On the Track of the Assassin John Wilkes Booth

A Washington, D.C., area crime and history tour

There's a high bluff near Pope's Creek. A windswept spot, it sits on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. When I go there and look down at the water, I think of something others usually don't. Down below, John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln's killer, secretly crossed over into Virginia the night of April 20, 1865 -- six days after committing the crime for which he'll always be remembered and not far ahead of what was once the largest manhunt on record.

Today, history organizations -- most notably the Smithsonian and the Maryland-based Surratt Society -- offer all-day bus tours that put the curious on Booth's trail, the flight that followed America's most spectacular murder. The buses take history fans to spots around the D.C. area like this one beside the Potomac. Entertaining as well as educational, the day trips are so popular they are perpetual sell-outs.

If you're interested, you don't have to wait for the bus. Responding to public demand, the Surratt Society and others now publish detailed maps and guidebooks allowing Historic Travelers to lay out automobile "escape route tours" of their own. Starting at the "scene of the crime" -- Ford's Theater in downtown Washington, D.C. -- they're steered through southern Maryland and northeast Virginia and reacquainted with a story many young people have never heard and others have forgotten.

Years ago, junior high and grade school history books vivified the basic facts of the Lincoln assassination for most of us. It was the end of the Civil War, the night of Good Friday, April 14th, 1865, just five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The 16th President was murdered at Ford's Theater by Booth, a popular 26-year-old Maryland-born actor, a man who had become a Southern rights fanatic and rogue Confederate agent.

Many of us also read about Mudd, the unlucky Maryland doctor accused of helping Booth flee justice, and of several others punished for having a hand in the crime. But rarely did anybody hear details of Booth's 12-day run from the law, how Rebel agents and Southern sympathizers passed him around like a hot potato, how he made it across the Potomac or how he died, outside a Virginia tobacco barn. Now, taking the bus tour or a car tour of your own, America's longest running murder mystery is brought to an interesting finish.

Ford's Theater still stands at 511 10th St., N.W., in Washington. It has been restored by the National Park Service and is occasionally used for performances. But most days of the week it's filled with visitors who come to hear Rangers give scheduled lectures on the assassination and to look at the spot where the deed was done. In the basement is a visitors center. There on display is Booth's pocket diary -- a 19th-century "day minder." During his flight he made notes in it, justifying what he'd done and moaning about his circumstances.

The President's Box at Ford's, where Booth used a .44 caliber derringer to dispatch Lincoln, is restored to look as it did April 14, 1865. It's trimmed with several American flags, bunting and a portrait of George Washington. The night of the crime, around 10:15, Booth charmed his way past Lincoln's valet Charles Forbes, entered the narrow corridor leading to the unguarded box and shot the President in the back of the head. After using a hunting knife to cut up Major Henry Rathbone, another box occupant, he leapt to the stage, interrupting a performance of the hackneyed English comedy "Our American Cousin." Any other time, the 12-foot jump would have been a routine theater stunt for the lithe, acrobatic actor. That night, it ended with Booth fracturing his shin bone.

Pandemonium ensued. Holding up his bloody knife, the actor shouted Sic Semper Tyrannus -- So Always To Tyrants -- the Latin motto adorning the Virginia state flag. Then he rushed out a stage door, got on his horse and galloped down Baptist Alley, up F Street and across the Navy Yard Bridge (today the 11th Street Bridge). Several hours passed before authorities knew in which direction he'd fled.

Others were involved in the evening's violence. While Booth did his job, near the White House co-conspirator Lewis Powell, a large, young ex-Confederate, broke into the Lafayette Square home of Secretary of State William H. Seward, assaulted his family, carved up the Secretary with a knife, then left. Powell would shift for himself. Booth would have help. By arrangement, he rendezvoused with co-conspirator David Herold at a spot in Prince Georges County, Maryland, called Soper's Hill. From there, they rode for the Surratt Tavern, a Confederate "safe house" in Surrattsville, Maryland. Today, both places sit along modern roads.

A dozen or so miles from Ford's, in what is today Clinton, Maryland, the Surratt Tavern was used by Rebel agents traveling through southern Maryland's staunchly Confederate, but Union army-occupied counties. The tavern was owned by another person caught up in the crime, Mary Surratt.

The fugitives didn't linger at the tavern; Booth stayed on his horse. They fortified themselves with whiskey and picked up a carbine and field glasses hidden there. The items were part of a cache of weapons deposited at the tavern a month earlier by Herold and Mrs. Surratt's son, John Surratt, Jr. -- a Confederate Government agent.

The Surratt House and Tavern, now just off Maryland Route 5, is roughly a half-hour drive from Ford's and a "must" stop on an escape route tour. Built in 1852, in recent years restored to depict rural middle class life during the Civil War era, it's attended by docents in period costume who offer tours. Assassination photographs and artifacts and items that tell the tragic life story of Mary Surratt are also on exhibit.

The Surratt House sells guidebooks and maps of the escape route and has an elaborate electronic point-to-point map/display of Booth's trail. As well, the tavern hosts a series of seasonal events and special historical exhibits.

