Washington, D.C., 10:30 PM, April 14, 1865
Melville Stone stepped into the crowded hotel lobby. The night was cool and misty and the nation’s capital seemed strangely silent. On this particular evening, that was understandable. After a week of wild celebration following the capture of Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s surrender, all the pent emotions of the past four years seemed finally expended. A reporter for the Associated Press, Stone must have felt relief. Like others in the hotel, in the city, and throughout the North, the week-long revel of parades, fireworks, speeches, toasts, and songs to conclude four years of bloody civil war left little energy in the journalist for much more than to rest, relax and contemplate the dawn of peace.
But then Stone and others in the hotel heard a commotion in the streets. There were shouts and the sound of people running. In a moment, the hotel door burst open.
“Lincoln’s been murdered . . . shot at Ford‘s Theater!” a breathless man blurted out. “It’s true . . . it’s true! The president‘s been killed!”
Before those in the hotel could utter a word, the man was gone. Everyone stood stunned and silent. Disbelieving eyes searched other disbelieving eyes. Surely it was a joke? Surely the man was crazy? Surely he was drunk?
Suddenly, the silence was shattered.
“Good!” laughed a man loudly as he clapped his hands. “The old son of a bitch should have been killed four years ago!”
The sounds jolted a nearby federal officer. Without a word the soldier pulled his pistol, pointed it at the man’s head, then blew his brains all over the wall.
Tolling bells…echoing minute guns…a nation of tearful mourners…these are the images we carry from the day Lincoln died; a day so dark and dreary, a day so rainy and sad that many at the time felt “the very heavens were weeping.” For the most part, these images are correct. But, as the incident witnessed by Melville Stone illustrates, there was another side to this most singular of American events; a side far, far darker than anyone ever imagined and a side that, until now, has remained lost in the mythology surrounding our slain sixteenth president.
To this day, Abraham Lincoln is considered our most beloved American president. Polls consistently rate him as our top chief executive. However, few today realize that before his death, Lincoln was also our most hated American president. For a variety of reasons—his bloody war, his annulment of the Constitution, his jailing of political opponents, his Emancipation Proclamation, his “rustic” behavior, his ribald jests—fully one-half of the re-United States despised Lincoln, mocking him as “Old Ape.” Thus, after four years of mounting anger, many—like the unfortunate loudmouth in Stone’s hotel—could not contain their glee on learning of his demise. Whether or not the anti-Lincoln ventings were justified, such public utterances—and there were thousands of them—became a virtual death sentence in the midst of deeply wounded mourners.
The bloody purge which swept America following Abraham Lincoln’s death has remained a dark secret until now. It lasted for weeks, it was felt by all…and you won’t find it in school books.
The following is from my book, The Darkest Dawn—Lincoln, Booth and the Great American Tragedy
Although word of the horrible deed spread from Ford’s Theater moments after it occurred, it was only when soldiers forced the frenzied, wild-eyed audience from the building that Washington, DC felt the full, chilling impact of the Lincoln assassination.
“Every man and woman in the theater rushed forth to tell it,” wrote a chronicler. “Some ran wildly down the streets, exclaiming to those they met, ‘The President is killed! The President is killed!’ One rushed into a ball-room, and told it to the dancers; another bursting into a room where a party of eminent public men were playing cards, cried, ‘Lincoln is shot!’”
As one vast crowd surged up Pennsylvania Avenue shouting “The President is shot!” they were met by another sweeping down the street yelling “Secretary [William] Seward has been assassinated in bed.”
At Grover’s Theater, while the stage crew was behind the scenes preparing for the fourth and final act of Aladdin, a special interlude of the new patriotic song “When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea” had just ended. The applause was so great that the young songstress was about to offer an encore. In addition to Abraham and Mary Lincolns’ little boy, Tad, young James Tanner, a soldier who had lost both legs in the war, was also in the audience. Despite boarding just across the street from Ford’s Theater, Tanner had made what was for him a long and difficult trip to Grover’s on Pennsylvania Avenue. Just as the singer was about to begin, from the rear of the theater the door burst open with a crash.
“[A] man rushed in from the lobby and cried out, ‘President Lincoln has been shot in Ford’s Theater,’” Tanner recalled. “There was great confusion at once, most of the audience rising to their feet. Some one cried out, ‘It is a ruse of the pickpockets; look out.’ Almost everybody resumed his seat.” The lone exception was Tad Lincoln. When the boy heard the horrible words, he became hysterical. Tearing from his seat and his tutor “like a wounded deer,” the child ran screaming out the door.
Staring in startled silence like everyone else, Helen Moss, sister-in-law to Grover’s manager, watched as her brother stepped to the front of the lighted stage:
[He] said he had a very grave announcement to make. ‘President Lincoln has been shot in his private box at Ford’s Theater. The audience will be dismissed at once, and the house closed, but every one must move out quietly and orderly without excitement.” The house was as still as death. One could have heard a pin drop. The dazed look upon the faces! All were simply stunned for a moment. Then they rose as one body, and passed out toward the door, as if in the presence of death. The doors were thrown open. Sentries were stationed there with crossed bayonets to prevent a rush, but there was no rush. We stood in awe and watched the people file out one by one.
As a friend helped him along, James Tanner turned up the avenue on his artificial legs, determined to learn more.
With the speed of sound, the horrible word from Ford’s raced over the city. In every street and alley, terrified people ran through the night screaming the awful news:
My God! The President is killed at Ford’s Theater!
Lincoln has been murdered!
The President has been shot!
Edwin Stanton had already locked his door for the night. Following a full day and a victory speech just delivered to a torchlight crowd, the secretary of war was weary and preparing for bed. When he was nearly undressed, Stanton heard his wife Ellen go downstairs to answer the door. A moment later, she yelled out in a terror-filled voice, “Mr. Seward is murdered.”
Startled by the words, the secretary soon collected himself.
“Humbug!” he shouted back. “I left him only an hour ago.”
Stomping down the stairs half-dressed—determined to deal with the prankster in person—Stanton found his hallway filling with people. “What’s this story you’re telling?” glared the grim secretary. Seeing in the messenger’s terrified eyes that it was no hoax, Stanton quickly threw on some clothes and started for the door.
“You must’nt go out,” begged a friend. “They have killed Lincoln and they will kill you if you go out. As I came up to the house I saw a man behind the tree-box, but he ran away. . . .”
Brushing the advice aside, Stanton rushed straightaway toward the Seward home on Lafayette Park.
Gideon Welles, the white-bearded secretary of the navy, had just slipped off into sleep when his wife, Mary Jane, woke him. Someone was at the door, she said. Raising a window to see who it was below, Welles soon heard the horrifying news.
“Damn the Rebels, this is their work!” the naval secretary cursed, something he never did in Mary’s presence. Pulling on his shirt and trousers, Welles also started in haste for Seward’s home.
Charles Sumner, the abolitionist courtier and confidant of Mary Lincoln, was enjoying conversation and wine with two other senators when a black servant, “his hair almost on end,” burst through the door.
“Mr. Lincoln is assassinated in the theater. Mr. Seward is murdered in his bed. There’s murder in the streets,” the frightened employee blurted out.
“Young man,” said the startled senator, “be moderate in your statements. Tell us what has happened,”
“I have told you what has happened,” insisted the servant.
Grabbing his coat, Sumner hurried toward the White House to learn for himself if there was any truth in the horrible words.
As a policeman in the District of Columbia, Tom Pendel was one of several men selected for duty at the White House. With the Lincolns absent this night, the home was quiet and there was little for Pendel to do. Even the two young men, Robert Lincoln and John Hay, had tired of their Spanish repartee and “gossiping” and had retreated to their respective rooms for the night. Tom Pendel:
I was sitting in one of the big chairs in the alcove window facing the lower part of the city, waiting to open the door for President and Mrs. Lincoln when they should arrive from the theater, when I saw a confused mass of hurrying lights approaching the White House from the direction of the theater. They came straggling up the avenue to the White House and then there came a sharp ring at the bell. I bounded out of my chair . . . and quickly opened the door. To my surprise the caller was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, whom I knew well enough by sight, and he looked pale and worried as he asked me in a rather sharp tone of voice whether the President had yet returned, and when I said that he had not, whether I had heard that anything had happened to him. He looked mighty relieved and pleased when I told him that I had heard nothing, and he said he had heard some vague rumor that something had befallen Mr. Lincoln.
I closed the door, and went back to my seat by the window more anxious and nervous than ever. There seemed to be a feeling of some impending calamity hanging over me, and when I heard quick footsteps approaching up the walk and then a violent ring at the bell I ran to the door, feeling sure that something had happened. The late caller was Isaac Newton, Commissioner of Agriculture. He was deathly pale, and his eyes glittered as though he had fever. His voice had a sort of strained and hoarse sound in it as he blurted out: “O, my God, they’ve shot the President!” For a few moments I could say and do nothing. I was so absolutely horror- stricken at the news that I was unable to think or realize the situation, or even to make a move. Mr. Newton stood against the door with his hand over his eyes, and he was shaking and quivering with excitement and grief. It must have been nearly a minute before either of us said anything. Then, all at once, it occurred to me that the other occupants of the house should be made acquainted with the terrible news.
I left Mr. Newton standing at the door, and sprang up the front stairs, skipping two or three of them at a time in my excitement. Hastening along the corridor, I came to Capt. Robert Lincoln’s room. . . . He had not gone to bed, and I remember that he had a medicine bottle in one hand and a spoon in the other, as though he were measuring out some medicine. . . . I shall never forget . . . the expression that overspread his face as I shrieked out my fearful news. He had looked up in surprise as I burst into his room, and as I told my errand he unconsciously let the bottle drop from one hand and then the spoon from the other. I could say nothing more, but gazed in a sort of fascination as the medicine slowly gurgled out over the carpet. I could only think how thick and black it was—my mind refused to take cognizance of anything else. But the words kept ringing through my mind in a low, monotonous song: “The President is shot—the President is shot!”
Recovering his senses, Robert ordered Pendel to inform John Hay, whose room was just down the hall. Locating the president’s secretary, the guard yelled out the news.
“I looked at him curiously as he listened,” said the policeman, “and I remember that his brilliant color—which I had often admired, it was so curiously like a beautiful woman’s—faded out so quickly that it seemed as though some one had then and there painted his cheek a deathly white.”
Racing down the stairs, Lincoln and Hay discovered a crowd at the door, including Charles Sumner. Following the shaken senator, the two young men climbed into a waiting carriage and lashed the horses toward Ford’s.
When Gideon Welles finally reached Secretary of State William Seward’s home, he found the street outside packed with people. Pushing his way through the crowd, the navy secretary entered the home and encountered Frances Seward at the top of the stairs. The woman, noted Welles, “was scarcely able to speak.” Indeed, a New York reporter on the scene recalled that such was the terror and confusion that scarcely an intelligible word could be gathered from anyone.
As Welles went up the stairs, what he saw was staggering. The home, according to one account, looked “like a field hospital.”
“It was a terrible sight—there was so much blood every where,” young Fanny Seward remembered. “The stairs was sprinkled with it all the way down to the floor below.” Wherever one looked, one saw a “scene of horrors,” said Frances Seward. On a lounge lay her frail son Fred with blood streaming over his face.
“His eyes were open,” Gideon Welles observed, “but he did not move them, nor a limb, nor did he speak.”
Elsewhere, three other men stood covered in blood, including another Seward son, Augustus, whose head had been slashed to the bone in several places. It was, of course, in Secretary Seward’s room where the carnival of horrors was worst. The bed, floor, walls, doors—all were awash in gore.
“Where we found my father,” wrote Fanny, “there was such a great pool of blood that my feet slipped in it. Some of us had our dresses drabbled in it several inches deep.”
When the naval secretary, now joined by Edwin Stanton, finally entered the room, he was horrified. “The bed was saturated with blood,” Welles wrote. “The Secretary was lying on his back, the upper part of his head covered by a cloth, which extended down over his eyes. His mouth was open, the lower jaw dropping down.” Welles could also see that Seward’s throat was slashed on both sides, and his right cheek had been nearly severed from his head. Because he was so hacked and mangled, noted a doctor, the secretary’s face was the only one in the room not stamped with terror. When the horrified Edwin Stanton began chattering nervously to those around him, the physician sternly ordered him to be quiet.
In suite 68 at the Kirkwood House on Pennsylvania Avenue, a troubled Andrew Johnson was awakened by a sharp knock on the door. Outside, Leonard Farwell, former governor of Wisconsin, was frantic to awaken the vice president. “I rapped,” remembered Farwell, “but receiving no answer, I rapped again and said in a loud voice, ‘Governor Johnson, if you are in the room, I must see you!’ ”
“Farwell? Is that you?” asked Johnson groggily.
“Yes, let me in,” came the reply.
Even if the still-addled vice president could not clearly see his friend’s face, there was no confusing the terror in his voice.
Like a mighty river fed by raging tributaries, gaining force as it swept along, a flood of stunned humanity poured from the alleys and streets of Washington and emptied into the avenues that led to Ford’s Theater. Around the building itself, an enormous crowd had already gathered.
For a brief time, the crush of people was so great that many were able to edge their way into the Petersen home, directly across the street from Ford’s where the dying president was carried. After removing these trespassers, guards eventually forced the crowd back from the house. Even at that distance, however, the shrieks of Mary Lincoln were clearly heard.
“Where is my dear husband? Where is he?” cried the woman when she finally burst through the door of the Petersen home. After becoming separated from her mate by the mob outside, Mary was frantic to find him again. Spurning the arms that reached to aid her, the frenzied first lady rushed through the house until she reached a small room to the rear. Throwing herself across her husband’s body, she hugged and kissed his unresponsive face. Horrified by what she saw in the light, Mary let out a startled, high-pitched scream. “Why didn’t he kill me? Why didn’t he kill me?” she sobbed.
As best they could, physicians went to work. Charles Leale:
While holding his face upward and keeping his head from rolling to either side, I looked at his elevated knees caused by his great height. This uncomfortable position grieved me and I ordered the foot of the bed to be removed. . . . [A]s I found this could not satisfactorily be done, I had the President placed diagonally on the bed and called for extra pillows, and with them formed a gentle inclined plane on which to rest his head and shoulders. His position was then one of repose. . . . I called the officer and asked him to open a window and . . . as I wished to see if he had been wounded in any other part of the body I requested all except the surgeons to leave the room. The Captain reported that my order had been carried out with the exception of Mrs. Lincoln, to whom he said he did not like to speak. I addressed Mrs. Lincoln, explaining my desire, and she immediately left the room.
After the president was stripped of his remaining clothes, a search was made for other wounds. Finding none, Charles Taft turned his attention to the hole behind Lincoln’s left ear.
The wound was there examined, the finger being used as a probe, and the ball found to have passed beyond the reach of the finger into the brain. I put a teaspoonful of diluted brandy between his lips, which was swallowed with much difficulty; a half-teaspoonful administered ten minutes afterward, was retained in the throat, without any effort being made to swallow it. The respiration now became labored; pulse 44, feeble, eyes entirely closed, the left pupil much contracted, the right widely dilated; total insensibility to light in both.
Meanwhile, as attention was focused on the president, and while the shrill screams of his wife sent shattered nerves to the breaking point, Henry Rathbone was swiftly bleeding to death, almost unnoticed. After ensuring that Mary Lincoln reached the Petersen home safely, the major stopped in the hallway, clutching his arm. “The wound which I had received [from the assassin] had been bleeding very profusely,” Rathbone later said.
Hardly had the young man seated himself when he fainted and fell to the floor, “pale as a corpse.” Fortunately, Rathbone’s fiancée, Clara Harris, was nearby. Although bathed in blood and numbed by the nightmare all about her, the woman nevertheless had the presence of mind to quickly tie a handkerchief over the terrible wound and thus stop the bleeding. As Rathbone was carried down the hall toward a waiting carriage, Mary Lincoln filled the building with unearthly shrieks and groans.
“She was not weeping,” wrote a witness, “but appeared hysterical, and exclaimed in rapid succession, over and over again: ‘Oh! why didn’t he kill me? why didn’t he kill me?’”
The screams piercing the walls of the house to the street beyond only added to the horror of the anxious crowd outside. Standing in the cold mist with thousands of others, Julia Shepard vividly conveys the uncertainty, shock, and terror of the moment:
We are in the street now. They have taken the President into the house opposite. He is alive, but mortally wounded. What are those people saying. “Secretary Seward and his son have had their throats cut in their own house.” Is it so? Yes, and the murderer of our President has escaped through a back alley where a swift horse stood awaiting him. Cavalry come dashing up the street and stand with drawn swords before yon house. Too late! too late! What mockery armed men are now. Weary with the weight of woe the moments drag along and . . . delicate women stand clinging to the arms of their protectors, and strong men throw their arms around each other’s necks and cry like children, and passing up and down enquire in low agonized voices, “Can he live? Is there no hope?”
Another person standing outside the Petersen home was Adolphe de Chambrun. In contrast to the sad, stunned mood that had characterized the crowd earlier, the French traveler soon noted that with each spine-chilling scream and each terrible report, the people began to rouse from their stupor.
“[S]uddenly,” said de Chambrun, “there was a change. . . . The city came alive; the spirit of vengeance awoke and spread like a flame. Cries, shouts, [and] passionate exhortations rent the air.”
Although the Frenchman did not realize it at the time, he was witnessing the initial spark to a bloody rampage that would indeed spread over the land like a devouring flame. In many ways, the American terror was remarkably similar to that which had shamed de Chambrun’s own country a half-century earlier.
