John Wilkes Booth's 12-day escape route begins at Ford's Theatre on Tenth Street between E and F, a block above Pennsylvania Avenue. While retrieving his mail around noon on April 14, 1865 – Good Friday -- the actor overheard that President Abraham Lincoln would be attending that night's performance of "Our American Cousin." For 26-year-old Booth, an open Confederate sympathizer, this was electrifying news. This would be his chance to assassinate the "tyrant" who'd not only destroyed his beloved South during the Civil War but also planned on giving some African Americans the right to vote.
During the day he made preparations: He rented a horse, chose his weapons (a pocket-sized, 44-caliber Deringer pistol and long hunting knife) and sneaked into the theater where he'd acted many times before to drill a small hole in the door in the back of where Lincoln would be sitting.
At around 10:07 p.m., Booth entered the theater and climbed the stairs to Lincoln's State Box. At 10:15 p.m., during the play's biggest laugh, he shot the president in the back of the head. After tussling with Major Henry Rathbone, he leaped from the box to the stage. He'd escape with a broken leg out a back door onto Baptist Alley. Lincoln would die early the next morning across the street at Petersen House.
Used briefly as government offices after the assassination, the theater opened in 1968 as a national historic site and working theater. In 2009, after a major renovation, it reopened as a restored theater along with a re-imagined museum exploring the world of Civil War Washington and the Lincoln presidency.
Assassinating the president
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Around midnight on the night of the assassination, Booth and co-conspirator David Herold arrived at Mary Surratt's country tavern in Surrattsville, Maryland. Earlier in the day, he'd asked the 42-year-old widow -- in whose D.C. boarding house he'd hatched a failed plan to kidnap Abraham Lincoln -- to take a package wrapped in newspaper to the leased, red-clapboard building. It contained a pair of field glasses.
The binoculars weren't the only thing the men sought when Herold hopped off his horse and pounded his fists on the side door in the darkness. They also wanted two Spencer "shooting irons" that innkeeper John Lloyd had hidden between the floor boards four weeks before. (They'd only take one of the guns.) Booth wouldn't go inside, as dismounting would have been too painful for his broken leg. But he did take a swig of whiskey. They were only there about five minutes.
Restored to its 1865 appearance, the Surratt House is operated as a historic house museum. None of the furnishings belonged to the Surratts, but they are to the period. A tour takes you to the former slaves' quarters under the eaves, where the guns -- now on display at Ford's Theatre museum -- were hidden.
After Booth's death on April 26, 1865, Mary Surratt was charged with abetting, aiding, concealing, counseling and harboring her co-defendants. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. On July 7, 1865, she was the first woman to be executed by the federal government.
After picking up their weapons at the Surratt Tavern, Booth and Herold headed south to the Waldorf home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a country doctor and known Confederate sympathizer. He tended to Booth's leg, and allowed him to rest in an upstairs bedroom for around 12 hours.
Booth's boot ended up under the bed, where Mrs. Mudd found it on April 20, 1865. After she turned it over to federal authorities, the doctor was arrested. Found guilty of conspiracy, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Today, the house is a museum. It features many original pieces that belonged to the Mudd family, including the parlor sofa Booth sat on while Mudd examined his leg. You'll also find family photos, his medical tools, and tables and other items Dr. Mudd made while imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla.
The site also includes a Civil War museum.
Treating the broken leg
In the early hours of April 16, 1865 (Easter Sunday), Booth and Herold arrived at Rich Hill, home of Samuel Cox, a known Confederate sympathizer. They spent about five hours inside.
Fearing they'd be discovered, Cox sent them south to hide in a heavily wooded pine thicket. He then instructed his 18-year-old son, Sam Jr., to ride four miles southeast to Huckleberry Farm to fetch Thomas Jones, who'd eventually help them cross the Potomac River.
Built in the 1700s, Rich Hill was once owned by Gustavus Brown, one of the doctors who cared for George Washington before he died.
Crossing the Potomac
Booth and Herold would spent four long, tiring days holed up in this tangle of pine trees, about two miles west of the Potomac River. It's here that the actor would begin writing in his pocket diary in a cramped, hurried hand; he also read newspapers that Thomas A. Jones delivered along with food. He was angered and distressed to learn that the nation considered him not a hero but a coward and traitor.
Union troops would pass within 200 yards of the woods, but failed to discover the fugitives. Concerned that cavalry patrols would find their horses, Herold ended up leading both animals to Zekiah Swamp, where he shot them and sank their bodies.
After reaching the shores of Virginia on April 23, Booth and Herold headed first to Confederate sympathizer Elizabeth Quesenberry's house in King George. After feeding them, she sent them on to Cleydael, the summer residence of Dr. Richard Stuart. When he wouldn't allow them to stay overnight -- he'd figured out who they were -- the pair rode on to the log cabin of William Lucas, a free black man. He also refused to allow them to spend the night, which angered Booth. After the pair forced their way inside, Booth pulled his knife from its sheath -- it was still caked with Maj. Rathbone's blood -- and forcibly took over the premises. Lucas and his wife and son spent the night on the porch. The fugitives would leave around 6 a.m. on April 24, headed for Port Conway.
The cabin is no longer standing.
Forcing out a black family
Booth and Herold arrived at Richard Garrett's farm, Locust Hill, around 3 p.m. on April 24, 1865, after crossing the Rappahannock River by ferry to Port Royal. Posing as ''Mr. Boyd,'' the actor spent two days here, resting his broken leg and pondering how to get to Richmond by train.
The first night he slept in the house while Herold continued south to Bowling Green, where he hoped by buy a pair of shoes. By dinner time on April 25, the Garretts had grown suspicious of their guests and refused them shelter inside. When the fugitives decided to sleep in the tobacco barn, Garrett's sons locked them in. When soldiers from the 16th New York Calvary surrounded the tobacco barn in the early hours of April 26, Herold surrendered. But Booth, who intended to shoot his way out in a blaze of glory after the barn was set afire, ended up shot in the neck.
He'd die two hours later on Garrett's front porch, muttering "Useless, useless" as he looked at his hands.
Tried for conspiracy before a military tribunal, Herold was convicted on July 6, 1865, and hanged with the three other co-conspirators in Washington the next day.
Reaching the end
Writing and Photography: Gretchen McKay | Design: Zack Tanner
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