Posts from the ‘Booth’ Category

Frederick Aiken The Attorney – Historians Weigh In

From the moment that the American Film Company released The Conspirator, questions have been raised about the films accuracy regarding the lead counsel, Frederick Aiken. Was he, as FoxNews host Bill O’Reilly would opine, a “pinhead” or a “patriot?” You be the judge.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Little has been written about Frederick Aiken. This Week in the Civil War posted some preliminary materials back in April, and they it still seems to be the only biographical material out there. You can read the biography post here.

The mystery goes even deeper than that. The owner of this blog made a records request for Aiken’s personnel files from the National Archives earlier this year. Instead of receiving a packet with all the mundane details of his assignments and pay records, the most Civil War personnel files contain, the Archives sent back one sheet of paper that said, “Record not located.”

The life of Frederick Aiken is still a mystery. Perhaps someday we’ll know more about his story but until then, we’ll dig up every rudimentary detail that we can find.

In the meantime, the Surratt House Museum website has an index of .pdf files on the trial that you can download here. It would be a great place to start your own research into the career of Frederick Aiken.

Two key books were written that details the Assassination of President Lincoln, with suitable references to the young attorney. I highly recommend you purchase a copy of each book in order to understand the context of the quotations. (For the record, I do not have any financial interest in either of these books.)

The first one is Assassin’s Accomplice by Dr. Kate Clifford Larsen, from which the film, The Conspirator, was based upon.

By the close of court on May 10, the rest of the defendants were still without counsel. Mudd’s lawyer, Brent, backed out, so the following day, Mudd petitioned the court for change of counsel to Frederick Stone, Herold’s lawyer. Mary arrived in court with new counsel as well: Frederick Aiken and John W. Clampitt, the new associates in Reverdy Johnson’s large practice in Washington. Aiken, born and raised in Massachusetts, had passed the bar in Vermont and was very active in Democratic Party politics. During the war he had worked as a correspondent for the New York Times, and had been practicing law only a short time when he was called upon to help defend Surratt. Clampitt was a Washingtonian, and had only recently begun practicing law with Aiken in Johnson’s law office. He, too, was an active Democratic Party loyalist. Johnson, in the meantime, would remain Mary’s lead counsel, in spite of his own heavy case load. [pg. 145]

On Friday, May 12, the court reconvened at ten o’clock in the morning. Sam Arnold had successfully retained counsel: General Thomas Ewing Jr., a Union officer and successful Washington lawyer. He would represent not only Arnold, but Ed Spangler and Samuel Mudd, too, as co-counsel with Frederick Stone. Michael O’Laughlen hired Walter S. Cox, a local attorney and professor at Columbia College, who would also assist Stone with Arnold’s defense. George Atzerodt’s family retained William E. Doster for him. Doster had been a former provost marshall in Washington, and would prove to be a contentious defense counsel. The court would prevail upon him to take Payne on as a client, too, after Payne’s first lawyer backed out and no other was willing to represent him. [pg. 145]

Whether Johnson ultimately decided that Mary as guilty or not remains unknown. However, within a few days, Johnson rarely appeared in court, leaving Mary’s defense to his inexperienced associates Clampitt and Aiken. [pp. 146-147]

After Weichmann and Lloyd’s extensive testimonies, Reverdy Johnson virtually gave up on Mary’s defense. His absence was duly noticed. Rumors began spreading that Johnson knew Mary was guilty and had therefore deserted her. As early as May 16, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Johnson “had abandoned cross-questioning the witnesses, and is preparing an argument to prove that the court cannot try these cases, for lack of power.” Johnson’s decision to not appear regularly in court as part of Mary’s defense team, and to leave her in the hands of his inexperienced associates, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, would have tragic consequences. [pg. 154]

Almost every day, further negative testimony implicated Mary and her son John ever more deeply in Booth’s plans. Reverdy Johnson’s new associates, Aiken and Clampitt, now without their experienced lead counsel, seemed helpless to stem the flow of damaging evidence. [pg. 155]

Mary’s co-council Frederick Aiken announced to the court that the defendants’ attorneys had met privately to discuss the order of presentation. They agreed that testimony relating to Mrs. Surratt would launch the first phase of the defense of the conspirators.  [pg. 156]

When cross-examined by Judge Holt, Eliza noted that Mrs. Surratt never appeared to have difficulty recognizing people by gaslight in the parlor. Aiken’s efforts to bolster Mary’s claim that poor eyesight and dim light had prevented her from recognizing Payne on the night of her arrest were ineffectual. The day had not gone well for Mary’s defense.          [pg. 158]

Mary’s defense had taken a beating. By the time court adjourned that Saturday afternoon, Aiken and Clampitt had only succeeded in making the prosecution’s case even stronger. Even at this early date, Mary’s prospects looked bleak. Clampitt and Aiken needed to regroup. They returned to court on Monday ready to take a different tack. [pg. 169]

It would be another two days before Aiken and Clampitt would provide their own closing summation, even though Johnson knew that they were inexperienced attorneys and it could prove disastrous to leave Mary’s final defense arguments in their hands. Just as he did through most of the trial, he left Mary’s life – and left Mary’s life in their hands.         [pg. 190]

The other book is American Brutus by Michael  W. Kauffman.

The defendants were still scrambling to find lawyers, and in a short time most of the accused had found someone. John Atzerodt hired William E. Doster, the former provost marshal of Washington, to represent his brother. Walter S. Cox, a law professor at Columbian College, agreed to defend O’Laughlen, and David Herold retained the services of Frederick Stone, from a distinguished Charles County famliy. Dr. Mudd and Sam Arnold would both be represented by General Thomas Ewing, Jr., former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court and a brother-in-law of General William T. Sherman. All were fine attorneys, but there were not enough to go around. Spangler and Powell were still unrepresented and after several rejections, Mary Surratt could secure only the services of two neophytes, John W. Clampitt and Frederick A. Aiken. Neither had experience in a capital case, and Aiken was just completing his first year of practice. [pg. 340]

Many of the objections raised by Frederick Aiken, the attorney for Mary Surratt, would have been overruled in any court. Aiken was not an experienced lawyer. He did not understand the rules of evidence, and his frequent missteps played as heavily against his client as anything the commission decided. He rarely came prepared and often failed to anticipate what his own witnesses would say…Perhaps Aiken’s worst blunder was calling Augustus Howell to the stand. Howell was defiant, evasive, and inordinately proud of his opposition to the Yankees. His testimony was intended to cast suspicion on Weichmann, whom he had taught to use a Confederate cipher machine but it only called attention to the fact that Howell himself knew how to use the device. [pp. 357-358]

In an exchange with Lew Wallace, Aiken admitted that the process was not at fault. The general said “I understood the object of the counsel to be, to impeach not only the witness for the government, but also the fairness of the Court.” To this, Aiken replied, “No, sir; only the witness; not the fairness of the Court at all. I have no reason to complain of that. None of us have had.”[pg. 358]

The Assassination Conspirators Hang - from left: Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

You be the judge. Was Aiken a “pinhead” for representing Surratt in the first place, and setting himself up for the inevitable fall that would occur if/when she was found guilty? Or was he a “patriot” for undertaking a task that he knew might be ruinous to his future career? The one thing that we know for sure is that Frederick Aiken was a victim of his own inexperience as an attorney.

The Lincoln Assassination: New research unravels old myths

A historiography by Jeffrey S. Williams

The Northern States were celebrating the end of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. shortly after 10 p.m. on April 14, 1865. When the president passed away at 7:22 a.m. the next morning, the celebration abruptly stopped and the nation mourned the passing of its wartime leader.

Conflicting eyewitness accounts of nearly every major news story happen frequently and the Lincoln assassination is no exception. Historians still differ on several points surrounding the events of April 1865. Did Laura Keene enter the Presidential Box and cradle Lincoln’s head in her lap (Harbin, 1966)? What was Mary Surratt’s role in the conspiracy (Larson, 2008)? Yet the one thing that all historians seem to agree on is that the man who pulled the trigger at Ford’s Theater on that fateful night was actor John Wilkes Booth.

