Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

2:00 P.M.

Two thousand years after the execution of Jesus, there are still many unanswered questions about who was directly responsible for his death and what happened in the aftermath. And so it is, on Good Friday 1865, that a series of bizarre occurrences will take place.

In the hours to come guards will inexplicably leave their posts, bridges that should be closed will miraculously be open, and telegrams alerting the army to begin a manhunt for Lincoln’s killer will not be sent—all happenings that have been tied to a murky conspiracy that most likely will never be uncovered. What we do know is that in these hours, John Wilkes Booth is putting the final touches on his murderous plan.

Booth is on an emotional roller coaster, his spirits rising and falling as he ponders the assassination and its consequences, all the while running down his checklist, completing the tasks that must be done for tonight. He is dressed in dashing fashion, with tight black pants, a tailored black coat, and a black hat. With those clothes and his broad black mustache, he couldn’t look more like a villain. The only thing he wears that isn’t black are his boots—they’re tan.

The first stop is Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse on H Street. She is walking out the door for a trip into the country to collect on an old debt, but Booth catches her just in time. He hands her a spyglass wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string, telling her to make sure that it doesn’t get wet or break. One of Surratt’s tenants, Louis Weichmann, is a soldier and government clerk whose job deals with the care and housing of prisoners of war. Weichmann senses that there’s something shady about Booth, having listened to his rants and spent enough time around the Surratts to discern the pro-Confederate leanings of the crowd. So he leans in to eavesdrop as Mary and Booth confer by the marble fireplace.

Mary catches him. She calmly orders Weichmann to leave her house at once and pick up a horse and buggy for her journey.

By the time Weichmann returns with the horse and buggy, Booth is gone, walking the five blocks to Herndon House, where Lewis Powell is lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He and Booth discuss the evening’s plan. The trick in killing Secretary of State Seward, Booth reminds him, isn’t the actual murder—Seward is still barely conscious and in great pain after his carriage accident. He is incapable of putting up any resistance.

No, the hard part will be getting in and out of Seward’s home. There is at least one male military nurse to protect the secretary, along with Seward’s wife and three of his children. In a worst-case scenario, Powell will have to kill them all, Booth says. Powell, mentally impaired since that long-ago mule kick to the head, says he has no problem with mass murder.

Then Booth is on the move again, headed for Pumphrey’s stable to arrange for his getaway horse. He prefers a small sorrel, but it’s already gone for the day. Instead, Booth rents a compact bay mare with a white star on her forehead. Pumphrey warns Booth that although the mare is just fourteen hands high, she’s extremely high-spirited. She mustn’t be tied to a post if he leaves her anywhere, because she’ll pull away and escape. Better to have someone hold her reins at all times.

The bay tries to bite Booth as the groom cinches the English saddle under her belly and adjusts her stirrups. To demonstrate her high spirits, the groom smacks the mare on the rump. She jumps and kicks, much to Booth’s delight.

Booth saddles up. He likes the horse with the black mane and tail, but the stirrups don’t feel right. The groom shortens them one notch and Booth is on his way, walking the mare up Sixth Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, where he jabs his spurs into her flanks so she’ll run. It’s a ludicrous idea. The street is jammed with pedestrians and carriages. Union soldiers, returning from the front, march in loose formation, dog-tired and in no mood for a horseman to romp through their ranks. But today Booth is above the law. He gallops the bay down Pennsylvania, ignoring the angry curses hurled in his mud-splattered wake.

Booth stops at Grover’s Theatre, where the marquee announces THE GORGEOUS PLAY OF ALADDIN, OR THE WONDERFUL LAMP. He doesn’t have any business there, but theaters are safe refuges no matter what city he’s visiting. Booth knows not only the insides of the building but also each nearby bar and restaurant, where he’s sure to see a friendly face. On a day like today, when his stomach is churning and he’s battling with all his might to stay calm and focused, nothing could be more natural than making his way to a theater, just to experience a few moments of calm reassurance. For the child of actors, raised on greasepaint and footlights, it’s like going home.

Against Pumphrey’s explicit direction, he ties the mare to a hitching post, then wanders up to Deery’s tavern and orders a bottle. Alone at the bar, nursing a brandy and water to the sounds of the clacking of billiard balls from the nearby table, he pauses to reflect on what he is about to do. Getting into the theater should be easy enough. Getting past the bodyguard at the door to the state box, however, might get bloody. And the odds of killing Lincoln and escaping are low. He accepts all that.

But what if nobody knows it’s him?

