Tuesday, June 30, 2015



June 30, 1865 -- The United States Army military tribunal overseeing the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators handed down its verdit: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were guilty, and should suffer death by hanging.

The trial of the alleged conspirators began on May 9. They included Mary Surratt (in whose boarding house the men had met, and whose home in Surrattsvile, Md., had been used as a safehouse by John Wilkes Booth as he fled D.C.), Lewis Powell (who had attempted but failed to kill Secretary of State Seward), David Herold (who assisted Powell, and fled with Booth), George Atzerodt (who was to have killed Vice President Johnson, but instead got drunk in a bar), Dr. Samuel Mudd (who treated Booth's broken leg at his home in Maryland), Samuel Arnold (an original conspirator who dropped out before Booth proposed murder), Michael O'Laughlen (another earlier conspiracy drop-out, like Arnold), and Edmund Spangler (a stagehand at Ford's Theatre who unwittingly aided Booth the night Lincoln died).

Most of the conspirators had been arrested within days of Lincoln's death, except for Booth (who died in Virginia) and Herold.

A military tribunal, rather than a civilian court, was chosen as the venue because government officials thought that its more lenient rules of evidence would enable the court to get to the bottom of what was then perceived by the public as a vast conspiracy. All eight alleged conspirators were tried simultaneously.

Initially, all the male prisoners were housed aboard ironclad monitors in the Potomac River so as to make it impossible for them to escape or be freed. On April 22, Lewis Powell repeatedly banged his head into the iron walls of his cell aboard the "USS Saugus". Whether this was a suicide attempt (as his jailers believed) or not, it deeply alarmed military officials. A canvas padded hood, with only a slit for the mouth and nostrils, was fashioned. Powell and all the other prisoners aboard the monitors were forced to wear them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prevent any further suicide attempts. Only Mary Surratt and Dr. Mudd were not required to wear the hoods. The hoods were hot, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable, and in the humid confines of the monitors in the steaming Washington summer the prisoners suffered immensely. On June 6, Hartranft ordered them removed -- except for Powell's.

On April 29, the prisoners were moved to the Washington Arsenal (now Ft. Lesley J. McNair), where a former dormitory was rigged as a prison. Two armed guards stood before the door of each cell, which was sparsely furnished with a straw mattress, table, wash basin, chair, and a bucket. Food was served four times a day, and consisted of the same thing each time: Soft bread; salt pork, salt beef, or beef soup; and coffee or water.

All the male prisoners were constantly shackled with a form of manacles known as "lily irons", a riveted handcuff that had two separate iron bands on each wrist that prevented bending of the wrist or use of the hands independently. A heavy iron ball at the end of a 6-foot-long chain was manacled to one leg. Shackles were riveted closed about the ankles, which caused the feet to swell considerably.

The prisoners were not permitted to bathe or wash until May 4, at which time all bindings and clothes were removed and they were permitted to bathe in cold water in the presence of a soldier. About this same time, General John F. Hartranft, special provost marshal overseeing the prisoners, began improving the living conditions. The prisoners began to receive fresh clothing (including undergarments) more frequently, more food, and writing instruments (paper, pen, ink). Living conditions improved again on June 18, when the prisoners were given a box to sit on, outdoor exercise time each day, and reading material and (for the men) chewing tobacco after each meal.

A room on the northeast corner of the third floor of the Arsenal building was made into a courtroom, and the prisoners were brought into the room through a side door -- which prevented them from passing by or being harassed by spectators. An armed guard sat on either side of each prisoner (except for Mrs. Surratt), and all the male prisoners wore wrist and ankle manacles in the courtroom. Surratt was so ill the last four days of the trial that she was permitted to stay in her cell.

The trial ended on June 28, 1865.



The military tribunal considered guilt and sentencing on June 29 and 30. A death sentence required six of the nine votes of the judges. Surratt's guilt was the second-to-last considered, because her case presented problems of evidence and witness reliability. Sentence was handed down June 30, and the sentences announced publicly on July 5.

Captain Christian Rath oversaw the execution. Construction of the gallows began immediately on July 5 after the execution order was signed by President Andrew Johnson. It was constructed against the east wall of the Arsenal courtyard, somewhat close to the Arsenal Building. The gallows were 12 feet high and about 200 square feet in size. Captain Rath made the nooses. Tired of making nooses and thinking that the government would never hang a woman, he made Surratt's noose the night before the execution with five loops rather than the regulation seven. He tested the nooses that night by tying them to a tree limb and a bag of buckshot, then tossing the bag to the ground (the ropes held). Civilian workers did not want to dig the graves out of superstitious fear, so Rath asked for volunteers among the soldiers at the Arsenal and received more help than he needed.

The prisoners were informed of their execution at noon on July 6.

The soldiers began testing the gallows about 11:25 A.M. on July 7; the sound of the tests unnerved all the condemned. The heat in the city that day was oppressive. By noon, it had already reached 92.3°F (33.5°C). The guards ordered all visitors to leave at 12:30 P.M.

On July 7, 1865, at 1:15 P.M., a procession led by General Hartranft escorted the four condemned prisoners through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Each prisoner's ankles and wrists were bound by manacles (including Surratt's), and Surratt led the way. More than 1,000 people -- including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters -- watched. General Hancock limited attendance to those who had a ticket, and only those who had a good reason to be present were given a ticket. (Most of those present were military officers and soldiers, as fewer than 200 tickets had been printed.)

