1888: John T. Ford's Statement about Mrs. Surratt
John T. Ford
Source: Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.
1888 statement of John T. Ford, owner of Ford's Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated.
On the morning of July 6th, 1865, I was startled with the announcement then first made public that Mrs. Mary E. Surratt had been condemned to death by the Military Commission, of which the Hon. Joseph Holt was the Judge Advocate General, acting as the representative of the Government and the advisor of the Military Court or Commission.
For a few days in April I was in prison with Mrs. Surratt prior to her removal to the Penitentiary or Arsenal building. While in the first prison I came in contact with the witnesses against her, Weichmann and Lloyd, and was by what I heard from them convinced of her entire innocence of any knowledge or complicity with the assassination of President Lincoln.
She was an entire stranger to me. I had never met her, and had no memory of ever having heard of her, or even her name. The witnesses mentioned were also equally strangers to my acquaintance or memory.
These two witnesses were early conspicuous in their expressions of terror to many inmates of the Carroll prison. Many yet living may recall their fright. Weichmann sought advice from the writer, saying that Secretary Stanton had threatened him with the opinion "that his hands had as much of the President's blood on them as Booth's, etc." He added that "Mrs. Surratt was as good as a mother to him. She mended his clothing, took him to church, and treated him in every way as a son, that as a woman she was the most exemplary lady that he ever knew."
Lloyd said that after his arrest in the country he had been threatened with torture and intimated that he had to say what he did, in the way he did, to secure relief. Others said he had been a drinking, swearing Southern sympathizer with a bad memory when sober of what he said when drunk, and he was quite drunk the evening of the 14th of April at Marlboro before he started home where he met Mrs. Surratt.
The memories of my contact with those witnesses without whose testimony there was not a shadow of a case against Mrs. Surratt, made the announcement of her conviction and the swift and terrible execution of her sentence a fearful horror. I deemed it a duty to devote every moment up to the last she had to live in an effort to have her sentence commuted. I felt it was a criminal weakness without justification or precedent in this country and age to rush her to the scaffold and strangle her in haste upon impeached evidence before a court whose legality had been deemed by the leading jurists of the country.
So I did not sleep during the night of July 6th. I wrote earnestly to the President. I left my home in Baltimore at 3 a.m. on the 7th. I reached Washington by rail about 6 a.m. I sought the residence of the Hon. Montgomery Blair and found he was asleep. I sent him the letter for the President which implored him to commute the terrible sentence of death against the woman until he could hear me, that a few days would suffice to establish the truth with a free hearing, and as it was a woman, a mother, one whose previous life had been without a blemish, justice could not be blocked in any way. Judge Blair told me afterwards that my letter reached the President and his Advisers and Surrounders that fateful day. I found access to the President barred and guarded in every way at the White House, the daughter of the condemned woman refused a hearing, the writ of Habeas Corpus defied, and Mrs. Surratt a dangling corpse before I turned homeward.
Recalling the handcuffing of a witness named Howell (who had been a blockade runner) while in the Carroll Prison, who bore the irons on his wrists for many days in my presence, and when asked "Why?", he replied "I suppose because I won't say what I don't know. They wish to make me criminate those that I know nothing against, etc." As soon as I was released I told Judge Peter W. Crain, yet living in this city, of the treatment of Howell. Judge Crain was a pronounced Unionist. He acted as counsel for Howell and denounced the outrage at the time on his client to the authorities.
I was committed or rather put in Carroll Prison on the 18th of April 1865. I was not confronted with any charges or placed before any one in authority. Not being accused, of course I could not defend myself. I remained there 39 days and was let out as unceremoniously, owing my release then to the kind and active offices of the Hon. John A. J. Creswell of Maryland, who with the Hon. Henry Winter Davis had interfered to secure my liberty.
When committed, as soon as I could procure pencil and paper, after being placed in an upper garret room, I wrote to Secretary Stanton asking him to release me on bond for any amount he chose, and permit me to aid the punishment of those guilty, that a wife and six children would be also my hostages, and Henry Winter Davis and others my endorsers, that with my influence and my employees I could reach the truth and the whole truth, as the terrible crime was committed in my House. I had every incentive in aiding and helping the Government to the uttermost. I wrote such a letter on the floor. I had neither chair nor table in my room. It was delivered at the War Department and is probably there yet in the archives. I received no reply to it.
