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

Letter V: A Solution Of The Conspiracy

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Young Surratt does not appear to have been a puissant spirit in the scheme; indeed, all design and influence therein was absorbed by Mrs. Surratt and Booth. The latter was the head and heart of the plot; Mrs. Surratt was his anchor, and the rest of the boys were disciples to Iscariot and Jezebel. John Surratt, a youth of strong Southern physiognomy, beardless and lanky, knew of the murder and connived at it. "Sam" Arnold and one McLaughlin were to have been parties to it, but backed out in the end. They all relied upon Mrs. Surratt, and took their "cues" from Wilkes Booth.

The conspiracy had its own time and kept its own counsel. Murder except among the principals, was seldom mentioned except by genteel implication. But they all publicly agreed that Mr. Lincoln ought to be shot, and that the North was a race of fratricides. Much was said of Brutus, and Booth repeated heroic passages to the delight of Harold, who learned them also, and wondered if he was not born to greatness.

In this growing darkness, where all rehearsed cold-hearted murder, Wilkes Booth grew great of stature. He had found a purpose consonant with his evil nature and bad influence over weak men; so he grew moodier, more vigilant, more plausible. By mien and temperament he was born to handle a stiletto. We have no face so markedly Italian; it would stand for Caesar Borgia any day in the year. All the rest were swayed or persuaded by Booth; his schemes were three in order:

1st. To kidnap the President and Cabinet, and run them South or blow them up.

2d. Kidnapping failed, to murder the President and the rest and seek shelter in the confederate capital.

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3d. The rebellion failed, to be its avenger, and throw the country into consternation, while he escaped by the unfrequented parts of Maryland.

When this last resolution had been made, the plot was both contracted and extended. There were made two distinct circles of confidants--those aware of the meditated murder, and those who might shrink from murder, though willing accessories for a lesser object. Two colleagues for blood were at once accepted--Payne and Atzerott.

The former I have sketched; he is believed to have visited Washington once before, at Booth's citation; for the murder was at first fixed for the day of inauguration. Atzerott was a fellow of German descent, who had led a desperate life at Port Tobacco, where he was a house-painter. He had been a blockade-runner across the Potomac, and a mail-carrier. When Booth and Mrs. Surratt broke the design to him, with a suggestion that there was wealth in it, he embraced the offer at once, and bought a dirk and pistol. Payne also came from the North to Washington, and, as fate would have it, the President was announced to appear at Ford's theater in public. There the resolve of blood was reduced to a definite moment.

On the night before the crime Booth found on whom he could rely. John Surratt was sent northward by his mother on Thursday. Sam Arnold and McLaughlin, each of whom was to kill a cabinet officer, grew pigeon-livered and ran away. Harold true to his partiality, lingered around Booth to the end; Atzerott went so far as to take his knife and pistol to Kirkwood's, where President Johnson was stopping, and hid them under the bed. But either his courage failed, or a trifling accident deranged his plan. But Payne, a professional murderer, stood "game," and fought his way over prostrate figures to his sick victim's bed. There was great confusion and terror among the tacit and rash conspirators on Thursday night. They had looked upon the plot as of a melodrama, and found to their horror that John Wilkes Booth meant to do murder.

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

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