Conspirators in Lincoln’s Assassination Hanged
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, 1865, it was a clear sign the devastation of the four-year Civil War was drawing to a close. Then, five days later, the North was plunged into sorrow when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, while the president was relaxing at Ford’s Theatre enjoying a play. Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be assassinated, and the country’s grief was augmented by an angry resolve to catch the assassin.
Actually, Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger plot to cripple the federal government; along with the president, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William H. Seward and General Ulysses S. Grant were targeted as well. Booth’s accomplice Lewis Powell wounded Seward, while the other would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, panicked and fled without making an attempt on Johnson’s life. Grant cancelled his plans and did not attend the Ford Theatre that night.
There were many people involved in this assassination plot. Two of the conspirators, Booth and David E. Herold, were trapped by federal soldiers in a Virginia barn on April 26. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused to give himself up; the barn was set on fire and Booth was shot in the neck, dying two hours later. By the end of the month all the rest of the conspirators had been arrested, except for John Surratt, who had fled to Canada. (He was apprehended in Egypt in November 1866.)
Eight suspects were put on trial, conducted by a military tribunal that President Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, ordered: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt (John Surratt’s mother).
Their trial was highly controversial. Many members of the press and public believed the matter should have been tried by a civil court. Others were conflicted by having a woman defendant face a possible death sentence; the federal government had never executed a woman in the nation’s history.
After a seven-week trial, all of the defendants were found guilty on June 30. Four were sentenced to imprisonment, but the other four (George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt), were sentenced to death by hanging. They were executed on July 7, 1865.
The following three newspaper articles are editorials commenting on the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The first two were printed on July 7, the day of the execution but before the actual hanging; the third was printed the day after the hanging, July 8.
This editorial was published by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) on July 7, 1865, reprinting and commenting upon views expressed by The Argus newspaper:
Justifies the Court and Its Verdict
The Argus, together with other papers belonging to its school of politics, denounced the Military Commission at Washington, so long as it was supposed to have been a creation of Secretary Stanton. But since it was shown in evidence that President Johnson himself determined the manner in which the conspirators should be tried, it has been discreetly silent, and now, when the President endorses the findings of the Commission and directs that they shall be carried into effect at once, it even approves his course. The following is its language:
The mandate of death has gone forth against the Chiefs of the miserable Conspirators who compassed the death of Lincoln. It is just; and the speed with which execution follows the confirmation of sentence, is fearful. It restores some of its impressiveness to the administration of justice, to the dignity of which the Military Commission was so pitiably inadequate.
The sentence is righteous; its execution just. We shudder at the idea that a woman like Mrs. Surratt is to be one of the victims of such a death; and millions will share the feeling. We deplore, too, the circumstances that have compelled President Johnson to appear to countenance a mode of trial in this case, which we know he abhors and condemns. It would not do for him, profiting as he does in one sense, by the crime of these conspirators, to appear to be lenient to their offence, or indifferent to their punishment, and the consideration has doubtless influenced his decision.
The Military Commission was originated before peace was assured—before the surrender of Johnston’s army even; and it belongs to the era which has closed, rather than to that which is now auspiciously opening the reign of restored law and of a vindicated Constitution.
Today, then, falls the curtain of death upon the assassins of Lincoln, closing the drama, and leaving only its painful and instructive memories behind it.
This editorial was published by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on July 7, 1865:
This day will be marked one in all the annals of human history, since it will witness the execution of those criminals who conspired in the murder of the kind and good Lincoln; who sought the life of the venerated and venerable Seward; and whose bloody designs compassed every prominent member of the Government. It is a day of solemn judgment. May God have mercy upon the souls of these unfortunate wretches, and may their story read in aftertime prove a salutary warning against like deeds! On the guilt of these criminals and the justice of their sentence, the ample testimony spread in the columns of our paper has enabled every reader to judge for himself.
This editorial was published by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on July 8, 1865:
The Sentences of the Court and Their Execution
The curtain has fallen on the last scene of the melancholy drama that began with the murder of President Lincoln in April last. Herold, Mrs. Surratt, Atzerodt and Payne (i.e., Powell) paid yesterday with their lives the just penalty for their share in that atrocious crime, and all but one of the other criminals, whose complicity in the act of murder was less positive, are perhaps already within the walls that they will never leave alive. There have not been in a great many years any executions as to the propriety and justice of which the public mind was so settled as about these. All of those hanged confessed their guilt; but these confessions hardly surprise anyone, and do not affect public opinion. The conviction of guilt was so deep and distinct that confession seems like a superfluity; and if the fact of a confession relieves any minds at all, it is only the minds of those who rejoice that these poor wretches did not go out of the world with the weight of that horrible secret on their souls.
There are some remarkable points in the history of this trial. One of these is the moderation with which the people have marked its progress. The murder of Mr. Lincoln thrilled this country with the grandest paroxysm of popular passion ever seen. Every loyal man who heard the news felt it like a personal blow. And yet, though it was evident from the first hour that these conspirators were arraigned that they were the guilty parties; though it was as clear as possible that those persons were the ones who had plotted and planned, day after day and week after week, a dastard[ly] blow at the country through the life of that great man, there has not, from the first to the last, been the least tendency toward any popular violence. If there ever was a case in which the most sudden and terrible appeal to natural justice would have been almost blameless, it was this; and the forbearance that gave these persons due time for defense and every possible facility to make out a case, to impugn witnesses, and to defeat justice by legal technicality, is one of the most striking instances on record of the admirable moderation of the people.
This is even the more remarkable since so bad a use was made of the chance thus given. Certain of the defenses were the most impudent ever made, and were insulting alike to the court and the country. On behalf of one it was pleaded that he acted from conviction. He thought he did right. Mrs. Surratt’s counsel thought he could answer all the evidence by showing that his client, certainly the worst spirit in the party, was “a good Christian.” And a general defense was set up for the whole crew by a press conducted in their interest, which questioned the jurisdiction of the court, and now denounces its members as murderers. Society does not generally pay much attention to the way the criminal at the bar reads the law that bears upon his own case, and so it took little heed of the screeches of the press that it knew to be the mouthpiece of those murderers. But in the future the patience with which it looked upon all this will seem the strangest part of the story.
One notable question is settled by this execution—a woman can be hanged when justice requires it. The laws against crime do not discriminate between the sexes; but public opinion does. No good reason can be given why a bad woman should be spared where a bad man would die; but a sentimental notion does not stand upon reasons, and it seemed possible that such a notion might have a favorable effect on Mrs. Surratt’s fate. It is a healthy sign when the law cannot be swayed from its straight course by such means.
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