Fall of the South: “Now He Belongs to the Ages”

We're covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the ninth installment of the series. 

April 14-15, 1865: “Now He Belongs to the Ages” 

Arguably the most famous murder in history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was simple in its execution but spectacular in its effects – nearly all of them unintended. Above all, it removed America’s greatest statesman just when he was needed to help heal the country from the horror and hatred of the Civil War. Although it’s impossible to know how things would have turned out had Lincoln lived, it’s hard to see how it could have been much worse: in his absence, Reconstruction led to decades of bitter division followed by a dirty backroom deal that left the people who most needed help and protection – the freed slaves – at the mercy of their former masters. 

The Assassin

The most sensational element of the story was the killer himself: long before he wrote himself into history as the archetypal vainglorious villain, John Wilkes Booth was one of the most famous and successful actors in the country, instantly recognizable and widely admired by theatergoers across both North and South. 

Perhaps strangest of all was Booth’s background. In 1821 his father, a famous British stage actor named Junius Brutus Booth, left his wife Adelaide Delannoy Booth and his first son and ran way to America with his mistress, a London flower seller named Mary Ann Holmes. Alcoholic and possibly bipolar, the eccentric Booth senior moved his mistress to rural Maryland, where they owned slaves and lived in almost total seclusion, raising ten children (six of whom survived to adulthood, all but one born out of wedlock) including John Wilkes, born in 1838. Junius won acclaim for his Shakespearean roles but also had some brushes with the law, including writing a series of threatening letters to President Andrew Jackson, on one occasion vowing, “I will cut your throat whilst you are sleeping” (he later apologized). He finally received a divorce from his wife and married Holmes in 1851, just a year before he died. 

In the early 1850s, while at boarding school John Wilkes Booth became involved in the nativist Know-Nothings, a xenophobic, anti-Catholic political movement mainly targeting Irish immigrants. After his father died he left school and eventually decided to imitate his brothers Edwin and Junius Jr. by following in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a life of fame and fortune in the theater (below, the brothers appear together in Julius Caesar; John Wilkes Booth is on the left). The task was made easier by his name, good looks and remarkable talents for acting and memorization. Called “the most handsome man in America,” Booth made a fortune playing dramatic roles and won legions of fans thrilled by his realistic acting style and appearance, including the poet Walt Whitman, who raved, “He would have flashes, passages, I thought of real genius.”

But like his father Booth was also prone to fits of unbalanced rage, which increasingly focused on the growing threat to his beloved South, and especially the institution of slavery. In December 1859, following anti-slavery militant John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Booth traveled to Charles Town, Virginia and volunteered for the militia assembled to foil any attempts to rescue the would-be insurrectionist, ensuring that he hanged. After the Civil War began Booth only became more agitated, according to his brother Edwin, who recalled his family “used to laugh at his patriotic froth whenever secession was discussed. That he was insane on that one point, no one who knew him can well doubt. When I told him I had voted for Lincoln’s re-election he expressed deep regret, and declared his belief that Lincoln would be made king of America; and this, I believe, drove him beyond the limits of reason.” Similarly in 1864 Booth wrote to a friend: “This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same stand-point, as held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.” 

The Conspiracies 

In order to preserve this “blessing” and Southern independence, Booth began using his fortune to fund amateur cloak-and-dagger operations to aid the Confederacy. For example Booth purchased quinine, an important anti-malaria prophylactic, and used his privileged position as a traveling actor to personally smuggle it across the battle lines for use by the Confederate military. Booth carried on these covert activities even as he continued touring Northern cities, including a performance for the president in Washington, D.C.: in November 1863 Lincoln saw Booth perform in the play "The Marble Heart," and his young son Tad even sent a note of admiration to Booth, who responded by sending the boy a rose. 

