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Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

James L. Swanson (2006)


They would target not only President Lincoln, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The secretary of state was not, after the vice president, next in line for the presidency. But Seward, a longtime abolitionist, was viewed as a forceful advocate of Lincoln's policies, including the suppression of dissent, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the imprisonment without trial of several thousand citizens suspected of disloyalty. (28)

Like Lot's wife, who paused, turned, and dared look upon the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Booth could see the sleeping city from which he fled, and he knew it would awaken soon and hear of the destruction he had wrought. He had done it. And he had escaped. (68)

She fought her way to the door, through the vestibule, and into the box. No one thought to bar the way to the great actress Laura Keene, star of tonight's performance.
The scene riveted Keene and excited her theatrical instincts. Mesmerized by the image of the stricken president, Keene imagined a fantastic tableaux with her as its central figure. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, impossible to resist. Might she, the actress asked Dr. Leale, cradle the dying president's head in her lap? It was a shocking request, and of no possible physical comfort or medical benefit to Lincoln. Under normal circumstances, its brazenness would have provoked the volcanic Mary Lincoln into paroxysms of jealous anger. . . . But now, delirious with grief and fear, Mary Lincoln, sitting on the sofa a few feet away, uttered no objection to Keene's intimate request. She probably did not even hear it. Dr. Leale consented.
Laura Keene knelt beside Lincoln and formed her lap into a natural pillow. She lifted his head, exposing the bloodstained linen handkerchief that Dr. Leale had placed below the wound. Leale removed it, and Keene rested Lincoln's head in her lap. Bloodstains and tiny bits of gray matter oozed onto the cream silk fabric, spreading and adding color to the frock's bright and festive red, yellow, green, and blue floral pattern.
. . . Laura Keene, like a Victorian bride who lovingly preserved her wedding dress as a sacred memento of her happiest day, cherished the blood- and brain-speckled frock from this terrible night.

The scene in the president's box would have amused Asia [Booth Clarke]'s brother John. Leave it to Laura Keene to try to upstage his spectacular performance. Just like an actress to ride his coattails. (86)

It was only a matter of time before two armies of town criers, bearing word of separate attacks, collided in the streets. The same exchange happened countless times that night: No, I tell you, it was Lincoln who was assassinated. Impossible, it was Seward. I just came from his house. And I just came from Ford's. It was Lincoln. It was Seward. Then the terrible truth emerged—it was both. (96)

"I will tell some news, if you want to hear it," Booth offered.
Lloyd responded indifferently. "I am not particular; use your own pleasure about telling it."
"Well," continued Booth, "I am pretty certain that we have assassinated the President and Secretary Seward." (105)

When [detective John] Clarvoe asked Mary [Surratt] where her son [sometime Booth co-conspirator John Surratt] was, she said she did not know. When he responded skeptically, she retorted that during this war, many mothers did not know where their sons were. (120)

They wrapped him in the cotton bunting, and, if they followed custom, were careful to position the canton's thirty-six, five-pointed stars over his face. These were the national colors of the Union. During the war Lincoln insisted that the flag retain its full complement of stars, refusing to acknowledge that the seceded states had actually left the Union. (140)

On the night of April 14, others in Washington attempted to obliterate evidence of their connection to Lincoln's assassin. And the next morning, as news of Lincoln's death spread across the nation, many other letters written in Booth's hand certainly perished in flames. Indeed, fewer than one hundred of Booth's letters and manuscripts survived the tumultuous days that followed the assassination. (149)

Booth's female correspondents had more to worry about than the letters he had sent to them. They could dispose of those documents easily enough. But what about the love notes that they had mailed to him, and that were in his possession? Many women—single, engaged, and married—had written incriminating letters to their idol offering to surrender whatever pleasures he chose to take from them. (150)

Cutting open Abraham Lincoln's brain and body served little purpose. The surgeons knew what killed him—a single bullet through the brain. They were hiding their voyeurism behind the camouflage of scientific inquiry. (154)

His blood, according to a newspaper report, was drained from his corpse by the embalmer—the same mortuary artist who preserved the little body of Willie Lincoln in 1862—transferred to glass jars, and "sacredly preserved." (154)

Booth's assessment of [Dr. Samuel] Mudd's character proved true. When the doctor finished his business in Bryantown, he got on his horse and, ignoring the troopers he passed on the way, rode calmly out of town. He decided to protect Booth and said nothing to anyone. But he had some choice words to say to Booth face-to-face. (158)

