October 4, 2011
As part of the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War at the Smithsonian Institution, the Around the Mall team will be reporting in a series of posts on some of the illustrative artifacts held by the museums from that epic battle. See more from the collections here.
In the spring of 1865, with the Confederate army on the verge of defeat, a group of supporters hatched a plan to keep their cause alive. By assassinating the top three officials in the Union chain of command—President Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward—they would rally their side, throw the Union into disarray and force an end to the war.
“This was a conspiracy aimed at disrupting the federal government,” says Harry Rubenstein, curator at the American History Museum. “It was the hope of Booth and others that this would cause uncertainty in the Union government, and a negotiated peace might be possible as a result.
But on the chaotic night of April 14, their plan was foiled. Though John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, Lewis Powell hit no vital organs as he stabbed Seward, and George Atzerodt lost the courage to attack Johnson at the very last moment. The Union government remained intact and soon ended the Civil War.
Nevertheless, for killing a highly respected president, the eight conspirators charged encountered the wrath of a nation.
The American History Museum’s set of eight cotton hoods is a chilling symbol of the treatment the conspirators received. “[Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton required that the prisoners wear these hoods when they were in their cells, and when they were transported back and forth to the trial,” says Rubenstein. “This is just vengeance. There was no practical reason whatsoever. This is just taking these people who had done this and treating them as miserably as you possibly could.”
The group of eight conspirators—which included figures of varying involvement in the plot, from some who directly assisted Booth in his escape attempt to others who quit the conspiracy early on—were tried by a military tribunal, rather than a civil court. Over the course of the seven week trial, each of the prisoners were held in individual cells, with their wrists and ankles bound to a 75-pound iron weight.
On June 30th, all eight conspirators were found guilty by the panel of Union military officials. “Ever since, there’s been a huge debate about some of them, and how responsible were they in the overall conspiracy,” Rubenstein says. “The evidence against them isn’t all that great.” Edmund Spangler, a workman at Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, argued that his only involvement in the affair was briefly holding Booth’s horse. Prosecutors alleged that Mary Surratt, a Washington, D.C. boardinghouse owner, had abetted Booth by providing him with a weapon during his escape, but her actual involvement is uncertain.
Three were sentenced to life in prison and along with Spangler, who received six years, they were incarcerated at Fort Jefferson, off of Key West, Florida, before being pardoned by President Johnson in 1869. Four others were sentenced to death, and were hanged at Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, D.C. shortly after the trial, with Mary Surratt becoming the first woman ever executed by the U.S. Government.
The episode still remains something of a black mark on the history of the U.S. criminal justice system. “All of these eight were a group of conspirators, on one hand or the other,” Rubenstein says. “But it’s a little hard to say whether some of them—like Spangler, for instance—were just victims of hanging out with the wrong people.”
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