Executing the Booth Conspirators

July 7, 1865 – Federal officials hanged four of the eight defendants accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

Execution of the four people condemned to death | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Execution of the four people condemned to death | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On May 1, President Andrew Johnson authorized creating a military commission to try eight people for allegedly conspiring with Booth: David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (or Paine), Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin, Edward Spangler, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Mary Surratt. Those arguing against the constitutionality of trying the defendants before a military court and not a civil court were overruled.[1]

The nine-man commission consisted of army officers loyal to the Republican Party. Only a majority of the members needed to find the defendants guilty for a conviction, where a civil court required a unanimous jury verdict. Punishments also tended to be more severe for those found guilty by military courts, as a two-thirds majority could impose a death sentence. Lincoln’s former attorney general, Edward Bates, declared, “If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs for half the world.”[2]

Federal officials held the men in shackles in Washington’s Old Penitentiary with hoods over their heads when they were not in court. The hoods were padded to prevent the prisoners from hearing anything or ramming their heads into the walls. Small slits were cut for air and food. Officials did not require Mrs. Surratt to wear a hood, and they removed her shackles before bringing her into the courtroom. Federal authorities had never treated defendants so harshly in American history.[3]

Officials allowed the defendants to obtain legal counsel, but they could not consult with their lawyers except in the courtroom, with guards listening in. The commission prohibited the defendants from testifying on their own behalf. The prosecution sought to not only convict those accused, but also indict the Confederacy by attempting to present evidence that the Confederate government had a hand in Lincoln’s assassination. The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.[4]

The trial lasted seven weeks and included 371 supposed witnesses. While the prosecution could call anybody they wished to testify, the defense had to obtain the commission’s permission in advance before calling witnesses. Some prosecution witnesses were allowed to testify in secret, others were later found to have perjured themselves, with some even getting paid by Federal officials for their false testimony.[5]

Despite the dubious testimony, there was little doubt about the guilt of three men: Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold. Witnesses positively identified Powell as having attempted to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward. Authorities confirmed that Atzerodt had been at Vice President Johnson’s hotel, even though he failed to carry out the plan to kill Johnson. And Herold had escaped Washington with Booth and was with Booth when Federal troops killed him.[6]

Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlin had been involved in a past conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, but no tangible evidence suggested that they helped assassinate him. “Ned” Spangler was accused of helping Booth escape Ford’s Theatre, but much testimony was circumstantial. Dr. Mudd had set Booth’s broken leg after Booth escaped Washington, and some witnesses asserted that Mudd knew Booth beforehand. Mrs. Surratt owned the boardinghouse where the conspirators, including her son John (who escaped prosecution by fleeing the country), supposedly hatched their plot.[7]

The military commission secretly met on June 29 to decide the defendants’ fate, and they announced their verdict the next day. All eight were found guilty of “treasonable conspiracy,” and they received varying sentences:

  • “Ned” Spangler received six years at hard labor in prison at Dry Tortugas, Florida
  • Samuel Mudd, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlin received life sentences at Dry Tortugas
  • David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were “to be hanged by the neck until he (or she) be dead”[8]

Mudd escaped a death sentence by one vote. Five of the nine commission members wrote to President Johnson requesting that he commute Mrs. Surratt’s sentence to life imprisonment due to “her sex and age.” Johnson refused and authorized the executions to take place on July 7. Mrs. Surratt’s lawyers tried obtaining a writ of habeas corpus to save their client’s life. On the morning of the scheduled executions, Johnson suspended the right of habeas corpus “in cases such as this.”[9]

Shortly after 1:30 p.m. on the oppressively hot afternoon of July 7, the four convicted conspirators hanged in the courtyard of Washington’s Old Arsenal Building. Mrs. Surratt became the first woman in American history to be executed by Federal officials. O’Laughlin died in prison in 1867, while President Johnson pardoned Mudd, Arnold, and Spangler in 1869.[10]

The conduct of the trial and the harsh sentencing of the Booth conspirators has received much criticism by legal critics ever since. Questions remain about the extent of some of the alleged conspirators’ guilt, if any. And in Ex Parte Milligan (1866), the Supreme Court ruled that military courts could not try defendants where civilian courts existed.[11]

—–

[1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-85

[2] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-40; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Steers, Edward, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Kentucky, 2001)

[3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 21762-21772

[4] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 688

[5] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140, 148-50; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 688

[6] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 151; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html

[7] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 151; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html

[8] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 693

[9] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158-59; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 21762-82; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html

[10] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158-59; Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Linder, D., “Biography of Mary Surratt, Lincoln Assassination Conspirator” (University of Missouri-Kansas City, retrieved 10 Dec 2006); Swanson, James, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (Harper Collins, 2006)

[11] Law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html; Steers, Edward, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (University Press of Kentucky, 2001)

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