Manhunt: Tracing the Escape Route of John Wilkes Booth
Just after 4:00 in the morning of April 15th, 1865 two men appeared on horseback at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd near present day Waldorf, Maryland. One man was suffering a broken leg and needed help. Dr. Mudd helped the injured man into his home, cut away his boot and set the leg. The two men then spent the rest of the night and most of the next day in Mudd’s house.
But when federal troops arrived later to question Dr. Mudd about the assassin who had killed President Lincoln and taken refuge in his home, Mudd insisted he had not recognized John Wilkes Booth, this in spite of the fact that he had met Booth four months earlier and spent the better part of two days with him. Was he lying?
Implausible as it may seem, descendants of Dr. Mudd, who still own the home and have opened it for tours, have spent the better part of the last 150 years trying to clear his name. As you are shown around the home, the docent is at pains to impress on you Mudd’s innocence. You can see the room where Wilkes Booth and his accomplice slept that night, and, most remarkably, you can see the actual settee where Booth lay to have his leg set, but courtesy restrains you from expressing skepticism about their claim.
Whether or not Booth was in disguise, as his ancestor’s claim, it’s hard to fathom how the doctor could have been in such close contact with his patient and not recognized him; and the fact remains, after Booth and his accomplice left the house the next day, Dr. Mudd did not immediately report the incident to authorities in spite of the fact that the whole countryside was aroused with news of the assassination and the flight of the murderer.
The sensitivity of Mudd’s descendants on this issue is testimony to how close to the surface these matters still are to an event that happened a century and a half ago. Part of the reason may be that the Lincoln assassination was the final act in a bloody drama that started with our politicians’ refusal to compromise and ended with a war that claimed 620,000 American lives.
Another reason may be that the landscape and locations of Booth’s flight remain largely unchanged from that time, lending an air of immediacy to the events. With a few notable exceptions, you can see almost every spot on Booth’s escape route from Ford’s Theatre in Washington to his assassination site near Port Royal, Virginia pretty much as Booth saw them.
If you’re in Washington DC and you have a day to spare, it’s a fascinating and worthwhile trek to follow Booth’s escape route down through Maryland and into Virginia, and if you want the perfect companion to help fill in the blank spots and add color to the picture, take along James L. Swanson’s absolutely compelling book, Manhunt, the 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
1.) Mary Surratt’s Boarding House
Start the tour here
Begin your tour of John Wilkes Booth’s escape route in an unlikely place, the Wok n’ Roll restaurant in Washington DC’s Chinatown. The Chinese restaurant is housed in the actual building that was Mary Surratt’s boarding house in 1865, and was the frequent meeting place of Booth and his co-conspirators in their plot to kidnap Lincoln.
Yes, that’s right. Booth’s assassination of Lincoln was Plan B. The original plan, conceived before the war’s end, was to kidnap the president and hold him for an exchange of confederate prisoners. But when the war ended Booth’s plans fell apart. In an act of desperation he cobbled together the assassination scheme at the last minute, dragging along a few half-hearted co-conspirators.
After the assassination, one of the first places federal troops descended on was Mary Surratt’s boarding house. Mary was arrested and convicted, becoming the first woman to be executed by the federal government. But Booth was not there. He had escaped to Maryland.
2.) Ford’s Theater
Walking time from the previous stop: 10 minutes
Ford’s Theater in Washington has been restored to the original condition it was in on the night of the assassination on April 14th, 1865. An interesting museum detailing the events of the assassination is housed on the lower level but the highlight is the National Park Service lecture about the assassination given from the stage as you sit in the theater seats, gazing up at the box where the assassination occurred.
The theater lecture is usually thronged with tourists but another spot where few tourists go is the alley behind the theater where, on the night of the murder, Booth struggled up onto his horse after breaking his leg when leaping from the box after killing Lincoln, shouting in Latin, “Thus, always to tyrants!” The horse had been held by a young peanut vendor who handed it over to Booth as soon as he hobbled out the back door, and it was lucky for Booth he did, for Booth was pursued by a concerned citizen named John B. Stewart who tried to drag Booth from the horse but was fended off. Booth escaped Stewart and galloped away up the alley. Today, the alley looks much as it did in 1865.
