Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, died at 7:22 a.m. April 15th, 150 years ago. That much is certain. But trying to piece together the story of his murder and the escape of assassin John Wilkes Booth is something like that college stunt where someone runs into a classroom, fires a cap pistol and runs out and the professor asks what happened.
You get almost as many answers as there are people in the room.
There were 1,600 people in Ford’s theater the night Booth, a Maryland native, slipped into the president’s box and fired a single shot, point blank into Lincoln’s head and almost as many versions of what happened.
Anthony Pitch, author of They Have Killed Papa Dead, one of many books on the assassination, says it’s because we all “bring our own sensitivities” to the subject. And what is “important to one guy is irrelevant to another.”
For example, he says, “we think there was a messenger or a footman, or whatever they call him, sitting at the door.” Some say there was no one at the door. But no one knows for sure.
What we do know is that Booth, a famous actor, had played Ford’s many times. He knew his way around the building; the back stairwells, the hidden hallways. And he knew the play that was on the boards that night, “Our American Cousin,” inside out.
He slipped into a narrow alcove outside the president’s box, where he’d carved a peephole in the door that afternoon. And he waited for a guaranteed laugh line, “You sockdologizing old man trap,” to push the door open and fire.
“He couldn’t miss,” said Pitch.
Major Henry Rathbone, one of Lincoln’s guests, lunged at the intruder, but Booth pulled a knife, slashed Rathbone and then leapt from the box 12 feet to the stage.
He landed awkwardly, breaking his leg, yet pulled himself up, shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis,” thus always to tyrants, and dashed out the stage door to his waiting horse.
Pitch says many in the audience thought it was part of the play and didn’t react. Or they sat there stunned until a man named Joseph Stewart, who was sitting near the stage, figured it out.
Stewart cut around the orchestra pit, leapt to the stage and ran for the back door. But by the time he got there, “Booth was on his horse and he just got away, kicked in his heels and escaped,” Pitch recounted.
Doctors got help to carry Lincoln to a rooming house across the street, where they laid him diagonally across a bed that was too small for his six-foot, four-inch frame, knowing then the wound was mortal.
Booth galloped out of town and rendezvoused with David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, in Maryland. They made for Surratt’s Tavern in what is now Clinton in Prince George’s county.
The red, clapboard building-- restored to its original appearance in the 1970s-- stands where Woodyard, Piscataway and Brandywine roads and Old Branch Avenue meet. It was a Confederate safe house in the 1860s, owned by the same Mary Surratt whose Washington boarding house hosted the conspirators who had earlier plotted to kidnap Lincoln. Now, it’s hemmed in on all sides by a gas station, a 7-11 and a row of fast food joints.
Susan Proctor, the education coordinator at the Surratt House, says they take no position on Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence. They just “give you the facts and allow you, the visitor, to decide whether she’s guilty or innocent.”
But she concedes that Mary Surratt was a southern sympathizer, that she delivered rifles and supplies to the tavern and had told John Lloyd, who was running the tavern, to have “those shootin’ irons” ready. But that’s it. You figure out the rest.
Booth and Herold arrived about midnight and Herold went inside for the supplies that had been hidden there “from the previous kidnap attempts,” Proctor said. Booth stayed outside “on his horse because of his injured leg.”
And while he waited for Herold, he bragged to Lloyd about having killed the president. Soon they rode off, leaving one of the rifles behind because Booth, with his broken leg, couldn’t handle it. Lloyd, fearing he would be implicated, hid the remaining rifle by tying a rope around it and hanging it in a space between the walls of the kitchen and the family dining room.
Later, federal troops hot on Booth’s tail arrived at the tavern and began to pressure Lloyd. Lloyd caved and told them everything he knew, including the hidden gun.
“The soldiers rush upstairs and grab that rope to pull it up the wall,” said Proctor. “No gun.”
They ran back downstairs to the family dining, grabbed axes and tore out the wall to find the gun resting by the floorboards. It became one of the key pieces of evidence that put nooses around the necks of Mary Surratt and the other conspirators, Proctor said.
While the soldiers were interrogating Lloyd, Booth and Herold arrived at the farm of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, near Waldorf.
It was about four in the morning, barely three hours before Lincoln died. They banged on the door, and when Mudd finally answered, they gave fake names and said one of them had broken his leg when his horse rolled on him. Would the doctor please help?
At this point, its unlikely Mudd could have known of the assassination. There was no CNN then, no cell phones, no internet, says Eddie Roberts, vice president of the Dr. Mudd Society. But it’s unclear whether Mudd knew who Booth was.
The folks at the restored Dr. Mudd House say he didn’t recognize the famous actor.
“He had a beard and mustache. It was rather cold still that morning, kind of rainy, somewhat dark at four,” said Marilyn Jumalon, a docent at the house. And he was “wrapped in a shawl.”
But Mudd had met Booth in November of 1864 and squired him around Charles County as he searched real estate and a horse. And he saw him again in Washington in December that year.
Still, Roberts says Mudd couldn’t have recognized Booth because if he did “he would have had to question what was going on because we feel that he probably knew there was a plan for an attempt to kidnap the president at some point.” And Booth was the author of that failed plan.
Charles E. Mudd, a descendant of the doctor who is in his 80s and volunteers at the house, says he used to believe Mudd didn’t know.
“But there’ve been so many things told by so many different people, so many different books I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he said. “Put it this way. He was for the south.”
Regardless of whether he recognized Booth, he didn’t learn of Lincoln’s death and the search for two men until he went to nearby Bryantown later in the day for supplies. That’s when he began to put two and two together and headed back to the farm, where he encountered Booth and Herold.
The details are hazy here, but at some point Booth and Herold headed toward the Potomac through forbidding Zekiah Swamp, nearly 70,000 acres of wetland that drain to the river.
Roberts says he can’t imagine wandering through that swamp. People have gone missing in there and were never found. There’s quick sand and you don’t know how deep the water is.
“I’ve been told in places in that swamp back in that day that water could be anywhere from 10 or 15 foot deep at times,” he said. “How would you like to be two of the most wanted people in the world at that time, knowing everybody’s chasing you, and you pretty much can’t leave?”
They hid out in a pine thicket for four days, supported by a southern operative named Thomas Jones. At nightfall on the fourth day, Jones supplied them with a small rowboat, a compass and a candle and sent them on their way. Herold rowed all night while Booth hid the candle under the shawl he had worn at Dr. Mudd’s and used the compass to try to direct Herold across the river.
But when daylight came, they were in Nanjemoy Creek, several miles upstream, still in Maryland.
“And they’re like, oops, okay, we didn’t go where we thought we were going,” chuckled Jumalon, the docent. “They stayed there about two days and then they went across.”
Eventually, they made it to the farm of Richard Garrett in Port Royal, Va., where federal troops finally caught up with them as they hid in the tobacco barn.
The troops fired the barn and Herold surrendered, but Booth died, the victim of a single gunshot wound to the head. His body is buried in an unmarked grave in the family plot in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.