24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth

Larry Holzwarth - December 12, 2019

John Wilkes Booth was nearly as well known as the man he had just shot President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. In one of history’s most melodramatic moments, he leaped from the President’s box to the stage, brandishing a bloodied bowie knife, and exited stage right. Some reported he shouted, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants, the motto of Virginia, as well as Brutus’s words to Caesar as he stabbed him) as he made his hasty exit. Whether he did or not, it was his last performance before an audience. For what remained of his life he would be on the run, the most wanted man in America. He expected reception as a hero in the South, having killed its worst enemy. Instead, he was run to ground mercilessly by a nation bent on achieving justice.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
A Currier and Ives lithograph depicted the murder of Abraham Lincoln, April 14, 1865. Wikimedia

There was at the time no Federal police force such as the FBI. The Secret Service had yet to be created, the slain President had only hours earlier signed the bill which would allow it to be formed. There was no law making the murder of the President a federal crime, his killing was under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia’s thoroughly inept police force. The United States was on unfamiliar ground, legally speaking. The President had been murdered. His murderer was nationally famous. Where had he fled? Who had helped him escape? Was the action a plot engendered by the collapsing government of the Confederacy? Here is the story of the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators in 1865.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth was one of America’s most famous and recognizable actors in 1865. Wikimedia

1. Booth made no attempt to disguise himself when he killed the President

It began amidst a roar of laughter incited by a line uttered by the only actor on the stage of Ford’s theatre at the time, Harry Hawks. There was the bang of a gunshot, the smell of gunpowder, and a piercing scream from the President’s box. Suddenly another actor leaped to the stage, waving a large knife. Members of the audience were startled to recognize him as John Wilkes Booth, arguably the most famous actor in America at the time, one of a family of notable actors. Booth moved rapidly across the stage, past the startled Hawks, and vanished from sight. The audience dissolved into chaos.

Booth, who knew the theater well, quickly made his way backstage to a door which opened onto an alley at the rear of the building. There he expected to find Ned Spangler, with a horse to aid his escape. Spangler had returned to his post as a scene-shifter and left the horse with another stagehand. Booth mounted and sped away into the Washington night. The speed with which he made his escape denies the longstanding tale that he broke his leg when he leaped to the stage from the President’s box, supported by the fact that none of the eyewitnesses reported him limping as he fled. Nor was the banner hung from the box in which he allegedly caught his spur torn, as it undoubtedly would have been.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth new of a network of Confederate supporters in Southern Maryland. Wikimedia

2. Booth fled into Maryland and the safety of his allies

Booth rode through the streets of Washington past the Navy Yard, arriving at the bridge to Maryland just minutes after shooting the President. The bridge was closed to all but those on official business, but Booth, who gave his real name to the sentry, was allowed to pass. He vanished into the darkness, and his whereabouts would not be known, other than to those aiding him, for twelve days. Shortly after Booth was allowed to pass another rider, David Herold, arrived at the bridge. The lenient sentry allowed him to pass too. Herold met with Booth on the Maryland side of the bridge, and the two men headed towards Surratt’s Tavern, a venue with which both of them were familiar.

In Washington, the report of an attack on Secretary of State Seward was added to that of the assassination of the President. Seward was attacked in his home (he was bedridden from injuries sustained in a carriage accident, the supportive iron frame he was wearing saved his life), brutally slashed with a knife. His son and a caretaker were injured in the attack by an assailant who escaped while shouting “I’m mad”. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge, ordered the city sealed, and had the identity of the President’s assailant announced, as Lincoln lay dying in the Petersen House, across the street from the theater in which he had been shot.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth and Herold’s route through Maryland to Virginia. National Park Service

3. Booth broke his leg when his horse fell during his escape

At some point, Booth’s horse fell as he fled. Herold claimed to have witnessed the fall, so it took place on the road in Maryland, and Booth told Dr. Mudd he had injured it in the fall. At midnight, Booth and Herold arrived at Surrat’s Tavern, where they had previously arranged to pick up guns and supplies to sustain them as they made their way to Virginia. While there, Booth remained mounted when Herold went in to collect their supplies, and told John Lloyd, a tenant, that he had killed the President. The fugitives then continued riding south, until they were near Bryantown.