3.) Surratt’s Tavern
Driving time from previous stop: 25 minutes
Booth rode hard for the Potomac River bridge near present day Anacostia. Once at the bridge, he used his skills as an actor to persuade the watchman to let him through. Once over the bridge, Booth rode off into the open isolated country of southern Maryland.
It is a testament to Booth’s charm and prowess as an actor that he was able to persuade the watchman to let him by; the watchman had firm orders not to let anyone through. But Booth was a consummate thespian and matinee idol. Far from being unknown to the people of Washington, Booth was the Brad Pitt of his day, a handsome, wealthy celebrity who could make the ladies swoon.
On entering Maryland, Booth made first for Surratt’s Tavern near present day Clinton, MD about 12 miles south of Anacostia. The tavern had been a safe house for the confederate underground and home to John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt and part of Booth’s original conspiracy to kidnap the president.
Today the Surratt’s Tavern is fully restored and presided over by a docent in period dress. A tour of the boarding house shows you the rooms where the boarders stayed, the kitchen and the dining room, and the place where Booth had hidden a pair of rifles between the walls in anticipation of his flight.
It was fortunate that two rifles had been stashed there because in his flight south from the river Booth picked up a traveling companion, David Herold, a co-conspirator whose role would be to act as a guide for the assassin through Maryland.
Booth and Herold only lingered at Surratt’s Tavern long enough to pick up the rifles and bolt down a bottle of whiskey. While there Booth couldn’t resist the urge to boast that he had killed the president. Maryland was a hot bed of secession and had only been kept in the Union through hook and crook. Booth might’ve suspected that the news would be met with congratulations, but as he would find out throughout his ordeal, the end of the war and cessation of hostilities made many former confederates uneasy with his manic act of aggression.
4.) Samuel Mudd House and Museum
Driving time from previous stop: 20 minutes
This was no less true of Dr. Samuel Mudd who, by some accounts, angrily ordered Booth and Herold to leave his home as soon as he discovered what they had been involved in. But of course this would assume that Mudd knew who Booth was, an assertion firmly rejected by the Mudd family who oversee the Dr. Mudd House Museum near Waldorf, MD, about 15 miles south of Surratt’s Tavern.
The Samuel Mudd house is almost exactly as it was a century and a half ago. As part of the tour you are shown pictures of Ft. Jefferson, a prison island in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles west of Key West, where Mudd spent four years in prison for his complicity in Booth’s escape. Mudd was pardoned by then president Andrew Johnson in 1869 after he courageously helped stem a yellow fever outbreak on the island. He died fourteen years later at age 49, by most accounts an exemplary citizen.
Since then the Mudd family has petitioned several successive presidents, requesting the conviction be set aside. So far to no avail. It appears that forever after Dr. Mudd will wear the stain of his association with John Wilkes Booth that April night in 1865. But he is not the only one. Others had their brushes with the fleeing assassin and some, like Samuel Cox, were not ashamed to admit it.
5.) Rich Hill and The Pine Thicket
Driving time from previous stop: 27 minutes
After leaving Mudd’s house, Booth and Herold showed up on the doorstep of Cox at his home Rich Hill, near present day Bel Alton, about 18 miles southwest of Mudd’s farm. Today, the house still stands, nestled back among the trees and surrounded by a clump of vegetation. It is a private residence and is not open for tours but can be viewed from the roadside.
Whether or not Booth and Herold ever actually entered the house is a matter of some dispute but what is known is that Cox, fearful of their presence, directed them down the road about a quarter mile to a pine thicket where they lay in hiding for the better part of a week. The pine thicket is still there today, although, one suspects, vastly diminished from its original size.
Nevertheless, one can get a sense of the setting where Booth and Herold remained, holed up and shivering, desperate and hungry, Booth suffering from the pain of his shattered leg, while thousands of troops pushed south out of Washington in pursuit of the fugitives. They had been advised to lay low in that spot by the foster brother of Samuel Cox, a confederate agent who knew the surrounding countryside like the back of his hand. Cox had enlisted Thomas A. Jones to get Booth and Herold across the river to Virginia where it was assumed they would be safe.
