Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 


10:15 P.M.

As John Wilkes Booth tiptoes into the state box and Lewis Powell knocks on William Seward's front door, George Atzerodt, the would-be assassin of Vice President Andrew Johnson, is drinking hard, late for his date with destiny.

If any man in Washington has incurred the wrath of the Confederacy, it is Johnson, the former governor of Tennessee, whom many southerners consider a rank traitor. Johnson’s bitter words are seldom compatible with Lincoln’s. So it is no surprise that his views on punishing the South stand in stark contrast to Lincoln’s lenience. “And what shall be done with the leaders of the rebel host? I know what I would do if I were president. I would arrest them as traitors, I would try them as traitors, and, by the Eternal, I would hang them as traitors,” Johnson shouted from the steps of the War Department as recently as Monday night.

Like Johnson, Atzerodt the carriage painter is staying at Kirkwood House, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Twelfth Street, four blocks from the White House and just one block from Ford’s Theatre. He has passed the time aimlessly since his meeting with Booth and the other conspirators, drawing attention to himself through the simple act of trying not to draw attention to himself.

At nine-thirty he visits Naylor’s stable on E Street to pick up his horse. The owner knows George Atzerodt and his friend David Herold and does not care for either of them. Nevertheless, when a nervous, sweating Atzerodt asks if he’d like to get a drink, Naylor answers with a quick “Don’t mind if I do.” He is concerned about Herold, who rented a horse from him earlier that day and is long overdue. Naylor hopes that Atzerodt will disclose his friend’s location after a drink or two.

They leave Atzerodt’s mare and walk to the bar of the Union Hotel. Atzerodt, whom Naylor suspects has been drinking for some time, orders a stiff whiskey; Naylor chugs a tankard of ale. Atzerodt pays. They return to the stable after just one round, with Naylor none the wiser about Herold’s location.

“Your friend is staying out very late with his horse,” Naylor finally prods. Atzerodt has just handed him a five-dollar tip for boarding his horse.

“He’ll be back after a while,” Atzerodt glibly replies as he mounts the mare.

But Atzerodt is too wasted on alcohol to ride a straight line. He almost falls out of the saddle when the mare takes a sudden turn. On a hunch, Naylor decides to follow Atzerodt on foot. The trail, however, is only a block long. Atzerodt dismounts and ties the horse at a hitching post in front of Kirkwood House. Naylor waits across the street, just out of sight. When Atzerodt walks back out a few minutes later and trots the mare over toward Ford’s Theatre, Naylor gives up the surveillance and returns to his stable.

Andrew Johnson, meanwhile, is behaving very much like a man waiting to be summoned. He eats an early dinner alone. He turns down a last-minute invitation to attend Our American Cousin. His assistant is out for the night, and Johnson has no one to talk with. So he goes up to his room and lies down on his bed, fully clothed, as if some great incident is about to occur and he needs to be ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice. Johnson is a boorish man. Largely uneducated, he learned to read and write late in his life. A tailor by trade, he entered politics in his twenties and worked his way up to the Senate. He owes a lot to President Lincoln, who first appointed him the military governor of Tennessee and then chose him to run on the vice presidential ticket after Lincoln asked Hannibal Hamlin of Maine to step down. Hamlin was a hard-core northerner and Lincoln needed a southern presence on the ticket.

Up until this point, Johnson has had no power at all. He is simply a figurehead.

At ten-fifteen George Atzerodt is back inside Kirkwood House, getting thoroughly smashed in the bar. Truth be told, even more than when he tried to bow out a few days earlier, the German-born carriage painter wants no part of murder. A few floors above him, Johnson lies alone in his room. In his lifetime he will suffer the ignominy of impeachment and endure the moniker of “worst president in history.” Andrew Johnson will not, however, suffer the far worse fate of death at the hand of an assassin. For that, Johnson can thank the effects of alcohol, as a now very drunk George Atzerodt continues to raise his glass.

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