The Life, Crime, And Capture Of John Wilkes Booth - George Alfred Townsend - ebook

A detailed account of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. This, in its day, was a "media sensation." The assassination of Abraham Lincoln launched John Wilkes Booth into infamy--not the kind of "fame" he was hoping for. Townsend was a writer for the New York Herald and used the pen name "Gath".It was a time when Lincoln was being martyred, a Christlike figure, while his assassin was being demonized, a Judas figure. With the country still in mourning in 1866, Gath had no trouble rousing people to heights of fury over the crime. He does it in this book.Even today it is difficult to look at John Wilkes Booth as anyone other than the assassin. We forget that he was a well-known and very popular actor, young and handsome, and making money.

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George Alfred Townsend


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ONE YEAR AGO THE WRITER of the letters which follow, visited the Battle Field of Waterloo. In looking over many relics of the combat preserved in the Museum there, he was particularly interested in the files of journals contemporary with the action. These contained the Duke of Wellington’s first despatch announcing the victory, the reports of the subordinate commanders, and the current gossip as to the episodes and hazards of the day.

The time will come when remarkable incidents of these our times will be a staple of as great curiosity as the issue of Waterloo. It is an incident without a precedent on this side of the globe, and never to be repeated.

Assassination has made its last effort to become indigenous here. The public sentiment of Loyalist and Rebel has denounced it: the world has remarked it with uplifted hands and words of execration. Therefore, as long as history shall hold good, the murder of the President will be a theme for poesy, romance and tragedy. We who live in this consecrated time keep the sacred souvenirs of Mr. Lincoln’s death in our possession; and the best of these are the news letters descriptive of his apotheosis, and the fate of the conspirators who slew him.

I represented the World newspaper at Washington during the whole of those exciting weeks, and wrote their occurrences fresh from the mouths of the actors. Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1865,


In the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States for the

Southern District of New York.




IT HAS SEEMED FITTING TO Messrs. DICK & FITZGERALD to reproduce the World letters, as a keepsake for the many who received them kindly. The Sketches appended were conscientiously written, and whatever embellishments they may seem to have grew out of the stirring events,—not out of my fancy.

Subsequent investigation has confirmed the veracity even of their speculations. I have arranged them, but have not altered them; if they represent nothing else, they do carry with them the fever and spirit of the time. But they do not assume to be literal history: We live too close to the events related to decide positively upon them. As a brochure of the day,—nothing more,—I give these Sketches of a Correspondent to the public.

G. A. T.




Washington, April 17.

SOME VERY DELIBERATE AND EXTRAORDINARY movements were made by a handsome and extremely well-dressed young man in the city of Washington last Friday. At about half-past eleven o’clock A. M., this person, whose name is J. Wilkes Booth, by profession an actor, and recently engaged in oil speculations, sauntered into Ford’s Theater, on Tenth, between E and F streets, and exchanged greetings with the man at the box-office. In the conversation which ensued, the ticket agent informed Booth that a box was taken for Mr. Lincoln and General Grant, who were expected to visit the theater, and contribute to the benefit of Miss Laura Keene, and satisfy the curiosity of a large audience. Mr. Booth went away with a jest, and a lightly-spoken “Good afternoon.” Strolling down to Pumphreys’ stable, on C street, in the rear of the National Hotel, he engaged a saddle horse, a high-strung, fast, beautiful bay mare, telling Mr. Pumphreys that he should call for her in the middle of the afternoon.

From here he went to the Kirkwood Hotel, on the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and Twelfth street, where, calling for a card and a sheet of notepaper, he sat down and wrote upon the first as follows:

For Mr. Andrew Johnson:—

I don’t wish to disturb you; are you at home?

J. W. Booth.

To this message, which was sent up by the obliging clerk, Mr. Johnson responded that he was very busily engaged. Mr. Booth smiled, and turning to his sheet of note-paper, wrote on it. The fact, if fact it is, that he had been disappointed in not obtaining an examination of the Vice-President’s apartment and a knowledge of the Vice-President’s probable whereabouts the ensuing evening, in no way affected his composure. The note, the contents of which are unknown, was signed and sealed within a few moments. Booth arose, bowed to an acquaintance, and passed into the street. His elegant person was seen on the avenue a few minutes, and was withdrawn into the Metropolitan Hotel.

