Assassination of Lincoln


A History of the Great Conspiracy

Trial of the Conspirators by a Military Commission

And a review of the Trial of John H. Surratt

By T. M. Harris

Late Brigadier-General U. S. V. and Major General by Brevet

A Member of the Commission

General Harris's book was published around 1890. General Lew Wallace served on the same Military Commission as General Harris and his book Ben-Hur became a blockbuster movie starring Charlton Heston. General Wallace's book disappeared around the turn of the century too!



THE presence of John H. Surratt in Washington City on the day of the assassination was proven before the Military Commission by a single witness. This witness, however, was a man who was personally acquainted with him, and who swore positively to having seen him on that day. His testimony was given about a month after the event, and the circumstance was fresh in his memory. He stated the time of the day when, and the place where, he saw him; described his dress, the kind of hat he was wearing, etc., etc. He was clear in his statements, could have had no motives for swearing falsely, and it is scarcely possible that he could have been mistaken. From the description given by Sergeant Dye of the man who acted as monitor, calling the time three times in succession at short intervals, the last time calling "Ten minutes past ten," in front of the theatre, it will be remembered that the writer came to the conclusion that this was John H. Surratt. This conclusion was verified by this same witness on the trial of Surratt. Sergeant Dye had taken a seat on the platform in front of the theatre, and just before the conclusion of the second act of the play had his attention arrested by an elegantly-dressed man, who came out of the vestibule, and commenced to converse with a ruffianly-looking fellow. Then another joined them, and the three conversed together. The one who appeared to be the leader said, "I think he will come out now," referring, as the witness supposed, to the President. The President's carriage stood near the platform on which the witness was sitting, and one of the three passed out as far as the curbstone and looked into the carriage. It would seem that they had anticipated the possibility of his departure at the close of the second act, and had intended to assassinate him at the moment of his passing out of the door. Quite a crowd of people came out at the conclusion of the act, and Booth and his companions stood near the door, awaiting the opportunity which they sought. When most of the crowd had returned into the theatre, and the would-be assassins saw that the President would remain until the close of the play, they then began to prepare for his assassination in the theatre. The writer concludes, from a careful consideration of all the circumstances, that this was a provisional arrangement, in case their plan to murder him at the door should fail. Booth and the ruffianly-looking fellow kept their stations by the door, to make sure of not missing the opportunity of which they had planned to avail themselves, whilst the other stepped up and looked at the clock in the vestibule, and called the time. He then immediately walked rapidly up the street. He returned in a few minutes, and looking at the clock again called the time and again walked away rapidly up the street. Very soon he returned again, and called the time louder than before, "Ten minutes past ten! " and walking rapidly away, did not return.

Booth had left the side of his companion before this long enough to go into the saloon, where he drank a glass of whiskey, and then, as soon as the time had been called the third time, went at once into the theatre, and in less than ten minutes thereafter fired the fatal shot. It is evident that it had been arranged between Booth and Payne that the assassination of Secretary Seward should be concurrent with that of President Lincoln; and that a system of signals had been arranged, of which the man who called the time was acting as monitor. The suspicions of Sergeant Dye having been aroused by the conduct of these three men, he naturally scanned them very closely, and testified that he had a good view, not only of the person, but of the face and features of the man who called the time, and had his image indelibly impressed on his memory. Upon being confronted by Surratt on his trial, he unhesitatingly and positively declared that he was the man. In addition to Reed and Dye, who testified before the Commission, there were nine others who testified on the trial All of these persons, except four, were personally acquainted with him, and could not have been mistaken, as they were able to give the time of day when, and the place where, they saw him, as also, in the case of most of them, to describe his person, dress, hats moustache, etc., etc., without any discrepancies in their testimony.