They stopped at the farm of a man known to Herold, Dr. Samuel Mudd. The doctor set Booth’s broken leg, and recognizing the pain riding would cause his patient, he waited until daybreak before going to Bryantown, in search of a cart or buggy for the actor. He found the town crowded with Union cavalry and learned that they were searching for the famous actor John Wilkes Booth. Mudd returned to his farm and allowed his visitors to rest until late in the day, when they departed with Booth again on horseback, hoping to find Confederate sympathizers to help him escape to Virginia and the Confederacy.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
David Herold, Booth’s accomplice as they escaped through Maryland. Library of Congress

4. Southern Maryland was a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers and agents

Maryland had been a slave state before the war, and though it did not secede and join the Confederate States, its population was divided over support of the Union. Southern Maryland, through which Booth and Herold fled, was an area which both knew well, and which contained a large number of anti-Union activists. Throughout the war Confederate agents and spies operated in the area, infiltrating Washington and sending reports of Union activity to handlers in Richmond, and to the headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia. Herold hoped to connect with sympathizers to help whisk them south to Virginia and safety.

As yet unknown to Booth and Herold was that the Secretary of War had authorized the largest reward in the nation’s history up to that time for the capture of John Wilkes Booth – $100,000 (equivalent to $1.6 million today). Booth’s conspiracy unraveled rapidly. By the morning of April 15, the day Lincoln died, Stanton was aware Booth had fled into Maryland, and the region was flooded with Federal troops. Booth, had expected a hero’s welcome after killing Lincoln, instead, he was forced to hide in a swamp, in a dense pine woods, literally gone to ground, while Herold attempted to solicit help crossing the Potomac into Virginia.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The reward for Booth’s capture put him in danger though he believed he was among friends. Wikimedia

5. Booth was aided by Southern sympathizers, despite the presence of Union troops

When Booth and Herold left Dr. Mudd’s farm, they took with them a name and location of a Confederate sympathizer, Colonel Samuel Cox. Warned by Mudd to avoid Bryantown, the pair took a circuitous route, ending up thoroughly lost. They encountered a local, who agreed to escort them to the Cox home for a fee. Cox agreed to help them, but grew suspicious of the man who guided them to his home, Oswell Swann, whose loyalties were questionable. Cox led the fugitives to a pine thicket in a nearby swamp, where they were told to remain until he had arranged safe passage across the Potomac to Virginia.

The fugitives remained in the swamp from April 16 until April 21. They were there when the government, through the War Department, announced the $100,000 reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth. Meanwhile, most of the conspirators in Booth’s earlier plot to kidnap the President were rounded up, as were several suspects who were later released, not guilty of anything having to do with the plots. Booth was provided with newspapers delivered by Cox’s trusted servants and spent his time in the swamp reading the reports of his actions and bemoaning his fate in his diary. The Navy positioned gunboats at strategic positions on the Potomac, and the military dragnet tightened on the two conspirators.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The Surratt Boarding House was one of the sites chosen by the conspirators to make their plans. Library of Congress

6. The kidnapping plot and the conspirators

Booth had originally planned to kidnap Lincoln, a rather hare-brained scheme in which the President would be held hostage against recognition of the Confederacy as a ransom. He recruited several persons to aid him in executing his plan; John Surratt, his mother Mary Surratt, who operated a Washington boarding house and a Maryland tavern, where the conspirators frequently met. Others in the plot were George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine), Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, and David Herold. Following Lincoln’s second inauguration, the plan changed to kill the President, as well as Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward.

Atzerodt was to have killed Johnson, but on the night of April 14, he lost his nerve and spent the evening drinking. Powell attacked the already injured Seward but his revolver misfired, and he slashed the helpless man repeatedly with a large knife. Seward survived. As Booth lay hidden in the swamp, one by one his co-conspirators were captured, as were others including Dr. Mudd. John Surratt, who had spent the war as a Confederate agent, escaped, first to Canada and later to the Vatican. The hunt for Booth and Herold continued, involving thousands of federal troops under the personal direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
John T. Ford, owner of Ford’s Theater, was arrested briefly after the assassination. Wikimedia

7. The manhunt led to several arrests of people with no knowledge of the plot

Among the dozens of people arrested by federal authorities during the hunt for Booth were his brother Junius, who was performing in Cincinnati at the time of the murder. John T. Ford, owner and proprietor of Ford’s Theater was also arrested. Booth fled Washington on a rented horse, which he obtained from a livery owned by James Pumphrey in Washington. He too was arrested. Boarders at Surratt’s boarding house were taken into custody, as was Dr. Samuel Mudd. A stagehand who had been supposed to hold Booth’s horse outside of Ford’s while the latter shot the President, but gave the job to someone else, was also arrested, Ned Spangler. The man who Booth found actually holding the horse when he exited the theater was not.

