conspirators:

November 11, 1865:

“Called at Mr. B’s office & saw Mr. & Mrs. Belden. Heard particulars of the Execution yesterday. Mr. B. gave me an Autograph Note of Henry Wirz, a lock of hair & a piece of the Gallows. I came only for the autograph. His body was mutilated after death, Kidneys were divided among 4 surgeons. Another person had a little finger, obtained under pretense of Post Mortem examination. Remainder of body buried in Yard of the Penetentiary near Atzerot. All this, & we claim to be civilized & human! If his body had been given up to his friends, it would be torn to pieces by the infuriated people.”

As we know Henry Wirz mingled with the bodies of the conspirators until 1869, when Andrew Johnson allowed the bodies of all those executed to be claimed by family. Wirz was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, the same resting place of Mary Surratt.

Piece of Henry Wirz' Old Arsenal coffin in the collection of the Smithsonian's American History Museum.

Piece of Henry Wirz’ Old Arsenal coffin in the collection of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.

In the Interim

By 1866, John Wilkes Booth and four of his conspirators were dead. The other four tried at the trial of the conspirators were serving sentences at Fort Jefferson off the coast of Florida.  As such there was a lull for a time during which Julia Wilbur reported next to nothing revolving around the events of April 14, 1865. Only a few brief mentions exist in her diary of 1866 and early 1867.

April 14, 1866:

“Anniversary of a sad day.

Departments have been closed, & flags are at half mast. No other observance. A year ago today I was in Alex. & could not get away. It was a sad time.”

April 28, 1866:

“Went to the Army Medical Museum. Many interesting in this Museum. Called on Mrs. Smith. She is ill. Went into Ford’s Theater. Not finished yet. It is intended for archives relating to the War of the Rebellion. The sad associations connected with it will make it an object of interest for generations to come.”

April 15, 1867:

“Anniversary of Death of Abraham Lincoln! Two years have passed rapidly away.”

On visiting the National Cemetery in Alexandria on May 12, 1867:

“There is also a monument to the memory of the 4 soldiers who lost their lives in pursuit of Booth the Assassin. They were drowned.”

Upon seeing Secretary War Edwin Stanton on May 27, 1867:

“Saw Sec. Stanton today, but how unlike the Sec. of War that I saw in his office in Oct. ’62. He was then in the vigor & prime of manhood. Hair & beard dark & abundant. But 5 years of War have made him 20 years older. He is thin, sallow, careworn. His locks are thin & gray. I never saw a greater change in any man in so few years.”

June 21, 1867:

“On return went into Ford’s Theater to see the Medical Museum.”

The Escaped Conspirator

In late 1866, John H. Surratt, Jr. was finally captured after more than a year and a half on the run. Surratt had been an active member of John Wilkes Booth’s plot to abduct President Lincoln and take him south. His arrest in Alexandria, Egypt and extradition to the U.S., set in the motion the last judicial proceedings relating to Abraham Lincoln’s death.  Once again, Ms. Wilbur would be sure to take part in this event, attending John Surratt’s trial twice and providing some wonderful detail of the courtroom scene.

February 18, 1867:

“(Surratt arrived in Washington today, is in jail)”

June 19, 1867:

Surratt Trail Ticket

“Miss Evans & I went to Mr. B’s & he went with us to City Hall & got tickets of admittance for us to the Court Room. 6 ladies present besides ourselves. Surratt was brought in at 10, & the court was opened. Judge Fisher presiding. Witnesses examined were Carroll Hobart. Vt.; Char. H. Blinn, Vt.; Scipano Grillo, Saloon keeper at Ford’s Theater; John T. Tibbett mail carrier, & Sergt. Robt. H. Cooper. Examined by Edwards Pierpoint of N.Y, Atty, Carrington.

Surratt sat with his counsel, Bradly, he, a pale slender, young man, seemed to take an interest in all that was said. His mother’s name was mentioned often, & Tibbett said he had heard her say “she wd. give $1000 to any body who would kill Lincoln.” I could not feel much sympathy for him. They must have been a bad family.

