The official story of the capture and murder of John Wilkes Booth is so filled with contradictions and inconsistencies it could have been made into an hilarious episode for the Keystone Kops. There are numerous elements in Lincoln’s assassination that defy logic, but few can top the manipulations involving the corpse of the assassin.
One thing I’ve discovered in my research: Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who seized all power as soon as Lincoln was murdered, was a master at media manipulation, not to mention he declared martial law and had power to censor the press. His releases became the unquestioned headlines of the day and Stanton and his chief of secret police Lafayette C. Baker were famous for tossing innocents in jail and holding them without charges. Much of what is taken to be gospel in this saga, is really just a carefully contrived script. A good example would be the story of George Atzerodt, who was supposed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson that night, at least according to the official story.
Atzerodt admitting being involved in Booth’s failed attempt to kidnap President Lincoln a month earlier, and later claimed to have only heard about the Lincoln assassination plot on April 15th. The previous day, he’d mysteriously checked into the Kirkwood House, the hotel where the Vice President resided, using his real name and repeatedly inquired about the Vice President’s whereabouts. Since Johnson’s room was accessible from the street and easily penetrated, there was no need for any assassin to show his face at the hotel. The sight of this disreputable-looking and obviously unwashed person having any interest in the Vice President caused significant alarm amongst some of the hotel staff. Immediately after Lincoln was shot, Detective John Lee was sent to the Kirkwood to guard the Vice President, and quickly found out about the mystery man, broke into his room and discovered the bed had never been slept in. Lee also discovered a Colt revolver, three boxes of cartridges, 12-inch bowie knife, brass spur, three handkerchiefs with different monograms, a black coat containing J.W. Booth’s Ontario bank book, and Perrine’s topographical War Map to the southern states.
For a supposed spook, Atzerodt could not have been more transparent as to the identities of himself and his fellow conspirators unless he’d left a written confession of their crimes. Since he was a known drunk, uneducated, and certainly not capable of an assassination of anyone, one wonders what could have been his real motive for checking into that hotel and inquiring about the Vice President, which only alarmed the hotel staff. There was no need for Atzerodt to leave incriminating evidence in his room. Atzerodt would not be located and arrested for five days, but the map and spur seemed an obvious clue he was fleeing south on horseback, almost too obvious. Which is why it’s so suspicious Stanton immediately announced Booth was headed north to Canada and closed all roads leading that direction. Strangely, the road to Maryland was left open.
It seems more likely Booth’s calling card to Johnson and his bank book in the same hotel may have been part of an unsuccessful sheep-dipping operation designed to paint Johnson as the true instigator of the assassination, something that, if successful, would have had a similar impact on removing him as his murder, only less blood on the floor. Mary Surratt would be soon hanged for owning a boarding house frequented by Confederate spooks, something not surprising considering her son was one of Jefferson Davis’ primary couriers. I do believe Atzerodt was supposed to back up Booth or Lewis Powell that night and then escape with them via horseback and help lead them south, but instead he wandered aimlessly about town before fleeing on his own once realizing the President was dead and he was implicated. But then he’d only recently met Booth and been dragged into Booth’s intrigues because he had a rowboat on northern bank of the Potomac, which was needed for the escape. In fact, the loss of this boat caused Booth much consternation. Most likely, Atzerodt was just working for money and being given the absolute minimum of information by super spook Booth.
Major James R. O’Beirne, Provost Marshall of the District of Columbia, the man who’d sent Lee to protect the vice president, quickly led a detail of men south based on the map found at the Kirkwood. O’Beirne was doing an admirable job tracking the assassin, and was first to arrive at Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house. Suspicion fell on Mudd because he’d served two years in the Confederate army, and even though Mudd reported to proper authorities two strangers passed through, one requiring medical attention for a broken leg, after Mudd was shown a picture of Booth and claimed it was not the man he’d treated (which might have been true, since his brother Edwin’s photo was discovered in the War Department files misidentified as John W.), that statement convicted him in the eyes of O’Beirne. Booth hid his mustache with a scarf and was wearing huge stage whiskers glued over his sideburns when he’d arrived at Mudd’s. He’d ridden off of his original path of escape to find a sympathetic doctor he’d hoped would keep quiet, but Mudd filed a report the next day.
There’s no doubt O’Beirne was closing in on Booth, but when he requested to move into Virginia, he was suddenly ordered to remain in Maryland and search only there. Meanwhile, Baker put his cousin in charge of a squad of soldiers, and sent them on the trail O’Beirne had sniffed out. Since $100,000 in reward money was at stake, Baker surely wanted himself and his cousin to collect the lion’s share, but they didn’t.
