The Execution of the Lincoln Conspirators
(July 6, 1865)
Documentary / Historical / Silent
A sequence of still photos constructed from the execution by hanging of the President Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators.
Four Swing from Gallows
by James L. Swanson
July 6, 2002
James L. Swanson is a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute and editor in chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review. His latest book, with Daniel R. Weinberg, is "Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution" (Arena Editions).
At around 11 o'clock on the morning of July 6, 1865, 137 years ago today, the clock began ticking on one of the most dramatic events in the history of Washington. It began when Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock rode to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary, today Fort Leslie McNair, carrying four sealed envelopes from the War Department. They were addressed neatly in a clerk's hand to four prisoners who were in solitary confinement at the Arsenal.
Hancock handed the envelopes to Maj. Gen. John F. Hartranft, commandant of the prison. Hartranft accepted the mail grimly. He suspected, without even breaking the seals, what news the envelopes contained, and the unpleasant duty that awaited him once the contents were divulged. Together, Hartranft and Hancock marched to the prison building and, walking down a long corridor from cell to cell, delivered the envelopes to their recipients — Lewis Powell, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt.
Torn open in fearful haste, the envelopes revealed their contents — death warrants. Having been found guilty by a military commission of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward, the letters informed Powell (aka Payne), Surratt, Herold and Atzerodt of their sentences — execution by hanging.
For the defendants, that news was bad enough, but the rest was equally shocking. By order of President Andrew Johnson, they would be hanged the next day, July 7. Hartranft left the stunned prisoners, who had less than a day to live, to contemplate their fates. He had work to do. Was there anyone at the fort, he wondered, who knew how to build a scaffold?
The rapid conviction, sentencing and execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators ended a trial that had meandered through May and June.
After Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre the night of April 14, and the president's death the next morning, soldiers and detectives fanned out through Washington and the surrounding countryside and rounded up hundreds of suspects. After leading his pursuers on a fantastic 12-day manhunt across the trails, swamps, rivers, pine thickets and farmland of Maryland and Virginia, Booth was cornered in a burning barn and shot to death. The archfiend was dead, but eight members of his supporting cast took center stage in his absence.
Johnson ordered that they be tried by a military tribunal, a controversial move that provoked objections from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Lincoln's first attorney general, Edward Bates. The trial proceeded anyway and became the great focus of the spring and summer of that year. By the time it was over, the commission had been in session for seven weeks, had taken the testimony of 361 witnesses and had produced a transcript of 4,900 pages.
On June 29, the commission went into secret session. After such a long and complicated trial, observers reasoned that it might take weeks to reach verdicts. But the end came swiftly. After deliberating just a few days, the tribunal presented the verdicts and sentences to Johnson on July 5. He approved them at once, and the next day Hancock carried the execution orders to the prison.
Not until the Evening Star came off the press on the afternoon of July 6 did the residents of Washington learn that four conspirators would hang the next day. Indeed, it was from the newspaper that Surratt's attorneys learned that their client would hang.
Newsboys rushed onto Pennsylvania Avenue, hawking the issue to eager readers: "Extra. Mrs. Surratt, Payne, Herold and Atzerodt to be Hung!! The Sentences to be Executed Tomorrow!! Mudd, Arnold, and O'Laughlin to be Imprisoned for Life! Spangler to be Imprisoned for Six Years!"
As evening passed and night fell, the news caused a flurry of activity throughout Washington. Reporters converged on the Old Arsenal, but Hartranft barred them from interviewing the condemned. Frustrated but refusing to be outwitted, the gentlemen of the press spied on the prisoners through cell windows, and recorded in their notebooks the last visits of family members and how the prisoners behaved. In the courtyard, soldiers labored through the night building a scaffold while the hangman prepared four nooses from 31-strand, two-thirds-inch Boston hemp, supplied by the Navy Yard.
Surratt's supporters, including her daughter, rushed to the Executive Mansion to beg Johnson for mercy. He would not see them or be swayed. In a daring, last-minute legal maneuver, the Surratt attorneys got a civil court judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus ordering the Army to release her into civilian custody. Johnson ended her last hope by suspending the writ the next morning. Elsewhere in Washington that night, others reveled in news of the impending hangings. A pass to the execution — fewer than 200 were printed — was the hottest ticket in town. Crowds besieged Hancock in the streets and at his hotel, the Metropolitan. According to the Evening Star, "his letterbox was filled with letters and cards that projected like a fan, and for a time the entrances to the hotel were completely blockaded."
Curiosity seekers needed no pass to surround Surratt's boarding house on H Street. The house where the conspirators held their meetings became, in the words of one reporter, "the cynosure of hundreds of curious eyes."
By order of the president, the execution was scheduled to take place between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., July 7.
At exactly 1:02 p.m., the prisoners, with Surratt at their head, were led into the courtyard, past four pine boxes and four freshly dug graves, and up the scaffold steps. Terrified, and wearing a black alpaca dress and black veil that concealed her face completely, Surratt could barely walk and needed soldiers and her priests to support her.
Powell strutted jauntily without fear, "like a king about to be crowned," according to a reporter. Herold and Atzerodt shuffled along fretfully. It was a bright, blazing hot Washington summer day. Courteous officers shielded Surratt with parasols and placed a white handkerchief atop Atzerodt's head to protect him from the sun. The condemned were bound with strips of linen, had nooses looped around their necks and white hoods drawn over their heads. The hangman , who had come to admire Powell's stoicism, whispered into his ear as he tightened the noose: "I want you to die quick." The giant who had nearly stabbed the secretary of state to death replied, "You know best."
Surratt pleaded to those near her, "Please don't let me fall." When she complained that her wrists had been bound too tightly, a soldier retorted, "Well, it won't hurt long." Moments before the drop, Atzerodt cried out, "God help me now! Oh! Oh! Oh!" His last word was still on his lips when, at 1:26 p.m., he and the others dropped to their deaths, a moment preserved forever by photographer Alexander Gardner, whose execution series remains the most shocking set of American historical photos ever made.
That night, a mob celebrated the execution by attacking Surratt's house to strip it of souvenirs, until the police drove them off. Today, questions linger about the trial and execution of Lincoln's assassins. Was the military tribunal constitutional, or should they have been tried by a civil court? Why did Johnson refuse to spare Surratt even after the tribunal recommended it? Was she part of Booth's assassination plot, or was she innocent?
On July 7, 1865, there were no questions. Just hours after the hanging, as the bodies of the conspirators rested in the pine ammunition crates that served as coffins, the editors of the Evening Star pronounced their satisfaction with the day's work:
"The last act of the tragedy of the 19th century is ended, and the curtain dropped forever upon the lives of its actors. Payne, Herold, Atzerodt and Mrs. Surratt have paid the penalty of their awful crime. In the bright sunlight of this summer day the wretched criminals have been hurried into eternity; and tonight, will be hidden in despised graves, loaded with the execrations of mankind."
This article orignally appeared in the Washington Times on July 6th, 2002.