July 2, 2009: Barry Cauchon

The Lincoln conspirators are prepared for execution at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865.

The Lincoln conspirators are prepared for execution at the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865.

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.





A History of the Prison Where the Conspirators of the Lincoln Assassination Were Tried and Hanged

Part 1: The Pre-Trial Period (1831-1862)

Old Arsenal Penitentiary Shot 1865

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:

  1. You shall be industrious and labor diligently in silence.
  2. You shall not attempt to escape.
  3. You shall not quarrel, converse, laugh, dance, whistle, sing, jump, nor look at nor speak to visitors.
  4. You shall not use tobacco.
  5. You shall not write or receive letters.
  6. You shall respect officers and be clean in person and dress.
  7. 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.

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix

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

Charles Bulfinch

Charles Bulfinch

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

 Old Arsenal 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.

Charles Bulfinch's sketch of the penitentiary.

Charles Bulfinch’s sketch of the penitentiary.

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.

Inside view of Arsenal Penitentiary

Inside view of Arsenal Penitentiary

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.

  Arsenal wood sketch

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 

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52 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wasn’t John Wilkes Booth Buried Here?

    • Hi Shelby: Thanks for writing. You are absolutely correct. John Wilkes Booth was buried in the storeroom at the west end of the penitentiary building on April 27/28, 1865. His body stayed there until 1867 when it, along with the other conspirators’ bodies (and Henry Wirz’ body – the commandant of Andersonville Prison – who was buried there after his execution) had to all be moved due to the penitentiary being demolished. All six bodies were transferred to Warehouse 1 on the east side of the Arsenal grounds until February of 1869 when the bodies were released to their families.

  2. I am so glad that I cam across your website. Now I just have to figure out how to navigate it, being somewhat computer-challenged.

    I walk through Ft. McNair to and from work each day and have been fastinated by the history represented. My interest was first piqued by a placard that identifies Building 20 (Grant Hall) and its significance. I must say that looking at that tennis court and realizing what happened at that location was sobering, even chilling. I applaud your and Mr. Elliott’s efforts at documenting the location and events.

    • Hi Jon: So glad you like it. I don’t get down to Fort McNair often so I’m a tad jealous, but some of their people have been just wonderful to us.
      It is funny that you mentioned the placard. It has been in front of the Building 20 for a few years and yet, unfortunately it has 2 or 3 glaring errors in it. The biggest one is that the bodies of the conspirators were returned to their families in 1867. In fact, President Andrew Johnson did not release the bodies back to their families until the winter of 1869. Along with the four hanged conspirators, the remains of John Wilkes Booth and Henry Wirz (also buried at the Arsenal Penitentiary) were also released to the families.
      Hopefully one day, the placard will be changed to properly reflect real history.
      Thanks again Jon. We look forward to hearing from you again soon.

  3. I lived in the court house and we all (old guard families) knew the history and of the “ghost” of Mary Serrat. Many families children spoke of her visiting with them at night. Often I would have the light down stairs go out and say “Mary turn the light back on” of course it was fun, but also some what spooky, especially when my brother came and slept in the front livingroom that was beside the tennis court side and he said he heard hammering all night.

  4. I believe the body of John Wilkes Booth was carried from the Anecosta River to the hospital at the prison through a tunnel that was later filled in during the depression era. Also, there are still prison cells under one of the buildings near the tennis courts.
    John Deaner – former Navy officer assigned to ICAF, Ft. McNair.

