Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 12, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MORNING

After a light breakfast and a night of restless sleep, Booth walks the streets of Washington, his mind filled with the disparate strands of an unfinished plan. The more he walks, the more it all comes together.

It is the morning after Lincoln’s speech and the third day since Lee’s surrender.

Booth frames every action through the prism of the dramatic, a trait that comes from being born and raised in an acting household. As he builds the assassination scheme in his head, layer by layer, everything from the location to its grandiosity is designed to make him the star performer in an epic scripted tale. His will be the biggest assassination plot ever, and his commanding performance will guarantee him an eternity of recognition.

He knows there will be an audience. By the morning after Lincoln’s speech Booth has decided to shoot the president inside a theater, the one place in the world where Booth feels most comfortable. Lincoln is known to attend the theater frequently. In fact, he has seen Booth perform—although Lincoln’s presence in the house so angered Booth that he delivered a notably poor performance.

So the theater it will be. Booth has performed at several playhouses in Washington. He knows their hallways and passages by heart. A less informed man might worry about being trapped inside a building with a limited number of exits, no windows, and a crowd of witnesses—many of them able-bodied men just back from the war. But not John Wilkes Booth.

His solitary walk takes him past many such soldiers. The army hasn’t been disbanded yet, so they remain in uniform. Even someone as athletic as Booth looks far less rugged than these men who have spent so much time in the open air, their bodies lean and hard from hours on the march. If he thought about it, their familiarity with weapons and hand-to-hand combat would terrify Booth, with his choreographed stage fights and peashooter pistol.

But Booth is not scared of these men. In fact, he wants to linger for a moment at center stage. With the stage lights shining down on his handsome features, clutching a dagger with “America, Land of the Free” inscribed on the blade, he plans to spend what will surely be the last seconds of his acting career making a political statement. “Sic semper tyrannis,” he will bellow in his most vibrant thespian delivery: Thus always to tyrants.

The dagger is useless as a stage prop. Booth has no specific plans to use it, knowing that if he fires a shot from a few feet away and it misses, there will be no chance to run at Lincoln and stab him. He has borrowed the idea from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,which he performed six months earlier on Broadway with his two actor brothers, both of whom he despises. Booth, ironically, played Marc Antony, a character whose life is spared from a potential assassin.

Those performances provided Booth with his inspiration about the ides. In Roman times it was a day of reckoning.

The ides are tomorrow.

Booth walks faster, energized by the awareness that he hasn’t much time.

He must find out whether Lincoln will be attending the theater tomorrow night and, if so, which one. He must find out which play is being performed, so that he can select just the right moment in the show for the execution—a moment with few actors on stage, if possible, so that when he stops to utter his immortal line there won’t be a crowd to tackle him. The details of his escape are still fuzzy, but the basic plan is to gallop out of Washington on horseback and disappear into the loving arms of the South, where friends and allies and even complete strangers who have heard of his daring deed will see that he makes it safely to Mexico.

But that’s not all.

There are rumors that General Grant will be in town. If he attends the theater with Lincoln, which is a very real possibility, Booth can kill the two most prominent architects of the South’s demise within seconds.

And yet Booth wants even more. He has been an agent of the Confederacy for a little less than a year and has had long conversations with the leaders of the Confederate Secret Service and men like John Surratt, discussing what must be done to topple the Union. He has, at his disposal, a small cadre of like-minded men prepared to do his bidding. He personally witnessed the northern crowd’s malice toward the South at Lincoln’s speech last night. Rather than just kill Lincoln and Grant, he now plans to do nothing less than undertake a top-down destruction of the government of the United States of America.

Vice President Andrew Johnson is an obvious target. He is first in line to the presidency, lives at a nearby hotel, and is completely unguarded. Like all Confederate sympathizers, Booth views the Tennessee politician as a turncoat for siding with Lincoln.

Secretary of State William H. Seward, whose oppressive policies toward the South have long made him a target of Confederate wrath, is on the list as well.

The deaths of Lincoln, Grant, Johnson, and Seward should be more than enough to cause anarchy.

To Lewis Powell, the former Confederate spy who watched Lincoln’s speech with Booth, will go the task of killing Secretary Seward, who, at age sixty-three, is currently bedridden, after a near-fatal carriage accident. He was traveling through Washington with his son Frederick and daughter Fanny when the horses bolted. While reaching for the reins to try to stop them, Seward caught the heel of one of his new shoes on the carriage step and was hurled from the cab, hitting the street so hard that bystanders thought he’d been killed. Secretary Seward has been confined to his bed for a week with severe injuries and is on an around-the-clock course of pain medication. Seward has trouble speaking; he has no chance of leaping from the bed to elude a surprise attack.

Vice President Andrew Johnson

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Secretary of State William H. Seward

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Powell’s job should be as simple as sneaking into the Seward home, shooting the sleeping secretary in bed, then galloping away to join Booth for a life of sunshine and easy living in Mexico.

For the job of killing Johnson, Booth selects a simpleton drifter named George Atzerodt, a German carriage repairer with a sallow complexion and a fondness for drink. To him will go the job of assassinating the vice president at the exact same moment Booth is killing Lincoln. Atzerodt, however, still thinks the plan is to kidnap Lincoln. He was brought into the plot for his encyclopedic knowledge of the smuggling routes from Washington, D.C., into the Deep South. Booth suspects that Atzerodt may be unwilling to go along with the new plan. Should that be the case, Booth has a foolproof plan in mind to blackmail Atzerodt into going along.

