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Anatomy of a Murder

Contrary to popular understanding, John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln was not the handiwork of a half-mad crank and a handful of misfits. The President’s slaying “was clearly a sequel of the war,” as Allan Nevins put it, “product of its senseless hatreds, fears, and cruelties.”1 Yet too often historians, some of them offering only a few lines to the tragedy, have not acknowledged just how calamitous it was in changing the divided, agonized nation’s destiny.2 The consequences of Lincoln’s death disappeared in the maelstrom of post-war confusions and political strife.

Building on the extensive files of a private collector named James O. Hall, Edward Steers Jr. has written a careful synthesis of what is known about Lincoln’s murder. In Blood on the Moon, he places the crime against the background of a four-year Rebel campaign to impair the Northern will to fight, create havoc among civilians, demolish cities, even the nation’s largest, and kidnap or slay Lincoln as the prime and monstrous author of Southern suffering. In recent times, other such works on the tragedy have dismantled old myths (chiefly pro-Southern ones) about who the conspirators were and why they sought to eliminate the President. Despite the impressive revisions by William Tidwell, William Hanchett, and Thomas Reed Turner, Lincoln’s homicide still needs fresh analysis.3 Steers provides it in an accessible although not altogether elegant or comprehensive account.

Steers describes how fanatical pro-slavery ideology offered the rationale for sabotage—a conviction that heroic immortality in the name of whites’ liberty to own slaves could be achieved even if it involved martyrdom. Steers reminds us just how intense anti-Lincoln, anti-black feeling remained throughout the war. Conspiracy, especially against civilians young and old, demands not just stealth but absorption in a pure hatred. Like the Ku Klux Klan later, the Confederate slaveholding cause swept up white masses in waves of a wrath hard now to fathom. After the 1860 election, Steers tells us, packages of poisoned fruit preserves arrived on Lincoln’s doorstep in Springfield. Pro-Confederate groups emerged in the Midwestern states with names like “the Circle of Honor,” “Knights of the Golden Circle,” and “the Circle and Knights of the Mighty Host.” Still greater threats lay closer to the national capital. In late February 1861, Pinkerton detectives, as Steers recounts, spirited President-elect Lincoln through Baltimore before two separate groups of stalkers could kill him. On March 4 troops had to protect the inaugural platform from a plot to blow it up. Government departments harbored disloyalists; longtime Washington residents could not be casually trusted. After Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation and after he authorized African-American recruitment, pro-slavery elements became possessed by indignation and hatred.

In discussing Booth’s motives, Steers could have drawn a more convincing portrait. The actor, a matinee idol, moved from sympathy with the Confederacy to overwhelming obsession as he observed the retreat of the Southern armies and the irresistible growth of Northern power. Imbued with an inflated concept of honor, Booth often complained that Yankee women were too forward—shameless. A notorious womanizer himself, he recoiled whenever females in his family ate and joked with laborers. After all, he agreed with his sister Asia, who stated that “ignorant menials” were “too often the refuse of other countries.”

Reared in slaveholding Harford County, Maryland, Booth delighted in the hierarchy of races, sexes, nationalities (he hated the Irish), and degrees of wealth. He cherished the warrior’s code of action, the bid for immortal glory, and boasted that “an uncontrollable fate” drove him to strike at “the most ruthless enemy the world has ever known.” Booth’s sister Asia explained that her brother killed Lincoln “so that his name might live in history …forever.” Preserving slavery, preventing racial mixing, and saving the South from “her threatened doom,” as Booth framed it, required bold action. He adopted Shakespearean references to proclaim his honorableness: “I answer with Brutus: ‘He who loves his country better than life or gold.’” Booth’s wildly manic temper could have sprung from paternal inheritance. His father, the actor Junius Brutus Booth, who died when John was thirteen, had been called “Crazy Booth, the mad tragedian.” At Natchez, Mississippi, he had once mounted a ladder and crowed “like a rooster,” as the stage manager wrung his hands below.

