The trial of Abraham Lincoln’s assassins was perhaps the most important event to occur during May and June, 1865. The entire nation followed the cases against the men and woman who were accused of helping to plot the President’s death. While different transcripts of the Lincoln conspiracy trial are readily available to us today, the sheer volume of testimony makes learning about the trial, as a primary source, a discouraging and intimating prospect. For most people, knowledge of the trial’s eventual verdicts represent more than enough familiarity with this important event.
This is not to say that the trial of the conspirators, as a subject, has been ignored by Lincoln assassination researchers and writers. Most assassination texts set the scene of the trial and then summarize the cases against each conspirator. Some more recent books are devoted solely to the trial, but spend a great deal of space addressing the legal debate regarding the government’s decision to try the Lincoln conspirators by military commission rather than in civil courts. A lot of scholarly (and lawyerly) work has been done on the legal aspects of the trial, which can be similarly intimidating to a student of the Lincoln assassination.
As a lifelong student myself, I wanted a middle ground between the voluminous trial transcripts and the books of legal arguments. I wanted an easier way to gain a sense of how the trial progressed during those warm days in May and June, 1865.
With the resource I desired not yet available, I endeavored to make it myself. I also wanted to learn more about the experiences and impressions of the individual conspirators who stood trial. While we have practically nothing from the eight conspirators regarding their day to day thoughts on the proceedings, the daily newspapers of the time often contained descriptions of the conspirators’ appearances and little mentions of their actions on the prisoners’ dock. The first draft of this project was little more than a list of the witnesses who testified on each date, followed by these descriptions from the newspapers.
However, as I went on, I found that I needed to provide at least some summation, if only for myself, regarding what each witness was testifying about. Some of the witnesses, especially the important ones, were easy as I was already familiar with the relevance of their words. However the trial consisted of 347 unique witnesses and most of them gave testimony that is only comprehensible if you know the testimonies that preceded it.
With this in mind, the project expanded. I started reading the trial transcript, word for word. I am greatly indebted to the work of author William Edwards, who published the most detailed and accurate version of the trial transcript that exists. At over 1400 pages in length, I knew the task ahead of me was going to be long but I was set on creating the most accessible version of the trial that I could. I took on the role of Benn Pitman, the court’s chief recorder who later published a one volume transcript of the trial using summarized testimonies. I wanted to do the same as Pitman but update it using the technology available to us. Over time, what started as a cheat sheet for myself, became an interactive resource for understanding and referencing the trial of the conspirators.
This is the final result of over two years of work. It is a day by day chronology of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. With a few exceptions, the trial of the conspirators met 6 days a week, Monday – Saturday, for 8 weeks. In this project, each day of the trial is broken up into its own entry. For each day of the trial, I have documented the proceedings, summarized the testimony of each witness, and included the descriptions and recollections of the individuals who took part in or visited the trial on each day. I have painstakingly researched the 347 witnesses, rectifying misspelled names from the transcript and doing my best to find visuals that represent them and their lives. I have been assisted in this by many of my friends and colleagues whose names appear in the acknowledgement section at the bottom of the trial home page.
I have attempted to make this project as interactive as possible. Starting with May 9th, the day in which the proceedings of the trial actually began, each individual page contains a Table of Contents at the top. Using this you can click to jump down to a specific witness or conspirator. Clicking entries on the Table of Contents will also provide you with direct links to those places in the page, making it helpful if you want bookmark or share a specific testimony rather than the whole page. When reading my summarized version of a witness’s testimony, the full name of the witness is always hyperlinked. Clicking on their name will take you to their full testimony in the historical transcripts so that you can read them for yourself. In addition, when witnesses are recalled or make direct reference to the prior testimony of others, I have included hyperlinks to the corresponding testimony in question. In this way you can quickly review and/or cross reference the sometimes contrary statements being made.
At the beginning of the trial, the court was held in closed session. Public and private uproar over the secrecy of the court caused the doors to be opened up to outside press and visitors starting on May 13th. Starting on this date, the Table of Contents grows to include the newspaper descriptions of the conspirators and known visitors to the court room. As the trial goes on and interest in the individual conspirators’ appearances wanes, there are less descriptions available. Near the latter part of the trial an attempt has been made to supplement these areas with general descriptions of the conspirators from undated sources.
It is my hope that this project will make learning about the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators an accessible and enjoyable experience for all students of the events of April 14, 1865.