    • Hi John: Thanks for your comments. The penitentiary cells no longer exist (they were destroyed when the prison was razed in 1867). However you are correct that some basement cells still exist (or used to) in other nearby buildings. We have photos of these from a few years ago but have not satisfactorily located where these were taken. We know that they are not located at Grant Hall (Building 20) but may be in the Model Arsenal (Building 21). As this is not the main focus of our research, it has fallen down the priority list for us. But if you do find out where they are/were, we’d love to know. The recent renovation at Grant Hall did uncover some areas in the basement that certainly looked like cells but in fact were coal bunkers.
      The story of John Wilkes Booth’s body and it’s burial always fascinates me. Right after his autopsy on the USS Montauk moored at the Navy Yard, he was removed and taken to the penitentiary on the Eastern Branch (now as you mention, now called the Anecosta River) and buried under the floor of the storage room at the west end of the prison. He remained there until 1867, when his body, along with the bodies of the four executed conspirators and Henry Wirz (commandant of Andersonville Prison) were moved to Warehouse 1 (located just south of the penitentiary) when it was scheduled to be demolished. Have a great day and thanks again for a great comment.

      • Thanks, Barry. The building where I saw the cells was, at the time, the quarters of the Executive Officer of ICAF. The cellar level cells can be seen from the ground surrounding the building. They were built on an upward angle. It seemed that there was a moat in front of the cell opening to keep the prisoners away from where the doors to the cell would have been installed. However, you may be correct in suggesting that these were actually coal bunkers and not prisoner cells. Historically, that would make more sense than their being overflow prison cells..

      • Hey John: Thanks again. I checked with my writing partner who was there about 4 months ago. He sent me photos of the ‘bunkers’ when they were excavated and visible during the current renovation. After researching the images, he discovered very similar ones that matched the same designs of other coal bunkers. We concluded that this is what they were. We also believed that the need for cells in the basement of this particular building would seem moot considering there was a complete penitentiary attached that had cells available for both men and women. However, as mentioned earlier, the Model Arsenal probably did have cells in its basement (as per the photos that author Betty Ownsbey sent us) from about 20 years ago. We believe they may no longer exist as the condition of the cells was very poor at the time the photos were taken. Still, it makes you wonder…WHAT IF!
        Have a great day John.

      • Just finished O’Reilly’s, “Killing Lincoln”, What are your thoughts regarding the book?

  5. I just watched the Conspiritar about Lincoln. Do you know if we can tour the old D.C. Penitentiary/Aresnal????


    • Hi Emma: Thanks for your question. Regrettably there are no tours given of the site. Today, the grounds of the old Washington arsenal and the location of the former penitentiary are located within the confines of Fort McNair, a military installation. You have to clear the check point guardhouse to get in. But if you can, then there is no problem visiting and seeing what is the only part of the penitentiary left standing (it is the east part of the structure where the conspirator’s trial was held on the third floor). This building is currently called Grant Hall or Building 20. It is under renovation to restore the third floor back to its original ‘trial’ set up. I believe the furniture from The Conspirator has been donated to help replicate the trial room. But because the military base is policed and restricted to the general public, I’m not sure what their plans are to allow the publc access after it is completed. In any case, if you do get there, there is a tennis court that sits south of the building. The location of the scaffold was located just off the playing surface (northeast corner) of Court #4. I’ve stood on the exact spot and your mind can take you back to July 7, 1865 and the executions. Although interesting, it can also be a bit uncomfortable. When I was on the set of The Conspirator and stood by their replcated scaffold, it gave a good scale of the size of the event and how the event likely took place (more or less). I’ve written in the past about the ‘changes to the real history’ that were made in the movie for ‘storytelling reasons’ but overall it was a really good effort.
      I have been promising to post a plan of the original pentitentiary and superimpose it over a photograph of the existing site. It really helps you to get oriented when you see it. I will definitely get to that soon. If you do get to the site, please let me know. I’d like to know what you think.

      • Hi – Steve from England here.

        Just informing myself of events around the Lincoln assassination – I have located the Grant Building on Google Earth and was wondering if you could perhaps tell me where this is in the context of the map you show above, and indeed the photograph just under the Part 1 heading? The photograph, to the far right of the picture, seems to show the corner where the scaffold was erected – sort of between the wall and the store house. Am I right here?

