Part 3 of 4

Mike Scruggs

For The Tribune Papers


The Military Commission trial of the alleged conspirators in the Lincoln assassination convened on May 9, 1865. Court was held in a 30–foot-by-25-foot room at the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, near the cells of the accused. The weather was generally hot and humid and the ventilation of the makeshift courtroom was poor. This frequently challenged the span of attention of the military tribunal. The prisoners sat behind their defense attorneys on seats raised about one foot higher. The hoods of the male prisoners were removed, but they were not allowed to speak, except to their defense attorneys, or to move. Their restricted movement made it difficult to get the attention of their attorneys. Despite these restrictions, defendant Lewis Powell managed to shout once that Mrs. Surratt was innocent. On many days the press and a limited number of observers were allowed to attend the sessions. Mary Surratt seemed to be the center of public attention. Many of the observers indulged in conversations heaping humiliating verbal abuse on her within her hearing.


Booth’s diary, recovered from his body in Virginia, clearly indicated that up to and including April 13, 1865, the conspiracy was not to assassinate Lincoln, but to abduct him and hold him as a bargaining chip to force a prisoner of war exchange or even to end the war. This extremely important evidence was withheld from the court and kept by Secretary of War Stanton. Although the abduction plan became known to the Military Commission, the prosecution and Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt continually tried to conflate the abduction plot with the assassination plot. Booth did not decide to attempt Lincoln’s assassination until late in the afternoon on April 14. He did not organize it until 10:00 PM that night, only two and a quarter hours before he shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.


It should be noted that the U.S. War Department had refused to exchange prisoners since July 1863. Their objective was to deny the already badly outnumbered Confederate Army any source of desperately needed replacements. As a consequence, however, POWs on both sides were suffering. Hence there was actually a humanitarian factor associated with the abduction plot.


The main thrust of the prosecution in the case of Mary Surratt was to show that she was an active participant in the assassination plot. Thus they tried hard to convince the Military Commission and attending reporters that she coordinated with Booth by making sure that guns were ready for the assassins as they escaped through Surrattsville.


John Lloyd, her Surrattsville renter, gave perjured but rather equivocal testimony to that effect for the prosecution. Mrs. Surratt’s boarder, Louis Weichmann, was more indirect in his insinuations, but his testimony, formed under great duress, was damaging.


Just after the trial, but a few days before the executions on July 7, Louis Weichmann went for a walk with two friends: John Brophy and Louis Carland. Saying that his conscience was troubling him, Weichmann told them that he had been arrested as one of the conspirators, and that both Stanton and Col. H. L Burnett had threatened him with death unless he revealed all about the assassination. He then admitted that he had lied on the witness stand to save his own life and keep his government position. Weichmann said that he wanted to go to St. Aloysius Church and make a confession, but he would not, as suggested by Carland, make a statement under oath for fear of being indicted for perjury. On the day of the execution, John Brophy swore out an affidavit disclosing Weichmannn’s statements and copied the Washington Constitutional Union. Brophy took the affidavit to the White House and sent it in to President Andrew Johnson. He was told that Johnson thought it was “wholly without weight.”  Carland also testified to Weichmann’s confession to them at the trial of John Surratt in 1867.


Weichmann later confided to John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theater, that he had been subject to great duress by Secretary Stanton, Col. H. L. Burnett, and their detectives to change a testimony favorable to Mrs. Surratt to one that more suited Stanton. Weichmann was brought before Stanton, who expressed in a very intimidating manner that Weichmann was as guilty of the President’s death as Booth. In order to impress Weichmann further, the Secretary placed a rope around Weichmann’s neck. Stanton then told him that if he didn’t testify as the government wished, he (Weichmann) would be hanged.


Other testimonies indicate Weichmann was threatened with hanging more than once by War Department officials and detectives.


On May 5, Weichmann wrote this to Col. Burnett from Carroll Prison:


“You confused and terrified me so much yesterday that I was almost unable to say anything.”


Naturally, this note was not made available at the conspiracy trial. According to John Chandler Griffin’s recent (2006) book, Abraham Lincoln’s Execution, shortly after Weichmann’s initial arrest as a conspirator, he was thrown into a cell where a rope was tossed over a rafter and a noose looped on his neck. He was then threatened with immediate hanging, if he did not tell them what they wanted to know. He was told that his death would be reported as a suicide.


