Manuscript and Visual Collections Department
William Henry Smith Memorial Library
Indiana Historical Society
450 West Ohio Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202-3269
In January 2003, the Indiana Historical Society acquired three nationally significant Abraham Lincoln collections, including the Daniel R. Weinberg Lincoln Conspirators Collection described here. The collections were made possible by a generous $2.9 million gift from the Lilly Endowment. Although these collections are available online now, they will not be physically available to William Henry Smith Memorial Library users until February 2005, as items in the collections are being preserved.
The Civil War ended on 9 April 1865 with the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Virginia. Five days later, Abraham Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre to watch the play Our American Cousin, starring the British actress Laura Keene. While Lincoln was at the theater, John Wilkes Booth crept into the president’s box and shot him in the back of the head. At the same time, in the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward, another man pushed his way into the house and tried to stab the secretary to death. Although wounded, Seward survived, but Lincoln died the next day. Booth escaped to the Virginia countryside and was on the loose for twelve days. Authorities offered a $100,000 reward for the capture of Booth and two of his conspirators, John Surratt and David Herold. Authorities carried photographs of the fugitives while looking for them, and Booth and Herold were tracked down on 26 April to a tobacco shed where New York cavalry shot and killed Booth. But the story of the Lincoln assassination does not end with Booth’s death. Even though their names are mostly unknown today, at one time the names George Atzerodt, David Herold, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, Samuel Arnold, Edman Spangler, Michael O’Laughlin, and Dr. Samuel Mudd were infamous and despised as conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination.
While Booth was on the run, his coconspirators were easily rounded up. Spangler was the first suspect arrested. He was an employee at Ford’s Theatre, and Booth asked him to hold the reins of his horse when he went into the theater to shoot the president. Authorities went to Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse on 17 April after hearing talk of Booth’s association with John Surratt, Mary’s son. While there they ran into Powell, the would-be assassin of Secretary of State Seward. Powell was known at the time of his arrest and throughout the trial by his aliases, Lewis Paine and Lewis Payne. Powell’s late-night arrival, with a pickax, aroused suspicions and he was arrested. Mary Surratt came under suspicion because of her son’s relationship with Booth and because Powell was at her house. Arnold and O’Laughlin were also arrested on 17 April. Both were childhood friends of Booth and both admitted to being involved in an earlier plot to kidnap the president. Atzerodt was also involved in the kidnapping plot. When the plans changed to assassination, and Booth wanted him to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson, Atzerodt laughed at his assignment and instead spent the night of 14 April getting drunk and wandering around Washington, D.C. He was arrested while still in bed on the morning of 20 April at his cousin’s house, where he had been hiding. Mudd, who had treated Booth’s injured leg, was arrested on 24 April, and Herold was taken into custody at the Garrett barn where he was caught while attempting to escape with Booth.
From the time of the prisoners’ arrests to when the trial started, Mary Surratt and Mudd were jailed at the Old Capitol Prison, while the other six were imprisoned on the ironclad vessels Montauk and Saugus. Photographer Alexander Gardner was allowed aboard the ships on 27 April to take photographs of each of the conspirators, early versions of today’s mug shots. On that day, the prisoners were led up on the deck one at a time for Gardner to photograph. Gardner took the most pictures of Powell, seated in a chair and standing like the other prisoners, but also pictures of him wearing the hat and coat he allegedly wore the night of the attack on Seward. There are no pictures of Surratt and Mudd, who were not aboard the ships when Gardner took the photographs. As a result the public did not know what they looked like from the time of their arrest through the end of the trial.
As the trial date approached, authorities confined the prisoners to separate cells in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. They were shackled to balls and chains, with their hands held in place by an inflexible iron bar. Also, from the time of their arrest until midway through their trial, all the prisoners, under orders from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, were forced to wear canvas hoods over their heads.
Secretary Stanton favored a quick military trial and execution, and on 1 May 1865, Andrew Johnson, the new president, ordered that the Lincoln conspirators be tried by a military commission and not by a civil criminal court in Washington, D.C., because the assassination of the president was seen as an act of war. Former Attorney General Edward Bates complained that if the offenders, however guilty, were put to death by the commission, some would see them as martyrs.
The trial quickly became the trial of the nineteenth century, with the public clamoring for news and photographs of the conspirators. The physical appearance of the prisoners was important to the public, as it was common in the nineteenth century to assume that looks equaled character. Atzerodt was looked down on and singled out for much abuse because he was a lower-class, German-born immigrant. Descriptions of Herold in the newspapers depicted him as weak and a great coward. Mary Surratt (the only woman on trial) was seen as a curiosity in the press. The star of the trial was Powell, who was admired for his courage and physique. Arnold, O’Laughlin, Spangler, and Mudd, who escaped death sentences, were the least sensational figures.