The involvement of Dr. Mudd in either the kidnapping plot or the assassination has long been disputed. Booth visited Bryantown, about five miles from Mudd’s farm, under the cover of seeking to purchase land. According to some, he was really scouting escape routes to be used to carry Lincoln to Virginia after kidnaping him. Booth and Mudd met during one visit, and Booth stayed at least once at the Mudd farm before the assassination. They met again in Washington in December 1864, a fact well documented. What tied Mudd most closely to the murder conspiracy was his failure to notify authorities of Booth’s stop at his farm on April 15 until the following day, Easter Sunday.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Ford’s Theater on April 15, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s death. Wikimedia

8. Booth did not receive the acclaim he expected from Southern sympathizers

Booth had fully expected his actions would make him a hero throughout the South and among those who supported the Confederate cause. Instead, he found few willing to help him and fewer still to harbor him. Always a man who had kept himself meticulously groomed and dressed, he resented having to take shelter in a swamp, living like an animal. He logged his complaints in his diary, becoming increasingly morose and resentful as the days dragged by. The newspapers brought to him by Cox’s servants did little to console him. His diary entries took on the tone of a misunderstood and unappreciated martyr for the south, comparing himself to Brutus for having slain a tyrant.

Colonel Cox meanwhile sent for known (to him) Confederate agents to help get Booth and Herold across the Potomac. His actions were motivated as much by his desire to rid himself of the pair as they were to help him escape to Virginia. Herold had begun to entertain the idea of moving along without Booth, despite knowing that the injured Booth was incapable of traveling alone. Such was the actor’s mood that Herold too wanted to be rid of him. Union officers had increased their questioning of Dr. Mudd, a fact communicated to Cox, though the troops had not yet closely examined the latter’s property, nor the area where the fugitives remained hidden. Cox knew it was only a matter of time until they did.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Dr. Samuel Mudd directed Booth to Samuel Cox for assistance. Wikimedia

9. Cox asked Thomas Jones to help the fugitives across the river

Thomas Jones was a Confederate sympathizer and sometimes spy for the Confederacy. Throughout the war years, he aided the Confederate cause by moving infiltrators, spies, smugglers, and contraband across the Potomac in both directions. His knowledge of the river, and of the underground network of southern supporters in Maryland made him the logical person for Cox to contact. Jones agreed to help, but was aware that he was being watched closely by the Union troops hunting Booth and Herold. He directed them to wait until he contacted them, and to be ready to move when he did. Why he delayed several days is unknown, but the announcement of the large reward for Booth’s capture seemed to compel him to move.

The amount of money offered for Booth and Herold was large enough to cause all but the most loyal Confederate sympathizers to change their mind, a fact no doubt considered by Stanton when he authorized the reward. Capturing Booth would reveal the identities of those who had helped him, leading to their arrests as well. On the night of April 21 (some say April 20) Jones went to the thicket in which the fugitives were hidden and provided them with directions to a small boat he had hidden in the river. They were to cross the Potomac and make contact with a colleague of Jones’s once they were on the Virginia side. Booth and Herold, neither of them experienced with boats, made their way to the banks of the Potomac.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth may have encountered an armed riverboat in his first attempt to cross the Potomac. Wikimedia

10. The detour of April 21 is another point of dispute

Herold and Booth found the boat, and with Herold at the oars set out in the river. But they did not cross it. Instead, they moved north and west to the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek, landing on the same side of the river from which they had set out, still in Maryland. Why they did so is disputed, some historians believe that it was simple inexperience with navigation. But the fact is Herold had to row against the current of the river, which alone should have told him that he was heading in the wrong direction. Booth offered an explanation in his diary, claiming that a Navy gunboat blocked their way across. Historians have disputed the entry, since Naval records have no gunboats in that position on the night in question.

