The Eight Conspirators Named

May 1, 1865 (Monday)


John Wilkes Booth was dead. But Edwin Stanton had been far from satisfied. His strict orders that the assassin should be brought in alive had not been followed, and those he had in custody – a growing list of people, some only vaguely associated with the plot – had grown unwieldy.

In the days following the death, anyone who had aided Booth while on the run had been made prisoner. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set his broken leg, Samuel Cox, who had conspired with Thomas Jones, who had given Booth the boat to escape across the Potomac. Even Richard and William Garrett, the brothers who trapped Booth in the barn, were arrested.

But then, with little explanation, Secretary Stanton released almost every, save Dr. Mudd, who had known Booth well before the assassination.

Others too, involved in the plot had been captured. And by this date, eight remained. Aside from Dr. Mudd, there was David Herold, who had accompanied Booth across the twelve days of flight. There was also Lewis Powell/Payne, who had attacked Secretary of State William Seward in a failed attempt to assassinate him. George Atzerodt had been selected by Booth to assassinate Vice-President Andrew Johnson, but he had lost his nerve. Then, there was Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house where the conspirators had met.

Prior to the assassination attempts, there had been another plot cooked up by Booth to kidnap the President and hold him for ransom. In this, Samuel Arnold had conspired, along with Michael O’Laughlen, who had been one of Booth’s life-long friends. Edmund Spangler, a theater-hand, rounded out the bunch. He had not only prepared the Presidential box before the play, but had held the reigns of Booth’s horse while he murdered Lincoln.

There was also John Surratt, Mary’s son. He had been involved in the plot to kidnap Lincoln, but had fled to Canada (and soon to Europe) to escape capture.

These eight would be tried, and if others were found, they too would face the tribunal. On this date, President Johnson ordered it to be so:

Whereas, the Attorney-General of the United States hath given his opinion:

That the persons implicated in the murder of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, and the attempted assassination of the Honorable William H. Seward, Secretary of State, and in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate other officers of the Federal Government at Washington City, and their aiders and abettors, are subject to the jurisdiction of, and lawfully triable before, a Military Commission;

It is ordered: 1st That the Assistant Adjutant-General detail nine competent military officers to serve as a Commission for the trial of said parties, and that the Judge Advocate General proceed to prefer charges against said parties for their alleged offenses, and bring them to trial before said Military Commission; that said trial or trials be conducted by the said Judge Advocate General, and as recorder thereof, in person, aided by such Assistant and Special Judge Advocates as he may designate; and that said trials be conducted with all diligence consistent with the ends of justice: the said Commission to sit without regard to hours.

2d. That Brevet Major-General Hartranft be assigned to duty as Special Provost Marshal General, for the purpose of said trial, and attendance upon said Commission, and the execution of its mandates.

3d. That the said Commission establish such order or rules of proceeding as may avoid unnecessary delay, and conduce to the ends of public justice.

[Signed] Andrew Johnson.

The trial would come swiftly. Soon the military committee to hear and vote upon the the fates of the accused would be assembled. By the 9th of May, the proceedings would begin.1

  1. Sources: The Assassination of President Lincoln by Benn Pittman (which contains all of the verbatim testimony and transcripts from the trial, published in 1865); Manhunt by James L. Swanson. []


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