What he read stunned him. Whatever papers Booth held in his hands . . . they all reviled him for his loathsome act. Even worse, Booth witnessed the first draft of history transform Abraham Lincoln from a controversial and often unpopular war leader into America's secular saint. Newspapers everywhere condemned the assassin in the most unsparing, unforgiving, vicious language imaginable. The accounts of the Seward attack sent Booth reeling. Had Powell gone insane? The indiscriminate viciousness of his coassassin's assault shocked and revolted Booth. (205)

[From Booth's diary:] "The country is not what it WAS. This forced union is not what I have loved." (206)

[Thomas A.] Jones needed cash desperately, and he knew what money could buy him. In 1865, when a Union army private earned thirteen dollars a month and the president of the United States received an annual salary of twenty-five thousand dollars, one hundred thousand dollars was a stupendous fortune. Jones thought about the wife and farm he lost, the time the Union stole from him while he was in the Old Capitol prison, the money owed to him by the Confederacy, and the uncertain economy of the defeated South. And he wasn't getting any younger—soon he would be forty-five years old. He had every reason in the world to divulge Booth's hiding place and seize that reward money. But he didn't say anything. Booth's instincts about Jones's character proved correct. Jones was a man of true Southern feeling who could not be bought. Indeed, his explanation reads like a coda of the antebellum South: "Had I, for MONEY, betrayed the man whose hand I had taken, whose confidence I had won, and to whom I promised succor, I would have been, of all traitors, the most abject and despicable. Money won by such vile means would have been accursed and the pale face of the man whose life I had sold would have haunted me to my grave. True, the hopes of the Confederacy WERE like autumn leaves when the blast has swept by. True, the little I had accumulated through twenty years of unremitting toil WAS irrevocably lost. But, thank God, there was something I still possessed—something I could still call my own, and its name was Honor." (210)

Pinkerton's self-promotion and obsequious flattery fell flat. And New Orleans was a long way from Washington. Booth had already been on the run for five days, and it would take Pinkerton several days to travel to Washington. Stanton already had a few thousand manhunters in the field. He did not need Pinkerton or his vaunted, all-seeing eye. The detective whose motto was "we never sleep" had managed to sleep five nights before informing himself of the most important news of the war. (215)

Booth had won their loyalty not by mesmerizing them with the riveting story of how he had struck down the president, but with his laconic, stoic demeanor. The assassin confided to William Jett that he thought the murder "was nothing to brag about," and the soldier agreed: "I do not either." Ruggles noticed about Booth the same thing his comrades did—the actor was in agony, but he took it like a man: "I noticed that his wounded leg was greatly swollen, inflamed, and dark, as from bruised blood, while it seemed to have been wretchedly dressed, the splints being simply pasteboard rudely tied about it. That he suffered intense pain all the time there was no doubt, though he tried to conceal his agony, both physical and mental." (275)

Later, after it was all over, showman P. T. Barnum offered Ruggles a nice price for the saddle graced by John Wilkes Booth's posterior during the short ferry trip. (276)

The family began a lively discussion of the assassination. "While at dinner the tragic event was commented upon, as to the motive which prompted the deed and its effect upon the public welfare," Lucinda Holloway observed. Booth listened attentively, not speaking a word. Then one of Garrett's daughters suggested that Lincoln's assassin must have been a paid killer.
Booth gazed at the girl, smiled, and broke his silence. "Do you think so, Miss? By whom do you suppose he was paid?"
"Oh," she replied witlessly, "I suppose by both the North and the South."
"It is my opinion," Booth replied knowingly, "he wasn't paid a cent." Instead, he speculated, the assassin "did it for notoriety's sake." (293)

The moment they departed, Jett extended his hand to the detective in supplication and betrayed John Wilkes Booth: "I know who you want; and I will tell you where they can be found."
"That's what I want to know," Conger encouraged him.
All that this Confederate Judas begged in return was privacy: Willie wanted no audience to witness his shame.
"They are on the road to Port Royal," Jett confided, "about three miles this side of that."
But where, exactly, queried Conger: "At whose house are they?"
"Mr. Garrett's," Jett said, adding, "I will go there with you, and show where they are now; and you can get them." Willie Jett proved not only a Judas, but an enthusiastic one: "I told them everything from beginning to end. I said I would pilot them to the house where Booth was." (312)

Richard Garrett was afraid, and he babbled his defensive monologue all over again. Conger had heard enough. He turned from the door and spoke gravely to one of his men: "Bring in a lariat rope here, and I will put that man up to the top of one of those locust trees." Even under the threat of hanging, marveled Conger, Garrett "did not seem inclined to tell." A soldier went to get the hemp persuader. (318)