What if the euphoric triumph of shooting Lincoln is followed by the devastating letdown of anonymity—that is, until he reaches some safe refuge where he can shout his accomplishment to world and then parlay his infamy into some even greater glory. But what if no one believes him? What if John Wilkes Booth shoots the president and makes a clean getaway, only to be ignored when he tells everyone that he’s the man who did it?

This cannot be. Booth craves the limelight too much. He needs to make sure he’ll get immediate credit for such a bold and dramatic act.

Booth tosses a dollar onto the bar and walks downstairs to the Grover’s manager’s office. It’s empty. Sitting at the desk, Booth removes paper and an envelope from the pigeonholes. He then writes a letter to the editor of the National Intelligencer stating, in specific terms, what he is about to do.

He signs his name, then adds those of Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold. They are all members of the same company, in theatrical terms. They deserve some sort of billing—even if they might not want it.

After sealing the envelope, Booth steps outside. He is pleased to see that his feisty bay is still where he left her. A motley and dispirited group of Confederate prisoners is marching down the street as he saddles up. “Great God,” he moans, mortified by such a sad sight. “I no longer have a country.”

But seeing those downtrodden rebels is yet another reminder of why Booth has embraced violence. Thus fortified, Booth spies fellow actor John Matthews in front of the theater. Booth leans down from his horse to hand him the envelope and gives him specific instructions to mail it the next morning. However, hedging his bets in case things go bad, Booth says he wants the letter back if he finds Matthews before ten tomorrow morning.

It’s a petty and spiteful trick, designed to implicate Matthews, who will be onstage in the role of Richard Coyle during Our American Cousin. Booth had asked him to be part of the conspiracy and was turned down. The night after his aborted kidnapping attempt on the Soldiers’ Home road four weeks earlier, Booth even lounged on Matthews’s bed in a small boardinghouse across from Ford’s Theatre, trying to cajole the fellow actor to join him.

But Matthews continued to refuse. Now Booth is getting his revenge, implicating Matthews by association.

Matthews, completely unsuspecting, is distracted by an unusual sight. “Look,” he says to Booth. “Over there.”

Booth is stunned to see General and Mrs. Grant leaving town in an open carriage piled high with luggage. Julia is inside, with another female passenger, while the general sits up top, next to the coachman.

Booth trots after them, just to see for himself. He parades his horse past the carriage, turns around, and guides the bay back toward the Grants at a walk. He stares as the carriage passes, glaring at Sam Grant with such intensity that Julia will later recall quite vividly the crazed man who stared them down. It is only after the assassination that Mrs. Grant will realize who he was.

“I thought he was going to Ford’s tonight, with Lincoln,” Booth says to a stranger.

“Somebody said he’s going to Jersey,” the man responds, confirming Booth’s worst fears. Glumly, he realizes that one of his two primary targets will not be at Ford’s this evening. He wheels the horse around and heads for that theater.

Washington, D.C., is a relatively small city. All the locations associated with Booth’s activities throughout the week are situated close together. Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse is just a few blocks from the National Hotel, which is just a few blocks from Kirkwood House, where Vice President Johnson is staying, which is just a few blocks from the White House, which is right across the street from Secretary Seward’s home. The National, the White House, and Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse constitute the three corners of a broad triangle. Within that triangle are all the other locations. And in the very center is Ford’s Theatre, which is right across the alley from Herndon House, where Lewis Powell is now eating an early dinner of cold beef and potatoes before checking out.

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The alley is known as Baptist Alley, due to Ford’s origins as a house of worship. A maid at Ford’s hears the sound of galloping hooves coming from the alley. When she looks outside, she sees a most unusual sight: the famous actor John Wilkes Booth racing a horse north up the alley from E Street, then galloping out the other end on F Street. He does this twice. The maid, Margaret Rozier, watches as Booth dismounts after the second dry run of his escape, not in a million years imagining what she has just witnessed. When he is done, Booth stops at Ford’s stage door, where he invites stagehands Jim Maddox and Ned Spangler to join him for a drink next door at Jim Ferguson’s Greenback Saloon.

As they come back outside after their drink, Booth mounts the bay and says hello to Jim Ferguson himself. Ferguson has heard about the Lincolns and is making plans to see Our American Cousin tonight. “She is a very nice horse,” Booth says, noting the way Ferguson admires her. “She can gallop and can almost kick me in the back.”

Booth prods her with his spurs and gallops back to the National Hotel, his errands complete. The energy whooshes out of him as the alcohol wears off and the brute realization of what he is about to do hits him hard. His face is so pale that the desk clerk inquires about his health.

Booth says he’s fine, orders a cup of tea, and heads upstairs to rest.

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