A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theater a half hour ago.
Thus wrote a dazed New York reporter, trying to describe the devastation the human mind suffered when it was forced to shift from happiness and hope to darkness and despair in only a heartbeat. With thousands of candles, lamps, and gas jets still glowing fiercely from the earlier end-of-war celebration, the murky conditions threw a surreal and sinister shroud over the whole of Washington.
“It was so light that one could see for blocks,” recalled Helen Moss as her escort hurried her home to escape the rising horror. Many of those the couple met moved slowly through the mist like sleepwalkers. Others sped silently along as though they were ghosts. Some were seen to stagger, as if intoxicated. Words were inadequate to describe one’s emotions.
“It was one of stifling, as though someone had gripped my throat,” Albert Boggs admitted when the full weight of the news finally sank in.
By midnight, it seemed to many as if the entire population of Washington was in the streets, boiling and surging about aimlessly. Indeed, noted a newspaper correspondent on the scene, the city was “over-whelmed” with terror. Fueling the panic, of course, was the want of reliable information. “Ten thousand rumors are afloat,” stated a writer for the New York Tribune.
Not only were Lincoln, Seward, and their entire families reportedly butchered, but as the rumors gained momentum, all of the president’s cabinet had been slaughtered as well. “It was then reported that Gen. [Ulysses] Grant had been killed in Philadelphia, and in a short time, they had everybody of any consequence in the city assassinated, until I almost began to doubt the fact of my own existence,” added another confused man.
And so, from mouth to mouth the panic grew. When a rumor raced through the city that the telegraph lines leading to Washington had been cut, men and women ran through the streets screaming that the capital was about to be attacked. John Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas were infiltrating the town . . . Robert E. Lee had torn up the surrender terms of Appomattox and was marching north with his army . . . Washington would be bombarded . . . thousands would be killed . . . the war would continue!
The actions of the federal garrison seemed to confirm the reports. Files of infantry double-quicked through the streets, often passing other noisy columns marching in the opposite direction. Squadrons of cavalry, sabers clattering, dashed about the city at breakneck speed. Policemen raced across streets. Bells rang, drums rolled, carriages and ambulances tore helter-skelter through the night.
Every terrifying scene seemed not only to confirm one’s worst fears but to magnify them. Now at home, Helen Moss graphically conveyed her feeling of horror:
In our eagerness to catch every sound, we huddled about the windows, not daring to have a light, lest we be made targets of by “the Rebels.” A horseman would go dashing past, and down our heads would duck until we thought the danger past. Then we leaned far out to catch the first sound of news from the passers-by. Some man of the household would come dashing in to add to our terror with “The Rebels are upon us.” “They have surrounded the city.” “They have begun their raid.” “We are in danger of being shot or made prisoners.” “The President shot, and all of his cabinet.” . . . [W]e were simply wild with fright.
And still the rumors flew.
“A plot, a plot!” screamed a horseman as he galloped through the city. “Secretary Seward’s throat is cut from ear to ear; Secretary Stanton is killed in his residence; General Grant is shot at Baltimore, and Vice President Johnson is killed at the Kirkwood House.”
Understandably, many individuals were paralyzed with fear.
“We saw a colored man,” said a reporter, “blanched with terror and trembling in every limb, his teeth chattering like one with the ague.” The frightened black was not alone, as the journalist admitted: “The hair on my head stood up.” Others became perfectly unhinged. Overcome with excitement and fear, an army captain went “raving mad” and was placed under arrest by a lieutenant.
“Rumors are so thick, the excitement of this hour is so intense,” recorded a tension-filled Washington editor in the early morning hours of April 15. “Evidently conspirators are among us. To what extent does the conspiracy exist? This is a terrible question. When a spirit so horrible as this is abroad, what man is safe?”
Given the fear, anger, and uncertainty, passions quickly became uncontrollable. On the streets and in hotels, huge mobs brandishing knives and pistols vowed to kill on the spot every rebel that fell into their hands. According to one soldier, patrols darting about the city were not only encouraged but ordered to shoot down any who now displayed even a trace of disloyalty. At such a turbulent time, many soldiers were quick to obey. One federal trooper overheard a man exult over the shooting of Lincoln by exclaiming, “it was good enough for the black rascal.” Without a word, the soldier immediately turned around, looked the man straight in the eye, drew a pistol, then blew his brains out.
Frank Myers and his comrades were marching through the streets at the double-quick when a bystander was heard celebrating. Grabbing a musket from a private, an angry sergeant promptly ran over to the man and speared him with the bayonet. Not content with his bloody work, the enraged soldier again plunged the long blade into his victim as he lay writhing on the ground.
Around the stricken city, as the mob spirit grew, others were treated similarly. When someone shouted that hundreds of rebel soldiers were being held at the Old Capitol Prison, a cry of vengeance erupted. Another in the mob yelled that the prisoners were breaking out of jail at that very moment. With a roar of anger, the snarling crowd set off at a run. As the enraged mob raced forward, hundreds along the way joined. When the screaming crowd of two thousand finally reached the prison, shouts were immediately raised to burn the “Trojan wooden horse” in their midst.
“‘Hang ’em,’ ‘shoot ’em, ‘burn ’em,’ became the cry, and to carry this threat into execution preparations were made,” recalled one of the frightened prisoners inside, Captain C. T. Allen. “Ropes were procured, knots were made, every thing ready for a general massacre of the helpless Confederate prisoners who knew nothing on earth of the occurrences of the night.”
Horrified by what was about to happen, Green Clay Smith, a congressman from Kentucky, and several friends rushed to place themselves between the mob and the prison. When Smith had halted the excited crowd with pleas, he left his companions and dashed off for help.
Continues Captain Allen:
His friends—God bless them, whoever they were . . . responded promptly, mounted a box on the streets, and addressed the mob. When one had said all he could say, another followed him, and so on, occupying half an hour. . . . [Congressman Smith] soon found a battalion of troops on the streets, took charge of them, rushed them to the old capitol, arriving just in time . . . to save from a terrible death some three or four hundred helpless Confederate prisoners.
A few others in the city—risking life and limb—kept their wits and resisted the almost irresistible tide of raging emotions. Because many felt that Ford’s Theater and thespians in general had played some role in the disaster, a howling mob soon surrounded the building. When a nearby storekeeper attempted to reason with the rioters, he quickly found a rope around his neck. Only the swift action of authorities saved the man’s life.
The famous poet, Walt Whitman, describes another incident:
The infuriated crowd, through some chance, got started against one man, either for words he utter’d, or perhaps without any cause at all, and were proceeding at once to actually hang him on a neighboring lamp post, when he was rescued by a few heroic policemen, who placed him in their midst and fought their way slowly and amid great peril toward the Station House. . . . [T]he attack’d man, not yet freed from the jaws of death, looking like a corpse—the silent resolute half-dozen policemen, with no weapons but their little clubs, yet stern and steady through all those eddying swarms—made indeed a fitting side-scene to the grand tragedy.
While shouting mobs combed the streets searching for more victims, and while federal soldiers murdered in cold blood whomsoever they desired, many citizens looked from their windows, quaking in terror.
“Are we living in the days of the French Revolution? Will peace never come again to our dear land?” one man asked his wife that night. “[A]re we to rush on to wild ruin? It seems all a dream, a wild dream. I cannot realize it though I know I saw it only an hour ago.”
As James Tanner neared the street his boarding house sat on, he found his steps increasingly slowed. Several hundred yards from the building itself, the twenty-one-year-old former soldier found his path blocked entirely. In contrast to the riotous mobs elsewhere, a ghostly silence pervaded the dense crowd that stood outside the Petersen house. Dismayed, yet determined to reach his room, Tanner edged and slid his way forward on his shaky artificial legs. At length, he reached the military cordon encircling the Petersen home. After some intense explanation, Tanner eventually convinced the officers in charge that his quarters were indeed in the adjoining boarding house, and he was permitted to enter the building. Upon reaching his room, however, the exhausted young man was in for another surprise.
“There was a balcony in front,” he said, “and I found my rooms and the balcony thronged by other occupants of the house.”
From this high vantage, Tanner and the others had a front row seat to the drama unfolding next door. Like everyone else around him, the young man was absorbed by the coming and going at the Petersen house. As the stunned spectators watched, Edwin Stanton, Charles Sumner, and Robert Lincoln hastened up the steps, as did numerous political and military men. None, though, was more instantly recognizable than Gideon Welles, the dour, white-bearded man with the ill-fitting wig. After Welles entered the home, he hurried down the hall to the room where his beloved chief lay. Wrote the navy secretary in his diary:
The room was small and overcrowded. The surgeons and members of the Cabinet were as many as should have been in the room, but there were many more, and the hall and other rooms in the front or main house were full. . . . The excitement and bad atmosphere from the crowded rooms oppressed me physically.
Indeed, the modest rooms were soon packed with scores of people, with no fewer than sixteen doctors alone. Around the fallen leader’s bed were arrayed his shaken Cabinet members, most of whom were crying uncontrollably. The normally stern and unbending Edwin Stanton, his body now convulsed with sorrow, sat stooped beside the bed, the tears trickling through his fingers to the floor. Senator Charles Sumner was particularly affected. “He was sobbing like a woman,” noted a reporter, “with his head bowed down almost in the pillow of the bed.”
When Gideon Welles, his body shaking with emotion, finally asked a physician about Lincoln’s condition, the words were heartbreaking:
He replied the President was dead to all intents, although he might live three hours or perhaps longer. . . . He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms . . . were of a size which we would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking.
Indeed, the president’s great strength and stamina were astonishing to those who witnessed the struggle. Among the physicians present, all agreed that a normal man would have succumbed soon after receiving such a grievous injury. All the same, and except for some ineffectual probing of the wound, there was little that surgeons could do but keep the president’s body warm while they waited for inevitable death.
“His face looked ghastly,” recalled fifteen-year-old Fred Petersen, son of the homeowner. “He lay with his head on [the] pillow, and his eyes, all bloodshot [were] almost protruding from their sockets. . . . [H]is jaw had fallen down upon his breast, showing his teeth.” Other visitors to the house were soon made aware that with each rise and fall of the president’s chest there issued “one of the most dismal, mournful, moaning noises ever heard.” Secretary of the Interior John Usher was startled by the sound the moment he entered the home. “[H]is breathing was deep[,] almost a snore . . . almost a moan,” said Usher.
Heartrending as the sounds were to those who loved him, no one felt the impact more than his wife. Drawn from the front parlor by her husband’s suffering, her hair disheveled, her gown crumpled and bloody, Mary entered the tiny room on the verge of total collapse.
Wrote John Usher:
She implored him to speak to her[.] She did not want to go to the theater that night but that he thought he must go because people would expect him. . . . She called for little Tad[.] Said she knew he would speak to him because he loved him so well, and after indulging in dreadful incoherences for some time was finally persuaded to leave the room.
But again, the crazed woman returned. “At one time, while sitting by his bedside,” recounted a viewer, “she kept saying, ‘Kill me! kill me! kill me, too! shoot me, too!’ At another time I heard her exclaim in the most piteous tones, ‘Do live! do speak to me! Do live and speak to me, won’t you?’ ”
Among the few women present in the home was Elizabeth Dixon, daughter of a U.S. senator. Although Elizabeth sought to comfort Mary Lincoln repeatedly, the first lady was far beyond comforting. Himself on the verge of emotional breakdown, Robert Lincoln also tried mightily to aid his afflicted mother. Gently, though firmly, the son soothed Mary and begged her to place her faith in God. At other times, Robert’s reserves gave out. “Occasionally,” a witness remembered, “being entirely overcome, he would retire into the hall and give vent to the most heartrending lamentations.” But then, continued the narrator, “he would recover himself and return to his mother, and with remarkable self-possession try to cheer her broken spirits and lighten her load of sorrow. His conduct was a most remarkable exhibition of calmness in the most trying hour that I have ever seen.”
Despite the efforts of Robert and others, as well as sedatives, nothing seemed to ease the woman’s grief and pain. Almost involuntarily, Mary limped again and again to her husband’s bedside, screaming and moaning.
When Edwin Stanton finally fled the room, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that it was to escape the ear-piercing shrieks of Mary Lincoln, a woman whom he thoroughly despised. Establishing a make-shift office in a nearby room, Stanton and Attorney General James Speed began orchestrating search efforts for the assassins and taking testimony from a number of witnesses. Quickly realizing that normal transcriptions could never handle the great weight of messages and testimony, Stanton ordered Major General Christopher Auger to find someone who took shorthand. Stepping onto the stoop, the officer shouted for anyone in the huge crowd who might help to come forward. Like everyone else, James Tanner and the others on his balcony were curious about the strange summons. Whether Tanner might have volunteered on his own or not would remain unknown. Before he had a chance, an acquaintance on the balcony yelled back, then pointed at Tanner. Easing slowly down the stairs on his wood and steel legs, the handsome young man at last reached the Petersen home. He continues:
Entering the house, I accompanied General Augur down the hallway to the rear parlor. As we passed the door of the front parlor, the moans and sobs of Mrs. Lincoln struck painfully upon our ears. . . . I took my seat on one side of a small library table opposite Mr. Stanton. . . . Various witnesses were brought in who had either been in Ford’s Theater or up in the vicinity of Mr. Seward’s residence. Among them were Harry Hawk. . . . As I took down the statements they made, we were distracted by the distress of Mrs. Lincoln, for though the folding doors between the two parlors were closed, her frantic sorrow was distressingly audible to us. . . .
Through all the testimony given by those who had been in Ford’s Theater that night there was an undertone of horror which held the witnesses back from positively identifying the assassin. Said actor, Harry Hawk, “I believe to the best of my knowledge that it was John Wilkes Booth. Still I am not positive that it was him.”
If Hawk and others had reservations, many more had no doubts whatsoever. “In fifteen minutes,” said Tanner, “I had testimony enough to hang Wilkes Booth, the assassin, higher than ever Haman hung.”
The young man continues:
Our task was interrupted very many times during the night, some times by reports or dispatches for Secretary Stanton but more often by him for the purpose of issuing orders to enmesh Booth in his flight. ‘Guard the Potomac from the city down!’ was his repeated direction. ‘He will try to get south.’ . . . Several times Mr. Stanton left us a few moments and passed back to the room . . . where the President lay. The doors were open and sometimes there would be a few seconds of absolute silence when we could hear plainly the stertorous breathing of the dying man. I think it was on his return from his third trip of this kind when, as he again took his seat opposite me, I looked earnestly at him, desiring, yet hesitating to ask if there was any chance of life. He understood and I saw a choke in his throat as he slowly forced the answer to my unspoken question, “There is no hope.” He had impressed me through those awful hours as being a man of steel, but I knew then that he was dangerously near a convulsive break- down.
While Tanner began to transcribe his shorthand, Charles Dana, the assistant secretary of war, continued writing dispatches. Like everyone else who saw Stanton that night, Dana was impressed by the secretary’s strength, especially when contrasted to others in the house.
They seemed to be almost as paralyzed as the unconscious sufferer within the little chamber. Mr. Stanton alone was in full activity. . . . It seemed as if Stanton thought of everything. . . . The safety of Washington must be looked after. Commanders all over the country had to be ordered to take extra precautions. The people must be notified of the tragedy. The assassins must be captured. The coolness and clearheadedness of Mr. Stanton under the circumstances were most remarkable.
“He was then the Master, and in reality Acting President of the United States,” Dr. Leale accurately observed.
In large part because of Stanton’s efforts, much of the country quickly learned of the horrible events in Washington. During the early morning hours of April 15, Ulysses and Julia Grant stepped down from their car when it reached the banks of the Delaware. After an exhausting, though uneventful, train trip up from the capital, the Grants paused in Philadelphia for a quick meal before ferrying across the river to New Jersey. As always, and despite the late hour, a curious crowd awaited Grant’s appearance at the restaurant. After the usual handshakes and comments, the famished couple at last were seated.
“The General ordered some oysters, as he had had nothing to eat since nine o’clock in the morning,” remembered Julia. “Before they were ready for him, a telegram was handed him, and almost before he could open this, another was handed him, and then a third.”
Grant scanned the first telegram:
April 15, 12:30 A.M.
On night Train to Burlington
The President was assassinated at Fords Theater at 10 30 tonight & cannot live. The wound is a Pistol shot through the head. Secretary Seward & his son Frederick, were also assassinated at their residence & are in a dangerous condition. The Secretary of War desires that you return to Washington immediately. Please answer on receipt of this.
Maj. Thomas T. Eckert
Stunned by the words, the general opened a second message, this from Charles Dana:
Permit me to suggest to you to Keep a close watch on all persons who come near you in the cars or otherwise, also that an Engine be sent in front of the train to guard against anything being on the track.
Julia goes on:
The General looked very pale. “Is there anything the matter?” I inquired: “You look startled.” “Yes,” he answered, “something very serious has happened. Do not exclaim. Be quiet and I will tell you. The President has been assassinated at the theater, and I must go back at once. I will take you to Burlington (an hour away), see the children, order a special train, and return as soon as it is ready.”
On the brief trip up through New Jersey, Grant was silent and lost in thought. “This is the darkest day of my life,” the general at last muttered. “I do not know what it means. Here was the Rebellion put down in the field, and it is reasserting itself in the gutter. We had fought it as war, we have now to fight it as murder.”
Others were hardly less startled than Grant. Leonard Grover was on a business trip to New York City when a sharp rap on his hotel door rudely awakened him. Leaving his partner in Washington to manage affairs at the famous theater that bore his name, Grover did not anticipate trouble of any sort now that the war was over.