In another diary entry reflecting Booth’s self-image of martyrdom, Booth wrote, “After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” Booth also lamented, “I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me”. A later entry in the diary, which was actually an appointment book for 1864 found in Booth’s pockets, read, “Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more”. Whatever the reason, Booth and Herold’s detour to Nanjemoy Creek was temporary, the following night they set out a second time to cross the Potomac.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
the Rappahannock River at Port Royal, Virginia during the Civil War. Library of Congress

11. The fugitives arrived in Virginia on April 23, having eluded the manhunt in Maryland

On April 23, 1865, Booth and Herold arrived on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and walked in a generally southern direction, taking to the woods when approached by others. The fugitives continued on their trek, moving south and west towards Port Royal. Herold contacted a member of the Confederate underground, Thomas Harbin, who had been a part of the kidnapping plan, but disapproved of the assassination. Harbin reluctantly supplied them with horses and directed them to the home of Dr. Richard Stuart. Booth removed two blank pages from his diary and wrote a note to the Stuart, delivered by Harbin.

Dr. Stuart (sometimes spelled Stewart) was another sympathizer, but he refused to help the fugitives, and also refused to examine Booth’s leg. The fact that he violated his Hippocratic oath in doing so gives an idea of his opinion of Booth, though it is possible he feared retaliation from the authorities. Booth and Herold spent the night in the cabin of a black farmer and his family, who were relegated to sleep outside. The following morning, they left the vicinity, traveling by wagon to King George, Virginia and the Rappahannock River ferry. Wary of the activity of Union troops in the area Booth sought help from Richard Garrett, as Herold sought out other contacts.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s appearance little resembled his dapper reputation when he arrived at Garretts Farm in Virginia. Wikimedia

12. Booth went to the Garrett Farm alone after Herold left him

Booth was identified to Richard Garrett as John W. Boyd, explaining a tattoo he had which read JWB, and was offered the hospitality customary to Virginia farms. By the time of his arrival at the Garrett farm he was exhausted, in pain from his broken leg, and filthy. He told the Garretts that he was a Confederate soldier returning home from the war, explaining his appearance and his injury. The next morning Booth was resting when Herold arrived at the Garrett farm. Herold identified himself to the Garretts as Booth’s cousin. John Garrett, Richard’s son, himself a former Confederate soldier, was already suspicious of Booth. Herold’s arrival served to increase his doubts over Booth’s veracity.

Herold was invited to stay for dinner, but when he requested to stay in the house for the night he was denied. Both Richard and John Garrett were suspicious of their visitors, and they were asked to leave following dinner. Booth insisted they must stay, and the nervousness of the pair whenever the Union cavalry in the area were mentioned led to Garrett’s decision to order them out of the house. Booth chastened him for his treatment of a wounded veteran of the war. Noting that both Herold and Booth were armed, the elder Garrett agreed to allow the two of them to spend the night in his barn, but insisted that they be on their way in the morning.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
An 1865 cartoon depicting Satan’s influence on Booth’s act of murder. Wikimedia

13. John Garrett locked the fugitives into the barn for the night

John Garrett escorted the two men to the barn and locked them in for the night, later claiming that he was fearful that they would steal the family’s horses and flee during the night. But the barn was not stable; it was a tobacco barn, with openings in the sides to allow the flow of air as the tobacco hanging within dried and aged. Booth continued to remonstrate with his formerly gracious host, as well as with Herold for putting him into such a situation. In Port Royal, a former Confederate soldier who had assisted Booth and Herold told Union officers where the former could be found. Two dozen men were dispatched to the Garrett farm.

The barn was one of three on the Garrett farm, including a corn house, where John Garrett spent the night with his younger brother, William. By midnight the farm was quiet, with the Garretts and their no longer welcome guests sleeping in their respective places of rest. Around two in the morning, the dogs sleeping on the Garrett’s porch began barking. The dogs awakened Booth, who shortly heard the unmistakable sound of many horses, their hoofbeats pounding the ground, and the jangling of spurs and sabers told him it was cavalry approaching. Booth woke Herold, and the two men raced to escape the barn before the cavalry was upon them.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
A turn-of-the-century map of the route taken by Booth and Herold through Maryland to Garretts Farm. Wikimedia

14. Richard Garrett briefly tried to shield Booth from the troops

The cavalry arrived at Garrett’s door accompanied by detectives Luther Baker and Everton Conger, both Union officers and both members of the intelligence service (provost marshal). The two dozen cavalrymen with them were commanded by Lieutenant Edward Doherty, 16th Cavalry Regiment, US Army. Together the three officers pounded on Garrett’s front door, and when he opened it, wearing only his night shirt, Conger demanded to know the whereabouts of the two men who had visited his farm. Richard Garrett responded that they were gone, and when asked where he replied vaguely, “Gone to the woods”. Garrett promised to lead the troops to the point where the fugitives entered the woods, if the soldiers would allow him to dress. They did, on the porch after the old man’s clothes were handed out to him.

