And Darkness Favors Us – Booth Escapes into Virginia

April 22, 1865 (Saturday)

John Wilkes Booth, accompanied by his compatriot, David Herold, had been on run for over a week. Having hastily planned to be in Virginia long before now, due to Booth’s broken leg they found themselves still in a thicket of pines on the Samuel Cox property near the Potomac River in Maryland. They had made it but forty miles south of Washington.

John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth

Though they were on Cox’s land, he did little to help them otherwise. Instead, he had gotten word to Thomas Jones, a former Confederate spy who lived along the river, to help ferry them across. After visiting with Booth and Herold on Easter Sunday, the 16th, Jones returned to his home and tried to figure out a way to coyly make use of one of his two boats.

He told the assassin that it would take up to a week for him to be able to get the two fugitives across. Jones then set about with a scheme involving his former slave, Henry Woodland, who was ordered to go fishing regularly every morning and to return to boat to Dent’s Meadow, a secluded spot with a large stream running through it. Jones had determined that it was here where the two would cross.

But this would take time. For days, Jones would carry food and coffee to Booth and Herold. From the first day, Jones noticed that Booth was not well. His broken leg was intensely painful, and he desperately wanted to be in Virginia. The plan was for them to wait long enough that the Federal cavalry patrols, some of which passed 200 yards from their hiding spot, to move farther south.

Over the next several days, Cox kept a watch on his property, and Jones went into the nearest town, Port Tobacco, to catch whatever news he could find. On that Tuesday, the 18th, Jones met Captain William Williams in a local bar. Williams was in pursuit of Booth, and had, unbeknown to Jones, just interviewed Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had set Booth’s leg. Mudd told Williams of “two strangers” who had visited him the night of the assassination, claiming not to know their identities. He did, however, point the Federal cavalry under Williams in the right diction.

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This brought Captain Williams to Port Tobacco, a hive of Confederate feelings and loyalty, where he offered $100,000 to anyone who would betray that loyalty and give up Booth. This was Jones’ chance to make everything right and retire well in the process. All Jones said to him was “That is a large sum of money and ought to get him if money can do it.”

But money could not do it. After the war, Williams claimed to have thought that Jones knew more than he was telling, but that his honest face and “come-to-the-Lord-and-be-saved expression” he wore rose in Williams enough doubt to not question further. “There was something which told me he knew where Booth was or could lead to his capture,” claimed Williams, “but he couldn’t be worked. No amount of money or glory would have tempted him. No human being can read his face and tell what is passing in his mind. It is like a stone.”

Writing later, Jones was in agreement: “But it seems to me that, had I, for money, betrayed the man whose hand I had taken, whose confidence I had won, and to whom I had promised succor, I would have been, of all traitors, the most abject and despicable. Money won by such vile means would have been accursed and the pale face of the man whose life I had sold, would have haunted me to the grave.”

Across the following two days, the cavalry flooded into the landscape, even visiting Jones’ house several times, searching it once. Apart from Cox, Jones confided in nobody. Jones did not even have to order his former slave, Henry, to lie, as he told him nothing of the larger picture.

“As the days rolled away,” wrote Jones, “Booth’s impatience to cross the river became almost insufferable.” The assassin’s leg was swollen, infected, and horribly painful. And though it had not rained, the nights were cold and the ground was damp. Each had only a single blanket, given to them by Jones or Cox, and nothing more. For six days and five nights, this tedium repeated.

David Herold
David Herold

“He never tired of the newspapers,” Jones recalled. “And there – surrounded by the sighing pines, he read the world’s just condemnation of his deed and the price that was offered for his life.

On Friday the 21st, Jones found himself once more at a bar, and once more seated next to a Federal cavalry officer. But this time was different. This time, the officer announced to his men, “Boys, I have news that they have been seen in St. Mary’s!” The troopers left the bar, remounted their rides, and made for St. Mary’s County. The search, it seemed to Jones, had now moved from the Port Tobacco area to St. Marys – upwards of forty miles away.

Here was Jones’ chance. Toward evening, the clouds thickened and by nightfall, a fog had rises from the surrounding marshes. He rode swiftly to Booth and Herold’s bivouac in the pines.

“The coast seems to be clear,” said Jones to Booth, “and darkness favors us. Let us make the attempt.” Jones gave his horse to Booth to ride, while Herold and himself would walk. Jones strode out in front, probing the darkness for any soul that might give them up. He went forward fifty some paces and stopped. The way unbarred, Jones whistled back to Booth and Herold to come forward. When they reached him, he paced fifty steps once more, and gave the call when clear.

“As we journeyed cautiously on my feelings were wrought up to an intense degree of anxiety, not so much on my own account as for the successful accomplishment of what I had undertaken. When I paused to listen, the croaking of a frog, the distant barking of a dog, the whir of the wing of some nightbird as it passed over my head, would cause my heart to beat quicker, and my breath to come faster. When I gave the low whistle agree upon as the signal that the road was clear, it sounded in my ears as loud as the blast of a trumpet, and though the ground was soft and yielding, the tramping of the slowly advancing horse, to my over-wrought fancy, was like the approaching of a troop.”