Leaving the tavern, Booth and Herold next stopped at Dr. Samuel A. Mudd's house. They arrived early on April 15th. Mudd set the assassin's leg and allowed the two men to rest awhile on his property.

Did Mudd know Booth had killed Lincoln when the assassin showed up? Were Booth and Herold strangers to the good doctor? Had Mudd known the actor before, maybe been involved earlier in clandestine activity?

There is a mound of convincing circumstantial evidence linking Mudd to Booth. But don't whisper a word of this to his granddaughter, Louise Mudd Arehart. She oversees the Samuel Mudd home, a popular stop on the escape route tour, and she has a point of view.

Louise Arehart maintains the restored 150-year-old Mudd farmhouse just outside Bryantown, Maryland, more than 15 miles down Route 5 from Clinton. Perched on the edge of Zekiah Swamp in the midst of Charles County, Maryland's placid tobacco country, it, like many escape route sites, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also nothing less than a museum and shrine devoted to rehabilitating the long-dead doctor's reputation. But rehabilitation isn't easy. Arehart and other Mudd descendants have spent decades trying to clear the doctor's name. Fascinating, though historically biased, tours of the house are given by docents dressed in period costumes. The 10-acre Mudd farm also hosts Civil War reenactments and other seasonal events.

Herold mistakenly rowed the boat Jones gave them north up the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek, still Maryland territory, landing them near the home of a Colonel John Hughes. It took them another day of hiding and another night of paddling to reach Virginia where they hoped to cross paths with sympathetic ex-Confederates. But sympathy, help and luck were in short supply.

The end came for Booth the night of April 26, just a few days short of his 27th birthday. Hiding with Herold in a tobacco barn on the farm of a Richard Garrett -- south of the Rappahannock River and the picturesque town of Port Royal, some 70 modern road miles from Ford's Theater -- they were surrounded by troops of the 16th New York Cavalry. Herold came out and surrendered. Booth did not. The troopers, under orders to take the killer alive, set the barn afire, hoping to drive him out. Then a shot was heard. Cavalrymen dragged Booth's body from the barn and laid it on the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. One soldier, Boston Corbett, confessed to violating orders and gunning down Booth through a crack in the barn wall.

The bullet passed through Booth's neck, paralyzing him. Lying on Garrett's porch, he asked soldiers to hold up his hands so he could see them. He ranted for two hours, saying, among other things "Tell Mother I died for my country." Then he passed away, taking with him answers to a lot of fascinating questions. A marker along the northbound lane of U.S. Route 301, about three miles south of Bowling Green, Virginia, recalls what happened on the Garrett place, but the farm itself is gone.

A few more places figure into the story of the assassination and what happened to Booth and his co-conspirators. One is across the street from Ford's Theater. The Petersen House at 516 10th Street, N.W., is where Lincoln was carried after the shooting and where he died. It's maintained by the National Park Service and open to the public. Another is the site of a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, the woman who also owned the tavern where Booth and Herold stopped on their flight out of town.

Mary Surratt's boarding house stands at 604 H Street, N.W., and is now a restaurant. But in the days leading up to the assassination, it was one place the conspirators met. Both Mrs. Surratt and Lewis Powell, Secretary of State Seward's assailant, were arrested there the night of April 17. Both ended up in Washington's old Arsenal penitentiary, as did everyone charged with having a part in the Lincoln murder plot -- including Booth.

The Arsenal stood at the corner of 4th and P Street, S.W., in Washington. Immediately after an autopsy, Booth was secretly buried there under the exercise yard. Herold, Mrs. Surratt and Powell were taken there after their arrests, as were men named George Atzerodt, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlin, Edman Spangler and later, Dr. Mudd. All were tried there, in a third-floor room, by a nine-member military commission. All were convicted. Mrs. Surratt, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt -- charged, as part of the plot, with intending to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson -- were hanged in the exercise yard July 7, 1865. The others -- charged with aiding and abetting the rest -- were given hard prison terms.

Three of the incarcerated men survived their sentencing. O'Laughlin died in prison, but Spangler, Arnold and Mudd were pardoned by then President Andrew Johnson in 1869. Mudd, the best remembered, returned to the farm kept up today by his descendant Louise Arehart and tried to shun publicity. But the Arsenal, like the Garrett Farm, the scene of so much misery, went the way of all things. By bits, it was partially destroyed by fires and accidents through the late 19th century. Today, just one of its buildings remains. Sitting at the southern tip of what is now called Fort McNair, it's an officers quarters -- said by some to be haunted by the spirit of hanged Mary Surratt.

It's been more than 130 years since America was stunned by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. But the killing's place in history -- as the first murder of a President -- and its place in the annals of American crime -- as the only Presidential assassination to-date conclusively proven to be the result of a plot involving many people -- makes it a subject that's attracted mystery buffs and history lovers for decades. For these reasons it has continued to raise controversies, has generated more than a dozen interesting books and several bad movies, and is responsible for creating one of the few historical tours where even the most experienced guides will confess: both the story and the ride raise as many questions as they answer.


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