President Lincoln wasn’t even buried when the first myths about his assassination began to surface.

The first myth was perpetuated by John Wilkes Booth himself. When his effects were brought to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, following the assassin’s death on April 26, 1865, Booth’s personal diary was among the artifacts. He wrote, “I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night, with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump” (Kauffman, 2004, p. 399). Eyewitnesses immediately corrected the record about when Booth yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus,” noting that it happened after the shooter landed on the stage. Yet nobody made a reference to Booth breaking his leg at that time (Kauffman, 2004).

Michael W. Kauffman has studied the Lincoln assassination for three decades and believes that Booth’s broken leg didn’t occur at Ford’s Theater. In American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (2004), he writes:

John Wilkes Booth

Flying through the door to Baptist Alley, Booth thrust his left foot into a stirrup and almost leaped into the saddle. His movement startled the mare, and she pulled out from under him, leaving him twisting with the full weight of his body on that (supposedly broken) left leg. Peanuts Borrows and Major Joseph Stewart both saw Booth’s struggle to throw himself onto the horse, and neither reported anything that suggests he was in pain. Nor did Sergeant Cobb notice any discomfort when Booth approached him to cross the Navy Yard Bridge. Not until Booth reached the tavern in Surrattsville was he clearly suffering from a painful injury. He told John Lloyd that his horse had fallen on him, and he boasted of killing the president. Booth and Herold had switched horses by then. Sergeant Cobb and others were positive that Booth had ridden away on a bright bay mare, and everyone agreed that Herold was on a roan. But outside the city, everyone who encountered them remembered it the other way around. In light of Booth’s broken leg, the switch made perfect sense. An injured man would certainly have preferred the gentle steady gait of a horse like the one Herold had rented. From Lloyd’s to Mudd’s, Booth stayed on that horse, and Herold rode the mare, who was now noticeably lame, with a bad cut on her left front leg. Clearly, she had been involved in an accident. (pp. 273-274).

When the film The Conspirator was released in April 2011, after shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth falls on the stage and clutches his leg. Even though Kauffman’s book has been on the market for seven years before the film’s release, the myth of Booth’s broken leg is still being perpetuated.

Early Writings

             The earliest writings of the Lincoln Assassination were newspaper headlines and official dispatches from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Because of the rapidly moving news cycle and the slow telegraph technology, the early facts about the simultaneous assassination attempt of Secretary of State William H. Seward were incorrect, as the preliminary reports suggested John H. Surratt Jr., was the Seward assailant, instead of Lewis Thornton Powell. It took days before the War Department and the newspapers got the basic facts correct (Kauffman, 2004).

The real story of the assassination and the conspiracy didn’t start coming out until the trial of the conspirators – Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold and Edman Spangler, commenced a month later.

In The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D.C., May and June 1865, for the murder of President Lincoln (1865), the complete and unredacted transcript of the trial’s proceedings were published by T.B. Peterson & Brothers, shortly after the execution of Surratt, Atzerodt, Powell and Herold on July 7, 1865. This coincided with the release of the U.S. Army’s heavily edited transcript, The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators (1865), edited by Benn Pitman, the trial’s court reporter.

George Alfred Townsend, a veteran journalist during the Civil War, published the daily reports that he wrote for the New York Herald between April 17 and May 17, 1865, into one volume titled, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (1865). All three books are source documents for historians today.

Townsend wasn’t satisfied with his coverage. He continued to hunt down leads and acquire information about the assassination throughout the remainder of his life. In 1883, he tracked down his biggest lead when he identified the person responsible for hiding Booth and David Herold for one full week they were on the run. Until then, nobody knew what happened to the pair of fugitives except that anonymous person. After repeated attempts at communication, Thomas A. Jones finally came clean and told his story to Townsend after keeping it a secret for 18 years (Swanson, 2006).

Osborn H.I. Oldroyd, a captain in the 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry who began collecting Lincoln memorabilia in 1860, opened a small museum at the Abraham Lincoln House in Springfield, Illinois, in 1884. A decade later, he moved the museum to the Petersen House in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln died. Oldroyd ran the Petersen House Museum for three decades before selling his collection to the United States Government, which made it the backbone of their current artifact collection at Ford’s Theater (McAndrew, 2008).

Eleven years after Jones told his story to Townsend, the 74-year old Jones visited the Petersen House, viewed the museum’s artifacts, and examined the room where the late President breathed his last. He then introduced himself to Oldroyd and said, “My name is Thomas A. Jones, and I am the man who cared for and fed Booth and Herold while they were in hiding, after committing the awful deed” (Swanson, 2006, p. 245). Jones died the next year.

Another source document surfaced with the publication of Benjamin Perley Poore’s, Perley’s Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis (1886), in which the newspaperman vividly recreated the scene in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, including the Lincoln assassination; Lincoln’s state funeral; and trial of the conspirators; though he didn’t describe the actual hanging of the four conspirators – Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt and Powell. Nonetheless, his descriptions of the events continue to help modern historians paint an accurate picture of the people and places that existed at that time.

The Lincoln Centennial

            After the turn of the century, Finis L. Bates wrote, The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (1907), a largely fabricated story about Booth escaping from the Garrett Farm and fleeing to Enid, Oklahoma. Bates was so convinced that his subject, John St. Helen, was indeed the fugitive assassin that when St. Helen died in 1903, the author took possession of the mummified remains and put them in a traveling display (Bates, 1907). This was the first propagated myth suggesting that Booth might have escaped. The book’s source was an alleged granddaughter of John Wilkes Booth, with no proof of her actual relation to the assassin.

The attention to Bates’s book caught the attention of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. In a redacted January 10, 1923 letter, BOI Director William J. Burns wrote:

The escape route of John Wilkes Booth and David Herold after the April 14, 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

I have gone over with considerable interest the volume entitled “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth” by Finis L. Bates of Memphis, Tennessee, submitted by you. The work contains very strong evidence in support of the old belief that Booth did escape and live many years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This Department has no means of verification other than historic works, as the original case was handled by the military authorities. Thank you for bringing this to my attention (BOI, 1923).

This work led to a lawsuit filed by descendents of John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin, to exhume the assassin’s body from Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery for identification purposes hoping to put the myth to rest. After a four-day trial in May 1995, Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan denied the family’s petition (Wilner, 1996).

The Booth escape myth was propagated as recently as December 23, 2010, when the History Channel ran an hour-long special on Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. Despite numerous attempts by historians to rebut the story with evidence that existed in 1865, this is a story that won’t go away (Kauffman, 2004).

In February 1909, as the nation observed the 100th birthday of President Lincoln, an address was given to the New York Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. It was titled, Lincoln’s Last Hours, written and delivered by Dr. Charles A. Leale, the Army surgeon who attended to Lincoln at Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House. Leale claims that he was the one who, “pronounced my diagnosis and prognosis: ‘His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.’ This message was telegraphed all over the country” (Leale,, 1909, p. 6). Why did Leale wait for 44 years before recording his memories of that fateful night?

On April 17, 1865, a New York newspaper reporter called at my army tent. I invited him in, and expressed my desire to forget all the recent sad events, and to occupy my mind with the exacting present and plans for the future…Recently, several of our Companions expressed the conviction, that history now demands, and that it is my duty to give the detailed facts of President Lincoln’s death as I know them, and in compliance with their request, I this evening for the first time will read a paper on the subject (Leale, 1909, p. 1).

The Leale document is important because it gives historians a first-hand look at the medical care that the president received from the time he was shot until his death the following morning. It also gives historians and surgeons an opportunity to compare older brain trauma techniques with modern medicine.

Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, director of the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center, believes that Lincoln could have survived the shooting if today’s technology had been available. Through Leale’s description of Lincoln’s condition, Scalea and other brain surgeons have determined that the round tore a path through the left side of the brain but did not hit the brainsteam or cross the midline, and stopped before entering the frontal lobes. They concluded that it was a survivable wound by modern standards (Brown, 2007).

