Monday, June 20, 2022

John Wilkes Booth's Plot to Kidnap Abraham Lincoln

Colorized print of Joh Wilkes Booth,
originally printed in Harper's Weekly
Magazine in 1865.

John Wilkes Booth had several
kidnap schemes in the works. One was to snatch Lincoln when he walked between the War Department and the White House. He often traveled alone. It would be quick work to carry him through the White House Garden to the old Van Ness mansion on Seventeenth Street. The home had several cellars, one with a trap door, where they could conceal the President away.[i]

The Van Ness mansion was the perfect spot to hide Lincoln in plain sight. The grounds covered two acres and were surrounded by tall trees, shrubbery, and a high brick wall. Lincoln could scream his lungs out, and no one would hear him.[ii]

The plan was safe. Relatively simple and had an excellent chance of success.

Booth quickly discarded it.

Another idea involved snatching Lincoln when he rode out to his hideaway at the Old Soldiers’ Home. The President often traveled there alone or with just a driver. Like the plot to hide Lincoln away in the Van Ness mansion, it had a better than average chance of success. 

Booth decided it would never do.

He had visions of snatching Lincoln out of the Presidential box at Ford’s or Grover’s. It would be the most magnificent acting of his life. Even Edwin could not top that.

The plan to capture Lincoln came together quickly. Booth summoned his fellow conspirators to Gautier’s Eating Saloon on the night of March 15th. Sam Arnold said the attendees included John Wilkes Booth, John Surratt, George Atzerodt, Michael O’Laughlen, and Lewis Payne.

Booth ordered whiskey, oysters, and cigars for everyone. While they ate, he laid out his plan to kidnap Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

Booth and Payne would seize Lincoln in the Presidential box. O’Laughlen and Herold were to turn down the gas at the right moment to darken the theater. Sam Arnold was supposed to catch Lincoln when Booth tossed his bound body over the balcony.

Meanwhile, John Surratt and George Atzerodt would be waiting on the other side of the Eastern Branch Bridge. As soon as the party arrived with the President, they would load him into the boats and take him across the river into Virginia.

Booth made it sound so simple. Like taking candy from a baby.

Sam Arnold
(from an image published in McClure's Magazine)

Sam Arnold thought it was the craziest idea he had ever heard. “It seemed like the height of madness.”[iii] But, if they were going to do this thing, he wanted “a shadow of a chance for [his] life, and [he] intended having it.”[iv] Booth didn’t expect to be challenged. When he was, he threatened to shoot Arnold on the spot, but Arnold stood his ground. He placed his hand on his pistol and told Booth, “two could play at that game.”[v]

John Surratt agreed with Arnold.

He called the plot to kidnap Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre a “foolhardy undertaking.” He was “amazed, thunderstruck,” and “frightened at the unparalleled audacity of this scheme.”[vi] It could never work. Thousands of soldiers walked the streets of Washington at any given moment. They would spring on the conspirators at a moment’s notice.

The meeting broke up at five o’clock in the morning. Everyone stumbled off to their rooms.

Arnold and O’Laughlen bumped into Booth the following afternoon. Booth apologized for the unpleasantness the night before. He suggested Arnold made those objections because he had too much to drink. Arnold said he was perfectly sober. If anyone was drunk or crazy, it was Booth. Besides, prisoners were being exchanged again. The reason for their plot was accomplished. There was no need to capture Lincoln.

If looks could kill, Arnold would be a dead man. Booth rode off down the Avenue. The discussion was over, but his scheme was still on.

On March 17th, 1865, everything came together. Booth learned the President would attend a Seventh Street Hospital performance that afternoon. The conspirators planned to seize the President’s carriage and drive it to Southern Maryland. David Herold would be waiting at Surrattsville or T.B. and guide them to Virginia and safety.

Arnold and O’Laughlen ate dinner at the Franklin Hotel. Then, they stopped at a restaurant a mile away from the hospital and waited for the rest of the party to assemble. Finally, when everyone was there, they downed a few drinks for courage and rode out to capture the President.

Booth rode ahead to check things out when they got near the hospital. Another actor, E. L. Davenport, said Lincoln had sent Secretary Chase in his place. So the men split up and rode off in small groups, sure the government was on to them.[vii]

The Surratt house in Washington, DC where the
conspirators held most of their meetings.
(Image originally published in McClure's Magazine)

Louis Weichmann was
alone in the parlor when the conspirators returned to the Surratt house.

John Surratt was the first man through the door. His pants were tucked in his boots, and he held a four-barreled Sharps revolver. Weichmann asked his old friend what was the matter. “My prospects are gone,” screamed Surratt, “my hopes are blighted.”[viii]

Ten minutes later, Payne walked into the room. He was a mass of raw energy, pacing back and forth. His face was red. He wore a pistol strapped to his hip. 

Minutes later, Booth walked into the room. As usual, he was dressed impeccably and held a riding crop. Booth paced around the room, waving his riding crop at imaginary enemies—cursing, “Damn Lincoln!” Booth was a nervous type anyway. William Withers described him as an “erratic, spasmodic type who did queer things.” On the night of the assassination, he was more “fidgety and excitable” than usual.”[ix]

The three men walked upstairs to the attic and secluded themselves in Payne’s room for about thirty minutes. When they came down, they left the house together. 

[i] The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D. C. for the Murder of President Abraham Lincoln. 1865. P. 20.

[ii] The Trial of the Assassins and Conspirators at Washington City, D. C. for the Murder of President Abraham Lincoln. 1865. P. 21.

[iii] Arnold, Samuel Bland and Kauffman, Michael W. Memoirs of a Lincoln Conspirator. 2008. P. 45.

[iv] Arnold, Samuel Bland and Kauffman, Michael W. Memoirs of a Lincoln Conspirator. 2008. P. 25-26.

[v] Arnold, Samuel Bland and Kauffman, Michael W. Memoirs of a Lincoln Conspirator. 2008. P. 25-26.

[vi] Washington Evening Star. December 7, 1870.

[vii] Several sources say the kidnap attempt at the Seventh Street Hospital never happened. Booth knew in advance that Lincoln would not be there. Colonel Thomas E. Richardson, the drama agent for the Boston Globe, said he was in Washington with Booth several weeks before the assassination, when Governor Morton of Indiana received the flags captured in the Shenandoah Valley by the Indiana troops. Booth tried to rush through the crowd to Lincoln’s carriage as it rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue. He could not get to it. Defeated, Booth walked back to him and listened to Lincoln’s speech. He said, “Booth looked at the President with a fixed, intense gaze, and with one of the most demonical expressions I have ever seen on a mortal on or off stage.” When asked why he thought Booth murdered the President, Richardson said, “I think it was some sudden freak of his mind, which must have been in a disordered condition at the time of the murder.” Chicago Daily Tribune.  June 22, 1878.

[viii] Poore, Ben Pearly. The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President: and the Attempt to Overthrow the Government by the Assassination of Its Principal Officers. 1865. Vol. 2. P. 399.

[ix] Evening Star. July 15, 1905.

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