Biographies & Memoirs


FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 1865 



Six days. Six long, cold miserable days. That’s how long Booth and Herold have now been in the swamp, scratching at wood ticks, shivering under thin, damp wool blankets, and eating just the one meal a day provided by Thomas Jones. The silence has been almost complete, save for the times when Union warships on the Potomac fire their big guns to salute their fallen president.

The newspapers delivered daily by Jones continue to be a source of information and misery, as it becomes more and more clear that Booth’s actions have condemned him. Booth would rant about that injustice if he had the energy. The fact is, he and Herold long ago tired of speaking in a whisper. And even if they hadn’t, they have nothing to talk about.

The sizzle of happiness that accompanied killing Lincoln is long gone. Booth is a man accustomed to the finest things in life, and his miserable existence in the swamp has him longing for the tender flesh of Lucy Hale, a bottle of whiskey, a plate of oysters, and a warm bed.

Booth is just settling in for another night in the swamp when he hears the first whistle. Herold hears it, too, and is on his feet in an instant. Grabbing his rifle, Herold warily approaches the sound and returns with Jones. “The coast seems to be clear,” Jones tells them, his voice betraying the sense of urgency. “Let us make the attempt.”

Their camp is three miles from the river. Getting to the Potomac undetected means traveling down well-used public roads. Despite the darkness, they might run into a cavalry detail at any moment, but it is a chance they have to take.

Booth can’t walk, so Jones loans him his horse. Herold and Jones help Booth into the saddle. The actor clings precariously to the horse’s mane, desperate not to fall off.

Jones tells them to wait, then walks ahead to make sure the coast is clear. Only when he whistles that all is well do they follow. This is how they travel to the river, the ever vigilant Jones utilizing the smuggling skills he honed so well during the war to lead them to safety. Their pace is frustratingly slow to Booth, who wants to canter the horse as quickly as he can manage to the river, but Jones is taking no chances.

When they approach Jones’s house, Booth begs to be allowed inside for a moment of warmth. He badly wants to get to the river, but he is also addicted to creature comforts. After six days out in the cold, something as simple as standing before a roaring fireplace feels like a version of heaven. Jones won’t hear of it, reminding them that his servants are home and could possibly give them away. Instead, Jones walks inside and returns with hot food, reminding the two fugitives that this might be the last meal they eat for a while.

They press on to the river. Jones has hidden a twelve-foot-long boat at the water’s edge, tied to a large oak tree. The bank is steep, and Booth must be carried down the slope. But soon he sits in the stern, grasping an oar. Herold perches in the bow. The night is still dark, for the moon has not risen. A cold mist hovers on the surface of the wide and treacherous Potomac. Safety is just across the river in Virginia, where the citizens are solidly pro-Confederacy. It’s so close they can see it. But getting there means navigating unseen currents and tides that can force them far downriver—or even backward. The river is two miles wide at this point and constantly patrolled by Union warships. Some are merely heading into Washington’s Navy Yard after time at sea, while others are specifically hunting for two men in a small boat. It is common naval practice for ships to douse their running lights at night, all the better to thwart smugglers. Booth and Herold might actually run headlong into a ship without even seeing it in the total darkness.

“Keep to that,” Jones instructs Booth, lighting a small candle to illuminate Booth’s compass and pointing to the southwesterly heading. The actor has carried the compass since the assassination, just for a moment such as this. “It will bring you into Machodoc Creek. Mrs. Quesenberry lives near the mouth of this creek. If you tell her you come from me, I think she will take care of you.”

“God bless you, my dear friend,” says Booth. “Good-bye.”

They shove off. Jones turns his back and returns home, his work complete. No other man has risked as much, nor shown as much compassion for Booth and Herold, as Jones. He did not do it because he applauded the assassination—in fact, Jones is disgusted by Booth’s action. Rather, he helped the two men out of compassion for men in trouble and a last-ditch bout of loyalty to the Confederacy. His deeds will go unpunished. When his part in the conspiracy will be revealed later on, the testimony will come from a non-white resident of southern Maryland and thus will be ignored.

Booth and Herold, meanwhile, paddle hard for the opposite shore. That is: Herold paddles hard. Booth sits in the back and dangles his oar in the water under the pretense of steering.

Herold paddles for several hours against a daunting current, but they’re going the wrong way. Booth’s compass may be a prized possession, but it’s useless if not utilized properly.

Things go from bad to worse. The fugitives almost paddle headlong into the Juniper, a Federal gunboat. And yet if anyone on the deck of the eighty-footer sees them they don’t cry out.

Finally, they land, four miles upriver from where they departed, still in Maryland. Their escape is not going well. They are forced to hide themselves and their boat in the brush for yet another day.

And so, after one last, long twenty-four hours of hiding from the thousands of soldiers now combing the countryside looking for them, John Wilkes Booth and David Herold once again set out under cover of darkness rowing hard for Virginia. This time they make it.

Next stop: Kentucky.

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