The other four, though not acquainted with him, identified him before the jury, more or less positively, as the man they had seen. It is worthy of remark that though they all testified with more or less of particularity in their descriptions of his person, his dress, his hat, his moustache, and as to the time of day when, and the place where, they had seen him, there was nothing incongruous or contradictory in their testimony. One witness, a colored woman Susan Ann Jackson, who was in service at Mrs. Surratt's at the time, and had been for three or four weeks previous to the assassination, testified that under the direction of Mrs. Surratt she had made tea for the prisoner after the family and boarders had left the table on the night of the assassination, and that Mrs.. Surratt had said to her on that occasion, "This is my son," and had asked her if he did not look like Annie. She said this was the first and only time she had seen him until she met him on his trial, and then she positively identified him as the man she had waited upon that night. The time was impressed on her memory by its being Good Friday, and the night of the assassination Several of the witnesses who testified to his presence in the city on that day also testified that they saw him in company with Booth, and one, at least, with Booth and O'Laughlin. Surratt himself told his old acquaintance, St. Marie, with whom he renewed! his acquaintanceship in the ranks of the Papal Zouaves at Velletri in Italy, that he left Washington early on the morning of the 15th of April, disguised as an English tourist; and that he had a very hard time to make his escape. As the trains leaving Washington for Baltimore on the morning of the 15th were thoroughly scrutinized by the police before being permitted to leave, it is uncertain whether Surratt's disguise sufficed to get him through, or whether he went a part or all of the way to Baltimore on horseback. There was some evidence on his trial tending to the conclusion that he had escaped from the city on horseback.

The next place we get track of him in his flight is at the railroad depot at Burlington, Vt.,on the early morning of the 18th of April. Here he turns up with a rough-looking man, no doubt the ruffianly-looking fellow who was seen with him and Booth in front of the theatre on the night of the assassination. They had crossed Lake Champlain on a boat that ran from White Hall to Rouse's Point, on the night of the 17th, and landed at Burlington, in order to take the train to Montreal. This was the first trip the boat had made that season, and it was four hours late in reaching Burlington, arriving there about midnight. They had to wait for the morning train, which was due at four o'clock A.M. of the 18th. They requested permission to sleep at the depot, and the night watchman allowed them to sleep on the benches. He awakened them in time for the train, and after daylight, when sweeping the floor, he found a handkerchief under the bench where the taller of the two had slept, and upon examining it after it was fairly light found it marked, "J. H. Surratt 2." At Essex Junction, where they changed trains for St. Albans, these two travelers made the change, and were found by the conductor on his passing through the train standing on the platform outside. He asked them for their fare, and was told that they had no money. Surratt did all the talking. He represented that they were laboring men, had been at work in New York, and had been unfortunate and lost their money. He said they were now making their way back to Canada, and were ready to promise that if he would carry them through they would send him the fare as soon as they reached their friends. The conductor reminded them of the necessity of having money if they would travel.

Surratt disguised his speech, trying to use the dialect of a Canadian; but when he became excited from fear of being put off the train he forgot his Cannuck, and talked in good square English. The conductor also noticed that his hands were not those of a laboring man, and so concluded that the men were traveling incognito. This was on the early morning of the 18th of April. They arrived at St. Albans for breakfast. At the table they found everybody excited, and upon Surratt's inquiring what it meant, his next neighbor at the table, an old gentleman, informed him that the President had been assassinated, to which Surratt replied that "The news was too good to be true." The old gentleman then handed him a paper, and on looking it over he saw his own name given as one of the assassins. He dropped the paper, and found that he did not want any more breakfast. On passing out into the next room, he heard some one say that Surratt must be in town, or had passed through, as his handkerchief had been found in the street; when, upon feeling for his handkerchief, he found that he had lost it. They then left the place as quickly as possible, narrowly escaping arrest. He understood that his handkerchief had been picked up in the street of St. Albans, and no doubt, in the excitement, the news had taken that shape, but, as we have seen, he lost it at Burlington depot, and so the news must have been telegraphed to St. Albans. It is not known how they traveled from St. Albans to Montreal, but it is most probable that they walked across the country. We find Surratt's name on the hotel register at Montreal, where he arrived at about two o'clock on the 18th April, he having been absent from that place from the 12th. This had been to him an eventful week, full of difficulties and hazards; but he may now feel safe, as he has reached the abode of the chief conspirators, his employers, and is ready to claim his reward. He can feel that he is in the midst of sympathizing friends. But, alas! a criminal can never feel safe. An angry God is ever on the track of the guilty conscience. As it was with the first murderer, so it must be with every murderer,—a fugitive and a vagabond he is compelled to be. He had hardly recorded his name on the hotel register when he was informed that detectives were on the look-out for him, and he was at once spirited away to the house of a Mr. Porterfield. This man was a Southerner, who belonged to Thompson's cabal, but who had abjured his allegiance to his country and taken the oath of allegiance to the Queen of England, and had thus become a British subject. He knew all about the conspiracy, and the means that had been employed to carry it into effect; and was waiting and watching anxiously for the return of his co-conspirators that had been sent to Washington on their mission of assassinations. He at once took Surratt into his house, and kept him secreted there for several days. Finding the detectives who were in pursuit of the fugitive vigilant and determined in their search, Porterfield became fearful that he could not keep his charge concealed, and so made arrangements to get him into a place of greater security.

