New account of Booth manhunt

WAY BACK WHEN

A Washington lawyer details the 12-day pursuit of Lincoln's assassin

Back story

May 06, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Recently, two events have brought the name of John Wilkes Booth back into the news.

Last month, Harford County officials announced they were considering purchasing Tudor Hall, the boyhood home of Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, who had lived there with his father and brother, who were also noted 19th-century Shakespearean actors.

The other was the publication of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, a fast-paced, well-researched and tightly written account by James L. Swanson, a Washington attorney and Lincoln scholar, of the pursuit of the president's killer, which launched the greatest manhunt in American history.

Booth, who had gathered a gang of like-minded Confederate sympathizers - including several Baltimoreans and Marylanders - began plotting to kidnap or kill the president in 1864, and as the Confederacy teetered toward extinction in early 1865, those plans intensified.

Those plans were made final at Barnum's City Hotel, a fashionable hostelry that stood at the southwest corner of Calvert and Fayette streets in Baltimore, where Booth summoned his co-conspirators to a secret meeting.

One of them, Samuel Arnold, a boyhood friend who lived in Hookstown and whose family owned a bakery at Fayette and Liberty streets, got cold feet at the last minute and withdrew.

"I have ceased with you," he told Booth.

On the evening of April 14, 1865, as Lincoln, his wife and their guests sat in boxes seven and eight at Washington's Ford's Theatre watching a performance of Our American Cousin, Booth began his final move.

It was 10:13 p.m.

Harry Hawks, an actor, was alone on stage.

"Booth opened the door and stepped into the president's box. Hawks began reciting the last sentence Lincoln would ever hear, a corny broadside of comic insults that delighted the audience," wrote Swanson.

"Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal - you sockdologizing old man-trap," said Hawks.

Booth aimed his deringer at Lincoln's head and at the precise moment the audience erupted into laughter, he pulled back on the trigger that sent a .44-caliber ball deep into the president's brain.

"Lincoln never knew what happened to him. His head dropped forward until his chin hit his chest, and his body lost all muscular control and sagged against the richly upholstered rocking chair. He did not fall to the floor," wrote Swanson.

An animated Booth jumped to the stage, breaking a shinbone in the process, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants") as he made his escape and raced into Baptist Alley and a waiting horse.

The mortally wounded president, who would never regain consciousness, was carried from the blood-drenched box across the street to the home of William Petersen, where physicians labored to keep the president alive.

When brought to the crowded room, Mrs. Lincoln sat by her husband and called, "Love, live but for one moment to speak to me once - to speak to our children."

Swanson reports that Lincoln "drew his last breath" at 7:21 a.m. and 55 seconds and his heart stopped beating at 7:22 a.m. and 10 seconds.

Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war, who was a witness to Lincoln's death and would direct the efforts to apprehend the assassins, said, "Now he belongs to the angels," writes Swanson.

In the meantime, Booth and David E. Herold, a young accomplice he had met at Anacostia, Va., zig-zagged through the Southern Maryland night as the president lay dying and word of the assassination began to travel across the nation's telegraph wires.

There was an unexpected stop at the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd near Waldorf, who later said he was unaware that he was setting the leg of Lincoln's assassin.

After resting at the Mudd home as Union troops swarmed into the swamps and forests of Southern Maryland, the fugitives moved on, eventually crossing the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.

They made their final stand in a barn on the Garrett farm not far from Port Royal, Va., where on April 26, Col. E.J. Conger of the U.S. Secret Service and troops of the 16th New York Calvary found the men hiding in a barn and ordered them to surrender.

Herold left the barn while Booth remained inside. Conger warned Booth that the barn would be burned if he did not come out.

"I am but a crippled, one-legged man," cried Booth, who once thrilled theater audiences in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

"Withdraw your men a hundred yards from the door, and I will come out. Give me a chance for my life, captain. I will never be taken alive," he said.

As the fire gained momentum, the assassin was felled by one shot from Sgt. Boston Corbett's carbine that made a devastating wound as it passed through Booth's neck and spinal column.

Swanson writes that the mortally wounded Booth, who was dragged from the inferno, pleaded for soldiers to kill him.

" `Kill me, kill me,' he begged.

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