After her brother was killed by Sgt. Boston Corbett, Asia Booth Clarke began to write her memoirs of growing up with John Wilkes Booth. Because of the public outrage over the assassination, Asia kept it to herself. Her work was not published until 1938. She solicited memories from her other brothers, Junius Jr., Edwin and Joseph. Edwin replied, “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world” (Clarke, 1938, p. 92).

Modern Writings

            Samuel J. Seymour was a five-year boy when his godmother took him to the theater that night. When he died on April 13, 1956, one day before the 91st anniversary of the assassination, the last witness to the assassination was gone (McClarey, 2011).

Since the passing of Seymour and other witnesses, historians have taken a more objective look at the events of April 1865. The U.S. Government has opened its files to researchers, documents have been located in private collections and more attention has been given to deciphering the accuracy of information.

Michael W. Kauffman’s research has been instrumental in bringing new evidence to light. He has examined eyewitness testimony, government reports, transcripts of the conspirator trials, traced the route of Booth and Herold, including rowing a boat across the Potomac from the same location and in the same manner that the fugitives did. He purchased the rolls of microfilm from the National Archives that contain the 11,000 pages of the Lincoln Assassination Suspects file, and then built a custom database to sort and analyze all of his collected information.

The event-based system I designed was far different from the statistical models used by most historians, and it may actually be unique in the way it applies technology to the study of historical developments. Most important, it works. It brought to the fore new relationships among the plotters, unnoticed patterns in Booth’s behavior, and a fresh significance to events I once considered unimportant. All this has given me a clearer picture of the Booth conspiracy – including incidents no writer had previously noticed…By sorting events over time, I could see how one conspirator fades from the scene while another is shoved into his place. I got a sense of how much work and money went into the plot. I noticed how carefully choreographed the scheme really was. But most surprising of all, I learned how Booth managed to organize and run a dangerous plot – undetected – in the face of unprecedented government paranoia (Kauffman, 2004, pp. xiii-xiv).

It was this event-based system that allowed Kauffman to discover that Booth broke his leg in a riding accident after he crossed the Washington Navy Yard Bridge and before his arrival at the Surratt Tavern (Kauffman, 2004).

        In American Brutus (2004), Kauffman spells out Booth’s conspiracy plot in great detail. With dates of meetings and performances, Booths’ travel schedule, money transfers and conversations with people, Kauffman succeeds in outlining the conspiracy with great suspense. However, he gives us only a brief glimpse about the reasoning behind Booth’s plot, and does not fully follow the investigators who were on the trail of the assassin.

James L. Swanson spent nearly his whole life examining the life and death of Abraham Lincoln. Like Kauffman, his research is thorough and conclusions are concrete. While Swanson didn’t put together a significant database of information, he examined many of the same sources as Kauffman, plus looked closer at the newspaper articles from that time period. Swanson published, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (2006), and picks up where Kauffman left off.

Swanson doesn’t spend much time on Booth’s background or his planning of the conspiracy plot. Swanson focuses on what happened April 14-26, 1865. He shows us what was going on with Booth and Herold during that time, along with the investigators who were examining leads, which eventually led to their apprehension. He also tells of the extreme difficulties that both the fugitives and the investigators faced during that time, and the overall result of Booth’s actions on American history.

          John Wilkes Booth did not get what he wanted. Yes, he did enjoy a singular success: he killed Abraham Lincoln. But in every other way, Booth was a failure. He did not prolong the Civil War, inspire the South to fight on, or overturn the verdict of the battlefield, or of free elections. Nor did he confound emancipation, resuscitate slavery, or save the dying antebellum civilization of the Old South. Booth failed to overthrow the federal government by assassinating its highest officials. Indeed, he failed to murder two of the three men he had marked for death on that “moody, tearful night.” He did not become an American hero, but he elevated Lincoln to the American pantheon. And, in his greatest failure, Booth did not survive the manhunt. His was not a suicide mission. He wanted desperately to live, to escape, to bask in the fame and glory he was sure would be his. He got his fame, but at the price of his life (Swanson, 2006, pp. 385-387).

While the bulk of the historical attention has been on John Wilkes Booth since 1865, two other conspirators had their biographies recently published. Alias Paine: Lewis Thornton Powell, the Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy (1993), was published by B.J. Ownsbey; and The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (2008) was published by Dr. Kate Clifford Larson.

The first part of Larson’s work was a disappointment. A careful reading of Kauffman’s and Swanson’s works, both of which were source documents for The Assassin’s Accomplice, would have corrected some of basic historical inaccuracies, including the Booth claim of breaking his leg at Ford’s Theater. However, she spends more than half of the book discussing the trial of the conspirators, the rules of evidence, brief profiles of the attorneys involved, the sentencing, plea for the writ of habeas corpus, and the hanging of the guilty, which more than makes up for the inadequacies in the beginning.

As a testament to Larson’s professionalism, she admits that she went into the project with preconceived notions of Mary Surratt’s innocence but was swayed by the evidence she uncovered during the trial and in her further research.

Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the evidence cannot be ignored. Mary Surratt did indeed keep “the nest that hatched the egg.” She could have chosen not to help Booth, but she decided to assist him in whatever way she could. In providing a warm home, private encouragement, and material support to Abraham Lincoln’s murderer, she offered more than most of Booth’s other supporters. For that, Mary Surratt lost her life and must forever be remembered as the assassin’s accomplice (Larson, 2008, p. 230).

What influenced John Wilkes Booth enough to commit his heinous act? Nora Titone believes that it was a bitter rivalry between John Wilkes and his brother, Edwin, following the death of their father, the famed actor Junius Brutus Booth, that led to the assassination.

          In My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy (2010), Titone examines the relationship between the two brothers and draws some astonishing conclusions. She compares the careers of the two brothers and discovers that John Wilkes was always jealous of the success and accolades that Edwin received during his career, while Edwin dismissed his younger brother as undisciplined.

Since the assassination, historians have wondered why Secretary of State William H. Seward was a target for assassination while other cabinet members were not. She points out that Secretary Seward invited Edwin Booth to a private dinner on March 11, 1864, which was the beginning of a long friendship between the two men (Titone, 2010).

She also discusses Edwin’s plan for the three acting brothers to have separate territories in the country before the war. Junius Jr., who was already acting in the western United States, would continue to act west of the Mississippi River; Edwin would hold on to the lucrative Northeast; while John Wilkes was relegated to the southern and Midwestern states that were not as profitable. With John Wilkes touring in the south, he sympathized with them (Titone, 2010).

The history I tell is, in large measure, a theatrical history. For three generations, the Booths lived their lives on, and in the shadow of, the stage. To re-create their particular world, it was necessary to gather thousands of pages of primary sources from archives of nineteenth-century American theater history. Reminiscences of the famous clan abound, penned by fellow actors, by legions of journalists, by multitudes of contemporaries and friends. Most important, however, this narrative draws from over one hundred years’ worth of private letters, diaries, memoirs, account books, documents, and journals written by the Booths themselves, as well as from the family’s huge collection of playbills, paintings, statues, photographs, theatrical costumes, dramatic reviews, and stage props. My first debt is to librarians, curators, and archivists who guided me on a five-year search through this rich voluminous record (Titone, 2010, p. 457).

Titone gives us a fresh look at an event that has been well documented and heavily researched. Further investigation into some of the events, like the Seward dinner and the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City that had the entire Booth family, including Edwin and John Wilkes, hiding in fear for their lives, would, perhaps, give us a better indication of the reasons behind the assassination (Titone, 2010).

The Future

            Even though nearly a century and a half has passed since the assassination of President Lincoln, historians like Kauffman, Swanson, Larson and Titone are only now scratching the surface in telling the story objectively.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

However,  little has been written about the involvement of other conspirators like John H. Surratt Jr., who was in Elmira, New York, when Lincoln was killed; George Atzerodt, who failed in his attempt to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson; and David Herold, who spent 12 days in hiding with John Wilkes Booth. Other than Dr. Samuel Mudd, little has been written about the lives of Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlin (Kauffman, 2004).

With the release of The Conspirator, questions have been raised about the life of Frederick A. Aiken, Mary Surratt’s attorney. Other minor characters, like Thomas A. Jones, who hid Booth and Herold for seven days while they were fugitives from justice, along with certain myths that continue to be propagated today, are also worthy of further research.


