‘He (Booth) had not until last night ever succeeded in attaining any reputation in his profession as an actor but now he has acquired a reputation in tragedy which will render him famous & infamous in history in all time.’
Edwin Bates, witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater
While Abraham Lincoln was dying, the United States was learning of events in Washington. The face of John Wilkes Booth was too well known for there to be any doubt as to who had pulled the trigger that had killed the president. It was soon discovered that Booth did not act alone, and that Lincoln was not the only intended target.
People were swearing ‘deep and deadly vengeance to all rebels & the whole South,’ Edwin Bates told his parents. He predicted that hope for peace and prosperity had died with Lincoln and his plans for the fastest road to peace. Many, on both sides, agreed with Bates. The war was over, and it was time for the South to be reunited with the North. The victors were less gracious and less forgiving than their president had been, and were determined that the South should be duly punished. First, however, the assassins had to be caught.
In the end, nine people, including Booth, were identified as members of the plot to kill the president. While Booth was at Ford’s Theater, Lewis Powell was sent to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and David Herold was to guide Powell out of the city after the deed was done. Meanwhile, George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Powell forced his way into Seward’s home and managed to stab the man repeatedly, but Seward did recover. Atzerodt wanted no part of murder and had told Booth as much. Atzerodt made no attempt at all to kill Vice President Johnson. He got drunk instead, and was still drunk when he was arrested.
Another conspirator, Michael O’Laughlen, was tasked with killing General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant and his wife, Julia, had been invited to join the Lincolns at Ford’s Theater. Grant and his wife chose not to attend. O’Laughlen followed them on to a train, where he was met with a higher degree of security than had been provided for Lincoln. Accounts differ as to whether O’Laughlen was arrested or surrendered. Either way, he joined his fellow conspirators before a military tribunal.
While Booth’s compatriots were being discovered in Washington, Booth had escaped. By means of a horse left at the back door of the theatre, he managed to leave the city before word spread of the assassination. He met David Herold in Surrattsville, Maryland.
Booth and Herold moved on, eventually hiding in a swamp for five days while the country cried for Booth’s blood and the area swarmed with pursuing soldiers. When he read the first newspapers, Booth was stunned: instead of being hailed as a hero of the South, he discovered himself to be a fugitive whose pursuers would be merciless.
Finally, Booth and Herold crossed the Potomac and reached the tobacco farm of Richard H. Garrett. They told Garrett that Booth was a wounded soldier and so were offered Garrett’s tobacco barn as refuge. Two days later, on 26 April, the 16th New York Cavalry arrived. Herold surrendered immediately. Booth refused, and the barn was set alight. Peering through the cracks between the boards of the barn, a soldier named Boston Corbett saw Booth and fired, severing the assassin’s spinal cord at the neck.
A paralysed Booth was dragged from the burning barn and laid on the porch of the Garrett home. Two hours later, he was dead. It is unknown if Booth was in league with the Confederate government or if he and his fellow conspirators acted alone.
In any case, by the end of the month, all of those suspected of being involved had been arrested. Everyone with the remotest connection to the conspirators, from the bartender who had poured Booth a drink that night to a stage hand at Ford’s Theater who was asked to hold Booth’s horse, was arrested. In the end, all but nine suspects were ruled out as potential conspirators.
Booth, the ringleader, was dead. The other eight went before a military tribunal. The trial lasted for seven weeks, during which more than three hundred witnesses gave testimony. All nine defendants were found guilty. Five were given prison sentences while the remaining four were sentenced to hang. Mary Surratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell were executed at the Washington Arsenal on 7 July 1865. Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the United States government.