[S]ome one called, “Mr. Grover, here’s a telegram for you.” Thinking it was the usual message from one of the theaters (for I was then managing a Philadelphia theater as well) which would simply convey the amount of the receipts of the house, I called back: “Stick it under the door.” But the rapping continued with vigor, and there were calls, “Mr. Grover, Mr. Grover, please come to the door!”
I arose, hastily opened the door, when the light disclosed the long hall compactly crowded with people. Naturally, I was astonished. A message was handed to me with the request: “Please open that telegram and tell us if it’s true.” I opened it and read: “President Lincoln shot to-night at Ford’s Theater. Thank God it wasn’t ours. C. D. Hess.
I have just visited the dying couch of Abraham Lincoln. He is now in the agonies of death, and his physicians say he cannot live more than an hour. He is surrounded by the members of his Cabinet, all of whom are bathed in tears. Senator Sumner is seated on the right of the couch on which he is lying, the tears streaming down his cheeks, and sobbing like a child. All around him are his physicians. . . . The President is unconscious, and the only sign of life he exhibits is by the movements of his right hand, which he raises feebly.
Thus wrote a correspondent to the Chicago Tribune at 1:30 a.m. on April 15. So labored was Lincoln’s breathing and so ghastly was the blackening of the face and the bulging of the eyes, that all, like the reporter, felt the end was nigh. Indeed, twice during the night those present knelt on the floor while the president’s pastor, Dr. Phineas Gurley, prayed. And yet, the life force in the tall, strong Illinoisan refused to surrender.
An early end would have been merciful for Mary Lincoln. Prior to every visit she made to the death chamber, someone hurriedly replaced the bloody pillows with clean ones. Nevertheless, each time Mary entered the little room and beheld her husband’s hideous condition, the woman screamed and cried. On two occasions she collapsed. When the woman was revived and helped toward the front parlor, her ear-splitting shrieks and sobs again rattled the house. Nearby, with his nerves ready to shatter, Edwin Stanton somehow managed to keep the wheels of government rolling.
“[I] dictated orders one after another, which I wrote out and sent swiftly to the telegraph,” said Charles Dana. “All those orders were designed to keep the business of the government in full motion till the crisis should be over. It was perhaps two o’clock in the morning before he said, ‘That’s enough. Now you can go home.’ ”
Also in the early morning hours, Andrew Johnson arrived at the home. Wisely refraining from venturing out earlier for fear of assassination, the vice president now made his belated appearance. Johnson had been in the building only a few minutes when Charles Sumner, knowing full well how much Mary Lincoln loathed the Tennessean, urged him to leave. Fearing his presence would indeed ignite even uglier scenes, the man destined to be president at any moment meekly left as suggested.
In a house already rocked to its foundation by screams and terror, another disturbance occurred when William Petersen returned to his home. Outraged that his locked doors had been smashed to pieces to accommodate Mary Lincoln and others, furious that his carpets had been destroyed by mud and blood, Petersen was also angered that dozens of pillows, towels, and sheets had been totally ruined. Additionally, souvenir-seekers who had managed to slip into the home were dismantling the building one piece at a time. With no hope of compensation in sight, the furious homeowner grabbed one of the many bloody pillows lying about and angrily flung it into the yard.
As the interminable nightmare continued, Gideon Welles decided to briefly flee the stuffy building to find a quiet place where his ears would no longer be assailed by Mary’s shrieks or her husband’s deep groans. And so, at 6 a.m., the secretary walked outdoors into the dark and misty morning. As the large, white-bearded cabinet member reached the military cordon, he was instantly recognized by the waiting crowds. Wrote Welles in his diary:
Large groups of people were gathered every few rods, all anxious and solicitous. Some one or more from each group stepped forward as I passed, to inquire into the condition of the President, and to ask if there was no hope. Intense grief was on every countenance when I replied that the President could survive but a short time. The colored people especially—and there were at this time more of these persons than of whites—were overwhelmed with grief.
The navy secretary returned after only a fifteen-minute walk. Rain began to fall on him as he passed back through the military cordon.
One of the troopers on guard that morning was twenty-two-year-old Smith Stimmel. Awakened from a deep sleep earlier that night by the horrible news, then ordered to saddle up for duty, the young Ohio cavalryman, like everyone else, remained in a state of shock. In Stimmel’s words:
All night I rode slowly up and down the street in front of that house. Sometimes it seemed to me like an awful nightmare, and that I must be dreaming; sometimes I would . . . wonder if I was really awake and on duty, so hard was it for me to realize the fact that President Lincoln was lying in that house in a dying condition.
As the gray pall from the east spread slowly over rainy Washington, and as the city bells tolled seven, Abraham Lincoln began to lose his struggle with death.
“The face of the dying had changed to a more ashy paleness,” recorded a witness. “The dark patch around his right eye had spread. His breathing had become shorter and less labored. That dreadful sound had given place to a kind of wild gurgling. Occasionally for a few seconds it would entirely cease, and I would think that all was over. Then it would resume; and thus these intervals would continue.”
Lincoln, a correspondent of the Chicago Tribune added more graphically, was “breathing with great difficulty. . . . His eyes were protruding from their sockets, and suffused with blood.”
The president’s respiration, noted Dr. Taft, would sometimes stop altogether for as long as a minute. Then, a sudden jolt from Lincoln’s chest would restart the lungs, startling everyone who imagined him dead. And thus the pattern would continue. Wrote Taft:
At these times the death-like stillness and suspense were thrilling. The Cabinet ministers, and others surrounding the death-bed, watching, with suspended breath, the last feeble inspiration, and as the unbroken quiet would seem to prove that life had fled, turn their eyes to their watches; then as the struggling life within would force another fluttering respiration, heave deep sighs of relief, and fix their eyes once more upon the face of their dying chief.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Mary Lincoln, assisted by Elizabeth Dixon, walked down the hallway to visit her suffering husband. “At that hour,” Elizabeth recalled, “just as the day was struggling with the dim candles in the room, we went in again. Mrs. Lincoln must have noticed a change, for the moment she looked at him she fainted and fell upon the floor. I caught her in my arms and held her to the window which was open, the rain falling heavily.”
After stimulants were administered, the woman was again helped to the bedside. “Love,” she begged, “live but one moment to speak to me once—to speak to our children.”
While Mary sat kissing and touching her husband’s face, trying with tears to will the words from him, surgeons around the woman noted that Lincoln’s breathing was growing less and less. One of those watching was Dr. Charles Leale:
As Mrs. Lincoln sat on a chair by the side of the bed with her face to her husband’s his breathing became very stertorous and the loud, unnatural noise frightened her in her exhausted, agonized condition. She sprang up suddenly with a piercing cry and fell fainting to the floor. Secretary Stanton hearing her cry came in from the adjoining room and with raised arms called out loudly: “Take that woman out and do not let her in again.” Mrs. Lincoln was helped up kindly and assisted in a fainting condition from the room.
When his notes were finally finished, young James Tanner stepped next door to gaze upon the president:
It was very evident that he could not last long. There was quite a crowd in the room . . . but I approached quite near the bed on which so much greatness lay, fast loosing its hold on this world. . . . At the head [of the bed] stood Captain Robert Lincoln, weeping on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. . . . Stanton was there, trying every way to be calm and yet he was very much moved. The utmost silence pervaded, broken only by the sounds of strong men’s tears. It was a solemn time, I assure you.
As was obvious to Tanner and everyone else in the room, the last moments of Abraham Lincoln were at hand. “His face, which had been quite pale,” wrote a journalist, “began to assume a waxen transparency, the jaw slowly fell, and the teeth became exposed.”
The president’s respirations grew farther and farther apart. Several times, when the interval between breaths was longer than usual, doctors searched for a pulse.
“Such was the solemn stillness for the space of five minutes that the ticking of watches could be heard in the room,” one man noted.
Returning to James Tanner:
The Surgeon General [Joseph Barnes] was near the head of the bed, sometimes sitting on the edge thereof, his finger on the pulse of the dying man. Occasionally he put his ear down to catch the lessening beats of his heart. . . . [I] had full view of Mr. Stanton across the President’s body. . . . [His] gaze was fixed intently on the countenance of his dying chief. He had, as I said, been a man of steel throughout the night, but as I looked at his face across the corner of the bed and saw the twitching of the muscles I knew that it was only by a powerful effort that he restrained himself.
Finally, it was over. The long agony ended. After his heart “fluttered” for ten seconds or so, Abraham Lincoln was no more.
“The first indication that the dreaded end had come,” Tanner revealed, “was at 22 minutes past 7, when the Surgeon General gently crossed the pulseless hands of Lincoln across the motionless breast and rose to his feet.”
“He is gone,” said Barnes simply.
No one spoke. No one stirred. No one cried.
“Then I solemnly believe that for four or five minutes there was not the slightest noise or movement in that awful presence,” the Reverend Dr. Gurley recalled.
We all stood transfixed in our positions, speechless, breathless, around the dead body of that great and good man. At length the Secretary of War, who was standing at my left, broke the silence and said, “Doctor, will you say anything?” I replied, “I will speak to God.” Said he, “Do it just now.” And there, by the side of our fallen chief, God put into my heart to utter this petition, that from that hour we and the whole nation might become more than ever united in our devotion to the cause of our beloved, imperiled country. When I ceased, there arose from the lips of the entire company a fervid and spontanious [sic] “Amen.”
“Mr. Stanton raised his head, the tears streaming down his face,” noted James Tanner. “A more agonized expression I never saw on a human countenance as he sobbed out the words: ‘He belongs to the angels now.’ ”
Following the prayer, Reverend Gurley went to console Mary Lincoln.
“Oh why did you not tell me he was dying,” the woman burst out.
Maunsell Field was standing in the hallway while Gurley sought to comfort those in the parlor:
The prayer was continually interrupted by Mrs. Lincoln’s sobs. Soon after its conclusion, I went into the parlor, and found her in a chair, supported by her son Robert. Presently her carriage came up and she was removed to it. She was in a state of tolerable composure at that time, until she reached the door, when, glancing at the theater opposite, she repeated three or four times: “That dreadful house!—that dreadful house!
Returning to the bedroom, Field continues:
The President’s eyes after death were not, particularly the right one, entirely closed. I closed them myself with my fingers, and one [of] the surgeons brought pennies and placed them on the eyes, and subsequently substituted for them silver half-dollars. In a very short time the jaw commenced slightly falling, although the body was still warm. . . . The expression immediately after death was purely negative, but in fifteen minutes there came over the mouth, the nostrils, and the chin, a smile that seemed almost an effort of life. . . . The body grew cold very gradually, and I left the room before it had entirely stiffened.
As Lincoln’s body was being placed in a coffin, one by one, those who had maintained the horrible vigil while he yet lived now made their sorrowful way home with his death. “I felt as though I had been engaged all night in a terrible battle and had just strength enough left to drag myself off the field,” said a weary Reverend Gurley. James Tanner, also thoroughly drained by the ordeal, nevertheless hobbled to his apartment next door and set to work writing another copy of the testimony taken earlier.
I had been thus engaged but a brief time, when hearing some commotion on the street, I stepped to the window and saw a coffin containing the body of the dead President being placed in a hearse . . . escorted by a lieutenant and 10 privates. As they passed with measured tread and arms reversed, my hand involuntarily went to my head in salute as they started on their long, long journey back to the prairies and the hearts he knew and loved so well.
When the hearse and its escort reached the crowds beyond the military cordon, large numbers of citizens joined the procession on its rainy trip to the White House.
His duty now done, a weary and dejected Dr. Charles Leale closed the door on the suddenly quiet, empty Petersen home.
I left the house in deep meditation. In my lonely walk I was aroused from my reveries by the cold drizzling rain dropping on my bare head, my hat I had left in my seat at the theater. My clothing was stained with blood, I had not once been seated since I first sprang to the President’s aid; I was cold, weary and sad. The dawn of peace was again clouded, the most cruel war in history had not completely ended.
Ironically, the one man in America whose job it was to have known of the tragic developments in the capital was one of the last to learn. While events swirled madly about him, newsman Noah Brooks lay in his room, oblivious to all, bedridden by a violent bout of flu. During the night, he and his roommate were aroused by the clatter of cavalry in the streets. Other than a dry joke about rebel raids and the capture of his friend Abraham Lincoln, Brooks paid no mind to the commotion and quickly dozed off again.
I was awakened in the early dawn by a loud and hurried knocking on my chamber door, and the voice of Mr. Gardner, the landlord, crying “Wake, wake, Mr. Brooks! I have dreadful news.” I slipped out, turned the key of the door, and Mr. Gardner came in, pale, trembling . . . and told his awful story. . . . I sank back into my bed, cold and shivering with horror, and for a time it seemed as though the end of all things had come. I was aroused by the loud weeping of my comrade, who had not left his bed in another part of the room.
When we had sufficiently collected ourselves to dress and go out of doors in the bleak and cheerless April morning, we found in the streets an extraordinary spectacle. They were suddenly crowded with people—men, women, and children thronging the pavements and darkening the thoroughfares. It seemed as if everybody was in tears. Pale faces, streaming eyes . . . were on every side. Men and women who were strangers accosted one another with distressed looks and tearful inquiries.
For Noah Brooks—indeed, for millions more—the shock was too great, the transition too brief, the human mind too weak and simple to calculate the sudden change. With the speed of a burning bullet, the people of the North had been hurled down from the mountain top of hope and happiness to the abyss of sorrow and despair. Around Washington, colorful flags and banners hung soaked and motionless. Slowly, sadly, these tokens of victory were taken down, and the black of mourning was hung in their place.
“From lip to lip the tale of horror flew,” Noah Brooks continued:
[M]en and women went weeping about the streets; no loud voice was anywhere heard; even children’s prattle was hushed; gloom, sadness, mourning sat on every countenance. . . . All shops, Government departments, and private offices were closed, and everywhere, on the most pretentious residences and on the humblest hovels, were the black badges of grief. Nature seemed to sympathize in the general lamentation, and tears of rain fell from the moist and somber sky. The wind sighed mournfully through the streets crowded with sad-faced people, and broad folds of funeral drapery flapped heavily in the wind over the decorations of the day before.
As was the case in Washington, when the shattering news reached the rest of the country via the telegraph there initially was only shock and silence.
Ran the Saint Louis Dispatch of April 15:
Many of our readers awoke this morning with a shudder, for the hoarse cry of the newsboy, as it was borne to them on the damp, chilly air, announced the “assassination of President Lincoln” . . . Even the voices of the vivacious, devil-may-care newsboys seemed hushed as they announced the sorrowful tidings.
“Men hold their breath, and turn pale at the appalling words,” noted a Boston clergyman:
Citizens meet, and shake hands, and part in silence. Words express nothing when uttered. All attempt to express the nation’s grief is utterly commonplace and insignificant. . . . [A] smile seems irrelevant and sacrilegious. Even the fresh, green grass, just coming forth to meet the return of spring and the singing of birds, seems to wear the shadows of twilight at noonday. The sun is less bright than before, and the very atmosphere seems . . . a strange ethereal element of gloom.
In Hartford, Connecticut, Toledo, Ohio, Davenport, Iowa, and countless American cities, sidewalks were packed with people milling about, mostly silent and staring, each looking desperately from face to face for an explanation. In New York City, men and women passed uncertainly through the streets like sleepwalkers, stunned, speechless, silent. When reality began to sink in, even total strangers stopped on Broadway, then “sobbed like children” with one another. “My heart is so broken . . . that I can hardly think or write or speak,” admitted Ohio congressman and future U.S. president James A. Garfield, who was in the city on business. None in the metropolis felt the shock and pain more deeply than Walt Whitman.
“Mother prepared breakfast—and other meals afterwards—as usual, but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us,” the poet reminisced. “We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all. Little was said. We got every newspaper morning and evening, and the frequent extras . . . and pass’d them silently to each other.”
Later, when rain poured from leaden skies, Whitman put pen to paper to vent his own dark and dismal emotions: “Black clouds driving overhead. Lincoln’s death—black, black, black—as you look toward the sky—long broad black like great serpents.”
Across the continent, when the news reached California at 10 a.m. on April 15, the residents were no less startled than their eastern counterparts. Elkan Cohn was just about to deliver his sermon to Saturday morning worshipers at his San Francisco church when a note was handed to him at the pulpit. As the congregation watched in suspense, the Reverend Cohn soon burst into tears, then collapsed. After recovering somewhat, Cohn announced the grim news to the gathering. His words were received “like a thunderbolt,” and with sobs and groans the entire crowd was overcome with sadness.
“At first,” admitted an editor in the same city, “few could believe it.”
When the truth was accepted, however, the impact on Westerners was fully as devastating as that on Easterners. “Hard, stern-featured men weeping like women,” wrote one witness as he walked the streets of San Francisco. “Every voice hushed to a whisper.”
At her home in Iowa, Marjorie Rogers first heard the incredible news when an elderly friend dropped by. “I was dumb with fear and astonishment,” the Des Moines woman admitted, “we could not talk about it. . . . [E]verything looked like an eclipse of the sun, our light and hope was gone. . . . Our old friend weeping like a child rose and left me alone. I wandered listlessly about, could not realize the awfulness of the situation.”
When Governor Oliver Morton tried to console a large crowd gathered at the statehouse in Indianapolis, he found he could not even console himself. “[H]is grief choked his utterance so that he was obliged to sit down,” said a sad witness.
