July 2, 2009: Barry Cauchon
July 7, 2009 will mark the 144th anniversary of the hangings of the Lincoln conspirators at the Washington D.C. Arsenal Penitentiary. Over the past few months, I’ve had the privelege to converse, exchange ideas and share research with my now good friend John Elliott from San Antonio, Texas. John has been working hard at pulling together a history of the Arsenal Penitentiary from before, during and after the period that the trial and executions occurred.
Today, the penitentiary no longer exists except for one structure, referred to as Building 20 (or Grant Hall) which is all that remains from the east end of the structure. It was on the third floor of this part of the penitentiary that the conspirators’ trial took place.
The land that Building 20 now stands on is located at Fort Lesley McNair, a restricted military installation. Due to the events of 9/11 in 2001 and the security changes that resulted from that event, Fort McNair is no longer open to the public. However, John has gained access on two occasions (all legally I assure you) and not only photographed the site but conversed with several people involved in the current project to restore the building (inclusive of the trial room). It’s a fascinating project and I’ve really enjoyed hearing about the plans they have scheduled for the building.
Since most of us will not have an opportunity to see this historical site without military access to the Fort, let me share with you this three-part series that John has compiled starting with Part 1: The Pre-Trial Period (1831-1862). Enjoy.
THE WASHINGTON D.C. ARSENAL PENITENTIARY
A History of the Prison Where the Conspirators of the Lincoln Assassination Were Tried and Hanged
Part 1: The Pre-Trial Period (1831-1862)
On April 27th, 1865, after being examined and identified as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, the body of John Wilkes Booth was transferred from the USS Montauk to the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary. Under orders of strict secrecy, his body was buried 10 feet deep in a storage room at the prison. The storage room was located behind an iron door just 5 to 6 feet away from the Warden’s quarters. Booth’s corpse would remain on the arsenal grounds for the next 4 years. Thus began the penitentiary’s storied history and its connection with the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.
Thirty four years earlier, the D.C. Penitentiary opened its cell doors for the first time when Thomas Williams began serving a one year prison sentence for stealing a $6.00 barrel of flour. Upon entering his prison cell, Williams was issued a Bible, two blankets and a coarse sheet. He was also given the following rules to abide:
- You shall be industrious and labor diligently in silence.
- You shall not attempt to escape.
- You shall not quarrel, converse, laugh, dance, whistle, sing, jump, nor look at nor speak to visitors.
- You shall not use tobacco.
- You shall not write or receive letters.
- You shall respect officers and be clean in person and dress.
- You shall not destroy or impair property.
The D.C. Penitentiary was built during an era of prison reformation. In the early 1800s, society no longer felt that corporal punishment would reform criminals or provide an effective deterrent to crime. Instead, religion, productive work and discipline would be the tools used to accomplish rehabilitation while providing a means to offset the cost of confinement. As a result, Congress allocated funds to construct Washington D.C.’s third prison. Unlike the other two (Old Capital Prison and Alexandria Jailhouse) which were built as temporary holding cells until one could be brought to trial, the new penitentiary would focus on rehabilitating inmates into becoming productive citizens.
One person who was committed to seeing the D.C. Penitentiary and all its reform initiatives succeed was the famous humanitarian Dorothea Dix. She donated $100.00 of her own money to the penitentiary library. This was the equivalent of about $2500.00 in today’s (2009) economy.
Charles Bulfinch, the architect of the Capital building was selected by President John Quincy Adams to design the new penitentiary. Its location was ideally suited to transport prisoners and supplies by water rather than laboring through city streets. The D.C. Penitentiary was situated just north of the main arsenal buildings on a small peninsula known as Green Leaf Point. Total funds appropriated to build the penitentiary were set at $140,000.00.
D.C. Penitentiary Plan
In “Fort Lesley McNair and the Lincoln Conspirators”, Lincoln historian Michael Kauffman provides the following description of the D.C. Penitentiary:
The original penitentiary consisted of a twenty-foot wall enclosing a three-hundred foot yard and three buildings. The largest of these buildings was a cellblock containing 160 cells. It was flanked on the southwest and southeast corners by two identical buildings which were the administrative offices and the prison hospital, respectively. These three buildings made up the entire prison until the growing number of inmates forced the expansion of facilities.
The central building measured 120 by 50 feet, and from outside it appeared to be a three-story building. But actually, the outer walls formed a shell that enclosed an inner cellblock structure. The cells themselves were arranged in four tiers, and each was divided into two ranges of twenty cells each.
Walkways ran lengthwise along both sides of each range and led to stairways at the east and west ends of the cellblock. Each cell measured 7′ by 3 ½′ by 7′ with solid masonry walls eighteen inches thick. Their iron doors opened alternately to the north and south to prevent the prisoners from communicating with each other.
Originally, the top tier of cells was to be used for the women inmates, but this plan was soon abandoned. Two ninety foot extensions were added to the east and west ends of the cellblock, and one half of the eastern extension became the new women’s ward. The other half became the deputy warden’s quarters.
With the completion of the new extensions, the building measured 300 feet by 50 feet, with two 25 foot sections along the south wall, 120 feet apart. The extreme ends of the building could be entered from outside the penitentiary, and all of the sections were connected by a series of hallways and iron doors.
The far west section was considered the main visitor’s entrance to the prison and this is where the warden had his office and living quarters. This section consisted of four rooms on each of its three floors. On the first floor, an iron door led to a large storeroom immediately to the east. This room was also part of the western extension and joined the main cellblock at its east wall. Directly above the storeroom was the prison chapel, and a new prison hospital was established on the third floor of this section.
Entering the cellblock’s south hallway from the storeroom, one could pass straight through to the eastern extension. Here another iron door led to the women’s cellblock. This section’s 64 cells were designed and arranged much the same as those of the men’s cellblock, but they were twice as large as the older cells.
Adjoining the women’s cellblock was the deputy warden’s quarters, a part of which was originally used for the prison laundry. This was the far eastern section of the penitentiary, and it also consisted of three floors. It differed from its western counterpart only in that it did not have four rooms on its third floor. A T-shaped hallway had been altered on this floor, which left the two northern rooms undivided. Thus, the northern half of the third floor consisted of one large room which measured about 40 feet by 27 feet.
Expansion of the prison was completed in the mid-1830s when a wash house and a shoe factory were built on the grounds to occupy the prisoner’s time.
For 31 years, the D.C. Penitentiary operated with mostly failed results. The shoe factory built to make the prison self sufficient never made a profit. According to the prison staff, inmates were seen as too lazy and incompetent to properly use the tools they were given. In addition, no continuity in the workshops could be achieved because of inmates being brought in and being released. The average prison sentence for 90 percent of the inmates was less than two years. In an effort to increase the prison population and improve the labor production, the penitentiary opened its doors to non-district prisoners in 1850. It would not be enough. The penitentiary, despite its noble efforts at prison reformation, was soon to be closed.
In 1862, citing a need for more storage space for the arsenal, Abraham Lincoln stated that the prison was “absolutely necessary” for military purposes. Lincoln ordered that the prison be turned over to the War Department and that the convicts be transferred to other prisons. Some inmates were sent to Albany, New York State Prison while others were transferred to the front lines. The Arsenal Penitentiary would never again serve as a prison until the spring of 1865.
End of Part 1
Surratt Society: Laurie Verge and Joan Chaconas (Thanks for all the help!)
Michael Kauffman: Fort Lesley McNair and the Lincoln Conspirators
David K. Sullivan: Behind Prison Walls: The Operation of the District Penitentiary, 1831-1862
Phyllis I. McClellan: Silent Sentinel On The Potomac