- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

The $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of John Wilkes Booth and other members of his circle spurred hundreds of letters from wannabe detectives, informers and even mystics an example of one of the odd and often disturbing aftereffects of tumultuous national events. The Lincoln assassination letters are on microfilm at the National Archives and make fascinating reading.

One of the earliest received by the government was postmarked April 15, 1865 the very day of Abraham Lincoln's death and is a good example of its kind. J.F. Hyatt of Louisville, Ky., wanted a pass to come to Washington to submit his "plan for detection," along with "the best of references." On a note of pathos, Mr. Hyatt added, "I am a poor man and have not got the money to pay my Expences [sic] & will expect a good reward if the [illegible] should be caught by my plans."

Other writers, perhaps less willing to play detective, claimed they actually had seen Booth on the run. Some of these claims were no doubt sincere, while others may have been intended to throw the authorities off the track. At any rate, the number and variety of Booth sightings rival those of Elvis.

One such helpful soul, John Corrine of Boston, sent a letter dated April 24 claiming Booth was "concealed in the house of [D.C.] Mayor Wallack, probably in some subterranean room." An April 26 letter by Joseph Hill of 23rd & H claimed that Booth was seen between 11th and 12th streets, disguised in women's clothes. The supposed Booth was "dressed altogether in black," including "a black gauze veil over his face," and when recognized "disappeared in an instant," not surprisingly.

Some writers even taunted the government by claiming to be Booth himself, though such letters diminished after the real Booth was killed on April 26, 1865. For example, on April 17 a letter with a D.C. postmark supposedly sent by Booth read, "I'm still in your midst. I will remain in this city. God will'd that I should do it. I defy detection." The government clerk simply labeled the letter "Anonymous" and added "in the name of J. Wilkes Booth."

Other letters simply tried to stoke political feuds or settle old scores. A May 8 letter from Washington asserted the assassination was "concocted by Know-Nothings," a third party that was briefly successful in the mid-1850s by pursuing an anti-Catholic platform. The party was long extinct by 1865, but perhaps someone still held a grudge. Ironically, there was an April 17 letter from Boston claiming Booth "is secreted by Catholics," and a June 11 squib from Philadelphia that warned, "It is the Roman Catholics to wich [sic] I belong that is [sic] trying to overthrow the government. Thay [sic] will strike another blow. Be on your guard. I will wach [sic] for you and tell you all."

Of course, there were the inevitable threats. One was dated April 24 from Cincinnati and was addressed to Secretary of State William Seward and the other surviving members of Lincoln's administration. It is one of the most arresting of the threat letters.

The writing becomes steadily larger, more illegible, and more smudged, almost running off the paper: "Any further searches is [sic] unnecessary and will [avail] nothing, for Mr. Booth is now safe for ever [sic] and miles from Washington [my] company is now over 8,000 and will commence to operates [sic] very soon and will soon clean string the [expletive deleted] out of Washington."

An April 28 letter, from a surgeon of the 138th Pennsylvania volunteers, suggested the use of chloroform on the suspected conspirators, for he had "known of persons to make revelations while under the influence of this anaesthetic which they [had] previously refused to communicate."

Some letters even insisted that Booth was still hiding in Ford's Theatre. One anonymous April 20 letter from the District insisted that Booth did not leave the theater by way of a back alley, but had instead vanished through a trapdoor.

This quick exit was enlarged upon by another April 20 letter concerning a medium in Michigan who "says that Booth is secreted in a hogshead [large barrel] under Ford's Theatre, and is fed by the actors."

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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