Conger crew increasingly exasperated at Garrett’s long-winded answers to questions, which took time but gave the soldiers little in the way of usable information. Finally, Conger told one of his men to bring a rope, threatening to hang Garrett, “up to the top of one of those locust trees”. John Garrett emerged, asking one of the cavalrymen who they pursued, and was denied the answer. Conger demanded John Garrett be brought before him. While John begged for mercy for his father, Doherty grabbed his arm, drew his revolver, and placed the muzzle to John’s head, ordering him to reveal the fugitives’ hiding place. Informed that they were in the tobacco barn and armed, Doherty ordered the building surrounded.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth carried these belongings in his pockets throughout his flight. At center is his “diary”. Wikimedia

15. Booth and Herold had tried to escape through the barn’s wall

When Booth heard the cavalry approach his first reaction was to escape. Rousing Herold, he attempted to force the door of the barn, but the lock was too strong, and the door was reinforced. He then tried to kick loose planks in the back wall of the barn, but his splinted leg prevented him from gaining enough leverage to kick strongly with his other leg. Herold tried, somewhat half-heartedly, as he had already decided that he was to give himself up to the authorities. While Richard Garrett was questioned by Conger and Baker, Booth and Herold remained quiet, hoping that the old man would send the cavalry on their way without the barns being searched.

When John Garrett informed Doherty that the fugitives were in the tobacco barn, armed, Doherty ordered him to enter the barn and disarm them. “They know you, and you can go in”, he was told, by Baker, who then called out to Booth, telling the fugitive that John Garrett was to enter the barn and relieve him of his weapons. After obtaining the key Baker opened the lock, and Garrett was thrust through the doorway to confront the man he had denied to shelter in the house, and instead locked in the barn, keeping him trapped as his pursuers approached.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Edward P. Doherty commanded the troop of cavalry which cornered the fugitives in Virginia. National Archives

16. Garrett asked Booth and Herold to surrender

Within the dark interior of the barn, lit only with moonlight through the cracks in the walls, Booth was invisible to Garrett, who stated, “Gentlemen, the cavalry are after you…You had better give yourselves up”. Booth responded by accusing Garrett of betraying him, and demanded he leave the barn or he would be shot. Garrett ran back through the door. Conger, Baker, and Doherty appraised the situation. Booth and Herold were armed, but opposing them were two dozen well-armed cavalrymen. Booth was crippled, he could not walk without the aid of a crutch, and he could not run at all. Histrionics aside, Booth was not believed to be willing to die as a martyr for a lost cause.

The three Union officers were well aware that Secretary of War Stanton preferred the President’s assassin be brought in alive. Only he could reveal the true extent of the conspiracy, including any potential links with the collapsing Confederate government and Jefferson Davis. Northern newspapers were speculating over Booth’s links to the confederacy, and if proven they could affect the manner in which the surrendering Confederates were treated by their captors. The officers decided to talk Booth and Herold into surrendering. Baker gave Booth fifteen minutes to consider his fate before the barn would be set afire.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
A fanciful depiction of Booth confronting federal troops in the tobacco barn. Wikimedia

17. Booth tried to negotiate with his pursuers in his last minutes

When Baker issued his ultimatum Booth called out from the barn door, “Who are you? What do you want? Whom do you want?” and received the reply, “We want you, and we know who you are”. The soldiers fanned out around the barn, and some reported they could hear Herold begging Booth to allow him to surrender himself. Booth finally called out, “…there is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad”, and was told in reply that he must first hand over his weapons. Booth tried to bluff, claiming Herold had no weapons, but the officers had by then learned from the Garrets what weapons were being carried by the fugitives.

