Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865

The_Last_Hours_of_Abraham_Lincoln_by_Alonzo_Chappel,_1868

Lincoln was the third American president to die in office, and the first to be murdered.An unsuccessful attempt had been made on Andrew Jackson 30 years prior, in 1835, and Lincoln had himself been the subject of an earlier assassination attempt by an unknown assailant in August 1864. The assassination of Lincoln was planned and carried out by the well-known stage actor John Wilkes Booth, as part of a larger conspiracy in a bid to revive the Confederate cause.

Booth’s co-conspirators were Lewis Powell and David Herold, who were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward, and George Atzerodt, who was tasked with killing Vice President Andrew Johnson. By simultaneously eliminating the top three people in the administration, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to disrupt the United States government.

Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 1

In the turmoil that followed the assassination, scores of suspected accomplices were arrested and thrown into prison. Anyone discovered to have had anything to do with the assassination or even the slightest contact with Booth or Herold on their flight were put behind bars. Among the imprisoned were Louis J. Weichmann, a boarder in Mrs. Surratt’s house; Booth’s brother Junius (playing in Cincinnati at the time of the assassination); theater owner John T. Ford, who was incarcerated for 40 days; James Pumphrey, the Washington livery stable owner from whom Booth hired his horse; John M. Lloyd, the innkeeper who rented Mrs. Surratt’s Maryland tavern and gave Booth and Herold carbines, rope, and whiskey the night of April 14; and Samuel Cox and Thomas A. Jones, who helped Booth and Herold escape across the Potomac.

All of those listed above and more were rounded up, imprisoned, and released. Ultimately, the suspects were narrowed down to just eight prisoners (seven men and one woman): Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler (a Ford’s stagehand who had given Booth’s horse to “Peanuts” Burroughs to hold), and Mary Surratt.

This set of pictures below  from 1865 showing the hanging execution of the four Lincoln conspirators: David Herold, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt. Their deaths were a culmination of sorts of a nation ravaged by war, bitter conflict, and the death of the nation’s commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln. Scottish photographer Alexander Gardner captured the macabre scene, including pictures of the condemned seen moments before they walked to the 12-foot gallows, specially constructed for the executions. It was hot that day, reportedly a hundred degrees (38 degree Celsius). Sweat surely dripped down the accused’s faces as they passed by the cheap pine coffins and shallow graves that had been dug for them.

Construction of the gallows for the hanging of the conspirators began immediately on July 5 after the execution order was signed.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 2

The death warrant for the four is being read aloud by General John F. Hartranft.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 3

On June 29, 1865, the Military Commission met in secret session to begin its review of the evidence in the seven-week long trial. A guilty verdict could come with a majority vote of the nine-member commission; death sentences required the votes of six members. The next day, it reached its verdicts. The Commission found seven of the prisoners guilty of at least one of the conspiracy charges. Four of the prisoners: Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold were sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until he [or she] be dead”. Samuel Arnold, Dr. Samuel Mudd and Michael O’Laughlen were sentenced to “hard labor for life, at such place at the President shall direct”, Edman Spangler received a six-year sentence. The next day General Hartrandft informed the prisoners of their sentences. He told the four condemned prisoners that they would hang the next day.

The four condemned conspirators: David Herold, Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt and George Atzerodt (from left to right).

Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 pics

David Herold — An impressionable and dull-witted pharmacy clerk, Herold accompanied Booth to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s injured leg. The two men then continued their escape through Maryland and into Virginia, and Herold remained with Booth until the authorities cornered them in a barn. Herold surrendered but Booth was shot and died a few hours later.

Lewis Powell — Powell was a former Confederate prisoner of war. Tall and strong, he was recruited to provide the muscle for the kidnapping plot. When that plan failed, Booth assigned Powell to kill Secretary of State William Seward. He entered the Seward home and severely injured Seward, Seward’s son, and a bodyguard.

Mary Surratt — Surratt owned a boarding house in Washington where the conspirators met. Sentenced to death, she was hanged, becoming the first woman executed by the United States federal government.

George Azterodt — German-born Azterodt was a carriage painter and boatman who had secretly ferried Confederate spies across Southern Maryland waterways during the war. Recruited by Booth into the conspiracy, he was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, but lost his nerve and stayed in a hotel bar, drinking, instead.

Adjusting the ropes for hanging the conspirators. White cloth was used to bind their arms to their sides, and their ankles and thighs together.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 4

A white bag was placed over the head of each prisoner after the noose was put in place.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 5

Shortly after the afternoon of July 7, 1865, the four condemned conspirators were forced to climb the hastily built gallows that they had heard being tested the night before from their prison cells. More than 1,000 people—including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters—had come with their exclusive tickets to see this execution. Nooses were placed around the accused’s necks and hoods placed over their heads. Ever since the sentences had been handed down a week ago, Surratt’s lawyers and her daughter Anna had been fighting and pleading for her death sentence to be changed. In fact, many in attendance thought that Surratt would be saved from the gallows at the last-minute. It was not to be.

The conspirators stood on the drop for about 10 seconds, and then Captain Rath clapped his hands. Four soldiers knocked out the supports holding the drops in place, and the condemned fell.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 6

The bodies continued to hang and swing for another 25 minutes before they were cut down.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 7

After last rites and shortly after 1:30 PM, the trap door was opened and all four fell. It was reported that Atzerodt yelled at this very last moment: “May we meet in another world”. Within minutes, they were all dead. The bodies continued to hang and swing for another 25 minutes before they were cut down.

The scaffold in use and the crowd in the yard seen from the roof of the Washington Arsenal.Execution of the Lincoln conspirators, 1865 8

Over the years, critics have attacked the verdicts, sentences, and procedures of the 1865 Military Commission. These critics have called the sentences unduly harsh, and criticized the rule allowing the death penalty to be imposed with a two-thirds vote of Commission members. The hanging of Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the United States, has been a particular focus of criticism. Critics also have complained about the standard of proof, the lack of opportunity for defense counsel to adequately prepare for the trial, the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, and the Commission’s rule forbidding the prisoners from testifying on their own behalf.

(courtesy Library of Congress)

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