Photo Tour: Escape Route of John Wilkes Booth

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Ford's Theater

Ford's Theater, Washington, DC. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Pursuing an Assassin

In 1864, noted actor John Wilkes Booth conceived a scheme to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln with the goal of restarting the exchange of prisoners of war between the Union and Confederacy. After a failed attempt in March 1865, and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, Booth escalated his plan to killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. On the night of April 14, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater while an accomplice attacked Seward. No attack was carried out on Johnson. Hoping to utilize the network put in place for the kidnap scheme, Booth and his co-conspirator David Herold, fled south from Washington. After stopping at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd to have his broken leg set, Booth and Herold hid in the wilderness and various safe houses until reaching the Garrett Farm near Bowling Green, VA. There, on April 26, he was cornered in the Garrett's tobacco barn and killed by Union cavalry.

Born near Bel Air, MD in 1838, John Wilkes Booth was the son of noted Shakespearian actor Junius Brutus Booth. Well educated, John Wilkes followed his brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr. into the theater. Playing across the country, he became one of the best known actors of the day. An ardent supporter of the South and slavery, Booth decried the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and was only prevented from joining the Confederate army by a desire to preserve harmony within his family. During the war Booth continued to act and traveled widely to perform for audiences in both the North and South.

In 1864, Union forces ended the exchange of prisoners of war with the goal of reducing the Confederate army and in retribution for the South's unwillingness to exchange African-American prisoners. Seeing an opportunity to make his mark for the Southern cause, Booth began to devise a plot to kidnap President Lincoln. It was his belief that if Lincoln could be carried to Richmond he could be used as a bargaining chip to restart the prisoner exchange. Using his friends Samuel Arnold and Michael O'Laughlin as accomplices, Booth planned to seize the president as he rode the three miles from the White House to his summer residence at the Old Soldiers Home. Throughout the summer and fall, Booth further developed the plan but took no action toward implementing it. In October, he traveled to Montreal for ten days. While there it is possible that he met with agents of the Confederate government in an effort to gain their support for his plan.

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Surratt Boarding House

Mary Surratt's Boarding House, Washington, DC. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Through the fall, Booth added David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt to his team. Another Maryland native, Surratt served as an agent for the Confederate government. His mother, Mary Surratt, owned a tavern south of Washington, as well as operated a respectable boarding house on H Street, which became a frequent meeting place for the conspirators. The kidnapping plot increasingly consumed Booth and he spent the bulk of his personal fortune financing the conspirators' activities. In addition, he scouted escape routes through southern Maryland and into Virginia.

As the winter of 1865 passed, Booth's men became increasingly agitated by their lack of action. With Arnold and O'Laughlin threatening to desert, Booth announced that they would attempt to capture Lincoln on March 17 as he returned from a performance of Still Waters Run Deep at the Campbell Military Hospital. Assuming positions along the road, the conspirators waited in vain for the president's carriage. They later learned that Lincoln's plans had changed and that the president had instead attended an event at Booth's hotel with the governor of Indiana. In the wake of the failed attempt, the team began to break up with Arnold returning to Baltimore, Surratt leaving on Confederate business, and O'Laughlin simply wandering away.

On April 10, 1865, after hearing news of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Booth began to contemplate changes to the plan. With the war winding down, Booth came to the conclusion that the only hope for the Confederacy would be to decapitate the Union government by killing Lincoln and his associates. This belief was reinforced the following day after Booth heard a speech by Lincoln in which the president stated that he intended to give former slaves the right to vote.

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The Petersen House

The Petersen House, Washington, DC. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

On the morning of Friday April 14, 1865, Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending at performance of Our American Cousin that night at Ford's Theater. Moving quickly, he summoned his remaining conspirators to a meeting in Powell's room at the Herndon House. He informed them that capturing the president would no longer be enough to save the Southern cause and, in a low whisper, began to outline a new plan which involved killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. While Booth planned to kill Lincoln himself, he assigned Atzerodt the task of killing Johnson, while Powell was to kill Seward. As Powell was unfamiliar with Washington, Herold was tasked with guiding him out of the city after the assassination had been completed. For their escape, the conspirators would use the network that had been set up for the kidnapping plot.