As the tide of war turned against the South, Booth’s anger and ambitions grew commensurately, and by the end of 1864 he was conspiring with other Confederate sympathizers to kidnap President Lincoln to secure the release of Confederate prisoners of war. Around this time Booth also became infatuated with Lucy Lambert Hale, the daughter of an abolitionist Senator from New Hampshire, and secretly became engaged to her in February 1865 (Lucy was also courted by Lincoln’s oldest son Robert; coincidentally, Booth’s brother Edwin had saved Robert’s life on a train sometime in 1864 or 1865). 

However Booth’s fantastic plans to kidnap Lincoln came to nothing, while the Confederacy’s fortunes declined precipitously in the first part of 1865, adding to his sense of urgency and turning his thoughts to assassination. Booth was apparently present at Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1865, and later told a friend he had “a splendid chance… to kill the president where he stood,” regretting that he hadn’t done so. Booth and his fellow conspirators planned one final kidnapping attempt on March 17, 1865, assembling by the road to waylay his carriage, but it failed when Lincoln changed his travel plans. After Lee surrendered on April 9, the last straw for Booth was Lincoln’s suggestion, during a speech delivered from the White House balcony on April 11, that at least some African-Americans should receive the right to vote. Booth, in the audience gathered below, turned to fellow conspirator Lewis Powell and exclaimed: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” 

The Premonition

According to Lincoln’s friend and informal bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, that evening the president – who’d participated in séances organized by his wife and claimed to have premonitions of his own death – supposedly told his wife and friends about an eerie dream he’d had not long before: 

“About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible… Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers, ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” 

Ford’s Theater 

Still, Booth’s vow might have remained in the realm of fantasy along with his other half-baked plots, if not for a coincidence on the morning of April 14 – Good Friday – when he went to Ford’s Theater to pick up his mail and happened to overhear that Lincoln would be attending the performance of the romantic comedy “Our American Cousin” that evening. Over the next few hours Booth gathered supplies and met with Powell and another conspirator, George Atzerodt, to plan the assassination of Lincoln that night. Incredibly the men also planned to assassinate Vice-President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Henry Seward, and general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant that same night, in hopes of maximizing the chaos and giving the Confederacy a chance to recover. 

On the evening of April 14 Lincoln’s party arrived at Ford’s Theater around 8:30 pm, after the curtain had already gone up, and as they took their places in the presidential box the actors paused their performance to salute him, while the band played “Hail to the Chief” and the audience gave him a standing ovation. After acknowledging the crowd Lincoln settled down along with his wife and their companions for the play, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, who were attending in place of Grant and his wife. Lincoln appeared to be enjoying the play, a farce about transatlantic relations (and differences) at a time when many respectable but impoverished English aristocrats were marrying wealthy, uncouth Americans. 

Meanwhile Booth easily gained access to the theater, where he had performed in the past and had many professional connections, without arousing suspicion. As no president had ever been assassinated before there was no formal secret service guarding Lincoln, so no one searched Booth or prevented him from entering the hallway leading to the presidential box with his derringer concealed in his coat pocket (below).

Timing his attack to coincide with the play’s funniest line – “Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap” – Booth quietly opened the door to the box, barred it to prevent anyone from coming to Lincoln’s assistance, and then at 10:13pm shot Lincoln once in the back of the head at point blank range. Rathbone later testified: 

…while I was intently observing the proceedings upon the stage, with my back toward the door, I heard the discharge of a pistol behind me, and, looking round, saw through the smoke a man between the door and the President. The distance from the door to where the President sat was about four feet. At the same time I heard the man shout some word, which I thought was “Freedom!” I instantly sprang toward him and seized him. He wrested himself from my grasp, and made a violent thrust at my breast with a large knife. I parried the blow by striking it up, and received a wound several inches deep in my left arm .... The man rushed to the front of the box, and I endeavored to seize him again, but only caught his clothes as he was leaping over the railing of the box. The clothes, as I believe, were torn in the attempt to hold him. As he went over upon the stage, I cried out, “Stop that man.” I then turned to the President; his position was not changed; his head was slightly bent forward and his eyes were closed. I saw that he was unconscious, and, supposing him mortally wounded, rushed to the door for the purpose of calling medical aid. 