6.) Huckleberry and the Potomac
Drive time from the previous stop: 7 minutes
Jones lived on a nearby farm called Huckleberry. His home still stands, although today it is a Jesuit retreat house and can only be visited by appointment. The surrounding countryside is as tranquil and bucolic as it was in 1865.
After five days, Jones returned to the pine thicket and advised the fugitives that it was time to go. He urged them to leave their horses behind, to be less conspicuous. They traveled on foot, by night, three and a half miles down a series of hidden paths and public roads to a marshy area near the outlet of Port Tobacco creek on the Potomac River where Jones had a row boat tied up and waiting.
The exact spot of Booth’s launch site is hard to pin down. There are some lively discussions about it on line. But it makes sense that it would be directly west of Jones’ property near Huckleberry. About as close as you can get by car today is on Pope’s Creek Rd near the historical marker about a hundred yards past Captain Billy’s Crab House, which is an ideal place to stop and have a bite before carrying on with the escape route.
In any case, you can get a sense of the wide expanse of the river and what Booth and Herold were up against in trying to cross it at night with no lights.
Behind them, the countryside was filling up with federal troops (Dr. Samuel Mudd had already been confronted and questioned). When Booth and Herold shoved off, the night was as dark as India ink and the two men became disoriented while rowing. After more than an hour, they ended up back on the east bank of the Potomac in Maryland.
David Herold sought out the home of a friend, who refused to let them stay in his home; it was just too dangerous. They were banished to the woods. After two more days of hiding out, Booth and Herold again attempted the crossing and finally landed in Virginia on the morning of April 23rd, nine days after the assassination.
Driving time from previous stop: 25 minutes
Herold sought out the home of confederate signal agent, Elizabeth Queensberry, who arranged for Booth and Herold to be escorted to a Virginia plantation house 12 miles inland. The house was called Cleydael after the ancestral Scottish home of its occupants, Dr. and Mrs. Richard Stuart, and it still stands today, although it is a private residence. Once there, however, Booth and Herold got a chilly reception.
Dr. Stuart grudgingly allowed them to eat dinner in his home but then sent them on their way, refusing to treat Booth’s leg. Booth was stunned at the way he was being treated. He had expected to be celebrated as a hero in Virginia but instead was being shunted off as a pariah.
To add insult to injury, Stuart arranged for the fugitives to hole up for the night with a black man named John Lucas. John Wilkes Booth was a rabid racist and resented being relegated to the home of a black man. He forced Lucas and his family to sleep outside while he and Herold spent the night in their cabin.
In the morning, Lucas’s son Charlie transported the fugitives by wagon to the town of Port Conway on the Rappahannock River. He left them in the company of William Rollins, a fisherman who agreed to ferry them across, but not until he put out his fishing nets. While they were waiting for Rollins, Booth and Herold were spotted by three mounted soldiers. Fortunately, for them they were confederate soldiers on their way home after the war. Booth and Herold fell in with the soldiers and they all crossed the river together.
8.) Peyton House
Driving time from previous stop: 15 minutes
Once on the other side of the river, in the town of Port Royal, one of the soldiers, William Jett, escorted the fugitives to the home of Randolph Peyton whom he thought would be willing to provide them shelter. But Peyton was not at home and his two spinster sisters thought it would be unseemly to have a pair strange men residing with them. Once again, Booth and Herold were refused admittance to a Virginia home.
The Peyton house still stands on a side street in Port Royal, boarded up and sagging with age. A century and a half ago, Booth and Herold stood in its front yard and were informed that they would have to move on. They were advised to seek refuge at the farm of Richard H. Garrett three and a half miles to the south. Unbeknownst to Booth and Herold, this would be their last stop.
9.) Where Booth Died
Driving time from previous stop: 3 minutes
Garrett’s two eldest sons had just returned from the war and Richard Garrett was in an expansive mood. When Booth and Herold were presented to him as returning confederate soldiers, Garrett welcomed them with open arms. Finally, Booth was getting the reception he felt he deserved. But things were about to change.
On Tuesday April 25th, one day after Booth and Herold passed through Port Conway, federal detective and manhunter Luther Baker arrived on the scene and questioned William Rollins, the fisherman who had offered to ferry the fugitives across the Rappahannock. Rollins was forthcoming, describing the fugitives in detail. Baker felt sure he was hot on their trail, but to confirm it he wanted to question the soldiers that had reportedly been with Booth and Herold during the crossing.