Booth informed his men that the attacks were to be carried out simultaneously around 10:00 PM to ensure maximum confusion. Around 9:00 PM, Booth rode through Baptist Alley at the rear of Ford's Theater. As a well known actor he had free run of the theater and was friends with most of the staff. Dismounting, he asked stagehand Ned Spangler to hold his horse as it was skittish and did not like to be tied. Busy with theater work, Spangler passed the horse a young boy known as "Peanut John" Burroughs. For the next hour, Booth drank in the adjacent Star Saloon. Around 10:00 PM, he entered Ford's Theater and made his way upstairs to the presidential box. Drawing a Deringer pistol, Booth entered and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. Pushing forward, he grappled with Lincoln's companion, Major Henry Rathbone, and slashed him with a knife. Climbing over the railing, Booth became tangled in a Treasury Guards' flag and dropped to the stage. In his diary, which was highly dramatized, Booth claimed to have broken his leg when he fell. Witnesses stated that Booth yelled something as he attempted to escape, but his exact words were not remembered. Tradition states that it was "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (Thus be ever to tyrants) in reference to the Virginia state motto. Striding purposefully across the stage, Booth exited the rear of the theater. Taking his horse from Peanut John, he fled down Baptist Alley.

In the theater, Lincoln's condition was assessed and it was decided to move him across the street to the Petersen boarding house. He died at 7:22 AM the following morning.

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Surratt House & Tavern

Surratt House & Tavern, Clinton, MD. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

While Booth was attacking the president, the other parts of conspiracy became unglued. Powell succeeded in entering the Seward residence but botched the assassination. Hearing the commotion inside, Herold fled the scene. Powell was able to exit the house after injuring Seward and members of his family, but was unable to get out of Washington. He was arrested along with Mary Surratt on April 17 at her boarding house on H Street. At the Kirkwood House, Atzerodt lost his nerve and abandoned his assignment in favor of drinking at the hotel bar. He was arrested at his cousin's house in Germantown, MD on April 20.

Racing through the city, Booth headed for the Navy Yard Bridge across the Anacostia River. Arriving between 10:40 and 11:00 PM, he was initially barred from crossing by Sergeant Silas Cobb as the bridge usually closed to traffic at 9:00 PM. After fast talking Cobb, Booth was permitted to cross. He was followed a few minutes later by Herold who was also able to get past Cobb. Herold was pursued by John Fletcher, a local stable hand, who was attempting to recover a rented horse from Herold. Fletcher was told by Cobb that he could cross, but would not be allowed back in the city until morning. Angry, Fletcher turned around and later reported the theft to detectives and General Christopher Auger. As a result, by 2:00 AM Auger was alerted to two men fleeing south. He promptly dispatched elements of the 13th New York Cavalry, under Lieutenant David Dana, in pursuit.

According to Herold's account, he caught up with Booth at Soper's Hill approximately eight miles south of Washington. Herold found Booth with a broken leg and was told that it occurred when his horse fell and rolled on him. Recent scholarship also indicates that Booth's leg was broken as a the result of a horse fall as opposed to the fall to the stage at Ford's Theater. Pressing on, Booth and Herold made for Surratt's Tavern. The tavern was originally to have played a role in the March 17 plot and Herold had left weapons in the building. The tavern's operator, John M. Lloyd, had been alerted by Mary Surratt that men would be calling that night. Arriving, Herold instructed Lloyd to fetch the weapons. He returned with a carbine, ammunition, and a set of field glasses. Herold entered the building and obtained a bottle of whiskey. Due to his injury, Booth did not dismount. Within minutes of arriving, the pair rode off into the night.

