The Flight of John Wilkes Booth

       On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Over the next 12 days Booth scurried through Southern Maryland and into Virginia, evading his pursuers in the manhunt of the century.

       Southern Maryland was familiar territory to Booth, who visited under cover of real estate investment. During the long years of the American Civil War (1861-1865) he built a cadre of co-conspirators whose Confederate sympathies drove them to extreme measures.

       Among them were Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd, key players in the Confederate Underground Network that ran from Washington to Richmond. 

       Assassination had not been the plan. Instead, the president was to be kidnapped, cabinet members assassinated and the government toppled. The kidnapping plan failed three times. 

       Thus Booth, an actor well known in Ford’s Theatre, developed an assassination plan. Was it his alone? History is not giving away answers to that question.

       Every April (and again in September), the Surratt Society tracks Booth’s escape route on a 12-hour bus tour, from the Surratt House Museum in Clinton. Here’s how that flight ensued, according to tour guide John Howard and experts along the way. Stop 1 is Ford’s Theatre. 


Act 1: Ford’s Theatre

        It was Good Friday on the Christian calendar, not usually a big night for theatrical entertainment, Ford’s Theatre Park Ranger Eric Martin tells his audience. We are seated across from the Presidential box, which looks very much like it did the night that President Lincoln watched Our American Cousin with First Lady Mary Todd Linclon and a party of friends.

        But just six days before, Martin continues, on Palm Sunday, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse in ­Appomattox, Virginia. Thus ended the Civil War. Washington had been celebrating for a week with revelry and shows of illuminations.

        That evening the audience of 2,000 included veterans from most of the major battles including Bull Run, Shiloh, Andersonville and Appomattox as well as famous military figures, politicians and citizens. 

         Booth, dressed stylishly in black, moves toward Lincoln’s private box. He enters the box at 10:15pm. 

         He has timed his attack to coincide with the big laugh line of the comedy. The laughter muffles the single shot he gets off with his Derringer. The bullet goes into the head of President Lincoln, close to his left ear. 

       Colonel Rathbone, the Lincolns’ guest, is close enough to hear the shot and moves to stop Booth. But the assassin uses a knife and slashes Rathbone’s arm almost to the bone. 

      Jumping from the box 12 feet onto the stage, Booth catches his boot spur on a bunting flag. He lands off balance, fracturing his left lower leg. Yet he shouts, “Sic semper tyrannus,” and stays on his feet, charging, knife first, at anyone in his path. His horse is being held for him in the alley behind Ford’s. He narrowly escapes and is last seen crossing the Capitol grounds. 

       Ford’s Theatre is in confusion. Military men believe they’ve heard a gunshot. Others think Booth was part of the play, 

       Slumped in his rocking chair, the president is slipping into a coma. Three doctors from the audience attend to the mortally wounded president. They decide his wounds are too severe for him to be moved to the White House, so he is carried across the street to an empty room in Petersen’s Boarding House. 


Act 2: The Petersen Boarding House

       The bed at the Petersen House is too short for the president. His head is propped up so the blood can drain out. The prognosis is dire. One by one, key officials of Lincoln’s administration arrive. Mary Todd Lincoln keeps deathwatch in the adjacent parlor.

       The president is pronounced dead at 7:14 the next morning. 

Act 3: Flight to the Surratt Tavern

       Following Booth’s path from Petersen’s, the tour passes Baptist Alley and Mary Surratt’s boarding house on Sixth Street. In this neighborhood, a short walk to Fords’ Theatre, Booth took a room at The ­National Hotel the fall of 1864. Now we follow his flight path, past the Navy Yard across the Potomac River and up Good Hope Road through Anacostia. 

         Racing, Booth met with co-conspirator David Herold at Soper’s Hill, where Branch Avenue now meets Linda Lane, just outside of Route 495 and Route 5.

         At midnight, they stopped at Surratt Tavern, rented by retired policeman John Lloyd. Landlady Surratt had left instructions that someone would be calling for the “shooting irons” and other supplies that evening. 

       Booth, in pain, stayed on his horse as Herold entered the tavern and returned with two carbines. Booth was too weak to ride and carry a gun, so his was left behind. But he was not too weak to brag to Lloyd, who came onto the porch, that he had shot the president. 


Act 4: Dr. Samuel Mudd House

       Booth and Herold headed south to Dr. Samuel Mudd’s farm, arriving before daylight. Dr. Mudd set Booth’s broken leg then went to the village of Bryantown in search of a carriage or cart for his patient. There he hears from Union soldiers that John Wilkes Booth is wanted for killing President Lincoln. Mudd pretends he does not know the man.

       The fugitives left the Mudd property at 7pm, headed southwest to the Potomac River, where a small boat awaited them. Herold, a native of the area, knew routes to move them through the Confederate Underground of Southern Maryland. 

       But assassination had turned the network skittish. Many sympathizers, among them Samuel Cox, refused them lodging and offered only food. Taking refuge in the Zekiah Swamp, they got lost and missed their next scheduled stops. Booth, who thought himself heroic, grew surly at being treated as a common criminal.

       The duo hid for five days in a pine thicket near the river, supplied by the Confederate Underground with food and newspapers each day.

       But the Union dragnet was closing in. The Mudd house was staked out by Union soldiers. Everyone in the Surratt boarding house was arrested and jailed. The Potomac River was crowded with vessels carrying soldiers home. Booth and Herold became more vulnerable when a $100,000 reward was posted. 

       Yet they finally find their boat. Crossing to Virginia by night, Booth writes that they are almost captured by a gunboat. Once again they fail to arrive at their scheduled destination. 


Act 5: Virginia

       Though they were off their planned course, Herold found another member of the Confederate Underground. A co-conspirator in the kidnapping plans, Thomas Harbin arranged for horses and supplies, then quickly distanced himself. 

       Booth and Herold rode to Cleydael, Virginia. There Dr. Richard Stewart had been suggested as a resource by Dr. Mudd during the kidnapping planning. Now, however, he refuses Booth medical attention, sending the fugitives to the log cabin of a black farmer instead. Booth was indignant, and the fearful family slept outside. 

       From there, Booth and Herold traveled in a wagon to the Rappahannock River Ferry in King George. Confederate soldiers accompany them to Bowling Green. There, at the Garrett Farm, they are given food and lodging, first in the house and then, as rumors of Union searches spread, the tobacco barn. That is where Booth made his last stand.

       Willie Jett, one of the Confederate soldiers, confessed their location to Union troops. Herold surrendered. The goal was to capture Booth alive, but the barn was set ablaze, and he was shot through the neck and paralyzed. Two hours later he died on the porch of the farmhouse. 

       In autopsy, he was identified by a small tattoo on his hand: JWB.

       Herold, two other men and Mary Surratt were found guilt of conspiracy and hanged. Four more, including Mudd, were imprisoned for life.



Take the tour, Saturdays April 14, 21 and 28 (September 8, 15 and 22), $85 w/rsvp: 301-868-1121.