John Wilkes Booth: The Story of Abraham Lincoln's Murderer
The Final Curtain
"...For you and I are past our dancing days."
Romeo and Juliet
Riding his horse as if it were winged Pegasus in zig-zags though Washington, Wilkes came to the rendezvous point at the Anacostia Bridge. He had told his men to meet him there no later than 10:30 p.m., as he was the only one who knew the direct route to safety. After a few moments, Herold appeared, announcing that his chore was undone. He had rung Stantons front doorbell; when no one answered, and a passing patrolman began eyeing him suspiciously, he absconded. As for Paine, when he failed to show, Wilkes and Herold rode off. They couldnt tarry lest the soldiers at the bridge might receive a telegraphic warning of the assassination and an order to detain any riders leaving the city.
Back in Lafayette Square, the brutishly built Paine had pushed himself past several household members into the Secretarys bed-chambers to use the man as a butcher might use a beef hide. Neighbors saw him moments later running from the Seward home, yelling "Im mad! Im mad!" before he disappeared into the darkness on horseback. Now Paine was lost, having taken a wrong turn somewhere. He chose to spend the night in a place no living person would hunt for him, the Washington Cemetery.
Lincoln had been carefully removed from the theatre to a boarding house across the street. Examining him, doctors announced that the bullet had shattered his skull and was embedded in Lincolns brain. The wound was mortal.
Throughout the night, men such as Vice President Johnson, Secretary of War Stanton, Naval Secretary Gideon Welles and Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs came to the back bedroom in that conservative little boarding house on 10th Street to bid their friend goodbye. A crowd that had gathered outside to pray for the life of their President, recognized each of their faces as they alighted their carriages. In the same strange twist of fate that leads the Booth family history throughout, it is fact that Wilkes Booth once stayed in that room during a hurried trip through Washington...and slept in the same bed.
Mary Lincoln was administered a drug to keep her hysteria down. Twenty-one-year-old Robert Lincoln, the Presidents son; and Our American Cousin star Laura Keene remained with her upstairs to help quiet her. It wasnt until a little after seven the following morning she was brought down by recommendation of the doctors. At 7:22 a.m., Lincoln died. "Now," said Stanton, "he belongs to the ages."
Wilkes had hoped that when he struck out the South would rally behind him. But, that did not happen. Instead, the Southern heart wept for the man who didnt deserve to be shot in the back of the head. The man who they could see clearly now that the smoke of battle had cleared had only stuck to his principles and died for them. Wilkes became not their Brutus, but their blot of shame. John Wilkes Booth became the most hated man in America.
From testimony put forth by immediate witnesses who knew Wilkes company, and suspected their actions over the last several months, the government was able to frame the story of the kidnapping and the assassination. Almost overnight, the members of the enterprise, along with Mary Surratt who owned the boarding house where they often gathered, were apprehended. Herold was still on the lam with Wilkes. A warrant was issued for Herold and John Surratt, who could not be found. A few days after the assassination, authorities also charged a Dr. Samuel Mudd of Bryantown, Md., for complicity after he admitted setting the actors broken leg. They doubted he had no knowledge of the murder.
Before the summer was out, the Great Conspiracy Trial of 1865 would hang Paine, Atzerodt, Herold and Mrs. Surratt for complicity to murder (although evidence against the woman seems now to have been greatly perjured). Dr. Mudd and Wilkes two boyhood chums, OLaughlen and Arnold, were handed life sentences. John Surratt, who was to remain elusive for another two years, would be eventually tried by a less hostile government and be released by a hung jury.
But, for two weeks following the assassination, Wilkes and Herold dodged the detachments of cavalry scouring Maryland and Virginia. In hiding, Wilkes realized he was without friend and turned to the only recourse left to still make him a hero, even posthumously: his diary. In it, he wrote,
"I am in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for - what made Tell a hero. And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, I am looked upon as a common cut-throat. My action was purer than either of theirs...I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny...and yet now behold the cold hand they extend me...I bless the entire world. Have never harmed or wronged anyone. This last was not a wrong, unless God deems it so..."
By chance, the 27th New York, riding thorough Port Royal, Va., heard about two men fitting Wilkes and Herolds descriptions who had crossed the Rappahanock River and were staying overnight at a nearby farm owned by Richard Garrett. They surrounded the place before sunrise of April 26 and sought out farmer Garrett. He told them that, as far as he knew, his guests were two weary Confederate soldiers homeward bound, and yes, one of them did walk with a crutch. Garrett pointed to the small tobacco shed where he had put them up. The smell of lilacs permeated the pre-dawn.
Summoned to come out, Wilkes roared back that he would never surrender. The soldiery then knew that they had found their man. David Herold could be heard whimpering from within the unlit shed; after what sounded like debate among the two fugitives, he shuffled out, hands up, into the darkness. Two soldiers grabbed him and drew him into their ranks. Still Wilkes dared the soldiers to come and get him.
Flames splattered the night as several blue uniforms darted forward to toss torches against the shed. Singed tobacco leaves staled the air. The glare of the torchlight punctuated Wilkes silhouette through the open vents of the hut. "One more stain on the old banner, eh, boys!" the form shouted. Then...a revolver cracked. Against orders to take him alive, one of the troopers shot in anxiety. The silhouette collapsed. On command, the others overtook the shed to drag the body out.
One wonders if perhaps in his final moments, the scent of lilacs in the air, he might have imagined he was a boy again, atop his fathers horse Peacock, galloping down Churchville Road, shouting oaths to the dragons encircling him. Or if he dreamed he had the Colossus of Rhodes by the tail. But, one thing is certain. He had enough time to look at his palms and, with the eloquence of a despairing Hamlet, utter "Useless...useless."