But I think Surratt will never be punished. The Government will hardly dare do it after releasing Jeff Davis.

The room outside the bar was crowded, & this is the first day ladies have been seated inside the bar.

Miss Evans was never in a Court before, & we were both much interested.”

June 21, 1867:

“Frances & Miss Evans went to Surratt’s trial”

June 27, 1867:

John Surratt Trial Drawing

“Rose early. Worked till 9 A.M. Then went to Surratt’s trial at City Hall. Courtroom crowded. Judge Fisher presiding. Witnesses, 2 brothers Sowles, & Louis Weichman. He last boarded with Mrs. Surratt, was intimate with J.H. Surratt. His testimony was minute but of absorbing interest. Examined by Edwards Pierpoint. Bradly & Merrick, counsel for prisoner, are evil looking men.

Surratt looked less confident today than when I saw him a week ago yesterday.

When they were removing the handcuffs he breathed hard. Took his seat looking a little disturbed. His brother Isaac soon came & took a seat by him & they talked & laughed a few minutes.

Isaac looks like a hard case & quite unconcerned. It is very evident that J.H. Surratt was a conspirator & that the family were bad.

Wilbur diary Surratt was a conspirator

I would like to be here at the close of the trial, and hear the summing up.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Wilbur did not get her wish to witness the close of John Surratt’s trial. She was visiting back home near Avon, New York when the trial ended.

August 10, 1867:

“Papers from Washington.

Argument in Surratt case finished. Jury do not agree.”

August 12, 1867:

“Finished reading for Father Mr. Pierpointt’s argument in Surratt case to father. Very able argument.”

August 16, 1867:

“Jury discharged, could not agree, ([illegible]). Surratt remanded to jail.

Bradley has challenged Judge Fisher. Much excitement in W[ashington].”

Epilogue

While the period of assassination events effectively ended with the trial of John Surratt, Ms. Wilbur maintained diaries for the rest of her life.  There could be more passages in her diaries commenting on or recalling those tragic days. As stated in the prior post about Julia Wilbur and the Mourning of Lincoln, Julia Wilbur’s diaries have only been transcribed for the period of March 1860 until July of 1866. All entries in this post dated beyond July 1866, were discovered by meticulously reading through the digitized pages of Ms. Wilbur’s diaries located here. There are still many discoveries to be made in Julia Wilbur’s diaries and I encourage you all to follow Paula Whitacre’s blog to read more about the work being done on Julia Wilbur.

References:
Paula Whitacre’s Blog on Julia Wilbur
Transcriptions of Julia Wilbur’s Diaries from Alexandria Archaeology
Digitized pages of Julia Wilbur’s Diaries from Haverford College

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

“An old codger like me”

Today, my grandfather celebrates his 94th birthday.  The son of an Irish immigrant and his Illinois born wife, my grandfather was educated at Illinois Wesleyan University, served as a Captain in the Marines during WWII and Korea, and raised a family of three boys with my grandmother.  To me though, he has always been Umpa: the devoted church going grandfather who would take me fishing and was always working his garden.  I never knew until I was older that he was a Marine and while he would openly tell me stories about the war, it always brought tears to his eyes.  My grandfather taught me that war was always a regrettable thing even when it is justified.  He was proud of his service to his country but would never glorify what he had experienced.  Nowadays, his life has slowed down quite a bit.  He talks less, sleeps more, but is still the kind and inquisitive grandfather I’ve always known.  Unfortunately, he will be spending this birthday in the hospital.  I’ve logged about 18 hours with him over the last two days after a recent medical setback.  As a 94 year-old, it is to be expected.  Nevertheless, he still enjoys sharing one fact about his life with the nurses that always throws them for a loop.  When asked where he was born, he answers truthfully, “Nani-Tal, India”.  The nurses briefly stare at him, before turning to us, his family members, with a worried look that this characteristically Caucasian man has gone senile.  We of course respond in the affirmative, and recall how his parents were missionaries and that he and two of his siblings were born in India.  My grandfather was almost three years old, when the family returned to America.  His memory of India is now just a few Christian hymns in the Hindi language that he sang as a child.   Nevertheless, he can still recall all the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me” in Hindi.

