Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Four Associates of John Wilkes Booth Were Hanged

Photograph of hanging of the Lincoln conspirators.
The hanging of the conspirators, photographed by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, John Wilkes Booth was not acting alone. He had a number of conspirators, four of whom were hanged for their crimes a few months later. 

In early 1864, a year before the Lincoln assassination, Booth had hatched a plot to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage. The plan was audacious, and hinged on seizing Lincoln while he rode in a carriage in Washington. The ultimate goal was apparently to hold Lincoln hostage and force the federal government to negotiate and end to the Civil War that would have left the Confederacy, and enslavement, intact.

Booth's kidnapping plot was abandoned, no doubt because it had little chance to succeed. But Booth, in the planning stage, had enlisted several helpers. And in April 1865 some of them became involved in what became the Lincoln murder conspiracy.

Booth's Main Conspirators

David Herold: The conspirator who spent time on the run with Booth in the days following Lincoln's murder, Herold had grown up in Washington, the son of a middle class family. His father worked as a clerk at the Washington Navy Yard, and Herold had nine siblings. His early life seemed ordinary for the time.

Though often described as "simple minded," Herold had studied to be a pharmacist for a time. So it seems he must have exhibited some intelligence. He spent much of his youth hunting in the woods surrounding Washington, an experience which was helpful in the days when he and Booth were being hunted by Union cavalry in the woods of southern Maryland.

In the hours following the shooting of Lincoln, Herold met up with Booth as he fled into southern Maryland. The two men spent nearly two weeks together, with Booth mostly hiding in the woods as Herold brought him food. Booth was also interested in seeing newspapers about his deed.

The two men managed to cross the Potomac and reach Virginia, where they expected to find help. Instead, they were hunted down. Herold was with Booth when the tobacco barn where they were hiding was surrounded by cavalry troopers. Herold surrendered before Booth was shot. He was taken to Washington, imprisoned, and eventually tried and convicted. He was hanged, along with three other conspirators, on July 7, 1865.

Lewis Powell: A former Confederate soldier who had been wounded and taken prisoner on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Powell was given an important assignment by Booth. As Booth was killing Lincoln, Powell was to enter the home of William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, and murder him.

Powell failed in his mission, though he did severely wound Seward and also injure members of his family. For a few days after the assassination, Powell hid in a wooded area of Washington. He eventually fell into the hands of detectives when he visited the boardinghouse owned by another conspirator, Mary Surratt.

Powell was arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged on July 7, 1865.

George Atzerodt: Booth assigned Atzerodt the task of murdering Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice president. On the night of the assassination it seems Atzerodt did go to the Kirkwood House, where Johnson was living, but lost his nerve. In the days following the assassination Atzerodt's loose talk brought him under suspicion, and he was arrested by cavalry troopers.

When his own hotel room was searched, evidence implicating him in Booth's plot was discovered. He was arrested, tried, and convicted, and hanged on July 7, 1865.

Mary Surratt: The owner of a Washington boardinghouse, Surratt was a widow with connections in the pro-southern Maryland countryside. It was believed she was involved with Booth's plot to kidnap Lincoln, and meetings of Booth's conspirators had been held at her boardinghouse.

She was arrested, tried, and convicted. She was hanged along with Herold, Powell, and Atzerodt on July 7, 1865.

The execution of Mrs. Surratt was controversial, and not only because she was female. There seemed to be some doubt about her complicity in the conspiracy. Her son, John Surratt, was a known associate of Booth, but he was in hiding, so some members of the public felt she was essentially executed in his stead.

John Surratt fled the United States but eventually was returned in captivity. He was put on trial, but acquitted. He lived until 1916.

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McNamara, Robert. "Lincoln Assassination Conspirators." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, July 31). Lincoln Assassination Conspirators. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Lincoln Assassination Conspirators." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).