      • Hi Steve: Thanks for your questions. Let me answer your map question first.
        Grant Hall is the only part of the penitentiary that remains standing from the original structure. It is the part on the map that is listed as the Deputy Warden’s quarters in the lower left hand corner.
        In using that map to help you orient the scaffold, it was located just above the Deputy Warden’s building. You are correct that the scaffold was between the wall (East wall) and the Storehouse (later turned into a hospital wing).
        Steve, the actual locations of Grant Hall and the scaffold are two of the most often asked questions I get asked. So you are absolutely correct in your assessment. Well done.
        Have a great day.

  6. I’ve read that Union cavalrymen were posted from the White House to the Penitentiary on 7 Jul 1865 to act as a relay in case Mary Surratt was given a pardon. Any idea what unit these horsemen belonged to? Were they the same guards shown in the courtroom sketches that appeared in the papers of the time? Thanks. Great site.

    • Hi Bob: Thanks for your comment. You are correct that a series of mounted soldiers were posted between the Arsenal and the White House in anticipation that a reprieve would be issued by President Johnson on behalf of Mary Surratt. General Hancock gave the order for this through General Hartranft. As to the actual unit that these cavalrymen came from, regrettably I do not know. There were many different regiments assigned to the event that day and details are often mixed up and confusing. I will look into it more for you and if I find a logical and solid answer, I will let you know.
      Regarding whether they were the same soldiers that guarded the courtroom, I’d say that this is not the case. These guards were mostly VRC soldiers and were rotated out on a regular basis for security purposes as per directions from Lafayette Baker.
      Thanks again.

  7. Abraham Lincoln had the prison population removed and used the penitentiary as an arsenal. As a civil war collector, a known variant of a .58 conical shaped minie ball has a star punched in its cavity known as a “Washington Arsenal”. Were these bullets manufactured here or the penitentiary served only as storage.

    • Hi Anthony. Thanks for your comment. I am not as familiar with the ‘arsenal’ functions as it relates to your question. I am fascinated about the minie ball with the “Washington Arsenal” name sake. I have three different written histories on the Washington Arsenal as well as good contacts at Fort McNair. Let me see if I can find out if there are any references to the manufacturing facilities from the past and if there is any information on minie ball production. Do you know if this particular minie ball was Civil War era or could it be from an earlier period?
      Thanks again.

  8. Hi Barry,

    Best to my knowledge this ball was most likely produced only during the Civil War era, not from a prior period (the quality of manufacture looks consistent to small arms ammunition of the period) nor later, as the muzzle loader gave way to breech loaders and brass cartridges.


  9. First of all, thank you for your diligent work with this fascinating part of our history. I’m trying hard to picture where the old Arsenal /Penitentiary is in relation to Grant Hall. However I am a bit confused by this statement of yours;

    “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 west end of the structure.”

    My understanding of the location of the Arsenal Yard in regard to Grant Hall and where the hanging took place is based on viewing every angle of the available photographs at the time of the hanging. Shouldn’t that put Grant Hall be on the eastern wing or side of the arsenal and not the west? Based on all the evidence I have is that the conspirators were hanged facing west. That would place the high wall behind them the eastern side and structure later named Grant Hall to their right or to the north. This would seem to indicate the Grant would be on the eastern side of the Arsenal unless I’m missing something very obvious.

    Best regards,

    • Hi Rob: Thank you so much for your comments. First of all, I can see your dilemma which was caused by ME!. I incorrectly wrote that Grant Hall is all that remains from the west end of the structure. BIG MISTAKE. It was obviously the EAST end of the structure. You are the first to pick up my mistake after almost 2 years. Thank you.
      Your assumptions are correct in that the conspirators stood on the scaffold facing west towards the Potomac River. The high wall of the penitentiary that stood behind them was to the east. As you face the scaffold (Mary Surratt is seated on the left (north side) and George Atzerodt is to the far right (south side). I apologize for the error but truly thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  10. I lived there as a kid and remember going down in the “moat” around Building 20 to explore the tunnels. The tunnels had an arched ceiling, maybe 6 feet wide and I believe a drain type structure in the middle. Remember the tunnels going for about 30 feet away from the house before they were sealed shut by old rounded bricks. I was told they were used to transport prisoners. I do not recall any evidence of coal being stored in them, they were fairly clean.