Steers gives a dramatic account of how Booth translated loathing into action. Confederate strategies, he contends, showed remarkable ingenuity but meager outcomes. Biological warfare, Steers writes, was a case in point. During a Bermudan epidemic in 1864, Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn, a Kentucky specialist on yellow fever, collected victims’ clothing, supposedly contagious. One suitcase contained expensive dress shirts to be sent to Lincoln as an anonymous present. Eight trunks were readied in Canada to reach Washington, Norfolk, Virginia, and New Bern, North Carolina, all occupied by federal troops.

Blackburn’s analysis rested on the fallacy that the clothing was infectious, but in any case, a disgruntled, unpaid operative betrayed the plan. At Blackburn’s subsequent trial, the Montreal judge claimed to lack jurisdiction at Halifax, where the clothing was stored, and he freed the physician. Lavishly acclaimed in the South, the Rebel doctor was later elected governor of Kentucky (1879–1883), one of many Civil War ironies.

Among the most daring plots that Steers cites was the attempt by the Confederate Secret Service operative Thomas Nelson Conrad to abduct Lincoln and whisk him into Virginia. In the summer, the President’s family often traveled unescorted to a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, north of Washington. Conrad and the Confederate Secretary of War James B. Seddon reasoned that the kidnapping would end the war and Confederate sovereignty would follow. The unanticipated appearance of a cavalry guard on the three-mile trips frustrated the plan—much to Booth’s disappointment. Other plots to seize or eliminate the President also collapsed.

Steers barely mentions the matter, but New York City figured prominently as a target for destruction. Charles A. Dunham (alias Sandford Conover), a Confederate agent, claimed knowledge of plans to blow up Croton Dam or poison the Croton reservoir supplying New York City. More seriously, in late 1864 agents under Rebel officers Robert Cobb Kennedy, John W. Headley, and Robert M. Martin spread “Greek fire,” a flammable composition of turpentine and phosphorus, in Barnum’s Museum and ten crowded hotels, situated along Broadway from Cortlandt to 25th Street. The arsonists were retaliating for General Philip Sheridan’s scorched-earth policy in the Shenandoah Valley. Huge loss of civilian life mattered not at all, Kennedy later confessed. (In contrast, Sherman’s March, just underway, struck at property and morale, but killing civilians was not one of its objectives.) Fearing premature discovery, the saboteurs closed the windows and doors of the buildings. Without ventilation the fires were easily doused, and miraculously no one died or was injured.

Ironically, Booth, handsome, flamboyant, and popular, was playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden, adjacent to one of the targeted hotels.4 As the curtain rose for the second act, someone yelled fire. There was a brief panic before the audience was reassured that the danger had passed. Had it been otherwise and Booth been eliminated, Lincoln’s life would have been saved by the paradoxical results of Confederate sabotage. If the plan had succeeded, however, the reaction in the North would have probably led to clamorous demands for revenge, countless atrocities against Southern civilians, and still greater turmoil. After his capture on a train in Detroit, Kennedy waved the handcuffs about and, defying his humiliation, shouted to the passengers, “These are badges of honor! I am a Southern gentleman!” At Fort Hamilton, New York, on March 25, 1865, he went to the gallows.5

Another plot, in early 1865, organized out of Richmond, nearly carried equally grave consequences. Steers explains that Thomas Harney, an expert in the highly secretive Confederate Torpedo Bureau at Richmond, headed for Washington with a powerful explosive intended to demolish the White House. On April 10, 1865, Harney and three others fell into federal hands not far from Washington. Probably aware of Harney’s failure and desperate to act before the war ended, Booth and his co-conspirators planned to strike down the President, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward simultaneously. Such an elimination of successive chief executives would have placed Lafayette Sabine Foster, an obscure senator pro tem from Connecticut, in the president’s chair.

