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

Letter VI: The Detectives' Stories

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The few Unionists of Prince George's and Charles counties, long persecuted and intimidated, now came forward and gave important testimony.

Among these was one Roby, a very fat and very zealous old gentleman, whose professions were as ample as his perspiration. He told the officers of the secret meetings for conspiracy's, sake at Lloyd's Hotel, and although a very John Gilpin on horseback, rode here and there to his great loss of wind and repose, fastening fire-coals upon the guilty or suspected.

Lloyd was turned over to Mr. Cottingham, who had established a jail at Robytown; that night his house was searched, and Booth's carbine found hidden in the wall. Three days afterward, Lloyd himself confessed--and his neck is quite nervous at this writing.

This little party, under the untiring Lovett, examined all the farm-houses below Washington resorting to many shrewd expedients, and taking note of the great swamps to the east of Port Tobacco; they reached Newport at last and fastened tacit guilt upon many residents.

Beyond Bryantown they overhauled the residence of Doctor Mudd and found Booth's boot. This was before Lloyd confessed, and was the first positive trace the officers had that they were really close upon the assassins.

I do not recall anything more wild and startling than this vague and dangerous exploration of a dimly known, hostile, and ignorant country. To these few detectives we owe much of the subsequent successful prosecution of the pursuit. They were the Hebrew spies.

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By this time the country was filling up with soldiers, but previously a second memorable detective party went out under the personal command of Major O'Bierne. It consisted, besides that officer, of Lee, D'Angellia, Callahan, Hoey, Bostwick, Hanover, Bevins, and McHenry, and embarked at Washington on a steam-tug for Chappell's Point. Here a military station had long been established for the prevention of blockade and mail-running across the Potomao. It was commanded by Lieutenant Laverty, and garrisoned by sixty-five men. On Tuesday night, Major O'Bierne's party reached this place, and soon afterwards, a telegraph station was established here by an invaluable man to the expedition, Captain Beckwith, General Grant's chief cypher operator, who tapped the Point Lookout wire, and placed the War Department within a moment's reach of the theater of events.

Major O'Bierne's party started at once over the worst road in the world for Port Tobacco.

If any place in the world is utterly given over to depravity, it is Port Tobacco. From this town, by a sinuous creek, there is flat boat navigation to the Potomac, and across that river to Mattox's creek. Before the war Port Tobacco was the seat of a tobacco aristocracy and a haunt of negro traders. It passed very naturally into a rebel post for blockade-runners and a rebel post-office general. Gambling, corner fighting, and shooting matches were its lyceum education. Violence and ignorance had every suffrage in the town. Its people were smugglers, to all intents, and there was neither Bible nor geography to the whole region adjacent. Assassination was never very unpopular at Port Tobacco, and when its victim was a northern president it became quite heroic. A month before the murder a provost-marshal near by was slain in his bed-chamber. For such a town and district the detective police were the only effective missionaries. The hotel here is called the Brawner House; it has a bar in the nethermost cellar, and its patrons, carousing in that imperfect light, look like the denizens of some burglar's crib, talking robbery between their cups; its dining-room is dark and tumble-down, and the cuisine bears traces of Caffir origin; a barbecue is nothing to a dinner there. The Court House of Port Tobacco is the most superflous house in the place, except the church. It stands in the center of the town in a square, and the dwellings lie about it closely, as if to throttle justice. Five hundred people exist in Port Tobacco; life there reminds me, in connection with the slimy river and the adjacent swamps, of the great reptile period of the world, when iguanadons and pterodactyls and pleosauri ate each other.

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

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