    • Hi Frank: Thanks for sharing your memories. It’s always great to hear these stories and get a eyewitness perspective from someone who has been there. Thanks again.

  11. My great grandfather, George P. Tatsapaugh, worked at the arsenal starting in 1854, as a carpenter. According to his obituary in the Washington Star newspaper in 1898, he was in attendance at the Lincoln conspirators hangings and had in possession at the time of his death, the hood that was placed on Mary Surratts head. He also survived the explosion in the cartridge factory in 1864, which killed many girls working there.

    • Hi John. Thanks so much for your comment. Your great grandfather’s name has come up in my research for my book. I’d like to speak to you in more detail to see what information we can share. Do you have any family photos, letters, diaries or other items that might help to piece together some of his history? I can tell you that I’ve held an affidavit signed by your great grandfather and have a copy in my possession. Please contact me at and we can discuss the possibilities soon. I am not near my computer until tomorrow (currently on iPhone) but will write you as well as soon as I can. Best. Barry

  12. Hi, Barry,
    I”ve recently inheirated a collectoin of things. One of which is a lincoln funeral handbill of some kind. I’ve researched it somewhat but to no advail. I would appreciate any help to know what I have.
    Thank You.
    Linda Lewis

    • Hi Linda: Thank you for writing. If you are able to scan or photograph the handbill, I’ll be happy to show it to several Lincoln researchers who may be able to better direct you than I can. Please forward it to me at we can go from there.
      Have a great day.

  13. Great work. My cousin was named Charles Bulfinch and I did not know where his namesake came from. Never asked actually. Great to find that out. We are moving to the dc are in January. Is there anything still standing that I could take my daughters to see. I love. History and am excited to be near the east coast to show them some of the locations and stories that defined our history. Thanks for keeping the flame alive. John

  14. Have created a map of the current Ft McNair with an overlay of the Washington Arsenal? I’m having a difficult time orienting where Grant Hall stands in relation to historic pictures.

  15. I would like to see your map of present day Ft. McNair. I was an officer at ICAF in 1960-63.

  16. I just finished reading Killing Lincoln, and it was a very engrossing book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  17. Can you tell me how large the cells were that the conspirators were placed in just before execution? I believe they were bigger than the normal ones and had windows. Does anyone know exactly their location in the plans shown on here?

    • Hi Marina: Great questions. The Arsenal penitentiary had two cellblocks originally segregated between male and female prisoners. At the time the conspirators were brought to the penitentiary, it was being used by the military only and so no prisoners were kept there. The decision was to put the conspirators into the cellblock that was originally designated for female prisoners. It was in a smaller room and easier to manage. Also, it was located right next to the entrance into the courtroom where the trial was held.
      This cellblock sat in the middle of the building (like an island) so no cell attached to any outside wall. Rather, the cells sat back-to-back and faced either north or south depending on which side the prisoners were kept. The cellblock was four tiers high each housing eight cells per side per tier for a total of 64 cells. None of the cells had windows. The size of these cells were (and I’m going from memory here) 3′-6″w x 8′-0″d x 7′-6″h. The cells in this cellblock were all the same size. The cells sizes in the male cellblock had two different sizes but these were not used by the conspirators. This information is often mixed up and causes some of the ‘cell size’ confusion.
      At around noon on July 6, 1865 four of the eight conspirators were informed that they had been found guilty in the conspiracy and sentenced to hang the very next day, July 7. The remaining four conspirators were not officially told of their fates until almost a week later (although there is much evidence that states they were notified by their lawyers, friends, families and even sympathetic soldiers). Besides the eight conspirators, one other prisoner was being held in the cellblock. Burton Harrison, President Jefferson Davis’ secretary, was there.
      The four condemned prisoners were moved from the cells they were currently occupying to ones located on the ground floor, south side. On the map of the penitentiary, it is the top row of cells shown on the smaller cellblock on the left. The eight cell numbers ranged from 151 to 158 on the ground floor, south side. George Atzerodt was put in 151, Mary Surratt in 153, David Herold in 155 and Lewis Payne (Powell) in 157. They remained there for the last 24 hours of their lives visited by reverends and priests, family members, lawyers, etc. At approximately 1:06pm on July 7, 1865, the four prisoners were escorted from the cellblock out into the south yard of the Arsenal penitentiary under the glare of about 300 military men, press and special guests. In front of them stood the scaffold. In a short 19 minute military-efficient procedure, they climbed the 13 steps of the gallows, were seated, read the Order of Execution, prayed for by three ministers, stood up, bound and hooded and then hanged at 1:25pm. Their bodies remained hanging until being cut down around 2:00pm. They were then examined and buried in graves which had been dug right next to the scaffold.
      Marina, I hope this has helped to better orient you to the cell locations within the penitentiary. Please feel free to ask any further questions. The incarceration and punishments of the Lincoln Conspirators is what me and my writing/research partner, John Elliott specialize in.

