The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Beyond Booth

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Who were the Lincoln assassination conspirators? What role did each person play?

John Wilkes Booth did not act alone. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer reveals the identity of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and the role that each one played in the plot. It also outlines their plans and preparations and what happened to them after the plot was carried out.

Read more to learn about the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

Planning the Assassination

Booth spent April 14 laying plans for the assassination, which required connecting with multiple co-conspirators. He knew he’d need help escaping to Virginia, a Confederate state where he hoped to find support and acclaim. 

He’d also need help because, in addition to killing Lincoln, he wanted to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. He hoped that killing several key government officials would rally Confederate sympathizers and veterans to renew their fight.

Introducing the Co-Conspirators

Following are brief bios of the key Lincoln assassination conspirators and their roles. 

1) David Herold: Booth’s most-loyal follower, Herold was a tracker and outdoorsman whose role in the assassination plot was to guide conspirator Lewis Powell to Secretary of State Seward’s home in D.C., and wait while Powell killed Seward (Powell didn’t know his way around the city). Then Herold was to accompany Powell out of the city to meet up with Booth south of Washington, in Maryland, after Lincoln’s assassination. 

2) Lewis Powell: Powell was a former Confederate soldier and loyal Booth follower, whose job of assassinating Seward was expected to be fairly easy: Seward was barely conscious and recuperating in bed after a serious carriage accident. 

3) George Atzerodt: Assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson in his room at the Kirkwood House hotel in Washington, Atzerodt had doubts about the plan from the beginning. As a motivator, Booth threatened to implicate Atzerodt in the plot afterward regardless of his actual involvement, so he’d be hanged anyway. 

4) Mary Surratt: The Lincoln assassination conspirators included the 42-year-old widow Mary Surratt, who owned a tavern in Maryland and a boarding house in Washington, D.C. Her son, John Harrison Surratt, was a friend of Booth’s and a Confederate secret agent. Booth and associates regularly visited her boarding house. 

5) John Harrison Surratt: A Confederate agent and son of boarding house owner Mary Surratt, John Surratt was in Elmira, N.Y., during the assassination plot, but investigators searched for him several times at the boarding house because he was known to be friends with Booth. (After learning of the assassination, Surratt fled to Canada, then Europe; he joined the pope’s army in Rome, Italy, and evaded capture for a year. When he was brought back and tried, the jury couldn’t reach a verdict.)

6) Dr. Samuel A. Mudd: The Lincoln assassination conspirators included this 32-year-old doctor, who lived on a farm in Bryantown, Maryland. Mudd was a racist and Confederate sympathizer who had owned slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Booth met Mudd while looking for recruits for his kidnapping plot, and Mudd introduced Booth to John Surratt in Washington. Mudd held supplies at his farm to aid the conspirators in the kidnapping plot that never happened. After the assassination, Mudd aided Booth and Herold.

Preparations for Killing Lincoln

The Lincoln assassination conspirators made the following preparations for the attack at Ford’s Theatre:

  • He went to Kirkwood House, a hotel where Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying, and left an inexplicable note for Johnson at the front desk reading: “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.”
  • He visited Mary Surratt’s boarding house looking for John Surratt, who wasn’t there. He asked Mary Surratt to deliver a package (binoculars) to her tavern keeper in Maryland and let him know that Booth would stop there late that night.
  • Back in his room at the National Hotel, Booth selected his weapons for attacking Lincoln—first, a .44 caliber single-shot, muzzle-loading Deringer pistol. This was a pocket-sized handgun that shot a large one-ounce ball. The pistol took more than 20 seconds to reload, which Booth wouldn’t have time to do if he missed. So as a backup, Booth chose a long, sharp Rio Grande camp knife. He gathered a few other items, including a compass, whistle, datebook and pencil, money, small knife, and photos of five girlfriends.
  • Booth gave a fellow actor a sealed envelope to deliver to a newspaper the next day, explaining the reasons for the attacks and naming everyone involved. (However, it was never delivered because the friend, afraid of being linked to Booth after the assassination, burned it.)
  • At around 8 p.m. (curtain time for the play) at the Herndon House Hotel near Ford’s Theatre, Booth met with the co-conspirators he’d recruited months ago for the kidnapping scheme. According to Atzerodt’s account of the meeting, Booth said he would kill the president that evening at 10 p.m., which would “be the greatest thing in the world.” Having acted in other performances, Booth was familiar with the theater’s layout and knew he could shoot Lincoln in his balcony box and get away quickly. He gave Atzerodt and Powell instructions for killing Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward.
  • Booth checked on the progress of the play at about 9 p.m., then went to the nearby stable and got his horse, which he asked a theater employee, Edman Spangler, to hold for him at the theater’s back door.

This is just a brief introduction to the Lincoln assassination conspirators. You can read more of the story in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.

The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Beyond Booth

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Here's what you'll find in our full Chasing Lincoln's Killer summary:

  • A vivid account of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination
  • The 12-day pursuit of killer John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators through Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia
  • A story that is condensed to be suitable for readers of all ages

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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