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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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Into this abstract of Gomorrah the few detectives went like angels who visited Lot. They pretended to be enquiring for friends, or to have business designs, and the first people they heard of were Harold and Atzerott. The latter had visited Port Tobacco three weeks before the murder, and intimated at that time his design of fleeing the country. But everybody denied having seen him subsequent to the crime.

Atzerott had been in town just prior to the crime. He had been living with a widow woman named Mrs. Wheeler, by whom he had several children, and she was immediately called upon by Major O'Bierne. He did not tell her what Atzerott had done, but vaguely hinted that he had committed some terrible crime, and that since he had done her wrong, she could vindicate both herself and justice by telling his whereabouts. The woman admitted that Atzerott had been her bane, but she loved him, and refused to betray him.

His trunk was found in her garret, and in it the key to his paint shop in Port Tobacco. The latter was fruitlessly searched, but the probable whereabouts of Atzerott in Mongomery county obtained, and Major O'Bierne telegraphing there immediately, the desperate fellow was found and locked up. A man named Crangle who had succeeded Atzerott in Mrs. Wheeler's pliable affections, was arrested at once and put in jail. A number of disloyal people were indicated or "spotted" as in no wise angry at the President's taking off, and for all such a provost prison was established.

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A few miles from Port Tobacco dwelt a solitary woman, who, when questioned, said that for many nights she had heard, after she had retired to bed, a man enter her cellar and lie there all night, departing before dawn. Major O'Bierne and the detectives ordered her to place a lamp in her window the next night she heard him enter, and at dark they established a cordon of armed officers around the place. At midnight punctually she exhibited the light, when the officers broke into the house and thoroughly searched it, without result. Yet the woman positively asserted that she had heard the man enter.

It was afterward found that she was of diseased mind.

By this time the military had come up in considerable numbers, and Major O'Bierne was enabled to confer with Major Wait, of the Eighth Illinois.

The major had pushed on Monday night to Leonardstown, and pretty well overhauled that locality.

It was at this time that preparations were made to hunt the swamps around Chapmantown, Beantown, and Allen's Fresh. Booth had been entirely lost since his departure from Mudd's house, and it was believed that he had either pushed on for the Potomac or taken to the swamps. The officers sagaciously determined to follow him to the one and to explore the other.

The swamps tributary to the various branches of the Wicomico river, of which the chief feeder is Allen's creek, bear various names, such as Jordan's swamp, Atchall's swamp, and Scrub swamp. There are dense growths of dogwood, gum, and beech, planted in sluices of water and bog; and their width varies from a half mile to four miles, while their length is upwards of sixteen miles. Frequent deep ponds dot this wilderness place, with here and there a stretch of dry soil, but no human being inhabits the malarious extent; even a hunted murderer would shrink from hiding there. Serpents and slimy lizards are the only denizens; sometimes the coon takes refuge in this desert from the hounds, and in the soil mud a thousand odorous muskrats delve, with now and then a tremorous otter. But not even the hunted negro dares to fathom the treacherous clay, nor make himself a fellow of the slimy reptiles which reign absolute in this terrible solitude. Here the soldiers prepared to seek for the President's assassin, and no search of the kind has ever been so thorough and patient. The Shawnee, in his strong hold of despair in the heart of Okeefeuokee, would scarcely have changed homes with Wilkes Booth and David Harold, hiding in this inhuman country.

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

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