At 4 P. M., he again appeared at Pumphreys’ livery stable, mounted the mare he had engaged, rode leisurely up F street, turned into an alley between Ninth And Tenth streets, and thence into an alley reloading to the rear of Ford’s Theater, which fronts on Tenth street, between E and F streets. Here he alighted and deposited the mare in a small stable off the alley, which he had hired sometime before for the accommodation of a saddle-horse which he had recently sold. Mr. Booth soon afterward retired from the stable, and is supposed to have refreshed himself at a neighboring bar-room.

At 8 o’clock the same evening, President Lincoln and Speaker Colfax sat together in a private room at the White House, pleasantly conversing. General Grant, with whom the President had engaged to attend Ford’s Theater that evening, had left with his wife for Burlington, New-Jersey, in the 6 o’clock train. After this departure Mr. Lincoln rather reluctantly determined to keep his part of the engagement, rather than to disappoint his friends and the audience. Mrs. Lincoln, entering the room and turning to Mr. Colfax, said, in a half laughing, half serious way, “Well, Mr. Lincoln, are you going to the theater with me or not?” “I suppose I shall have to go, Colfax,” said the President, and the Speaker took his leave in company with Major Rathbone, of the Provost-Marshal General’s office, who escorted Miss Harris, daughter of Senator Harris, of New York. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln reached Ford’s Theater at twenty minutes before 9 o’clock.

The house was filled in every part with a large and brilliantly attired audience. As the presidential party ascended the stairs, and passed behind the dress circle to the entrance of the private box reserved for them, the whole assemblage, having in mind the recent Union victories, arose, cheered, waving hats and handkerchiefs, and manifesting every other accustomed sign of enthusiasm. The President, last to enter the box, turned before doing so, and bowed a courteous acknowledgment of his reception—At the moment of the President’s arrival, Mr. Hawks, one of the actors, performing the well-known part of Dundreary, had exclaimed: “This reminds me of a story, as Mr. Lincoln says.” The audience forced him, after the interruption, to tell the story over again. It evidently pleased Mr. Lincoln, who turned laughingly to his wife and made a remark which was not overheard.


The box in which the President sat consisted of two boxes turned into one, the middle partition being removed, as on all occasions when a state party visited the theater. The box was on a level with the dress circle; about twelve feet above the stage. There were two entrances—the door nearest to the wall having been closed and locked; the door nearest the balustrades of the dress circle, and at right angles with it, being open and left open, after the visitors had entered. The interior was carpeted, lined with crimson paper, and furnished with a sofa covered with crimson velvet, three arm chairs similarly covered, and six cane-bottomed chairs. Festoons of flags hung before the front of the box against a background of lace.

President Lincoln took one of the arm-chairs and seated himself in the front of the box, in the angle nearest the audience, where, partially screened from observation, he had the best view of what was transpiring on the stage. Mrs. Lincoln sat next to him, and Miss Harris in the opposite angle nearest the stage. Major Rathbone sat just behind Mrs. Lincoln and Miss Harris. These four were the only persons in the box.

The play proceeded, although “Our American Cousin,” without Mr. Sothern, has, since that gentleman’s departure from this country, been justly esteemed a very dull affair. The audience at Ford’s, including Mrs. Lincoln, seemed to enjoy it very much. The worthy wife of the President leaned forward, her hand upon her husband’s knee, watching every scene in the drama with amused attention. Even across the President’s face at intervals swept a smile, robbing it of its habitual sadness.

About the beginning of the second act, the mare, standing in the stable in the rear of the theater, was disturbed in the midst of her meal by the entrance of the young man who had quitted her in the afternoon. It is presumed that she was saddled and bridled with exquisite care.

Having completed these preparations, Mr. Booth entered the theater by the stage door; summoned one of the scene shifters, Mr. John Spangler, emerged through the same door with that individual, leaving the door open, and left the mare in his hands to be held until he (Booth) should return. Booth who was even more fashionably and richly dressed than usual, walked thence around to the front of the theater, and went in. Ascending to the dress circle, he stood for a little time gazing around upon the audience and occasionally upon the stage in his usual graceful manner. He was subsequently observed by Mr. Ford, the proprietor of the theater, to be slowly elbowing his way through the crowd that packed the rear of the dress circle toward the right side, at the extremity of which was the box where Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln and their companions were seated. Mr. Ford casually noticed this as a slightly extraordinary symptom of interest on the part of an actor so familiar with the routine of the theater and the play.