Baker and members of the Sixteenth New York Cavalry tracked down William Jett in Bowling Green and, under threat of violence, persuaded him to reveal where Booth and Herold were hiding. Jett not only told them where the fugitives were, he offered to take them there.
Meanwhile, the former hospitality shown by Richard Garrett toward the two supposed soldiers in his midst had soured when it became clear that Booth and Herold had been lying; they weren’t returning veterans at all but had taken advantage of the Garrett’s kindliness under false pretenses. Garrett’s oldest son, William, on discovering this, refused to let them sleep in the house. Once again, John Wilkes Booth, who had expected to be celebrated by the people of Virginia was being spurned. That night Booth and Herold slept in the tobacco barn.
Today, finding the site of Garrett’s farm is tricky. The state has erected a historical marker just south of Port Royal, near the intersection of Route 301 and Route 17 that says Where Booth Died. But on reading the marker you learn “Booth died two miles south of here at Garrett’s farm.” So where exactly did Booth die?
10.) Garrett Farm Site
Driving time from previous stop: 8 minutes
The former site of Garrett’s farm sits in a heavily forested median between a divided 4-lane parkway that cuts through Fort AP Hill, a 76,000 acre military base. All along the way there are signs prohibiting motorists from stopping or parking. What’s more, even though every stop on the escape route requires the traveler to go further south, to reach the Garrett farm site, the traveler must go several miles south on Route 301 out of Port Royal, and then turn around and head back north on the other side of the divided parkway.
A lawn sign planted at the side of the road points the way up a path into the woods to the site of Garrett’s farm. It is difficult to park here as there is little or no shoulder and traffic is moving at a furious clip. The best you can do is get your vehicle over into the grass and leave it idling as you scurry up the path to take a quick look.
There’s really not much to see, just a clearing in the woods and a sign that warns against taking artifacts from the site. If there were any artifacts to be taken, they are long gone now. Of all the places along the escape route that are virtually unchanged from 1865, this place is so completely different it’s hard to imagine what it must’ve looked like that April morning so long ago when Booth and Herold woke up to find themselves surrounded by federal troops.
Twenty-six cavalrymen took aim at the barn as detective Luther Baker ordered Booth and Herold to come out. David Herold emerged with his hands up but Booth refused to surrender. After attempting to negotiate with the assassin, the troops set fire to the barn. Booth covered his mouth against the smoke and prepared to come out firing, but a young sergeant by the name of Boston Corbett, having crept up close to the barn, peered in through a chink and saw Booth’s intention. Drawing his pistol, he took aim through the chink and before Booth could play out his daring final act, Corbett shot him.
Booth was carried, dying, from the barn and laid under a locust tree. He had been shot through the neck. A local doctor pronounced the wound mortal. As the sun rose over Garrett’s farm on the morning of April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth died.
David Herold was tried along with Mary Surratt and two other conspirators and hanged three months later.
Abraham Lincoln, vilified through most of his presidency by friend and foe, attained in death a martyrdom that helped him become the most popular president in US history. It is ironic that the man who shot him had, throughout his life, enjoyed the honor and admiration of most everyone who knew him, but in death acquired an ignominy so complete it even destroyed the lives of those who came into contact with him.
John Wilkes Booth achieved exactly the opposite of what he had intended. He cemented in glory the man he’d intended to destroy and plunged into disrepute a reputation he’d hoped would be raised in glory, his own.
Check it out…
Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
by James Swanson
February 6, 2007
My American Odyssey Route
Other Tour Itineraries on My American Odyssey
|About the author: Malcolm Logan is a freelance writer who specializes in US travel and US history, designing driving tours, seeking out interesting destinations and exploring US adventure travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Images: All pictures by Malcolm Logan, except John Wilkes Booth, Public Domain; Lincoln assassination illustration, Public Domain; David Herold, Public Domain; Cleydael, VirginiaPlantation; African American cabin, Public Domain; Garrett’s farm in 1865, Public Domain; The hanging of the conspirators, Public Domain|