Posts Tagged ‘Edwin Stanton’

Booth reward posterIt was April 24, 1865 – ten days since President Lincoln was assassinated – and his killer still remained at large. On the night of April 14, John Wilkes Booth had shot the president in the head, jumped on a horse, and slipped across the Potomac River undetected. He had disappeared into Maryland, a state that had stayed in the Union in the Civil War (which had ended just days earlier), but was sprinkled with Confederate spies. Speculation was that Booth would cross Maryland into Virginia with the help of fellow Confederate sympathizers.

The 16th New York Cavalry was on Booth’s trail but no leads had resulted in his capture, despite a whopping $100,000 reward promised by the War Department. So on April 24, Major W.S. Hancock issued a new proclamation appealing to the black population of Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, for their help in the manhunt. Hancock calculated that Booth could not escape without encountering blacks. The following proclamation was printed on letter size handbills and distributed:




Washington, D.C., April 24, 1865

To the colored people of the District of Columbia and of Maryland, of Alexandria and the border counties of Virginia;

Your President had been murdered! He has fallen by the assassin and without a moment’s warning, simply and solely because he was your friend and the friend of our country. Had he been unfaithful to you and to the great cause of human freedom he might have lived. The pistol from which he met his death, though held by Booth, was fired by the hands of treason and slavery. Think of this and remember how long and how anxiously this good man labored to break your chains and to make you happy. I now appeal to you, by every consideration which can move loyal and grateful hearts, to aid in discovering and arresting his murderer. Concealed by traitors, he is believed to be lurking somewhere within the limits of the District of Columbia, of the State of Maryland, or Virginia. Go forth, then, and watch, and listen, and inquire, and search, and pray, by day and night, until you shall have succeeded in dragging this monstrous and bloody criminal from his hiding place….

Large rewards have been offered…and they will be paid for the apprehension of this murderer….But I feel that you need no such stimulus as this. You will hunt down this cowardly assassin of your best friend, as you would the murderer of your own father….

All information which may lead to the arrest of Booth, or Surratt, or Harold, should be communicated to these headquarters….

W.S. Hancock

Major General U.S. Volunteers

Commanding Middle Military Division


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Boston Corbett (1832-?) photographed in 1865

Boston Corbett (1832-?) photographed in 1865

The man who killed John Wilkes Booth was as mad as a hatter. His name was Boston Corbett. Actually, his name was not originally Boston Corbett, but Thomas T. Corbett. He became a reborn evangelical Christian while in Boston which he took as his new name. He began to wear his hair long like Jesus. He became a religious fanatic.  Those who knew him said he was “different.”  Boston Corbett was as mad as a hatter.

Boston Corbett was as mad as a hatter because he was a hatter – at a time when mercury was used in the felt hatmaking process. Hatmakers breathed the mercury vapors which caused mercury poisoning. Mercury damages the nervous system, producing symptoms such as drooling, twitching, paranoia, hallucinations, and agitation. It was probably mercury poisoning that caused the mental problems that dogged Corbett all his days.

"The Mad Hatter's Tea Party." ="Though he did not create the expression "mad as a hatter," author Lewis Carroll did create the eccentric character in his book, Alice in Wonderland (illustrations by Sir John Tenniel), first released in London in 1865, coincidentally, the year Lincoln was assassination. The hatter in the book is an eccentric fellow with wacky ideas and incoherent speech, attributes attributed to hatters of the day. Mercury was used in hatmaking and its poisonous vapors caused neurological damage on the hatters.

"The Mad Hatter's Tea Party." Though he did not create the expression "mad as a hatter," author Lewis Carroll did create the eccentric character of the hatter in his book, Alice in Wonderland (illustrations by Sir John Tenniel), first released in London in 1865, coincidentally, the year Lincoln was assassinated. The hatter in the book is an eccentric fellow with wacky ideas and incoherent speech, characteristics attributed to many hatters of the day, suffering from mercury poisoning. Mercury was used in hatmaking and its poisonous vapors caused debilitating neurological damage to the hatters, resulting in a complete mental breakdown.