I studied the evidence carefully, eager for the truth. I had every incentive to pursue it through every fact that I could reach. I noted that the prosecution soon formulated a theory which would sustain and that some witnesses for the prosecution were intuitively aware what they were expected to prove. Those for the defense were terrorized over in many ways. Some were imprisoned, one before alluded to, manacled, others intimidated and made to feel that to testify in the interest of Mrs. Surratt especially would be resented unpleasantly. Out of these shameful circumstances I extracted the truth to make me sure the following history of Mrs. Surratt during that fateful day of April 14th 1865 is literally true in every substantial fact.
I premise this history of a day with the declaration that John Wilkes Booth several months prior to March 4th '65 had conceived a prospect to kidnap or capture President Lincoln with at one of the theatres or in the highways of the District and convey him through Southern Maryland to the lower Potomac, then across into Virginia and the Confederate lines, and that he had conspired with Payne, Atzerodt, O'Laughlin, Arnold, and John H. Surratt, and that he had promised these associates the aid of an actor, so if the capture was made in the theatre all the lights could be extinguished by one knowing how to do it, etc.
This conspiracy failed. The conspirators separated sometime prior to April 14th.
On the morning of April 14th 1865 it was fully 11 a.m. when John Wilkes Booth entered the breakfast room at the National Hotel in Washington. He was the last man at breakfast that day. One lady only was in the room finishing her morning meal. She knew and responded to his bow of recognition. He breakfasted leisurely, left the room when he had finished, went to the Barber Shop, and after his toilett was completed then walked out and went up Sixth Street to H. When he reached the latter street he noted a buggy at Mrs. Surratt's door going there. He met that Lady and she told him she was going again to Surrattsville to collect the payment of debt due her, that she had a letter from the estate of Chas. B. Calvert urgently demanding settlement of a debt due it, that she had been to church, it being Good Friday, and had sent for a buggy and Mr. Weichmann was to drive her to her country place. He, Booth, knowing the folks there, and it was probably a rendezvous to be used by the kidnapping conspirators if successful, he sent a message to Lloyd by her, and probably a package. He then left her house and there is no evidence, save a bogus statement by Weichmann, made impossible by other testimony, that he was ever there again or ever met Mrs. Surratt.
She went to the country with Weichmann, was there some time waiting for Lloyd. Before he came her buggy had been turned cityward. A spring was found broken, and it is probable Mrs. Surratt would not have waited al all had it not been she wanted it made strong enough to get back.
Lloyd came at last besotted and unfit to talk understandingly, but he did fix the spring on the buggy with a rope and she reached her home in th city with Weichmann between 8 and 9 o'clock.
When Booth left the Surratt House in Washington on H Street on April 14th, it was after midday. He walked up H Street to 10th, and turned down 10th towards Penna. Ave. A group of young men were in front of Ford's Theatre. When they recognized him approaching, one said "Here comes the handsomest man in Washington," and the appearance of the youngest then of the Booth race justified the admiring words. He was dressed elegantly, a dark suit, light overcoat, hands gloved, a cane in one, a black silk hat slightly tipped on his head, his long hair black to brightness glistened in its sheen, and his walk one of easy swagger was full of grace. He was then 26 years of age and as he passed 4 out of 5 would turn to look at him again, his personal magnetism was so full of attraction. Letters from other cities waited for him at the theatre, where he received and read them. He was pleasantly taunted by some of his Union friends with the information that the President and General Grant would both be at the theatre that night, and one added General Lee would be with them. He quickly responded "They won't parade Lee as the Romans did their captives, I hope."
