The Conspirator Who Got Away

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Conspirator Who Got Away


Byline: Robert F. Dunn, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, just after Richmond fell to Union forces. He died the next day. Secretary of State William Seward was grievously wounded during an attempt on his life the same evening Lincoln was shot. Amid grief and turmoil and almost immediately, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took charge and launched a massive manhunt for the perpetrators. By April 26, Booth was dead and eight conspirators had been rounded up. One purported conspirator could not be found, John Surratt.

Because Washington was under military law, some Confederate forces still operating, the eight were tried by a military tribunal. (Interestingly, the decision to proceed with a military tribunal in 1865 was made despite arguments against that format similar to arguments heard in 2008). Justice was swift. The defendants were charged on May 10, on June 29 a guilty verdict was rendered, on July 5 they were sentenced and on July 7 four of the eight were executed by hanging. The other four went off to prison that same day. Meanwhile, John Surratt, son of Mary Surratt, one of those hung, was in flight. The Last Lincoln Conspirator describes John Surratt's run from meeting a fate like his mother's.

Surratt was indeed a Confederate agent involved in courier duty between Richmond and Confederates in Canada. In the course of his duties, he would frequently pass through Washington, meeting with his mother and Confederate sympathizers. Therefore, he was a prime suspect in the president's murder. Actually, according to his testimony at his 1867 trial, he was in Elmira, N.Y., when he heard about the assassination. Others testified that he had been seen in Washington on that fatal night, but the 1867 jurors believed he had indeed been in Elmira and it was from that city that he began his incredible flight, a flight traced so well by Andrew Jampoler. It was a flight that would take him back to Canada, thence to Ireland, England, France, Italy and finally, Egypt, where he was captured.

Just why Surratt took flight is not exactly clear, but that he did so probably saved his life. His 1867 trial was before a civil court; had he joined the eight in 1865 it would have been before a military tribunal with a fate undoubtedly like that of the other defendants. As it was, in 1867 he was narrowly acquitted and went on to marry, have a family and live until 1915.

Surratt's travels between April 1865 and December of 1866 are a first-rate adventure. He first lived openly in Canada and then went underground with Catholic priests in Liverpool (he was Roman Catholic as was his mother). With American authorities on his trail he made his way through France to Italy. There he joined the pope's army as a Zouave fighting to defend Papal domains. Apparently tiring of service as a Zouave, he deserted the pope's army, crossed on foot into the Kingdom of Naples and threw himself on the mercy of the British Embassy where officials deigning to turn him over to the Americans put him on a ship to Malta. …

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