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

Letter VIII: The Trial

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This is David Harold, who shared the wild night-ride of Booth, and barely escaped that outlaw's death in the burning barn.

He stoops to the rail of the dock, now and then, to chat with his attorney, and a sort of blank anxiety which he wears, as his head turns here and there, shifts to a frolicking smile. But a woman of unusual attractions enters the court, and Harold is much more interested in her than in his acquittal.

Great Caesar's dust, which stopped a knot-hole, has in this play boy an inverse parallel. He was at best hostler to a murderer, and failed in that. His chief concern at present is to have somebody to talk to; and he thinks upon the whole, that if an assassination is productive of so little fun, he will have nothing to do with another one.

That Harold has slipped into history gives us as much surprise as that he has yet to suffer death gives us almost contempt for the scaffold. But if the scaffold must wait for only wise men to get upon it, it must rot. Your wise man does no murder in the first place, and if so, in the second, he dodges the penalty. In this world, Harold, idiotcy is oftener punished than guilt.

That Booth should have used Harold is very naturally accounted for. Actors live only to be admired; vanity rises to its climax in them. Booth preferred this sparrow to sing him peans rather than live by an eagle and be screamed at now and then.

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At the right hand side of Harold sits a soldier in blue, who is evidently thinking about a game of quoits with his comrades in the jail yard; he wonders why lawyers are so very dry, and is surprised to find a trial for murder as tedious as a thanksgiving sermon.

But on the soldier's other hand is a figure which makes the center and cynosure of this thrilling scene. Taller by a whole head than either his companions or the sentries, Payne, the assassin, sits erect, and flings his barbarian eye to and fro, radiating the tremendous energy of his colossal physique.

He is the only man worthy to have murdered Mr. Seward. When against the delicate organization, the fine, subtle, nervous mind of the Secretary of State, this giant, knife in hand, precipitated himself, two forms of civilization met as distinctly as when the savage Gauls invaded the Roman senate.

Lawlessness and intelligence, the savage and the statesman, body and mind, fought together upon Mr. Seward's bed.

The mystery attending Payne's home and parentage still exists to make him more incomprehensible. Out of the vague, dim ultima thule, like those Asiatic hordes which came from nowhere and shivered civilization, Payne suddenly appeared and fought his way to the sanctum sanctorum of law. I think his part in the assassination more remarkable than Booth's, The latter's crime was shrewdly plotted, as by one measuring intelligence with the whole government. But Payne did not think--he only struck!

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

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