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

Letter I: The Murder

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Then Mrs. Lincoln screamed, Miss Harris cried for water, and the full ghastly truth broke upon all--"The President is murdered!" The scene that ensued was as tumultuous and terrible as one of Dante's pictures of hell. Some women fainted, others uttered piercing shrieks, and cries for vengeance and unmeaning shouts for help burst from the mouths of men. Miss Laura Keene, the actress, proved herself in this awful time as equal to sustain a part in real tragedy as to interpret that of the stage. Pausing one moment before the footlights to entreat the audience to be calm, she ascended the stairs in the rear of Mr. Lincoln's box, entered it, took the dying President's head in her lap, bathed it with the water she had brought, and endeavoured to force some of the liquid through the insensible lips. The locality of the wound was at first supposed to be in the breast. It was not until after the neck and shoulders had been bared and no mark discovered, that the dress of Miss Keene, stained with blood, revealed where the ball had penetrated.

This moment gave the most impressive episode in the history of the Continent.

The Chief Magistrate of thirty, millions of people--beloved, honored, revered,--lay in the pent up closet of a play-house, dabbling with his sacred blood the robes of an actress.

As soon as the confusion and crowd was partially overcome, the form of the President was conveyed from the theater to the residence of Mr. Peterson, on the opposite side of Tenth street. Here upon a bed, in a little hastily prepared chamber, it was laid and attended by Surgeon-General Barnes and other physicians, speedily summoned.

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In the meanwhile the news spread through the capital, as if borne on tongues of flame. Senator Sumner, hearing at his residence, of the affair took a carriage and drove at a gallop to the White House, when he heard where it had taken place, to find Robert Lincoln and other members of the household still unaware of it. Both drove to Ford's Theater, and were soon at the President's bedside. Secretary Stanton and the other members of the cabinet were at hand almost as soon. A vast crowd, surging up Pennsylvania avenue toward Willard's Hotel, cried, "The President is shot!" "President Lincoln is murdered." Another crowd sweeping down the avenue met the first with the tidings, "Secretary Seward has been assassinated in bed." Instantly a wild apprehension of an organized conspiracy and of other murders took possession of the people. The shout "to arms!" was mingled with the expressions of sorrow and rage that everywhere filled the air. "Where is General Grant?" or "where is Secretary Stanton!" "Where are the rest of the cabinet?" broke from thousands of lips. A conflagration of fire is not half so terrible as was the conflagration of passion that rolled through the streets and houses of Washington on that awful night.

The attempt on the life of Secretary Seward was perhaps as daring, if not so dramatic, as the assassination of the President. At 9:20 o'clock a man, tall, athletic, and dressed in light coloured clothes, alighted from a horse in front of Mr. Seward's residence in Madison place, where the secretary was lying, very feeble from his recent injuries. The house, a solid three-story brick building, was formerly the old Washington Club-house. Leaving his horse standing, the stranger rang at the door, and informed the servant who admitted him that he desired to see Mr. Seward. The servant responded that Mr. Seward was very ill, and that no visitors were admitted. "But I am a messenger from Dr. Verdi, Mr. Seward's physician; I have a prescription which I must deliver to him myself." The servant still demurring, the stranger, without further parley, pushed him aside and ascended the stairs. Moving to the right, he proceeded towards Mr. Seward's room, and was about to enter it, when Mr. Frederick Seward appeared from an opposite doorway and demanded his business. He responded in the same manner as to the servant below, but being met with a refusal, suddenly closed the controversy by striking Mr. Seward a severe and perhaps mortal blow across the forehead with the butt of a pistol. As the first victim fell, Major Seward, another and younger son of the secretary, emerged from his father's room. Without a word the man drew a knife and struck the major several blows with it, rushing into the chamber as he did so; then, after dealing the nurse a horrible wound across the bowels, he sprang to the bed upon which the secretary lay, stabbing him once in the face and neck. Mr. Seward arose convulsively and fell from the bed to the floor. Turning and brandishing his knife anew, the assassin fled from the room, cleared the prostrate form of Frederick Seward in the hall, descended the stairs in three leaps, and was out of the door and upon his horse in an instant. It is stated by a person who saw him mount that, although he leaped upon his horse with most unseemly haste, he trotted away around the corner of the block with circumspect deliberation.

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

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