John Garrett spoke up and came to the rescue of his tongue-tied father. "Don't hurt the old man: He is scared. I will tell you where the men are you want to find," he said.
"That is what I want to know," said an exasperated Conger. "Where are they?"
Before John had time to answer, Doherty seized him by the collar, pushed him down the steps, put a revolver to his head, and ordered him to tell him where the assassins were.
"In the barn," John Garrett cried out. The two men are in the barn.
Not good enough, warned Conger: "There are three rooms around here, the tobacco-house and two corn houses; if you don't tell me the exact house he is in, your life will pay the forfeit." (319)

The leaders of the Sixteenth New York expedition were not done with John Garrett. They had a special mission for him. Luther Baker summoned John to his side and pointed to the tobacco house: "You must go in to the barn, and get the arms from those men." Garrett objected to the suicidal plan. Ignoring his reaction, Baker went on: "They know you, and you can go in." Yes, Booth and Herold did know John Garrett—as the man who ordered them out of his house, refused them the comfort of a bed, and locked them in the barn. That is precisely why he refused Baker's request. He had seen Booth's weapons and knew he would not hesitate to exact vengeance for Garrett's inhospitality and betrayal. No, he would not be the assassin's last victim.
Perhaps Garrett did not understand, Baker explained to him, that this mission was not optional: "I want you to go into that barn and demand the surrender of the arms that man has and bring them out to me. Unless you do it, I will burn your property." Baker didn't mean just the tobacco barn. He meant it all—house, barn, corn houses, and stables. Either John went in, or Baker would "end this affair with a bonfire and shooting match." (320)

Baker seized John Garrett and half guided, half pushed him through the door and closed it behind him. (320)

Finally, at the climax of a twelve-day manhunt that had gripped the nation, a heavily armed patrol of Sixteenth New York Cavalry had actually cornered Lincoln's assassin. The situation demanded decisive action, but, at the critical moment, Conger and the others hesitated. Instead of ordering their men to rush the barn and take Booth, they decided to talk him out, and then they delegated the job to a solitary, unarmed man, a civilian—and an ex-rebel soldier, no less—to negotiate Booth's surrender. It was a clear abdication of command responsibility. Twenty-six cavalrymen, each armed with a six-shot revolver, not counting other weapons, could pour a fusillade of 156 conical lead pistol bullets into the barn before having to reload. In response, Booth could fire a mere 12 rounds from the revolvers and 7 from the Spencer carbine. He wouldn't have time to reload. Or the troops could, without warning, before they fired a shot, charge the barn and try to take Booth by surprise. In the dark, and in the few seconds before they seized him, Booth could not pick off more than a few of them before he was subdued. Stanton wanted Booth alive for questioning. (321)

Booth relented. Forcing Davey [Herold] to share his fate would serve no purpose. And it would be wrong. (324)

The actor called out to Baker: "Oh Captain—there is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad." (324)

[As Herold tries to surrender and the surrounding pursuers demand all the guns, as well:] Booth argued back: "Upon the word and honor of a gentleman, he has no arms: the arms are mine, and I have got them." And he would not give them up. "I own all the arms and intend to use them on you gentlemen." As this wore on, Booth reminded the nitpicking officers that "There is a man in here who wants to come out."
Yes, Herold affirmed: "Let me out, quick; I do not know anything about this man, he is a desperate character, and he is going to shoot me."
Booth supported Herold's charade: "Let him out; that young man is innocent." (325)

So far the operation at Garrett's farm was no model of a small unit action. One army officer and two military detectives vying for the command of twenty-six enlisted men had barely accomplished the surrender of the assassin's harmless cat's-paw. (327)

He had already perpetrated the most flamboyant public murder in American history. Indeed, Booth had not only committed murder, he had performed it, fully staged before a packed house. At Ford's Theatre, Booth broke the fourth wall between artist and audience by creating a new, dark art—performance assassination. Tonight he would script his own end with a performance that equaled his triumph at Ford's Theatre. (327)

In certain respects, Booth enjoyed three significant tactical advantages over the Sixteenth New York Cavalry: he occupied a fortified position, but they had to come in and get him; they were deployed in the open around the barn and could not see him, but he remained hidden and could see them; they wanted Booth alive and did not want to be killed by him, but he was ready to die, and to take some of them with him. Moreover, the ticking clock favored the assassin. In a few hours, morning's first light would illuminate the manhunters and render them perfect targets. At this close range, the Spencer carbine was an outstanding sniper's weapon. Booth could hardly miss. (328)