At this point we meet with a new element amongst the Canada conspirators, viz., the Roman Catholic priesthood. Porterfield had arranged with Father Boucher to take his charge in custody, and keep him concealed. This Father was rector of the parish of St. Liboire, a newly-settled place, about forty-five miles from Montreal—an out-of-the-way place, and so a good place in which to hide him away. The arrangements had been made in advance with this Father to take charge of Surratt, and keep him secreted at his house. He was conveyed there by one Joseph F. Du Tilley, who seems to have been priest Boucher's right hand man. The stratagem to get him away from Montreal was as follows: two carriages drove up in front of Porterfield's house late in the afternoon, when two persons, dressed as nearly as possible alike, went out together; one of these got into one of the carriages, and the other into the other, when they drove away in different directions. Father Boucher appeared at the trial of Surratt as a voluntary witness for the defense, and without any apparent sense of shame convicted himself, by his own testimony, of being an accomplice after the fact. We think that the testimony he gave warrants the conclusion, also, that another priest, Father La Pierre, placed himself in the same category. Both of these Fathers took Surratt into their houses, and kept him concealed,—the first for three, and the latter for two months,—knowing him to be charged with being a conspirator to the assassination of the President of the United States.

Father Boucher's parish being in an out-of-the-way country place, it was only necessary that he should constantly exercise a prudent vigilance in behalf of his charge. He was visited frequently by his friends whilst staying with Boucher; at one time three or four of these came together, and stayed three or four days with him. The time was spent in hunting, sporting, and revelry. It was very remarkable, however, that Father Boucher could not remember the names of any of these friends. Being a volunteer witness for the defense, he could not give their names without implicating persons whom he did not desire to compromise; hence, no doubt, his convenient Jesuitical failure of memory. Perhaps he could not have given their names without injury to the cause he desired to help. He could only say that some of their names were English names, using the word English in contra distinction from French or French-Canadian, in which sense it implied not really English, but American,—Beverly Tucker for instance, perhaps Porterfield, and likely, also, La Pierre. As two of these, Beverly Tucker and La Pierre, along with Boucher, accompanied Surratt from Montreal to Quebec, and did not leave him until they had seen him safe on board the ocean steamer, "Peruvian," when he finally was sent to Europe, it would seem highly probable that we have rightly surmised who were his visitors on the occasion referred to. Surratt was not kept in close confinement by Father Boucher, but his safety from discovery and arrest was looked after with cunning vigilance. At length the time came when it was thought safe and advisable to transfer the fugitive back to Montreal. This was effected as secretly as had been his removal from that place to the parish of St. Liboire.

Father La Pierre now took him in charge. He had provided for him a secluded upstairs room at his father's house, right under he shadow of the bishop's window. This Father had been a visitor of Surratt at the lonely parish of St. Liboire, and now took him under his especial protection. He kept him concealed, and never allowed him to go out until after nightfall, and then never alone, but always accompanied him. La Pierre thus kept his charge safely from the latter part of July until the 5th of September, 1865. During all of this time he was visited regularly twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, by Father Boucher, who always remained over night with him at each visit. How can we account for this great interest taken by these two priests in secreting the murderer of the head of the greatest nation on earth, and that with a full knowledge that he stood charged with this crime, and that a great reward was offered for his apprehension? How can we consider them less guilty, in a moral point of view, than Surratt himself ? But at length a time came when it was thought safe and advisable to send him abroad.

