Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

MONDAY, APRIL 17, 1865 

MARYLAND SWAMPS

There is nothing dashing or heroic about the man who has come to save the lives of Booth and Herold. Thomas Jones is a broken man, a forty-four-year-old smuggler who has done time in prison, outlived his wife, and lost his home. He now earns his living by transporting everyone from secret agents to diplomats across the Potomac River to the South. On average, he makes the crossing three times a night. He is so skilled that northern newspapers secretly enlisted his help to get their product into the South during the war. A favorite technique employed by the silver-haired and low-key Jones is to begin his first crossing just before dusk, when the angle of the sun makes it impossible for sentries on the opposite shore to see small craft on the water. It is a brazen and brilliant tactic. Clearly, if any man can get Booth and Herold to safety, it’s Thomas Jones.

On his first visit to the campsite he merely wanted to get a look at the men he would be helping, to see if they were mentally and physically capable of enduring what might be a very long wait until it is safe to cross.

His second visit comes one day later. It’s also the second day in the pine forest for Booth and Herold. They once again hear the whistle from the trees. Booth is even worse today, the pain in his leg so severe that he doesn’t do much more than whimper. Herold stands, carbine pointed toward the sound of approaching footsteps, until Jones finally appears in their thicket, his pockets overflowing with ham, butter, bread, and a flask of coffee. In his hands he holds the one thing Booth wants to see more than any other: newspapers.

Cavalry are combing the countryside, he cautions the killers, and he reminds them to be patient. It might take several days before things die down. No matter how cold it gets, no matter how extreme the conditions, they must be prepared to hunker down in the woods until the coast is clear. As soon as it is, he’ll let them know.

Booth argues that their lives are in danger and that they can’t stay here any longer. But the thunder of hoofbeats from the nearby road stops him short—it’s Union cavalry and far too close for comfort.

“You see, my friend,” Jones whispers. “You must wait.” He tells them to kill the horses, lest their whinnying give the killers away.

Prior to the assassination, Booth would have continued to argue and then done as he pleased. But now he quietly gives in. “I leave it all with you,” he says to Jones.

Jones departs quickly. His visits are uplifting to Booth and Herold, a welcome break from the monotony of sitting still for hours and hours out in the open. They don’t even dare build a shelter, for fear the noise will attract unwelcome attention. Jones doesn’t just bring food and newspapers; he also offers hope, his cool confidence suggesting that all will be well, just so long as they are patient.

With a sigh, Booth turns his attention to the newspapers. He reads about the extent of the search. But his melancholy soon turns to rage as he learns that his monumental actions are not being applauded. Far from it. He is being labeled a scoundrel and a coward for shooting Lincoln in the back. Washington newspapers assail him as the war’s ultimate villain and note that any “kindly feeling” toward the South or its sympathizers has disappeared, thanks to his actions. Booth’s achievement is described in the Richmond papers as “the most deplorable calamity, which has ever befallen the people of the United States.” And finally, the nation’s most staunchly anti-Lincoln paper, the National Intelligencer, is now crying out that Lincoln was a true American hero. The very newspaper that the actor had once hoped would print the letter explaining his actions is instead portraying him as an abomination.

Booth, overcome with despair, sets the papers aside. As is his new habit, he regales Herold with a monologue on the killings—regrets, desires, and misunderstandings. Then he takes out his diary and begins keeping a journal of their time in the wilderness. In it, he writes his reflections on killing Lincoln, just to make sure that his point of view is properly recorded for posterity. “I struck boldly and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on,” Booth writes. “I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made men the instrument of his punishment.”

Booth writes and rants and writes some more. Then he sleeps. Then he awakens and writes some more. There’s nothing else to do with his time. So it is with the world’s two most wanted men, bored to tears in a Maryland swamp.

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