The curtain had arisen on the third act, Mrs. Mountchessington and Asa Trenchard were exchanging vivacious stupidities, when a young man, so precisely resembling the one described as J. Wilkes Booth that be is asserted to be the same, appeared before the open door of the President’s box, and prepared to enter.

The servant who attended Mr. Lincoln said politely, “this is the President’s box, sir, no one is permitted to enter.” “I am a senator,” responded the person, “Mr. Lincoln has sent for me.” The attendant gave way, and the young man passed into the box.

As he appeared at the door, taking a quick, comprehensive glance at the interior, Major Rathbone arose. “Are you aware, sir,” he said, courteously, “upon whom you are intruding? This is the President’s box, and no one is admitted.” The intruder answered not a word. Fastening his eyes upon Mr. Lincoln, who had half turned his head to ascertain what caused the disturbance, he stepped quickly back without the door.

Without this door there was an eyehole, bored it is presumed on the afternoon of the crime, while the theater was deserted by all save a few mechanics. Glancing through this orifice, John Wilkes Booth espied in a moment the precise position of the President; he wore upon his wrinkling face the pleasant embryo of an honest smile, forgetting in the mimic scene the splendid successes of our arms for which he was responsible, and the history he had filled so well.

The cheerful interior was lost to J. Wilkes Booth. He did not catch the spirit of the delighted audience, of the flaming lamps flinging illumination upon the domestic foreground and the gaily set stage. He only cast one furtive glance upon the man he was to slay, and thrusting one hand in his bosom, another in his skirt pocket, drew forth simultaneously his deadly weapons. His right palm grasped a Derringer pistol, his left a dirk.

Then, at a stride, he passed the threshold again, levelled his arm at the President and bent the trigger.

A keen quick report and a puff of white smoke,—a close smell of powder and the rush of a dark, imperfectly outlined figure,—and the President’s head dropped upon his shoulders: the ball was in his brain.


The movements of the assassin were from henceforth quick as the lightning, he dropped his pistol on the floor, and drawing a bowie-knife, struck Major Rathbone, who opposed him, ripping through his coat from the shoulder down, and inflicting a severe flesh wound in his arm. He leaped then upon the velvet covered balustrade at the front of the box, between Mrs. Lincoln and Miss Harris, and, parting with both hands the flags that drooped on either side, dropped to the stage beneath. Arising and turning full upon the audience, with the knife lifted in his right hand above his head, he shouted “Sic, semper tyrannis—Virginia is avenged!” Another instant he had fled across the stage and behind the scenes. Colonel J. B. Stewart, the only person in the audience who seemed to comprehend the deed he had committed, climbed from his seat near the orchestra to the stage, and followed close behind. The assassin was too fleet and too desperate, that fury incarnate, meeting Mr. Withers, the leader of the orchestra, just behind the scenes, had stricken him aside with a blow that fortunately was not a wound; overturning Miss Jenny Gourlay, an actress, who came next in his path, he gained, without further hindrance, the back door previously left open at the rear of the theater; rushed through it; leaped upon the horse held by Mr. Spangler, and without vouchsafing that person a word of information, rode out through the alley leading into F street, and thence rapidly away. His horse’s hoofs might almost have been heard amid the silence that for a few seconds dwelt in the interior of the theater.


Then Mrs. Lincoln screamed, Miss Harris cried for water, and the full ghastly truth broke upon all—"The President is murdered!” The scene that ensued was as tumultuous and terrible as one of Dante’s pictures of hell. Some women fainted, others uttered piercing shrieks, and cries for vengeance and unmeaning shouts for help burst from the mouths of men. Miss Laura Keene, the actress, proved herself in this awful time as equal to sustain a part in real tragedy as to interpret that of the stage. Pausing one moment before the footlights to entreat the audience to be calm, she ascended the stairs in the rear of Mr. Lincoln’s box, entered it, took the dying President’s head in her lap, bathed it with the water she had brought, and endeavoured to force some of the liquid through the insensible lips. The locality of the wound was at first supposed to be in the breast. It was not until after the neck and shoulders had been bared and no mark discovered, that the dress of Miss Keene, stained with blood, revealed where the ball had penetrated.