Early in September Father La Pierre sought an interview with Dr. Lewis J. A. McMillen, surgeon on board the ocean steamer "Peruvian," which was to sail on the 16th of that month from Quebec for Liverpool, and made arrangements to put in his care for the passage a friend of his by the name of McCarthy, who, for certain reasons, desired to embark secretly on the voyage. The doctor took a steamer at Montreal, on the 15th, to join his ship, which was to sail on the following day. Boucher and La Pierre conveyed Surratt in a covered carriage, and went with him on board the same steamer on which the doctor had taken passage. La Pierre was in disguise, inasmuch as he was dressed in citizen's dress. They had also disguised Surratt by coloring his hair, painting his face, and putting spectacles over his eyes. On the passage from Montreal to Quebec, they kept him locked up in the state-room occupied jointly by him and Father La Pierre. When they reached Quebec and went on board the transport that was to convey them to the ocean steamer "Peruvian," in which they were to sail, the doctor was there introduced to Beverly Tucker, who had also felt enough of interest in Surratt's case to induce him to accompany him from Montreal to Quebec, and who stood in that relation to his case in the knowledge of Fathers La Pierre and Boucher that they could safely take him into their confidence in their plans for conveying Surratt out of the country. This trio saw Surratt safely on board the "Peruvian," and then bade him good-by. The interest thus manifested by Tucker in getting Surratt safely away confirms the testimony given before the Military Commission, showing him to have been justly charged by the government with being a member of the great conspiracy. Before parting from his charge Father La Pierre requested Dr. McMillen to let Surratt stay in his room until after the vessel should have sailed.

Surratt is not an innocent man carrying a good consciences that enables him to look every man he meets squarely in the face. He is a fugitive and a vagabond, carrying the weight of a terrible crime in his memory—a weight that neither time nor distance can efface. He is haunted by his fears, having before him the vision of a detective and of capture; and so he skulks and hides from the phantom of an American detective which he cannot banish from his mind.

The vessel being now on her way, and in British waters,- the fugitive ventured forth, and naturally sought the company of the surgeon of the vessel in whose care he had been placed, and whom he regarded as his friend. His social nature yearned for companionship, and all the more as a means of relief from a guilty conscience. Does he now enjoy a sense of security? To him this is impossible. He scanned closely every passenger he met, that phantom of a detective being ever present to his imagination. He sees a gentleman whom he takes to be an American. He seeks his friend McMillen, and discloses to him his fears, saying: "I think that man is an American detective." Upon being asked by the doctor what he had done that he should be afraid of a detective, he replied: "If you knew all the things I have done, it would make you stare." Murder is a crime that will out. It imposes a weight of guilt upon the conscience that will, at some unguarded moment, let the fearful secret slip through the door of the lips that are most firmly closed by a purpose of concealment. The doctor reassured him, by reminding him that he was on board a British ship sailing on British waters, and that he had nothing to fear from an American detective. Surratt then drew a small four-barreled revolver from his vest pocket, and remarked: " I don't care; this will settle him." The doctor now began to feel a great interest in his charge, arising from the suspicion that he was John H. Surratt. The voyage across the Atlantic occupied nine or ten days. The fugitive was so full of his terrible secret that he could not keep quiet. Every day he sought opportunities to converse with the doctor privately, and at every interview the history of his crimes kept leaking out. He was nervous, and constantly haunted by his fears; so that he could never hear any one coming up behind him without starting and looking around. Amongst his important revelations to the doctor were the following: that he had for a considerable time previously to the assassination been a bearer of dispatches from Richmond to the Confederate agents in Canada; that he had at one time carried to them from Richmond thirty thousand dollars, and at another time seventy thousand dollars; that he arrived in Montreal the last time on the 6th of April, with dispatches from Davis and Benjamin, thus confirming the testimony of Conover and Merritt before the Military Commission. These dispatches he claimed to have delivered to Thompson. After the military trial, and previous to the trial of Surratt, the witness, Conover, had been convicted of perjury; but this does not discredit the testimony he gave before the Commission, as it was confirmed by other witnesses who-stand unimpeached, and is here also confirmed by Surratt himself in regard to one of its most important points. It will be remembered that Conover testified to having been present at a meeting of the Canada conspirators in Montreal, on the 6th of April, 1865, and that John H. Surratt, who was present, had just arrived from Richmond, bringing a cipher dispatch from Jefferson Davis, and also a dispatch from his Secretary of State, Benjamin, and that Thompson, laying his hand on these dispatches, said: "This makes the thing all right"; and that active measures were at once entered upon for putting the assassination plot into effect. Now Surratt comes to McMillen five months later, on the face of the broad Atlantic, and confirms Conover's testimony in its major part. He also related to the doctor the particulars of his trip to Richmond late in March, 1865, when he was accompanied by a woman, who by other testimony was shown to have been Mrs. Slater, alias Brown, the rebel spy and blockade runner. The arrangement was made whilst he was in Canada for him to meet her in New York and accompany her to Richmond, which he did, passing through Washington. In this statement the testimony of Wiechmann is confirmed. Surratt related to the doctor the difficulty they had in crossing the Potomac. They were hailed by a gun-boat, and called upon to surrender. They said they would do so, but waited for the small boat that had been sent to bring them in to come alongside, when they suddenly arose, poured a volley into the crew of the small boat, and then, in the confusion that ensued, made their escape. There were twelve or fifteen crossing with him at the time, and all were armed with revolvers. Having gotten within the Confederate lines south of Fredericksburg, they were being pushed along by Negroes on a hand-car when they met five or six forlorn, half-starved Union soldiers, who had made their escape from a rebel prison and were striking for freedom. At the suggestion of this wicked woman they shot them down, and passed on, leaving them lying on the ground.