Bates, F.L. (1907). The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth. Memphis: Historical Publishing Company.

Brown, D. (2007). Could Modern Medicine have saved Lincoln? The Washington Post. May 21, 2007.

Clarke, A.B. (1938). The Unlocked Book: A Memoir of John Wilkes Booth by his sister Asia Booth Clarke. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons.

Harbin, B. J. (1966). Laura Keene at the Lincoln Assassination. Educational Theatre Journal. Vol. 18, No. 1 (March, 1966). pp. 47-54.

Kauffman, M.W. (2004). American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York: Random House.

Larson, K.C. (2008). The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln. New York: Basic Books.

Leale, C.A. (1909). Lincoln’s Last Hours: An address delivered before the commandery of the State of New York, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States at the regular meeting, Feb. 1909, City of New York.

McAndrew, Tara McClellan. (2008). The First Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum: How a deadbeat saved history. Illinois Times. Nov. 19, 2008.

McClarey, D. R. (2011). Last Eye Witness to the Lincoln Assassination. The American Catholic. February 2011.

Meltzer, B. (2010). Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. History Channel. Aired: Dec. 23, 2010.

Ownsbey, B.J. (1993). Alias Paine: Lewis Thornton Powell: The Mystery Man of the Lincoln Conspiracy. North Carolina: McFarland & Co. Inc.

Peterson, T.B. (1865). The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D.C.,

May and June 1865, for the Murder of President Lincoln. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & Brothers.

Pitman, B. (1865). The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trail of the Conspirators. New York: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin.

Poore, B.P. (1886). Perley’s Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis. Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers.

Redford, R. (Director). The Conspirator [Motion Picture]. United States: American Film Company.

Swanson, J.L. (2006). Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. New York: Harper Collins.

Titone, N. (2010). My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy. New York: Free Press.

Townsend, G.A. (1865). The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald.

Wilner, C.J. (1996). Reported in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, No. 1531, September Term 1995, Virginia Eleanor Humbrecht Kline et. al. v. Green Mount Cemetery, et. al., June 4, 1996.

United States Government. (1923). Letter from William J. Burns, Director of the Bureau of Investigation, Jan. 10, 1923. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lincoln Assassination Books

Here are the four best books for details on the Lincoln Assassination.

American Brutus, by Michael W. Kauffman

It is a tale as familiar as our history primers: A deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth, killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, escaped on foot, and eluded capture for twelve days until he met his fiery end in a Virginia tobacco barn. In the national hysteria that followed, eight others were arrested and tried; four of those were executed, four imprisoned. Therein lie all the classic elements of a great thriller. But the untold tale is even more fascinating.

Now, in American Brutus, Michael W. Kauffman, one of the foremost Lincoln assassination authorities, takes familiar history to a deeper level, offering an unprecedented, authoritative account of the Lincoln murder conspiracy. Working from a staggering array of archival sources and new research, Kauffman sheds new light on the background and motives of John Wilkes Booth, the mechanics of his plot to topple the Union government, and the trials and fates of the conspirators.

Piece by piece, Kauffman explains and corrects common misperceptions and analyzes the political motivation behind Booth’s plan to unseat Lincoln, in whom the assassin saw a treacherous autocrat, “an American Caesar.” In preparing his study, Kauffman spared no effort getting at the truth: He even lived in Booth’s house, and re-created key parts of Booth’s escape. Thanks to Kauffman’s discoveries, readers will have a new understanding of this defining event in our nation’s history, and they will come to see how public sentiment about Booth at the time of the assassination and ever since has made an accurate account of his actions and motives next to impossible–until now.

In nearly 140 years there has been an overwhelming body of literature on the Lincoln assassination, much of it incomplete and oftentimes contradictory. In American Brutus, Kauffman finally makes sense of an incident whose causes and effects reverberate to this day. Provocative, absorbing, utterly cogent, at times controversial, this will become the definitive text on a watershed event in American history.

Assassin’s Accomplice by Kate Clifford Larson

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, The Assassin-s Accomplice tells the gripping story of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln through experience of its only female participant.Confederate sympathizer Mary Surratt ran a boarding house in Washington, and the depth of her complicity in the murder of President Lincoln has been debated since she was arrested on April 17, 1865.Calling upon long-lost interviews, confessions, and court testimony, historian Kate Clifford Larson magnificently captures how Surratt-s actions defied nineteenth-century norms of piety and allegiance. A riveting account of espionage and murder, The Assassin-s Accomplice offers a revealing examination of America-s most remembered assassination.

Manhunt: The 12-day chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson

“The murder of Abraham Lincoln set off the greatest manhunt in American history – the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. From April 14 to April 26, 1865, the assassin led Union cavalry and detectives on a wild twelve-day chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., across the swamps of Maryland, and into the forests of Virginia, while the nation, still reeling from the just-ended Civil War, watched in horror and sadness.” “At the very center of this story is John Wilkes Booth, America’s notorious villain. A Confederate sympathizer and a member of a celebrated acting family, Booth threw away his fame and wealth for a chance to avenge the South’s defeat. For almost two weeks, he confounded the manhunters, slipping away from their every move and denying them the justice they sought.” Based on rare archival materials, obscure trial transcripts, and Lincoln’s own blood relics, Manhunt is a fully documented work, but it is also a fascinating tale of murder, intrigue, and betrayal. A gripping hour-by-hour account told through the eyes of the hunted and the hunters, this is history as you’ve never read it before.

My Thoughts be Bloody by Nora Titone

In some ways, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre was John Wilkes Booth’s most stunning theatrical performance. The assassin waited offstage until his cue (gunshot-muffling audience laughter); then burst into the president’s theatre; shot him and leaped onto the stage. According to historian Nora Titone, this play-stopping dramatic scene marked not just the end of Booth’s bombastic acting career; it was the climax of his bitter lifelong rivalry with his older brother Edwin. With persuasive force, Titone argues that John Wilkes’ jealousy of his sibling’s much more successful acting career fueled the hatred that culminated in a single violent act that changed history.

Mary Eugenia Surratt (1823-1865)

Convicted Lincoln assassination conspirator

Mary Surratt

Mary Eugenia Jenkins was born in Maryland in 1823. As an adolescent she attended a Catholic seminary for girls in Virginia, but at sixteen she married John Surratt, at least ten years her senior, and in 1840 settled with him in Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the early years of their marriage the Surratts prospered as a result of John’s success as a planter, which allowed him to expand his land holdings and open a general store and tavern, making up the core of the community that came to be known as Surrattsville (now Clinton). In 1854, a post office was even established in town, with John as its first postmaster. John’s earlier achievements were undermined, however, by his excessive drinking, which led to neglect of his farm and crops and a steady decline in his fortunes. In August 1862, John died. The Surratts’ eldest son Isaac (b. 1841), having taken a job as a pony-express rider in Mexico, left Mary Surratt alone to care for her two younger children, Anna (b. 1843) and John, Jr. (b. 1844).

Surratt struggled to manage what remained of the family’s holdings in Surrattsville, but she found it increasingly difficult, not least of all because John, Jr. showed so little interest in helping on the farm. By fall 1864, Mary Surratt had moved with John, Jr. and Anna to a house on H Street in Washington, D.C., which her husband had purchased in 1853 and which she converted into a boardinghouse. Happily for the Surratts, the boardinghouse did quite well, with a small number of steady boarders and the constant flow of more transient traffic through the federal capital during the war.

As early as 1863, John Surratt, Jr. – a loyal Southerner like his late father – began serving the Confederacy as a courier. In connection with this work, and with his college studies, John brought a number of people home to H Street, some of whom would later become entangled in the assassination conspiracy. In the spring of 1863, John introduced his mother to a school chum named Louis Weichmann, who took up residence in the Surratt boardinghouse in November 1864. By January 1865, John had met and become good friends with the ardent secessionist and actor John Wilkes Booth. Subsequently Booth was a regular visitor to H Street as well. German immigrant and assassination co-conspirator George Atzerodt also stayed at the boardinghouse for a few days in February 1865, until Mary Surratt evicted him for excessive drinking. Posting as a Baptist preacher, Lewis Powell – later found guilty of the 14 April attack on Secretary of State William H. Seward – lodged at the Surratt boardinghouse for three days in March.

