Here’s a photo of Lucy Lambert Hale found on the body of John Wilkes Booth after his execution at Garrett’s farm and then hidden away for over 65 years. Booth had a reputation as a playboy who melted hearts wherever he went, which explains why he had photos of five different women on him when murdered, but “Bessie” Hale was his secret fiance, so she was easily the most important as a witness. And wouldn’t you know it, she was never be questioned, nor identified in her lifetime? Five photos were found on Booth, but only four names and pictures released: Fanny Brown, Alice Grey, Effie Germon, and Helen Western, all actresses I might add. For decades researchers would wonder about a mysterious Miss X, around whom many rumors circulated, but nothing known for sure.
Described as being somewhat “stout,” this is not the best photo of Hale, others reveal she was far cuter than this, and in 1865 she was celebrated as one of the most eligible belles in Washington, courted by a number of bachelors, including Robert Todd Lincoln, who’d just returned from Appomattox, where he’d witnessed General Lee’s surrender. Her father was one of the titans of the Radical Republican cabal and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Thaddeus Stevens at the time. He was Senator from New Hampshire. You just can’t imagine the amount of information a spook like Booth could have garnered from a close association with an insider like Hale.
The Hale family resided in the National Hotel, which may be why Booth took up residence there as well. The hotel was a few blocks from the White House and strategically located across the street from the only public telegraph office in town. The telegraph line was phone, internet and television of its day, a vital tool for a spook like Booth.
Booth and his fiance had breakfast and dinner together on the day of the assassination. Senator Hale was appointed ambassador to Spain that very day, an appointment he may have sought to separate his daughter from a notorious Southern sympathizer and rake. Or he may have been warned to get his daughter away from Booth, who was already known to his own War Department as an agent in the Confederate secret service, reporting to Jacob Thompson in Canada, information provided by informant Louis Weichmann weeks ago.
Hale and Booth had already traded rings but wisely decided to keep their engagement a secret. In one letter from his mother, Booth seems to have indicated to her a sincere attachment to Hale, which would make this couple the Romeo and Juliet of the Civil War, although I cynically suspect Booth’s attentions were spook related. A few days earlier, Booth had scored a ticket in the VIP box for Lincoln’s second inauguration, a ticket given to him by his fiance through her father.
When people say you can’t keep conspiracies quiet, which is why they disbelieve the CIA killed JFK or the NSC plotted 9/11, I like to bring up Hales’s story. If you have real power to wield, you can keep almost anything quiet—for a time.
Hale was certainly seen by many dining with Booth that day, and even Todd Lincoln, who visited Hale that afternoon, must have been aware of her strong connection to Booth. Yet the lid was screwed on so tight, her picture would not be released until 1929, in a biography of Booth by Francis Wilson and even then she was identified only as “a Washington society woman.”
So most of what we know about this romance emerged much later through diaries and letters written long after the assassination. Hale was certainly a crucial witness who might have shed light on Booth’s motivations and accomplices, and every scullery maid who winked in Booth’s direction was caught up in the sweep of suspects, but Hale was never called to testify, but quickly hustled out of the country. To offset the gossip, her father published a notice in the local paper denying any connection between the two.
Before Hale departed for Spain, however, Booth’s body was brought back to Washington. A mysterious veiled woman came to view the corpse, threw herself upon it in tears, and snipped a lock of hair as a keepsake. (Apparently, this was popular at the time as Mary Todd Lincoln did the same thing after Lincoln died.) The lock was confiscated and destroyed as Stanton had strict orders against releasing any body parts. It’s now assumed that woman with the scissors was Hale.
After breakfast with his sweetheart, Booth had gone to the nearby Metropolitan Hotel, where he had a meeting with the young head of B’nai B’rith, Simon Wolf, who was the lawyer of choice for defending Jewish blockade runners and black-market profiteers. Wolf would have a long and profitable career in Washington, becoming close with a half-dozen presidents.
But after the assassination, Wolf wrote the strangest story in his autobiography, claiming he’d bumped into Booth by accident and only had a drink with him to avoid seeming rude. They’d both been involved in amateur theater in Ohio, but now Booth was a famous professional actor, while Wolf was fairly new in town. The strange part, however, was that Booth allegedly told Wolf Lucy had just broken off their engagement that morning. Wolf speculated Booth killed Lincoln partially out of lover’s despair. Yet Wolf was never called to testify, and never interrogated, even though 2,000 suspects were rounded up and put in jail immediately after the assassination. Booth’s own brother was held for two months before being released. Strange Wolf escaped the dragnet. The other thing I find suspicious is not a single book about the assassination mentions Wolf or the account he gives of meeting Booth that day.
Did Wolf lie in his autobiography? More credible accounts claim Lucy had told Booth she planned to return from Spain in one year and marry him with or without her parent’s consent. After the conspiracy trial, she wrote Edwin Booth, claiming she would have married his brother on the steps of the gallows if necessary, so strong was her love for Booth.
Hale returned from Spain four years later and eventually married her first sweetheart from New Hampshire. She gave birth to one child at the advanced age of 43, but never mentioned Booth again.