He also related to the doctor the plot, at one time discussed, to capture the President and carry him to Richmond, but said it was found to be impracticable, and so was abandoned. He claimed that Booth and himself had spent ten thousand dollars in preparations for carrying out their plot. When we remember that neither Booth nor Surratt had any means of their own, and yet were carrying on an enterprise that called for so large an outlay of money, we may well ask who stood behind them and furnished the funds?

But if we take all of the testimony we have before us into consideration we need have no difficulty in answering this question. Jacob Thompson was the treasurer of the concern, and his government kept him amply supplied with means. It will be remembered that Clay said, "We have plenty of money to pay for anything that is worth paying for." After the assassination Surratt was in some way supplied with money to support him for a year, and carry him to Italy. In regard to the assassination, Surratt told McMillen that he received a letter from Booth at Montreal, in the beginning of the week of the assassination, which was written in New York, calling him to Washington at once, as it had become necessary to change their plans and to act quickly. He started at once, and telegraphed Booth at New York City from Elmira, but found that he had already gone to Washington. In regard to his escape from Washington after the assassination, he related all of the incidents that have already been given in regard to his experience at St. Albans, the loss of his handkerchief, his hasty departure from that place, etc., etc.

Every day during the voyage, he was filling McMillen's ears with these stories, and as they neared the end of the voyage he began to revolve in his mind whether he would land on the Irish coast or go on to Liverpool. He asked McMillen which he had better do, but McMillen, who must have known by this time who this McCarthy was, declined to give him any advice. Surratt finally said he would go on to Liverpool, but could not dismiss from his mind the fear that he might there meet a detective awaiting his arrival. Pulling out his revolver, he said, "If he did, this would settle him." Upon McMillen making the reply that " they would make short work of it with him in England if he should do such a thing as that," he said, "It is for that very reason I would do it, for I would rather be hung by an English than a Yankee hangman, and I know I would be hung should I be taken back to the United States." Upon sighting the coast of Ireland he exclaimed, "Here is a foreign country at last! I only wish that I may live two years to go back to the United States and serve Andy Johnson as we served Lincoln."

