Civil War Profiles: The Lincoln conspirators on trial

Date Published: 
February 14, 2014

Lewis Thornton Powell, George A. Atzerodt, David E. Herold, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlin, George Spangler, Dr. Samuel Mudd and a lone woman, named Mary Surratt, sat for some 50 days before a military commission that was hearing testimony about their culpability.

Those eight people were on trial as members of a conspiracy, in collaboration with the now-deceased John Wilkes Booth, that had allegedly planned the assassination of the president of the United States.

On May 26, 1865, two weeks into the proceedings, the New York World published a description of the prisoners and the military personnel empaneled to judge their guilt or innocence. George Alfred Townsend was present as the World’s representative, to inform the public in another of his “letters” about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath.

In addition to Townsend, other journalists there were “generally young fellows, practical and ardent … slashing down history as it passes in at their ears and runs out at their fingers’ ends.”

Townsend observed the eight people on trial as they sat side-by-side along with their soldier guards, beginning with Mrs. Surratt, who was “clothed in solemn black.” Leaving open the question of guilt or innocence, the reporter commented that her son, John, a suspected Booth co-conspirator, “has fled to save his forfeit life by deserting her to shame, and perhaps, to death.” He wondered whether her “wicked love” in protecting her son could be sustained, given that her own fate was in the balance.

Less uncertain about the others, Townsend thought “it reverses manifest destiny” that “a shabby-looking boy” named Herold who appeared to have “latent dementia … should occupy a leaf in history.” He concluded that the “scaffold” awaited him. As it did “[Powell], the assassin … a man of giant frame” with the “barbarian eye … who did not think — he only struck” against Secretary of State Seward, who by pure circumstance had survived.

Of Atzerodt, his “filthiness … denies him sympathy.” He is “a ‘gabby’ fellow — loud of resolution, ignoble of effort.” For, when it came to carrying out the deed of assassinating Vice President Andrew Johnson, he lost courage and fled the scene. He would be sentenced to the gallows, because, Townsend said, “Nobody pities a dirty man.”

The reporter briefly sized up O’Laughlin as “very anxious, as if more earnest than any of the rest to have a fair lease upon life.” Spangler, the stage hand at Ford’s Theater arrested for helping Booth escape, “watches the trial earnestly, as if striving to catch between the links of evidence vistas of a life insured.” However, he is “the first scene-shifter who may become a dramatis personae.”

Mudd received the more favorable observation of having “a New England and not a Maryland face.” Being well-dressed “in a green-grass duster, and white bosom and collar; if he had no other advantages over his associates, these last would give it to him.” Arnold was described as “the best looking of the prisoners and the least implicated.” It seemed he had written a letter to Booth, “refusing to engage in murder.”

To say that Townsend considered the tribunal of government officials and military officers to be less than objective in their attitude toward the prisoners would be an understatement. Mincing few words, he asserted, “This court was needed to show us at least the petty tyranny of martial law and the pettiness of martial jurists.”

In explanation, the reporter wrote, “The court has shown as little ability as could be expected of soldiers … upon a duty for which they are disqualified.” Of those charged with the responsibility, he thought Maj. Gen. David Hunter displayed a “lack of dignity,” Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace spoke with “heat and intolerance,” and Brig. Gen. Albion Howe’s “tirade … was feeble as it was ungenerous!”

Whatever the eventual fate of eight alleged conspirators, the “military commission works as if it were delegated not to try, but to convict.” Furthermore, those chosen to represent the accused were “commonplace lawyers … [that] have no chance or no pluck to assert the dignity of their profession.”

The commission would not finish hearing testimony and complete its deliberations for another five weeks. Upon conclusion of the lengthy legal procedures, George Alfred Townsend was there to learn the fate of the seven men and one woman implicated in the assassination. Indicative of the outcome, his next letter would deal with “The Executions.”

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 through his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.