On the trail of an assassin

History Channel documentary to tell tale behind the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln

December 30, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

It's almost universal knowledge that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater on an April night in 1865.

But after taking a guided bus tour in 1986 that detailed Booth's escape route, Tom Jennings discovered that there was a lot more to the story.

"Many people don't know that Booth was on the run for 12 days ... or that Vice President Andrew Jackson, Secretary of State William Seward, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also were targeted to be killed," said Jennings, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles.

FOR THE RECORD - An article that appeared in the early editions of Sunday's newspaper and in Sunday's Harford County section misquoted a documentary filmmaker as to the identity of Abraham Lincoln's vice president at the time of Lincoln's assassination. It was Andrew Johnson.

After the tour, Jennings, who worked as a news reporter at the time, told the guide that the story should be made into a movie. More than 20 years later, Jennings' idea has come to fruition with a documentary about Harford County's most nefarious son. The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth will be broadcast at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday on the History Channel.

Drawing from the book American Brutus by Maryland author Michael W. Kauffman, as well as from the guide on that 1986 bus tour, the documentary includes on-location footage from sites that were part of Booth's life -- including his childhood home in Bel Air -- and his 12-day flight.

The film comes shortly after the release of National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the hit movie starring Nicolas Cage as a history buff seeking to clear the name of his great-great-grandfather, who is suspected as a conspirator in the assassination, based on a missing page of Booth's diary.

As it turns out, Kauffman, a resident of Owings in Calvert County, wrote American Brutus to dispel the myths about the missing diary pages and to tell the complete story about the events before and after Booth murdered Lincoln.

"In 1867, someone said there were 18 pages missing from the diary," said Kauffman, 51, a manager of a broadcasting company. "But the FBI lab determined in 1977 that there were at least 52 pages missing. Movie producers claimed that their sources had found the missing pages. Of course the pages never materialized."

Jennings, who has written many documentaries for the History Channel and National Geographic, began pitching the movie idea to networks about a decade ago. After the History Channel approved the project, Jennings used Kauffman as his primary source and interviewed several other Booth authorities.

But Jennings said that, unlike other documentaries, his film includes material gathered from visits to Tudor Hall in Bel Air, Booth's family home; Ford's Theater in Washington; and the Samuel Mudd House in Waldorf, where Booth's injured leg was treated by Dr. Samuel Mudd.

The documentary shows Booth's escape route in detail, beginning with his ride on horseback. Booth met up with David Herold, a co-conspirator, and went to Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville, now called Clinton, to pick up supplies.

Then they went to Mudd's home, on to Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, where they boarded a rowboat, and then the home of Col. Samuel Cox, who fed the fugitives for four days.

After crossing the Potomac, Booth and Herold eventually ended up at Garrett Farm south of Port Royal, Va., where they slept in a tobacco barn. Then the cavalry showed up. Booth refused to surrender, and the barn was set on fire to flush him out. The soldiers saw Booth moving around in the barn, and one shot the 26-year-old fugitive in the neck. Booth died shortly thereafter.

Although Tudor Hall wasn't part of Booth's flight, it is crucial to telling his story, Kauffman said. The political sentiments of county residents played an important role in shaping Booth's state of mind, Kauffman said.

"Harford County was the only county outside southern Maryland that appeared to be Southern," he said. "And the people in the county for the most part were very anti-Lincoln."

Jennings said he wasn't even aware Tudor Hall existed. The visit to the house was a filming highlight, he said.

"Visiting Tudor Hall was magical in that you could walk back in time," Jennings said. "It still retains the character from when Booth lived there. It's amazing and sinister at the same time."

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