Tag Archives: Jacob Thompson

The Booth Conspiracy Trial Begins

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.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

Lewis Payne or Powell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

David Herold | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

George Atzerodt | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

Dr. Samuel Mudd | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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

The Plot to Burn New York

November 25, 1864 – Lieutenant John W. Headley and seven Confederate agents attempted to burn New York City in retaliation for Federal depredations in Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley.

The Confederate Secret Service, based in Canada and led by Jacob Thompson (former U.S. interior secretary under President James Buchanan), had devised several plots to disrupt the Federal war effort and inspire northern Confederate sympathizers to join their cause. Most of these plots involved working with the Sons of Liberty, a Copperhead organization, to free Confederates from northern prison camps.

Prior to the Federal elections, a band of conspirators was formed to both overthrow Chicago leaders and burn New York. According to Headley:

“The tangible prospects were best for an uprising at Chicago and New York. The forces of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ were not only organized, but arms had been distributed. It had been deemed surest to rely upon the attempt to organize a Northwestern Confederacy with Chicago as the capital.”

The idea to burn New York had been introduced by Colonel Robert C. Martin and suggested to Thompson by Robert C. Kennedy, an escaped Confederate prisoner. They believed that the fires would inspire the vast Copperhead population in the city to rise up while they freed the Confederates imprisoned at Fort Lafayette.

The original plan was to set fire to New York just before the election. The eight conspirators arrived in New York at different times and lodged in different hotels. Headley stated, “It was determined that a number of fires should be started in different parts of the city, which would bring the population to the streets and prevent any sort of resistance to our movement.” The conspirators believed that New York Governor Horatio Seymour–

“… would not use the militia to suppress the insurrection in the city, but would leave that duty to the authorities at Washington. Indeed, we were to have the support of the Governor’s official neutrality. We were also told that upon the success of the revolution here a convention of delegates from New York, New Jersey, and the New England States would be held in New York City to form a Confederacy which would cooperate with the Confederates States and Northwestern Confederacy.”

However, Major General Benjamin F. Butler deployed 10,000 Federal troops in New York just before the election to maintain order. Headley wrote, “The leaders in our conspiracy were at once demoralized by this sudden advent of General Butler and his troops. They felt that he must be aware of their purposes and many of them began to fear arrest, while others were defiant.”

The plot to take Chicago was foiled as well. Nonetheless, Martin insisted that the conspirators go through with burning New York, regardless of the election results. But the Confederate Secret Service refused, and as Headley wrote, “This left us practically at sea.” The agents therefore resolved “to set the city on fire and give the people a scare if nothing else, and let the Government at Washington understand that burning homes in the South might find a counterpart in the North.”

On the night of the 24th, the Confederates obtained 402 bottles of a highly flammable liquid called “Greek fire” from an elderly chemist. Headley stated, “None of the party knew anything about Greek fire, except that the moment it was exposed to the air it would blaze and burn everything it touched.” The conspirators planned to set fire to their hotel rooms, hoping that the flames would spread to other buildings until the entire city was burned in “one dazzling conflagration.”

The saboteurs set fire to 19 hotels, including the prominent Astor House. In addition, Kennedy set fire to Barnum’s Museum. City officials quickly determined that this was a Confederate plot, and just as quickly the fire department and private citizens extinguished the blazes. Their biggest challenge was to douse the flames at Barnum’s because the hay for the animals had caught fire.

New York’s prominent Astor House | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Failing to destroy New York, the conspirators accused the chemist of blending an impotent batch of Greek fire. However, most of the perpetrators had failed to leave the doors and windows open in their hotel rooms when they set the fires, thus minimizing the ventilation needed for the flames to spread. When investigators began closing in on them, the conspirators left New York and returned to their headquarters at Toronto.

Kennedy later tried returning to his army unit, but Federal authorities arrested him at Detroit. A military tribunal convicted him of masterminding the plot to burn New York, and he was hanged in March 1865. Headley confessed to his role in the plot after the war but was not arrested. Martin, who devised the scheme but was not directly involved, was arrested after the war but acquitted due to lack of evidence.

The plot made sensational headlines, as reported in the New York Times:

“The plan was excellently well conceived, and evidently prepared with great care, and had it been executed with one-half the ability with which it was drawn up, no human power could have saved this city from utter destruction… But fortunately, thanks to the Police, Fire Department, and the bungling manner in which the plan was executed by the conspirators, it proved a complete and miserable failure.”

