First he sees the famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, out front of the theatre. Booth is conversing with a low, short, “villainous-looking” person. A neatly dressed gentleman joins Booth’s conversation. Intermission sends the theatre-goers rushing out. Dye hears Booth say “he will come now,” apparently referring to the President. Sergeant Dye eagerly searches for Mr. Lincoln’s unmistakable visage towering above the crowd, but in vain.
Booth and his companions disperse – Booth to Taltavul’s saloon for a quick shot, the villainous-looking man to examine the President’s carriage. Not long afterwards Booth comes out, fortified by a whiskey, and stands by the alley leading to the stage door. The neatly dressed gentleman steps to the front of the theatre, looks at the clock in the vestibule, calls the time, then spins on his heel and briskly marches up 10th Avenue towards H Street. A few minutes later the gentleman returns. He calls the time again; again he marches up towards H Street.
Feeling that something is awry, Sergeant Dye reaches into the breast pocket of his artillery jacket to unwrap the handkerchief from around his revolver. Dye watches closely as the gentleman returns to the front of Ford’s Theatre. As the mysterious man looks at the clock, the light shines clearly on his excited pale face. He calls the time once more – ten minutes past ten o’clock – then hurries away towards H Street. John Wilkes Booth walks directly into the theatre.
Sergeant Dye points out the gent’s strange behavior to Sergeant Cooper. Cooper shrugs his shoulders. “I’m hungry,” he says, and together they step into an oyster saloon. Their oysters are not yet delivered when a man bursts in to proclaim: "The President has been shot!"
At the trial of John H. Surratt for conspiracy in the murder of Abraham Lincoln, Sergeant Dye testifies about the neatly dressed gentleman who called the time:
Mr. Pierrepont (for the Government): Did you see that man distinctly?
Sergeant Dye: I did.
Q: Very distinctly?
A: I did very distinctly.
Q: Do you see him now?
A: I do. . . .
Q: Tell us where he is.
A: He sits there (pointing to the prisoner [John H. Surratt].)
Q: Is that the man?
A: It is. I have seen his face often since, while I have been sleeping – it was so exceedingly pale.
In all, eleven witnesses testify to seeing John H. Surratt in Washington on that terrible Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the day of the assassination.
Yet there is another version of the same events . . .
Thursday or Friday, April 13 or 14. Stewart & Ufford, Men’s Furnishings, a tidy shop located at Nos. 20 and 22 Lake Street, Elmira, New York, roughly two-hundred eighty miles from Washington. Some time around two o’clock – definitely after lunch – the shop’s very sober bookkeeper, town alderman Frank H. Atkinson, watches as a distinctive young gentleman engages in ten or twenty minutes of conversation with their cutter, Mr. Carroll. The gentleman is memorable for his unusual coat, buttoned up with a full row of buttons on the front, and a belt fastened about the waist. Mr. Carroll confirms this, and adds that the man came in twice – once on the 13th, and again on the 14th.
At his trial, John H. Surratt is instructed to rise.
Mr. Bradley (for the Defense): Is that the same man?
Mr. Atkinson: I have no doubt but that is the same man.
Mr. Bradley: Is that the man?
Mr. Carroll: That is the man.
Five witnesses testify to seeing John H. Surratt in Elmira at various times on April 13, 14 and 15. But what of the man calling time in front of Ford’s Theatre?
Mr. C.B. Hess, an actor, is pleased to be included in the evening’s entertainment on April 14. Though not in the cast of Our American Cousin, he’s been engaged to sing a patriotic song in honor of the President and the great Union victory at the conclusion of the show. Filled with the nervous energy that always precedes a performance, Mr. Hess steps from the stage door and sees Lewis Carland, a costumer and actor, and James J. Gifford, a stage carpenter, standing out front. Carland and Gifford had just come from the adjoining saloon, where they’d ducked in the side door just in time to catch a glimpse of Mr. Booth leaving by the front door. Mr. Hess asks the time. Mr. Carland walks to the front entrance, peers at the clock, then returns with the news that it is ten minutes past ten. Mr. Hess repeats, “Ten minutes past ten – I’ll be wanted in a few minutes,” and he ducks back in at the stage entrance. Not more than two minutes later he hears the report of a pistol, and suddenly all is chaos.
