Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Wilkes Booth: The Story of Abraham Lincoln's Murderer

A Strange Conspiracy

"Action is eloquence."


It may have been in the smoke-filled saloon at the National Hotel that the wildest conspiracy of all time began. No one knows for sure where or when exactly it evolved. But, sometime around Christmas of 1864, when the nation had already bloodied itself by four years of war, Wilkes devised a plan to kidnap President Lincoln.

Direction of the war had turned against the Confederacy; they were losing one battle after another; most of the gray uniforms were ragged, many infantry walked barefoot; food was scarce; artillery was in demand; ammunition low. Atlanta had fallen, so had Savannah two major strongholds. All had been downhill since mid-1863 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee suffered a humiliating defeat at Gettysburg. William Tecumseh Sherman, the Norths tactical genius, poured salt on the wound by marching through the heart of the South like a tornado, destroying rail lines, factories, cities, cutting the Confederacy supply arteries.

"Something great and decisive had to be done," Wilkes wrote in his diary. He determined that if Lincoln were captured and hustled away to Richmond, Va. the Confederate capital 100 miles south of Washington he would draw quite a large ransom. Specifically, terms would demand return of all captured Confederate soldiers rotting in Union prison camps, as well as desperately needed artillery and powder. Their manpower rejuvenated and their armament restored, the South would have a renewed chance to regain control. Wilkes ascertained that the Union, joltingly discouraged by its setback, might wish to compromise.

It was a mad, balloon-headed plan. But Wilkes, who saw himself as a hero in those novels he read as a child, believed he could pull it off. Strangely enough, it now appears that he had been fluent enough to convince even the brilliant leaders of the Southern Underground for support, though not necessarily garner the approval of the Confederate legislature.

It was a last-ditch stand. In Washington, he assembled a local crew of devoted but motley allies to staff his kidnapping plot. This small band consisted of: Samuel Blaine Arnold and Michael OLaughlen, two boyhood friends from Baltimore who had served in the war but had had enough of starving and death; George Atzerodt, a drunken German immigrant who ran a ferry boat, something they would require to carry their prize across the Rappahanock River into Virginia; Lewis Paine, a drifter from Florida; and David Herold, an immature star-struck boy from the tenements of Washington. Wilkes also had the fortune to befriend John Harrison Surratt, a young but respected member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Surratt served as emissary between Wilkes and the Southern Underground.

George Atzerodt and David Herold (Library of Congress)
George Atzerodt and David Herold
(Library of Congress)

Their loyalty to Booth was insured by money, and Booth could pay handsomely for services well done. In 1865, his yearly salary neared $12,000, a tremendous sum for the mid-19th Century.

The conspirators usually met at Surratts mothers boarding house at 541 H Street, near the federal district of the city. Whether or not Mary Eugenia Surratt took part in the plot is still debated. But, one fact is certain: the three-story lead gray house served as a haven for Confederate couriers riding through Washington.

Mary Surratt (Surratt Society)
Mary Surratt
(Surratt Society)

Wilkes was a welcomed guest at Surratt House. After all, the Surratts and their lodgers were workaday people, and what middle-class family wouldnt be thrilled to have the most glamorous actor of his day as a house guest? A letter from John Surratt to his cousin reads, "...I have just taken a peep in the parlor. Would you like to know what I saw there?...Hark, the doorbell rings, and J.W. Booth is announced. And listen to the scamperings...Such brushing and fixing."

It is very apropos that Wilkes first kidnapping attempt took place at a theatre. Lincoln had scheduled to attend a performance of Jack Cade, or The Kentish Revolution on the evening of January 18, 1865, at Fords Theatre. That evening, the State Box, overlooking stage left, was decorated in flags and bunting, awaiting the Presidents arrival.

The conspirators assembled early to take their positions. At a particular moment in the play, one man would extinguish the house gas lamps; at the same time, two others (including Wilkes) would enter the private box (habitually unguarded and unlocked); while one man held the other occupants at bay, Wilkes would knock the President unconscious and lower him in darkness onto the stage below where the remaining abductors would drag the ragamuffin out to a covered buckboard. Then, it would be a bee-line out of Washington, across the Anacostia Bridge and on a direct route towards Virginia. Abettors residences would conceal them along the way.

Detained by business, the President never showed. But, to the would-be kidnappers, his absence meant one thing. They were suspect! Scrambling out, they retreated to their own abodes where, alone, they expected reprisal. After the night passed without further incident, however, they realized their paranoia and reconvened the following day.

Days turned into weeks and no other opportunity presented itself. Lincoln, having won a second term of Office, was reinaugurated on March 4. Shielded under the Capitols gargantuan portico from a downpour, he addressed a throng blackening the plaza with umbrellas. With malice toward none and charity for all..." His words swept on the wind and into the annals of history. Above him on a buttress, within spitting distance, was Wilkes, one in a crowd of dignitaries with free passes. Silently, Wilkes listened to the man whose words of reconciliation and forgiveness meant nothing. "What an opportunity I had to kill him!" Wilkes reported later.

But, he had chosen to wait, and watch. And continue to court the dark-haired Bessie Lambert Hale, daughter of a New Hampshire senator, whom he met the previous year. It was through her he had received the ringside spot at the Inauguration. What has since evaded the logic of historians is why Wilkes would, despite her charm, chase the daughter of a Northern senator. After all, his own station allowed him social approval; he didnt require a liaison. But, court her he did, and sought and won betrothal. Marriage plans were put on hold because her father had just received a commission as Ambassador to Spain and wanted his family to accompany him for a while, at least until he was settled.

What tender words he whispered in her ears obviously hid his double-life. On March 20, as things became more desperate for the South Richmond was now besieged and expected to surrender any day Wilkes called his "enterprise," as he called it, together one more time. He had read that Lincoln was to attend a benefit at the U.S. Soldiers Convalescent Home in suburban Georgetown. The path the executive carriage would take, Wilkes learned, would be through a stretch of woodland on the outskirts of the city. But, as the company waited at a deserted crossing at a half-way point, Lincoln had changed his agenda. Instead, he chose to attend a function back in the lobby of Wilkes hotel.


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