The box containing Booth's compass.
The box containing Booth’s compass.

Though much of the trek was along farm lanes, there was a stretch of public road that had to be utilized. This filled Jones with the most dread. They passed a house with dog, and another filled with a free black family, passing both without more incident than Jones’ pounding heart. But finally they reached Jones’ house. Stopping outside, he told the two to wait while he fetched them something to eat.

“Oh,” Booth said to Jones, “can’t I go in and get some of your hot coffee?”

But no. Jones could not risk even that. “It cut me to the heart when this poor creature, whose head had not been under a rood, who had not tasted warm food, felt the glow of a fire, or seen a cheerful light for nearly a week, there in the dark, wet night at my threshold, made this piteous request to be allowed to enter a human habitation,” Jones lamented some thirty years after this poor creature had shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head.

Jones explained that he had servants in the house who would recognize him. “Remember, this is your last chance to get away.” Jones also claimed that refusing Booth’s request for a warm meal inside his house, “was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”

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Jones former slaves still worked for him, still called him “master,” and still had dinner prepared for him when he returned home. He quickly pocketed food enough for two men, and nobody seemed to notice. “They knew better than to question me about anything in those days.” He asked Henry if the boat was still at Dent’s Meadow – it was, and soon Jones, Booth, and Herold were off.

With some difficulty, due mostly to a fence and Booth’s inflamed leg, they reached the Potomac River. The good and faithful Henry had left the boat just where he told his master it was. Together, Herold and Jones lifted Booth into the flat bottomed boat, giving him an oar with which to steer from the stern. Herold would do the rowing.

Booth had little with him, but had thought enough to bring a compass. Jones set the course. “Keep to that,” he told him, “and it will bring you into Machodoc Creek. Mrs. Quesenberry lives near the mouth of this creek. If you tell her you come from me I think she will take care of you.”

Just as they were about to shove off, Booth offered Jones payment for his services. Jones refused all but $18 – the cost of the boat, which he knew he’d never see again. “God bless you, my dear friend, for all you have done for me,” spoke Booth to Jones. “Good-bye, old fellow.”

Jones pushed the boat into the river, and into the darkness. “I stood on the shore and listened till the sound of the oars died away in the distance and then climbed the hill and took my way home. Though I knew my danger was by no means over, I felt that a tremendous load had been lifted from my shoulders. I had successfully accomplished what I had undertaken to do, and my sleep that night was more quiet and peaceful than it had been for some time.”

Booth's compass.
Booth’s compass.

For five hours, Booth and Herold struggled across the Potomac. The current was swift and the dark disorienting. Finally by the morning of this date, the two landed. The exhausted Herold had spotted land that he actually recognized as a place he used to frequent before the war. The only drawback was that it was still in Maryland. The two had paddled upstream, but due to the breadth of the river and the curve and banks, the far shore was never seen. They had entered an inlet at Nanjemoy Creek, near Indiantown. But all was not lost. Herold knew the people who lived there.

The boat was hidden, and Booth managed to hobble the distance to the house owned by Peregrine Davis, on the farm overseen by John J. Hughes. When they called at Hughes’ door, the old friend recognized Herold and Booth. Knowing fully what they had done, Hughes allowed them inside. Herold explained their most recent predicament, as well as the need to keep hidden from the authorities.

And though Hughes had let them in, he declined to help in any other way. The Federal detectives, said Hughes, were thick in these parts, and if Booth was caught in his home, he would certainly be seen as a conspirator. They would have to, he bade, hide outdoors somewhere. They could stay for the day, but would have to leave as soon as possible. Since the river still had to be crossed, it was assumed they’d try again come night fall.

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But they did not. When darkness once more fell, Herold was too sore, still too exhausted, to make the attempt. This would not be merely a delay of a few hours. They could not try again until nightfall of the next night. A full day would be wasted, as the Federals sifted through a second session of Dr. Mudd’s testimony, as the likenesses of Booth and Herold were solicited to every house and person along the banks of the Potomac. They were moving in on him, and Booth had to understand this. Still, they waited.

All through this date, they languished in still another swamp until dark, now two days behind after leaving Thomas Jones. But on this night, the darkness again favored them.

“That night at sundown,” Herold later confessed, “we crossed the mouth of Nanjemoy Creek, passed within 300 yards of a gunboat, and landed at Mathias Point.”

Having just barely dodged a patrol boat, and hidden only by the darkness, they were finally in Virginia.1



  1. J. Wilkes Booth: An Account of His Sojourn in Southern Maryland By Thomas A. Jones; Testimony of David Herold, as published in The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence edited by William C. Edwards; “Four Lincoln Conspiracies” by Victor Louis Mason, as printed in The Century, Vol. 51; Manhunt by James L. Swanson. []

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