Alexander Gardner, who had photographed the body of Booth and taken portraits of several of the male conspirators while they were imprisoned aboard naval ships, photographed the execution for the government. Hartranft read the order for execution. Surratt, either weak from her illness or swooning in fear (perhaps both), had to be supported by two soldiers and two priests. The condemned were seated in chairs, Surratt almost collapsing into hers. She was seated to the right of the others, the traditional "seat of honor" in an execution. White cloth was used to bind their arms to their sides, and their ankles and thighs together. Each person was ministered to by a member of the clergy. About 16 minutes elapsed from the time the prisoners entered the courtyard until they were ready for execution.



A white bag was placed over the head of each prisoner after the noose was put in place. Surratt complained that the bindings about her arms hurt, and the officer preparing her said, "Well, it won't hurt long." Finally, the prisoners were asked to stand and move forward a few feet to the nooses. The chairs were removed.

The condemned stood on the drop for about 10 seconds, and then Captain Rath clapped his hands. Four soldiers of Company F of the 14th Veteran Reserves knocked out the supports holding the drops in place, and the condemned fell. Surratt slid partway down the drop, her body snapping tight at the end of the rope. Then she was still. Atzerodt's stomach heaved once and his legs quivered, and then he was still. Herold and Powell struggled for nearly five minutes, strangling to death.

The bodies of the executed were allowed to hang for about 30 minutes, and then each body was inspected by a physician to ensure that death had occurred. The bodies began to be cut down at 1:53 P.M. A corporal raced to the top of the gallows and cut down Atzerodt's body, which fell to the ground with a thud. He was reprimanded, and the other bodies cut down more gently. Herold's body was next, followed by Powell's. Surratt's body was cut down at 1:58 P.M. As Surratt was cut loose, her head fell forward. A soldier joked, "She makes a good bow" and was rebuked by an officer for his poor use of humor.

Upon examination, the military surgeons determined that no one's neck had been broken by the fall. The manacles and cloth bindings were removed (but not the white execution masks), and the bodies were placed into the pine coffins. The name of each person was written on a piece of paper by acting Assistant Adjutant R. A. Watts, and inserted in a glass vial (which was placed into the coffin). The coffins were buried against the prison wall in shallow graves, just a few feet from the gallows. A white picket fence marked the burial site. (Booth's body was laid in a room in the Old Penitentiary, near the U.S. Capitol. The body of Capt. Henry Wirz , commander of the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, was buried next to the conspirators in November 1865.)

In 1867, the War Department decided to tear down the portion of the Washington Arsenal where the bodies of Surratt and the other executed conspirators lay. On October 1, 1867, the coffins were disinterred and reburied in Warehouse No. 1 at the Arsenal, with a wooden marker placed at the head of each burial vault. (Booth's body was laid there, too.) In February 1869, Edwin Booth asked President Johnson for the body of his brother. Johnson agreed to turn the bodies over to each family.

It's unclear what happened to Powell's body. But the most likelyl scenario has Powell buried at Holmead's Burying Ground in D.C. (just south of what is now the Capital Hilton) in either June 1869 or February 1870. A.H. Gawler of Gawler's Funeral Home handled the reburial. The burial site was unmarked, and only Gawler and a few Army personnel knew where Powell was interred at Holmead's. Holmead's closed in 1874, and for the next decade bodies were disinterred and reburied elsewhere. According to the "Washington Evening Star" newspaper, Powell's body was exhumed by Gawler's on December 16, 1884. The identifying glass vial was recovered, but the paper it was supposed to contain was missing. Historian Wesley Pippenger asserts that Powell's remains were then buried at Graceland Cemetery in Georgetown. When Graceland closed in 1894, unclaimed white remains were moved to mass graves at Rock Creek Cemetery. Powell's remains may lay there in Section K, Lot 23. Much more certain: Gawler removed the skull at the time of its 1869/1870 interment. The skull was then donated in 1885 to the Army Medical Museum. At that time, it was stenciled with the accession number 2244 and the capital letter "P". The museum's documentation shows that the skull came from "Payne', a criminal who had been executed by hanging. The Army gave the skull to the Smithsonian on May 7, 1898, and somehow it became mixed with the Native American collection. In 1991, a Smithsonian Institution researcher discovered Powell's skull, and it was returned to the Powell family. On November 12, 1994, Lewis Powell's skull was buried next to the grave of his mother, Caroline Patience Powell, at Geneva Cemetery in Geneva, Florida.

Mary Surratt was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 1869. (Her primary accuser, John M. Lloyd, is buried 100 yards from her grave in the same cemetery.)

George Atzerodt was interred in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but the site of his burial is not known.

David Herold's remains were placed in an unmarked grave next to his father, Adam, in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D. C. A gravestone was finally erected over him in July 1917, at the time of the burial of his sister Mary Alice (nee Herold) Nelson.

What remains of the Arsenal Building is now Ulysses S. Grant Hall at Ft. McNair. A replica of the courtroom, in its original location, was constructed there in 2014.

The site of the scaffold and original burial plots is a now grassy space located between the tennis courts and 3rd Avenue, south of Grant Hall.

Warehouse 1 was located southeast of the penitentiary. It is now a parking lot bounded by 4th Avenue on the west and the James Creek Marina on the east.

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