The military commission convened for the first time on 8 May in a newly created courtroom on the third floor of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. The members of the commission heard the evidence, rendered verdicts, and imposed sentences. Testimony began on 12 May, three days after the prisoners were first asked if they would like to have legal counsel. Because of this, defense attorneys had little time to consult with their clients, locate and consult witnesses, investigate government witnesses, and do other pre-trial preparations. Making the position of the defendants even more grave, conviction could come from a simple majority vote, and a two-thirds majority could impose a death sentence. Because of legal customs of the time, the defendants were not allowed to testify in their defense. Secretary Stanton wanted the trial to be closed to the press and public, but reluctantly relented, giving the defense its only advantage.
The trial continued on through May and June, with the case against the conspirators all but becoming a backdrop for “an indictment against the Confederacy, its leader, the Southern people, and the way the South fought the war” (James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution, p. 21). The newspapers covered the trial daily, publishing the proceedings and transcripts of the testimonies.
After seven weeks, on 29 June, the commission went into a secret session to review the evidence and decide verdicts and sentences. With 361 witnesses and 4,900 pages of transcripts to review, it was speculated that it would take weeks to reach verdicts. But on 5 July the commission presented the verdicts and sentences to President Johnson, who approved them at once. All eight prisoners were found guilty, and Atzerodt, Herold, Powell, and Surratt were sentenced to death. Arnold, O’Laughlin, and Mudd were to be imprisoned for life, and Spangler was to be imprisoned for six years.
Major General John F. Hartranft, who was in charge of the prisoners when they were incarcerated at the Old Arsenal Prison, went individually to them in their cells and informed them of their fates. The prisoners were shocked at how quickly they had been convicted and that they were to be executed by hanging the next day. As the defendants were being informed of their sentences, scaffolding was already being constructed in the prison yard. For those sentenced to death, this left no time for appeals and little time to seek clemency from the president or even to summon ministers and family.
General Hartranft attempted to locate family and ministers the condemned wished to see. Surratt’s lawyers drafted legal papers in one last effort to save their client, while her daughter, Anna, tried to see President Johnson to beg for mercy but was turned away. A rumor spread on the day of the execution that President Johnson had reduced her sentence to imprisonment for life out of consideration of her age and gender, but that was dismissed when the four conspirators were taken to the scaffold with Surratt in the lead.
Although the execution was a public one, the only way to attend was to have a signed pass from General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was in command of the defenses of the capital. One person who was assured a pass was photographer Gardner. He had been allowed previous access to the prisoners on the ironclads and had photographed Lincoln many times, and was chosen by the War Department to document the event. He was the only photographer allowed into the event and it was crucial that he be well prepared to cover the proceedings. He was secretly allowed into the prison on 5 July to view where the execution would be held and to plan camera positions. He had two cameras with him—one that produced glass plate negatives and the other a stereo camera that took double images that created a three-dimensional effect. Because there would be no room for error, Gardner and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, planned how to photograph the event and prepared the glass plates ahead of time.
Around 1 p.m. on 7 July the prisoners were led out of their cells and into the yard. On the way to the scaffolding, the prisoners were marched within sight of their coffins and freshly dug graves. On the scaffolding, Surratt was given the place of honor on the right, according to the executioner Christian Rath. The condemned were seated while General Hartranft read them the execution order. They were then ordered to stand, cloth hoods were placed over their heads, and the nooses were placed around their necks. At about 1:26 p.m., Hartranft clapped his hands together three times. Underneath the gallows, two soldiers using long poles knocked the supporting posts away and the trap doors swung down, dropping the bodies some five to six feet. Gardner took a photograph with his stereo camera at the moment the conspirators fell, showing the bodies still in motion. The bodies were allowed to hang for nearly twenty-five minutes, at which time they were cut down and placed on top of the coffins. There, doctors examined them and pronounced each one dead in turn. The bodies were then placed inside the coffins, the lids were closed, and the four were buried in shallow graves near the gallows.
For their parts Mudd, Arnold, O’Laughlin, and Spangler were transported to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, off the coast of Key West, where the first three had been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives and Spangler six years. Four years into their sentences, however, a yellow-fever outbreak occurred at Fort Jefferson. O’Laughlin contracted the deadly disease, but the other three somehow avoided it. One by one the army surgeons also succumbed, leaving Mudd to treat the remaining victims, along with a few army personnel. When President Johnson received word of Mudd’s work, he rewarded Mudd with a full pardon. Spangler and Arnold were also later pardoned.
