‘Tom, You Must Get Them Across’ – The Escape of John Wilkes Booth

April 16, 1865 (Easter Sunday)

“The moment has come at last when my plans must be changed. The world may censure me for what I am about to do; but I am sure posterity will justify me.

-Men who love their country more than gold or life: J.W. Booth, Payne, Atzerodt, and Herold.

Tempted by the Devil - it's the only explanation!
Tempted by the Devil – it’s the only explanation!

John Wilkes Booth had written a strange and curious letter to his friend and fellow actor, John Matthews, on the afternoon of the 14th. It was now the morning of the 16th, and Booth, accompanied by a co-conspirator, David Herold, were near Bel Alton, Maryland, nearly forty miles south of Washington, south of where Booth murdered President Lincoln. But it was not south enough. Things had not gone according to plan.

In truth, the plan had been shaky all along. Booth had originally intended to kidnap the president, but after the surrender of Lee’s army, any ransom would be hardly enough to keep the south afloat. And so the plot turned quickly to blood and revenge. His mind was settled on the 13th, hearing both that Lincoln wished to give former slaves the right to vote – as if being former slaves wasn’t enough for them – and hearing that the President and General Grant would be at Ford’s Theater the following night.

Dr. Mudd
Dr. Mudd

Though Booth had other conspirators, he pulled Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne), George Atzerodt, and David Herold close. Powell was to kill the Secretary of State, William Seward, while Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Herold’s task was as Booth’s assistant. At this point, Booth had no idea how Powell and Atzerodt had faired. He did not even know for sure if his attempt had been the wanted success.

Immediately after firing the shot and slashing the man that had accompanied the President – someone who was obviously not General Grant – Booth had lept from their box above the stage, but landed wrong, turning his leg, and likely it was broken. Booth had plotted a route of escape into Virginia, but this would now have to be diverted. Before the dawn of the 15th, Booth, now with Herold, showed up at the door of Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house, twenty-five miles south of Washington.

Booth had known Mudd prior to this, staying at his house this past November, and purchasing a horse from him as well. A month later, the two met in Washington. And on this cold and rainy April morning, up before even the sun, there was Booth again. Immediately, Mudd plied his trade, setting the fractured fibula, and making a splint to keep it in place. But there was little chance of Booth being able to ride in the near future.

Dr. Mudd's House
Dr. Mudd’s House

If they could make it to the Potomac by carriage, perhaps a boat could be procured. This would take time. For the moment, time was something Booth had on his side, at least in a way. Though he had made known to some his escape route, due to his injury, he had to divert from it, which brought him to Mudd’s. Nobody knew that he was there. Though patrols of the countryside were common, Booth figured it would be best to lay low for the day and travel again come night.

Through the day, as news spread the Lincoln had been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, the murderer and his compatriot remained at the house of Dr. Mudd, while its owner ran several errands. Herold, wishing to find that carriage, accompanied him. The search was cut short as Herold spied a regiment of cavalry which had, in fact, been sent on Booth’s trail. Begging an excuse, he told Mudd that the carriage was no matter, and returned to Mudd’s house, while the doctor continued about his day.

Back at the house, Booth learned from Herold that the cavalry was nearby, not five miles away. With this news, Booth had to make a decision. Mudd could certainly turn him in. By this time, it seemed likely that the doctor knew the facts – the rumors, the papers in town certainly carried the now and forever entwined names of Lincoln and Booth. He could flee, but the land surrounding was a tangled morass of swamps. Without a guide or perfect directions, they could be trapped regardless of pursuers. But if they waited for Mudd to return, he may do so with the Federal cavalry.

Samuel Cox
Samuel Cox

In the end, Booth leaned more toward trusting Dr. Mudd, and in this, he was not mistaken. Mudd had not betrayed him, but upon his return, he bore little kindness. He demanded that both Booth and Herold leave his property. With Mudd’s demand came for Booth the confirmation that he had completed his task. It was the first time that he knew for certain that he had killed the President. Booth was ecstatic. Mudd was less so, and though his heart pumped the blood of a Confederate, this was too far. Kidnapping was one thing, but murder was of a different sort. And now he was pulled into it, and now he would also be to blame.

But rather than turn them in, he sent them away, giving them precise directions and the names of those who might help, including Samuel Cox, who lived near the Potomac River. With a promise from Mudd to stay his lips and even deceive the certain patrols of cavalry, Booth and Herold took to horses, dissolving again into the now dark air.

Booth had a special sort of hatred of the black race, ingrained and permanent. But it was though the help of a man of color that they survived the night. Mudd’s directions were fine enough, but still the pair became lost. For seven dollars, they received the help of Oswell Swann, innocent of their true identities, though he too had heard the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Everybody had heard. Still, he would lead them the twenty miles to the farm of Samuel Cox.

Samuel Cox's house.
Samuel Cox’s house.

When they finally arrived, it was not yet 1am on the 16th – Easter Sunday. Despite the hour, Herold rapped on the door as Booth clung to the mists. To Cox, the men seemed suspicious at best, with one at the door, and another not well-hidden. Just as he was about to send them away, Booth clumsily dismounted, making his way to the door, and spoke with Cox. With that, the truth was revealed, and Cox was folded into the story.

Cox and his son agreed to help deliver Booth and Herold to the Southern side of the Potomac. It would, however, have to wait until dawn. But they could not remain in the house. Cox assured them that nobody would find their bivouac, but clearly wished for distance between himself and the two should the cavalry patrols ride closer than hoped. Leaving the house and remounting their rides, paying Swann an additional twelve dollars, they also threatened him with death should he tell anyone of his night.

Thomas Jones
Thomas Jones

They were to remain for the day in a thicket as Cox’s son rode to Huckleberry Farm, to seek the help of Thomas Jones, a Confederate spy, now unemployed. Jones had been visited by two Federal cavaliers the day previous, telling him the news and warning him to watch closely his rowboat. And now here was the Cox boy telling him of two strangers. Jones and the son rode together to the Cox farm for further details. After some time – this was too important to rush – the names of the strangers were revealed, and with them the deed. “Tom,” said Cox to Jones, “you must get them across.”

But Jones wanted first to see Booth. Told where they could be found, Jones made his way slowly into the pines, finding first the barrel of Herold’s gun. In short order, Jones convinced Herold of his purpose and was led to Booth himself. Charmed, Jones felt compassion for him, and offered then to help, daunting and impossible as it might seem. Then, with the ages of acting behind him, the assassin spoke, “John Wilkes Booth will never be taken alive!”

David Herold
David Herold

Jones insisted that the entire plan be his own. He had shuttled near countless spies across the Potomac, though none nearly as hot at Booth. The mechanisms were there, but stakes eternally higher. And it was these stakes, prodded by the lances of cavalry, which had to be lowered before he could ferry them across. The dangers were simply too high.

This idea worked upon Booth. The cavalry would never suspect that he would tarry so long so close to Washington. Shortly, they would give up and continue south into Virginia. It was then when he might escape. To this Booth agreed, asking Jones for as many newspapers from the 15th and later as he could find. With all this time on his hands, he wished not merely to escape, but to revel in the greatest single act of his life. Jones made this assurance, vowing to return every morning with food and the papers. And so Booth and Herold could only wait.1

  1. Sources: Statements of Dr. Samuel Mudd; Memoirs by Samuel Jones; American Brutus by Michael Kauffman; Manhunt by James L. Swanson. []


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