As I was saying, Corbett’s job – daily breathing in the noxious mercury fumes while he made felt hats – was making him go insane. By July 16, 1858, Corbett had become so insane that he picked up a pair of scissors, took off his pants, and castrated himself. After doing the strange deed, he nonchalantly dressed again and went out to a prayer meeting, where he ate heartily and then took a walk. Corbett did, however, end up seeing a doctor to receive treatment for his self-mutilation. (1)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Corbett enlisted in the Union army. He reenlisted three times and was made sergeant. In the days following President Lincoln’s assassination, he was selected as one of the 26 soldiers in the 16th New York Cavalry commissioned to pursue and capture the fugitive assassin John Wilkes Booth. On April 26, 1865, Corbett and the others cornered Booth and his coconspirator David Herold in a tobacco barn on Richard Garrett’s Virginia farm. Herold  gave himself up.

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth

Booth refused to surrender, so the soldiers set the barn on fire, hoping to smoke him out. Corbett watched Booth through a large crack in the barn wall. As Booth moved about inside the burning barn, Corbett stuck his Colt revolver through the crack and aimed at the unsuspecting Booth, a full 12 feet away. Corbett’s bullet struck Lincoln’s killer in the neck, puncturing his spinal cord. Booth did not die at once.

When Corbett was questioned about his unilateral decision to kill rather than to capture Booth alive, he replied:

“God Almighty directed me.”

Back in Washington, Corbett was placed under technical arrest, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton refused to prosecute the man many considered a hero. Stanton said, “The rebel is dead. The patriot lives.” Corbett collected $1653.85 in reward money.

Famous now, Corbett returned to the hat trade, first in Boston then in Connecticut and New Jersey. Further exposure to mercury caused his already volatile and erratic behavior to escalate. He got into frequent arguments which involved flashing his revolver in men’s faces.

He grew paranoid.

Then, in 1878, he made a radical life change. He moved to Kansas to live in a dugout; his home was nothing more than a hole in a hill with a stone front and a patchwork roof. He lived simply, sleeping on a homemade bed. He bought a flock of sheep. He began to give religious lectures that invariably turned into incoherent rants. He kept a number of firearms.

Improbably, in 1887, Corbett was appointed assistant doorkeeper to the Kansas House of Representatives in Topeka. Shortly after his appointment, he got crosswise with some men, pulled out a gun, threatened them, and got arrested. He was declared insane and sent to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.

But he didn’t stay there. A little over a year later, he stole a horse that had been left at the asylum entrance and escaped. Little is known about where he went after that. Some say Mexico. He may have become a traveling salesman for a medicine company in Oklahoma Territory and Texas. No one knows what became of the man who killed John Wilkes Booth. That may forever remain a mystery.

(1) The actual hospital record can be read on page 59 of Lincoln and Kennedy: Medical & Ballistic Comparisons of their Assassinations by Dr. John K. Lattimer.

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lincoln-drawingApril 14, 1865, was one of the happiest days of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It was Good Friday. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered five days earlier and the Civil War was over. The Union had been saved. Lincoln had a relaxing breakfast with his 21-year-old son Robert, whom he called “Bob,” who had just arrived for a visit. Robert Lincoln (1843-1926) had studied law at Harvard University until the closing weeks of the war when he joined the Union Army as part of General Ulysses Grant’s staff.