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Dr. Samuel Mudd House

House of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Leaving the Surratt Tavern, Booth and Herold continued their flight south. Around 4:00 AM on April 15, they arrived at the house of Dr. Samuel Mudd, just north of Bryantown, MD. Contrary to Mudd's claims after his arrest, evidence exists to confirm that Mudd and Booth were acquainted with one another. In October 1864, while Booth was in Montreal, he met with Confederate agent Patrick C. Martin who provided him with letters of introduction Dr. William Queen and Dr. Samuel Mudd. While these stated that Booth was looking for real estate in Charles County, the real intention was to allow him to contact Confederate sympathizers in the area. The following month, Booth traveled to Charles County and stayed with Dr. Queen. He returned in December for a meeting with Confederate agent Thomas Harbin which was arranged by Mudd. After the meeting, Booth returned to Mudd's house and spent the night. It is highly likely that Mudd was recruited to be part of the original kidnapping plot. The two met again in Washington a few days later and Mudd provided Booth with an introduction to John Surratt.

After banging on Mudd's door, Booth and Herold were admitted to the house. Though Booth and Mudd knew each other it is unlikely that the former informed the doctor about shooting Lincoln. Mudd proceeded to examine Booth and set the broken leg. Placing both men in an upstairs bedroom, Mudd had a crude pair of crutches made for Booth. On the afternoon of the 15th, Mudd and Herold traveled to the doctor's father in search of a carriage for the injured Booth's journey. When none was to be had, Herold returned to Mudd's house while the doctor continued on to Bryantown. Entering the village, Mudd was stopped by some of Lt. Dana's men. It was from them that he claimed to have learned about Lincoln's death. After gathering additional information, Mudd returned home between 5:00 and 7:00 PM. Sources vary as to whether or not Booth and Herold had departed by then, were aided in their departure by Mudd, or were simply asked to leave.

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To the Potomac

Route of Booth & Herold's departure from the Mudd House. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Regardless of the conditions of Booth and Herold's departure, Mudd neglected to immediately inform the authorities of their visit claiming that he did not wish to leave his family in case the pair returned. Instead, he waited until the following day when he asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to alert Lt. Dana. This delay, coupled with Mudd's failure to mention his December meeting with Booth during questioning led him to be considered one of the conspirators in the plot.

Leaving Mudd's house, Booth and Herold made for the home of Confederate sympathizer William Burtles southeast of Bryanstown and on the eastern side of Zekiah Swamp. Getting lost en route, they engaged a free black named Oswell Swann as a guide. While traveling to Burtles', the two changed their request and asked Swann to take them to the home of Samuel Cox. A prominent member of Charles County society, Cox was known to support the Confederacy. Arriving at Cox's home, Rich Hill, Booth and Herold received a cool welcome. While Swann claimed they stayed 3-4 hours, Cox, when interviewed, denied letting them in the house. After paying off Swann, the fugitives left Rich Hill and hid in a pine thicket approximately two miles away. The next day, Cox sent his adopted son to bring Thomas A. Jones, a known Confederate agent, to Rich Hill. After he arrived, Cox asked Jones to get Booth and Herold across the Potomac and into Virginia. Locating the two in the pines, Jones informed them that he would get them across as soon as it was safe.

For the next four days, Booth and Herrold hid in the pine thicket and were supplied with food by Jones and Cox's overseer, Franklin Robey. During this time, Federal troops came dangerously close and both horses were shot (by Herold or Robey depending on the source) to prevent them giving away their location. On Thursday April 20, Jones came for them. Placing Booth on his horse, Jones walked with Herold to his home, Huckleberry, where he brought them food but did not allow them to enter.

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Dent's Meadow

Location at Dent's Meadow from which Booth & Herold departed to cross the Potomac on April 20, 1865. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Heading to the river near Dent's Meadow on the night of April 20, Jones led the fugitives down a steep path to the shore. Here Booth was placed in the stern of a small boat and Herold climbed in to row. Jones gave the pair a proper course to carry them across to Point Mathias, VA and on down to Machodoc Creek and the home of Elizabeth Quesenberry. After paying Jones $18 for the boat, Booth and Herold shoved off.