Other witnesses claim that Booth said “sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants.” One theatergoer, W. Martin Jones, recalled the scene as viewed from the main audience: 

All was still. Sharp and clear, amid the silence that reigned in that vast theatre, sounded the report of a pistol. All eyes were turned whence came the unwelcome noise… It was but an instant, and the slim form of a man with face of livid whiteness, stopped in front of the box in which was seated the President. The words “Sic Semper Tyrannis” was hissed between compressed lips. Another instant and the form had vaulted over the balustrade and upon the stage below – a distance of over twelve feet. 

According to some accounts, in leaping over the balcony Booth injured his left leg, fracturing his fibia (lower leg bone) when it became entangled in the bunting on the front of the president’s box or when he landed on the theater floor; however other historians have argued that he only injured his leg later, when his horse threw him in back of the theater. In any event, Booth somehow injured his leg as he fled Ford’s Theater, and around 4am on April 15 he visited Dr. Samuel Mudd in southern Maryland; Mudd had to cut his boot off because his ankle was so swollen before he could set his broken leg. 

Almost simultaneously with Booth’s attack, at 10:15pm, Powell broke into Seward’s house, where the Secretary of State was confined to bed recuperating from a carriage accident, and stabbed him several times and inflicted a serious wound on his face – but failed to kill him. George Atzerodt, assigned the mission of killing Andrew Johnson, didn’t even get this far: at the last minute he lost his nerve, sat down and got drunk in the lobby of the hotel where the vice-president was staying. 

“Death Certainly Would Soon Close the Scene” 

Meanwhile the audience at Ford’s Theater was reeling from shock as soon as the crime was confirmed. The first physician to reach Lincoln was Charles Augustus Leale, a 23-year-old surgeon who had just graduate from medical school a month and a half before. Leale hurried to the presidential box where he

saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back. On one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris. The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a surgeon while the others . . . were standing crying for stimulants, water, etc., not one going for anything . . . I sent one for brandy and another for water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon, when she asked me to do what I could. He was then in a profound coma, pulse could not be felt, eyes closed, torturous breathing.  

On examining Lincoln Leale discovered the bullet hole in his skull, and testified: “I then knew it was fatal and told the bystanders that it was a mortal wound.” Nonetheless at the order of Dr. Robert King Stone, the Lincoln family physician, the dying president was carried across the street to a brick townhouse belonging to William Petersen, where a boarder let them in. Here Stone was able to examine the wound and confirmed Leale’s judgment: “I at once informed those around that the case was a hopeless one; that the President would die; that there was no positive limit to the duration of his life, that his vital tenacity was very strong, and he would resist as long as any man could, but that death certainly would soon close the scene.” 

Given the state of contemporary medicine, there was nothing doctors could do for Lincoln except try to make him comfortable while a succession of family members and cabinet members came to pay their final respects. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, recalled: 

We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the basement and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily… The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him… His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking… After that his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored… About once an hour Mrs. Lincoln would repair to the bedside of her dying husband and with lamentation and tears remain until overcome by emotion…

In the early morning hours of April 15 Welles stepped out to get a breath of fresh air, then returned to the vigil: 

A little before seven I went into the room where the dying President was rapidly drawing near the closing moments. His wife soon after made her last visit to him. The death struggle had begun. Robert, his son, stood with several others at the head of the bed. He bore himself well but on two occasions gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, turning his head and leaning on the shoulder of Senator Sumner. The respiration of the President became suspended at intervals and at last entirely ceased at twenty-two minutes past seven. 

Fighting back tears, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said quietly: "Now he belongs to the ages."


