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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth George Alfred Townsend

Letter IX: The Executions

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The two holy fathers having received Mrs. Surratt's confession, after the custom of their creed observed silence. In this, as in other respects, Mrs. Surratt's last hours were entirely modest and womanly.

The stage was still filled with people; the crisis of the occasion had come; the chairs were all withdrawn, and the condemned stood upon their feet.

The process of tying the limbs began.

It was with a shudder, almost a blush, that I saw an officer gather the ropes tightly three times about the robes of Mrs. Surratt, and bind her ankles with cords. She half fainted, and sank backward upon the attendants, her limbs yielding to the extremity of her terror, but uttering no cry, only a kind of sick groaning, like one in the weakness of fever, when a wry medicine must be taken.

Payne, with his feet firmly laced together, stood straight as one of the scaffold beams, and braced himself up so stoutly that this in part prevented the breaking of his neck.

Harold stood well beneath the drop, still whimpering at the lips, but taut, and short, and boyish.

Atzerott, in his grovelling attitude, while they tied him began to indulge in his old vice of gabbing. He evidently wished to make his finale more effective than his previous cowardly role, and perhaps was strengthening his fortitude with a speech, as we sometimes do of dark nights with a whistle.

"Gentlemen," he said, with a sort of choke and gasp, "take ware." He evidently meant "beware," or "take care," and confounded them.

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Again, when the white death-cap was drawn over his face, he continued to cry out under it, once saying, "Good bye, shentlemens, who is before me now;" and again, "May we meet in the other world." Finally he drifted away with low, half-intelligible ebullitions, as "God help me," "oh! oh!" and the like.

The rest said nothing, except Mrs. Surratt, who asked to be supported, that she might not fall, but Harold protested against the knot with which he was to be dislocated, it being as huge as one's double fist.

In fact all the mechanical preparations were clumsy and inartistic, and the final scenes of the execution, therefore, revolting in the extreme. When the death-caps were all drawn over the faces of the prisoners, and they stood in line in the awful suspense between absolute life and immediate death, a man at the neck of each adjusting the cord, the knot beneath the ears of each protruded five or six inches, and the cord was so thick that it could not be made to press tightly against the flesh.

So they stood, while nearly a thousand faces from window, roof, wall, yard and housetop, gazed, the scaffold behind them still densely packed with the assistants, and the four executioners beneath, standing at their swinging beams. The priests continued to murmur prayers. The people were dumb, as if each witness stood alone with none near by to talk to him.

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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth
George Alfred Townsend

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