Surratt Tavern in Clinton, Maryland (formerly Surrattsville)

It was not long after the shooting at Ford’s Theater that government investigators first descended on the boardinghouse. At approximately 2:30 on the morning of 15 April, several officials arrived and demanded to search the house in connection with the murder of the President. It appears that these men were looking for John, Jr., whom they believed at the time to have been the one to assault Seward. On the evening of the 17th, two detectives and two army officers returned, this time to arrest Mary Surratt and the rest of the people remaining in the house (Weichmann had slipped out on the 15th and was arrested that day; other boarders, disturbed by the crowds gathering around the house, had moved out on the 16th). Of the five who were arrested, all were women, with the exception of Lewis Powell, who arrived in disguise at the last, and for him most inopportune, moment. John Surratt, Jr., was nowhere to be found, and Booth had already escaped across the Potomac.

Mary Surratt and the others were questioned intensively at the headquarters of General Christopher Augur, commander of the Union troops in the capital, and the women were taken to the Old Capitol Prison, where they were incarcerated. Although the other women arrested with her (including Anna Surratt) were subsequently released, Mary Surratt was not. Instead, along with Atzerodt, Powell, and five others (Samuel Arnold, David Herold, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, Michael O’Laughlin, and Edward Spangler) Mary Surratt was charged in the conspiracy to assassinate the president and subjected to a trial by a military commission. The trial began on 11 May and ended on 28 June. All eight were found guilty in varying degrees, and on 5 July, when President Andrew Johnson issued his orders in connection with the commission’s verdict, four were sentenced to hang, Mary Surratt among them. Gallows for Surratt, Herold, Atzerodt, and Powell were swiftly constructed, and on 7 July 1865, despite all expectations that her sentence would be converted, Mary Surratt was executed.

The Assassination Conspirators Hang - from left: Mary E. Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, David Herold. Photo by Alexander Gardner.

The legitimacy of a military commission trying a case involving civilians, and the quality of both the investigation and the evidence supplied during the trial (particularly in her case) have continued to be matters of steady debate for well over a century. Doubts about Mary Surratt’s guilt were from the start exacerbated by her own unwavering claims – even to her priest – about her innocence. It does not help the cause of the prosecutors or the commission with its guilty verdict, or President Johnson with his determination to execute Surratt and the others as quickly as possible, that John Surratt, Jr., though finally captured and brought to trial in 1867, walked away free and lived until 1916.

– Elizabeth D. Leonard [Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, pages 1909-1910]

For further reading:

Bryan, George S. The Great American Myth: The True Story of Lincoln’s Murder (1990).

Busch, Francis X. Enemies of the State (1954).

DeWitt, David M. The Judicial Murder of Mary E. Surratt (1895; reprint, 1970).

Eisenschiml, Otto. Why Was Lincoln Murdered? (1937).

Moore, Guy W. The Case of Mrs. Surratt: Her Controversial Trial and Execution (1954).

Trindal, Mary E., and Elizabeth S. Mary Surratt: An American Tragedy (1996).

Turner, Thomas Reed. Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1982).

On this day: April 26, 1865 – JOHN WILKES BOOTH KILLED!

“Useless, Useless” actor declares as he gives up ghost at dawn.  

Harpers Weekly May 20, 1865 recounts the capturing and killing of John Wilkes Booth ending the 12-day chase for Lincoln's assassin.

The Account of the Officer in Charge

On April 24, 1865, Lieutenant Edward Doherty sits on a bench across from the White House conversing with another officer. The arrival of a messenger interrupts the conversation. The messenger carries orders directing Doherty to lead a squad of cavalry to Virginia to search for Booth and Herold. Scouring the countryside around the Rappahoneck River, Doherty is told the two fugitives were last seen at a farm owned by Richard Garrett. Doherty leads his squad to the farm arriving in the early morning hours of April 26.

“I dismounted, and knocked loudly at the front door. Old Mr. Garrett came out. I seized him, and asked him where the men were who had gone to the woods when the cavalry passed the previous afternoon. While I was speaking with him some of the men had entered the house to search it. Soon one of the soldiers sang out, ‘O Lieutenant! I have a man here I found in the corn-crib.’ It was young Garrett, and I demanded the whereabouts of the fugitives. He replied, ‘In the barn.’ Leaving a few men around the house, we proceeded in the direction of the barn, which we surrounded. I kicked on the door of the barn several times without receiving a reply. Meantime another son of the Garrett’s had been captured. The barn was secured with a padlock, and young Garrett carried the key. I unlocked the door, and again summoned the inmates of the building to surrender.

John Wilkes Booth

“After some delay Booth said, ‘For whom do you take me?’

“I replied, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. Come out.’

“He said, ‘I am a cripple and alone.’

“I said, ‘I know who is with you, and you had better surrender.’

“He replied, ‘I may be taken by my friends, but not by my foes.’

“I said, ‘If you don’t come out, I’ll burn the building.’ I directed a corporal to pile up some hay in a crack in the wall of the barn and set the building on fire.

“As the corporal was picking up the hay and brush Booth said, ‘If you come back here I will put a bullet through you.’

“I then motioned to the corporal to desist, and decided to wait for daylight and then to enter the barn by both doors and over power the assassins.

“Booth then said in a drawling voice. ‘Oh Captain! There is a man here who wants to surrender awful bad.’

“I replied, ‘You had better follow his example and come out.’

“His answer was, ‘No, I have not made up my mind; but draw your men up fifty paces off and give me a chance for my life.’

“I told him I had not come to fight; that I had fifty men, and could take him.

“Then he said, ‘Well, my brave boys, prepare me a stretcher, and place another stain on our glorious banner.’

The escape route of John Wilkes Booth and David Herold after the April 14, 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

“At this moment Herold reached the door. I asked him to hand out his arms; he replied that he had none. I told him I knew exactly what weapons he had. Booth replied, ‘I own all the arms, and may have to use them on you, gentlemen.’ I then said to Herold, ‘Let me see your hands.’ He put them through the partly opened door and I seized him by the wrists. I handed him over to a non-commissioned officer. Just at this moment I heard a shot, and thought Booth had shot himself. Throwing open the door, I saw that the straw and hay behind Booth were on fire. He was half-turning towards it.

“He had a crutch, and he held a carbine in his hand. I rushed into the burning barn, followed by my men, and as he was falling caught him under the arms and pulled him out of the barn. The burning building becoming too hot, I had him carried to the veranda of Garrett’s house.

Photo of the Garrett Farmhouse - courtesy of the National Park Service

“Booth received his death-shot in this manner. While I was taking Herold out of the barn one of the detectives went to the rear, and pulling out some protruding straw set fire to it. I had placed Sergeant Boston Corbett at a large crack in the side of the barn, and he, seeing by the igniting hay that Booth was leveling his carbine at either Herold or myself, fired, to disable him in the arm; but Booth making a sudden move, the aim erred, and the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln. Booth asked me by signs to raise his hands. I lifted them up and he gasped, ‘Useless, useless!’ We gave him brandy and water, but he could not swallow it. I sent to Port Royal for a physician, who could do nothing when he came, and at seven o’clock Booth breathed his last. He had on his person a diary, a large bowie knife, two pistols, a compass and a draft on Canada for 60 pounds.”

Clark, Champ. The Assassination: Death of the President (1987); Doherty, Edward P., Pursuit and Death of John Wilkes Booth, Century Magazine XXXIX (January, 1890); Kunhardt, Dorothy. Twenty Days (1965).

[Source: “The Death of John Wilkes Booth, 1865,” EyeWitness to History, (1997).]

On this date: April 24, 1865 – Hancock issues proclamation

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

On this date, 146 years ago – Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the following handbills printed and distributed to free blacks in the communities of Virginia and Maryland along the Potomac River. John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, and David Herold, Booth’s accomplice, were still on the run after 10 days.