This moment gave the most impressive episode in the history of the


The Chief Magistrate of thirty, millions of people—beloved, honored, revered,—lay in the pent up closet of a play-house, dabbling with his sacred blood the robes of an actress.

As soon as the confusion and crowd was partially overcome, the form of the President was conveyed from the theater to the residence of Mr. Peterson, on the opposite side of Tenth street. Here upon a bed, in a little hastily prepared chamber, it was laid and attended by Surgeon-General Barnes and other physicians, speedily summoned.

In the meanwhile the news spread through the capital, as if borne on tongues of flame. Senator Sumner, hearing at his residence, of the affair took a carriage and drove at a gallop to the White House, when he heard where it had taken place, to find Robert Lincoln and other members of the household still unaware of it. Both drove to Ford’s Theater, and were soon at the President’s bedside. Secretary Stanton and the other members of the cabinet were at hand almost as soon. A vast crowd, surging up Pennsylvania avenue toward Willard’s Hotel, cried, “The President is shot!” “President Lincoln is murdered.” Another crowd sweeping down the avenue met the first with the tidings, “Secretary Seward has been assassinated in bed.” Instantly a wild apprehension of an organized conspiracy and of other murders took possession of the people. The shout “to arms!” was mingled with the expressions of sorrow and rage that everywhere filled the air. “Where is General Grant?” or “where is Secretary Stanton!” “Where are the rest of the cabinet?” broke from thousands of lips. A conflagration of fire is not half so terrible as was the conflagration of passion that rolled through the streets and houses of Washington on that awful night.

The attempt on the life of Secretary Seward was perhaps as daring, if not so dramatic, as the assassination of the President. At 9:20 o’clock a man, tall, athletic, and dressed in light coloured clothes, alighted from a horse in front of Mr. Seward’s residence in Madison place, where the secretary was lying, very feeble from his recent injuries. The house, a solid three-story brick building, was formerly the old Washington Club-house. Leaving his horse standing, the stranger rang at the door, and informed the servant who admitted him that he desired to see Mr. Seward. The servant responded that Mr. Seward was very ill, and that no visitors were admitted. “But I am a messenger from Dr. Verdi, Mr. Seward’s physician; I have a prescription which I must deliver to him myself.” The servant still demurring, the stranger, without further parley, pushed him aside and ascended the stairs. Moving to the right, he proceeded towards Mr. Seward’s room, and was about to enter it, when Mr. Frederick Seward appeared from an opposite doorway and demanded his business. He responded in the same manner as to the servant below, but being met with a refusal, suddenly closed the controversy by striking Mr. Seward a severe and perhaps mortal blow across the forehead with the butt of a pistol. As the first victim fell, Major Seward, another and younger son of the secretary, emerged from his father’s room. Without a word the man drew a knife and struck the major several blows with it, rushing into the chamber as he did so; then, after dealing the nurse a horrible wound across the bowels, he sprang to the bed upon which the secretary lay, stabbing him once in the face and neck. Mr. Seward arose convulsively and fell from the bed to the floor. Turning and brandishing his knife anew, the assassin fled from the room, cleared the prostrate form of Frederick Seward in the hall, descended the stairs in three leaps, and was out of the door and upon his horse in an instant. It is stated by a person who saw him mount that, although he leaped upon his horse with most unseemly haste, he trotted away around the corner of the block with circumspect deliberation.

Around both the house on Tenth street and the residence of Secretary Seward, as the fact of both tragedies became generally known, crowds soon gathered so vast and tumultuous that military guards scarcely sufficed to keep them from the doors.

The room to which the President had been conveyed is on the first floor, at the end of the hall. It is only fifteen feet square, with a Brussels carpet, papered with brown, and hung with a lithograph of Rosa Bonheur’s “Horse Fair,” an engraved copy of Herring’s “Village Blacksmith,” and two smaller ones, of “The Stable” and “The Barn Yard,” from the same artist. A table and bureau, spread with crotchet work, eight chairs and the bed, were all the furniture. Upon this bed, a low walnut four-poster, lay the dying President; the blood oozing from the frightful wound in his head and staining the pillow. All that the medical skill of half a dozen accomplished surgeons could do had been done to prolong a life evidently ebbing from a mortal hurt.