“Well, my son, you have returned safely from the front,” President Lincoln said. “The war is now closed, and we soon will live in peace with the brave men that have been fighting against us.” (1) He was eager to see the country heal and wanted no persecutions for the Confederacy, no “bloody work.” (2) Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s personal assistant, said that Lincoln’s face “was more cheerful than [she] had seen it for a long while.” (1)

At 11 a.m. he met with his regular cabinet and General Grant, who was concerned that not all of the Confederate forces under Johnston had surrendered to General Sherman. Lincoln told Grant not to worry, that good tidings were coming, “for he had last night the usual dream which he had preceding nearly every great and important event of the War.” He described the dream. He had seen himself on the water in some type of boat moving rapidly “towards an indefinite shore.” (1)

That afternoon, he took his usual carriage ride with Mary. Mary had never seen her husband so “cheerful,” she told a friend, “his manner was even playful. At three o’clock, in the afternoon, he drove out with me in the open carriage….I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.'”

He replied, “And well I may feel so, Mary. I consider this day, the war, has come to a close….We must both, be more cheerful in the future – between the war and the loss of our darling Willie – we have both been very miserable.” As the carriage rolled toward the Navy Yard, Lincoln recalled happy memories of is old Springfield home and the adventures as a lawyer riding the circuit. He keenly felt the pressures of the presidency lifting and the future looking brighter.


Once back at the White House, Lincoln sat down and began reading a book, something humorous by John Phoenix. Mary kept calling him to dinner but he wouldn’t put the book down; he was totally absorbed – as always. Finally, Mary insisted he come to the table at once. They had to eat early, she reminded him, as they had plans to see Laura Keene perform in the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre that evening. It had been announced in the papers; they had to go. Lincoln preferred to stay home. He had no need for the escape of the theatre that day; he was already jubilant. But go he must, as he didn’t want to disappoint the people.

The morning edition of the National Republican had announced that Ulysses and Julia Grant would join the Lincolns in the president’s box for the play, but Julia didn’t want to go, saying she had her heart set on visiting their children in New Jersey. While that may have been true, it was more likely that it was an excuse to get out of an engagement with Mary Lincoln, whom she despised.

The Lincolns had a hard time finding a replacement for the Grants. Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Chase also declined. Stanton had been trying for months to keep the president from exposing himself to the danger of such public places and both men thought the theatre a frivolity. It was decided that Clara Harris and her fiance, Major Henry Rathbone, would substitute for the Grants.

A little after eight o’clock, the carriage that would take Abraham and Mary to Ford’s Theatre rolled onto the front drive. Lincoln no doubt sighed. “I suppose it’s time to go,” he told Speaker Schuyler Colfax, “though I would rather stay.” He assisted Mary into the carriage and they took off.

(1) Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)
(2) Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography. (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1987)

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After the assassination of Lincoln and the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton doggedly pursued the apprehension and prosecution of the conspirators. From the beginning, he knew that actor John Wilkes Booth had murdered the president. Booth was hunted down and killed on April 26, 1865, only eleven days after the asssasination. In the search for Booth’s co-conspirators, dozens of suspects were soon arrested and detained. It was determined that the attack had been a Confederate conspiracy designed to topple the United States government, and was, thus, an act of war. It was decided then that the proceedings would be handled by a military tribunal, and, therefore, be under Stanton’s control.

Eight of Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Eight of Lincoln Assassination Conspirators

Ultimately, the suspects were narrowed down to seven men and one woman: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt.

Extraordinary security measures were taken with the prisoners. Mary Surratt and Dr. Samuel Mudd first were jailed at the Old Capitol Prison, while the other six were imprisoned on the ironclad ships the Montauk and Saugus. They were all later confined to separate cells in the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. Stanton had no tolerance for traitors; he had built a reputation as the secretary of war for ruthlessly rooting out Confederate sympathizers and prosecuting them harshly. Matter of fact,
Lincoln’s last act as President was overriding Stanton’s decision supporting the execution of George S.E. Vaughn for spying. Lincoln pardoned Vaughn an hour before he was assassinated.