Washington, D.C., April 24, 1865

To the colored people of the District of Columbia and of Maryland, of Alexandria and the border counties of Virginia:

     Your President has been murdered! He has fallen by the assassin and without a moment’s warning, simply and solely because he was your friend and the friend of our country. Had he been unfaithful to you and to the great cause of human freedom he might have lived. The pistol from which he met his death, though held by Booth, was fired by the hands of treason and slavery. Think of this and remember how long and how anxiously this good man labored to break your chains and to make you happy. I now appeal to you, by every consideration which can move loyal and grateful hearts, to aid in discovering and arresting his murderer. Concealed by traitors, he is believed to be lurking somewhere within the limits of the District of Columbia, of the State of Maryland, or Virginia. Go forth, then, and watch, and listen, and inquire, and search, and pray, by day and night, until you shall have succeeded in dragging this monstrous and bloody criminal from his hiding place. You can do much; even the humblest and feeblest among you, by patience and unwearied vigilance, may render the most important assistance.

     Large rewards have been offered by the Government, and by municipal authorities, and they will be paid for the apprehension of this murderer, or for any information which will aid in his arrest. But I feel that you need no such stimulus as this. You will hunt down this cowardly assassin of your best friend, as you would the murderer of your own father. Do this, and God, whose servant has been slain, and the country which has given you freedom, will bless you for this noble act of duty.

     All information which may lead to the arrest of Booth, or Surratt, or Harold, should be communicated to these headquarters, or to General Holt, Judge Advocate General, at Washington, or, if immediate action is required, then to the nearest military authorities.

     All officers and soldiers in this command, an all loyal people, are enjoined to increased vigilance.


Major General U.S. Volunteers

Commanding Middle Military Division

Colonel Frederick A. Aiken biography

Sarah Olivia WESTON was born in West Randolph, Orange, Vermont. Educated at home, chiefly under private tuition. She continued her studies in Boston, devoting her attention principally to the classics and history, under the direction of several noted professors at Cambridge, she being the second of the few female students to whom the privileges of Harvard University were granted. Her thorough knowledge of the ancient languages were of great service to Prof. Elliot Coues in his famous work on Ornithology, the “North American Birds,” in which a glowing tribute is paid to her attainments.

Sarah Olivia WESTON and Frederick Argyle AIKEN were married on June 1, 1857. Frederick Argyle AIKEN died in 1878. After their marriage, they removed to Washington, D.C. where he
soon attained distinction in legal and journalistic circles, having been the attorney and counsel of Mrs. Surratt, one of the Lincoln conspirators, and being the editor of several newspapers in Washington. At the time of his death, in 1878, resulting partly from injuries while serving on the General staff of Gen. W.S. Hancock during the late war, he was one of the most widely known and successful journalists.

[Source: Illustrated Historical Souvenier of Randolph, Vermont, Compiled & Published by Nickenson & Cox, Published Randolph, Vermont 1895, p. 81.]

Her parents were Judge Edmund Weston and Sarah Weston (nee Edson). She died Friday May 25, 1900 at 2:45 p.m., and buried in a private funeral, according to her death notice. Her Washington Post obituary makes mention of her involvement with a “Theosophic Society” and her employment as a clerk in the office of the auditor for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

From the Washington Weekly Post, Dec. 24, 1878:

“The melancholy news of the sudden death of Col. Frederick A Aiken, city editor of the Post, reached this office yesterday after we had gone to press, and filled every heart with the shock which so unexpected and sad an event was likely to produce in circles where the deceased was so esteemed and beloved. At his desk on Thursday night, his absence the rest of the week was ascribed to an ordinary hepatic complaint with which he was known to be affected, and the sad truth therefore fell with heavier, because unlooked for, force.

“Frederick Argyle Aiken was born in the city of Boston, Massachusetts in the year 1837, and consequently was only in the 41st year of his age at death. . . During the early years of the war he was a volunteer aide with the rank of captain on the staff of General Hancock, and participated gallantly in several engagements, during one of which he had two horses shot under him, and received injuries the ultimate effect of which no doubt hastened his death. During the dark days of 1863 and 64 when the Democracy of the District made so gallant a fight under the leadership of Col. Thomas B Florence . . . Aiken was one of the most active workers in the Democratic cause, and his brilliant pen and eloquent voice were incessantly employed. When that unfortunate victim of Republican fury, Mrs. Mary Surratt, was dragged from her bed at midnight by the brutal minions of Stanton, and hurried before a court-martial organized to convict, Col. Aiken was one of the gallant few in the District that dared to lift his voice in behalf of justice and right at the imminent risk of his life and nobly undertook to conduct her defense. His defense of Mrs. Surratt is one of the . . . most praiseworty efforts on record. Col Aiken’s memorable speech on that occasion will be long remembered as fulfilled prophecy, everyone now believing her to have been innocent. After this trial, Col. Aiken was called on . . . to assist in the defense of Jefferson Davis, and prepared some of the preliminary papers in that case.

“In 1865 he was admitted to the Supreme Court of the United States and practiced in that and the District courts with such esteem until 1868, when he gave up law for his former and most loved . . . journalism. He had previously, during the war and after, assisted Col. Tom Florence in editing the ‘Constitutional Union,’ and in 1869 became the editor of the ‘Sunday Gazette.’ The ‘Herald’ of Washington remembered the brilliant success which attended Col. Aiken’s management of this journal. In 1871 he became the dramatic editor of the ‘National Republican.’ In 1876 he was attacked with a heavy fit of sickness which consigned him to the verge of the grave, and from the affects of which he never totally recovered.

“In the winter of 1877, Col. Aiken started with the ‘Post’ at its city editor position, which he held until the time of his death, he being the first of its staff that has died. He died at twenty minutes past twelve o’clock Sunday night after only three day’s sickness that his friends felt but little anxiety for his condition.

“Gifted, brilliant, and versatile, having in a very marked degree the power of winning and retaining the affection of both men and women, singularly kind-hearted and benevolent, the death of Fred Aiken leaves a void in the hearts of his friends which may not be filled. His presence cast sunshine wherever it went. He had always a cheering smile for the erring, a kind word for the struggling, an open hand for the unfortunate, and a big free heart for those he loved. His handsome, manly appearance will be long remembered and by none more so than by his journalistic and literary friends.

“As a writer he was singularly correct and graceful, and in all the sphere of life his lot was cast; he was famous for doing his duty well, promptly and faithfully. The writer of these lines, who was one of his eldest, most intimate friends, remembering the many happy moments spent in his society and the many kindly acts which delighted him to perform, lays down his pen with the sad conviction that in the death of Frederick A Aiken, the American press has lost one of its most entertaining and versatile writers, and humanity one of its noblest ornaments. It is pleasant to add that in the last few months of his life Aiken had turned his thoughts often and earnestly to the ministry of his savior, and had his life been spared, would doubtless see another Christmas entered the church as one of its earnest, eloquent servitors.”

The obituary in the Washington Post is incorrect. First off, his middle name was not Argyle. According to his birth record and marriage record, he was born Frederick Augustus Aiken on September 20, 1832 (a full five years earlier than the cemetery record which is the source for most of the inaccurate information) in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents were Solomon S. Aiken and Susan Aiken (nee Rice).

As of April 30, 2011, a rare 1864 letter from Frederick Aiken was available for sale. Click here for details.

For more information on the Lincoln Assassination and how the research has changed over the years, including the dispelling of popular myth with facts, click here.

UPDATE December 21, 2011: For a more comprehensive look at the legal career of Frederick Aiken, click here.

Information below is from his entry at Find A Grave:

Birth: Sep. 20, 1837Shrewsbury, Worchester County, MassachusettsDeath: Dec. 23, 1878Washington, District of Columbia

Photo courtesy of Bernadette Loeffel - Atkins

Lincoln Assassination Trial Attorney. A Massachusetts native he moved with his parents to Hardwick, Vermont when he was ten years old. As a young man he studied at Middlebury College from 1855 to 1857. Drawn to journalism he became the editor of theBurlington Sentinel. After he married Sarah Olivia Weston (1846-1900), daughter of Judge Edmund Weston in Randolph, Vermont, he began the study of law. In 1859 he was admitted to the Orange County, Vermont bar, moving to Washington, D.C. in 1860.