The remark about Lee coming was withdrawn, but the effect of information as to Lincoln and Grant was apparent. He, Booth, seemed abstracted and thoughtful and soon left, with the first possible information he could have had of the President intending that night to visit the theatre. He went down 10th Street to Penna. Ave. He was met there by several, yet living. He spoke to one of Brutus as he paused for a moment's talk, sought and found Payne and Atzerodt and plotted hurriedly with them. He then went to the National Theatre and wrote a statement for the National Intelligencer, which consumed some hours. He then took horse, 4 or 4:30 p.m. to find Herold whom he wanted as a guide. He met Matthews the actor while riding on Penna. Ave. and gave the statement for publication to him with instructions. After he found Herold and conferring with him, he in all probability rode to the rear of the theatre, reaching there between 8 and 9 p.m., where he left his horse to go to the front of the House.
At 10:20 he assassinated President Lincoln. In jumping from the private box in which the crime was committed to the stage he fractured what is commonly called the shin bone of his right leg. He hopped on one foot to the rear door, had much difficulty in mounting his horse on account of the great agony the fracture caused, but finally did so and escaped from the city.
Intense suffering forced him to go out of his route of escape to procure the medical aid of Dr. Mudd, whom he knew, and to that accident alone the physician owes his involvement. Otherwise Booth would have pursued a more direct route to the lower Potomac.
A thorough sifting of the evidence published by authority of the Secretary of War, endorsed by Judge Advocate Holt, certified to by Special Judge Advocate Burnett as to its "faithfulness and accuracy," will practically sustain this account of the movements of Mrs. Surratt up to 8 p.m. and John Wilkes Booth up to 10:20 p.m. on the day of April 14 1865. This book so carefully prepared under Judge Holt's own supervision by his assistant Col. Burnett does not mention as record in any way "The Recommendation to Mercy," just as much, due to the accuracy of history, due to the world, due to the memory of Mrs. Surratt, as it was due to President Johnson on the 5th of July 1865. It was an essential part of the history of the proceeding, of the Commission. Its omission in publication is in keeping with its suppression at the White House, in keeping with a large majority of the rulings of the Commission adverse to its unfortunate victims, in keeping with insults put upon the distinguished Counsel (the Hon. Reverdy Johnson) for that poor woman.
This book also in its account of the death of Booth graphically told by Conger, describes minutely articles found upon his person with one exception - some photographs which indicated much as evidence of some of his Washington acquaintances. This was also a suppression with a purpose.
There is now to be considered whether John Wilkes Booth, a young man of the personal attractiveness already described, of a family of great professional distinction, with the world before him, of undisputed courage, eloquent and persuasive with his tongue, was not the very man to lead such men as Payne and others into a conspiracy to abduct the ruler of a nation and to carry him into captivity. To them, ardent sympathizers with the South as they all were, the plot was full of fascination and seemed within accomplishment. If successful it would have startled the world and made heroes of those participating in it. Both of the theaters in Washington were considered as places to make the capture at night, and a rush through the city, down through the peninsula, if uninterrupted daybreak would have found them across the river and within the Confederate lines. It was also planned to make the capture either on or as near the 4th of March as possible on the street if opportunity permitted.
Booth's alleged cause for conspiring to abduct was to force if successful an exchange of prisoners. He quoted to his followers how it had been done in past ages, and in his talk among his acquaintances the only time he exhibited feeling was when criticizing the national authorities for refusing to exchange. He blinded Mrs. Surratt entirely as to his plotting with her son. His position, means, and pleasant neatness evidently won her admiration and confidence, and she was proud of such a visitor at her house. He could confer with impunity with his confederates without her dreaming of his ultimate purpose. It was well known to her that at the Hotel his associations were the very best. He could learn from Weichmann, who was a clerk under Col. Hoffman, the Commissary of Prisoners of War, their locality, numbers, etc. without suspicion.
It is a matter of unpublished but easily proven history that Booth's associates in crime, whether in the projected abduction, or the assassination, denied most solemnly that Mrs. Surratt had part whatever in their plots, but on the contrary they were warned over and over again to keep all knowledge of them from her. These observations were made by those who were executed with her, and the day of their deaths, they were made by Arnold and O'Laughlin before going to Dry Tortugas.