My 94 year-old grandfather’s ability to remember one of his earliest experiences, mirrors that of another 94 year-old man who recounted his experience of Lincoln’s assassination.

Many of us have seen the following episode of the TV show, I’ve Got a Secret which aired on February 9th, 1956.  In it, the American viewing audience is presented with the last surviving witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, 96 year-old Samuel J. Seymour of Baltimore. You will want to fast forward to the 11:57 mark in the video below

In the video, the host mentions that they learned about Mr. Seymour due to an article written by him in The American Weekly magazine.  That article was published on February 7th of 1954, when Samuel Seymour was 94 years old.

After some searching, I found the original article by Mr. Seymour and transcribed it from the newspaper record.  Here it is in full:

I Saw Lincoln Shot

By Samuel J. Seymour

As told to Frances Spatz Leighton

The only living witness re-creates the drama of that tragic night

This is an eyewitness account of one of history’s great tragedies – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – told by the only living witness to the fateful drama enacted at Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14th, 1865 – THE EDITORS

Even if I were to live another 94 years, I’d still never forget my first trip away from home as a little shaver five years old.

My father was overseer on the Goldsboro estate inTalbot County, Maryland, and it seems that he and Mr. Goldsboro has to go to Washington on business – something to do with the legal status of their 150 slaves.  Mrs. Goldsboro asked if she couldn’t take me and my nurse, Sarah Cook, along with her and the men, for a little holiday.

We made the 150-mile trip by coach and team and I remember how stubborn those horses were about being loaded onto an old fashioned side-wheeler steamboat for part of the journey.

It was going on toward supper time – on Good Friday, April 14th, 1865 – when we finally pulled up in front of the biggest house I ever had seen.  It looked to me like a thousand farmhouses all pushed together, but my father said it was a hotel.

I was scared.  I had seen men with guns, all along the street, and every gun seemed to be aimed right at me.  I was too little to realize that all of Washington was getting ready to celebrate because Lee has surrendered a few days earlier.

I complained tearfully that I couldn’t get out of the coach because my shirt was torn – anything to delay the dread moment – but Sarah dug into her bag and found a big safety pin.

“You hold still now, Sammy,” she said, “and I’ll fix the tear right away.”  I shook so hard, from fright, that she accidentally stabbed me with the  pin and I hollered, “I’ve been shot!  I’ve been shot!”

When I finally had been rushed upstairs, shushed and scrubbed and put into fresh clothes, Mrs. Goldsboro said she had a wonderful surprise.

“Sammy, you and Sarah and I are going to a play tonight,” she explained.  “A real play – and President Abraham Lincoln will be there.”

I thought a play would be a game like tag and I liked the idea.  We waited a while outside the Ford Theater for tickets, then walked upstairs and sat in hard rattan-backed chairs.

Mrs. Goldsboro pointed directly across the theater to a colorfully draped box.  “See those flags, Sammy?” she asked.  “That’s where President Lincoln will sit.”  When he finally did come in, she lifted me high so I could see.  He was a tall, stern-looking man.  I guess I just thought he looked stern because of his whiskers, because he was smiling and waving to the crowd.

When everyone sat down again and the actors started moving and talking, I began to get over the scared feeling I’d had ever since we arrived inWashington.  But that was something I never should have done.

All of a sudden a shot rang out – a shot that always will be remembered – and someone in the President’s box screamed.  I sawLincolnslumped forward in his seat.  People started milling around and I thought there’d been another accident when one man seemed to tumble over the balcony rail and land on the stage.

“Hurry, hurry, let’s go help the poor man who fell down,” I begged.

But by that time John Wilkes Booth, the assassin, had picked himself up and was running for dear life.  He wasn’t caught until 12 days later when he was tracked to a barn where he was hiding.

Only a few people noticed the running man, but pandemonium broke loose in the theater, with everyone shouting:

“Lincoln’s shot! The President’s dead!”