However, this failed effort did little to either damage New York or affect the war.



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 532; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 492; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 322; 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 15200-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 523; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 600-01; New York Times article of 27 Nov 1864; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62

The Niagara Peace Talks

July 5, 1864 – Influential newspaper editor Horace Greeley begged President Abraham Lincoln to meet with Confederate agents who were supposedly willing to discuss ways of ending the war.

The War Department had censored the press since Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant began his grand offensive in May, leading most northerners to believe that the Federals were on the verge of winning the war. But after two months, the truth could no longer be hidden. The Confederate armies had not been destroyed, neither Richmond nor Atlanta had been captured, and the horrific number of casualties sparked calls to stop the conflict.

Horace Greeley | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

This outcry was led by Greeley of the New York Tribune. Greeley wrote Lincoln that his “irrepressible friend” William “Colorado” Jewett had informed him that “two Ambassadors” representing President Jefferson Davis on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls had “full & complete powers for a peace.” Greeley pleaded with Lincoln to meet with them because:

“Confederates everywhere (are) for peace. So much is beyond doubt. And therefore I venture to remind you that our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country also longs for peace–shudders at the prospect of fresh conscription, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. And a wide-spread conviction that the Government and its prominent supporters are not anxious for Peace, and do not improve proffered opportunities to achieve it, is doing great harm.”

Greeley wrote, “I entreat you to submit overtures for pacification to the Southern insurgents.” Lincoln believed that Greeley was being duped by Confederates seeking to stir up antiwar passions and influence the upcoming elections. In fact, Federal agents had reported that Copperheads were in direct contact with Confederate agents in Canada to try forming a Midwestern alliance with the Confederacy. This became known as the “Northwest Conspiracy.”

Nevertheless, Lincoln authorized Greeley to escort to Washington “any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Davis in writing, for peace, embracing the restoration of the Union and abandonment of slavery.”

Three Confederate agents arrived at Niagara Falls on the 12th–Clement C. Clay of Alabama, James Holcombe of Virginia, and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi. These men had numerous contacts among the Copperheads in the northern states, and now they communicated through Greeley to try to get the Federal government to negotiate peace.

Greeley objected to being Lincoln’s envoy, and so the president dispatched his secretary John Hay to travel with Greeley to Niagara Falls. The men delivered a message written by Lincoln and endorsed by Secretary of State William H. Seward:

“To Whom it may concern: Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points, and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.”

The Confederates expected Lincoln to insist on restoring the Union, but they were surprised by his insistence on ending slavery because it exceeded his Emancipation Proclamation and all congressional legislation. Lincoln added this requirement for peace knowing that the Confederates would find it unacceptable; he could then announce that he tried negotiating a settlement but the Confederacy refused.

Greeley and Hay delivered Lincoln’s message to the Confederate agents, who read it and explained that they were not prepared to negotiate a peace based on these terms because that would signify a Confederate surrender. The Confederates sent a transcript of the meeting to the Associated Press, “throw(ing) upon the Federal Government the odium of putting an end to all negotiation.”

They wrote, “If there be any citizen of the Confederate States who has clung to the hope that peace is possible,” Lincoln’s terms “will strip from their eyes the last film of such delusion.” As for “any patriots or Christians” in the North “who shrink appalled from the illimitable vistas of private misery and public calamity,” they should “recall the abused authority and vindicate the outraged civilization of their country.”

Lincoln’s message was nothing more than a political maneuver, which backfired when the anti-administration press published it and condemned him for refusing to end the carnage without freeing the slaves. Democrats railed that if Lincoln would simply abandon emancipation, the war could end. But they did not seem to understand that the Confederates would not agree to restoring the Union on any terms.

Both the Confederates and the Copperheads wanted an armistice, but for different reasons. Copperheads believed it would lead to negotiations that would ultimately bring the South back into the Union. Confederates believed it would lead to their independence, and they humored the Copperheads’ “fond delusion” of restoration as a means to their end.

The Niagara Falls meeting proved to Greeley that the Confederates would not negotiate based on either restoration or emancipation. However, the Confederates continued encouraging the antiwar movement, and the military stalemate in Virginia and Georgia made Lincoln’s reelection prospects seem increasingly bleak.



Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21727-42; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433-34, 437; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10930, 11089-133; 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 9717-37; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 646-47; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 533-34, 540-42; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 761-63, 766; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 351