Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 1865 

WASHINGTON, D.C. 

10:20 P.M.

Booth slows the mare to a walk. Word is already spreading through Washington that the president has been shot. The news is shouted, breathlessly exclaimed, passed from citizen to citizen, bonfire to bonfire. People aren’t racing away from Ford’s, they’re racing to Ford’s, to see for themselves if these wild rumors are true. Victory marches turn into mobs of the curious and scared, determined to fight their way to the theater.

When a drunk shouts into the night, “I’m glad it happened!” a furious mob beats and kicks him unconscious, tearing off his clothes, and hauls his limp body to a lamppost for a lynching. Ironically, he will be rescued by the Union cavalry.

Now another troop of cavalry is summoned to Ford’s and plunges recklessly through the throngs assembling outside. Inside, the crowd surges toward the stage, trapping small children in its midst, chanting all the while that Booth must be lynched. Laura Keene has the presence of mind to march to center stage and cry out for calm and sanity, but her words go unheeded. The crush against the stage is made worse as the news explodes into the street in front of Ford’s Theatre. Passersby rush inside to see for themselves, some of them hoping that Booth is still trapped inside but most just wanting a glimpse of the injured president.

Across town at Grover’s Theatre, the patriotic celebration is in full swing. A young boy is reciting a poem when a man bursts into the theater and shouts that the president has been shot. As the crowd reacts in horror, a young soldier stands and yells for everyone to sit still. “It’s a ruse of the pickpockets,” he says, explaining that thieves spread such disinformation to fleece the crowd as people rush for the exit.

The six hundred theatergoers take their seats once again. The boy onstage exits, his poetry reading complete. But he is back just seconds later, struggling to control his voice as he shares the horrific news that President Lincoln has, indeed, been shot. Tad Lincoln, the president’s twelve-year-old son, is in the audience with a White House staffer. Stunned, he returns to the White House, where he collapses into the arms of the doorkeeper, shouting, “They’ve killed Papa dead! They’ve killed Papa dead.”

Soon more bad news begins to spread: Secretary Seward has been assaulted in his bed.

At Rullman’s Hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue, the bartender shouts out the mournful news that Lincoln has been shot. Mike O’Laughlen, the would-be conspirator who stalked the Grants last night, drinks in the corner. He is drunk again but still coherent enough to know in an instant that Booth is the killer—and that he must get out of town before someone implicates him, too.

In front of the Willard Hotel, the stable foreman John Fletcher is still seething that David Herold hasn’t return the roan he rented earlier. At that very moment, Herold trots past. “You get off that horse now!” Fletcher cries, springing out into the street and grabbing for the bridle. But Herold spurs the horse and gallops away. Acting quickly, Fletcher sprints back to his stable, saddles a horse, and races after him.

In the midst of all this, a lone rider galloping away from the chaos at Ford’s would most certainly attract attention. So Booth guides the mare slowly up and down the streets and alleys of Washington, even as his veins course with adrenaline and euphoria, and pandemonium breaks out all around him. Despite his considerable celebrity, Booth blends in and proceeds unmolested through the streets. It is Friday night, after all, a time when Washington comes to life. There are plenty of men trotting horses through town. It’s only when Booth finally nears the end of his three-mile journey to the Navy Yard Bridge that his fears about being caught force him to spur the horse and ride hard to freedom.

It is ten forty-five when Booth pulls back on the reins once again and canters up to the wooden drawbridge by the Navy Yard—almost thirty long minutes since the Deringer did its deadly job. Booth approaches like a man confident that his path will go unblocked. “Where are you going, sir?” cries the military sentry. His name is Silas T. Cobb, and his long and boring shift will be over at midnight. He notices the lather on the horse’s flanks, a sign that it’s been ridden hard.

“Home. Down in Charles,” Booth replies.

“Didn’t you know, my friend, that it is against the laws to pass here after nine o’clock?” Cobb is required to challenge anyone entering or exiting Washington, but the truth of the matter is that the war has ended and with it the formal restrictions on crossing the bridge after curfew. He wants no trouble, just to finish his shift in peace and get a good night’s sleep.

“No,” lies Booth. He explains that he’s been waiting for the full moon to rise, so that he might navigate the darkened roads by night. And, indeed, a waning moon is rising at that very moment.

“I will pass you,” Cobb sighs. “But I don’t know I ought to.”

“Hell, I guess there’ll be no trouble about that,” Booth shoots back. Ignoring the rule that horses be walked across the bridge, he trots the mare into the night.

Booth is barely across the Potomac when David Herold approaches Silas T. Cobb. He gives his name as just “Smith.” Once again, after a brief discussion, Cobb lets him pass.

One more rider approaches Cobb that night. He is John Fletcher, the stable foreman who is following David Herold. Fletcher can clearly see Herold on the other side of the bridge, now disappearing into the Maryland night.

“You can cross,” Cobb tells him, “but my orders say I can’t let anyone back across the bridge until morning.”

The Maryland countryside, with its smugglers and spies and illicit operatives, is the last place John Fletcher wants to spend the night. He turns his horse’s reins back toward his stable, settling on the hope that Herold and the missing horse will one day make the mistake of riding back into Washington.

In fact, Fletcher will never see the horse again, for it will soon be shot dead, its body left to rot in the backwoods of Maryland—yet another victim of the most spectacular assassination conspiracy in the history of man.

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