Booth has seen co-conspirators come and go since last August. Right now he has three: Powell, Atzerodt, and David Herold, the Georgetown graduate who also accompanied Booth on the night of Lincoln’s speech. One would imagine that each man would be assigned a murder victim. Logically, Herold’s job would be to kill Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the man who trampled the Constitution by helping Lincoln suspend the writ of habeas corpus and did more than any other to treat the South like a bastard child. Stanton is the second-most-powerful man in Washington, but in the end no assassin is trained on him. Instead, Herold will act as the dim-witted Powell’s guide, leading his escape out of Washington in the dead of night.

Why was the secretary of war spared?

The answer may come from a shadowy figure named Lafayette Baker. Early in the war, Baker distinguished himself as a Union spy. Secretary of State William Seward hired him to investigate Confederate communications that were being routed through Maryland. Baker’s success in this role saw him promoted to the War Department, where Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave him full power to create an organization known as the National Detective Police. This precursor to the Secret Service was a counterterrorism unit tasked with seeking out Confederate spy networks in Canada, New York, and Washington.

But Lafayette Baker was a shifty character, with loyalties undefined, except for his love of money and of himself, though not necessarily in that order. Secretary Stanton soon grew weary of him, so Baker returned to New York City. His movements during this time are murky, as befitting a man who thinks himself a spy, but one elaborate theory ties together his activities with those of John Wilkes Booth. This theory suggests that Baker worked as an agent for a Canadian outfit known as the J. J. Chaffey Company. Baker received payments totaling almost $150,000 from that firm, an unheard-of sum at the time. The J. J. Chaffey Company also paid John Wilkes Booth nearly $15,000 between August 24 and October 5, 1864. He was paid in gold, credited to the Bank of Montreal. In the same month the last payment was made to him, Booth traveled to Montreal to collect the money and rendezvous with John Surratt and other members of the Confederate Secret Service to plot the Lincoln issue.

Lafayette C. Baker

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The common thread in the several mysterious payments and missives involving Baker and Booth is the mailing address 1781/2 Water Street. This location, quite mysteriously, is referenced in several documents surrounding payments between the J. J. Chaffey Company, Baker, and Booth.

To this day, no one has discovered why the J. J. Chaffey Company paid Lafayette Baker and John Wilkes Booth for anything. A few clues exist, including a telegram sent on April 2, 1865, the very same day on which Lincoln stood atop the deck of the River Queen to watch the fall of Petersburg. A telegram was sent from 1781/2 Water Street to a company in Chicago. “J. W. Booth will ship oysters until Saturday 15th,” it reads, intimating that Booth, a man who never worked a day in his life in the shipping or the oyster business, was involved in some kind of project that was totally inappropriate for his skills. And yet no one has been able to conclusively determine what the telegram alluded to.

Lafayette Baker freely admitted that he had tapped Secretary of War Stanton’s telegraph lines, though he never explained why he did what he did. Baker would have known that if Lincoln were assassinated, ascension to the presidency could eventually fall to Stanton—the man who ran against Lincoln in 1860. The United States has had a succession plan in place since 1792, with the vice president replacing the fallen president, as when Zachary Taylor died in office and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore. If a more elaborate assassination plot were hatched, one that killed Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward along with President Lincoln, a skilled constitutional scholar like Edwin Stanton could attempt to manipulate the process in his favor—and perhaps even become president. This connection between Baker, Booth, and Stanton continues to intrigue and befuddle scholars. Why was Baker, a spy, paid an exorbitant amount for his services? And why did John Wilkes Booth secure a healthy payment from the same company?

Clues such as this point to Stanton’s involvement, but no concrete connection has ever been proven. Circumstantially, he was involved. Secretary Stanton employed Baker, who was in regular contact with Surratt and Booth. Some historians believe that Stanton fired Baker as a cover and that the two remained in close contact.

Or so the elaborate theory goes.

Whether or not that is true, Stanton will be the sole reason that Baker’s role in the dramatic events of April 1865 is hardly over.

Booth is satisfied that his plan is simple enough that the synchronized slayings will not tax the mental capacities of his underlings. Now all he needs to do is find Lincoln.

The odds of the Lincolns’ remaining in the White House on such an auspicious night of celebration are almost nonexistent. The president and Mrs. Lincoln are known to be fond of the theater and prone to making their public appearances in such a venue. They will be either there or at one of the many parties being held to celebrate the city’s Grand Illumination.

If it is to be an Illumination party, Booth will canvass the city’s notable residences for signs of a celebration. Once the president is located, the next step will be waiting for a moment when he is unguarded, whereupon Booth can use his celebrity to gain entrance and then shoot him.

If it is to be the theater, the obvious choices are either the Grover or Ford’s, both of which are staging lavish productions. Booth must reacquaint himself with their floor plans so that when the moment comes he can act without thinking.

Booth turns the corner onto Pennsylvania Avenue. First stop: Grover’s Theater. The assassination will be tomorrow.

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