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

Letter VIII: The Trial

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Washington, May 26.

The most exciting trial of our times has obtained a very meager commemoration in all but its literal features. The evidence adduced in the course of it, has been too faithfully reported, through its far-fetched and monotonous irregularities, but nobody realizes the extraordinary scene from which so many columns emanate, either by aid of the reporters' scanty descriptions, or by the purblind sketches of the artists.

Now that the evidence is growing vapid, and the obstinacy of the military commission has lost its coarse zest, we may find enough readers to warrant a fuller sketch of the conspirators' prison.

About a mile below Washington, where the high Potomac Bluffs meet the marshy border of the Eastern branch, stands the United States arsenal, a series of long, mathematically uninteresting brick buildings, with a broad lawn behind them, open to the water, and level military plazas, on which are piled pyramids of shell and ball, among acres of cannon and cannon-carriages, and caissons. A high wall, reaching circularly around these buildings, shows above it, as one looks from Washington, the barred windows of an older and more gloomy structure than the rest, which forms the city front of the group of which it is the principal. This was a penitentiary, but, long ago added to the arsenal, it has been re-transformed to a court-room and jail, and in its third, or uppermost story, the Military Commission is sitting.

The main road to the arsenal is by a wide and vacant avenue, which abuts against a gate where automaton sentries walk, but the same gate can best be reached on foot by the shores of the Potomac, in the sight, of the forts, the shipping, and Alexandria.

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The scene at the arsenal in time of peace is common-place enough, except that across the Eastern Branch the towers of the lunatic asylum, perched upon a height, look down baronially; but this trial of murderers has made the spot a fair.

A whole company of volunteers keeps the gate, through which are passing cabs, barouches, officers' ambulances, and a stream of folks on foot; while farther along almost a regiment crosses the drive, their huddled shelter tents extending entirely across the peninsula. These are playing cards on the ground, and tossing quoits, and sleeping on their faces, while a gunboat watches the river front, and under a circular wall a line of patrols, ten yards apart, go to and fro perpetually.

It is 10 o'clock, and the court is soon to sit. Its members ride down in superb ambulances and bring their friends along to show them the majesty of justice. A perfect park of carriages stands by the door to the left, and from these dismount major-generals' wives, in rustling silks; daughters of congressmen, attired like the lilies of the milliner; little girls who hope to be young ladies and have come with "Pa," to look at the assassins; even brides are here, in the fresh blush of their nuptials, and they consider the late spectacle of the review as good as lost, if the court-scene be not added to it. These tender creatures have a weakness for the ring of manacles, the sight of folks to be suspended in the air, the face of a woman confederate in blood.

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

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