On Saturday April 15, as  Stanton mounted a huge national manhunt for Booth and his accomplices (top, a wanted poster) the nation reeled from the news that the Great Emancipator, who had steered the nation through its worst trials, was now dead. As bells tolled across the United States, great and ordinary people alike began the elaborate ritual of Victorian mourning, shaped by Christian theology as well as romantic notions of death. By the following day, Easter Sunday, many houses and public buildings were draped in black, while preachers in their sermons inevitably drew parallels between Lincoln and Jesus Christ, both martyred for their work to redeem humanity. 

The news took some time to spread across the huge country, especially in rural areas not yet reached by telegraph service. One observer, Isaac Newton Arnold, recalled the way a great tragedy could bring strangers together, if only for a moment: 

People who had not heard the news, coming into crowded cities were struck with the strange aspect of the people. All business was suspended, gloom, sadness, grief, sat upon every face. Strangers who had never seen the good President, women, and children, and strong men, wept. The flag, which had everywhere, from every spire and mast-head, roof, and tree, and public building, been floating in glorious triumph, was now lowered; as the hours of that dreary 15th of April passed on, the people, by a common impulse, each family by itself, commenced dressing their houses and the public buildings in mourning, and before night the whole nation was shrouded in black… the poor negroes everywhere wept and sobbed over a loss which they instinctively felt was to them irreparable.

Southern Fears 

Although many Northerners assumed that their recently defeated foes would revel in the news of Lincoln’s death, for the most part this wasn’t the case, as more perceptive former Confederates realized it would almost certainly entail further hardship for the South, not least because Andrew Johnson – a former indentured servant from Tennessee who loathed the plantation aristocracy – was now president. 

Dudley Avery, a former Confederate soldier from Louisiana, remarked in a letter to a friend: “I think that in the present condition of the Country it is a misfortune to the South. Johnson seems to be a man void of principle and honor... Next to our being subjugated I regard his being raised to supreme command our greatest calamity.” In Georgia a former Confederate supporter, Eliza Andrews, reached the same conclusion: “It is a terrible blow to the South, for it places that vulgar renegade, Andy Johnson, in power.” And on April 17 the Richmond Whig, a leading Southern newspaper, opined: “The heaviest blow which has ever fallen upon the people of the south has descended.” 

These views were shared by the Southern elite: in North Carolina General Joe Johnston told William Tecumseh Sherman during their surrender negotiations that Lincoln’s death was “the greatest possible calamity to the South.” And Confederate President Jefferson Davis would later write: “For an enemy so relentless in the war for our subjugation, we could not be expected to mourn; yet, in view of its political consequences, it could not be regarded otherwise than as a great misfortune for the South.” 

The Cortege 

On April 19 tens of thousands lined the streets to watch Lincoln’s funeral procession from the White House to the Capitol, where huge crowds stood in line for hours to pay their respects. William Gamble, who served in the honor guard at the Capitol, wrote to his wife:

During my time of duty 39,000 people passed through and viewed the corpse, the front of the lid being open. The coffin was covered with flowers, and a staff officer stood at the head and another at the foot to keep people from touching the coffin or the corpse, and I assure you it was difficult to prevent it. I never saw such a variety of emotions in human nature in my whole life. Some would burst into tears and sobs, others would flush up with fire and indignation and mutter curses loud and deep on the cowardly assassins and their instigators. While I was standing at the head of the coffin preventing people from touching it, one old lady over sixty years old watched me closely, and quick as thought darted down her head and kissed the President in spite of me. I could not find it in my heart to say a word to her, but let her pass on as if I did not see it. You can form no idea of the scenes I saw.

This was just the first of a series of dramatic, heartfelt memorials held across the North as Lincoln’s body was transported back to Springfield, Illinois. From April 21 to May 3, the train covered 1,700 miles, stopping at most of the cities and towns Lincoln had visited in his triumphant journey from Illinois to the White House four years before, giving an estimated 1.3 million mourners in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and Chicago a chance to see their president one last time (below, the funeral procession in New York City, right, and Chicago, right). Over ten million more saw the train. 

