April 17, 1865 (Monday)
Edwin Stanton had watched him die. He had seen the body removed, and had called the impromptu Cabinet meeting in the rear room of the Peterson House. By the afternoon of the 15th, Stanton was certain that the actor John Wilkes Booth had murdered the President. He knew there were accomplices, and names like Surratt, Herold, and Atzerodt were on his tongue. He had personally examined the theater box where Lincoln had been sitting, even ordering the actors to perform the third act of Our American Counsin so that he might retrace the steps of the assassin.
While the news of the murder was published on the 15th, the following day, through the miracle of telegraph, the rest of the country was brought up to speed. This did nothing to deliver Booth to Stanton, as the newspapers pleaded for justice and revenge. Stanton had few leads. There was a letter addressed to “Sam” found in Booth’s hotel room, and the suspicion that the Confederate government was ultimately to blame – Booth, then, was merely a pawn.
Still, through his suspicions, he knew that help from the South would be needed. For this, he attempted to turn to none other than John Mosby, the Grey Ghost, who had operated on the fringes of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. To Winfield Scott Hancock, now commanding at Winchester, he urged an interview to be had. “If Mosby is sincere,” wrote Stanton, “he might do much toward detecting and apprehending the murderers of the President.” Mosby was agreeable to surrendering his command under the same terms given to General Lee, and was, as Hancock related “aware of the death of the President.” But the surrender would have to happen first, and that wouldn’t take place for another week.
Traffic along the river had been halted by the morning of the 15th, but through the next day, the hold was loosened. This allowed various vessels to come and go as they pleased, which served more than anything as an admission that Booth had most certainly left the city. By the night of the 16th, Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs believed that whomever was involved in the murder had “gone southwest, and will perhaps attempt to escape by water to the Eastern Shore, or to board some vessel waiting for them, or some vessel going to sea.”
The newspapers were of no help at all. Some reported Booth’s capture, while others reported his escape into Virginia. Some, like the Chicago Tribune reported both in the same issue.
Stanton was growing desperate. He had sent men to the boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, where Booth and John Surratt, who was the most likely suspect in the attempt upon William Seward’s life, had been staying. Major H.W. Smith was sent to arrest everyone there and to search once more the building for clues.
“I was in charge of the party that took possession of Mrs. Surratt’s house,” Smith later recalled. And he then told of the meeting.
She opened the door, and I asked, “Are you Mrs. Surratt?”
She said, “I am the widow of John H. Surratt.”
And I added, “The mother of John H. Surratt, jr.?”
She replied, “I am.”
I then said, “I come to arrest you and all in your house, and take you for examination to General Augur’s head-quarters.” No inquiry whatever was made as to the cause of the arrest.
As Smith was wrapping things up, a man came to the front door, and after a bit of back and forth, he told them that he was a day laborer who had been hired by Mrs. Surratt. All he had on his person was an oath of allegiance to the United States, signed by “L. Paine,” who he claimed to be.
Smith asked Mary Surratt if she knew the man. She claimed not to, but something didn’t add up. In truth, she had seen him twice before and knew him to be with Booth. Without incident, L. Paine surrendered. And before the night was through, Secretary Seward’s servant confirmed what they suspected. This was the man who had attempted to assassinate the Secretary on the same night Booth had killed Lincoln. This was Lewis Powell.
While Powell would say nothing, Mary Surratt seemed talkative and well-prepared. Booth, said she, had come to her house for the past couple of months and was a friend of her son. She claimed that both she and her son were surprised to hear that Booth had killed Lincoln. She also denied knowing Powell. She also admitted to knowing George Atzerodt, who was supposed to have murdered Vice-President Andrew Johnson, but could not work up the courage to do so.
Mrs. Surratt gave up much information, most of which seemed believable enough. But there was also much she was clearly omitting. They did not know this, but she not only knew Powell, but had failed to mention Booth’s visit on the day of the assassination.
Surratt and Powell were both arrested, but so were two other acquaintances of Booth’s. Sam Arnold, of the famed “Sam” letter, admitted to being part of the plot to kidnap Lincoln, but denied being involved with Booth’s latest scheme. Stage hands, friends, school mates, fellow soldiers, and even Booth’s brother, Junius, were rounded up.
It was impressive, but in the end served little more than a means of highlighting the fact that John Wilkes Booth, the most wanted man in America, was still at large.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 3, p799, 806; The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators; Manhunt by James L. Swanson. [↩]