Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

8:45 P.M.

Less than two hours to go.

John Wilkes Booth summarizes the final details with his co-conspirators as the Lincolns settle into their seats. Though Lewis Powell checked out of his hotel room hours earlier, the four men meet outside the Herndon House because of its close proximity to Ford’s. With the exception of Atzerodt, each man is on horseback. Though he has been drinking steadily on and off all day, Booth is thinking and acting clearly. None of the co-conspirators has any cause to doubt him.

First, and most important, Booth tells them, the precise time of the president’s assassination will be ten-fifteen P.M. Unlike the night before, when the assassination plans had a haphazard quality, tonight’s events are timed to the minute. Shows at Ford’s usually start promptly. If that’s the case, then Harry Hawk will be alone onstage, delivering his punch line, at precisely ten-fifteen.

Second, Booth tells them, the murders of Seward and Johnson must also take place at ten-fifteen. The precision is vital. There can be no advance warning or alarm to the intended targets. The attacks must be a complete surprise. Booth hopes to create the illusion that Washington, D.C., is a hotbed of assassins, resulting in the sort of mass chaos that will make it easier for him and his men to escape. With officials looking everywhere for the killers, on streets filled with bonfires and spontaneous parades and hordes of drunken revelers, blending in to the bedlam should be as simple as staying calm.

Next comes the list of assignments. The job of murdering of Secretary of State Seward will be a two-man affair, with Lewis Powell and David Herold now working together. Powell will be the man who actually walks up to the door, finds a way to enter the house, and commits the crime. The ruse that will get him in the door is a fake bottle of medication, which Powell will claim was sent by Seward’s physician.

Herold’s role is to assist in the getaway. He knows Washington’s back alleys and shortcuts and will guide Powell, who knows little about the city, to safety. During the murder, Herold must wait outside and hold their horses. Once Powell exits the house, the two men will gallop across town by a roundabout method in order to confuse anyone trying to give chase. Then they will leave town via the Navy Yard Bridge and rendezvous in the Maryland countryside.

As for George Atzerodt, he will act alone. Killing Vice President Andrew Johnson does not look to be a difficult task. Though Johnson is a vigorous man, he is known to be unguarded and alone most of the time. Atzerodt is to knock on the door of his hotel room and shoot him when he answers. Atzerodt will also escape Washington via the Navy Yard Bridge, then gallop into Maryland to meet up with the others. From there, Atzerodt’s familiarity with smugglers’ trails will allow him to guide the men into the Deep South.

Once the plans are finalized, Booth will head for Ford’s. There he will bide his time, making sure the theater’s entries and exits are unguarded, that the secret backstage passageways are clear, and that his horse is ready and waiting.

Booth clears his throat just before they ride off in their different directions. He tells them about the letter he wrote to the National Intelligencer, implicating all of them in this grand triple assassination. The message is clear: there is no going back. If the men object to Booth outing them, there is no historical record to show it.

Booth looks over his gang. These four unlikely men are about to change the course of history, just as surely as Grant or Lincoln or Lee or any of the hundreds of thousands of men who died during the Civil War. They are now ninety minutes away from becoming the most wanted men in all of the world.

He wishes them good luck, then spurs his horse and trots off to Ford’s.

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