Like his recent predecessors, Steers finds no evidence to link Richmond authorities to the assassination, but studies by William C. Tidwell build a case for their complicity. Such a policy could have originated with the Union raid on Richmond, led by Ulric Dahlgren, in February 1864. By then, Lincoln himself had thought seizing Jefferson Davis worthwhile if it could be coupled with the rescue of Union captives in Richmond’s disease-ridden Libby prison. Richmond’s defenders defeated the force, and Dahlgren was cut down. On his body the Confederates found an incriminating statement of objectives: burning of the city and seizing or killing Davis and his cabinet. Steers observes that “most Southerners” viewed the action “as an act of terrorism.” It freed the Confederates to act likewise.

As Steers’s narrative approaches April 14, the story rises to a climax. Luckily, Booth’s colleagues were neither as competent nor as carefully equipped as he. That evening Lewis Payne slashed his way to Seward’s bedside at his house near Lafayette Square and nearly killed him. If Payne had used a firearm instead of a knife, his mission could well have succeeded. Meantime, George Atzerodt, a boozy petty criminal from Prussia, was supposed to dispatch Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel. Unnerved by the hazards of his task, though, Atzerodt drank the evening away and then fled.

Booth’s success, escape, and death in a Virginia barn on April 26 are well known, and Steers describes them briefly and expertly. Resigned to fate, Lincoln had often remarked that if spies wanted him dead, they would find the means. As it happened, no one stopped Booth from entering the President’s box. With the muzzle of his piece only two feet from Lincoln’s head, Booth fired, fended off a young officer in the box, caught his spur on patriotic bunting overhanging the balcony, and fell to the stage twelve feet below, breaking a bone above the ankle. With hands upraised, he shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” Quickly Booth limped past the lone, benumbed actor on the stage and staggered outside.

With a knife’s handle, the assassin in his excitement viciously struck the skull of a stable boy holding his waiting horse and speedily galloped away. Joining David Herold, another operative, Booth headed for southern Maryland. The Confederate spy system there would marvel at his pluck, he imagined, and assist his flight. Dr. Samuel Mudd set Booth’s leg and hid the pair in his house near Bryantown. While fleeing toward Virginia, the fugitive moaned that he was pursued “like a dog” simply “for doing what Brutus was honored for.” Like the arsonist Kennedy, he thought himself a gentleman of high reputation. If he returned to Washington, his status would become evident to all. Once there, Booth confided in his diary, “I will…clear my name which I feel I can do.” Such was the hubris of Booth, a man of honor.

With federal troops swarming everywhere, the pair were traced to Richard Garrett’s farm just south of Port Royal, Virginia. On April 26, Union cavalrymen surrounded Garrett’s barn, their last hideout. Shaking abjectly, Herold surrendered. Meantime, gun in hand, Booth refused, even after the troopers set the barn ablaze. Before Booth could fire, Sergeant Boston Corbett shot him in the neck, and he fell paralyzed. His final words were: “Tell…my…Mother…I…die for my country.” Taking full command of the search and the government itself, Edwin Stanton, secretary of war, directed a widespread roundup of suspects, only eight of whom were prosecuted by the military: Atzerodt, Lewis Payne, Edmund Spangler, Mary Surratt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlin, all of them Booth’s fellow conspirators.

Mary’s son John, who had helped in the planning, however, escaped to Canada and then abroad. He joined the Zoaves protecting Pius IX at the Vatican. When fingered, John Surratt again fled and next alighted from a freighter in Alexandria, Egypt. Waiting for him at dockside were the American consul and local police. They packed him off to face trial at home. By then it was 1867, and indignation had faded. Three tries to win convictions in the District of Columbia courts came to nothing. Like Blackburn and several others whom the federal government failed to pursue, Surratt escaped prison. The outcome demonstrated how randomly justice might be applied.

On the issues of how the assassins were dealt with, Steers confronts three questions that have long occupied historical attention: first, the cases of Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt; second, the treatment of the prisoners; and third, the use of a military instead of a civilian court.