Mrs. Goldsboro swept me into her arms and held me close and somehow we got outside the theater.  That night I was shot 50 times, at least in my dreams – and I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

Of the many firsthand accounts given in books (like We Saw Lincoln Shot by Timothy Good) I prefer this one by Mr. Seymour.  There is an innocence in his account that can’t be found anywhere else.  While Major Rathbone and others give more details regarding the actual event, young “Sammy” gives a unique perspective.  We become more connected to this child and his young life.  We can empathize in his sense of uncertain fear and even feel the disappointment he must have had when he experienced what a “play” truly was.  Most of all, I marvel at Sammy’s kindness and compassion.  Ignorant of the context of what had occurred, this boy only wanted to help the man that fell.

Mr. Seymour died two months after his appearance on I’ve Got a Secret, possibly related to his fall the day before the show.  He died on April 13th, 1956, just a day shy of the anniversary of the event he witnessed.  Mr. Seymour is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore, MD.

References:
We Saw Lincoln Shot by Timothy Good
Mr. Seymour’s article in The American Weekly
Roger Norton’s Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination Research Site has a nice picture of Mr. Seymour

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Thoughts From Major Rathbone

When Booth’s dark deed was committed at Ford’s, no one had a closer seat to the action than the occupants of the theatre box. Mary Todd Lincoln, Clara Harris, and her fiancée and stepbrother Major Henry Rathbone, had the horror of watching the scene play out within arm’s length. Shortly after the crime, Henry Rathbone gave a lengthy and detailed statement recalling the events as he remembered them. Rathbone’s account (which can be read here) provides a wonderful description of the scene of the crime and his activities after the shot was fired. While a re-reading of Rathbone’s account doesn’t provide any ground breaking new claims, it does contain a few details worthy of address and consideration. This post will discuss two minor details set forth by Rathbone in his testimony.

Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris (composite by the author)

After Booth shot Lincoln, Major Rathbone, alarmed by the report of a pistol and cloud of powder in the box, raised himself and attempted to subdue the assailant. During the struggle Booth thrust at Rathbone with his knife, which Rathbone parried upwards. In the course of this parry, Rathbone received a deep cut on his left arm between his elbow and his shoulder. It was a painful blow that knocked Rathbone back a bit. At this moment, free from grappling with Rathbone, Booth moved to the front of the theatre box, and leapt over it.

Many witnesses at the time said that Booth’s jump from the box was a noticeably ungraceful one. One eye witness account stated that, “He did not strike the stage fairly on his feet, but appeared to stumble slightly.” Immediately following the events, several others described similar stumbles Booth made upon reaching the stage.

A quite ungraceful engraving of Booth’s jump from the box

Granted, the distance he leapt was twelve feet off the ground and it can be a hard landing for any man to make properly. In his act of jumping, Booth disturbed the flags decorating the box. This, of course, makes perfect sense. The flags decorating the box were merely attached to the outside and weren’t expected to be moved during the President’s attendance. Instead of jumping straight from inside the box down to the stage in a hurdler’s motion, Booth likely leapt over the railing of the box, paused briefly on the small ledge on the other side, and then jumped down. This small ledge is where many flags were resting and draped about. A witness at Ford’s described that, during the jump, Booth, “partially t[ore] down the flag”.

Photograph of the box shortly a day or two after the assassination. Notice the partially pulled down flags.

Another witness had a similar account about his riding spur getting caught up in the decorations, causing his awkward fall. The American mythos of the assassination states that, while jumping, Booth was tangled in an American flag causing him to land poorly onto the stage and breaking his leg. In his diary, the vain Booth, probably attempting to save face for his less than perfect “performance”, claimed that in jumping from the box he broke his leg. Most Boothies accept this as fact while also entertaining the idea set forth by author Michael Kauffman that Booth broke his leg later that night, when his horse fell on him during the rough ride south. With it being impossible to prove one theory over another, historians just pick the idea they like better and concede that differences of opinion exist on the matter.