* * *
History is slippery like that. We want to know what really happened, but the evidence cannot always be reconciled. We want to know so badly that sometimes we fill in the gaps, consciously or unconsciously. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. The passage of time erodes memory. Documents are lost. False documents are created. Conspiracy theorists jump in to fill the voids created by honest uncertainty. Versions feed off of other versions. The more shocking the event, the more versions there are.
There was no more shocking event in the Nineteenth Century than the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. At the very height of Lincoln’s power, the moment of triumph after four years of bloody struggle, a blow was struck to decapitate the government of the United States. The grief that followed was deepened by the heights of the victory just won. On the night before the assassination, “Washington was all ablaze with glory. The very heavens seemed to have come down, and the stars twinkled in a sort of faded way, as if the solar system was out of order and the earth had become the great luminary.”
O, what an elevation! but alas, alas, what a fall! Our joy is suddenly turned into deepest sorrow. The emblem of freedom which recently floated so proudly over land and sea is draped with the emblems of mourning, and a nation in tears follow their beloved and honored chief to a patriot’s and martyr’s grave.
Literally overnight, the United States plunged from ecstasy into unfathomable and terrifying despair.
What can be known about this epoch-changing event? Who was responsible? Was there a conspiracy? If so, did it reach from the Confederate high command in Richmond to Washington? We want to know, we must know – and it is inconceivable that, perhaps, we cannot know everything about it.
This much can be known: the Lincoln assassination was part of a conspiracy to kill the key leaders of the American government – the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State, and possibly also Union General Grant. Regardless of whether John H. Surratt was in Washington or Elmira on the night of the assassination, he was deeply involved in the plot against Lincoln and the government of the United States. What’s more, of all the conspirators, John Surratt was the one who was a bona fide Confederate secret agent, with ties to the highest levels of Confederate government. And of all the known conspirators involved in the crime of the century, Surratt was the only one who got away
Who was John H. Surratt? To some he was a patriot, fighting to defend the Southern way of life, and the freedom bequeathed by the Declaration of Independence to secede from tyrannical government. To others, he was a spy and assassin, dedicated to preserving the unholy rule of the slaveholders at any cost, who would just as soon shoot a Yankee in the back as give him the time of day. To many of his supporters, Surratt was a courageous young man unjustly accused by vengeful victors of complicity in a crime of which he knew nothing; a Southern soldier who was hounded to the ends of the earth, then dragged back to stand trial based on the same perjured evidence that had unjustly condemned his mother to hang. To many of his detractors, he was as guilty as Booth of the assassination of the sainted Lincoln, a coward who had allowed his mother to swing on the gallows for his own crimes, who nonetheless escaped all punishment due to the protection of shadowy forces such as the Catholic Church.
Can it be possible that a boy barely twenty-one on the day Lincoln was shot could have shared Booth’s guilt, yet have gotten away with murder? Can it be believed that a Confederate spy is perhaps the missing link between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the top command of the Confederacy right up to President Jefferson Davis? Can it be that a young man whose face was next to Booth’s atop the assassination “WANTED” posters and who once held the undivided attention of a deeply divided nation, could have been mostly forgotten by history? The Lincoln assassination, in Churchill’s felicitous phrase, “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” That key might be a forgotten young man, John Harrison Surratt, whose last name is pronounced “Sir Rat.”
The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away
Bennett & Hastings Publishing
excerpt ©2015 Michael Schein
Year that trembled and reel’d beneath me!
Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,
A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,
Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,
Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?
And sullen hymns of defeat? ~ Walt Whitman, 1865
[T]he reverse of truth has a hundred thousand shapes, and a field indefinite,
without bound or limit. ~ Michel de Montaigne
A NEATLY DRESSED GENTLEMAN
Good Friday, April 14, 1865. Ford’s Theatre. Sometime between 9½ and 10 o’clock. Though after dark, a large lamp lights the front of the theatre. Union Sergeant Joseph M. Dye sits on the platform out front while his comrade in arms, Sergeant Robert H. Cooper, paces up and down the pavement. Together they had viewed the torchlight parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate a victorious end to the cursed War of Rebellion, then stopped at Ford’s on the walk back, hoping to catch a glimpse of their commander-in-chief. As a man will do while idling, Sergeant Dye begins to notice people.