“And only yesterday,” sighed Maggie Lindsley from the same state, “everything was so bright and beautiful—Nature too was rejoicing in the happiness and glory of this great Nation. . . . Richmond taken! Lee surrendered! A Mighty Nation saved, purged and purified! . . . Only yesterday! And today? Alas! The terrible stroke in the midst of the Nation’s triumph! O God! Our God! What does it mean? Why are we thus stricken in the midst of our paeans of praise? . . . Tears are in all eyes—sobs in every voice—old men and children—rich and poor, white and black—all feel it a personal loss. . . . God in Heaven! How hard it is to realize.”
Nowhere was the news from Ford’s Theater more devastating than in Lincoln’s hometown. To one Springfield reporter, it seemed as if the entire city was prostrated to the ground upon hearing the word—”as if,” he said, “the Death Angel had taken a member from every family.”
“The news of his going struck me dumb,” confessed Lincoln’s former law partner, William Herndon, “the deed being so infernally wicked . . . so huge in consequences, that it was too large to enter my brain.”
Indeed, for some the awful words were simply too enormous, too terrifying to be understood and dealt with sanely. In New York City, when an unstable German heard the news and saw the horrified reaction of those around him, he drew a razor and attempted to cut his own throat. In the same city, a young boy had more success. Already subject to fits, the agitated child announced to his parents that he would join Lincoln in death. Before the screaming mother could react, her son slit his throat. At New Haven, Connecticut, another man dropped dead when he heard the news, and in the same state a young woman reportedly became a raving maniac. After hearing of the assassination, a man in Michigan collapsed and rolled back and forth on the street in a fit. Another individual, utterly unhinged by the news, roamed the sidewalks of Detroit with a large stone in his grip. When asked his purpose, the man replied that he was going to kill two people he knew.
As was the case in the nation’s capital, horror and shock soon gave way to anger and violence. “Such passion, such sorrow, such indignation, I never saw before,” a federal judge wrote in his journal after observing an Indiana crowd. “Every man seemed full of fury.”
Viewing from his office window a boiling, angry crowd, an enraged editor in Bangor, Maine, gave vent to his own explosive emotions. “Let the vengeance of an outraged people have full sway,” urged the journalist. “Smite from off the earth all instigators, perpetrators—all their sympathizers. Let them die a dog’s death.”
With prompting like the above, it is not surprising that the more excitable and unstable among the population quickly translated violent words into violent deeds. When a man on the Brooklyn ferry was overheard muttering “disloyal” sentiments, he was seized by fellow passengers and flung headfirst over the railing. The struggling victim was soon swept under the craft and smashed to death by the paddles.
“Served him right!” shouted those watching from the boat.
At a butcher shop in Ohio, another man clapped in elation when he heard the welcome news from Washington. According to a Cleveland newspaper:
The shop man had raised his cleaver to strike asunder a bone in the meat as the words of levity and insane joy fell on his ears. He turned on his heels and made a pass at the man with a downward stroke of the cleaver. He sprang aside, but the corner of the blade made a gash in his face. As he was jumping out of the door he received another blow in his shoulder, the axe inflicting a savage wound.
When two strangers fishing on the same stream in Connecticut first learned of Ford’s Theater, one yelled that he was “damned glad he’s dead.” Furious, the other angler dropped his pole, beat the man senseless, then tied him to a tree far from help.
For similar comments, several were reportedly slain in Boston and Chicago. In the politically divided city of St. Louis, according to one account, many men were “shot down like dogs” for making similar remarks. Outside a saloon in the same city, several were wounded and the Jewish owner killed when federal soldiers opened fire. In Indiana and Illinois, even in the president’s hometown, those who celebrated the news from Washington were shot down on the spot. One man was literally cut to ribbons by fifteen balls.
Other victims in Iowa, California, and Colorado Territory “escaped up trees” after shouting mobs threw ropes around their necks. In New York City, one cursing celebrant exclaimed, “Old Abe, that son of a bitch, is dead, and he ought to have been killed long ago.” His joy was short-lived. A nearby policeman knocked the man cold with his club, then hauled the culprit to court, where he was promptly sentenced to six months in jail. At South Camden in nearby New Jersey, police narrowly saved a black man from lynching at the hands of other blacks after a similar comment.
Numerous “suicides” also were reported. Some victims were found floating in creeks, rivers, and bays. More than one victim was found mangled on railroad tracks. Others were discovered with multiple stab wounds to the heart or several bullet holes to the head. All these victims supposedly died by their own hands.
When one or two boisterous individuals rashly exhibited elation at Lincoln’s death, they were easily and unmercifully dealt with by snarling neighbors. When entire communities celebrated, it was another matter. At Marietta, Indiana, the unexpected news from Ford’s Theater propelled everyone from their homes, “crazy with joy.” Reported a shocked journalist:
In the absence of a cannon, they loaded and fired an anvil repeatedly, shouted, danced, sang, and in every possible manner gave expression to their demoniac joy, after which they constructed an effigy of President Lincoln, with a rude representation of the bullet-hole in his head, which they carried about the streets, a big ruffian following, and ringing a bell. The effigy was afterward burnt.
Though numbers and distance might insulate some anti-Lincoln communities, those areas with federal troops nearby who celebrated the president’s death did so at their peril. In Green Valley, California, a full-scale battle broke out when angry soldiers moved in to suppress disloyal demonstrations following the assassination. When the smoke had cleared, several lay wounded and nearly a dozen were arrested.
Elsewhere in California, scores of suspicious men either committed “suicide” or were hurled into Fort Alcatraz on San Francisco Bay.
Like their civilian counterparts, federal soldiers who foolishly made public their true sentiments on Lincoln could expect short shrift from grieving comrades. One soldier at a camp near Indianapolis declared that he would “have a hoe-down” on Lincoln’s grave and thereupon began dancing deliriously. Outraged onlookers seized the man and quickly strung him up. Only when the victim’s face turned black did his comrades cut him down. Five other soldiers at Indianapolis were treated similarly.
“Such Monsters shall not remain in my com[man]d.,” swore one general, who thereupon had the heads of two soldiers shaved, then ordered the culprits marched in front of the brigade. When large numbers of men in an Indiana regiment began a spontaneous celebration of Lincoln’s death, the colonel ordered mass arrests. Some of the men were hung up by their fingers and thumbs while others were bucked and gagged. At the very least, federal soldiers who displayed joy at the assassination could expect weeks, months, even years of prison time at hard labor.
When the supply of vocal victims ran low, ever-ready rabble-rousers used the excitement to deal with political foes or anyone with a history of opposition to the war and the Republican Party. In the horror and confusion following Lincoln’s death, and with rumors spreading like wildfire, hundreds of pro-Confederate Northerners, or “Copperheads,” as well as Democrats, neutrals, and even moderate Republicans, were seized by their frenzied neighbors to be beaten, clubbed, and sometimes killed.
In Philadelphia, Boston, Battle Creek, Michigan, and other cities, victims were mobbed, then forced to perform humiliating stunts, such as singing patriotic tunes and swearing loyalty while groveling in the dirt. George Stone of Swampscott, Massachusetts, was seized by an angry crowd, tarred and feathered, then dragged through the streets in a rowboat while being forced to wave an American flag.
“Hemp and Hell for Traitors!” urged one journal, a religious periodical that claimed to be a “high Methodist and Christian authority.”
On the stormy night following Lincoln’s death, a shouting crowd of several hundred men and boys combed the streets of Concord, New Hampshire, searching for disloyalty and treason. After barging into a number of shops and residences, “literally driving old ladies from their houses,” the mob surrounded the stately home of Franklin Pierce. “Where is your flag?” a cynical voice demanded when the former U.S. president appeared at the door. Although opposed to many of Lincoln’s policies, Pierce was no traitor. After a courageous and dignified address by the Democrat, the satisfied mob left to search for sedition elsewhere.
At Buffalo, when it was noticed that there were no signs of mourning on the house, an angry mob reportedly slung mud and splashed black ink on the residence of another ex-president, Millard Fillmore. Inside the home, the same man who had so cordially hosted the Lincolns on their trip to Washington in 1861 was now bedridden with a serious illness. In New York City, a gang of club-wielding teenagers burst into the Staten Island home of Julia Tyler, widow of the tenth American president. Although no one was injured, before the “patriotic young men” left, they snatched from the room what was believed to be a rebel banner.
“The flag so rudely taken away,” wrote Julia a short time later, “was a fancy tri-color, made some ten years ago. . . . It hung as an ornament above a picture. There was no other flag in the house but a large United States one.”
As these incidents illustrate, in the fury of the moment the mob’s madness respected neither station, age, nor gender. Indeed, those who felt that female Copperheads had been protected from punishment over the past four years because of their sex now eagerly encouraged violence against them. “There are women among us who wept for sorrow when Richmond was taken—who lamented when Lee surrendered—who rejoiced when Lincoln was assassinated,” railed the editor of an Indianapolis newspaper. “There are women in the North who, today say those things for which men have been imprisoned, shot and hung.”
At Terre Haute, Indiana, a female who reportedly shouted for Jefferson Davis was grabbed by a mob, marched through the streets waving a U.S. flag, and forced to shout for the Union. In Detroit, two women were driven from their homes, with one being pounded unmercifully with a broomstick. Another woman in Iowa, long suspected of disloyal sentiments, was also rumored to have cheered over the assassination. According to a Des Moines newspaper:
Without giving the subject the least investigation . . . a number of women, among them the wife of the presiding elder of the Methodist church, visited the house of Mrs. Peterson, and compelled her, an invalid, to leave her house and carry an emblem of mourning, which . . . was a flag, and march around the town. She protested that she had not uttered a word of exultation at the death of the President and implored them to confront her with [the] witness; but her protestations were answered by the insulting reply that she was lying. She assured them that she was unable to walk the distance required, and if forced to perform the humiliating service they must carry her. Her protestations of innocence, her demand for the proof, her widowhood, and even the precarious condition of her health, had no power to move their pity. Go she must and they forced her out of the house and dragged her around the streets to be scoffed and jeered at, tearing her dress nearly off.
Not content with inflicting this gross indignity upon the sick woman, they attempted to compel her little daughter, thirteen years of age, to perform the same service, and because she had spirit enough to resist the outrage, she was beaten and bruised until blood streamed from her nose and her arms were black and blue.
Horrifying incidents such as the above finally forced the more stable in society to speak out. After self-appointed vigilantes gutted homes and stores in Fall River, Roxbury, and other Massachusetts towns, then forced citizens to perform public humiliations, the editor of the Springfield Republican in the same state erupted when mobs took over his town.
“[T]he police, instead of doing anything to stop it, seem rather to go round with the crowd, and enjoy the fun,” snapped the indignant newsman. “These proceedings are too shameful to be tolerated. . . . [T]hey are outrages and ought to be stopped. If a man blatantly thrusts disloyal sentiments into the faces of the community, and is rash enough to insult the loyal heart of the people in this hour of its great sorrow, we are perfectly willing, nay anxious, that he should be summarily shut up and punished according to his deserts. . . . But as long as such men keep still, let them severely alone.”
Though well-intentioned, such cries for sanity were largely lost in the shouts for revenge.
Because the city’s grand victory celebration—the greatest drunken display in its history—had ended only hours earlier, when the awful news from Ford’s reached Cincinnati the reaction was especially violent. Moments after hearing the word, two jubilant men stepped onto the street and announced they were “glad” Lincoln was dead. According to one who was there, “The words had hardly escaped their lips when a man drew a pistol and shot one dead on the spot. The other was literally cut to pieces.” Many others in the city fared little better.
With bloodthirsty mobs controlling the streets of Cincinnati, homes and businesses of suspected Copperheads were looted and destroyed. Fearing for his life, a physician who had earlier failed to display a U.S. flag during the victory celebration quickly hung one from his window. Unimpressed by the gesture, a howling mob now demanded that the flag be taken down. The doctor nervously refused. As bullets and rocks battered the home, police arrived and escorted the trembling inmates to safety.
Unlike Cincinnati officials, who at least tried to maintain law and order, the mayor of Philadelphia announced that any who did not display symbols of mourning need expect no aid from city police.
Already inhabited by some of the roughest elements in America, the West Coast was especially explosive. After the initial shock had passed, a storm of anger and violence swept through San Francisco. In short order, and with employees fleeing for their lives, frenzied mobs entered the offices of several “obnoxious” Democratic newspapers and went to work. When the rioters had finished, the businesses were totally destroyed. To the south, the same news “fell like an avalanche” on Los Angeles, where homes were burned and many, including a black, a Jew, and a Mexican, were arrested.
At Westminster, Maryland, an angry mob stormed the office of a local Democratic newspaper and smashed it to splinters. The editor, Joseph Shaw, was warned that if he returned to town he would be killed on sight. As added justification, members of the crowd insisted that the journalist was a depraved debaucher who had “led to ruin a simple-minded girl.”
Near Berlin, Illinois, soldiers arrested five individuals and accused them of being Missouri guerrillas. When the men were later lynched, a Springfield editor admitted that at most the victims might have been guilty of being Copperheads. In far-off Washington Territory, fifteen men—”horse thieves and highwaymen”—were hung in Walla Walla, and a vigilance committee had a list of 150 more to be driven out or killed. And in numerous other instances, the line separating the personal from the political became blurred as opportunists seized the moment to punish their foes.
During the height of the Cincinnati riot, one unscrupulous individual spotted an old and much-hated enemy who happened to also be a loyal Union man. Pointing at his foe, and beckoning to the mob, the man yelled: “You are not sorry, eh? You shout for Jeff. Davis, do you?” As intended, the innocent victim was swiftly set upon by the crowd.
At San Francisco, a drunk who suffered from insane fits of jealousy grabbed a pistol, then chased his screaming wife into the yard and tried to kill her. Although the ball fortunately missed its mark, the man justified his murderous action by insisting that the woman was a “damned secesh bitch.”
Throughout the frenzied North, the madness continued as a deeply wounded nation turned savagely on itself. In the hours following Lincoln’s assassination, hundreds died, thousands were beaten or jailed, and countless others were forced to flee for their lives. Indeed, for those well versed in the history of the French Revolution and the Terror that came with it, the horrors of the American terror must have seemed chillingly similar. As the nation teetered on the brink of anarchy, there was a very real fear among many sane individuals that one small ball weighing less than an ounce might accomplish that which tons and tons of rebel lead had failed to do.
Returning to the army hospital soon after his nightmarish duty at the Petersen home, Charles Leale was concerned about the terrible impact the assassination would have on his wounded men:With little or no respite, t he rain that came with Lincoln’s death continued throughout the day in Washington on Saturday, April 15. Despite the downpour, the streets of the capital were crowded with citizens. Little was said. Faces full of sadness said all. It was if the people were compelled by some mysterious force to join with others and mourn over a loss so profound that words were meaningless. Many moved about the city as if in a stupor. Few felt the loss more sharply than soldiers. Those who had fought for years and had grown fond of “Father Abraham” now reacted as if they had indeed lost a parent. “It probably means more to me than it does to you,” a cavalryman sobbed to a comrade. “He signed an order that saved me from being shot.”
One of my patients was profoundly depressed. He said to me: “Doctor, all we have fought for is gone. Our country is destroyed, and I want to die.” This officer the day before was safely recovering from an amputation. I called my lady nurse, “Please closely watch Lieutenant ; cheer him as much as possible, and give him two ounces of wine every two hours. . . .” This brave soldier received the greatest kindness and skillful care, but he would not rally from the shock and died in a short time.
Of all groups, however, blacks were perhaps the most tragically stricken. Many were prostrate with grief. From “Crow Hill,” “Fighting Alley,” “Buzzard Town,” and other communities around Washington, frightened blacks, like their white counterparts, journeyed into the rain to mourn as one and contemplate their future. “[T]hey seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead,” observed Gideon Welles.
“We have lost our Moses,” sobbed one colored woman to a white man who tried to console her.
“God will send you another,” assured the well-meaning man.
“I know that,” replied the woman, “but we had him already.”
Amid the dreadful gloom and despondency, the only sign of normalcy was the newsboys. Feeding the public’s ravenous need for news, the youngsters sold black-bordered newspapers and extras almost as fast as they were printed. Many were sharp businessmen. “The newsboys raised the price to ten cents a copy (the regular price was five cents) and sold them like hot cakes,” one man remembered. “I heard of one newsboy who made $56.00 selling newspapers on that Saturday.”
While thousands struggled inwardly with their emotions, the outward manifestations of mourning were everywhere. Within hours of Lincoln’s death, down the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue, on side streets and main thoroughfares, from the meanest hovel to the most stately mansion, hung the black symbols of grief.
“Washington wears a mournful aspect from center to circumference,” wrote Charles Sanford to a friend. “Miles and miles of material—from fine & expensive crape to black calico, are devoted to draping the city in mourning.”
Swiftly, even at drastically hiked prices, the supplies of material in the stores and shops were exhausted, and the people were reduced to hanging black aprons, scarves, ribbons, and bits of rags from doorknobs and windowsills. U.S. flags, all now lowered to half-staff, were edged in black. Those who owned portraits of the late president hung them on the outside of their homes, adding such slogans as “Our Father,” “Our Savior,” and “We mourn our loss.” At the distant forts surrounding Washington came the slow, steady salute of cannons thundering the terrible news. And in the city itself, from dozens of steeples, deep-voiced bells added to the gloom. And yet, impressive as the formality was, the outward display could in no way give a true expression of the heart.