A quirky English immigrant who adopted the name "Boston" to honor the city in which he found Christ, thirty-two-year-old Thomas Corbett proved to be a hard fighter and a reliable noncommissioned officer. A hatter before the Civil War, he had performed a bizarre, horrific act of self-mutilation when tempted by fallen women. The records of Massachusetts General Hospital chronicled the gruesome event: "[Corbett] is a Methodist, and having perused the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of Matthew, he took a pair of scissors and made an opening one inch long in the lower part of the scrotum. He then drew the testes down and cut them off. He then went to a prayer meeting, walked about some, and ate a hearty dinner. There was not much external hemorrhage, but a clot had filled the opening so that the blood was confined to the scrotum, which was swelled enormously and was black. He called on Dr. Hodges . . . who laid it open and removed the blood; he tied the cord and sent him here." (329)

Conger sent for the Garrett sons. He had one more job for them, he explained: collect a few armfuls of straw and pile them against the side of the barn. . . . Garrett jumped when he heard that familiar, menacing voice address him from the other side, just a foot or two away: "Young man, I advise you for your own good not to come here again. . . . If you do not leave at once I will shoot you." Quickly, John Garrett dropped the pine kindling and retreated out of pistol range. (329)

"Captain," he called out to Baker, "I know you to be a brave man, and I believe you to be honorable: I am a cripple." Booth's tantalizing admission thrilled every man who heard it. They had suspected, but were not absolutely sure, that the man in the barn was John Wilkes Booth. . . . "I have got but one leg," Booth continued. "If you will withdraw your men in `line' one hundred yards from the door, I will come out and fight you."
As a sign of good faith Booth revealed that he had chosen, at least up to now, to spare Baker's life: "Captain, I consider you to be a brave and honorable man; I have had half a dozen opportunities to shoot you, but I did not."
Baker's eyes darted to the burning candle he held improvidently in his hand. The assassin told the truth! Conger suggested that Baker relieve himself of the inviting target immediately. . . .
This was better than Shakespeare. Lincoln's assassin had just challenged twenty-six men, a lieutenant, and two detectives to a duel. Or was it, in Booth's mind, a knightly trial by combat, with victory the reward to the just? (330)

Booth repeated his challenge but reduced the distance to offer more generous odds to his opponents: "If you'll take your men fifty yards from the door, I'll come out and fight you. Give me a chance for my life."
Again Baker declined.
"Well, my brave boys, prepare a stretcher for me!" Booth jauntily replied. (331)

The fire illuminated the yard with a yellow-orange glow that flickered eerily across the faces of the men of the Sixteenth. Booth could see them clearly now, but held his fire. (331)

When Booth was a boy, he prophesied to his sister, Asia, the manner of his death: "I am not to drown, hang, or burn." He had been right so far. He had crossed the Potomac River safely. He would not stay in the barn and die by fire. Nor would he allow himself to be taken and strangle from the rope. Suicide? Never that shameful end, Booth vowed to himself. Richard III did not commit suicide, Macbeth did not die by his own hand, not Brutus, nor Tell. Neither would he. No, no, he must fight the course. And if he must perish, he would die in full struggle against his enemies. (331-2)

He swiveled his head in every direction, measuring how quickly the flames were engulfing him and hoping for a miracle. He glanced toward the door and hopped forward, a crutch under his left arm and in his right hand the Spencer carbine, the butt plate balanced against his hip. "One more stain on the old banner," Booth cried out. (333)

Conger and Baker bent down close to Booth's reclining body, tilted their heads, and jutted their ears close to his mouth. Booth formed words with his lips but produced no sounds. Finally, after several attempts, Lincoln's assassin spoke: "Tell mother, I die for my country." It was hard to hear his faint voice above the roar of the crackling fire, the shouts of the men, and neighing, snorting horses. Conger wanted desperately to confirm the accuracy of what Booth had said. These might be the assassin's historic last words, and they must be reported to the nation exactly as Booth said them. Moreover, Secretary of War Stanton would demand a full accounting of the events at Garrett's barn, including Booth's every word.
Enunciating each syllable slowly and clearly so that Booth could understand him, Conger repeated the phrase verbatim: "Is that what you say?" the detective asked.
"Yes," faintly whispered the assassin. (337)

