12-hour Bus Tour Is Heaven For History Buffs

POSTMARK: JOHN WILKES BOOTH'S ESCAPE ROUTE

February 13, 1994|By KATHERINE DREW DEBOALT

In the half-dark of a rainy October morning, several dozen history buffs are readying to make their escape. Outside the stately arched doorways of Ford's Theater in Washington, they stand near the alley where John Wilkes Booth, having mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, mounted his horse and fled away to the countryside.

We climb into a temperature-controlled silver tour bus, and we're off. It took Booth 12 days, by horse and boat, to make the journey that eventually climaxed in his capture and death outside a Virginia barn. But with an investment of $40 and 12 hours on a bus, tour-takers can trace the entire escape route and still be home in time for dinner.

Along the way, there's time for a lot of picture-taking, and lectures are given at virtually every one of the 26 stops. Though we board the bus at Surratt's Tavern in Clinton, Md., the tour actually begins with a walk through Ford's Theater and the row house, across the street, where Lincoln died the morning after he was shot.)

After these stops, we reboard the bus and the trip begins in earnest. The 130 or so miles of the route are ticked off by a constant narration on both well-known and obscure facts of the assassination and manhunt.

Bob Allen, author of a book on Booth, is providing the 12-hour monologue this day. Standing in the aisle of the bus, he holds a microphone in one hand and steadies himself against the overhead rack with the other.

"When Booth leapt, he became entangled in the decorations on the front of the presidential box and when he hit the stage he broke the fibula in his left leg," he says, then pauses. "Or was it his right leg?"

"Left," someone shouts from the seat near the middle of the bus.

No elementary-level history students here.

The escape-route tours have been run for several years by the Surratt Society -- which also operates the tavern (now a museum) in Clinton, where Booth first stopped after fleeing Washington. Response to the tours has been so overwhelming that the group ran 16 trips last year. The waiting list for spring tours is already almost 300 names long, says Laurie Verge, director of the museum.

Some people take the tour two or three times, traveling with each of the museum's three narrators to pick up the nuances of each scholar's version of events.

"I already knew a lot of the history, but actually being here gives you a real feel for what it must have been like," said Sidney McGee, a high school history teacher who drove up from Knoxville, Tenn.

As the tour moves on, Mr. Allen fills in the story of Booth's early days growing up near Bel Air in Harford County. By the way, he says, Booth's body is buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Now the bus is ambling through the streets of Washington, past the site of a boarding house, now a Chinese restaurant, where Mary Surratt, one of the conspirators hanged for the assassination, once lived.

Across a bridge that sits on almost the exact site as the one Booth used, the bus passes into the hardscrabble streets of Anacostia in southeast Washington. Booth, Mr. Allen says, gave his real name when talking the bridge guard into permitting him to cross. There was still a wartime curfew in effect, and no one was supposed to pass in or out of the city after dark.

By 9 a.m., about two hours into the tour, participants have already seen at least five significant landmarks and are headed into Maryland. Strip malls begin to give way to open land and an occasional barn.

Next stop is the Surratt Tavern, where Booth, now accompanied by one of his co-conspirators, drank whisky and picked up guns before heading to Charles County and the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set his broken leg.

A visit to Mudd's home follows. Mudd's possible complicity in the assassination is still the focus of raging debate, so Mr. Allen cautions visitors to keep discussion of his guilt or innocence to a minimum around Mudd's descendants, who operate the home as a museum.

Both the Surratt and Mudd sites feature costumed docents and gift shops.

After these points, Booth's escape route becomes a little less well-marked. The tour traces his stops at the homes of several Confederate sympathizers, who helped the men with supplies or transportation southward. Many of the sites are now private homes -- one is even on the grounds of a Jesuit retreat in Southern Maryland. But that doesn't stop the bus, which lumbers down dirt driveways or onto roadway shoulders where significant buildings used to stand.

After lunch at a seafood restaurant, we move into Virginia, toward the site of Booth's eventual capture. The Garrett farm, where the assassin was hiding when federal troops caught up to him, no longer exists. A highway cuts across the site, but there is still a marker designating the spot.

At least there was, before vandals took it. But that doesn't deter us. We've already logged a good 10 hours on the bus, and now we walk enthusiastically through the damp woods of the median strip to see the metal post that once supported the marker.

On the Garrett farm, we are told, the soldiers set fire to the barn and Booth was shot in the neck as he fled the burning building. As he lay dying for several hours, Booth is supposed to have said, "Tell mother I died for my country."

By the time evening falls, the bus is headed back to Maryland, and members of the tour are taking a four-page history quiz on the escape route. Those with the best scores win -- what else? -- booklets on the Lincoln assassination.

Tour information

Tours are given in the spring and fall and by appointment for groups that want to organize their own tour. For more information, contact the Surratt Society at (301) 868-1121.

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