The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth

April 17, 1865 – Federal authorities made several arrests in the supposed conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln and members of his administration. But John Wilkes Booth himself remained at large.

John Wilkes Booth | Image Credit:

After shooting President Lincoln on the night of the 14th, Booth fled Ford’s Theatre through a back door to the alley, where he rode off on a waiting horse. Booth had shot the president as planned, but he broke his leg jumping out of the balcony. He also missed his chance to kill Ulysses S. Grant, who was not at the theater as advertised. And he did not yet know if Lewis Powell (or Paine) had killed Secretary of State William H. Seward or if George Atzerodt had killed Vice President Andrew Johnson. All he could do now was flee.

Sentry Sergeant Silas Cobb of the 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery guarded the Navy Bridge leading out of Washington, with orders not to let anyone pass after 9 p.m. Booth rode up some time after 10:30 p.m., and Cobb reluctantly let him cross. Less than an hour later, Booth’s accomplice David E. Herold rode up, and Cobb let him pass as well.

Booth and Herold met up on the road and stopped at a tavern in Surrattsville, where they had arranged for tavern owner Mary Surratt and her son John to leave weapons for them. The men stopped for five minutes to grab two carbines and some supplies before continuing southeast.

By 3 a.m., Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had gathered enough eyewitness testimony to issue a communique naming Booth as Lincoln’s assassin. Stanton declared martial law and authorized Lieutenant Colonel Lafayette Baker of the National Detective Police to lead a cavalry unit in hunting down Booth and his accomplices. Within an hour, authorities were at Mrs. Surratt’s Washington home at 541 High Street, where Booth was known to visit whenever he came to Washington.

Before dawn on the 15th, Booth and Herold sought refuge and medical care at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd in Bryantown, Maryland, about 25 miles southeast of Washington. Booth had stayed at the doctor’s home before and once bought a horse from him. Mudd set Booth’s broken fibula and fitted him with a wooden splint. Later that day, Herold and Mudd went into town for supplies. Herold tried finding a carriage for Booth, but he hurried back to Mudd’s house upon seeing Federal patrols.

Mudd came home later, apparently having learned in town that Booth had shot Lincoln. He did not tell the Federals where Booth was, but he demanded that both Booth and Herold leave immediately. Before they left, Mudd told them that they might find help from Samuel Cox, who lived near the Potomac River. Booth and Herold struggled through the surrounding swamps and marshes; the excruciating pain of Booth’s leg made it even more grueling. With the help of a black man, they finally made the 20 miles to Cox’s home at Rich Hill in southern Maryland at around 1 a.m. on Easter Sunday.

The men told Cox who they were, and Cox and his son agreed to help them cross the Potomac to safety in Virginia. But since Federal patrols were scouring the area, Booth and Herold would have to wait in the woods until they could be sure to cross without being seen. Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles directed naval authorities to search all vessels and imprison any suspicious persons at the Washington Navy Yard.

Cox’s son contacted nearby Confederate spy Thomas A. Jones, who had experience ferrying operatives across the Potomac undetected. Jones was taken to Booth’s and Herold’s bivouac in the woods, where he offered to help even if it resulted in Federal capture. The assassin, using his flair for the dramatic, declared, “John Wilkes Booth will never be taken alive!” Jones told them it would take a few days to get them across, during which time Cox would keep them fed and hidden. Booth asked for newspapers so he could read the nation’s reaction to his deed.

Booth was shocked to find such a lack of sympathy for him in the press; he thought he would be celebrated for murdering a tyrant. Booth wrote in his journal, “For six months we had worked to capture (Lincoln). But our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I can never repent it, though we hated to kill.”

In Washington, hopes were dimming that Booth would be found anytime soon. On the night of the 16th, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs speculated that those involved 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.” But if Booth could not be found, Federal authorities would try rounding up those who may have been involved in his scheme.

The next day, investigators led by Major H.W. Smith returned to the home of Mrs. Surratt to arrest her for suspected ties to Booth. Smith later stated that he told the widow, “I come to arrest you and all in your house, and take you for examination… No inquiry whatever was made as to the cause of the arrest.”

As Mrs. Surratt was being interrogated, Lewis Powell came to the house. Being unfamiliar with Washington, it had taken Paine three days to find his way back to Mrs. Surratt’s home after his assassination attempt on Seward. He was carrying a pickaxe and claimed to have been hired to dig a gutter. Mrs. Surratt told one of the investigators, “Before God, sir, I do not know this man, and have never seen him, and I did not hire him to dig a gutter for me.” Paine had no identification except for an oath of allegiance to the U.S. signed by “L. Paine.” He was also detained as a suspect.

Later that day, Seward’s servant positively identified Powell as the man who had rampaged through Seward’s home on the 14th. Meanwhile, Mrs. Surratt admitted that Booth was a friend of her son John, but she claimed to know nothing of the assassination plot. She also maintained that she did not know Paine, which was later proven false. Moreover, she did not divulge that Booth had visited her home on the day of the assassination to arrange for weapons to be ready at her tavern in Surrattsville.

That same day, authorities arrested Edward “Ned” Spangler, who had opened the back door of Ford’s Theatre for Booth after he shot Lincoln. It was alleged that Spangler had Joseph “Peanuts” Burroughs hold a horse for Booth to use for his escape, and Spangler supposedly told a stagehand who watched Booth run off, “Don’t say which way he went.”

Also arrested was Samuel Arnold, who had written a suspicious letter on March 27 that was found in a trunk in Booth’s hotel room. Arnold admitted that he was part of a plot to kidnap Lincoln but contended that he had nothing to do with assassination. He implicated several others in the conspiracy, including Michael O’Laughlen, George Atzerodt, John Surratt, a man known as “Moseby,” and someone else he did not know. O’Laughlen surrendered to authorities in Baltimore.

But Booth remained hidden in the woods along the Potomac.



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