What You Didn't Know About the Lincoln Assassination

Image credit: 

I'm reading Assassination Vacation right now, a book by Sarah Vowell about her trips across America to visit destinations involved with Presidential assassinations. My description doesn't do it justice, because it's fabulously funny and interesting all at the same time. This type of thing is right up my alley, anyway. A group of us are headed to Chicago for Lollapalooza in August and I'm already plotting out things I want to see on the road trip there "“ Al Capone's grave in Hillside, Ill., for one. I just wrote a post about gangsters for Neatorama and it has my curiosity up.

The thing about this book is that I've learned so much about history that I didn't learn in school "“ at least, I don't remember learning it in school. I suppose it's entirely plausible that I was taught it and either didn't retain it or was too busy writing notes to care about the Lincoln assassination plot. Anyway, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned so far.

The Lincoln Administration Assassination?

If everything went as planned, it wouldn't have been just the Lincoln Assassination "“ it would have been the Lincoln Administration Assassination. At the same time John Wilkes Booth was offing Lincoln, two accomplices were supposed to be doing the same to Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth thought he could also kill General U.S. Grant, who was supposed to have been attending Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with the Lincolns. Johnson's assassin chickened out and didn't even attempt; the Seward attempt was unsuccessful. He was stabbed a number of times but survived. U.S. and Julia Grant declined the Lincoln's invitation, so Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris went in their place. Rathbone was a military officer and Harris was the daughter of U.S. Senator Ira Harris. In a weird side note, Rathbone's mother married Harris' father, making them step-siblings as well as husband and wife when they eventually tied the knot.

The Kidnapping Plot

jw-booth.jpgActually, before it was an assassination plot, it was a kidnapping plot. Booth wanted to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Southern Prisoners of War. In 1865, Booth spent about $4,000 of his own money to arrange the kidnapping. There are couple of reasons why the plot failed. At one point, Booth was lying in wait to kidnap Lincoln, but he didn't show up at the right time. Then, a couple of days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, Booth was in attendance when Lincoln gave a speech about giving black people the right to vote. Infuriated, Booth decided a mere kidnap attempt wouldn't do "“ assassination was the only answer.

His Name is Mudd

muddPeople will still debate this point today "“ did Dr. Samuel Mudd have a part in the assassination, or was he merely a doctor doing his duty? Here's the story: After shooting Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth jumped off the balcony to escape. The spur of his boot got caught in the flag hanging on the balcony and he fell to the stage rather ungracefully, breaking his leg.

He somehow managed to escape on horseback anyway, and went to Dr. Mudd's house in southern Maryland on his way to Virginia. Mudd set Booth's leg and even had a carpenter make him a pair of crutches. Mudd never contacted authorities, not even when he went to town the next day and saw the news of Lincoln's assassination (if he had not heard of it before then). A couple days later, he finally asked his cousin to tell the Cavalry what happened. Mudd was questioned and didn't tell the whole truth, thus making him suspicious. He said he had met Booth before, but only once, and only coincidentally. The truth was, the pair had met at least twice before the fateful night in April when Mudd fixed Booth's leg. The first time, Booth was scouting out the area "for real estate" and was introduced to Mudd. Some people believe he was there to recruit Mudd in the assassination plot. The second time, Booth, Mudd, and two other men who had roles in the murder had drinks together in Washington. Mudd accidentally (or not) forgot to mention the second meeting.

Mudd was convicted for being part of the conspiracy to murder Lincoln, and he served nearly four years at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles from Key West. After one escape attempt, Mudd was an outstanding prisoner who saved the lives of many inmates when Yellow Fever broke out at the Fort in 1867. When prison doctor died, Mudd took over his duties.

Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan wrote letters to the Mudd family during their administrations stating that Samuel Mudd had only been performing his duties as a doctor, and was clear of all suspicion.

John Wilkes Booth's Mummy

booth mummy
Most people believe that John Wilkes Booth died when soldiers caught up to him at the Garrett Farm in Virginia. When Booth refused to surrender, the barn he was hiding in was set on fire, and Booth was fatally shot in the neck. I guess the soldiers wanted to cover their bases. But of course, some people believe it wasn't really Booth in the barn. Supposedly, Booth escaped, and a look-alike died in his place. Here's how that story came about: In the 1870s, a man named Finis Bates became friends with a man named John St. Helen. St. Helen became very ill and thought he was on his deathbed. He confessed to Bates that he was John Wilkes Booth. St. Helen recovered and denied ever saying it, then skipped town. Then, roughly 30 years later, a man named David E. George died and had confessed to someone else that he was John Wilkes Booth. Bates traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, where George had died, to see if it was the same man he knew as John St. Helen. It was. The body was mummified, sold and toured for a while, including at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Its whereabouts today are unknown.

The Robert Todd Lincoln Curse

RTRobert Todd Lincoln might have been the kiss of death for Presidents. He wasn't actually at Ford's Theater when his father was shot, although he was invited to go. He was informed that the elder Lincoln had been shot and made it to his deathbed. A little more than 16 years later, in 1881, President James A. Garfield invited Robert Todd (Garfield's Secretary of War) to accompany him to his alma mater, Williams College, to give a speech. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the train station on his way to the speech, with Robert Todd standing right there. Fast-forward another 20 years and you'll find Robert Todd at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. You know who else was there? President McKinley and his assassin, Leon F. Czolgosz. Although Robert Todd didn't witness the shooting, he was definitely present when it happened. In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell says that when Robert Todd was asked to attend some White House function later in life, he declined and grumbled, "If only they knew, they wouldn't want me there."

A few other tidbits about the Lincoln Assassination:

"¢ Later in life, Henry Rathbone lost his mind and tried to kill himself. Although that attempt failed, he succeeding in shooting his wife, Clara, before stabbing her to death. He went after his kids, too, but that didn't pan out. His son, Henry Riggs Rathbone, later represented Illinois in the U.S. Congress.

"¢ Like Robert Todd Lincoln, maybe Ford's Theater was cursed. The government bought the theater from owner John Ford, then gutted it to create an office building. In 1893, the inner structure of the building collapsed and killed 22 people. The building was then used as a warehouse for a bit, and then remained empty until it was reconstructed to look like the original theater. It reopened in 1968.

"¢ You can find one of John Wilkes Booth's legacies in Central Park. Well, a legacy of sorts. On November 25, 1864, Booth performed Julius Caesar with his two brothers at the Winter Garden Theater in New York. Proceeds from the play went to buy a statue of Shakespeare for Central Park, and it's still there today.
* * * * *

More from mental_floss...

July 15, 2008 - 8:24am
webby
submit to reddit