“This frowning sky, this sobbing day, these low and agonizing words, these closed stores, offices and departments, these stern sentries, pacing to and fro in strange places, these miles of crape,” wrote one reporter, “are but signs of a grief that no outward manifestations can wholly express.”
With each faint cannon boom and each deep bell toll, the sadness of the city was driven into each heart again and again. In rainy New York, these same sounds were an added affliction to one poor woman. The bond between her and her son was “very close, very strong,” said one who knew the two well. “No matter how far apart they were, she seemed to know, in some mysterious way, when anything was wrong with him. If he were ill, or unfit to play, he would often receive a letter of sympathy, counsel, and warning, written when she could not possibly have received any news from him.” That morning, as the bells tolled in New York, Mary Ann Booth felt that something truly terrible had occurred to “the fondest of all my boys.” A friend happened to be with the mother that morning:
Outside the newsboys, with strident voice, were calling, “The President’s death, and the arrest of John Wilkes Booth.” While in answer to these words the mother moaned: “O God, if this be true, let him shoot himself, let him not live to be hung! Spare him, spare us, spare the name that dreadful disgrace!” Then came the sound of the postman’s whistle, and with the ring of the door bell a letter was handed to Mrs. Booth. It was from John Wilkes Booth, written in the afternoon before the tragedy. . . . It was an affectionate letter, such as any mother would like to receive from her son, containing nothing of particular moment, but ghastly to read now, with the thought of what the feelings of the man must have been who held the pen in writing it, knowing what overwhelming sorrow the next few hours would bring.
That “overwhelming sorrow” was perhaps felt no more deeply than in the heart of another of the mother’s sons:
A fearful calamity is upon us. The President of the United States has fallen by the hand of an assassin, and I am shocked to say suspicion points to one nearly related to you as the perpetrator of this horrid deed. God grant it may not prove so!
Thus, from a note written by the hand of a friend, did Edwin Booth first learn of the events of the night before. Already steady fare in one of America’s most cultured cities—one hundred consecutive full houses for his role as Hamlet alone—Booth was an all but adopted son in Boston. “All the women are crazy about him,” one star-struck lady sighed. “[S]o silent and dark and Gawain-looking and so delightfully indifferent and so distressed. . . . [E]very one would like to do something to console him.” And yet, all the adulation and popularity vanished from Edwin’s mind in a flash when he received the devastating news. Even as he was performing on the Boston stage and receiving waves of applause as he always had, even then the horrid act was being committed.
“Oh!” wrote the shattered actor, “How little did I dream . . . when on Friday night I was as Sir Edward Mortimer exclaiming ‘Where is my honor now? Mountains of shame are piled upon me!’ that I was not acting but uttering the fearful truth.”
“The news of the morning has made me wretched indeed,” continued Booth to a friend, “not only because I have received the unhappy tidings of the suspicion of a brother’s crime, but because a good man, and a most justly honored and patriotic ruler, has fallen, in an hour of national joy, by the hand of an assassin.”
As Edwin explained to another consoling friend:
Lincoln was my President for in pure admiration of his noble career & Christian principles I did what I never did before—I voted & FOR HIM! I was two days ago one of the happiest men alive. . . . Now what am I? . . . [T]he beautiful plans I had for the future—all blasted now.
Although at the moment it was small consolation to the distraught, sensitive actor, few in Boston were bent on harming him because of his brother’s deed. No such charity was extended to another brother by the citizens of Cincinnati. Overhearing the hideous news while at rehearsal Saturday morning, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., collapsed on stage. When he was revived and tried to stand, again he fainted. During the ensuing riot that swept the city, the actor with the now infamous name was one of the first men called for by the mob. After ripping down his playbills throughout the city, several hundred rioters surrounded the hotel where he was staying. Only the quick wits of a clerk—who nervously announced that Booth had left earlier—prevented a lynching then and there.
Upon hearing the horrific news, other acquaintances wisely worked to put as much distance between themselves and the assassin as possible. “I tried to persuade myself that I did not know Booth,” admitted a Philadelphia theater manager. “When questioned in regard to the subject my memory was a blank.”
And for those who knew and loved the dashing idol, their grief was bottomless. Clara Morris was in Columbus, Ohio, when word first reached her of Lincoln’s murder. Although startled by the terrible news, the actress knew nothing of the details, or who the assassin was.
My room-mate and I had, from our small earnings, bought some black cotton at a tripled price, as all the black material in the city was not sufficient to meet the demand; and as we tacked it about our one window, a man passing told us the assassin had been discovered, and that he was the actor Booth. Hattie laughed so she nearly swallowed the tacks that, girl-like, she held between her lips, and I, after a laugh, told him it was a poor subject for a jest, and we went in.
A short time later, a friend named Ellsler dropped by to deliver some playbooks as requested.
We heard his knock. I was busy pressing a bit of stage finery. Hattie opened the door, and then I heard her exclaiming: “Why—why— what!” I turned quickly. Mr. Ellsler was coming slowly into the room. He is a very dark man, but he was perfectly livid then—his lips even were blanched to the whiteness of his cheeks. His eyes were dreadful, they were so glassy and seemed so unseeing. He was devoted to his children, and all I could think of . . . was disaster to one of them, and I cried, as I drew a chair to him: “What is it? Oh, what has happened to them?”
He sank down—he wiped his brow—he looked almost stupidly at me; then, very faintly, he said: “You—haven’t—heard—any thing?”
Like a flash Hattie’s eyes and mine met. We thought of the supposed ill-timed jest of the stranger. My lips moved wordlessly. Hattie stammered: “A man—he—lied though—said that Wilkes Booth—but he did lie—didn’t he?” and in the same faint voice Mr. Ellsler answered slowly: “No—no! He did not lie—it’s true!”
Down fell our heads, and the waves of shame and sorrow seemed fairly to overwhelm us; and while our sobs filled the little room, Mr. Ellsler rose and laid two playbooks on the table. Then, while standing there, staring into space, I heard his far, faint voice saying: “So great—so good a man destroyed, and by the hand of that unhappy boy! my God! my God!” He wiped his brow again and slowly left the house, apparently unconscious of our presence.
“My heart feels as if it was cramped in a vise,” confided another actress, Charlotte Cushman, upon hearing the news.
The shock, of course, was even more devastating for those women romantically involved with Booth. Lucy Hale, the actor’s fiancée, was all but destroyed emotionally by the news. And Booth’s mistress, Ella Turner, a “rather pretty, light-haired, little woman,” closed the door in her Washington room, stared at her lover’s photo one last time, then tried to kill herself with chloroform. When she was discovered a short time later, doctors were quickly called in and managed to save her. As the unhappy young woman came to, however, she was far from grateful for what the physicians had done.
Another woman in Washington desperately prayed for the deliverance of death, but, as with Ella, her fondest hope was not to be.
“Not there! Oh, not there!” insisted Mary Lincoln as doctors and friends searched for a suitable room in the White House where she might lie. Every chamber, it seemed, had a painful, haunting memory of her dead husband. Finally, a little-used room was located, and the former first lady was at last eased onto a bed. For the tormented woman, there would be no rest. She groaned loudly one moment and shrieked hysterically the next, and there was little anyone could do to console her. Although Mary Jane Welles, wife of the navy secretary, and Elizabeth Dixon were some comfort throughout the tortuous night, the widow repeatedly asked for her mulatto seamstress, Lizzie Keckley. When the woman was finally located later in the morning, she was swiftly driven to the White House.
I was quickly shown to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, and on entering, saw Mrs. L. tossing uneasily about upon a bed. The room was darkened, and the only person in it besides the widow of the President was Mrs. Secretary Welles.
“Why did you not come to me last night, Elizabeth—I sent for you?” Mrs. Lincoln asked in a low whisper.
“I did try to come to you, but I could not find you,” I answered, as I laid my hand upon her hot brow.
Shortly after entering the room on Saturday morning, Mrs. Welles excused herself, as she said she must go to her own family, and I was left alone with Mrs. Lincoln. She was nearly exhausted with grief, and when she became a little quiet, I asked and received permission to go into the Guest’s Room [across the hall] where the body of the President lay in state. . . . When I entered the room, the members of the Cabinet and many distinguished officers of the army were grouped around the body of their fallen chief. They made room for me, and, approaching the body, I lifted the white cloth from the white face of the man that I had worshipped as an idol. . . . I gazed long at the face, and turned away with tears in my eyes and a choking sensation in my throat.
Soon after Lizzie left the room, an autopsy began on the dead president. Dr. Edward Curtis:
Seated around the room were several general officers and some civilians, silent or conversing in whispers, and to one side, stretched upon a rough frame work of boards and covered only with sheets and towels, lay—cold and immovable—what but a few hours before was the soul of a great nation. The Surgeon General was walking up and down the room when I arrived and detailed me the history of the case. He said that the President showed most wonderful tenacity of life, and, had not his wound been necessarily mortal, might have survived an injury to which most men would succumb.
“His eyes were both very much protruded—the right one most—and very black and puffy underneath,” observed friend Orville Browning.
During the examination, a messenger from Mary Lincoln entered the room requesting a lock of hair. When the strand had been snipped, the servant left and the procedure continued. Edward Curtis:
Dr. [J. J.] Woodward and I proceeded to open the head and remove the brain down to the track of the ball. The latter entered a little to the left of the median line at the back of the head, had passed almost directly forwards through the center of the brain and lodged. Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the entire brain, when, as I was lifting the latter from the cavity of the skull, suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath.
“There it lay upon the white china,” thought Dr. Curtis as he stared at the bullet, “a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger— dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history.”
One of those mighty changes spoken of was taking place in a quiet ceremony at the Kirkwood House. At 11 a.m., Chief Justice Salmon Chase administered the oath of office to Andrew Johnson. Sharing the room were several cabinet members and senators. As he looked into the face of the soon-to-be president, a face “full of sorrow & anxiety,” Chase was struck by the sudden change of fortunes.
How strange that seemed to me! I could not realize it. Just six weeks before . . . I administered to [Lincoln] the oath of office for the second term; & now I was to administer the same oath to his successor. The duty was performed with a heart as sad, as it had been joyous before. It all went with my lips as I said to Mr. Johns[on] “You are President; may God support, guide & bless you in your arduous duties.
“The duties of the office are mine; I will perform them—the consequences are with God,” said the new president simply. “Gentlemen, I shall lean upon you; I feel that I shall need your support.”
Because of his drunken display in March at Lincoln’s second inauguration and the tragic circumstances he was now thrust into, Johnson was eyed nervously by all. Most in the room were greatly relieved.
“All I have seen of him gives me the greatest hopes. His bearing is modest, firm & manly,” said Chief Justice Chase. “So in darkness there is light.”
Unlike Chase, others present were not entirely free of apprehensions.
Had Mary Lincoln known of events at the Kirkwood, it would have added to an already crushing load. Despising the man from the depth of her heart for embarrassing her and her husband at the second inaugural, Mary’s bruised and battered mind was now convinced that Johnson had a hidden hand in the murder. When Lizzie Keckley finally returned to the former first lady’s room, she found the woman entering a new cycle of sadness:
Robert was bending over his mother with tender affection and little Tad was crouched at the foot of the bed with a world of agony in his young face. I shall never forget the scene—the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions, the wild, tempestuous outbursts of grief from the soul. I bathed Mrs. Lincoln’s head with cold water, and soothed the terrible tornado as best I could. Tad’s grief at his father’s death was as great as the grief of his mother, but her terrible outbursts awed the boy into silence. Sometimes he would throw his arms around her neck, and exclaim, between his broken sobs, “Don’t cry so, Mamma! Don’t cry, or you will make me cry, too! You will break my heart.” . . . Every room in the White House was darkened, and every one spoke in subdued tones, and moved about with muffled tread.
One of those leaving quietly, glad to escape the White House horror, was Gideon Welles. As the secretary was descending the stairs, Tad Lincoln ran screaming after him. “Oh, Mr. Welles, who killed my father?” cried the boy. Outside, others, just as confused, were asking the same question.
“On the Avenue in front of the White House were several hundred colored people, mostly women and children, weeping and wailing their loss,” noted Welles. “This crowd did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold, wet day; they seemed not to know what was to be their fate since their great benefactor was dead, and their hopeless grief affected me more than almost anything else.
For Mary Lincoln, Lizzie Keckley, Gideon Welles, and countless others, the night of April 15 was an uneasy, restless, haunted night. “I feel like a frightened child,” shuddered Julia Shepard, who was at Ford’s on the fateful evening. “I wish I could go home and have a good cry. I can’t bear to be alone. . . . Sleeping or waking, that terrible scene is before me.”
David Dorn was also tossing and turning his night away. In the audience that evening, the crippled soldier cursed the crutches and missing leg he had lost in battle and pondered what might have been. “I could have caught Booth when he started to fall on the stage,” Dorn mused. “But there I was, helpless. All I could do was cry.”
Of all those tormented souls, none suffered more than Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris. Again and again the shattered young couple replayed in their minds the last moments in the box—how promising their future appeared to be, and how happy and affectionate the Lincolns seemed.
“What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Mary had said playfully to her husband.
“She won’t think any thing about it,” the president had smiled.
These thoughts, that moment, marked the end of the old life, as Clara and Henry both knew; gone forever were happiness and hope when the shadow silently entered the box. Major Rathbone:
I heard the report of a pistol from behind me, and on looking around saw dimly through the smoke the form of a man between the President and the door. I heard him shriek out some such word as “Freedom.” He uttered it in such an excited tone that it was difficult for me to understand what he said. I immediately sprang towards him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and at the same time made a violent thrust at me with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up and received a deep wound on my left arm. The man sprang towards the front of the box. I rushed after him but only succeeded in catching his clothes as he leaped over the railing of the box. I instantly cried out, “Stop that man!”
Before anyone could react, or even think, the shadowy figure had disappeared with “astonishing” speed. Through the swirl of smoke, Clara remembered seeing a startled and confused Mrs. Lincoln standing and looking over the balustrade, fearing that her husband had fallen to the stage. For what seemed an eternity, time in the box was frozen. And then, through the smoke and flowing blood, the silence was shattered by that piercing shriek. For Clara, Henry, and the others who heard that terrible scream, the sound marked an end of lives that could never, ever be recovered.
On New York Avenue in Washington, the Presbyterian church that Lincoln had attended was quickly packed, and hundreds were forced to listen from outside. The space where the first family normally sat was empty now, draped in black.Unlike the day before, Sunday, April 16, 1865, broke bright and beautiful over the land. From Maine to Missouri, the dark clouds and rain that had seemingly engulfed the world gave way to warmth and sunshine. All the same, in the hearts and minds of millions, no amount of blue sky or green grass could erase the deep gloom of “Black Easter.” Across the nation, as if fleeing some great natural calamity, Americans crowded into churches until they could hold no more. In the president’s hometown of Springfield, the places of worship were filled to overflowing, and many pressed close to the doors and windows to hear.
“I sat . . . directly behind the vacant pew of the President,” General Lewis Parsons wrote to his mother. “The remarks and prayers of Dr. G[urley] were impressive and solemn—but nothing so solemn to me as the recollection of seeing Mr. Lincoln in the same now vacant seat when I last attended that church—His greeting then was so kind and he so full of life.”
The sense of loss and sadness at Lincoln’s church and thousands more throughout the land ran doubly deep, as Americans had not been given the time to say goodbye and thank the president for his accomplishments. Through four years of terrible strain and stress, Lincoln had visibly passed from youth to old age. Reviled and ridiculed by his enemies, dismissed and denounced even by many of his friends, the simple man with the common roots had succeeded when most felt he would fail. The goal was reached. The nation, one nation, would survive. But he who had made it possible did not live to enjoy the fruit of his labor, and those who would reap the reward now had no opportunity to show their love and appreciation.
“Just in the hour when the crowning triumph of his life awaited him,” said a sad Springfield editor, “the assassin’s hand at once puts a rude period to his life and to his hopes.”
In a world of inequity, Lincoln’s sudden death seemed the most unfair blow of all. Because they had not had the chance to honor him in life, many sad and sincere individuals now rushed to honor him in death. “We knew not how much we loved him until he was gone,” one clergyman tearfully admitted.
Eulogized a California journalist:
The manner of his death adds nothing to his merit, but it gives a peculiar brilliancy to his fate, and throws a halo over his memory. . . . Hot blood called him slow, and cold blood called him hot. . . . Those who would outrun the age called him too slow—those who would lag behind called him too fast; but with his steps a people kept pace.
Understandably, from this heart-wrenching sadness and this desperate need to suddenly extol and exalt the slain president, deification was the next and easiest step. Explained one Washingtonian:
He who had for years been derided by tongue and pen as a “clown,” a “gorilla,” and a “negro lover” was now transfigured and became immortal. People could not do enough to show their love for him and the appreciation of his memory. Booth had turned the execration and hatred of many, even of Lincoln’s own party, who had been his bitterest political enemies, into the most profound reverence.
Many compared Lincoln to the great American icon, George Washington; blacks considered him a modern-day Moses; not a few of both colors likened the slain president to Jesus Christ. Coming as the assassination did on Good Friday, many, especially on Easter Sunday, were quick to note the parallel. “Yes,” assured a Hartford pastor, “it was meet that the martyrdom should occur on Good Friday. . . . Jesus Christ died for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”
The Reverend Warren Cudworth of Boston took the elevation of Lincoln to its Christ-like conclusion when he said, “[C]ould our President have spoken after he was shot, he would have forgiven the cowardly perpetrator of this inhuman act, and rounded the parallel with a final and complete imitation of our Lord’s example.”
