Biographies & Memoirs

Part Four


John Wilkes Booth in portrait






John Wilkes Booth and David Herold, the most wanted men in the United States of America, have successfully fled into the Maryland countryside. They met up at the rendezvous spot in the dead of night. With no sign that Atzerodt or Powell managed to escape Washington, Booth and Herold pushed on with their flight, galloping their horses south, toward Virgina. However, Booth’s leg injury is so severe, and their horses so tired, that they were forced to find a place to rest. They are now hiding in the house of the eminent physician and Confederate sympathizer Dr. Samuel Mudd.

Somewhere in Washington, George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell are still on the loose.

The authorities don’t know any of that yet—no numbers, no identities, and no motives. But even before Lincoln breathed his last, they began the intricate process of unraveling the mystery of his death.

Investigators stumble upon Atzerodt’s trail first. After failing to carry out the assassination of Vice President Johnson, the carriage painter spent the night wandering aimlessly about Washington, getting thoroughly drunk in a number of bars and making sure to dispose of the knife he was supposed to use to kill the vice president. Other than plotting against the president of the United States, he has committed no crime. Atzerodt has a reputation for being dim, but he is canny enough to know that once he threw his knife into a gutter, the only obvious piece of evidence connecting him with the conspiracy was being seen publicly on Booth’s horse. It might take days for authorities to make that connection. If he maintains a low profile and keeps his wits about him, there is every chance that he can get out of Washington and get on with a normal life.

Atzerodt is all too aware that returning to his room at Kirkwood House would be a very stupid idea. So just before three A.M. he checks into the Pennsylvania House hotel, where he is assigned a double room. His roommate, at a time when Atzerodt needs to be as far away from the long arm of the law as possible, is a police lieutenant named W. R. Keim. The two men know each other from Atzerodt’s previous stays at the Pennsylvania House. They lie on their backs in the darkness and have a short conversation before falling asleep. Keim is stunned by the slaying of Lincoln. As drunk as he is, Atzerodt does an artful job of feigning sadness, saying that the whole Lincoln assassination is a terrible tragedy.

Lieutenant Keim never suspects a thing.

But events are already conspiring against Atzerodt. Even as he sleeps off his long, hard night of drinking and walking, detectives sent to protect Andrew Johnson are combing through Atzerodt’s belongings at Kirkwood House. A desk clerk remembers seeing a “villainous-looking” individual registered in room 126. Atzerodt took the only room key with him when he fled, so detectives have to break down the door to investigate. Quickly canvassing the empty room, they come up with the first solid leads about Lincoln’s murder. In the breast pocket of a dark coat hanging on a wall peg, they discover a ledger book from the Ontario Bank in Montreal. The name written inside the cover is that of John Wilkes Booth, whom scores of eyewitnesses have already identified as Lincoln’s killer. The book confirms the connection between Atzerodt and Booth.

A quick rifling of the bed produces a loaded revolver under the pillow and a Bowie knife hidden beneath the covers. And that is just the beginning. Room 126 soon becomes a treasure trove of evidence: a map of southern states, pistol rounds, a handkerchief embroidered with the name of Booth’s mother, and much more.

Investigators now have two suspects: Booth and Atzerodt. Warrants are issued for their arrests.

At the same time, an anonymous tip leads investigators to raid Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse on H Street in the dead of night. Nothing is found, but Surratt’s behavior is suspicious enough that detectives decide to keep an eye on her and the house. A similar anonymous tip leads police to room 228 at the National Hotel—Booth’s room—which is quickly ripped apart. Booth has left behind an abundance of clues—among them a business card bearing the name “J. Harrison Surratt” and a letter from former conspirator Samuel Arnold that implicates Michael O’Laughlen. More and more, it is becoming obvious that John Wilkes Booth did not act alone.

A few blocks away, detectives question Secretary of State Seward’s household staff, which adds two more nameless individuals to the list: the man who attacked Seward and his accomplice, who was seen waiting outside. This brings the number of conspirators to six: Booth, Atzerodt, O’Laughlen, Arnold, and Seward’s two unknown attackers. John Surratt becomes a suspect because police are watching his mother.