Lincoln’s death triggered an outpouring of artistic and literary tributes, but perhaps the finest came from Walt Whitman, who admitted, “After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else.” His 1866 poem “O Captain! My Captain!” reads: 

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

                         But O heart! heart! heart!

                            O the bleeding drops of red,

                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead. 

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

                         Here Captain! dear father!

                            This arm beneath your head!

                               It is some dream that on the deck,

                                 You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

                            But I with mournful tread,

                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,

                                  Fallen cold and dead.

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

Library of Congress // Public Domain
The Key to Robert E. Lee's Puzzling Death Might Be Hidden in a Photo of His Earlobe
Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee died five years after the Civil War ended, the cause of his death had doctors stumped. He had been in poor health, but his specific illness was a mystery; there weren't many clues beyond symptoms Lee had described in letters. “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere,” he wrote to his wife in 1863.

This was before electrocardiograms and x-rays existed. There were no obvious physical findings to support a formal diagnosis, either. Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his gripes and treated him with everything but the kitchen sink: hot mustard plasters and footbaths, doses of turpentine or ammonia, and enemas, all of which were standard medical treatments in the Civil War era. Without a robust medical history to guide them, the doctors diagnosed stroke, rheumatism, and pneumonia in the months leading up to Lee's death.

Now, new research from East Carolina University sheds light on the age-old question of what actually caused Lee's demise, thanks to the discovery in a photograph of a crease running diagonally across Lee’s right earlobe. According to the case study, recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, the crease is a physical sign that Lee likely died from heart disease.

Richard Reinhart, an emeritus professor of medicine at East Carolina University and author of the paper, says earlobe creases can help detect heart disease. Some previous reports have pointed to heart disease as the cause of Lee’s death based on written evidence, but “until now there hadn’t been an actual physical finding supporting this diagnosis,” Reinhart tells Mental Floss. “His earlobe crease is the only piece of objective physical evidence that helps back it up.”

Photo of Robert E. Lee showing a crease in his right earlobe
Virginia Historical Society

The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973, and there have since been more than 120 studies investigating the link. Scientists aren’t sure why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients, but researchers have suggested that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that forms a crease over time.

Reinhart, a history buff who has a particular interest in the life of Lee, saw a close-up photo of the general at the Virginia Historical Society one day and noticed the wrinkle on his ear. Aware of the possible link between earlobe creases and heart disease, he began poring through Lee’s personal letters and attending physicians’ notes, as well as previous reports of Lee’s illness, to see if his symptoms jibed with a failing heart.

It turned out the symptoms correlated well: Lee initially had an episode of chest pain in 1863, which progressively worsened when he exerted himself and eventually took on characteristics that would be recognized today as heart disease. And in the months before his death in 1870, he began to have chest pain even at rest, which suggests a heart attack was imminent.

“The constellation of symptoms, I believe, are readily explained by heart failure due to progressive coronary artery disease,” Reinhart says.

In an age where advanced medical diagnostic tools weren’t yet in play, a physical feature like an earlobe crease would have been a useful visual cue had doctors known it might signal heart trouble. But even if they had known, could they have done anything to help Lee? One option—a nitroglycerin-based substance called amyl nitrite, which dilates the coronary artery for better blood flow to the heart—had been documented in the British medical journal Lancet in 1867 but wasn’t used much clinically. Salicylate, the precursor to aspirin, which today's physicians recommend for preventing heart attacks, had been around since before the Civil War. But the idea of using it as an anti-platelet drug wouldn't occur for decades.

“Understanding heart disease back then was in its relative infancy, and I don’t think there’s anything that would have turned Lee’s condition around,” Reinhart says. “Even today, I believe the outcome from his final illness—end-stage heart failure—may not have been much better, given that the mortality rates for it are still significant.”


More from mental floss studios