Some clergymen felt that the great calamity had been brought on by the nation itself—that the bacchanalian victory celebration during the days preceding Holy Week was sacrilegious, or, as one of the devout expressed it, the assassination was “the chastising rod of Providence.” Most ministers did not accept this argument. The attacks upon Lincoln and Seward were not proof of God’s wrath, these men argued; on the contrary, the tragedy was the work of Satan. Only hearts “steeped in the venom of hell,” raged an Albany preacher, could commit such acts.
Reasoned Sarah Hill of Norristown, Pennsylvania:
God has permitted the thing to be [so that] the hearts of all loyal people may be filled with hatred for treason . . . and that in avenging the blood of the Martyred Lincoln [they will] root up even the smallest fibre of treason from the soil. . . . [T]he descendants of traitors and traitor sympathizers are to be shunned as a race accursed for all time to come, as were the Jews who had the blood of the Savior on their hands.
With such angry words issuing from respected Christians and “men of God,” it is small wonder that the already excited public was goaded into further madness. Even while preachers throughout the North were pounding their pulpits for revenge, mobs continued the violent purge. Nowhere was this more evident than in the nation’s capital.
Because the whereabouts of the assassins and the extent of the conspiracy were still nebulous, Washington in effect had become a closed city, with all roads picketed and no one allowed to come and go. With the city secure, the hunt for suspects was simplified. One report stated that officials were going to search every room in every building of the capital to flush out the culprits. Anyone associated with Booth was, of course, under immediate suspicion. Hundreds were questioned about the popular young actor, and scores were tossed into the Old Capitol Prison. After her recovery, Booth’s paramour, Ella Turner, was arrested, as was everyone else in the home, “from the mistress to the cook.” Actors, and anyone associated with the stage, were rounded up and examined closely. A hapless Kansan who somehow blundered into town was arrested and roughly treated because he resembled the famous thespian.
Some persistent rumors hinted that the assassin was still at large in the city disguised as a female. As a result, all men dressed as women were arrested; four such suspects were plucked from the streets of Georgetown alone. Another man caught in skirts was attacked by a brick-throwing mob when it was rumored that he was the assailant of Secretary Seward.
Prostitutes were also jailed. Many, including a black woman, were arrested for “frisking” over Lincoln’s death. One strumpet shouted with glee that Booth “deserves a crown.” Under the assumption that they were celebrating, common drunks and drug addicts were taken away as well. Even halfwits and gibbering idiots were watched closely.
Self-appointed vigilantes, or “street rangers,” also scoured the city. Homeowners who had not illuminated during the victory celebrations and now displayed no symbols of mourning were ordered to do so within fifteen minutes or face the consequences. Likewise, those who failed to don black or dress plainly were viewed suspiciously as Southern sympathizers when they appeared in gay colors. Well-intentioned men who had urged restraint during the riots of Friday and Saturday were now pointed out and hurled into the Old Capitol Prison. In such a climate of fear and suspicion, even a smile or a jest could be construed as seditious and summon the wrath of a mob or the federal government.
Old Capitol Prison, Washington DC
“No man could utter a word not of grief without proclaiming himself a partisan of the assassin,” recorded one observer in the prison-like city. “Anybody and everybody was arrested on sight, if they showed the least suspicious sign,” another witness wrote.
Many men were reportedly beaten and killed before they reached prison. Some victims were found floating in the Potomac. Once ubiquitous, paroled soldiers in Confederate uniforms now wisely sought hiding places. Those who showed themselves faced almost certain violence. When a rebel general and two aides were led through the streets Sunday by federal guards, a mob of several thousand followed close behind, chanting “Hang them up! Hang them!!” Hustling the prisoners into the provost marshal’s office, troops tried to quell the riot, to no effect. Fearing that the doors would soon be forced, the men were quickly ushered out the back and ensconced in Old Capitol. Later, a larger group of prisoners were led along the back streets of the city. Word soon spread, and again a rock- and brick-throwing rabble attacked. When the guards themselves were hit, they halted and leveled their muskets as if to fire. As soon as the column tried to move, again the rioters pressed forward. One of the rebel prisoners describes the scene:
An angry and mongrel crowd, composed mostly of negroes and bummers, was gathering around us, uttering all kinds of threats. . . . [W]e were everywhere greeted with yells, etc., of “damned assassins,” “kill them,” etc. Some officer in our party seeing the situation of himself and us all, told the sergeant of the guard that “we” (the Confederate) prisoners, did not propose to stand there and be mobbed, and that if he and his guard could not protect us, we would be forced to take their muskets and protect ourselves. . . . To the Confederate officer’s request or demand, the negro sergeant replied, “Stand back dar white man. I’se gwine to pertect you.” Fortunately, before the mob could find a leader, the authorities sent down some companies . . . who quickly and without any ceremony dispersed the mob.
Not only were heavy reinforcements placed in and around Old Capitol, but military hospitals were patrolled to prevent the savage mobs from dragging out and murdering the Confederate wounded.
Although some Americans, such as New York editor, Horace Greeley, were aghast at the Jacobin spirit scourging the North, most were not. Indeed, many were elated at this settling of accounts with traitors and “home-grown rebels” in the rear. While Northern mobs were dealing out “justice” with a bloody hand, no one in the victorious Union forgot where the real roots of trouble lay. In many ways, the death of Lincoln sealed the final awful fate of the defeated Confederacy. “With malice toward none, with charity for all” died at Ford’s Theater.
“[T]he South must be literally swept with the sword, all the fiends ought to be driven out or hanged,” argued one leading radical to Senator Charles Sumner. On this account most Northerners, high and low, generally agreed. The South and slavery had killed Abraham Lincoln, and now the South and slavery would pay.
Like those in the North, most men and women in the South were stunned by the news. Unlike Northerners, however, most of those in Dixie were elated by the sudden turn of events. In fact, many Confederates felt the report was merely another false rumor stirred to keep their morale up. After four years of bloody persecution, after the deaths of husbands, fathers, and sons, most thought the news of Lincoln’s death simply too good to be true. When the rumors became fact, a majority of Southerners were overjoyed.
With much of the South’s infrastructure smashed by war, communications throughout the region were slowed to a crawl. News of Lincoln’s death took days, even weeks, to reach many in the fast-shrinking Confederacy. As a rule, federal-held territory along waterways was first to hear. In Virginia, a steamer on the James River spread the word to both shores by displaying a huge placard on an upper deck which read: “President Lincoln Assassinated!” On the Mississippi, with its whistle screaming and the unmistakable black draped from its decks, the Sultana carried the grim news from Kentucky to Louisiana. For the most part, though, the same news that had raced across the North with the lightning speed of the telegraph now crept through the devastated South on the slow, weary footfalls of returning rebel soldiers.
“Lincoln, Lincoln the oppressor, is dead! actually dead!” Catherine Edmondston of North Carolina excitedly jotted in her journal.
“Could there have been a fitter death for such a man?” echoed Emma LeConte of Columbia, South Carolina.
Our spirits had been so low that the least good news elevated them wonderfully and this was so utterly unlooked-for, took us so completely by surprise. I actually flew home and for the first time in oh, so long, I was trembling and my heart beating with excitement. I stopped in at Aunt Josie’s to talk it over. As soon as I reached the head of the stairs, they all cried, “What do you think of the news?” “Isn’t it splendid,” etc. We were all in a tremor of excitement. . . . The man we hated has met his proper fate.
Often startled by the intensity of their hatred, most Southern women nevertheless felt in their hearts that Lincoln’s death was the work of an avenging angel. Explained a Virginian:
We could not be expected to grieve . . . for Mr. Lincoln, whom we had seen only in the position of an implacable foe at the head of a power invading and devastating our land. . . . I remember how one poor woman took the news. She was half-crazed by her losses and troubles; one son had been killed in battle, another had died in prison, of another she could not hear if he were living or dead; her house had been burned; her young daughter, turned out with her in the night, had died of fright and exposure. She ran in, crying: “Lincoln has been killed! Thank God!”
I’m not glad. But, somehow, I can’t be sorry. I believe it was the vengeance of the Lord.
“We were desperate and vindictive, and whosoever denies it forgets or is false,” one man candidly admitted.
Intensifying Southern satisfaction was the knowledge that federal officers had received orders to murder Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his entire cabinet during an aborted cavalry raid on Richmond in 1864. Most of the South felt that even if Lincoln had not signed the death papers, he had countenanced it in principle. Hence, his demise at the hand of an assassin seemed especially appropriate.
In those areas of the former Confederacy occupied by federal troops, much of the celebration was understandably furtive, confined largely to parlors and diaries. In regions still free of Yankee rule, emotions ran wild.
“Abe Lincoln . . . the political mountebank and professional joker, whom nature intended for the ring of a circus . . . has fallen,” a Selma, Alabama, editor told his readers. “His career was as short as it was bloody and infamous.”
Upon receiving the news at a store in Georgia, everyone hurrahed and tossed their hats in the air. In Kentucky, William Quantrill’s guerrillas, still active and full of fight, sent up a cheer, then galloped their horses to a nearby still house, where they celebrated “for a day or two.” Others throughout the hard-pressed Confederacy tied hemp on their door knobs in mock mourning. Many appreciative rebels were mad to learn more of their hero and obtain his photograph. “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth, who has rid the world of a tyrant and made himself famous for generations,” cheered one woman.
In the Trans-Mississippi Department, Texans were even more demonstrative. “It is certainly a matter of congratulation that Lincoln is dead,” cheered a Marshall editor, “because the world is happily rid of a monster that disgraced the form of humanity.” On the Rio Grande, several hundred rebels in Matamoras toasted Lincoln’s demise with champagne and beer, then fashioned a grave from sand and scrawled on a head-board: “To the memory of the damned Ape Lincoln.”
Increasingly though, the jubilation over Lincoln’s death was crowded out by visions of the future. With almost certain defeat at hand, occupation could not be far behind—occupation by a wrathful enemy thirsting to avenge its fallen leader. For those joyous only a moment before, the thought was sobering indeed.
Eliza Andrews was sitting on a train at a Georgia depot when the word from Washington arrived. “Some fools laughed and applauded,” the young woman recorded, “but wise people looked grave and held their peace. It is a terrible blow to the South, for it places that vulgar renegade, Andy Johnson, in power, and will give the Yankees an excuse for charging us with a crime which was in reality only the deed of an irresponsible madman.”
As Eliza noted, it was now that many Confederates came to the grim realization that the vindictive “drunken ass,” Andrew Johnson, had replaced the much more charitable, much more conciliatory Abraham Lincoln. It was also now that many Southerners began distancing themselves from their true emotions.
“We do not believe there is one intelligent citizen in Hancock County who does not deeply denounce his murder and sincerely mourn his loss,” insisted one Kentuckian with a straight face. From Lexington, another man announced that “every countenance was sad—even the Secessionists lamented the sad event.”
Though greatly exaggerated, there were indeed some Southerners who genuinely mourned Lincoln’s loss. Blacks, both free and slave, felt the president’s death as deeply as any. Many were uncertain of their fate now that Father Abraham was gone. “Uncle Sam is dead; have I got to go back to massa?” a little black boy asked a white lady.
“Thousands of negroes were wringing their hands and in indescribable wailings were giving expression to their great grief,” wrote a witness in Virginia. “[N]o one could doubt the genuiness [or] the depth of grief.”
Even white Southerners—Unionists in the border states, disgruntled Confederates in the mountains—were truly saddened by the death of a man who had risen from nothing to greatness. “[O]ld Abe with all his apeishness was a kindhearted man disposed to treat us generously and mercifully,” one North Carolinian confided.
Although a majority of rebels could not force themselves to write or utter such sentiments even for self-preservation, the fear of prying eyes and certain retribution made many circumspect, even in journal entries. “Heard that Lincoln had been assassinated,” scratched one secretive Virginia diarist on April 20. “Cool in the morning, pleasant day.” And whatever joy Mary Ford of Georgetown, Kentucky, may have felt when word arrived, little was evident in her journal entry: “Lincoln & Seward were both massacred at the theater last night. Dr. here after tea—rainy nearly all day—cleared off cooler.”
While the cryptic indifference of average Southern whites said much while saying little, the true consequences of Lincoln’s murder were clearly understood by the handful of Confederate leaders. “We should have regarded Mr. Lincoln’s death as a calamity, even if it had come about by natural means,” wrote George Cary Eggleston, “[but] coming as it did through a crime committed in our name, it seemed doubly a disaster.”
The fugitive Confederate president Jefferson Davis first learned of the events at Ford’s Theater when he was handed an urgent telegram as he stood on the steps of a home in Charlotte, North Carolina. When the yet defiant rebel soldiers around him began to raise a cheer at the unexpected glad tidings, the somber statesman raised his hands. “It is sad news,” muttered Davis. “I certainly had no special regard for Mr. Lincoln, but there are a great many men whose end I would much rather have heard than his. I fear it will be disastrous to our people, and I regret it deeply.”
Another Confederate leader who had real cause to rue events in Washington was Joseph Johnston. Receiving the startling news during surrender negotiations with Major General William T. Sherman near Raleigh, North Carolina, Johnston visibly reddened, broke into a cold sweat, then denounced the murder as a “disgrace to the age.” While Sherman knew that neither Johnston nor his ragged army had a hand in the assassination, the Union general also realized what the reaction of his own men would be when they heard the news. Prudently opting to withhold the information as long as possible, Sherman was determined to prevent death and destruction when the word became official. By the morning of April 18, the news could no longer be held back.
Records Lieutenant John Janicke of the 4th Minnesota Infantry:
[W]hile kneeling on the greensward around the breakfast dishes a newsboy came running into camp with a lot of Raleigh newspapers, shouting, “All about the assassination! President Lincoln assassinated! . . . “ We drop knives and forks and rise, grief-stricken, and in solemn silence leave our breakfast. Lieutenant Dooley is standing behind an oak tree, the tears falling from his eyes. Before I get through reading I am overcome with painful emotion.
“[A] grapeshot through the heart would not have struck me more dumb,” echoed a stunned comrade.
Union soldiers elsewhere throughout the occupied South were no less shaken. Charles Deamude heard the “lamentable nuse” while his unit was in Cleveland, Tennessee. “I could not believe it all though it had been con firmed by fore telegrams,” the soldier wrote his father. “I thaught it was a camp rhumer.”
In Morganza, Louisiana, Major Charles Hawes and his hungry men were waiting for mess when the Sultana, that “dark angel of misfortune,” hove to clad in black. “[N]ot one of us could take our seats at the table,” the officer admitted upon hearing the ill tidings. “We all felt too deeply.”
“Regiments were seen to weep—not a single man, here and there—but whole regiments,” reported a correspondent in Mobile.
As with their civilian counterparts, after the soldiers’ shock and sadness had passed, rage rushed in. As Sherman had rightly feared, once his men had been aroused, revenge on anyone at hand would be the response. “The army is crazy for vengeance,” admitted an Illinois soldier. When thousands of inflamed troops, bent on murder and mayhem, marched on Raleigh, only the superhuman efforts of Sherman’s lieutenant, General John Logan (right), and his threat to sweep the mutineers with grape and canister prevented the destruction of the North Carolina capital and a wholesale massacre.
Not every Yankee commander was as conscientious as Sherman and Logan. In northern Alabama, Brig. Gen. R. S. Granger ordered the summary execution of anyone “who in any manner” found favor with the assassination. And elsewhere throughout the occupied South, the emotions of Union soldiers were fully as explosive as they had been in North Carolina. “I say hang every one of them from Jeff Davis down,” Lieutenant Holiday Ames wrote to his wife in Ohio. “I would be in favour of raising the black flag and not give one of them any quarters.”
Added to the average soldier’s genuine sense of sorrow and fury at the deed was the understandable outrage that the war might be lengthened as a consequence. Such was the intense anger of Lieutenant Ames, however, that more war was actually welcomed. “I feel now like staying in the army three years more and fighting for reveng, yes fighting until every Cursed Rebble is exterminated,” wrote the grim officer in his diary.
When the “offle News” reached Hoosier Ivan Barr in Mississippi, his bloodlust was almost boundless. “If we had Old Jeff and his Cabanet hear [we] could cut them in mints meat[.] I could cut there heart out with my knife and lick the Blud of with my mouth. . . . I would like to get a shot at Some of them Copperheads that is rejoicing there at home[.] I could kill one of them as easy as a Hog.”
Unfortunately, in countless instances throughout the South, the bloody fantasies of many soldiers were more than fulfilled. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, paroled Confederate officers were chased through the town by howling Yankee soldiers. Federal troops, muskets in hand, roamed the deserted streets of Memphis, anxious to slay any and all Southerners encountered. In Goldsboro, North Carolina, a citizen was shot dead by an angry Union soldier. Others were reportedly killed in Kentucky. Perhaps as many as nine men were murdered in New Orleans alone, some for exhibiting mere “indifference” to Lincoln’s death.
At the numerous prison camps in the North, helpless captives were especially vulnerable. “I thought we would all be shot,” remembered a rebel at Hart’s Island in New York. “We were not allowed to collect in groups and the guard was to shoot if we were seen talking together.”