Also according to John T. Ford, John Lloyd told him that he had agreed to testify against Mrs. Surratt only after he had suffered extreme duress in the hands of his captors. After Lloyd was arrested in Surrattsville on April 18, he was taken to Bryantown to be examined by Col. H. H. Wells. When Lloyd refused to say anything against Mrs. Surratt, he was hanged by his thumbs until he could no longer stand the pain. Only then, to spare himself from further torture, did he agree to give perjured testimony against his landlady.


In 1978, a written statement presumably made by George Atzerodt was found in the papers of General W. E. Doster, defense attorney for both Atzerodt and Lewis Powell. This statement, dated the evening of May 1, 1865, was given to Provost Marshall McPhail in the presence of detective John L. Smith.  In that rambling statement Atzerodt made two conflicting statements. First he said that Booth told him that:


“Mrs. Surratt went to Surrattsville to get out the guns which had been taken to that place by David Herold. This was Friday.” A little farther on he stated:


“Booth never said until the last night (Friday) that he intended to kill the president.”


But Booth did not yet know that the President would be attending the play at Ford’s theater that night, when he spoke to Mrs. Surratt just before she and Weichmann left for Surrattsville.


Atzerodt’s statement was not used by the prosecution, probably because of the revealing contradiction. Perhaps Atzerodt, desperate to save his own life, was promised leniency, if he could reinforce the prosecution’s attempt to connect Mrs. Surratt with arranging for the guns to be in place along the escape route. Undoubtedly, like Weichmann and Lloyd, Atzerodt was subject to the usual coercive methods of interrogation. Atzerodt failed to mention Booth assigning him to kill Vice President Johnson. But it is evident from various testimonies and his actions that Atzerodt had no intention of carrying out Booth’s orders.


Secretary Stanton’s Chief Detective, Col. Lafayette Baker, initially set the Government’s mood for the conspiracy hunt. On taking charge of the pursuit of Lincoln’s assassins, he released an astonishing official order urging his detectives


“to extort confessions and procure testimony to establish the conspiracy…by promises, rewards, threats, deceit, force, or any other effectual means.”


No wonder he was Stanton’s most trusted lieutenant. And it is no wonder that there were numerous irregularities later discovered in the prosecution’s conduct and securing of witnesses.


On May 13, the Military Commission heard testimony from a Canadian physician, James B. Merritt, that Booth, Surratt, and Atzerodt were parties in a previous scheme to kill Lincoln. The United States Government paid Dr. Merritt $6000 for his testimony. After a prosecution witness named Von Steinacker, who had given a damaging testimony connecting Confederate officers with Booth, was found by the defense to have just been released from prison and to have a considerable criminal record, the court at first refused the defense the right to cross examine him. After General Holt finally agreed to Steinacker’s cross examination, the witness could not be found.


On May 25, the Military Commission suddenly introduced the subject of (alleged)

 Southern mistreatment of Union prisoners of war as an issue in the conspiracy trial.

This outrageous tactic was actually successful in raising the level of anger and resentment against the South, Jefferson Davis, and the defendants.


Probably the most damaging circumstantial evidence against Mary Surratt was the untimely arrival of a well disguised Lewis Powell at Mrs. Surratt’s door on April 17.

This and her denial that she knew him created suspicions that were difficult to overcome. Numerous witnesses, however, testified to her poor eyesight. Many more testified of her sterling character and religious devotion. No fewer than five Catholic priests testified to her impeccable character.


The Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial was a shameful violation of due process. Only the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and the autumn 1865 trial of Henry Wirz, commandant of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp, are comparable in their injustice, malice, and despotism. I do not believe that “Stalinist” is too strong a word for the conduct of Stanton and his inner council.


The Military Commission sentenced Atzerodt, Powell, and Herold to hang. The others were sentenced to long prison terms. Surprisingly, five of the nine officers on the Military Commission initially wanted either to acquit Mary Surratt or at least see that she did not get the death penalty. But Edwin Stanton and Joseph Holt, supported by others in the Radical Republican ring, would not stand for it. The government murder of Mary Surratt and the political scandal that followed will be covered next week.


All rights reserved