Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

SATURDAY-SUNDAY, APRIL 15-16, 1865 

MARYLAND COUNTRYSIDE

David Herold needs a buggy. It’s the most obvious solution to John Wilkes Booth’s plight. With a buggy they can travel quickly and in relative comfort. He asks Dr. Mudd to loan them his, but the doctor is reluctant; secretly harboring fugitives is one thing, but allowing the two most wanted men in America to ride through southern Maryland in his personal carriage would surely implicate Mudd and his wife in the conspiracy. Their hanging—for that is surely the fate awaiting any Lincoln conspirator—would leave their four young children orphans.

Instead, Mudd suggests that they ride into Bryantown to pick up some supplies and check on the latest news. With Booth still passed out upstairs, Herold agrees to the journey. But as they draw closer and closer to the small town, something in Herold’s gut tells him not to take the risk. A stranger like him will be too easily remembered by such a tight-knit community. He is riding Booth’s bay now, because it’s too spirited for the actor to control with his broken leg. Herold lets Mudd go on without him, then wheels the mare back to the doctor’s home.

Good thing. The United States cavalry now has Bryantown surrounded. They’re not only questioning all its citizens, they’re not letting anyone leave, either.

This is the sort of savvy, intuitive thinking that separates David Herold from the other members of Booth’s conspiracy. Atzerodt is dim. Powell is a thug. And Booth is emotional. But the twenty-two-year-old Herold, recruited to the conspiracy for his knowledge of Washington’s backstreets, is intelligent and resourceful. He was educated at Georgetown College, the finest such institution in the city. He is also an avid hunter, which gives him a full complement of the outdoor skills that Booth now requires to escape, the additional ability to improvise in dangerous situations, and an instinctive sixth sense about tracking—or, in this case, being tracked.

But now Herold is just as exhausted as Booth. He didn’t endure the same extreme adrenaline spike last night, if only because he didn’t kill anyone. But he experienced a definite and sustained rush as he galloped over the Navy Yard Bridge, then along the dangerous darkened roads of Maryland. He’s had time to think and to plan, and he knows that constant forward movement is the key to their survival. Otherwise, Herold has no doubt that the cavalry will be on their trail in no time.

Clearly, they cannot stay at Dr. Mudd’s any longer. Just before dusk, Herold rouses Booth and helps him down the stairs and up into the saddle. Herold guides them south through the countryside, aiming for the Zekiah Swamp, with its quicksand bogs and dense stands of oldgrowth hardwoods. The few trails that exist are almost impossible to see in the dark, and the pair are soon lost and frustrated. They turn back toward Mudd’s farm but remain out of sight, plotting their next move.

The next twelve hours bring an enduring awareness that they are neither safe nor welcome anywhere.

Easter Sunday dawns hard and bleak. Herold and Booth are camped in a stand of pines a quarter mile off the main road. A cold front is racing across Maryland, and they shiver in the damp swampy air, just a few short miles from the final obstacle to their escape into Virginia, the Potomac River. Booth isn’t wearing a boot on his injured leg, and his foot and ankle are in pain and quite cold from walking on swampy ground in the thin shoes he took from Mudd. Yet Herold doesn’t dare make a fire. Beside him, Booth is curled up in the fetal position, head resting on one hand. Each man clutches his revolver as a stiff wind bends the towering pines. The last sympathizer they visited, the wealthy owner of forty slaves in this still-lawless region, promised to send a man to ferry them across to safety. The rescue signal will be a soft whistle, a pause, and then another soft whistle.

So now they wait. Hour after brutally cold hour, they wonder who will deliver them from this hell. Booth says little, except to cry out in pain or mutter something about not being taken alive. He still has some fight in him. Now and then they hear the jangle of bridles from the nearby road. And all the while, a gnawing little voice in Herold’s gut tells him that they have been betrayed—that the whistle, when it comes, will be their only warning before United States cavalry confirm their position and ride in with guns blazing.

Late Sunday afternoon they hear the first whistle. Then a second. Confederate sympathizer Thomas Jones calls out to them in a low voice, announcing that he is walking into their camp.

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