South of Philadelphia, at Fort Delaware, artillery was trained on the prisoners with orders to fire if any rejoicing was observed. Understandably, far from celebrating the news, the starving, frightened inmates were cowed into silence. To forestall an indiscriminate massacre, twenty-two thousand prisoners at Point Lookout in Maryland passed a resolution condemning the assassination. Richard Ewell, John Marmaduke, and other general officers confined at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor did likewise. Similarly, with so many murderous eyes about, many prisoners, like their civilian counterparts, were extremely circumspect in their diary entries and letters to loved ones. “I am very anxious for the Assassin to be captured, and the case investigated,” one rebel prisoner at Johnson’s Island, Ohio insisted in a letter to his brother. “I am sure, the Government I have been fighting under, for 4 years, would not be guilty of such an outrage, it was a cold, bloody murder, and can never be countenanced by any Southern man.”
Despite precautions such as these, there was the widespread fear that general slaughter of Confederate inmates would occur at Castle Thunder, Belle Isle, and Libby prisons in Richmond. In the military hospital at nearby City Point, wounded Yankees attacked an injured rebel for a reported anti-Lincoln comment. At Elmira, New York, a Confederate was hung up by his thumbs until he fainted for cheering Lincoln’s death. After a similar comment, another man at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas died from the same punishment.
Nowhere in the South was the violence greater than at Nashville. Emotions were so volatile and discipline so lax that for all practical purposes, rioting soldiers ruled the streets. Soon after word from Ford’s Theater reached the Tennessee capital, one man on Church Street was heard to say that he was “glad the damned abolition son of a bitch was dead; he ought to have died long ago!”
“Before the words had fairly left his lips,” said a bystander, “a soldier shot him through the heart, and plunging his bayonet into the falling body, pinned him to the ground!” Not only was the murderer allowed to go free after the deed, but an approving witness offered him a one hundred dollar reward. Another man, a federal captain, was overheard stating that Lincoln was the cause of the war. Soldiers nearby immediately jumped the officer, beat him savagely, then cut the bars and buttons from the victim’s coat. Numerous others in Nashville were treated like the two men above. “Every man that rejoiced over the news was doomed to death on the spot,” Sergeant Hamlin Coe recorded. “Some were shot, others bayoneted, others mauled to death.”
At night, rampaging soldiers swarmed through Nashville’s streets beating and killing suspected Confederates and destroying their homes. Not satisfied with the damage already done, the rioters issued orders the following day directing that all houses and businesses in the city must display symbols of mourning—or face the consequences.
Elsewhere throughout the South the bloody purge and enforced mourning continued. Because most Southern women were already clad in “widow’s weeds” and their dwellings were draped in black, the color was an all too common sight. Nevertheless, to Sarah Morgan, nothing seemed more revolting than strongly secessionist New Orleans darkening itself further for the Yankee president. “[T]he more thankful they are for Lincoln’s death, the more profusely the houses are decked with the emblems of woe,” said the cynical young woman.
Noted one Union soldier on his march through rural Tennessee:
evry thing ever in this Rebelious country is draped in mourning[.] Dwellings that their inmates are nown to be rebbles are draped in mourning[.] all along our ruut from Blue Springs over 300 mills we could see on the farm houses near and far the black crape swing.
When a large number of people were arrested and thrown into prison for failure to festoon their homes in black, the remaining residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi, quickly took their cue. At a meeting of citizens, it was decided not only to continue the mourning period for a full month, but also to solicit donations for a monument to Lincoln.
Downriver at Natchez, Annie Harper’s family were fired upon and threatened with arrest for simply burning too many lights in their home. The Harpers were also warned about playing music during the mourning period. In Alabama, a home where young people were seen talking and laughing was searched and threatened with razing.
For many civilians in the occupied South, it was doubly mortifying to have been forced by federal bayonets to illuminate and celebrate their own defeat when Lee surrendered, then shroud their homes in mourning when their conqueror was killed. To save their lives and property, most in the defeated nation would understandably yield to force. For a very few, though, there was no compromise. Records the friend of one Southern woman:
Every house was ordered to be draped in black, and where the rebel inmates refused, it was done for them. . . . A squad of Northern boys organized themselves into an inspection committee and went from street to street to see that no house was left undraped. When I suggested to Mrs. Stuart that she had better hang out something black and save trouble, she turned upon me and exclaimed passionately: “I’d rather die first. . . .”
The committee . . . came down the street upon which Mrs. Stuart lived, and seeing the house undraped, halted before it. There was a dead silence for a few moments that was more ominous than curses would have been. The hoarse cries of “rebel sympathizers” broke from the crowd. The ringleader . . . stalked forward and pushed open the door without ceremony and demanded to know why the house was not draped. I sprang forward and stood between him and Mrs. Stuart and tried to explain to him that my husband had gone down the street to get us some black, and that as soon as it came I would hang it out. “Yes; but she must hang it up,” he cried, pointing threateningly at Mrs. Stuart. “Every damned rebel must this day kiss the dust for this dastardly act. She must do it herself. . . . It must be something of her own, too.”
“What, I show a sign of mourning for Abraham Lincoln—I, who but for him would not be husbandless and childless today!” came from Mrs. Stuart’s lips.
“Well, now, we’ll see about that,” he replied. “Come, boys,” he called to the squad without, “some of you hold this she-devil while the rest of us search her house for something black.”
The front room, dining hall and kitchen downstairs and my bedroom upstairs yielded nothing, but when they entered Mrs. Stuart’s private room, just back of mine, I knew from the shouts of triumph that they had found something; but I was hardly prepared for the sight when a few minutes later they came rushing down the stairs waving with frantic gesticulations Mrs. Stuart’s long crape veil; the veil that she had worn as a widow for her husband . . . [and] her son.
“Here, madame, we have found just the thing,” cried the leader, “and you yourself must hang it up, right in front, too, where all may see it, or, by George, your life won’t be worth a candle!”
She stared at them for a few seconds with eyes in which hate, horror and revenge strove for mastery. Then, with a mighty effort, she shook herself free from her captors and in a strangely calm voice said: “Give it to me, I will hang it up where you wish. Only leave the room, leave the premises; go across the street; you can see me from there; and you, madame,” she said, turning to me, “you go with them. . . .”
We all crossed the street and looked anxiously at Mrs. Stuart’s front door. . . . Just then she came out on the veranda. I noticed she had changed her dress since we had come away. She was all in black—her best black; her mourning weeds. She carried a chair in one hand, while the crape veil was thrown over her shoulder and wound once about her neck. We all watched her intently. Her movements were slow and deliberate. She mounted the chair and . . . then she took the veil . . . and threw it through the opening, while at the same time she put something else through. What it was we could not tell at that distance, and then . . . she gave her chair a vigorous push with her foot and her body hung suspended in mid- air. Several seconds elapsed, in which we all stood as if frozen to the spot, staring at that dangling body across the street. Then, with a cry of horror . . . we rushed over. . . . [But] it was too late.
Under the crape veil . . . with a strong cord firmly knotted about her neck, hung all that was mortal of that once proud southern woman.
While much of the stark horror and shock had lessened somewhat in the forty-eight hours following the assassination, the suspense in Washington was perhaps even greater than on the night of the murder. Rumors were rife. Most citizens felt that the full extent of the conspiracy was being withheld from a panicky public. Some believed that not only Lincoln, but most of his cabinet and many top political and military leaders had been killed as well.
Such rumors, one observer admitted, “nobody deemed . . . impossible, or even unlikely.” Worse, many felt it was only the beginning. Several strange men, strangely dressed, were reportedly seen lurking near the home of Chief Justice Chase. Ulysses Grant, normally indifferent to personal safety during four years of bloody war, now ordered sentinels to watch his door at night. “I shall only go to the Hotel twice a day for my meals and will stay indoors of evenings,” the general promised his wife, Julia. Formerly accessible to even the humblest of visitors, President Andrew Johnson was also surrounded by a wall of soldiers. Outside his hotel, scores of sentinels stood guard on the streets and adjoining lot. Inside the building, security was stiff, with several waves of officers probing visitors about their backgrounds.
Now that he was the highest authority in the land, Andrew Johnson’s worth and reputation rose dramatically. Many tried mightily to distance the president from his drunken disaster of March 4. Some, the New York Times included, now insisted that Johnson was not drunk during the inaugural; on the contrary, he had suffered from poisoning by a would-be assassin. This theory was eagerly embraced by many.
Much like the president’s hotel, the home of William Seward was also heavily guarded. And like Johnson, the secretary of state received an unexpected boon from the attack. Because of the metal jaw brace he had worn since his carriage accident, the stab wounds, though grievous, had failed to sever the artery. Indeed, the slashing blade had inadvertently relieved the terrible inflammation and actually reduced the pain. No such luck blessed Seward’s son. With his skull fractured in two places, Frederick remained unconscious, in critical condition. The father, unable to speak, communicated his concerns by writing on a slate.
“Why doesn’t the President come to see me?” Seward silently asked well-wishers. “Where is Frederick—what is the matter with him?” The answers were always evasive. Finally, Edwin Stanton was selected to relay the terrible news. Sitting beside his friend, the secretary of war divulged all.
“Mr. Seward was so surprised and shocked,” wrote a witness, “that he raised one hand involuntarily, and groaned.”
Bearing bad news was only one of Edwin Stanton’s many tasks. Indeed, for all practical purposes, Stanton was not only secretary of war but also acting head of state. As the hours at the Petersen House illustrated, while the rest of the U.S. government was largely paralyzed, Stanton alone kept his wits and continued with almost superhuman focus and energy. Despite the very real threat to him, despite a bewildering storm of false reports—the French had captured New Orleans . . . the British were invading from Canada . . . Philadelphia was on fire—despite the panic of nearly everyone else around him, Stanton stood like a rock. Not only did the secretary personally oversee hundreds of pages of testimony given mere hours after the assassination, but he also orchestrated the manhunt and issued huge rewards for Booth and several collaborators. Additionally, had it not been for Stanton’s iron hand in the hours and days following the assassination, much of Washington might have been burned by the furious mobs as they exacted revenge on Southern sympathizers. Terrible and bloody as the riots were, the outcome would have been infinitely worse had not Stanton deployed troops with orders of “shoot to kill.”
“A mob raised then, even to destroy the houses of the fifty worst rebels in Washington, would not have been treated to blank cartridges or conciliatory speeches,” remarked a Boston reporter, “and everybody in Washington was well aware of the fact.”
After the initial crisis was passed, the secretary of war remained steadfast at his post, as if the fate of the nation rested upon his shoulders and his alone. “Many nights I worked with him until the morning dawn began to steal in at the windows,” General Henry Burnett reminisced, “and many nights I left the department at midnight or in the small hours of the morning completely worn out, and left him still there working.”
Despite his round-the-clock frenzy and his attention to a thousand details, so determined was Stanton to smoke out the conspiracy that he ordered a special performance of Our American Cousin in hopes of discovering some clue. Although this effort provided no new leads, hundreds of other items poured into the secretary’s office, including a bloody coat and a false mustache found near a cemetery. Because neither the time nor the manpower was available to cull the guilty from the innocent, Stanton ordered massive arrests. As a consequence, numerous excesses occurred.
As if their horror were not already great enough, Laura Keene, Harry Hawk, and another actor at Ford’s that night were arrested in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, despite passes that had cleared them to leave Washington. John T. Ford, owner of the fated theater, was arrested four days after the assassination and jailed. “The horror of that week is indescribable,” recalled Ford of his vermin-infested cell. When the theater owner’s wife pleaded with Stanton to release her husband, she was “brutally repulsed.” Along with their boss, most employees at the theater were also imprisoned. Edman Spangler, a simpleminded carpenter and stage-hand, was charged with complicity in the crime, even though his love of Lincoln was well known.
Already eyed suspiciously by religious zealots and termed the “devil’s work shop” where libertines and blasphemers consorted openly, the stage was an early and easy target following Booth’s magnum opus at Ford’s. “The dread word ‘theater,’” noted Clara Morris from Ohio, was suddenly enough to silence a room full of people. For reported disloyal comments, the treasurer of a New York theater was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail. A Philadelphia thespian was imprisoned for declaring that, assassin though he be, Booth had been a kind and honest man. Understandably nervous that the authorities were singling them out, fifty Philadelphia actors passed a resolution stating that all should not be judged for the act of one.
Because of Booth’s connection with virtually every American stage from Richmond to Leavenworth, theaters were closely watched. None received more attention, of course, than Ford’s. Soon after the military took control of the building, a suspicious character sporting a black mustache and red beard was seen crossing the stage. Attempts to corner the wraith-like figure proved fruitless, and the chase ended in a hopeless jumble of backdrops and scenery.
With nerves already on edge and with the taxed secretary of war breathing down their necks, detectives were quick to arrest anyone who was in the least “tainted” by Booth. Females on friendly terms with the assassin were swiftly rounded up. The actor’s private messenger boy was imprisoned. The hapless stable owner who had rented the horse Booth escaped on was hauled away.
In the madness of the moment, anyone and everyone was subject to arrest. A well-meaning man who had discovered outside of Ford’s some papers which had fallen from Lincoln’s pocket that night proudly reported his find to Stanton. With a wave of the secretary’s hand, the stunned citizen was tossed into prison. A wealthy woman whose only apparent crime was a violent temper and a proclivity to swear was locked up, as was her brother. For another luckless individual, a prominent chin, a full mustache, and a large scar under his left ear were more than enough evidence for officials to take him away. Other unsuspecting victims, quietly at home one moment, found themselves in a dark, damp cell the next, simply because a neighbor felt there was “something funny” about them. Scores, perhaps hundreds, were thrown into Washington prisons because of some personal grievance. In his fever to unravel the conspiracy, Stanton could not be troubled with details. He would arrest everyone now, then sort them out later.
Even the dead did not escape the secretary’s scrutiny. After a depressed ex-soldier killed himself while in prison, federal investigators looked into the man’s past for possible links to April 14. Another suicide victim was disinterred from a Baltimore grave, embalmed, then rushed to Washington, where the body was examined by government surgeons. Other than being “depressed and melancholy,” there seemed no connection between the corpse and the conspiracy.
Because of Stanton’s actions, within days of the assassination the prisons of Washington groaned with a harlequin assortment of suspects. “It was a rare mixture,” remembered prisoner Harry Ford, brother of the theater owner, “deserters, bounty-jumpers and prisoners of State, Governors, legislators and men of every station. . . . We were kept in close and solitary confinement.” Already in frail health, one prisoner begged a guard for food since he had not been fed in twenty-four hours. Tossing in an ear of corn, “as to a hog,” the guard growled: “Damn you! that’s good enough.” The man—whose only offense was a Democratic voting record—soon died. Asked why he was jailed and ironed, another prisoner shrugged: “I suppose because I won’t say what I don’t know.”
“There we were,” said Harry Ford, “left alone in our dungeons in dreadful uncertainty.”
With such a fine net, numerous small fry were unavoidably caught. Stanton’s broad sweep occasionally hauled in larger fish, however.
One of Booth’s known resorts was the three-story brick home on H Street owned by the widow Mary Surratt. Consequently, rather than act rashly, federal detectives placed the house under surveillance in hopes of bagging not only several conspirators, but perhaps the assassin himself. At 11 p.m. on April 17, after hours of fruitless watch, officers finally moved in.
“I come to arrest you and all your house,” Major H. W. Smith announced as he and other detectives burst into the home.
Described as a large female about forty years old, “of coarse expression . . . shabbily dressed,” Mary Surratt seemed remarkably unperturbed by the intrusion; indeed, at least one witness noticed that the woman was calm, even defiant. Her daughter, Anna, as well as two nieces, were terrified, however, and quickly burst into tears. While several agents searched the home for personal effects that the women would need in prison—”Everything inside was found in a filthy, disordered condition”—the captives were held in the parlor and forbidden to speak. When Anna began sobbing loudly, Mary firmly scolded the girl for displaying such weakness.
Just as the officials and their prisoners were ready to leave, a loud knock was heard. Drawing their pistols, several detectives went to the hall and opened the front door. Before them stood a large young man with a pickax on his shoulder. A long stocking cap covered the stranger’s head, and his boots and pants were covered in mud to the knees.
“I guess I’ve made a mistake,” said the startled visitor as he stared at the leveled weapons.
“Who are you? What do you want here at this time of night?” demanded an officer.
Explaining that he was a homeless indigent, the man stated that Mary Surratt had hired him to dig a gutter.
“So you come to do the job at 11:30 at night?” the official stared.
“No,” answered the stranger, “to see what time I should begin tomorrow morning.”
“Are you a friend of Mrs. Surratt?”
“Well, I was workin’ around the neighborhood. A poor man makin’ his livin’ with a pick. She offered me work.”
When Mary was brought out to identify the caller, she threw up her hands in horror. “Before God, I have not seen that man before,” the widow protested wildly. “I have not hired him; I don’t know anything about him!”
“How fortunate, girls, that these officers are here,” said the woman nervously; “this man might have murdered us all.”
Already suspicious of anyone who would call at that hour at a known rendezvous of Booth, the detectives forced the grimy man to wash his hands. When the dirt was removed, the officers could see for themselves that the stranger had remarkably soft hands for a laborer. Together with Mary Surratt’s family, the man was taken away.
The following day, the mysterious young man was placed in a line-up. When William Bell, the servant in Secretary Seward’s home, spotted the tall, muscular individual, he instantly walked up and pointed: “I know you, you are the man.”
In another part of the city, Stanton’s sleuths had scored one more success. Records a witness:
When we entered the home of Mrs. Herold, we found that good lady greatly disturbed and in tears. There was a kind-hearted man sitting near her who was endeavoring to console her, and who did everything he could to assuage her grief. Upon questioning her, it was learned that her son [David] had not been at home since the evening of the preceding day. This looked very suspicious, and confirmed our impressions that we were on the track of one of the guilty parties.