Rowing out into the stream, the two became disoriented due to difficulties reading the compass and tricky currents in the river. As a result, they missed the tip of Point Mathias and rowed upstream to Blossom Point, MD. At dawn, Herold recognized their location as the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek. In typical dramatic fashion, Booth, in his diary, attributed their navigation error to being chased by Union gunboats. While Union warships were active on the river that night, none reported seeing Booth or Herold. Familiar with the area, he guided Booth to a farm owned by his friend Peregrine Davis. Known as Indian Town, the farm was inhabited by Davis' son-in-law, John J. Hughes. Coming ashore, Hughes fed the men and allowed them to stay through the evening of April 22. At sundown, Booth and Herold departed in a second attempt to cross the river.

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Point Mathias

Looking across the Potomac at Point Mathias from Dent's Meadow. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

On the night of April 22, Booth and Herold set out from Nanjemoy Creek to cross the Potomac. Unlike their previous attempt, they succeeded in reaching the Virginia shore near Point Mathias. Moving down the river, they erred again by turning into Gambo Creek, just upstream from Machodoc Creek. While Booth remained in the boat, Herold traveled overland to the cottage of Elizabeth Quesenberry. A well known Confederate sympathizer, Quesenberry frequently aided agents moving back and forth across the Potomac. Though away from the cottage when Herold arrived, she returned shortly. During the discussion that ensued, Herold asked for transportation "up the country" for him and his brother. Concerned about Herold's manner and mood, Quesenberry declined and the fugitive departed. In the wake of Herold's visit, she contacted agent Thomas Harbin. Familiar with Booth from their meeting the previous December, Harbin took food to the fugitives and obtained horses from William Bryant. Traveling to the boat, Harbin discussed the situation with Booth and Herold. Mounting up, Harbin told Bryant to take the two men to Cleydael, the summer home of Dr. Richard Stuart. The doctor was known to be friendly to the Southern cause and had been recommended by Mudd.

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Cleydael, the home of Dr. Richard Stuart. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Arriving at Cleydael, approximately eight miles from Gambo Creek, Booth and Herold attempted to secure accommodations from Dr. Stuart. Aware of the president's assassination, it was clear to Stuart who the two men were despite their use of fake names. Stuart declined to give them beds for the night and also refused to treat Booth's leg on the grounds that he was a physician and not a surgeon. After some persistent arguing, Stuart did allow the men to quickly dine, though he remained outside. Hustling them out the door, Stuart told Bryant to take them to the nearby cabin of William Lucas.

A free black, Lucas also was reluctant to take in Booth and Herold. A racial fanatic, Booth was angered by having to stay with a black family, but saw little alternative. Commandeering the cabin, they forced the Lucas family to sleep outside. Believing his actions to have been of the highest patriotic value to the South, Booth was stunned by the cold reception he had received in Virginia. The following morning, April 24, Lucas' son, Charles, drove Booth and Herold to the ferry landing at Port Conway. Arriving around noon, Booth and Herold found that the ferry was across the Rappahannock River at Port Royal. After having a local fisherman, William Rollins, decline to take them across they settled in to wait for the ferry's return.

While waiting, they met three former Confederate soldiers, First Lieutenant Mortimer B. Ruggles, Private Absalom Bainbridge, and Private William S. Jett. In talking with Jett, Herold first identified himself as Boyd and that his companion was his brother, James W. Boyd. As they continued to talk, Herold admitted their true identities and that they had killed the president. Hearing this, Jett agreed to aid the fugitives in securing lodging once they crossed the river. Once they reached the south bank, Jett sought beds at the house of Randolph Peyton in Port Royal. Refused, he decided to take Booth and Herold south towards Bowling Green with the goal of finding lodgings with the Garrett family. Arriving at the Garrett Farm, Jett introduced Booth as Boyd. Richard Garrett agreed to let "Boyd" stay until Jett returned for him. Herold remained with Jett and the party continued onto Bowling Green.

