By ECW Correspondent Pat Tintle.
Spring was in the air in Washington D.C., but the time of rebirth would soon be tarnished by a nation-wide state of mourning. It was April 14, 1865. The war of the rebellion was winding down, and Washington was in celebration with news of the Richmond surrender making its way throughout the city on the warm Saturday night. But one man, the famous stage actor John Wilkes Booth, did not see a cause for celebration—he saw a cause for revenge.Having conspired to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln many times before, Booth’s hatred for Lincoln was at an all time high. While a lover of theater, and of the finer things in life, Booth loved one thing more than anything else: his country. To see his homeland give freedom to blacks was not just appalling to Booth; it was, in a way, a form of treason. Someone had to pay in order to keep Booth’s beloved southern way of life in tact (and to also change the tides of the failing war), and Booth set his eyes on the Union’s commander in chief.
Once receiving word that Lincoln would be attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, Booth knew he had a unique and precious chance to not kidnap the president, but to murder him.
Booth had to act fast. He spent the rest of the day in preparation for his biggest performance to date.
It was now 8 p.m. The production had just begun, but no president was in attendance. However, during intermission, the president arrived with the first lady to boisterous applause. With Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox just a few days prior, Lincoln was as popular as ever, at least in the Union states. The war was not over, but Lincoln had virtually saved the Union that day.
Booth knew Our American Cousin extremely well. So well that he would wait for the moment of the largest audience laugh when he would draw his .44 Derringer and point it right behind Lincoln’s head. That moment came, and Booth pulled the trigger. However, Booth’s escape did not go as he planned. Leaping down from the presidential suite where he had just killed the most powerful man in the world, Booth’s boot spur got caught on the American flag along the side of the stage, fracturing his left fibula on the tumble down to the floor. Limping onto the stage, Booth paused and turned to the crowd to recite the final words he would ever say on stage.
“Sic semper tyrannis!” Booth proclaimed to the audience.
Believing that it was all part of the show, the audience cheered for the seemingly superb acting. Few knew a murder had just occurred, and most sat in their seats waiting for the play to continue.
It was a cold, rainy Virginia morning as Phill, a park ranger for the George Washington National Birthplace, and I approached the Surratt Tavern. The red, colonial style structure gives the tavern a proper 19th Century image—an image John Wilkes Booth encountered himself 150 years ago as he returned from the first assassination of an American president.
The Surratt Tavern was in fact Booth’s first stopping point after his bloody crime; and he was very familiar with the place. Following his excursion at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., Booth, and his accomplice David E. Herold, took horseback to the tavern (past where me and Phill stand) to retrieve ammunition the conspirators had stashed at approximately midnight.
Booth did not enter the tavern as he began his escape route, but having conspired in the tavern many times, he was more than familiar with the confines, as well as the Surratt family itself.
The Surratt Tavern is historically preserved to this day. As Phill and I enter the tavern, the aura of 19th Century America is still prevalent. The cumbersome, heavy door leading into the greeting room acts as a portal into the world in which conspirator Mary Surratt experienced every day. Empty bottles of spirits line the small bar (which also doubled as the town’s post office in its time), but it was on the second floor where Booth’s ammunition was stashed.
The first floor of the Surratt Tavern is reminiscent of many modern day taverns. The entrance door leads into the bar area/post office. A tight wooden doorway then leads into the main dining room, a room where only men were allowed to eat (women had their own separate dining area, located next to the male dining room). Artificial meals decorate the transformed museum. Even large, bowl-like saucers lie on the table—keeping true to 19th Century eating habits.
Booth now had his escape route planned. He and Herold chose to venture through Maryland to Virginia, where deep swamps would prevent the Union pursuit from catching up to the two conspirators. Still in deep pain, Booth got what he came for and now it was time to treat his broken (and bleeding) leg.
Booth’s leg would need medical attention, and that assistance would come from Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, a physician who also doubled as a southern sympathizer.
Tucked away in southern Maryland, Mudd’s house, located in Waldorf, is visible from the road. Phill and I viewed the white colored house, accompanied by a white picket fence, which could have belonged to any affluent 19th Century man in the South. But, at least in the eyes of the American government, the house belonged to a conspirator of murder.
Although by no means good friends, Booth and Mudd did have a significant interaction before Booth showed up at Mudd’s house. In Nov. 1864, Booth and Mudd met at St. Mary’s Church in Bryantown, Maryland, although the content of their interaction is unknown.
When Booth showed up at Mudd’s door in 1865, Mudd expressed his inherited southern hospitality and treated Booth’s leg. Diagnosed with a broken left fibula, Mudd cut off Booth’s boot and set the bone into place. Mudd did not charge Booth for his medical assistance, but both men would eventually pay for their interaction with their freedom (following trial, Mudd was sentence to life in prison, but was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson).
Although closed throughout the winter season, the Dr. Mudd House Museum is open from the first week of April to late November.
Now 25 miles away from the capital, Booth would rest at Mudd’s house for eight hours, and then continue his criminal trek as he rode deeper and deeper into the American South.
To be continued….