The officers disagreed among themselves over whether to allow Herold to exit the barn without turning over his weapons. Finally, Doherty decided to accept his surrender, and positioned himself to the side of the door, allowing Herold to sidle out to captivity. As he did, Doherty clearly heard Booth whisper to Herold, “…don’t tell them the arms I have”. With Herold in custody, the officers debated whether to take Booth immediately, burn the barn as promised, or wait until daylight. Detective Conger sent John and William Garrett to set kindling along the walls of the barn, and John Garrett complied until an alerted Booth warned him to step away from the barn.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Boston Corbett fired the shot which fatally wounded Booth, claiming divine inspiration. Wikimedia

18. Booth asked for the cavalry to withdraw

The actions of the Garretts convinced Booth that the soldiers were not willing to await the dawn (it was about 3.00 AM) and called out that he was “a cripple”. He added, “If you will withdraw your men in line 100 yards from the door, I will come out and fight you”. He also suggested to Baker, whom he addressed as “Captain”, that he had passed up several opportunities to shoot him. Baker replied to Booth’s offer of combat, “We did not come here to fight you, we came to make you a prisoner”. Booth repeated his offer, with the distance shortened to fifty yards, which Baker likewise declined.

With it clear that Booth was not to surrender, the kindling already laid was lighted, and the weathered exterior of the barn quickly took fire. The flames illuminated the interior, and for the first time in the encounter, the soldiers could see their quarry inside the barn. Booth moved to the center of the barn, braced his rifle against his body with one hand, and supported by a crutched moved forward towards the door. Sergeant Boston Corbett, believing Booth was preparing to fire on one of his comrades, shot Booth with his pistol through one of the gaps in the wall.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Corbett and Doherty posed for this portrait following their return to Washington. National Archives.

19. Baker and Conger extracted Booth from the burning barn

The detectives entered the barn and dragged Booth away from the flames, while debating whether the actor, who was evidently paralyzed, had shot himself. Booth was carried to the base of the locust tree from which Richard Garrett had been threatened with hanging, less than an hour earlier. The President’s assassin struggled to speak, and Conger reported his words, which he repeated back to Booth to confirm, as “Tell mother, I die for my country”. The soldiers carried Booth to the Garrett porch, where he was given a pillow and lain on a mattress of straw. The actor could speak only in a weak whisper.

Corbett’s bullet, which had been fired against orders, had penetrated Booth’s neck, breaking several vertebrae. Booth attempted several times to cough, going so far as asking Conger to put pressure on his throat to help him, but he was unable to do so. Several times Booth asked the soldiers to kill him as the early morning moved towards the dawn; several times he was told that they wanted him to recover. Booth died just as the dawn was breaking on April 26, 1865, after a manhunt which lasted twelve days. The search for his killer took only minutes, Sergeant Corbett responded to a demand from his commander to know who fired the shot by replying “Providence directed me”.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s diary was missing pages when it was received by Stanton. Wikimedia

20. The missing pages from Booth’s diary

Booth’s diary, which was in his pocket as he died, arrived at Stanton’s house in Washington before his body reached the capital, carried there by Baker and Conger. There were also photographs of five women, which led to each of them being questioned to determine if any had prior knowledge of the assassin’s plans. Stanton, in a letter written to President Johnson in 1867, claimed that several pages had been removed from the book, which was an appointment book, cut out by a knife. Stanton’s examination of the diary was witnessed by Assistant Secretary of War William Eckert, who confirmed Stanton’s description of the condition of the diary when it came to his hands.

The missing pages from the diary gave rise to often-repeated myths that the pages had been removed while the diary was in Stanton’s custody, implicating the Secretary of War in the plot to kill the President. Others have claimed the pages were removed because they contained material which would have exonerated Mary Surratt. The pages have never been found. What they contained, or if they contained anything is unknown.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The conspirators were tried by military tribunal in a seven-week procedure. Wikimedia

21. The Military Tribunal and the conspirators

The trial of eight conspirators charged with complicity in the murder of Abraham Lincoln began on May 9, 1865, less than a month after the crime had taken place. The eight defendants were; Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Ned Spangler, Lewis Powell (Paine), Mary Surratt, and David Herold. The tribunal was headed by Major General David Hunter, one of its prominent members was General Lew Wallace, who later authored Ben Hur. The tribunal was authorized by President Andrew Johnson, who was the only resort to an appeal.

All of the defendants were under the shadow of the death penalty, which required a two-thirds majority vote of the nine members. A simple majority was all that was required for conviction on each charge. The defendants were tried simultaneously. Over 350 witnesses testified over the course of the seven-week trial, and in the end, all of the defendants were found guilty. Four – Surratt, Atzerodt, Powell, and Herold, were sentenced to death and hanged in July 1865. With the exception of Spangler, who received six years in prison for temporarily holding Booth’s horse, the others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Booth’s body was brought to Washington Navy Yard and USS Montauk for autopsy. Wikimedia

22. Making certain the assassin was the man killed at the Garrett farm

Booth’s body was conveyed by wagon to Belle Plain, placed on a steamer to Alexandria, where it was transferred to a tugboat. The latter carried it to the Washington Navy Yard and USS Montauk, which later served as a prison for the conspirators as they were rounded up. In Washington, Booth’s body was viewed and confirmed as he by ten individuals who had known him in life. Among them was Washington photographer Alexander Gardner, who had photographed the actor in life, and did so again in death. None of the persons who viewed the body expressed any doubt that it was John Wilkes Booth.

