The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth: Aftermath

April 27, 1865 – Federal officials brought the body of John Wilkes Booth back to Washington as the alleged accomplices to his scheme were rounded up and jailed.

Following Booth’s death near Bowling Green, Virginia, troopers of the 16th New York Cavalry sewed his body into a saddle blanket. It was to be taken to Washington for examination and then burial. The troopers rode to Belle Plain with Booth’s corpse and two prisoners: David E. Herold (Booth’s accomplice who had surrendered before Booth was killed) and Sergeant Boston Corbett, who had shot Booth in defiance of orders to take him alive.

At Belle Plain, the prisoners and body were loaded onto the steamer John S. Ide and taken to the Washington Navy Yard. Once there, they were transferred to the gunboat U.S.S. Montauk, where Herold was confined to the ship’s hold. Also aboard were all the others who had been arrested for suspected complicity in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln and members of his administration, except for Mrs. Mary Surratt.

As word spread that Booth’s body was on board, a crowd gathered on shore, and at least 10 people who had known Booth positively confirmed that the body was his. Identifying features included a tattoo on his left hand with his initials J.W.B., and a scar on the back of his neck.

Medical examiners performed an autopsy and concluded that Booth had died of “asphyxiation,” brought on by the bullet severing the spinal cord and causing “general paralysis.” Booth’s body was placed in a gun box and entombed in the brick flooring of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. It was later interred in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Examination of Booth’s body | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly; May 13, 1865; Vol. IX, No. 437

On the night of the 27th, Federal authorities took the imprisoned suspects off the Montauk. They were hooded and flanked by two rows of soldiers as they were brought to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. This would be their new home until they stood trial for conspiring to murder Lincoln and attempting to murder Secretary of State William H. Seward. Ultimately eight defendants went to trial:

  • Herold, Booth’s prime accomplice
  • Lewis Paine (or Powell), who had attempted to murder Seward and several others in Seward’s home
  • George Atzerodt, who had been assigned to assassinate then-Vice President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve
  • Edward “Ned” Spangler, a stagehand at Ford’s Theatre who had opened the back door for Booth and allegedly arranged to have a horse waiting for him
  • Dr. Samuel Mudd, who had set Booth’s broken leg and had known Booth prior to the assassination
  • Michael O’Laughlen, who had been Booth’s friend since childhood and allegedly conspired to kidnap Lincoln
  • Samuel Arnold, who had allegedly written a suspicious letter to Booth regarding the kidnap plot
  • Mary Surratt, who had run the boardinghouse where the conspirators plotted the assassination scheme

The male prisoners were shackled to balls and chains, and an iron bar held their hands in place. They were fitted with canvas hoods over their heads and face, with just a small opening for air, food, and water. Mrs. Surratt was given her own cell without having to wear chains or a hood. They could do nothing but sit and await trial, but Federal officials first had to decide how the trial would be conducted.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton argued that the suspects should be tried by a military tribunal because they were accused of a treasonous act. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote that Stanton “said it was his intention that the criminals should be tried and executed before President Lincoln was buried.” But many, including Welles and Lincoln’s former attorney general Edward Bates, argued that trying civilians before a military commission was unconstitutional.

President Andrew Johnson asked current Attorney General James Speed to write a legal opinion on the matter. Speed wrote that assassinating the commander-in-chief during a rebellion against the national authority could be considered an act of war against the United States, especially if rumors of involvement by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government were true. Thus, Speed wrote that the War Department should be allowed to proceed with placing the suspects before a military tribunal.

The trial would begin in early May. While there was much government secrecy and inefficiency due to the hysteria surrounding the Lincoln assassination, most historians generally agree that John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators committed the crimes without the knowledge of Jefferson Davis or any other Confederate officials.



Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-40; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 563-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 588; Freilberger, Edward, “Grave of Lincoln’s Assassin Disclosed at Last,” The New York Times (February 26, 1911, retrieved February 10, 2009); Kauffman, Michael W., American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 393-94; Kunhardt, Dorothy and Philip, Jr., Twenty Days (North Hollywood, CA: Newcastle, 1965), p. 181-82;; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 682-83; Smith, Gene, American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family, Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 239-41; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 440-41; Townsend, George Alfred, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1865, 1977 ed.), p. 38

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