I now wish to advert to Judge Holt., not in the bitterness and vehemence of despair that he betrays in his letters published in the Review of July '88 denouncing the President with whom he found much pleasure at one time, and adversely criticizing two others almost as conspicuously prominent in the military trials of '65, i.e., the Secretary of War and the Attorney General, neither of whom, although friends of his and bitterly antagonistic to President Johnson, would bear witness that the Judge Advocate did submit to the President a recommendation for mercy which was signed by five members of the Military Commission. I have before me the book before alluded to, entitled The Trial of the Conspirators, compiled and arranged by Benn Pitman, Recorder of the Commission, published by permission of J. Holt, Judge Advocate General, June 30th 1865, by Authority of the Secretary of War, under the Superintendence of Col. H.L. Burnett who will be responsible to Judge Joseph Holt or the Bureau of Military Justice for its accuracy.
It was so published including as was promised the entire proceedings and the findings, and the sentences. But it contains, I must say again, no mention whatever of the petition Judge Holt declares (page 88 - Review) that "He did present to the President, signed by five members of the Military Commission asking for clemency on behalf of Mrs. Surratt." That petition left with Judge Holt, a part of the very findings of the Commission attached to them, which he says he did present to the President on July 5th is not mentioned in the printed record of the trial, which was not issued from the press until October 1865, 75 days after Mrs. Surratt was strangled.
The world hardly knew the seven years that followed up to '72 that she had been recommended in any way to mercy, and we are yet in grave doubt ('88) whether President Johnson had read the recommendations. A Commission advised by Judge Holt condemned her. That a President advised by Judge Holt hung her with less than two days notice, that the very man of God who shrived her soul for eternity was said to be pledged to silence, and as the poor martyr walked in her shroud to the scaffold begged the ministering priest by her side to let her tell the people "She was innocent," she was told that "the Church was simply to prepare her soul for eternity," that already she was dead to the world.
I was present at the trials before the Military Commission. I recall poor Spangler, as innocent as Judge Holt, "of any guilty knowledge," manacled while on trial. I can now read the words of that Grand old jurist Reverdy Johnson where he cites English authority of an English Judge Holt, who hears the clanking of fetters, said "let them be instantly knocked off. When prisoners are tried they should stand at their ease." I saw Mrs. Surratt totter, as if fettered, to her seat in the dock, and I remember reading in the Washington Star and the Baltimore American that her ankles were manacled. I saw all the others in manacles at the trial. I know that the great representative Maryland lawyer who had been Senator, Attorney General, and Minister to England, was told he was not qualified to plead for a hapless woman from his own State. I recall his sturdy manly glare at a Court which he pronounced "illegal, unconstitutional. and disqualified" to try any one. I heard afterwards Henry Winter Davis say Mr. Johnson was never nearer right than when he denied the Commission's legal jurisdiction.
With these memories Judge Joseph Holt's sentiments in his letters amaze me. I am a mere layman unlettered in law except by what I have studied in this case. I have felt it my mission to speak what I deem the truth for a lady whom I saw but twice in my life, of whom I never heard until in great trouble. I am not of her church, or of her people in any way, but I recall a Commission that was advised by Judge Holt caused to be strangled until death, and I am, with many facts untold for want of room, trying to do justice to her memory.
Would that it were possible, now, to have her trial reviewed by a fit tribunal. Enough of the witnesses are living yet to secure the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it is far more important to history than that which Judge Holt begged so piteously from Attorney general Speed. The living can write and talk, but the dead must depend on those who have the supreme right of legal justice to either justify or condemn their fate.
I establish the theory the writer has always maintained that Booth had a pride that contained elements of insanity. It may here be said with propriety that with health, youth, and personal grace, with a dramatic inheritance, he could earn in the very alluring work of a leading actor from $500 to $1000 per week at that time, but the eccentricity born within him made him desirous of emulating the "Youth who fired the Ephesian dome," or to act Brutus, part in real life. His abduction plot was a mature plan conceived in the fall of 1864, brilliantly daring and full of danger, but it failed and he felt the mortification of a semi disgrace. The assassination was the Brutus impulse and it only came to him the day of its performance and after he learned of an opportunity.