Although there was the equivalent of a $2.25 million reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth, not a single Southern sympathizer tried to collect a dime, although dozens helped Booth slip through one of the world’s greatest manhunts in history. Had he not broken his leg, Booth would have gotten away.
From the War Department records, it appears every effort was made to let Booth get away, as most of the searching was being done to the north of Washington, as if Booth had fled to Baltimore, and then on to Canada. This was the route probably taken by John Surratt a week or two earlier. Surratt had been down for a Lincoln kidnapping, but as soon as Booth’s plan shifted to murder, Surratt wisely dropped out of the venture.
To give an idea of Booth’s level of spook craft, he had a man with a crutch create a false trail for the Union cavalry to follow into the swamps, a trail that abruptly ended in the middle of nowhere, leaving those trackers wondering how a cripple on crutches could suddenly vaporize. Booth had many safe houses and accomplices willing to assist him along the route he took out of Washington. Strange none of these people were called before the military tribunal. The trial was kept narrowed down to eight minor characters, and half of those had zero to do with the plot, but were just patsies. The fewer suspects called before the court, the less chance anyone would talk, especially since patsies had nothing to reveal.
But because of the weirdness around the corpse, which disappeared several times for long periods, the door opened for fakers to claim it wasn’t Booth who was shot and killed at Garrett’s farm. Since Booth was using the name “Boyd” at the time, someone dug up a photo of a man who looked like Booth and was named Boyd and suggested he was the stand-in shot as Booth. This is absurd. If a man named Boyd had been locked in that tobacco barn, all he need do is surrender and allow himself to be taken back to Washington alive to be identified.
Afterwards, they needed someone to conclusively identify the corpse and much has been made of the fact only soldiers and a hotel clerk who barely knew Booth were officially allowed to view the body. The military doctor initially claimed he couldn’t believe it was Booth, probably because without his famous mustache and after several days travel wrapped in a horse blanket, his corpse was already starting to decay.
But this ignores the reality that Booth’s fiance was secretly brought on board the ironclad, and she’s the one who made the definitive identification by throwing herself on the corpse and sobbing. Lucy “Bessie” Hale certainly recognized the body of her one true love. She even snipped a lock of his hair, which was immediately taken from her and destroyed.
Even though Hale’s picture was found inside Booth’s diary, it would not be released to the public until the 1920s, and even then, her name was not identified. Her father was a radical Republican Senator, and held tremendous power and influence, and even though most everyone in Washington high society knew of the relations between Booth and his daughter, it would all be easily covered up. The Hale family simply relocated to Spain for four years, while the Senator took out an ad in the newspaper claiming there was no relationship between his daughter and Booth. End of story. See how easy it is to cover up truth if you can stack the deck of history? Eventually, however, the wheels fell off this hoodwink.
The best part of this story is how it reveals efforts to claim Booth escaped and lived a long and prosperous life are frauds, and there were numerous tall tales invented along these lines. So understand that any book that purports to express this view is disinfo and probably not worth reading. This is how you navigate a deep political event: once you establish where the major rabbit holes have been dug, avoiding falling into them is easy.