When the "Peruvian " was about to land her passengers and mail at an Irish port, Surratt sent for McMillen, and upon the latter expressing surprise at finding him dressed, and prepared to land, saying that "he thought he had concluded to go on with them to Liverpool," Surratt replied, "that he had thought the matter over carefully, and had concluded that it would be safer for him to land there, as it was then nearly midnight." McMillen then said to him, "You have been telling me a great many things, and I have come to the conclusion that the name by which you were introduced to me is not your true name. Will you be kind enough to tell me who you are?" The fugitive then whispered in his ear, "I am Surratt." He then asked the doctor to send for the barkeeper, and before leaving the ship drank so freely of brandy that the doctor found it necessary to request the chief officer at the gangway to take him by the arm and see him safely on shore. On the Wednesday following, Surratt called on the doctor at his boarding house in Birkenhead, opposite the city of Liverpool, and requested him to go over with him to the city to find a house to which he had been directed to go. The doctor had, on the previous day (which was the day after the "Peruvian " had landed in Liverpool), visited the Vice-Consul of the United States, Mr. Wildings, and made a sworn statement of the facts that Surratt had revealed to him, his purpose being to aid the United States in securing his arrest. He told the Vice-Consul that he was only making a partial statement of Surratt's confessions during the voyage, deeming it only important that the government should be informed of Surratt's arrival in Liverpool. The doctor testified, on Surratt's trial, that Mr. Wilding told him that he had been informed by Mr. Adams, the American Minister at London, that the government was not going to prosecute Surratt; that it hadn't anything against him.Of all this Surratt was ignorant, and the doctor went with him, as requested, across the river from Birkenhead to Liverpool, and finding a cab, gave the driver directions where to take him, and then parted from him. Surratt visited him again before the doctor started on the return voyage, and requested him to see a party in Montreal, and bring him some money. The doctor did as requested, but the person on whom he was requested to call said he had no money for him. The rebellion had collapsed; the plot had failed of its purpose, as it had also failed in part of its fulfillment; and now Surratt was to suffer the fate of Hyams—be shaken off and disowned. On the doctor's return to Liverpool Surratt called on him, but only to learn that there was no money for him. This was the last time that McMillen saw him until he saw him on his trial.

Surratt is next found in Italy, in the army of the Pope, where he had enlisted as a soldier in the ninth company of Zouaves about the middle of April, 1866. He had found friends after his escape from Washington, who had supported him, kept him secreted, watched over his safety, planned his trip from Montreal to Italy, and furnished him money for the expenses of his journey; friends who, no doubt, were accomplices before, as well as after, the fact, for we find them waiting and watching for his return to Montreal after the assassination, and ready to hurry him off into seclusion. He was to them a stranger; only known to them as a fugitive from his country, charged with the highest crime that a man could commit,—a blow at the nation's life, by murdering the nation's head,—a crime against liberty and humanity. These could not have been his friends for mere personal reasons, but from sympathy in the general purpose of this great crime,—the subversion of our free institutions.

Certainly he may now feel safe, being hid away under the alias of Watson, in the ranks of the Papal Zouaves, in the town of Velletri, in Italy, forty miles from Rome. But no! Here he meets Henry Benjamin St. Marie, an old acquaintance of his, and now a fellow-soldier in his company .

About the 18th or 19th of June, 1866, during an afternoon's walk, he, in his confidences with his old acquaintance, tells of the events of the 15th of April, 1865, and of the difficulty he had in making his escape from Washington on the morning of the 15th. He said he left disguised as an English traveler and succeeded in making his way out.

The American Consul was informed of his whereabouts, and upon the matter being brought to the notice of the Pope through Cardinal Antonelli, an order was issued for his arrest and delivery to the United States authorities. He was thus arrested by his comrades in the service, and kept under guard, but succeeded in making his escape from his guards (if we may believe the story), by making a bold dash down a precipice, at the risk of his life. Having thus escaped he made his way to Naples, and thence to Alexandria, in Egypt. What must have been his surprise on reaching the latter place to find an officer awaiting his arrival, and ready to make him a prisoner. He was put in chains, placed on board the United States man-of-war ship "Swatara," and brought back to Washington, where he was held to answer for his crime.

Back to Main Menu