‘The last act in the tragedy’

150 years ago, Lin­coln con­spir­a­tors met their fate in D.C.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL E. RUANE

It was a blaz­ing hot July af­ter­noon, and the con­demned were led in irons from the Washington pen­i­ten­tiary about 1 p.m. They passed the pre-dug graves and the stack of gun crates that would serve as their coffins and climbed the steps of the wooden gal­lows that had been built overnight.

Shuf­fling onto the crowded plat­form, they were hooded and bound with strips of white cloth. Nooses were slipped over their heads.

The three men and one woman had been found guilty of con­spir­acy in the as­sas­si­na­tion of “the late pres­i­dent, Abra­ham Lin­coln,” as of­fi­cial doc­u­ments put it.

A cen­tury and a half ago this month — on July 7, 1865 — one of the last grim scenes in the tragedy of the Civil War was played out — and caughtoncamera— at what is now Fort McNair, in South­west Washington.

Mary E. Sur­ratt — the first woman to be ex­e­cuted by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — Lewis Pow­ell, Ge­orge Atze­rodt and David Herold had been con­victed by a mil­i­tary tri­bunal of con­spir­ing with John Wilkes Booth in the mur­der of Lin­coln.

Booth had been killed 10 weeks ear­lier while try­ing to es­cape, af­ter shoot­ing Lin­coln in Ford’s Theatre on April 14.

All the con­demned were lo­cal South­ern sym­pa­thiz­ers im­pli­cated in the plans, first to kid­nap Lin­coln and later to kill him, Vice Pres­i­dent An­drew John­son and Sec­re­tary of State Wil­liam Se­ward.

Se­ward sur­vived a bru­tal knife at­tack by Pow­ell the night Lin­coln was shot. John­son es­caped harm when Atze­rodt lost his nerve and failed to ex­e­cute his part of the op­er­a­tion.

Herold had helped Booth es­cape and was “the get­away guy,” as one ex­pert put it.

And by most ac­counts, Sur­ratt knew of the plot and abet­ted the plot­ters from her board­ing house on H Street NW.

The four were lined up — their arms hand­cuffed, their feet shack­led — as an of­fi­cer read the ex­e­cu­tion or­der and the pho­tog­ra­pher, Alexan­der Gard­ner, aimed two cam­eras from about 100 feet away.

Then Gard­ner and his team recorded “per­haps the most strik­ing se­quence of his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graphs ever made,” ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans James L. Swan­son and Daniel R. Wein­berg.

Frame by frame, the pho­tog­ra­phers cap­tured the pre­lim­i­nar­ies and hang­ing in 10 stark pho­to­graphs, said Barry M. Cau­chon, a New York scholar who has stud­ied the ex­e­cu­tion.

The hang­ing was one of the few acts of of­fi­cial ret­ri­bu­tion to come af­ter the war, ex­perts said, but it sym­bol­ized the North’s col­lec­tive rage over the re­bel­lion and the as­sas­si­na­tion.

“Ev­ery loyal Amer­i­can feels that the death of Mr. Lin­coln is not only a na­tional, but a per­sonal, be­reave­ment,” Washington’s Daily Morn­ing Chron­i­cle wrote. “And ev­ery­one is con­trolled, in some mea­sure, by re­venge­ful feel­ing.”

But when Gard­ner tried to sell the im­ages later, they didn’t do well, said John El­liott, another stu­dent of the ex­e­cu­tion. “Maybe the coun­try didn’t have enough stom­ach for it any­more,” he said.

The first Gard­ner im­age shows the gal­lows be­fore­hand, empty ex­cept for four chairs. Oth­ers then show the scaf­fold crowded with the con­demned, of­fi­cials and clergy, hud­dled un­der um­brel­las to es­cape the sun.

In yet another pic­ture, of­fi­cials can be seen ad­just­ing the nooses around the necks of the four.

Sur­ratt wore a dark veil and a floor­length black al­paca dress but­toned in the front. A Catholic priest hold­ing a cross min­is­tered to her as she sat in a chair while the war­rants were read.

None of the con­demned ap­peared to be wear­ing shoes.

As they stood and awaited the re­lease of the two “drop” sec­tions of the plat­form, Sur­ratt was sup­ported by two sol­diers who kept her from top­pling pre­ma­turely. “Don’t letme fall,” she said.