Secretary Stanton, just arrived from the bedside of Mr. Seward, asked Surgeon-General Barnes what was Mr. Lincoln’s condition. “I fear, Mr. Stanton, that there is no hope.” “O, no, general; no, no;” and the man, of all others, apparently strange to tears, sank down beside the bed, the hot, bitter evidences of an awful sorrow trickling through his fingers to the floor. Senator Sumner sat on the opposite side of the bed, holding one of the President’s hands in his own, and sobbing with kindred grief. Secretary Welles stood at the foot of the bed, his face hidden, his frame shaken with emotion. General Halleck, Attorney-General Speed, Postmaster-General Dennison, M. B. Field, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Judge Otto, General Meigs, and others, visited the chamber at times, and then retired. Mrs. Lincoln—but there is no need to speak of her. Mrs. Senator Dixon soon arrived, and remained with her through the night. All through the night, while the horror-stricken crowds outside swept and gathered along the streets, while the military and police were patrolling and weaving a cordon around the city; while men were arming and asking each other, “What victim next?” while the telegraph was sending the news from city to city over the continent, and while the two assassins were speeding unharmed upon fleet horses far away—his chosen friends watched about the death-bed of the highest of the nation. Occasionally Dr. Gurley, pastor of the church where Mr. Lincoln habitually attended, knelt down in prayer. Occasionally Mrs. Lincoln and her sons, entered, to find no hope and to go back to ceaseless weeping. Members of the cabinet, senators, representatives, generals, and others, took turns at the bedside. Chief-Justice Chase remained until a late hour, and returned in the morning. Secretary McCulloch remained a constant watcher until 5 A. M. Not a gleam of consciousness shone across the visage of the President up to his death—a quiet, peaceful death at last—which came at twenty-two minutes past seven A. M. Around the bedside at this time were Secretaries Stanton, Welles, Usher, Attorney-General Speed, Postmaster-General Dennison, M. B. Field, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Judge Otto, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, General Halleck, General Meigs, Senator Sumner, F. R. Andrews, of New-York, General Todd, of Dacotah, John Hay, private secretary, Governor Oglesby, of Illinois, General Farnsworth, Mrs. and Miss Kenny, Miss Harris, Captain Robert Lincoln, son of the President, and Drs. E. W. Abbott, R. K. Stone, C. D. Gatch, Neal Hall, and Leiberman. Rev. Dr. Gurley, after the event, knelt with all around in prayer, and then, entering the adjoining room where were gathered Mrs. Lincoln, Captain Robert Lincoln, Mr. John Hay, and others, prayed again. Soon after 9 o’clock the remains were placed in a temporary coffin and conveyed to the White House under a small escort.

In Secretary Seward’s chamber, a similar although not so solemn a scene prevailed; between that chamber and the one occupied by President Lincoln, visitors alternated to and fro through the night. It had been early ascertained that the wounds of the secretary were not likely to prove mortal. A wire instrument, to relieve the pain which he suffered from previous injuries, prevented the knife of the assassin from striking too deep. Mr. Frederick Seward’s injuries were more serious. His forehead was broken in by the blow from, the pistol, and up to this hour he has remained perfectly unconscious. The operation of trepanning the skull has been performed, but little hope is had of his recovery. Major Seward will get well. Mr. Hansell’s condition is somewhat doubtful.

Secretary Seward, who cannot speak, was not informed of the assassination of the President, and the injury of his son, until yesterday. He had been worrying as to why Mr. Lincoln did not visit him. “Why does’nt the President come to see me?” he asked with his pencil. “Where is Frederick—what is the matter with him?” Perceiving the nervous excitement which these doubts occasioned, a consultation was had, at which it was finally determined that it would be best to let the secretary know the worst. Secretary Stanton was chosen to tell him. Sitting down beside Mr. Seward’s bed, yesterday afternoon, he therefore related to him a full account of the whole affair. Mr. Seward was so surprised and shocked that he raised one hand involuntarily, and groaned. Such is the condition of affairs at this stage of the terror. The pursuit of the assassins has commenced; the town is full of wild and baseless rumors; much that is said is stirring, little is reliable. I tell it to you as I get it, but fancy is more prolific than truth: be patient!


[Footnote: The facts above had been collected by Mr. Jerome B. Stillion, before my arrival in Washington: the arrangement of them is my own.]