- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

That would make anyone get up well before the sun rises just to make a pit stop at an old house in the Maryland countryside?

If you’re like the folks in any of the cars streaming into the Prince George’s County town of Clinton recently, the answer has a lot to do with our 16th president, the man who did him in, and the convoluted path the assassin followed in an effort to escape justice.

It’s April, which means the Surratt Society in Clinton, Md., (formerly Surrattsville) is offering its spring series of daylong bus tours that follow the trail of assassin John Wilkes Booth as he made his way out of Washington — a 12-day flight that ended at the farm of Richard Garrett near Port Royal in Caroline County, Va.

More than a trip down memory lane, the route raises questions about conspiracies, honor and the nature of truth.

“It’s the kind of story that is very difficult for historians,” says Elizabeth Leonard, John J. and Cornelia C. Gibson Professor of History at Maine’s Colby College and author of “Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War.”

“There’s a lot to sort through, and there is a lot you can’t figure out, but there’s just enough bait to keep a lot of people interested.”

This year, the hunt for answers along Booth’s trail is all the more gripping — and poignant — because tomorrow is Good Friday, just as it was on April 14, 1865. Though the Surratt-sponsored bus tours are sold out until next fall, you still can search for answers along much of Booth’s trail yourself.

You still can peek into the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre, learn about life in the mid-19th century at the Surratt House and Tavern in Clinton, tour Dr. Samuel A. Mudd’s farmhouse and pull off the road near the spot where Booth breathed his last.

Just don’t expect to see the same things Booth saw. Modernity has intruded in the form of fast-food establishments, shopping centers, paved roads and upscale housing developments.

The deed is done

Ford’s Theatre downtown is a good place to begin. The old shops and modest houses that dotted the thoroughfare in 1865 have given way to modern stores and offices, but the Civil War-era theater has been re-created painstakingly.

The place still holds more than a few puzzles of its own, not the least of which has to do with how Booth managed to get in and out of the place so easily. It’s a working theater again, but it also houses interpretive exhibits devoted to Lincoln and the Civil War, Booth and his fellow conspirators.

Clearly, Booth intended more victims than just the president that night.

Just the evening before, conspirator Michael O’Laughlen, a childhood friend of Booth’s and part of an earlier plot to kidnap Lincoln, was seen lurking around Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s home across from Franklin Square.

According to Douglas Linder at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, who has put together a comprehensive Web site devoted to famous American trials, O’Laughlen may have been gunning for either Stanton or Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who he may have believed was staying at the Stanton house.

At Ford’s Theatre on the night of the assassination, Grant and his wife, Julia, were expected to attend the performance as well as the president, but they backed out at the last minute so they could travel to see their children. Maj. Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, who were last-minute substitutions for the Grants, were attacked by Booth just after he shot Lincoln in the back of the head.

(In one more twist, Rathbone — plagued for 18 years, some say, by his failure to stop Booth — would murder Clara, by then his wife, in 1883.)

Meanwhile, a few blocks away that same evening, fellow conspirator Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine) forced his way into the home of Secretary of State William H. Seward on the east side of Lafayette Square. By the time Powell fled, Seward, who was largely immobile and defenseless after an earlier carriage accident, lay suffering from several deep knife wounds. Several other members of the household, including two sons, were badly wounded.

At Kirkwood House on the northeastern corner of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying, a conspirator assigned to kill him apparently shrank from his part of the murder plan and spent the evening drinking. George Atzerodt would be picked up days later in Germantown after boasting of the details of the assassination.

A Confederate conspiracy?

The questions of who was aware of Booth’s plan to murder the president and how wide-ranging the conspiracy was have been debated almost since Booth fired the fatal shot.

“I first accepted the traditional view that it was a simple conspiracy,” says Donald E. Wilkes, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law who has written numerous articles about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassination conspiracies.

“But new evidence indicates that Booth was a Confederate secret agent. It seems much more likely that the Confederate government knew and approved of what Booth was doing.”

According to Chandra Manning, professor of history at Georgetown University, historians holding to either theory agree that Lincoln’s speech earlier that week galvanized Booth, an avowed racist who once remarked that “this country was formed for the white, not the black man.”

“Lincoln’s view that the franchise should be extended to many African Americans, including African American soldiers, was the catalyst,” Ms. Manning says.

So it was perhaps fitting that the crowd that gathered for the deathwatch outside the theater in the minutes after the unconscious Lincoln was carried across the street to the Petersen House was predominantly black.

Later, black soldiers would march at the head of the line of troops that accompanied the president’s body from the White House to the Capitol.

According to Ms. Manning, most Union soldiers, black or white, keenly felt the death of the president.

“The bond between Lincoln and his soldiers was a very interesting one,” says Ms. Manning, who is working on a book about the subject.

“They loved him greatly and would have been aware of his speeches. His vision of the war accords very closely with theirs, and it has changed them both. They believed that the nation was being punished because of the sin of slavery. The fact that Lincoln died on Good Friday was seen as no coincidence.”

Immediately after the assassination, newspapers pointed to a grand conspiracy involving high-ranking Confederate officials, the semisecret racist organization Knights of the Golden Circle and a Confederate network of agents that stretched from the Deep South to Canada.