At the time of the trial, Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd were the defendants with the most public sympathy, not only because they seemed to have the least direct ties to Booth but also because Surratt was a woman and Mudd a doctor. James M. McPherson, a leading Civil War scholar, argues that both Mudd and Surratt were victims of “a miscarriage of justice.”6 Surratt, McPherson writes, knew nothing of plans to kill Lincoln; she was only aware of plans to capture him. But even if this were the extent of her knowledge, planning to hold hostage a head of state has always been a crime of the highest order. And Steers shows that Mary Surratt did in fact know more. Most of the collaborators either had lived under her roof or sat in her parlor—including Booth, her son John Surratt, a chief Confederate courier to Canada, and Lewis Payne, Seward’s assailant. Early on the day that Lincoln was slain, she carried on Booth’s instructions a package containing his field glasses to her tavern and instructed the tavern keeper to have guns ready as “there would be some parties call for them.” Later, when the police confronted her with Payne, the would-be assassin of Secretary Seward, she denied ever having known him when he had been a boarder in her house. Mary Surratt was guilty beyond question, the injustice of her hanging notwithstanding.

McPherson also supports Mudd’s innocence, proposing that he was “at most an accessory after the fact.” In the late 1990s, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and Congressman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland—among others—also sought to clear Mudd’s name. But here again, Steers shows that Booth was not a chance acquaintance simply in need of Hippocratic ministrations, as Mudd claimed. Booth, Mudd, and others in the Maryland spy system were all friends in close communication. At his trial, Mudd lied repeatedly, claiming he had met Booth on only one occasion when evidence shows they had met at least four times.

Five members of the tribunal urged presidential clemency for Surratt. In 1867 Andrew Johnson claimed to know nothing of their petition before the execution, while Joseph Holt, the military tribunal’s prosecutor, insisted that he had so informed the President with time to spare.

Regarding the treatment of the accused, some writers have strongly criticized the government’s inhumanity. James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg’s illustrated history Lincoln’s Assassins provides stark photographs of the conspirators by Alexander Gardner, the gruesome hoods they were senselessly and cruelly forced to wear, scenes on the gallows, and other lurid illustrations. The authors’ text suggests that appalling conditions prevailed throughout their imprisonment, although this was only partially true. Mary Surratt was treated relatively well, but the seven males were denied baths and fresh clothing and suffered other demeaning treatment. As the trial continued, conditions gradually improved though they were still harsh. Unfortunately, Steers does not address the matter of their treatment at all.7

Finally, and more significantly, Steers offers a stout but flawed defense of the military tribunal under General David Hunter and prosecuted by Joseph Holt. He points out that in 1865 the District of Columbia was still under martial law. Suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was doubtless constitutional, under war conditions, as “public Safety may require it” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 2). In his customarily succinct way, Abraham Lincoln had asked: “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

Steers explains how 13,000 Americans, chiefly pro-Confederate Yankees, or Copperheads as they were called, were prosecuted in 5,000 military courts. Though unprecedented, those trials were necessary, according to Francis Lieber, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Columbia University, who argued in 1862 that a nation in extremis must have means to “repress the crime which may endanger the whole country.” In any democracy, he wrote, the civilian’s war was as much his own “as that of the army.”

In a famous case, ex parte Milligan (1866), the Supreme Court held that such commissions were illegal if civilian courts were functioning and the offense did not occur in a war zone. Steers observes that in 1865, however, the District of Columbia had been in a war zone and under martial law (though civilian courts were also operating). The victim was the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the prime responsibility for order in the capital fell to the military stationed in its precincts. Besides, Steers argues, Southern units were still in the field, even as late as July. Moreover, who knew when another Confederate subversion might strike, so reasoning went.