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The Garrett Farm

Site of the Garrett Farmhouse and Barn. Photograph © 2008 C.K. Hickman

Riding towards Bowling Green, the four men stopped at a tavern known as the The Trappe before continuing on to town where they entered the Star Hotel. This establishment was a favorite of Jett as he was courting the owner's daughter, Izora Gouldman. While Jett and Ruggles spent the night of April 24 at the hotel, Bainbridge and Herold slept at the nearby farm of Joseph Clarke. In the morning, Ruggles and Bainbridge took Herold back to the Garrett Farm. Riding north, the two former Confederate soldiers spotted Union cavalry in Port Royal. After returning to the farm to warn Booth and Herold, they fled east.

The cavalry in question was a detachment of the 16th New York Cavalry led by Lieutenant Edward Doherty which had been dispatched to the area the day before. On the afternoon of April 24, Colonel Lafayette Baker, an agent of the War Department, saw a telegram from Port Tobacco, MD stating that Booth and Herold may have crossed the Potomac on April 16. The two men mentioned in the telegram were actually Harbin and his accomplice Joseph Baden. Accompanied by Luther Baker, a detective on Col. Baker's staff, and Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger, Doherty's men boarded the steamer John S. Ide around dark. The combined party landed at Belle Plaine around 10:00 PM and began canvassing the countryside. Reaching Port Conway early on the afternoon of April 25, they were informed by Dick Wilson, a free black who worked with William Rollins, that Booth and Herold had passed through the day before heading south. A further conversation with Rollins and his wife informed them about Jett and his friends, as well as the fact that they were probably heading towards the Star Hotel in Bowling Green.

Crossing the river on the evening of the 25th with Rollins as their guide, Doherty's men searched The Trappe and later captured Jett at the Star Hotel. Having been warned of the cavalry's approach, Booth and Herold hid in the woods near the farm. Returning, they were informed by Garrett that they were no longer welcome in the house, but could stay in the tobacco barn. At the hotel, Jett, with a gun to his head, confessed that Booth had been left at the Garrett Farm. Taking Jett, Doherty's men retraced their steps towards the farm, arriving around 2:00 AM on April 26. Surrounding the house, Doherty, Luther Baker, and Conger pounded on the door. When Garrett answered he was threatened into revealing the location of Booth and Herold.

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Death & Punishment

Execution of Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and George Atzerodt at Washington, DC, on July 7, 1865. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Leading the Federal agents around the house, Garrett indicated that Booth and Herold were in the tobacco barn. Both fugitives attempted to flee, however they found they were trapped as Garrett had locked them in to prevent them from stealing horses. As Doherty's men surrounded the barn, "negotiations" began between Booth and Baker. After an hour, Baker threatened to set the barn on fire. At this point, Herold asked to be let out. Emerging, he was taken and tied to a nearby tree. Around 4:00 AM, Conger set the barn alight. As he was moving towards the door, wielding a pistol and carbine, Booth was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett. The bullet pierced his spine paralyzing him. Dragged from the burning barn, Booth died shortly after dawn on April 26, 1865. His body and Herold were taken to Washington that night and later transferred to the monitor, USS Montauk which was anchored off the Washington Navy Yard.

On May 9, 1865, a military commission was convened at the Washington Arsenal to try eight of the conspirators. These included Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, Mudd, Spangler, O'Laughlin, Arnold, and Mary Surratt. Warrants were also issued for John Surratt and Thomas Harbin, however they were not captured. Surratt was arrested in 1866, and tried separately. In deciding the cases, a simple majority was needed for a guilty verdict and two-thirds for a death penalty. The trial lasted around seven weeks and verdicts were read on June 30. Of the eight, Herold, Atzerodt, Powell, and Mary Surratt were sentenced to death. They were hung at the arsenal on July 7, with Mary Surratt becoming the first woman to be executed by the US Government. O'Laughlin, Arnold, and Mudd were given life sentences and sent to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. Mudd escaped the death penalty by one vote. Ned Spangler, who had done nothing more than hold Booth's horse for a few moments, was given six years at Fort Jefferson. Of the four sent to prison, three, Mudd, Spangler, and Arnold were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869, during the waning minutes of his administration. O'Laughlin died at Fort Jefferson of yellow fever. While Surratt was tried after his capture, he not convicted and lived a free man until his death in 1916.