Later historians were not so sure, but even by the time he was gunned down in the Garrett barn, Booth already had constructed his own version of events for posterity in his diary, further clouding the details of what actually happened.

Mary Surratt’s role

Of course, by the time Lincoln died a little after 7 on the morning of April 15, Booth was long gone. During the night, he and fellow conspirator David Herold made a stop at the Surratt Tavern in Surrattsville, about 13 miles from the city.

The tavern had long been a “center of secessionist activity,” according to Edward Steers, author of “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of President Lincoln.” Even after Mary Surratt had moved her family to the District upon the death of her husband in 1862, the tavern served as a way station for Confederate agents, supplies, and information.

Mrs. Surratt’s own guilt or innocence depends largely upon how much she knew about these activities or about the goings-on at her boardinghouse on Sixth Street Northwest.

“Unless she was really stupid, I’m sure she knew something,” Ms. Leonard says. “I don’t think she was innocent.”

According to Ms. Manning, later perceptions of Mrs. Surratt as a wrongfully executed innocent stemmed from contemporary perceptions of the capacity of women.

“She was easy to portray as an innocent based on the image of women at the time,” Ms. Manning says.

Now, even many of those at the Surratt Society itself, initially drawn to the stories of a woman wronged, are increasingly convinced of her guilt.

“I think she knew what was going on,” says the Surratt Society’s Joan Chaconas, a Lincoln assassination scholar who found an incriminating statement by George Atzerodt while going through the papers of his attorney.

In these Atzerodt said that Booth had told him that he had sent Mrs. Surratt to her Surrattsville tavern to tell tenant John Lloyd to have the weapons ready that had been stored there, thus confirming Lloyd’s own testimony. Atzerodt also added that supplies had been sent to Mudd a few weeks before the assassination.

Today the Surratt House is maintained as a museum of middle-class life in Maryland in the mid-19th century. Exhibits document the accouterments of a country kitchen and the rhythm of a crossroads tavern at a time when communication was neither swift nor sure. You even can see the place in the wall where the weapons were hidden.

The country doctor

Then there’s Mudd, the country doctor who set Booth’s broken leg. His farmhouse in Waldorf is operated largely by volunteers who are certain of the man’s innocence.

Others are not so sure.

“Dr. Mudd should have been hanged with the four others,” says James Swanson, author of the newly released “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” at a recent gathering sponsored by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. “For 141 years, the Mudd house has perpetuated a lie against the American people.”

Michael Kauffman, author of the new book “American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies,” and others have pointed out that Mudd was an important member of the Confederate network of agents, go-betweens and spies that covered much of Southern Maryland.

And where did Booth really break his leg? The traditional story has the assassin catching his spur on the flag-draped box at Ford’s while jumping onto the stage.

Mr. Kauffman says no.

“He broke it from a fall with his horse,” says the author, who frequently leads the Surratt House bus tours. “How would anyone have been able to run out of Ford’s Theatre with a broken leg?”

Booth run to ground

In the end, despite the assistance of pro-slavery men like Mudd, even once-ardent Confederates were less willing to shelter the fugitives.

It was a former Confederate soldier who informed pursuing troops that Booth and Herold were hiding out at the Garrett farmhouse three miles west of Port Royal. Already, the Garretts had grown suspicious of the strangers, who had claimed to be ex-Confederate soldiers on their way home, and had asked the two to move from the house to the barn. Fearful that Booth and Herold were planning to steal their horses, a Garrett son locked them in.

So when troops surrounded the barn on April 26, there would be no quick and easy escape. In an attempt to drive the fugitives out, they set the barn on fire.

Grudgingly, Booth allowed Herold to surrender but was then shot by Sgt. Thomas “Boston” Corbett, who said later that he saw Booth taking aim against a fellow soldier.

There is little left of the Garrett farm, just a strip of wooded median between the northbound and southbound lanes of route 301. Still, it holds enough resonance for some to mark the spot with flowers.

“Booth’s stock tends to rise and fall with the fall and rise of Lincoln’s,” Ms. Manning says. “Today, Booth as Robin Hood doesn’t really work, nor does Lincoln as tyrannical and despotic ruler.”

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

An assassin’s last stops

Most escape tours that track Booth’s flight end at the Garrett Farm, but his final stops were two: Booth’s spinal cord rests at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center at 7100 Georgia Ave. NW.

Here too you’ll find Corbett’s bullet and other Civil War memorabilia, including the bloodstained cuffs of the surgeon who performed the autopsy on the president and the probe that was used to locate the bullet.

Booth’s body, originally buried at the Washington Arsenal at what is now Fort McNair, was exhumed in 1869 and reburied in the Booth family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Though Booth’s name is engraved on the obelisk that marks the family plot, his individual grave is unmarked.

WHAT: The John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour

WHERE: The Surratt House Museum, 9118 Brandywine Road, Clinton

WHEN: 12-hour tours April 15 and 29 and May 6 sold out. Next available tours Sept. 9 and 23 and Oct. 7.

TICKETS: $60 per person by reservation at 301/868-1121. Reservation forms also available at the Web site, to be mailed to the museum at P.O. Box 427, Clinton, MD 20735.

INFORMATION: 301/868-1121 or www.surratt.org

VISITING THE MUSEUM: Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $3 adults, $2 seniors, $1 children 5-18.

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