John Surrat

Conspiracy Theory: The Lincoln Assassination

Everyone knows John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Most people know he tried to restart the Civil War with his actions. Most people know that others were involved in the assassination. What most people do not know is how deep the conspiracy went. A majority of Americans think of Booth as a lone assassin. That is far from the truth. Four other people would die in the plot to kill not only Lincoln, but also Vice-President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. Five more have their names etched as co-conspirators. Just how far the conspiracy goes beyond the ten charged by Secretary of War Stanton, is anyone’s guess.

On April 15, 1865, the New York Herald Reported:

This evening at about 9:30 P.M., at Ford’s Theatre, the President, while sitting in the private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin, who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.
The assassin then leaped upon the stage brandishing a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theatre.
The pistol ball entered the back of the President’s head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal.
The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted, and is now dying.
About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. Seward’s apartments, and under pretense of having a prescription was shown to the secretary’s sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed and inflicted two or three stabs on the throat and two in the face.
It is hoped the wounds may not be mortal. My apprehension is that they will prove fatal.
The nurse alarmed Mr. Frederick Seward, who was in an adjoining room, and he hastened to the door of his father’s room, when he met the assassin, who inflicted upon him one or more dangerous wounds. The recovery of Frederick Seward is doubtful.
It is not probable that the President will live through the night.

Initially, the assassin was not named nor was his phrase, “Sic semper tyrannus!” (death to tyrants). In the hours following Lincoln’s death would the events begin to unfold. Soon after, the biggest manhunt in our nation’s history took place.

About the same time as Booth fired his fatal shot, two men, well-known to Booth, Lewis Powell and David Herold, approached the Washington home of Secretary of State William Henry Seward. The Secretary had been bedridden since a carriage accident. Powell knocked on the door of Seward’s home as Herold waited outside. After initially being denied entrance, Powell forced his way in and went up the steps. Frederick Seward tried to stop Powell. After a brief conversation, Powell pistol whipped Frederick Seward. Powell did make it to Seward’s room and stabbed Seward several times before he was pulled off by Seward’s bodyguard. Powell raced down the stairs and out the door his awaiting horse and David Herold. Seward would recover from his wounds. His son, on the other hand, spent the next 60 days in a coma. Sometime after 10:30, Booth was given access across the Navy Yard bridge into Maryland. A few minutes later, David Herold was also given passage across the exact same bridge.

Vice-President Andrew Johnson also had an attempt on his life…sort of. The job initially fell to George Atzerodt. Being too drunk of mind to carry out the deed, he went to sleep it off at a different hotel than the Kirkwood, the hotel both he and Johnson were staying. Earlier in the day, John Wilkes Booth left a note in Johnson’s mailbox that said, “I don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” Whether or not this was a plot to implicate Johnson in the conspiracy, spread suspicion, or maybe Booth did not think Atzerodt had it in him to kill Johnson, it is up for debate.

Within six hours of the shooting, Secretary of War Stanton had begun to suspect that the 541 High Street home of Mary Surratt would be a good place to start as Booth was known to have stayed there during his visits to Washington. Over the next five days, events began to unravel at the Surrat house. Not only was Surrat arrested, but Lewis Powell showed up with a pick axe claiming he was hired to dig a ditch and Surrat feigned hiring him. By the 20th of April, all that were on the run were Booth and David Herold. Atzerodt, Michael O’Laughlen (who was supposed to assassinate Grant at Stanton’s residence), Edman Spangler (who held Booth’s horse), and Samuel Arnold were all arrested in this time frame.

Booth and Herold were on the lam in Maryland. After getting some supplies followed by getting Booth’s leg fixed by Dr. Samuel Mudd, Booth and Herold continued their bizarre adventures in the nights. Booth kept a diary the whole time. Upon seeing newspapers, which he were sure to give him plaudits and accolades, Booth was shocked to see disdain for his actions in most newspapers across the land. To his dying breath, Booth thought of himself as a hero in a Shakespearean play. He writes:

After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong, except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so. I have only heard of what has been done (except what I did myself), and it fills me with horror. God, try and forgive me, and bless my mother. Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Though I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name – which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God’s will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal. Oh, may He, may He spare me that, and let me die bravely. I bless the entire world. Have never hated or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so, and it’s with Him to damn or bless me.

On April 26, Booth and Herold were surrounded in a barn on Richard Garret’s property. Herold quickly surrendered. Booth held out. When fire engulfed the barn (set by Union Soldiers) Booth was thought to be making a run for it by Boston Corbett. Corbett, a religious zealot who had castrated himself, shot Booth and paralyzed him. Booth died shortly after laying on the Garret porch.

Mary Surrat, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Powell would all hang after a military trial. O’Laughlen died in prison two years later while Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler were pardoned in February 1869 by President Johnson. John Surrat escaped overseas before his capture and subsequent acquittal. Mary Surrat’s hanging has been the consternation of many historians as she was a woman, while Roger Mudd has been diligently seeking full amnesty for his relative’s role in the assassination.

There is where things get interesting. Most people believe the conspiracy story ends there. According to some historians, they believe the conspiracy goes all the way up the chain of command of the Confederacy to the Confederate Secret Service and to Jefferson Davis. Among those is Edward Steers. He tries to trace evidence all the way back up the chain of command to Jefferson Davis (See the video below for Steer). However, the main piece of evidence to discount Steer’s theory is the diary of Booth. Initially, Booth wanted to kidnap Lincoln. As time went by the plans became more and more elaborate at each turn. Booth would hear a speech by Lincoln and Booth would get ramped up and by the spring of 1865, Booth was ready to kill Lincoln and his “Team of Rivals”. If one really thinks about it, why would the South pick an actor to do the deed? Was he the best they had to offer? Surely not. For if John Wilkes Booth was, then it was a sad, sad time to be a Confederate.

For Further Reading
Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers

The Lincoln Conspiracy Trials: Douglas O. Linder

For Further Viewing
Ken Burns’ Civil War