Baker noticed it, too: "He seemed to suffer extreme pain whenever he was moved, and would scowl, and would several times repeat 'Kill me.'"
Booth wanted to cough but the bullet had severed the communication between his brain and his throat. (338)

Several soldiers compared the location of Booth's fatal wound with the location of Lincoln's wound. Perhaps, they marveled, God's justice directed Corbett's bullet to the back of the assassin's head. Corbett, too, wondered at the coincidence: "While Booth's body lay before me, yet alive, but wounded, and when I saw that the bullet had struck him just back of the ear, about the same spot that his bullet hit Mr. Lincoln, I said within myself, 'what a fearful God we serve." (341)

"The damn rebel is still living!" a soldier cursed.
"My hands," Booth whispered. Baker clasped them, bathed the clammy flesh in cool water, and raised them up for Booth to see. For the last time John Wilkes Booth beheld the hands, now helpless, that had slain a president. Tenderly, Lucinda Holloway massaged his temples and forehead. Her fingertips felt the life draining out of him: "The pulsations in his temples grew weaker and weaker."
Mustering all his remaining strength, waning rapidly now, Booth looked at his hands and spoke again: "Useless, useless." (342)

He could not breathe. He gasped a third time.
The sun broke free from the horizon and flooded Garrett's farm with light, which shone on Booth's face. The soldiers tried to shield his eyes by draping clothes over the back of a chair that they set up on the porch between Booth and the sun.
No, do not hide him from the light, Booth might have said, if he could still speak. When he was a boy, his bedroom at Bel Air faced the east and he told his dearest sister, Asia: "No setting sun view for me, it is too melancholy for me; let me see him rise."
The stage grew dark. His body shuddered. Then, no more. John Wilkes Booth was dead. (342-3)

Edwin, a loyal Unionist, hated John's deeds, but couldn't bring himself to hate his brother. Touched that the Garrett family in, and under the mistaken impression that they offered his misguided brother nothing but kindness and hospitality during the last two days of his life, Edwin wrote the Garretts a grateful letter. . . . If Edwin Booth had known the truth, that the Garretts had locked his brother in a barn like an animal, and helped prepare the funeral pyre, then Edwin, rather than lauding their kindness, might instead have wanted to come down to Port Royal and burn the rest of their farm down to the ground. (345)

Lewis Powell strutted jauntily without fear, "like a king about to be crowned," according to a reporter. David Herold and George Atzerodt shuffled along fretfully. . . . The condemned were bound with strips of linen, had nooses looped around their necks and white hoods drawn over their heads. The hangman, who had come to admire Powell's stoicism, whispered into his ear as he tightened the noose: "I want you to die quick."
The giant who had nearly stabbed the secretary of state to death replied, "You know best."
[Mrs. Mary] Surratt pleaded to those near her, "Please don't let me fall." When she complained that her wrists had been bound too tightly, a soldier retorted, "Well, it won't hurt long." (364-5)

Asia Booth's loving memoir to her brother closes with a graveside elegy:
"But, granting that he died in vain, yet he gave his all on earth, youth, beauty, manhood, a great human love, the certainty of excellence in his profession, a powerful brain, the strength of an athlete, health and great wealth, for 'his cause.' This man was noble in life, he periled his immortal soul, and he was brave in death. Already his hidden remains are given Christian burial, and strangers have piled his grave with flowers.
"So runs the world away." (369)

Asia could keep a secret, too. Unbeknownst to [her husband] John Sleeper Clarke, in 1874 she began writing a memoir to honor her dead brother. Fearing that her husband would burn the manuscript if he ever found it, she entrusted it to confidantes. It was not published until 1938, fifty years after her death, and sixty-four years after she wrote it. (371)

Corbett left the army, moved west, and got a job as assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives. That sinecure ended on the day in 1887 when he drew a revolver and held the legislature hostage at gunpoint. Confined to the Topeka asylum, he escaped in 1888, and then vanished from history. Nobody knows for sure what happened to him. Perhaps he ended his days still preaching warnings against "the snares of the evil one." (373)

A poster for "Terry's Panorama of the War!" advertised "a stupendous work of art" that depicted "startling, terrible and bloody scenes" fresh from the "carnival of treason." (384)

[From the Acknowledgements:] Special thanks to a Southern friend who, after insisting on anonymity, disclosed her family's secret custom: ever since April 15, 1866—the first anniversary of the murder—they have held their annual cotillion on that day to celebrate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and to honor their Brutus. Their ritual provided a remarkable immediacy about how some Southerners reacted to the events of April 1865—and how some still remember them. (395)

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