When the Civil War began he joined the volunteers, becoming an aide with the rank of Captain on the staff of General Winfield S. Hancock. He returned to the law in 1863 when admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the United States and in the District of Columbia Courts.

He was best known for his defense of Mrs. Mary Surratt, accused of conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln. His speech in her defense was included in the The World’s Best Orations in 1899.

In 1868 he returned to the practice journalism. In 1877 he became the City Editor of The Washington Post, a position he held until his death after an illness of two days.

Although his grave is unmarked he is buried in the North Hill lot containing the grave of Tennessee United States Senator and Secretary of War, John H. Eaton.

Oak Hill Cemetery
District of Columbia
District Of Columbia, USA
Plot: North Hill, Lot 79. Unmarked burial.
Created by: DSMGLS
Record added: Jul 18, 2009
Find A Grave Memorial# 39589509

‘The Conspirator’ takes in $7 million in ten days

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Here are the latest numbers for the first ten days of ‘The Conspirator’ courtesy of The film had a budget of $25 million and has now taken in just under $7 million in ten days at the box office.

Daily Chart Record – The Conspirator

Date Rank Gross % Change Theaters Per Theater Total Gross Days
4/15/2011 10 $1,099,750   707 $1,556 $1,099,750 1
4/16/2011 11 $1,574,766 +43.19% 707 $2,227 $2,674,516 2
4/17/2011 11 $832,086 -47.16% 707 $1,177 $3,506,602 3
4/18/2011 11 $288,941 -65.28% 707 $409 $3,795,543 4
4/19/2011 12 $330,363 +14.34% 707 $467 $4,125,906 5
4/20/2011 12 $289,282 -12.44% 707 $409 $4,415,188 6
4/21/2011 13 $287,495 -0.62% 707 $407 $4,702,683 7
4/22/2011 13 $749,000 +160.53% 849 $882 $5,452,000 8
4/23/2011 13 $999,000 +33.38% 849 $1,177 $6,451,000 9
4/24/2011 13 $541,000 -45.85% 849 $637 $6,990,863 10

Historical Inaccuracies in ‘The Conspirator’

by Jeffrey S. Williams

The Conspirator Movie Poster

Okay, so we know that the James Solomon/Robert Redford film The Conspirator, now entering its second full weekend, has some inaccuracies to it. What are they?

Here are a few obvious ones that I remember from having watched the film a week ago.

Myth: When David Herold and John Wilkes Booth first arrived at the Surratt Tavern and met with John Lloyd, the film shows Lloyd walking out to the two men on horses, handing the rifles and whiskey and then going back indoors.

Fact: Booth stayed mounted on his horse while Herold dismounted and joined Lloyd inside of the tavern. After Lloyd retrieved the rifles and had a couple of shots of whiskey, they walked out and gave Booth some whiskey before leaving. Herold pitched Lloyd a silver dollar to cover the cost of the alcohol. Booth and Herold were at the tavern for approximately five minutes.

Myth: Booth did not break his leg while jumping from the Presidential box to the stage at Ford’s Theater, as has been commonly claimed.

American Brutus

Fact: According to Michael W. Kauffman, author of American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, “Booth and Herald had switched horses by then. Sergeant Cobb and others were positive that Booth had ridden away on a bright bay mare, and everyone agreed that Herold was on a roan. But outside the city, everyone who encountered them remembered it the other way around. In light of Booth’s broken leg, the switch made perfect sense. An injured man would certainly have preferred the gentle, steady gait of a horse like the one Herold had rented. From Lloyd’s to Mudd’s, Booth stayed on that horse, and Herold rode the mare, who was now noticeably lame, with a bad cut on her left front leg. Clearly, she had been involved in an accident.” Kauffman also states that the first reference to the fall at the theater came from Booth’s own diary entry written days after the incident. In the same entry, Booth writes that he yelled, “Sic Semper Tyrannus” BEFORE he shot President Lincoln, which, according to eyewitness accounts, was yelled after he landed on the stage.

In James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-day chase for Lincoln’s killer, Herold told Dr. Samuel Mudd that, “one of their horses had fallen, the man claimed, throwing the rider and breaking his leg.”

Myth: Mary Surratt was put into a prison cell at the Washington Arsenal right after her capture, according to the film.

Fact: She was held at the Old Capitol Prison, currently the location of the U.S. Supreme Court building and formerly the site of the hanging of Andersonville prison camp commander, Henry Wirz, for thirteen days, before being transferred to the Arsenal. She was not at the Arsenal at the beginning of her incarceration but was tried and executed there.

Washington Arsenal on Greenleaf's Point

Myth: The Washington Arsenal has a moat.

Fact: The Washington Arsenal was located on Greenleaf’s Point (also known as “Buzzard Point”) surrounded on three sides by the Anacostia River and the Washington Channel. It is currently the site of Fort McNair and the National War College.

Myth: Mary Surratt was unveiled during the trial.

Fact: With the exception of her plea, she was veiled the whole time, including when her daughter, Anna, was on the stand. It may make for a good Hollywood portrayal to have the heroine unveiled during her trial but it is far from historically accurate.

Myth: Mary Surratt wasn’t guilty of her role in the conspiracy.

Mary Surratt

Fact: This is the whole crux of the debate that has existed since July 7, 1865. The fact is when the detectives first searched the boarding house, Surratt herself was said to exclaim, “For God’s sake! Let them come in. I expected the house to be searched” (Swanson, 119). The movie excluded a lot of other testimony which gave more conclusive proof of Surratt’s guilt and failed to include that. The film IS correct in asserting Reverdy Johnson’s plea that the trial was unconstitutional because she was a civilian being tried in front of a military tribunal, which was the heart of Johnson’s argument throughout the trial, but the defense team examined numerous witnesses which only further concluded Surratt’s guilt. In fact, while trying to portray her as a pious Catholic church-goer, her defense team called up five priests, none of whom could testify that they knew her for any length of time. In essence, her own defense team unknowingly worked against her.

Myth: A secret message was delivered to John Surratt appealing to his mother’s aid.

Fact:  This seems quite far-fetched. It is inconceivable that a message could be sent and received to a person on the run in Canada in the course of 12-hours even using the most modern transportation system at that time. This was most-likely a made-up scene to give intrigue to the film.


Myth: The steam locomotive in the film was the same type that was used in the Lincoln Funeral Train.

Fact: This is partially true. It is a similar reproduction and considering the number of years that have passed, would be nearly impossible to reproduce while keeping the film on-time and on-budget. (The Strasbourg Railroad in Strasbourg, Pennsylvania, often makes reproduction steam locomotives for use


in movies – including the one used in the Will Smith film, Wild Wild West.) The Lincoln Funeral Train was pulled by

4-4-0 wood-burning steam locomotives. From Washington to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – the train was pulled by B&O Railroad locomotive No. 238 with it’s sister engine No. 239 running ten minutes ahead as the advance. From Harrisburg to Jersey City, N.J., the train was pulled by Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive No. 331. The funeral car and Pullman business car were ferried across the river to New York City. From NYC to Albany, N.Y. it was pulled by the “Union” of the Hudson Railroad with the “Constitution” in advance. The Albany to Erie, Pennsylvania leg had the New York Central’s “Dean Richmond” at the helm, though another locomotive might have switched in Buffalo. The next leg was from Erie to Cleveland, Ohio, the duty fell to the Cleveland, Painsville and Ashtabula Railroad’s “William Case.” The “Nashville” of the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad took the train from Cleveland to Columbus with the “Louisville” in advance. I’m not sure at this point which locomotive took the train to Lafayette, Indiana, but that’s where the “Persian” of the New Albany and Chicago railroad took over on the journey to Michigan City, Indiana. From Michigan City to Chicago, the Michigan Central railroad’s “Ranger” took the lead. The final leg from Chicago to Springfield and Lincoln’s final resting place was led by the Chicago and Alton’s engine No. 58 with engine No. 40 in advance.  The train in the film appeared to be a coal-burner of a later vintage than any of these locomotives. I’ll post more information on the Lincoln Funeral Train at a later date.

