Civil War Profiles: ‘The end has come’ for Lincoln conspirators

Date Published: 
February 21, 2014

There was no mystery as the trial of the seven men and one woman linked in a plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln concluded. As expected, it resulted in their conviction. Four sentenced to pay the ultimate penalty; three others jailed “for the remainder of their lives.” One would gain freedom after serving only six years in prison.

Having covered these fast-moving events since the April 14, 1865, assassination of the president, on July 7, New York World reporter George Alfred Townsend wrote the last of his nine “letters” to the public — this one titled “The Executions.” With evident weariness after “how many journeying [trips] to Washington, how many hot midnights at the telegraph office, [and] how many gallops into wild places,” he was particularly relieved the “end has come.”

A hard working and ambitious young journalist from Delaware, Townsend described the scene on the grounds of an arsenal and federal penitentiary (now Fort McNair) along the Potomac River in southwest Washington, D.C. On this “parched and oppressive noon,” soldiers lined “a long and dusty avenue” where the four sentenced to death “were to be led out in shackles and hung to a beam.”

Townsend gained entrance through tight security with a pass granted him as a reporter. Demand was high among the capital’s populace for authorization to witness “this expiation.”

The reporter observed a “structure” that was nearing completion with workmen “measuring it and directing its construction … ascend[ing] its airy stair to test its firmness.” This was “the gallows.” Dangling from it were “four awkward ropes … each noosed at the end.”

Three men and one woman would soon climb “15 creaking steps” and stand on a floor with hinges that “were to give way at the fatal moment.” From their elevated vantage point, those sentenced to hang would see below them “four wooden boxes [caskets] … piled upon each other at the edge of four newly excavated pits [graves].”

This scene awaited the arrival of Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold and Lewis Payne (a.k.a. Powell), the convicted conspirators who received the death penalty. They would ascend the platform before a crowd of anticipant spectators.

First came Surratt, “pinioned … dressed in black, bonneted and veiled, walking between two bare-headed priests.” Atzerodt was next, a “shambling German … upon whose feet the chains clanked.”

The third to arrive was Herold “a shabby boy, whose limbs tottered as he progressed” toward the gallows. Last came Payne, who “walked in the shadow of a straight high stature … suggestive rather of the barbarian.”

All four were closely guarded and accompanied by clergy ministering to them. “They were, altogether, a motley and miserable set … aspiring to overturn a nation, bore the appearance of a troop of ignorant folks ... soon to be cold in their coffins.”

Those assigned to provide spiritual support for the condemned spoke on their behalf before the assembled witnesses to the execution. Payne appreciated the kind treatment he received while in custody. Herold “asked for forgiveness of all whom he had wronged.” Atzerodt also was thankful for “kindness received from his guards and attendants.” The priests, “having received her confession,” maintained silence about Surratt.

The four were now atop the scaffold, and the “process of tying the limbs began.” Surratt “half-fainted … uttering … a kind of sick groaning.” Payne “stood straight.” Herold was “whimpering at the lips.” Atzerodt “began to indulge in his old vice of gabbing.” The “death-caps were all drawn over the faces of the prisoners.”

Townsend, viewing the historic events from the “central building” adjacent to the penitentiary, looked out upon “nearly a thousand faces from window, roof, wall, yard and housetop [who] gazed … while an officer … signaled the executioners.” The “traps fell with a slam. The four bodies dropped like a single thing … swayed and turned … and the ropes were taut as the struggling pulses of the dying.”

Mercifully, death was immediate for Surratt, while Payne experienced a horrible strangulation — the knot having slipped. Herold also “passed through some struggles,” but Atzerodt expired quickly, because, “Life did not care to fight for his possession.” All four were now “stone dead.”

The New York World correspondent closed his series of letters with, “Here endeth the story of this tragedy upon a tragedy.” As a sign that life goes on despite such horrendous events, one week later, Ford’s Theater, scene of the president’s assassination, reopened to the public.

Townsend had completed his mission, and performed a service to humanity with his energetic investigation of the Lincoln conspiracy. His nine “letters” remain available to the public. Kissinger Publishing LLC reprinted them under the title “The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth.”

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.