Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 1865 



Samuel Mudd is not home when Lieutenant Lovett and the cavalry return. Lovett sends farmhand Thomas Davis to find him.

Mudd is having lunch nearby and quickly returns to his farm to face Lovett.

The terror of their previous encounter returns. He knows that Lovett has spent the previous three days searching the area around his property for evidence. Mudd’s face once again turns a ghostly white. His nervousness is compounded as Lovett questions him again, probing Mudd’s story for discrepancies, half-truths, and outright lies.

This time Lovett does not ride away. Nor is he content to search the pastures and outer edges of the farm. No, this time he wants to go inside Mudd’s home and see precisely where these strangers slept. Lovett gives the order to search the house.

Mudd frantically gestures to his wife, Sarah, who walks quickly to him. He whispers in her ear, and she races into the house. The soldiers can hear her footsteps as she climbs the stairs to the second floor, then returns within just a moment. In her hands are two items: a razor and a boot. “I found these while dusting up three days ago,” she says as she hands them to Lovett.

Mudd explains that one of the strangers used the razor to shave off his mustache. The boot had come from the stranger with the broken leg.

Lovett presses Mudd on this point, asking him if he knew the man’s identity.

Mudd insists that he didn’t.

Lovett cradles the long riding boot in his hands. It has been slit down one side by Mudd, in order that he might pull it from Booth’s swollen leg to examine the wound.

Lovett asks if this is, indeed, the boot the stranger wore.

Mudd agrees.

Lovett presses Mudd again, verifying that the doctor had no knowledge of the stranger’s identity.

Mudd swears this to be truth.

And then Lovett shows Mudd the inside of the riding boot, which would have been clearly visible when Mudd was removing it from the stranger’s leg.

Mudd’s world collapses. His story is shattered in an instant.

For marked inside the boot, plain for all to see, is the name

“J. Wilkes.”

Dr. Samuel Mudd is under arrest.

And while Lieutenant Lovett has just made a key breakthrough in the race to find John Wilkes Booth and David Herold, the truth is that nobody in authority knows where they are.

Lafayette Baker, however, has a pretty good idea.

Baker keeps a host of coastal survey maps in his office at the War Department. With “that quick detective intuition amounting almost to inspiration,” in his own words, he knows that Booth’s escape options are limited. When news of the discovery of the abandoned riding boot makes its way back to Washington, Baker concludes that Booth cannot be traveling on horseback. And though traveling by water is more preferable, once Booth is flushed from the swamps—for that is surely where he is hiding—he won’t follow the Maryland coastline. There are too many deep rivers to cross, and he would be easily spotted. Lafayette Baker also deduces that Booth won’t head toward Richmond if he gets across the Potomac because that would lead him straight into Union lines.

Lafayette Baker is already convinced that John Wilkes Booth must aim for the mountains of Kentucky. “Being aware that nearly every rod of ground in Lower Maryland must have been repeatedly passed over by the great number of persons engaged in the search,” he will later write, “I finally decided, in my own mind, that Booth and Herold had crossed over the river into Virginia. The only possible way left open to escape was to take a southwestern course, in order to reach the mountains of Tennessee or Kentucky, where such aid could be secured as would insure their ultimate escape from the country.”

It’s as if he already knows Booth’s plan.

To get to Kentucky, Booth must cross the great breadth of Virginia, following almost the exact same path General Lee took in his escape from Petersburg. But he has no horse, which means traveling by water or on the main roads in a buggy, and he must cross treacherous territory to get south of Richmond.

Baker studies his maps, searching for the precise spot where Booth might cross the Potomac. His eyes zoom in on Port Tobacco. “If any place in the world is utterly given over to depravity, it is Port Tobacco,” he will quote a journalist as saying in his memoirs. “Five hundred people exist in Port Tobacco. Life there reminds me, in connection with the slimy river and the adjacent swamps, of the great reptile period of the world, when iguanodons and pterodactyls, and plesiosauri ate each other.”

Lafayette Baker is wrong—but not by much.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!