A contemporary observer remarked that later generations would have no “adequate idea of the uneasiness that pervaded Washington, or of the morbid sensationalism, which characterized the conversation and conduct of the loyalists.” They were obsessed with “suspicions of secret plotting all about them.” No precedents, no constitutional provisions on treasonous assassinations existed for guidance. In addition, Hunter and his fellow generals applied the rules of civilian courts about motions and other forms of litigation to the benefit of the defendants. The defense lawyers were allowed to work competently and vigorously for their clients. In the absence of a negative Supreme Court ruling, to try the assassins in this fashion seems to Steers as logical and validated.

In justifying the tribunal, however, Steers treats inadequately the counter- arguments of strong-minded politicians in Washington and later critics, who disputed the morality, political consequences, and constitutionality of military courts. For instance, Edward Bates, Lincoln’s former attorney general, heartily disapproved of the tribunal. He called James Speed, his successor, “a poor imbecile” for rejecting a civilian trial, and indeed the attorney general offered a skimpy rationale. In a book on wartime civil liberties, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist says that Speed was not a “first-class lawyer or advocate.”8

While convincing on the setting in which military justice might be justified, Steers overlooks more troubling problems. The hasty dispatch of the four prisoners to the hangman may have seemed understandable in the tense, angry atmosphere that followed the assassination. Yet, their execution on July 7, so soon after the sentencing of June 30, provided the defense attorneys little time in which to appeal for clemency before the President. Johnson alone could overrule a military court’s sentencing. Since he was the chief beneficiary of Lincoln’s removal, however, leniency would have cast doubt on the commission’s legitimacy and inflamed Unionists eager to avenge the assassination in whatever court they were tried. Steers, for his part, fails to recognize that despite the tribunal’s clouded but possible legality, political wisdom would at least have led to life imprisonment for the four who were subsequently executed.

The long-term effect of Lincoln’s slaying was profound. Yet Steers has little to contribute by way of reflections on it. Gone was the leader who had patiently guided Union victory, deftly steered his government, party, and people through perilous crises, and established black freedom. At the White House there now presided Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a pro-war Democrat who possessed limited skills, unshakable race prejudices, and intense loyalty to states’ sovereignty. The freed people had reason to mourn. Once more, their fate fell into the hands of former masters.

The Union public, moreover, gradually turned away from whatever commitments it had made to the former slaves and grew ever more weary of ineffectual Republican efforts to create a biracial Southern coalition. Lincoln could never have solved all the problems of the postwar years. His departure, however, irremediably undermined the possibility that the ideals of the Union could provide the beginnings, at least, of progress toward racial equality. Thanks to Booth, the President’s death in office assured white Southerners of what became a century-long era of unchecked ascendancy, white over black. Although Blood on the Moon does not reach broad conclusions, its narrative suggests that melancholy outcome.

  1. 1

    Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Volume IV: The Organized War to Victory, 1864–1865 (Scribner, 1971), p. 319.

  2. 2

    See, for instance, James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 853. McPherson, it must be added, compensates for this casual treatment with his other, valuable works on Abraham Lincoln.

  3. 3

    See William A. Tidwell, Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Mississippi, 1988); William A. Tidwell, April ‘65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (Kent State University Press, 1995); William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (University of Illinois Press, 1983); Thomas Reed Turner, Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Louisiana State University Press, 1982).

  4. 4

    His brothers Edwin and Junius also took roles, even though Edwin, a Unionist, objected to his younger brother’s “secession froth,” as he called it. Quoted in Francis Wilson, John Wilkes Booth: Fact and Fiction of Lincoln’s Assassination (Houghton Mifflin, 1929), p. 45.

  5. 5

    Nat Brandt, The Man Who Tried to Burn New York (Syracuse University Press, 1986), pp. 151, 231.

  6. 6

    James M. McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (Knopf, 1982), p. 483.

  7. 7

    See Roy Z. Chamlee Jr., Lincoln’s Assassins: A Complete Account of Their Capture, Trial, and Punishment (McFarland, 1990).

  8. 8

    William H. Rehnquist, All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime (Random House, 1998), p. 119.

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