Here’s a staged photo of Lafayette Baker recreating the moment he tells Luther Baker and Enerton Conger where to find Booth. Since Conger was actually not at this meeting, this photo is no doubt a manipulation of Stanton, who was a master at propaganda. According to the official story, Baker drew a 10-mile diameter circle on a map of Virginia and sent his cousin off to Virginia with a troupe of soldiers. How Baker knew Booth’s precise location is a mystery, but some wild stories were later invented, the final story involved an unidentified black youth who dropped by the War Department to make an anonymous report.
Baker, Conger and a squad of 25 soldiers discovered Booth locked in a tobacco-drying shed. It was night, so a perimeter was placed around the shed at a distance. Only Baker and Conger remained inside that perimeter.
What happened next is a matter of great dispute since the stories of the eyewitnesses shifted several times over the next few days. The first official report claimed Booth was captured and then shot by Boston Corbett while trying to make an escape. When this report did not fly, the story began getting more convoluted each time it was told.
Conger was the first to enter the shed, and claimed initially that Booth shot himself. Baker was second to enter the shed and felt Booth had been shot by Conger, but immediately thought to himself, “if he had, it were better not known.”
Corbett was a mental case who self-castrated himself with a pair of scissors after visiting a prostitute, and then calmly went to dinner before seeking medical attention. A former hatter, everyone assumed mercury fumes had destroyed his mind and Corbett would wind up in a mental institution eventually. No doubt Corbett was told fame and fortune awaited him if he took the credit. Although orders had supposedly been given to take Booth alive, Stanton reacted by saying, “The rebel is dead, the patriot lives,” and Corbett was given $1,653.85 of the reward money.
There were no witnesses to the shooting as the soldiers were all in the dark, and on the perimeter. It’s likely impossible Corbett could have fired the shot, especially since the bullet followed a downward trajectory, as if fired from above at close range. In fact, the placement and trajectory were weirdly similar to the one Booth used to execute Lincoln, almost as if he were being served his own medicine.
But it was after Booth’s death that things got really strange. Luther Baker took the body and two soldiers on ahead before any death certificate or autopsy could be performed. This was done over the objections of Lt. Edward P. Doherty. Soon, Doherty’s two men returned, having been sent back by Baker to deliver some frivolous message. Meanwhile, Baker and the corpse completely vanished.
At 11 PM, Baker finally arrived in Alexandria claiming he’d “gotten lost” and his cousin Lafayette Baker was there to receive the corpse. An unexplained three-hour delay transpired before the body was transferred (in a sloppy and unprofessional manner) onto the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk. Even though some of the conspirators who knew Booth were being held prisoner on that same boat, the only person called to view the body (aside from those in the military) was a hotel clerk. Dr. Frederick May, a military doctor who’d removed a tumor from Booth’s neck, was also shown the body and claimed: “There is no resemblance in that corpse to Booth, nor can I believe it to be him.” No friends nor relatives were notified and May was massaged for a time and eventually changed his story so that the corpse might be Booth and was just too decayed to recognize, especially without his famous mustache.
The corpse then did a second disappearing act, and was removed from the Montauk in the same manner it had arrived aboard, which is to say without orders, documents or papers. “The removal of the body was entirely without my knowledge…This unusual transaction deprived me of opportunity for enclosing the body in a box….as ordered,” complained John D. Montgomery, commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. Lafayette Baker had seized the corpse and held a public display of dumping it into the Potomac wrapped in a horse blanket. Many years later, it would be revealed the body was taken to an old jail on the site of Washington Arsenal, buried in an old gun box. In 1869, President Johnson ordered all the conspirators remains returned to their families, although by that time nothing but bones remained.
Legend in the Booth family is that Booth was not killed, but moved to India, and while some family members would like to have his alleged remains DNA-tested, this has always been blocked and will likely never occur for reasons unknown. But even if a test discovered the bones were not Booth’s, it would mean little because there is no proper chain of custody. The body disappeared twice for long periods of time when anything could have happened.
I have to wonder if the bones of Booth weren’t worth almost as much on the black market as the reward money in some quarters. For example, in 1832, a junior at Yale founded a secret society based on one he’d been introduced into while studying abroad in Germany. Although that society was very Masonic in style, it would eventually become famous for obtaining skulls of famous revolutionaries. Known originally as “The Order,” that society is known today as “Skull & Bones,” and since it was founded by the slave and opium-running families of Boston and New York, I’ll always wonder if Booth’s bones maybe didn’t end up at the Tomb in New Haven. Could such a crook have taken place? Only the Bonesmen know for sure, and they ain’t talkin’.