Canvas Hoods Worn by Lincoln Assassination Conspirators before Trial July 7, 1865

Canvas Hoods Worn by Lincoln Assassination Conspirators before Trial July 7, 1865

“Stanton ordered an unusual form of isolation for the eight suspects. He ordered eight heavy canvas hoods made, padded one-inch thick with cotton, with one small hole for eating, no opening for eyes or ears. Stanton ordered that the bags be worn by the seven men day and night as a preventive to conversation. Hood number eight was never used on Mrs. Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the conspirators had laid their plans, Stanton knew the furor of indignation that would cause. A ball of extra cotton padding covered the eyes so that there was painful pressure on the closed lids. No baths or washing of any kind were allowed, and during the hot breathless weeks of the trial the prisoners’ faces became more swollen and bloated by the day, and even the prison doctor began to fear for the conspirators’ sanity inside those heavy hoods laced so tight around their necks. But Stanton would not allow them to be removed, nor the rigid wrist irons, nor the anklets, each of which was connected to an iron ball weighing seventy-five pounds.”(1)

(1) Stanton, Edwin M. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_M._Stanton

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Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869)

Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869)

Much has been made of Democratic President Obama’s attempt to incorporate a Republican into his cabinet, a move that today’s political pundits liken to an overture made by the President Lincoln when, in 1862, he appointed Democrat Edwin Stanton as secretary of war in his Republican administration. Stanton was not just Lincoln’s political opponent, he was one of his most scathing critics, referring to the “imbecility” of the Lincoln administration’s handling of the Civil War. Not only that, he and Lincoln had met on another occasion – in a courtroom six years earlier – and Stanton had treated Lincoln with surly condescension.

During that case, Stanton headed a team of lawyers that included Lincoln that challenged Cyrus McCormack’s patent on the reaper. Nationally-renowned patent lawyer George Harding was another member of that same team. Harding never forgot the first time he caught sight of Abraham Lincoln arriving at the Burnet House in Cincinnati where the lawyers were lodged. Lincoln approached Harding and Stanton. Harding described Lincoln as a

“tall, rawly-boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing, his trousers hardly reaching his ankles, holding in his hands a blue cotton umbrella with a ball on the end of the handle.” (1)

Lincoln introduced himself to the two men, saying,

“Let’s go up in a gang.”

Both Stanton and Harding were shocked that this country bumpkin was part of their team. Stanton pulled Harding aside, whispering,

“Why did you bring that d____d long armed Ape here?”

Though the three of them spent a week together in trial and stayed at the same hotel, neither Harding nor Stanton asked Lincoln to join them for a meal or go with them to or from court. The brief Lincoln prepared for use in the trial was never even opened by Harding and Stanton. The judge presiding over the trial hosted a dinner for both teams of lawyers yet Lincoln was not invited.

Yet, in 1862, Lincoln set aside his ego and offered Stanton “the most powerful civilian post” – the post of secretary of war. Stanton accepted the position only to “help save the country.” While Stanton was hot-tempered and brusque, Lincoln recognized his brilliance and ability. Over the three years of their working relationship, Stanton and Lincoln grew close.

On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Edwin Stanton was alerted. When he arrived at the Petersen boardinghouse across from Ford’s Theatre, he found that the president had been placed diagonally across a bed to accommodate his large frame. Lincoln was stripped of his shirt. “His large arms were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance,” noted Stanton’s companion. Edwin Stanton and the other cabinet members except for Seward were present when President Lincoln was pronounced dead at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Stanton’s tribute at that moment is still with us today.

“Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton said of Lincoln.

Death Bed of Lincoln

Death Bed of Lincoln

Throughout that long night when the president had lingered between life and death, the task had fallen to Secretary of War Stanton to alert the generals. Coolly and with self-possession, Stanton dictated numerous dispatches. But when the president was pronounced dead, Stanton could bear his grief no longer. He could not stop the tears from flowing down his face. No one could control his grief that long night. One witness observed, “there was not a soul present that did not love the president.”

But “Stanton’s grief was uncontrollable,” recalled Horace Porter, “and,” some time later, “at the mention of Mr. Lincoln’s name, he would break down and weep bitterly.” (1) Stanton later wrote that he came to love Lincoln more than any other person outside of his immediate family.

(1) Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

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