May 12, 1865 – The eight people accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln finally received legal counsel and pleaded not guilty to the military commission trying them.
The defendants were confined in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington. A courtroom was built on the third floor of that building, where a military commission charged–
“That David E. Harold (Herold), Edward Spangler, Lewis Payne (or Powell or Paine), John H. Surratt, Michael O’Loughlin (O’Laughlen), Samuel Arnold, George A. Atzerott (Atzerodt), Samuel A. Mudd, and Mary E. Surratt, did on April 15, 1865, combine, confederate, and conspire together to murder President Abraham Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, and Secretary of State William H. Seward.”
The defendants were also charged with “traitorously” conspiring with Jefferson Davis and “others unknown.”
Those accused were granted legal counsel, and by the 12th they had obtained lawyers of surprisingly high quality. However, the lawyers were not allowed to consult with their clients except in the courtroom, with guards listening in. The commission prohibited the defendants from testifying on their own behalf. Unlike a civil trial, only five of the nine members on the tribunal needed to vote guilty to convict, and only six of nine were needed to impose a death sentence.
Proceedings began on the 12th. Major General David Hunter, the judge advocate general of the military tribunal, issued passes for spectators to witness the trial. After each defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, the taking of testimony began. It quickly became apparent that this would be more than just a trial of eight defendants; it would be a trial of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government for supposed crimes against the North.
Over a dozen prosecution witnesses testified that Confederate operatives in Canada had been plotting and funding acts of terror against the Federal government since early 1864. The witnesses claimed the Confederates had devised numerous incredible plots that included poisoning the New York City water supply, destroying Federal property throughout the North, and even launching biological attacks.
A witness named Godfrey Hyams alleged that he helped distribute trunks carrying clothing “carefully infected in Bermuda with yellow fever, smallpox, and other contagious diseases.” Prosecutor John Bingham claimed this caused the deaths of nearly 2,000 soldiers in a yellow fever epidemic in North Carolina. Of course, it was not discovered that mosquitoes carried the yellow fever virus until 36 years later.
Sanford Conover testified that Jacob Thompson, heading the Confederate Secret Service (formerly U.S. secretary of the interior under President James Buchanan), plotted to “leave the government entirely without a head” by killing Lincoln, Johnson, Seward, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Grant. Conover claimed that Thompson said there was “no provision in the Constitution of the United States by which, if these men were removed, they could elect another President.”
Conover added that he had attended a meeting between Thompson and John Surratt (son of defendant Mary Surratt) in Montreal, during which Surratt delivered ciphered dispatches from Jefferson Davis regarding assassinating Lincoln and other Federal leaders. According to Conover, “Thompson laid his hand (on the messages) and said, ‘This makes the thing all right.’” Another witness testified that Surratt visited Davis and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond prior to this meeting. It was later revealed that Conover’s real name was Charles Durham, and his testimony was almost completely false.
Henry Van Steinacker, who was imprisoned for deserting the Federal army, testified that he spoke with John Wilkes Booth in the summer of 1863, when Booth told him, “Old Abe must go up the spout, and the Confederacy will gain its independence.” Steinacker, whose real name was Hans Von Winklestein, was freed from jail shortly after testifying, leading many to question if he had simply been told what to say as part of a quid pro quo.
Richard Montgomery, a Federal double agent operating in Canada, testified that Thompson said in January 1865 that it would be a “blessing” to “rid the world” of Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant. According to Montgomery, Thompson said a “proposition” had been made by “bold, daring men” to kill them. Montgomery attested that Richmond had rejected the plot, with one of Thompson’s operatives stating it was “too bad that the boys had not been allowed to act when they wanted to.”
Samuel Chester alleged that Booth had wanted his help to kidnap Lincoln and bring him to Richmond, where he could be exchanged for Confederate prisoners of war. Several witnesses testified that Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay (another Confederate secret agent) often met with Booth, Lewis Paine, and John Surratt in Montreal. The prosecution argued that these meetings in Canada indicated a conspiracy between the defendants and the Confederate government. Bingham declared:
“What more is wanting? Surely no word further need be spoken to show that John Wilkes Booth was in this conspiracy; that John Surratt was in this conspiracy; and that Jefferson Davis and his several agents named, in Canada, were in this conspiracy… Whatever may be the conviction of others, my own conviction is that Jefferson Davis is as clearly proven guilty of this conspiracy as John Wilkes Booth, by whose hand Jefferson Davis inflicted the mortal wound on Abraham Lincoln.”
Much of the so-called evidence was circumstantial at best and at worst outright false. Some prosecution witnesses were allowed to testify in secret, some were later found to have perjured themselves, and some were even paid by Federal officials for providing false testimony. Despite the dubious testimony and questionable evidence, there was little doubt about the guilt of three men: Powell, Herold, and Atzerodt.
Witnesses positively identified Powell as the man who attempted to murder Seward, and since it was established that he had visited Booth and John Surratt at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse several times, there was no doubt that he was involved in the Booth conspiracy. Captain William E. Doster, Powell’s attorney, did not deny his client’s guilt, but only asked the commission to spare his life because he was most likely insane.
