Biographies & Memoirs


MONDAY, APRIL 10, 1865 



Booth turns onto C Street and then out of the cold, wet night into James Pumphrey’s stable. His clothes are damp. He smells of drink and tobacco. A quick glance around the stalls shows that most of the horses are already rented out for the evening. Pumphrey may be a Confederate sympathizer and a full-fledged member of the secessionist movement, but he has no qualms about making an honest buck off this night of Union celebration.

Pumphrey is an acquaintance of twenty-year-old John Surratt, the courier instrumental in ensuring that Booth’s operation is fully funded by the Confederacy. Surratt travels frequently between Canada, the South, New York City, and Washington, brokering deals for everything from guns to medicine. Like Booth, the young man is furious that the Confederacy has lost.

John Surratt is often hard to locate, but when Booth needs details about his whereabouts or simply wants to get a message to him, the task is as simple as walking to Sixth and H Streets, where his mother keeps a boardinghouse. Mary Surratt is an attractive widow in her early forties whose husband died from drink, forcing her to move to Washington from the Maryland countryside to make a living. Like her son, Mary is an active Confederate sympathizer who has been involved with spying and smuggling weapons.

Mary Surratt


She also runs a pro-Confederate tavern in the Maryland town of Surrattsville, where she and her late husband once owned a tobacco farm. The Maryland countryside is untouched by war and not occupied by Union troops.

Washington, D.C., with its Federal employees and Union loyalties, is a city whose citizens are all too prone to report any conversation that suggests pro-Confederate leanings, making it a dangerous place for people like Mary Surratt and John Wilkes Booth. Her boardinghouse and Pumphrey’s stable are two of the few places they can speak their minds. For Booth, a man who deeply enjoys doing just that, such locations are safe havens.

It would seem natural that Booth tell the others about his new plan. They might have insights into the best possible means of escape: roads under construction or in need of repair, overcrowded streets, bridges still under wartime guard—for the only way out of Washington, D.C., is on a boat or over a bridge.

The first exit is via the Georgetown Aqueduct, a mile and a half northwest of the White House. The second is Long Bridge, three blocks south of the White House. The third is Benning’s Bridge, on the east side of town. And the last one is the Navy Yard Bridge, on Eleventh Street.

But Booth has already made up his mind: the Navy Yard Bridge. The other three lead into Virginia, with its plethora of roadblocks and Union soldiers. But the Navy Yard Bridge will take him into the quiet backcountry of Maryland, home to smugglers and back roads. Friends like Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd can offer their homes as way stations for a man on the run, storing weapons for him and providing a place to sleep and eat before getting back on the road. The only drawback is that sentries man the bridge and no traffic is allowed in or out of Washington after ten P.M.

Booth wants to see those sentries for himself. Tonight. Which is why he’s come for a horse. He doesn’t tell Pumphrey, just to be on the safe side. In the end it doesn’t matter: Booth’s favorite horse has already been rented.

Not the least bit discouraged, Booth walks up to Ford’s Theatre on Tenth Street. This converted Baptist church is Booth’s touchstone. After it was burned to the ground in 1863, owner John Ford rebuilt it as a “magnificent thespian temple,” replacing the pews with seats and transforming the deacons’ stalls into private boxes. Upon completion, Ford’s became the most state-of-the-art theater in D.C.

Booth performed one night at Ford’s in mid-March, but his theater appearances are few and far between these days. (If asked, he explains that he is taking a hiatus to dabble in the oil business.) He still, however, has his mail sent to Ford’s, and his buggy is parked in a space behind the theater that was specially created for him by a carpenter and sceneshifter named Ned Spangler. Booth uses Spangler often for such favors and odd jobs. Thirty-nine and described by friends as “a very good, efficient drudge,” the hard-drinking Spangler often sleeps in either the theater or a nearby stable. Despite the late hour, Booth knows he will find him at Ford’s.

Inside the theater, rehearsals are under way for a one-night-only performance of the farce Our American Cousin. Like most actors, Booth knows it well.

Booth finds Spangler backstage, befuddled, as usual. He asks the stagehand to clean up his carriage and find a buyer. Spangler is devastated—a great many hours of work have gone into modifying the theater’s storage space so that the carriage will fit. It’s a waste for Booth to sell the carriage, and Spangler tells him so.

“I have no further use for it,” Booth replies. “And anyway, I’ll soon be leaving town.” Booth will not say where he’s going, leaving Spangler even more befuddled.

The word “assassin” comes from “Hashshashin,” the name of a group of hit men who worked for Persian kings between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries. One of their jobs was to execute the Knights Templar, a legendary band of Christian warriors known for their cunning and ferocity in battle. Legend says that the reward for a successful execution was being able to visit a lush royal garden filled with milk, honey, hashish, and concubines.

None of those things await John Wilkes Booth. He is everything an effective assassin should be: methodical, passionate, determined, and an excellent strategist and planner. He is prone to depression, as many assassins are, but his ability to turn angst into rage makes him even more dangerous. He expects no reward for killing Lincoln, though infamy would be nice.

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