What is not really debated is that Booth fell uneasily upon the stage, making one of his worst entrances ever. While the flags generally receive the attention for causing Booth’s missteps, Rathbone’s account provides another possible reason:

“The man rushed to front of the box and [I] endeavored to seize him again but only caught his clothes as he was leaping… The clothes, as [I] believe, were torn in this attempt to seize him.”

While Rathbone gets credit for struggling with Booth and sacrificing his own arm attempting to subdue him, is it possible that Rathbone was also the reason Booth landed so hard upon the stage? As Booth was making his jump, could the grasp of Major Rathbone on his clothes have thrown the actor’s balance off and caused his clumsy landing? Further, if this is indeed when Booth broke his leg, effectively slowing down his escape, could it be Rathbone and not the flags, that deserve the credit? These questions and the overall scenario produced by them are merely items to contemplate and I make no claims of them being in anyway definitive.

A second item Rathbone mentions in his testimony is about the set up of the box itself. From the beginning Rathbone gives a wonderful description of the box and the locations of the parties therein. From his description the following diagram of the box seems to correct display the set up:

Booth entered the box through the outer passageway door marked H on the diagram. Remember, during normal nights the box in which the President’s party occupied severed as two boxes. A partition would separate it into two smaller boxes. That is why there are two doors inside the passageway. The door marked as G, was actually the closest door to the President, but was closed during the whole night. It was the entrance to Box 7. The Presidential party and Booth all entered the box through door F. That was the door to Box 8.

This inner door to Box 7 is on display at in the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

This door has a unique feature as it has a peep hole bored into. For many years it was written that this hole was bored by John Wilkes Booth on the morning of the assassination. After learning about Lincoln’s attendance that night, Booth did enter the theatre and found a wooden bar with which to jam the outer door so that it could not be opened. The wooden bar can be seen in the above picture sticking out from the bottom of the door. It was assumed that during this prep work, that he also bored a hole into the door in order to have an eye on the President before entering the box.

A letter written by Frank Ford (son of Harry Clay Ford, the theatre’s treasurer) denounced this idea. Frank stated that his father ordered the hole to be bored into the door so that the President’s guard, and others employed in their duties for the government or theatre, could look in on the President and his party instead of barging in straight away and disturbing them. Frank quotes his father as saying, “John Booth had too much to do that day other than to go around boring holes in theatre doors.” However, a period statement from Harry Ford has him saying, “Did not notice a hole in the door or in the wall. Did not take particular notice of the wall or door however.” So the mystery regarding the hole remains.

Even if this hole was bored at the bequest of the Ford’s, Booth still used it to eye the President before making his move, right? Not necessarily. According to Rathbone:

“The distance between the President as he sat and the door was about four or five feet. The door, according to [my] recollection, was not closed during the evening.”

Rathbone claims that the door to Box 8 was never closed during the performance. If this is the case, Booth may not have used the peephole to spy on the President through Box 7. After entering the passageway door, Booth stealthily put the wooden bar in place to “lock” the outside door, and either peered through the slightly open Box 8 door into the box, or just waited until the lines of the play were right to bust in and get his first real view. With all eyes directed on stage and not towards the rear, it seems that Booth could have been standing in the shadows of the passageway eyeing the President for some time before he acted. If Rathbone is to be believed and the door was open during the performance, the image of Booth before he shot Lincoln could change. Instead of a man hiding behind door 7 nervously peeking at his target through a hole, Booth becomes a shadowy figure, standing motionless in the doorway to box 8 eyeing his prey. To me the latter image is in line with Booth’s brazen persona. He brought an unreliable single shot derringer to kill the President, assured that he would succeed. I have no problem picturing this arrogant Booth, lurking near an open door a few feet away from the President, coiled like a viper waiting to strike.

Again, these small pieces of Rathbone’s account are posted here merely to initiate contemplation and conversation. Feel free to post your thoughts about them by clicking on the “comment” button below.

References:
The Lincoln Assassination – The Evidence by William Edwards and Ed Steers
We Saw Lincoln Shot by Timothy S. Good

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 20 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.