Myth: Frederick Aiken was a young idealist unprepared for the U.S. government’s seeming disregard of Surratt’s rights.

Reverdy Johnson

Fact: According to Kate Clifford Larson, author of Assassin’s Accomplice, “In reality, Aiken and [John] Clampitt, convinced of their duty to defend Mary to the best of their abilities, lacked experience as trial attorneys and were left to defend her against great odds. But some of that responsibility must be placed squarely with Senator Reverdy Johnson. His actions may have ultimately doomed her. From my perspective, she did little to aid her own defense, and an attorney can only do so much if the client is not cooperative. Indeed, it was later reported that Aitken and Clampitt were frustrated by Mary’s silence.” While little information currently exists about the biography of Frederick Aiken, the stuff that we do have suggests that he was not necessarily a young pro-Union idealist. He was known to have been at-odds with Lincoln and his administration long before he was chosen as Mary Surratt’s attorney by Reverdy Johnson. However, more research needs to be done on Aiken’s biography.

Myth: There were no doctors present at Ford’s Theater.

Dr. Charles Leale, Lincoln's attending physician at Ford's Theater

Fact: Dr. Charles Leale, a 24-year-old Army surgeon, attended the performance that night and was the first to reach the Presidential box to attend to the fatally wounded President. Because he was the first attending physician on the scene, he took the lead in patient care over all the other physicians who were in attendance that night. Dr. Charles Taft was also at Ford’s that night and became the second to reach Lincoln. Taft deferred to Leale at all phases. It was Leale who decided that Lincoln would not survive the trip to the White House on the rutted roads and opted for the boarding house instead. It was Leale’s suggestion that the President be moved out of the theater to the boarding house across the street (the first boarding house was locked and the Petersen House next door was chosen by Leale instead). The other doctors arrived later, but Lincoln was already under the care of two trained medical professionals.

Grant House in Burlington, N.J.

Myth: General Grant and his family were heading to Philadelphia.

Fact: General Grant was heading to his house at 309 Wood Street in Burlington, New Jersey, a house he bought in 1864. The film was correct in that Charles Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, sent the telegraph to Philadelphia. Uninformed movie-goers might interpret this to mean that Grant’s destination was Philadelphia, which was not the case.

Open Graves at the Washington Arsenal - Photo by Alexander Gardner

Another thing that the film got wrong was the “sterilized” look. Everything was too clean. Hey, this took place at the end of four years of war. The uniforms were not new. They were well-worn, torn and dirty. I can tell you that as a long-time Civil War reenactor, my uniform is well-worn, torn and dirty. Every reenactor goes through that, and we are clean by Civil War standards as happy “weekend warriors” who don’t live, march and sleep in the same clothing for weeks on end. If you want an accurate portrayal in the film, make sure that the clothes are worn BEFORE shooting begins, and the dust is everywhere. I noticed that in the courtroom scene, they are thick on the cigar smoke. Is this to cover up a lack of dust? But it gets worse – even the graves are perfectly dug. Even Alexander Gardner, who (thankfully) they properly portrayed in the film, took photos of the three graves. The coffin position was correct in the film, but the dirt taken out of the ground was piled too neatly. This is contrary to the photograph that Gardner took July 7, 1865.

There were things that the film got right.

  • The casting was extraordinary, minus the miscast Booth, who didn’t seem to fit in despite having such a prominent role in the actual plot.
  • The reenactors were used correctly. Unlike other period films with mis-cast reenactors, they blended into the scenery like they belonged there (which they did).
  • Secretary of State Seward’s assassination attempt by Louis Powell was correct. Seward was at home recovering from a carriage accident and had a metal brace connected to him that saved his life. Secretary of War Stanton left Seward’s house an hour before the assassination attempt happened.
  • Reverdy Johnson was a pro-Confederate Maryland U.S. Senator.

If you do go to see The Conspirator, remember to separate the fact from fiction. Mary Surratt was tried, convicted and hanged – probably with good reason.

To see my film review of ‘The Conspirator’ – click here.

‘The Conspirator’ aims for accuracy

By Lewis Beale – Newsday

NEW YORK —  On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Union troops stationed in Fort Sumter, S.C. The barrage marked the opening shots of the Civil War, a national tragedy that killed more than 600,000 people, destroyed the South economically and left a legacy of divisiveness that persists to this day.

The Conspirator Movie Poster

The war has also inspired several hundred films and TV shows, the latest of which, “The Conspirator,” starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy and directed by Robert Redford, opens today. Based on the true story of Mary Surratt, who was hanged for allegedly being part of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, the film is based heavily on court transcripts of her trial, and has astonishing parallels to the present-day terrorist trials at Guantanamo — Surratt was convicted by a military, not civilian, tribunal; she was not allowed to testify in her own behalf; and her defense attorney was not allowed to see the prosecution’s evidence against her.

“What this film speaks to is how moments in history do have a tendency to repeat themselves,” says James Solomon, screenwriter of “The Conspirator.” “So this is a timeless story.”

Timeless, and for the most part, historically accurate. Which is not the case with most films about the War between the States.

Filmmakers “almost never get it right,” says Gary Gallagher, author of “Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War.”

“They get it right in terms of maybe getting the book right,” Gallagher says, “like ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘The Killer Angels,’ but there aren’t many films that are accurate regarding what happened during the war.”

Filmmakers “don’t ever get it right from the historical point of view; inaccuracies always creep in,” adds Brian S. Wills, who has written “Gone With the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema.”

“A lot of times, time compression forces a story to be tighter for cinematic purposes,” he says, “and you put in language of what you thought people might say. Movies have to create something that’s plausible and realistic, but they also have to appeal to the audience, so they don’t want to go through the complications of history.”

What this means is that everything from the intricacies of tactics, to what uniforms looked like can be historically incorrect. This even extends to battlefield sequences in films like “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” which used Civil War re-enactors as extras, many of whom, said Gallagher, “are too old and larger than the average Civil War soldier (who was between 18 and 29, 5-foot-8 and 143 pounds).”

But it’s not just this historical minutiae that Civil War films get incorrect. There’s also a question of interpretation, themes about the war that have come and gone over the years.

“Movies will tell you more about the times in which they were created,” Wills says. “You have to understand the context in which that film appeared. Interpretation is not just a historical word, it’s a creative word, too.”

Hollywood’s ‘Lost Cause’

So before World War II, films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” reflected the “Lost Cause” sentiment — that the South was simply fighting for states’ rights — and were very pro-Confederate.

This was what Gallagher calls “Hollywood’s default interpretation” into the 1950s, when more nuanced treatments began to appear. Things changed “with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” he says. “‘Glory’ (the 1989 film about black Union soldiers) really signaled the dramatic shift, and every film since then reflects a more modern sensibility on race and the Emancipation Proclamation.”

And now “The Conspirator” takes Civil War — or, technically, post-Civil War — interpretations to a new level, although Solomon is quick to point out that he began working on his screenplay in 1993, before both World Trade Center attacks. But in the film, Union concerns about possible Confederate plots to commit acts of terrorism like poisoning Washington’s water supply are distant echoes of contemporary fears.

“When I started this,” he says, “I thought the story was Booth shoots the president, end of story. Issues of safety and security were abstract notions, because I wrote this long before 9/11. When I first wrote the piece, people would say ‘What an interesting story, but what is its relevance to today?'”

Whether future Civil War projects will be able to reflect contemporary issues and fears like “The Conspirator” does is a question yet to be answered. And there are other aspects of the conflict — the war on the high seas, the war in the West — that have barely been touched by Hollywood.

Yet “The Conspirator” may be plowing fertile ground for future film projects. “The fears back then were genuine,” Wills says. “They had real fears about assassinating leaders, real fears about burning cities, about crossing a line and violating civil liberties. These things that happened in the past still resonate.”

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