Doster said, “I say he is the fanatic, and not the hired tool. He lives in that land of imagination where it seems to him legions of southern soldiers wait to crown him as their chief commander.” When Doster asked Powell why he tried to kill Seward, Powell said, “I believed it was my duty.” Doster argued, “We know now that slavery made him immoral, that war made him a murderer, and that necessity, revenge, and delusion made him an assassin. Let him live, if not for his sake, for our own.”
There was also no doubt about Herold’s guilt, having admitted to a Confederate after fleeing with Booth into Virginia, “We are the assassinators of the President.” Herold’s attorney, Frederick Stone, tried convincing the commission that his client had the mind of a child. One defense witness testified of Herold, “In mind, I consider him about 11 years of age.” Another called him “a light and trifling boy… easily influenced.” Such a man, said Stone, “was only wax in the hands of a man like Booth.”
The prosecution had damning evidence against Atzerodt as well. Colonel W.R. Nevins testified that Atzerodt approached him at the Kirkwood Hotel, where Andrew Johnson was staying, and asked him where Johnson was. Police officer John Lee testified that the day after Lincoln’s assassination, he searched Atzerodt’s room at the Kirkwood and found a loaded revolver under a pillow, a bowie knife, a map of Virginia, and Booth’s bank book. It was established that Booth and Atzerodt often met in front of the Pennsylvania House in the capital.
Doster, representing Atzerodt, argued that his client was too cowardly to be seriously involved in the conspiracy. Doster said, “I intend to show that this man is a constitutional coward; that if he had been assigned the duty of assassinating the Vice President, he could never have done it; and that, from his known cowardice, Booth probably did not assign to him any such duty.” Defense witnesses confirmed that Atzerodt was a “notorious coward,” “remarkable for his cowardice.”
Samuel Arnold and Michael O’Laughlen had been involved in a past conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, but no tangible evidence suggested that they helped assassinate him. Authorities found a letter on Booth’s body from Arnold, dated March 27, stating Arnold’s willingness to help kidnap Lincoln: “None, no, not one were more in favor of the enterprise than myself.”
Walter Cox, Arnold’s attorney, argued that Arnold “backed out from this insane scheme of capture,” which was “abandoned somewhere about the middle of March.” Cox stated that there “is no evidence that connects” Arnold with the “dreadful conspiracy” to assassinate top officials. Arnold’s “mere unacted, still scheme” to kidnap Lincoln was “wholly different from the offense described in the charge.”
Evidence against O’Laughlen included a few vague telegrams from Booth telling him, “Don’t fear to neglect your business.” Several witnesses testified that O’Laughlen had gone to Stanton’s home on the night of April 13. Walter Cox, also representing O’Laughlen, argued that the witnesses could not have seen him in the dark, and he was attending the “night of illumination” victory celebration in the capital. Cox asserted that O’Laughlen spent the day of the assassination drinking at the Lichau House before leaving for Baltimore on the 15th.
Regarding Dr. Samuel Mudd, several prosecution witnesses claimed that he and the conspirators had a close relationship well before Mudd set Booth’s broken leg on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. One claimed that Mudd had helped Booth buy a horse last November, while another claimed that Mudd met with John Surratt at Washington’s National Hotel. An investigator who questioned Mudd after Booth and Herold had left Mudd’s home testified, “When we first asked Dr. Mudd whether two strangers had been there, he seemed very much excited, and got pale as a sheet of paper and blue about his lips, like a man frightened at something he had done.”
Witnesses also attested to Mudd’s hatred of Lincoln. A slave testified that one of Mudd’s friends told the doctor that “Lincoln was a goddamned old son of a bitch and ought have been dead long ago.” Mudd replied “that was much of his mind” as well. Another witness stated that Mudd had said (perhaps jokingly) in early 1865 that “the President, Cabinet, and other Union men” would “be killed in six or seven weeks.” Another slave asserted that Mudd criticized Lincoln for having “stole (into office) at night, dressed in women’s clothes,” and if “he had come in right, they would have killed him.”
Mudd’s attorney, Thomas Ewing, argued that Mudd had met Booth just the one time in November, and all other testimony stating that Mudd met with Booth were lies. Ewing asserted that there was no crime in setting a man’s broken leg, even if that leg was Booth’s. He further stated that the prosecution did not sufficiently prove that Mudd had helped the conspirators in any meaningful way. The prosecution countered that Mudd had shown Booth and Herold the route out of Maryland after setting Booth’s leg.
Mary Surratt, being a woman, was the most controversial defendant of them all. Several witnesses testified that Booth, Powell, Herold, and John Surratt (Mary’s son who had fled to Europe to avoid prosecution) met at Mary’s boardinghouse to develop their scheme. Because of this, President Johnson called Mary the keeper of “the nest that hatched the egg.”
In addition, Mary had lied when asked if she knew Powell, telling officials, “Before God sir, I do not know this man.” Witness Louis Weichmann testified that Mary had met with Booth several times at her boardinghouse, with money exchanging hands on one occasion. Tavern owner John Lloyd testified that Mary came to his tavern on the day of Lincoln’s assassination and told him that men would be collecting the “shooting irons” left there by John Surratt, Herold, and Atzerodt.
Frederick Aiken, representing Ms. Surratt, argued that Lloyd’s testimony was not credible because he was “a man addicted to the excessive use of intoxicating liquors,” and he sought to “exculpate himself by placing blame” on Mrs. Surratt.
The tribunal continued into June.
Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-58; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19876-86; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 21762-72; 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