Atze­rodt said, “Good­bye, gen­tle­men. . . . May we all meet in the other world! God help me now!” ac­cord­ing to the Washington Evening Star’s ac­count.

At 1:26 p.m., the sup­ports were knocked out.

“The drops fell with a heavy slam, and the four bod­ies hung sus­pended,” the news­pa­per re­ported.

In one of Gard­ner’s last shots, the two sol­diers sup­port­ing Sur­ratt stand with their arms ex­tended, hav­ing just let her go.

“The last act in the tragedy of the 19th cen­tury is ended,” the Star pro­nounced. “And the cur­tain dropped for­ever upon the lives of four of its ac­tors. . . . The wretched crim­i­nals have been hur­ried into eter­nity, and tonight will be hid­den in de­spised graves, loaded with the ex­e­cra­tions of mankind.”

The aw­ful event

Paul M. Sev­er­ance stood in the quiet third-floor room of Grant Hall on the grounds of Fort McNair last month, decked out in the gold but­tons and swel­ter­ing blue uni­form of a Union gen­eral.

There was some film­ing equip­ment in a cor­ner, left over from a week­end reen- act­ment of the trial, and Sev­er­ance bus­tled around, pre­par­ing for the lec­ture he was about to give.

To­day, Grant Hall is home to the De­fense Depart­ment’s Africa Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies.

In 1865, it was a wing of the old and largely va­cant fed­eral pen­i­ten­tiary that held the Lin­coln con­spir­a­tors. And the room where Sev­er­ance stood served as the court­room where the trial was held.

Much of the room is not orig­i­nal, although some of the floor­boards are, but it has been re­stored and re­fur­nished to the way it looked in 1865. It’s open to the public on a lim­ited ba­sis.

It’s also said to be haunted by Sur­ratt’s ghost, ac­cord­ing to Sev­er­ance, a pro­fes­sor of mil­i­tary science at the Na­tional De­fense Univer­sity. Lights in­ex­pli­ca­bly go on and off, and the dis­em­bod­ied sound of ham­mer­ing, as if from gal­lows build­ing, has been heard at night, he said.

There, where the Capi­tol can be seen from one of the win­dows, eight con­spir­a­tors were found guilty, and the four were sen­tenced to death. The oth­ers got lesser sen­tences.

The trial, which opened May 9, was a na­tional sen­sa­tion, Sev­er­ance said.

The de­fen­dants were ac­cused of “ma­li­ciously, un­law­fully and traitorously . . . con­spir­ing . . . (to mur­der) Abra­ham Lin­coln, then pres­i­dent of the United States,” the of­fi­cial charges stated.

The hot, stuffy court­room was crammed with re­porters, il­lus­tra­tors and spec­ta­tors ea­ger to glimpse the con­spir­a­tors, es­pe­cially the veiled Sur­ratt, and the hand­some Pow­ell, a 21-year-old for­mer Con­fed­er­ate soldier.

Hun­dreds of wit­nesses tes­ti­fied, in­clud­ing the top Union gen­eral, Ulysses S. Grant; Maj. Henry Rath­bone, who was knifed by Booth sec­onds af­ter Lin­coln was shot; and Sgt. Bos­ton Cor­bett, who fa­tally wounded Booth on April 26.

The de­tails of the as­sas­si­na­tion were given, and links be­tween Booth and the de­fen­dants were es­tab­lished.

The orig­i­nal plot had been to abduct Lin­coln and use him as a hostage to gain the re­lease of Con­fed­er­ate pris­on­ers of war, said Sev­er­ance, a re­tired Army colonel.

But as the rebel cause with­ered, Booth de­cided that some­thing else had to be done, some­thing he called “decisive and great . . . which the world would re­mem­ber for all time,” ac­cord­ing to a new bi­og­ra­phy of Booth by his­to­rian Terry Al­ford.

De­fense lawyers ar­gued that the trial should have been in a civil­ian court, and that many of the de­fen­dants were only in on the kid­nap­ping plot, not the as­sas­si­na­tion. The tri­bunal was un­moved. It be­gan de­lib­er­at­ing June 29 and pre­sented its ver­dicts to Pres­i­dent John­son on July 5, ac­cord­ing to Swan­son and Wein­berg’s book, “Lin­coln’s As­sas­sins.” John­son ap­proved.