Although several strong suspects were arrested and jailed, and although the trail of others was getting warmer, the lead actor of the drama remained at large. Despite shooting the president of the United States in a theater filled with his friends and admirers, in a city that was a fortress, in a nation with the largest army in the world, John Wilkes Booth had vanished with hardly a trace. Ironically, the failure to track down and capture the assassin was a result not of too little help, but of too much; a case not of too few eyes and ears, but of too many.
Shocked, stunned, saddened by the daring deed at Ford’s Theater, millions of ordinary citizens willingly and eagerly joined the largest manhunt in American history. “Let each man resolve himself into a special detective policeman,” urged the New York Herald, “sparing no vigilance or labor until these detested wretches are hunted down and secured for justice. It is a duty which every man owes to his conscience and his country.” Well-intentioned as such appeals were, the result was to hinder rather than help the pursuit. Like a great wave, wild rumors, lame reports and false leads poured into various state and federal agencies, all but swamping legitimate, valuable clues.
“[H]e is in Washington secreted Beneath Ford’s Theatre,” one anonymous note revealed. “he never left it but droped through a Trap Door, & the one that road away [on] the Horse only done so to misleed justice[.]” Another writer, a “semi-wakeful dreamer or clairvoyant,” announced that Booth was hiding in a closet on the second floor of number 11, J Street. Warned the psychic: “He is heavily armed & woe to who ever tries to arrest him.”
“I’m still in your midst. I will remain in this city. God will’d that I should do it. I defy detection,” taunted another note signed “J. W. Booth, Actor and the Assassin of President Lincoln.”
Whether well-meaning cranks or deliberately misleading pranks, all reports of the assassin lurking about the city had to be considered. Some outraged citizens, like the editor of the Washington Republican, advocated “unroofing and unearthing” every house in the city to find the fugitive.
“Seek for double partitions,” the editor advised, “false walls, secret apartments [and] under cellars.”
Because Booth was a famous thespian from a world-renowned family, his face was one of the more familiar in America. Not only had tens of thousands witnessed the actor’s performances on stage, but countless shops across the land had sold his image to adoring fans. Additionally, there was no shortage of poses. Booth, noted a newsman, “has had himself daguerreotyped and photographed oftener than he has said his prayers.” Hence, within a very short time, journalists and members of law enforcement, as well as owners of railroad, stage, and steamboat lines, had an accurate likeness of the murderer. And even those who had never viewed the actor’s countenance learned from newspaper reports of his dark hair, pale face, and stunning good looks. In theory, the search should have been simple.
“Luckily for the majority of men,” remarked the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the number of handsome fellows is small; a fact which at present is a comfortable one to the ugly fellows who form the immense majority of mankind.”
For the minority, though, for every natty young man of medium build who was not plain, ugly, or grotesque, life following Black Friday suddenly became one trial after another. In Pennsylvania, a breathless passenger reported to authorities in Reading that he was absolutely positive he had just shaken hands with and spoken to John Wilkes Booth on the six o’clock train to Pottsville. As a “dodge,” said the shaken witness, the assassin wore mourning crape on his left arm and a Lincoln badge on his right breast. With only the above to go on, excited officials commandeered a locomotive and steamed off in pursuit. When the posse—with photo in hand and reward in mind—finally caught up with the reputed assassin, the discrepancy became abundantly clear.
“[H]e is anybody but Booth,” said one embarrassed official.
Hardly had the Pennsylvania posse cleared one “Booth” from the board when another materialized, this sighting near Lewisburg on the Susquehanna River. In hot haste, again the same men set off.
Sitting quietly in a tavern near Lewisburg, enjoying their dinner, were Jacob Haas and a friend, William Lessig. Both men had served as Union officers in the war, and Haas, a handsome young captain, had only recently received his discharge. The pleasant meal was abruptly interrupted when the two found themselves surrounded by a circle of shouting men with drawn revolvers. When a friend propitiously entered the tavern at that moment, he soon quieted the angry intruders, explaining that although the resemblance was strong, Jacob Haas was certainly not John Wilkes Booth. Philosophical even in the worst of times, Jacob Haas was not so unsettled that he couldn’t find mirth in the incident; his still-shaken companion, though, a former colonel, found nothing humorous about cocked weapons pointed at his head.
“I don’t see anything so damned funny about this,” snapped the man to his smiling friend.
Days later and miles away, the two men had an even closer call. Jacob Haas:
We were taken to Philipsburg and a great crowd soon gathered, learning that the slayer of Lincoln had been caught. Cries of “Shoot him,” “Lynch him,” were heard and I felt a cold chill when several ruffians produced coils of rope. . . . The Colonel and myself were taken before a Lt. McDougall. He told an orderly to disarm us. A revolver was lying on the table and Lessig made a grab and secured the weapon. He levelled it at the officer’s head and said, “I have served three years in the Army and will allow no man to iron me while I am alive.”. . . We were later locked in a room after Lessig returned the weapon. Some men gave us an axe to defend ourselves in the event the mob would break in. All night we stayed awake.
The next day, before a lynch mob could do its work, yet another friend of Haas fortuitously stepped upon the scene and vouched that the former officers were exactly who they said they were.
“On the following Tuesday, near Clarion,” continues Haas, “we again heard the clatter of cavalry troops and the same scene repeated itself. We were placed in a hollow square and journeyed sixteen miles to Franklin. It was a gala day when we arrived.”
By now, almost beginning to doubt who he was himself, Jacob Haas stormed into the local bank.
“Who the devil am I?” Haas demanded of a cashier. “These men say I am Booth.”
“No, Captain. I know you very well,” replied the man.
Unwilling to call off the hunt, overzealous authorities swooped up another luckless man where it had all begun, in Pottsville, simply because his middle name was “Booth.” Finally, frustrated officials were forced to admit that the Pennsylvania pursuit had been nothing more than “a wild goose chase.”
Even more unlucky than Jacob Haas was James Chapman of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The son of a sheriff, young Chapman bore such a strong resemblance to the assassin that he was arrested three times in one day. At Sheffield in the same state, in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, startled Booth look-alikes were surrounded by excited officers and hustled to jail.
“[Is] every good-looking man . . . to be in constant danger of swinging from a lamp post because Booth is reported to be a handsome fellow?” one nervous victim wondered aloud moments after being cut down by a lynch mob in Erie, Pennsylvania.
At nearby Buffalo, another suspect and his wife were arrested by police. After hours of maddening explanation and several convincing telegrams, the couple was at last allowed to continue their honeymoon. Ironically, the bridegroom was William Rathbone, a relative of the man who had tried to save Lincoln’s life at Ford’s Theater.
Even the rough frontiersmen in far-off Kansas joined the national manhunt. When a downriver packet docked at Leavenworth—a town where Booth had performed sixteen months earlier—an excited passenger jumped ashore and dashed up the landing. Locating George Hoyt, leader of the murderous Red Legs, a Unionist guerrilla band, the informant revealed that the assassin of Abraham Lincoln was on board the boat. When the suspect was finally cornered, it was noted by a local reporter that he had “a very suspicious look.” Although dressed in shabby clothes, the accused had a pale complexion and a genteel appearance. While on the voyage, offered the informant, the stranger seemed nervous and anxious to avoid everyone who came on board. After a close and potentially fatal examination, and although the accused bore a striking resemblance to Booth, the guerrilla chief finally let the man go. All agreed: The stranger was nothing more than a handsome vagabond.
“So thoroughly was the national vigilance aroused,” remarked one editor, “that no man who bore a remote resemblance to the doomed assassin could safely venture beyond the precincts of his immediate home.”
Because it was obvious that neither Booth nor anyone faintly looking like him could hope to remain at large long in a wrathful nation fully aroused, more than a few speculated that the assassin might attempt to flee disguised as a woman. As a consequence, many suspicious-looking females—and many men dressed as females—were arrested and imprisoned. One report placed the fugitive in Chicago at a “house of ill fame” where he was masquerading as a prostitute. Adding to the confusion was the great number of veiled widows clad in black. Joseph Hill was walking down a Washington sidewalk when he reportedly spotted a woman he thought he knew named Kate Robinson. Dressed in black and heavily veiled, the lady also hobbled on a crutch.
“Kate, when did you get hurt?” asked the surprised friend after crossing the street. As the woman turned to respond and Hill gained a glimpse through the veil, he received another surprise.
“Hullar,” the shocked man exclaimed, “Wilkes Booth, that’s you, is it?”
According to Hill, the mysterious black figure thereupon vanished “in an instant.”
Even though the national manhunt spread to every state east of the Mississippi, and many of those west of it, government and private detectives had a sharper focus.
“There is no place of safety for them on earth except among their friends of the still rebellious South,” sagely noted Colonel Lafayette Baker, chief of federal detectives. “Booth knows it and will try to reach them for his life depends upon it.”
As a consequence, many of the government’s early efforts were directed at Maryland, especially the lower part of the state, which was considered by many to be the most disloyal region in America. Because he felt the same way, Edwin Stanton sent waves of troops swarming over the section. The grim secretary of war also threatened to punish the area with fire and sword if it was caught concealing Booth and his cohorts.
With scores of detectives watching the crossroads night and day, with thousands of angry soldiers and civilians feverishly searching the swamps, forests, inlets, and bays, it was tantamount to suicide for any Marylander to exhibit even a trace of Southern sympathy, much less support for Booth. When soldiers swiftly surrounded the old Booth home at Bel Air, they encountered only the new tenant, a lady from Baltimore.
“John Booth is not here,” the woman indignantly informed the intruders. “But if he were, you would have found him an honored guest.”
“Madame,” came the deadly reply, “it is well for you that we have not found him here.”
Undoubtedly, many a Maryland man and woman fared not so well. Indeed, as the days passed and the fear that the murderer might miraculously escape grew, hatred intensified.
For many, simply killing Booth was not enough. “As to what should be done with the murderer when caught,” a Nevada journalist revealed after hearing comments in his community, “a thousand various tortures were named, of which roasting alive was the very mildest and least enduring.” In a letter to his mother, a St. Louis man was even more graphic: “I hope Mr. Johnson and Secretary Stanton will give him to the populace to be put to death by slow torture, or cut to pieces inch by inch.” Not only Booth, of course, but anyone involved in the murder of the beloved president could expect no mercy from an inflamed public. As desperate as millions were to catch the culprits, with every passing hour the job became more difficult. With the resources of a mighty nation thrown into the hunt for the assassin, and with the days slipping by, General Winfield Scott Hancock addressed one final appeal, to that segment of American society who felt the loss of Lincoln more keenly, perhaps, than any:
Go forth, then, and watch, and listen, and inquire, and search, and pray, by day and by night, until you shall have succeeded in dragging this monstrous and bloody criminal from his hiding place. . . . Do this, and God, whose servant has been slain, and the country which has given you freedom, will bless you for this noble act of duty.
And if any further incentive was needed, Hancock reminded the freedmen that there was also a bonus of $100,000 in reward money.
“They know that they are hunted like venomous reptiles,” announced a Massachusetts minister. “Justice will be on their track as long as they live.
Added an angry Michigan editor: “Ye slimy monsters crawl, with fear and shame, into your dark dens, and pray the rocks and mountains may hide you from the wrath of God and man. Henceforth, there will be no peace for you. . . . You are marked and doomed. Blood cries to heaven against you. Blood stains your name, your garments and your memory.”
Although much of the terrible paranoia that had swept the streets of Washington had mercifully vanished by the summer, 1865, there were still enough rumors and dark whispers to keep nerves on edge.
“It is highly probable that our political assassinations are not yet over,” hinted one reporter a full three months after Lincoln’s death.
After sending a violently threatening letter to Andrew Johnson one day, a “crazy German” was arrested on the next day as he entered the White House. The deranged man was packed off to the Government Insane Asylum. More seriously, a group of men were supposedly overheard one night detailing plans to assassinate the president when he spoke at Gettysburg on July 4th. At a given signal, the men would fire from different points in the crowd.
Because of threats such as the above—some real, some fanciful—the roundup continued. Many arrests were certainly warranted, as in the case of George Gayle of Alabama, who late in 1864 had placed an ad offering to kill Lincoln, Seward, and Johnson in exchange for one million dollars. Most suspects though, were jailed and kept on bread and water without a particle of evidence against them, save the words of a jealous neighbor or a malicious gossip.
Unlike earlier arrests, this latest wave was met by mounting opposition. With peace established and hysteria waning, such high-handed and arbitrary actions were deemed unnecessary. Many, including Horace Greeley, now urged an “immediate clearing out of the Federal bastilles.”
“We cannot doubt,” argued Greeley in his New York Tribune, “that hundreds have been caught up and caged who were innocent and loyal, and whose estates have become the prey of the perjured villains who prompted their arrest.”
“It is high time that the dungeon doors were thrown open,” agreed another editor.
Greeley and a handful of others also protested the bloody purge that took place in the Border States following the Confederate surrender. Already brutalized by years of invasion and guerrilla warfare, now further inflamed by Lincoln’s assassination, vengeance-minded loyalists from Maryland to Missouri were quick to take matters into their own hands. In Wheeling, West Virginia, Cambridge, Maryland, Dover, Delaware, and scores of other border communities, vindictive Unionists passed resolutions forbidding rebel neighbors from returning to their homes. At Hagerstown, Maryland, Confederates who had already returned were ordered out by a mob. Similarly, Southern soldiers arriving in Martinsburg, West Virginia, were attacked and beaten on the streets.
To the west in that same state, the editor of the Clarksburg newspaper menacingly warned Confederates that “Judge Lynch’s Court” would soon begin operations.
The “court” was already in session in neighboring Kentucky. Torn apart by years of partisan activity and atrocities committed by each side, the angry victors in the Bluegrass State were in no mood to split hairs over who was a regular soldier and who was not. Scores of returning rebel soldiers were simply ambushed and murdered.
“[T]hey shoot down the returned Confederate heroes like dogs or deer,” wrote one horrified woman from Perryville. “[W]ithin my knowledge & neighborhood they have killed hundreds!!”
Two such victims were Samuel Robinson and Thomas Evans. Accused of being guerrillas, the men were hauled to the fairgrounds in Lexington and hustled up to a well-worn scaffold. After hymns were sung and prayers spoken, the condemned said a few words, then bade goodbye to the world. Just as the hangman was in the act of adjusting the ropes, a horseman was seen approaching at a gallop waving a handkerchief. When the breathless rider pulled up, he blurted out that Evans had gained a reprieve. A witness continues:
Each of the culprits received the announcement unmoved and with apparent indifference. Their hands being pinioned behind them they turned back to back and took each other by the hand. They stood thus a moment in perfect silence when Evans was untied and conducted from the scaffold to the wagon in which he came which was near by. Robinson said a few words to the crowd but I was not near enough to understand what he said. The noose was then adjusted about his neck, the black cap pulled over his face[,] the word given, the prop pulled from under him and he dangled in the air.
Unfortunately, the rope was poorly adjusted, and the fall did not break Robinson’s neck. Horribly, the crowd watched for over an hour as the struggling victim slowly strangled to death.
In no state was the purge more savage and bloody than Missouri. Four years of nonstop guerrilla warfare in which scalpings, decapitations, and mutilations had become commonplace created wounds too deep and raw to be healed by someone somewhere signing a piece of paper. Returning rebel soldiers, many of whom had fought far beyond Missouri’s borders, were as often as not the innocent victims, as were their helpless families. Judge Lewis Wright and his four sons were rounded up one day by militiamen near Rolla. The men were accused of being rebels, then simply slaughtered by the roadside. Other Missouri victims were dragged from their beds at midnight by vigilantes and hanged from tree limbs.
“I fought for things I thought was right,” protested one former guerrilla. “When the war was over and I wanted to settle down they would not let me, but pursued me with a malignant hatred.”
Though the bloodshed and death was greatest in the ravaged border states, no Southern state escaped the savage sweep following Lincoln’s death. Remembered one embattled Texan:
I suffered more hardships and trials and experienced more dangers after the war had ended and peace had been declared than I had ever encountered during the four years in the field. . . . I have slept on high eminences in order that I might watch for scouring search parties who were shooting down in cold blood every man that wore the Southern uniform, and for no other reason. I have seen the horizon at night lit up with the burning houses of my friends whose only offense was that they had been soldiers in the Confederate army.
And even in the Northern states, the spirit of violence that had erupted following Lincoln’s death was still very much alive throughout the summer. “The rage for blood, now that the war is over, increases,” admitted a federal judge in Indiana five weeks after Lee’s surrender. Near Glenwood, Iowa, a mob reportedly lynched a man believed to be a Copperhead. In neighboring Illinois, a Democrat was assassinated at his front door near Madison. At Quincy in the same state, soldiers and civilians broke into the jail, dragged out a man accused of being a bushwhacker, and promptly hanged him.
When an earthquake struck the St. Louis region on the morning of June 2, the homes and shops in neighboring Alton, Illinois were rocked to their foundations. “In these startling, earthquaky, shaky times,” said an Alton editor tongue-in-cheek, “timorous, trembling traitors tread quietly on free soil.” Indeed, in such a volatile climate, not only traitors, but Democrats and any others who had not toed the party line in the past now stepped softly on what was once free soil. Unfortunately, if not actively engaged, most Northerners quietly acquiesced in the bloody purge sweeping the continent.
“Alas,” confided a horrified French immigrant to his journal, “I fear that in this country more callousness, cruelty and vindictiveness exist than in any other Christian country in the world.”