The detectives, thrilled at their brisk progress, are sure they will arrest each and every member of the conspiracy within a matter of days.

Meanwhile, Washington is in a state of shock. Flags are flown at half-mast. Vice President Andrew Johnson is sworn in as the seventeenth president of the United States. Secretary of State Seward is not dead, as is widely rumored. But he is very badly injured.

He will be in a coma through Saturday but will awaken on Easter Sunday. Gazing out the window, he will see the War Department’s flags at half-mast and immediately know what has happened. “The president is dead,” Seward will sigh.

When his nurse insists that this is not the case, Seward will hold his ground. “If he had been alive he would be the first to call on me,” he will say, “but he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at half-mast.” Then he will turn his head from the window, tears streaming down his cheeks, their salt mingling with the blood of his still-fresh wounds.

But now it is still Saturday morning. Black crepe replaces the red, white, and blue bunting on government buildings. Liquor outlets are shut down so that angry Washingtonians don’t find yet another excuse to begin drinking and perhaps, in their drunken anger, start looting. Multiracial crowds gather in front of the Petersen house, grateful to merely be in the presence of the hallowed ground where Lincoln died. Just across the street, Ford’s Theatre has instantly gone from a Washington cultural hub to a pariah; the good fortune of having Lincoln attend Our American Cousinwill soon put the theater out of business. The government will decree that the building may never again be used as a place of public amusement.

The cast of Our American Cousin is so afraid of being attacked by angry mobs that the actors and actresses lock themselves inside the theater after the shooting. One of their own, Harry Hawk, has already been taken into police custody for sharing the same stage as Booth.

Throughout the nation, as the news spreads, Abraham Lincoln’s worst fears are being realized. Outraged northerners mourn his loss and openly rant about revenge, while southerners rejoice in the death of the tyrannical man who wouldn’t give them the freedom to form their own nation. The Civil War, so close to being finally over, now seems on the verge of erupting once again.

Believing that catching Lincoln’s killer will help quell the unrest, Secretary of War Stanton spends Saturday expanding the search, making the hunt for Lincoln’s killers the biggest criminal dragnet in American history. Soldiers, cavalry, and every imaginable form of law enforcement throughout the northern states are called off every other task and ordered to devote all their energies to finding John Wilkes Booth and his band of killers. In the same manner that Grant attempted to besiege Petersburg by throwing a noose around the city, Stanton hopes to throw a giant rope around the Northeast, then slowly cinch the knot tighter until he squeezes out the killers. He also sends a telegram to New York City, recalling Lafayette Baker, his former spymaster and chief of security. The strange connection between Stanton and Baker now becomes even stronger.

Why does Stanton call for Baker, of all people?

As all this is going on, George Atzerodt wakes up at dawn on Saturday morning, still drunk after just two hours of sleep. He is somehow oblivious to the fact that people might be looking for him. Nor does he have any idea that the man who assaulted Secretary Seward, Lewis Powell, is also still stuck in Washington, hiding out in a cemetery after being thrown from his horse. Atzerodt knows he must get out of Washington, but first he needs money to fund his escape. He has no plan, and he is under no delusion that he will find a way to meet up with John Wilkes Booth; nor does he want to.

Atzerodt leaves the Pennsylvania House and walks across the city to nearby Georgetown, where he makes the unusual gesture of calling on an old girlfriend. He tells her he is going away for a while, as if she might somehow want to come along. And then as mysteriously as he appeared, Atzerodt leaves the home of Lucinda Metz and pawns his revolver for ten dollars at a nearby store. He uses the money to buy a stagecoach ticket into Maryland, taking public transportation at a time when all common sense cries out for a more inconspicuous means of escape.

But now fate is smiling upon George Atzerodt. Nobody stops the stagecoach as it rolls out of Washington and into Maryland. Even when the stage is halted and searched by Union soldiers miles outside the capital, nobody suspects that the simple-witted Atzerodt is capable of being resourceful enough to take part in the conspiracy. In fact, Atzerodt is so unassuming that the sergeant in charge of the soldiers actually shares a few glasses of cider with the conspirator.

In this way, George Atzerodt stumbles deeper and deeper into the countryside, on his way, he believes, to safety and freedom.

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