“The stain of innocent blood had been removed from the land”: 150th of the Hanging of the Lincoln Conspirators

Abraham Lincoln had been laid to rest for just over two months, as had John Wilkes Booth, albeit in much different settings. On its way to Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s funeral train crisscrossed some 1,600 miles of the country, stopping to be viewed by tens of thousands of spectators who mournfully filed by the dead president’s casket. Booth, conversely, was chased down to Richard Garrett’s farm, where refusing to surrender, he was shot and subsequently died in the early morning hours of April 26. After his death, Booth was unceremoniously wrapped up in an army blanket, thrown in the back of a wagon, and carted back to Washington, D.C. After his autopsy, Booth was placed into a coffin fashioned from a rifle crate and buried on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal. The main culprit for the death of Abraham Lincoln was dead and buried, but there were other conspirators, and the Federal government soon turned its focus on them.

On May 10, 1865 (the same day Confederate president Jefferson Davis was captured), a military tribunal convened for the first time to decide the fate of eight defendants charged with conspiring to kill Lincoln. Chief among those defendants would be George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt. Atzerodt was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, a task he balked at; Herold had assisted Booth in his escape, and was captured at the same barn where Booth was killed; Powell gruesomely attacked Secretary of State William Seward with a knife, leaving a bloody trail behind him; Mary Surratt, argued the government, had offered a den for the conspirators at her boarding house in Washington, D.C. While there were other defendants, including Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who had set Booth’s broken leg, the government’s wrath would ultimately fall on the four defendants listed above. Throughout the early summer of 1865, the tribunal met on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal, not far from where Booth’s body lay in its shallow grave.

The four defendants hanged in the grounds of the Washington Arsenal. From left to right: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt.  (Library of Congress)

The four defendants hanged on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal. From left to right: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt.
(Library of Congress)

From the beginning it was obvious what the tribunal would rule—there was only the official sentencing to wait for. That ruling came on June 30, 1865—all of the defendants were found guilty in their conspiring to kill Lincoln, Johnson, and Seward. Atzerodt, Herold, Powell, and Surratt were all sentenced to execution, a sentence that Andrew Johnson signed on July 5. The date set for the execution of the four was slated for July 7, 150 years ago today.

July 7 found the gallows constructed and ready for the execution. But the drama of the tribunal was not finished. Though the tribunal did not doubt Mary Surratt’s guilt, five of its nine members did question whether the government should hang her. Never before had the government executed a woman for a crime, and Victorian sensibilities cast clouds of doubts on whether or not Surratt should be first. Even as the ropes were prepared, last minute pleas for clemency were finding their ways to President Johnson’s desk. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the troops posted at the Arsenal, even positioned himself near the gallows so that, “if the President relented and granted a reprieve, not a moment would be lost in reaching him [Hancock].”[1] No reprieve came.

Shortly before 1 p.m. the condemned were marched to the top of the gallows and covered with hoods. As the ropes were applied, George Atzerodt bleated, “Don’t choke me!”[2] With the ropes tied off, prayers spoken, and all else ready, an officer clapped his hands three times. Below the gallows, soldiers moved away the support beams and the four defendants dropped to their deaths. For Powell, the biggest of the defendants, the rope took about five minutes to do its job, and he writhed at the end of the rope until passing out and expiring. The four were all officially pronounced dead by 1:20 p.m. With the conspirators’ deaths, reported Maj. Gen. John Hartranft, “The stain of innocent blood had been removed from the land.”[3]

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[1] Almira Hancock, Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock By His Wife (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1887), 109.

[2] Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 374.

[3] Edward Steers, Jr. The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 263.

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4 Responses to “The stain of innocent blood had been removed from the land”: 150th of the Hanging of the Lincoln Conspirators

  1. docwylie says:

    Death to the traitors.

  2. Hmm…the ending quote seems a little ironic in regards to Mary Surratt.

    I have always thought W.S. Hancock’s actions and his insistence that the road be kept open says a lot about his character and his personal opinions on Mrs. Surratt’s sentence.

    “The Conspirator” is a pretty good movie about Surratt’s “trial” – very enlightening, fairly accurate, and very thought provoking about Constitutional rights.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      I believe Hartranft’s quote about innocent blood still stands because I don’t believe Mary Surratt was innocent. The military tribunal did not believe she was innocent either, they just didn’t want to hang her because of her gender. Of all the defendants, the only person who could truly be called innocent was Edman Spangler, the carpenter at Ford’s Theatre who held Booth’s horse for a few minutes; he was sentenced to six years’ in prison. Mary Surratt sealed her fate when she delivered field glasses and carbines to Surrattsville and told John Lloyd to have them ready the night of the assassination.

  3. Tim Kelly says:

    Thanks for the article Ryan. The iconic pictures of the hanging only authorized by Gardner from the from the building across the gallows show the whole story. It was a really hot July day and soldiers even hid under the gallows to get out of the sun. Your picture also shows the invite only audience on the grounds to witness the hanging and the soldier ringing the ramparts to give a play by play to the audience outside the prison walls. There also were waiting for the pardon for Mary Surratt you talked about cause they figured any minute a horse would come galloping up with the pardon from President Johnson. It was not to be and later Johnson would remark she had the nest that hatched the plot to kill the President. Love your quotes on the gallows and some others are Lewis Powell’s last words were “Mrs. Surratt doesn’t belong up here. She is innocent”. George Atzerodt also added ” I’ll see you all in the afterlife”. Mary Surratt told the executioner “Please don’t let me fall” since she was scared of falling from the wobbling gallows. The one I haven’t seen people talk about is the newspaper’s would add after the execution “We wish to hear their names no more”. It’s funny, that’s all we have been talking about is them for the last 150 years.

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