On July 6, Pow­ell, Sur­ratt, Atze­rodt and Herold were in­formed that they were to be hanged the next day.

Two gen­er­als went to each cell— first Pow­ell’s, then Atze­rodt’s, Herold’s and Sur­ratt’s, ac­cord­ing to the ac­count in the Star news­pa­per.

Pow­ell, who used the alias Payne, seemed re­signed. Atze­rodt grew pale, and his hands be­gan to shake. Herold ad­mit­ted help­ing Booth es­cape and said he had al­ways been an ar­dent sup­porter of the South.

Sur­ratt was stunned and burst into “a vi­o­lent parox­ysm of grief,” the news­pa­per said. Last-minute ap­peals to a civil­ian court and the White House were made for her. They all came to noth­ing.

Sur­ratt’s daugh­ter, Anna, went to the ex­ec­u­tive man­sion to beg for an in­ter­view with John­son.

Told that he would see no visi­tors, she col­lapsed on a stair­case, “sob­bing aloud in the great­est an­guish, protest­ing her mother’s in­no­cence . . . (declar­ing) her mother was too good and kind to be guilty of the enor­mous crime,” the news­pa­per re­ported.

“The scene was heart rend­ing, and many of those who wit­nessed it . . . were moved to tears,” the Star re­counted.

The next morn­ing, the op­er­a­tion of the freshly built gal­lows de­signed to hang four peo­ple si­mul­ta­ne­ously was tested.

Ar­tillery shells weigh­ing 100 pounds were placed on the drop sec­tions, and the sup­ports were knocked away, the news­pa­per re­ported. Some ad­just­ments were re­quired.

Mean­while, the city was crowded with visi­tors, hop­ing to wit­ness or just be in town for the ex­e­cu­tion. Ad­mis­sion was strictly lim­ited. About 3,000 spec­ta­tors, most of them sol­diers, looked on from the ground, win­dows and rooftops.

The con­demned emerged from the prison, ac­com­pa­nied by mem­bers of the clergy, and filed up to the scaf­fold plat­form. The death war­rants were read. The four stood. The nooses were af­fixed. The tem­per­a­ture was in the mid-90s. The ex­e­cu­tioner, Capt. Chris­tian Rath, who had come to ad­mire Pow­ell’s pluck, said in an in­ter­view many years later that he had whis­pered to Pow­ell, “I want you to die quick.”

“You know best, cap­tain,” Rath said Pow­ell replied.

Rath told his in­ter­viewer that he was sure Sur­ratt would be spared. And when his su­pe­rior, Gen. Win­field Scott Han­cock, or­dered him to pro­ceed, Rath asked, “Her, too?”

“Yes,” Han­cock said. “She can­not be saved.”

Rath gave the sig­nal — three claps of the hand, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­tel­li­gencer. “As one, the four bod­ies shot down­ward,” he re­called.

They were low­ered af­ter about 20 min­utes. The shack­les and irons were re­moved, but not the ex­e­cu­tion hoods.

Each body was placed in a cof­fin, along with a glass bot­tle hold­ing a piece of pa­per bear­ing the con­spir­a­tor’s name and the na­ture of the crime. The four were buried in the graves be­side the gal­lows and over the years re­turned to their fam­i­lies.

The aw­ful event was fin­ished, the Na­tional In­tel­li­gencer wrote, as if speak­ing of the up­heaval of the past four years.

“God grant that our coun­try may never again wit­ness such another one.”

ABOVE: Nooses are ad­justed for four of the con­spir­a­tors in­volved in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln on the gal­lows at FortMcNair in Washington on July 7, 1865.


RIGHT: Ted Cham­ber­lain, cen­ter, sits with other reen­ac­tors dur­ing a dress re­hearsal for the trial of the con­spir­a­tors at the Get­tys­burg Pres­by­te­rian Church in Get­tys­burg, Pa.


From left, Ran­dall Krakauer, Amanda Silva andMichael Gar­vey re­hearse for the reen­act­ment of the con­spir­acy trial in­volv­ing Abra­ham Lin­coln’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

The view out­side the build­ing where the trial for the con­spir­a­tors was held is shown at FortMcNair in­Wash­ing­ton. The gal­lows where four were hanged was on part of the ten­nis court.

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