Nonetheless, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rumors of Booth’s escape from the manhunt persisted. In 1869 Booth’s body was released to his family (it had been interred in a Washington prison) and was again positively identified by family members and associates in life, including John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theater at the time Lincoln was assassinated. He was buried in the Booth family plot in Baltimore, though his grave is unmarked. Rumors that Booth was not the man killed at Garrett’s farm in 1865 continued into the 21st century, despite overwhelming evidence that he was.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
The War Department confiscated Ford’s Theater after the assassination. National Archives

23. Ford’s Theater became another of Booth’s victims

Immediately following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ford’s Theater, which had opened in 1863, was seized by the federal government. Congress eventually paid owner John T. Ford compensation for the building and ordered that the site never again be used for public entertainment. The War Department assumed control of the building, and it was used for records storage, with offices maintained on the second floor by the Surgeon General’s office. In 1887 the entire building was used as office space for War Department clerks.

The front façade collapsed in 1893, killing 22 government workers, and the building was repaired and continued to be used as a records storage facility. In 1911 the building was abandoned. Eventually, after having passed between several government bureaucracies it became part of the National Park Service. Along with the Petersen House across the street, it is part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

24 Events During the Manhunt for John Wilkes Booth
Not until John Dillinger would a larger manhunt be conducted in the United States. Wikimedia

24. The manhunt for Booth was the largest in American history until 1933

The search for the killer of Abraham Lincoln remained the largest in the history of the United States until John Dillinger escaped from custody in 1933 and was eventually killed in 1934. Well over 1,000 federal troops, provost marshals, hired detectives, and the Washington police took part in finding Booth and his accomplices, and hundreds were swept up in dragnets in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Eventually, it reached into Egypt, where John Surratt, son of the hanged Mary, was finally arrested and extradited to America.

Surratt was tried in a civilian court, rather than before a military tribunal, and was released after a mistrial in 1867 (hung jury) He was never retried. His was the final trial resulting from the Lincoln assassination and the only one conducted in a court of law. In 1869, President Johnson pardoned the other three surviving Lincoln conspirators, Dr. Mudd, Spangler, and Sam Arnold.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies”. Michael Kauffman. 2004

“The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies”. William Hanchett. 1983

“Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer”. James L. Swanson. 2006

“The Flight of John Wilkes Booth”. Marjie Riordan, Bay Weekly. Online

“The Escape Route of John Wilkes Booth”. Maryland Office of Tourism. Online

“John Wilkes Booth Original Plan to Save the South”. Video, Smithsonian.com. Online

“The Booth Obsession”. Gene Smith, American Heritage Magazine. September, 1992

“Lincoln’s Assassination”. Interactive article, Ford’s Theater. Online

“Route of John Wilkes Booth”. Potomac River Guide. Online

“Material Evidence: John Wilkes Booth”. Article, Lincoln’s Assassination. Ford’s Theater. Online

“In hot pursuit: The escape route of John Wilkes Booth”. News Interactive, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Online

“The Final Hours of John Wilkes Booth”. James L. Swanson, Smithsonian Magazine. April 8, 2015

“American Characters: Boston Corbett”. Richard F. Snow, American Heritage Magazine. June/July, 1980

“End of a Manhunt”. Richard B. Garrett, American Heritage Magazine. June, 1966

“Assassination!” Philip B. Kunhardt Jr, American Heritage Magazine. April, 1965

“Documenting the Death of An Assassin”. Ashley Luthern, Smithsonian.com. May 5, 2011

“The FBI Investigated John Wilkes Booth – in the twentieth century?” Jack El-Hai, Wonders and Marvels. Online

“Trial of the Conspirators”. Article, Lincoln’s Assassination. Ford’s Theater. Online

“Identification and Autopsy of John Wilkes Booth: Re-examining the evidence”. Leonard F. Guttridge, Navy Medicine. January-February, 1993.