While actor John Wilkes Booth succeeded in his deranged mission of assassinating President Abraham Lincoln near the end of the Civil War, several other conspirators were not so successful – and were hanged because of it.
On July 7, 1865, four conspirators – Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt – were hanged by the neck at Fort McNair in Washington D.C.
Their deaths were a culmination of sorts of a nation ravaged by war, bitter conflict, and the death of the nation’s commander-in-chief, the Great Emancipator.
Walk of the damned: The condemned Lincoln conspirators can be seen on the scaffold at Fort McNair in Washington with officers on July 7, 1865, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
Long drop and sudden stop: The bodies of the four conspirators were hanged for around 25 minutes before being cut down
Bearing witness: Around 1,000 people gathered in the scorching Washington heat to watch the four conspirators hanged to death; reporters and military personnel can be seen in the background
Scottish photographer Alexander Gardner captured the macabre scene, including pictures of the condemned seen moments before they walked to the 12-foot gallows, specially constructed for the executions.
Moments after John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot into the head of President Abraham Lincoln, he fled on horseback with a broken leg to Maryland, later meeting with Herold.
Though Booth was killed on the veranda of a farmhouse after being shot in the neck, other conspirators, like Powell, were caught after attempting to go into hiding.
Though everyone from the theatre owner to the stable boy who provided Booth with his horse were imprisoned for a time, authorities finally had eight suspects – seven men and one woman.
The suspects were comprised of Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt.
Arrested: Lewis Powell, left, was 21 at his time of death and described in an 1890 publication as ‘the stalwart, brutal, simple-minded boy from Florida;’ right, David Herold in his arresting photograph
Coward: George Atzerodt, left, was described at his trial as a ‘notorious coward;’ right, boarding house owner Mary Surratt, who was the first woman executed by the U.S. federal government for her part in the conspiracy
Tragedy of a nation: President Abraham Lincoln, left, who was shot on April 14, 1865 and died the following morning
In the end, though, it was Atzerodt, Herold, Powell, and Surratt who would be hanged for their part in Lincoln’s assassination.
Surratt, who owned and operated the boarding house where Atzerodt and Powell boarded for short periods of time, became the first women in U.S. history to be hanged by the American federal government.
The conspiracy went much deeper than simply killing the president – Atzerodt, Herold, and Booth all met in Powell’s boarding house room to discuss plans of assassinating then Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Atzerodt was given the task of assassinating Vice President Andrew Johnson, but the task would fall through because the German-born immigrant lost his nerve and got drunk at the hotel bar.
A grave matter: The pine coffins and open graves await the bodies of the condemned; volunteers were asked to dig the shallow graves
Each prisoner, who was found guilty by the Military Commission, was lead out to the gallows in the prison yard with shackles around their wrists and ankles on the 100-degree day. Powell was 21 at his time of death and described in an 1890 publication as ‘the stalwart, brutal, simple-minded boy from Florida.’
Surratt, meanwhile, was screaming loudly, insisting her innocence in the matter, with her attorneys trying in vain to save their client’s life. According to reporters who witnessed the executions, Atzerodt’s last words were: ‘May we meet in another world.’ Gardner’s pictures capture the grisly events of that hot July afternoon, photographic the empty scaffold with reporters and soldiers in the background waiting for the executions to commence.
Then, Chief Executioner Christian Rath, along with the condemned, can be seen walking on the platform, and all but Herold are seated. After prayers were read to them by ministers, the ropes were set around their necks, and hoods were fitted around the prisoners’ heads.
Gardner captures the moment just after the prisoners are dropped from the gallows. Around 1,000 onlookers watched for 25 minutes as the four conspirators hanged to death. The lifeless bodies were then cut down, put in cheap pine boxes, and buried in temporary shallow graves next to the execution site.
Fallen leader: President Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater, taken after he was assassinated by Booth; the president was buried before the conspiracy trial began
Keeping watch: Guards can be seen outside of Ford’s Theater with black crepe draped around the windows
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