Daniel R. Weinberg, who originally assembled the materials in this collection, is the owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, Illinois. He has been in the business of buying, selling, and appraising items of Americana since 1971. His specialization is in Lincolniana, the Civil War, and the presidency. He has helped build some of the major collections in the United States and gives lectures to numerous historical groups.
Currently he is a director of the Lincoln Forum, the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the Manuscript Society. He is also the administrative vice-president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association and a member of the official advisory committee to the federal Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Committee. He is a past president of the Illinois Lincoln Group and the Civil War Round Table of Chicago. He has performed appraisals for such institutions as The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the American Bar Foundation, Brandeis University, University of Virginia, WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, the Chicago Public Library, and others.
The bulk of the collection is from 1865 and consists of photographs, newspapers, artifacts, and letters. Included are photographs of the conspirators and the generals who either served as trial judges or guarded the conspirators during the trial. The newspapers range from 15 April 1865 to 22 July 1865 and cover topics from Lincoln’s assassination to the conspirators’ execution. The artifacts include a swatch of fabric, congressional medals, and the letters from the generals regarding their parts in the trial and execution.
Also included are eighteen books and nine pamphlets. Some of them are about the assassination and subsequent actions, while others tell about specific conspirators or others somehow involved. There are also a few congressional items published by the U.S. government.
The color transparencies and glass lantern slides were numbered by the processor with the numbers enclosed in square brackets [ ].
The processor at the Indiana Historical Society arranged the material into six series:
Series 1: Assassination contains photographs of a gun similar to the Derringer pistol with which Booth shot Lincoln. There is also a photograph of the telegraph office where the news was flashed on 15 April 1865 that Lincoln had been assassinated, and a glass lantern slide depicting the scene of Booth shooting Lincoln. There are two artifacts in the series: a swatch of fabric from the dress that Laura Keene wore that night when she ran up to the president’s box and cradled his head in her lap as the doctor looked for the wound, with some of the blood from the wound staining her dress, and a congressional medal awarded to George F. Robinson, who fought Lewis Powell off of Secretary of State Seward. There are also newspapers from that time, including the New York Herald 15 April 1865 edition that had the first news of Lincoln’s death, a Harper’s Weekly and National Police Gazette from the following week, and a page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper with lithograph illustrations of scenes from the assassination.
Series 2: Apprehension contains the “Wanted” poster for Booth, Herold, and Surratt, and the cartes-de-visite that were on the poster, although here they are separate. Other photographs include mug shots taken of the conspirators aboard the ironclads and a photograph of the key to the Old Arsenal Prison where the conspirators were imprisoned, tried, and convicted. There is a letter from Finis L. Bates, who believed Booth escaped from the Garrett farm, and a Harper’s Weekly newspaper from 27 May 1865 with a lithograph illustration of Lewis Powell (Payne) from a photograph taken aboard the ironclads.
Series 3: Trial contains the execution order of the conspirators written by Edward Townsend and delivered to General Hancock on 6 July 1865. There are photographs of the Commission of Judges for the trial, individual cartes-de-visite of two of the judges and Major General Edward Townsend, who wrote out the order of execution. In addition to the pictures, this series contains autographs, with ranks, of all the trial judges and a document signed by General Hartranft. A composite carte-de-visite of Booth and the other conspirators, a drawing of the conspirators on trial, and a Philadelphia Inquirer from 18 May 1865 that reports on the trial are also part of the series.
Series 4: Execution contains a series of five photographs of the execution taken by Alexander Gardner. Also included is a self-portrait of Gardner and his pass into the execution signed by General David Hunter, as well as letters from Winfield Scott Hancock and Christian Rath, who both describe their parts in the execution. There is a glass lantern slide of a scene from the execution, and a carte-de-visite of Rath. The newspapers Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and National Police Gazette all report on the execution and have lithograph illustrations of scenes from the execution.
Series 5: Transparencies consists of twelve polyester color transparencies. Six are copies of the warrant of execution, and six are copies of the pictures Gardner took the day of the execution.
Series 6: Books and Pamphlets contains twenty-seven published works about the assassination, conspirators, and execution dating from 1865 to 1997. The works range from congressional reports about how to distribute the reward money for the arrest of Lincoln’s assassins to books written by eyewitnesses to the trial, books about the individual conspirators, the supposed escape of Booth from Garrett’s farm, and many accounts of the events that transpired after Lincoln’s assassination.
Lincoln Collections Project Archivist