Tracking down John Wilkes Booth

Short Hop

History: 136 years ago today, Lincoln's assassin was fleeing through Maryland.

Short Hop

April 15, 2001|By Michael A. Schuman | Michael A. Schuman,Special to the Sun

If he were alive today, John Wilkes Booth would have little trouble recognizing the farmhouse of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, where he had come seeking help 136 years ago today.

The land surrounding the Southern Maryland house looks much as it did when Booth, in pain from a broken leg, knocked on Mudd's door some six hours after the actor fatally shot Abraham Lincoln about 30 miles away at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

If you want to see the Mudd house in its natural surroundings, don't wait too long. Much of the farmland around the home near Waldorf has been sold to a developer, and the historical setting may soon change.

On your way to the Mudd house, you might also consider retracing the rest of Booth's escape route, from Washington to the site of the Virginia tobacco barn where he was cornered and killed by Union troops.

The Lincoln assassination took place April 14, 1865, and it continues to fascinate historians and conspiracy theorists alike. As recently as 1995, a group of Lincoln assassination buffs filed a petition with Maryland courts to exhume Booth's body from his Baltimore grave. They wanted to verify that it is indeed Booth who is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, just in case a century-old story that he escaped authorities and lived until 1903 might be correct. The petition was denied.

The Surratt Society, a volunteer organization that operates the Surratt House Museum, another Booth-related landmark, sponsors 12-hour bus tours retracing Booth's steps from Ford's Theatre to the site of his death at Garrett's Farm. Tours are offered eight times a year, and they usually fill up quickly.

The alternative is to guide yourself along Booth's escape route. Many of the roads still exist, and four buildings associated with the assassination are open to the public.

Launching the plot

Lincoln went to Ford's Theatre that April 14 evening to see "Our American Cousin." Booth entered the president's box around 10:15 p.m. and shot Lincoln in the head. The assassination was part of a larger conspiracy. Initially, Booth and six others met in the Surratt Boarding House on H Street in Washington, now Go-Lo's Restaurant in what has become the Chinatown section of the city.

There the band of seven Confederate sympathizers plotted a grand scheme: the kidnapping of Lincoln. After those plans went awry, three conspirators, including Mary Surratt's son John, bowed out. The plot then turned from kidnapping to murder.

Booth would kill Lincoln while compatriots George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell would murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Atzerodt lost his nerve, but Powell attacked Seward, who lived despite brutal knife wounds. Only Booth was fully successful.

More than a century has removed the tarnish that stained the name of Ford's Theatre, but that wasn't always so. Three months after the assassination, owner John T. Ford planned to reopen his theater but an indignant public wouldn't let him.

The brick building on 10th Street wasn't reopened as a theater until 1968. It now looks as it did the night of the assassination. You can't enter the presidential box today but you can peer inside through a glass panel, allowing the same view Booth had. Crimson damask furniture, including an original sofa, fill the box. Lincoln sat in a rocker like the one near the door.

Booth escaped by jumping to the stage floor and running out a back door. Normally, the 12-foot jump would have been easy for the agile actor. But he caught his foot on a flag draping the president's box, lost his balance and broke a bone in his left leg.

National Park Service rangers are on hand to discuss the assassination. In the theater basement is a museum with items ranging from wallpaper that hung in the president's box to Booth's Derringer.

While Booth was riding horseback toward the Navy Yard Bridge and Maryland, Lincoln was carried across the street to William Petersen's house, a narrow red-brick building typical of many in Washington at that time. After Lincoln died in a rear bedroom, Victorian-era tourists paraded by hoping for a peek inside. In 1880, Congress began efforts to memorialize the house.

Today's curious come for the same reason. What they see is a home that looks as it did in 1865. In the bedroom where Lincoln died, the muted brown wallpaper duplicates that hung by Petersen. The furniture is period. A pillow, protected by a plastic cover, is the one on which Lincoln rested his head. The rocking chair is similar to one in which Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sat watching over the dying president.

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