      • Hi, yes, I have further questions. So the final cells on the ground floor, did they have windows? how were they lit? I’m asking because I’m actually writing something about this and need to research the details. So any info on the cells and what they were like would be most appreciated.

      • Hi Marina: Please write me at and I’ll do my best to help you with your research. My writing partner and I specialize in the incarceration and punishments of the Lincoln conspirators and I can share a lot of information with you. Let me know what your project is about as I’d love to hear. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Quickly though. There were no windows in the cells. The only light that came into these cells came through the cell doors and the dim light that filtered in from the outside wall windows. Lanterns were used but whether they were used inside the cells has never been noted (as far as we have found). The cells were very small and dark. Sometimes the stories about David Herold being visited by his six sisters seems suspect as they could not have all fit into small space at the same time. Also, the prisoners were only in these cells from late afternoon to about 12:30pm the following day (so much of the time they were in the darkness of the night).
        I look forward to hearing from you.

      • Hi, Barry, I have emailed you but this may have gone into your junk folder.

      • Hi M. I’ve been crazy busy lately but did get your email this morning. Please let me know if you received my response. I will follow up with the reference material I promised.

  18. My family lived in the building sometime between 1973 and 1975. My sister and I thought we saw a lady in a down stairs storage room area. It scared us because we thought we were the only ones there. The lady disappeared when we went to see what she was doing. We did not see her disappear she just was not there. A lady in the appartment above us kept complaining about the bathroom light. Not sure if it would turn on or off. I will always remember that place.


    • Hi Ronda. Well, you are not alone. Building 20 or Grant Hall as it is known today has a long standing history of ‘ghost sightings’. The descriptions most often told are of a woman dressed in black and seen walking the halls. It has always been assumed that this was the ghost of Mary Surratt but many women have lived in the building. As well, female prisoners were housed there for many years while it functioned as a penitentiary. I’d love to hear more of your experience in the building. Please feel free to write me at

  19. Barry,

    Enjoy the website as well as your books on the Conspirators. I do have a couple of questions. In the first paragraph of the ‘Pre-Trial Period’ it reads that Booth was to be buried 10 feet deep. Do you think he was buried that deep? It seems kind of lurid and reminds me of the penny novels of the time. Also, based on the responses above, the bodies of Booth, Wirz, and the Conspirators bodies were moved to the Storehouse. Is that the building that sits adjacent to the Penitentiary and is seen in the photos of the hanging?

    Barry Doohan

    • Hi Barry: John wrote that article about four years ago. It does seem very unlikely that they would have dug down ten feet as he mentions. But knowing John’s tenacity for research, he likely picked up that dimension from some historical reference. I’ll ask him and see if i can get a beter clarification on who stated this. It could have come from Dr. George Porter who witnessed the burial or a contemporary newspaper that might have gotten it wrong. I’ll check with John and see if he can find this out for you.
      Regarding the reburial of the conspirators, Booth and Wirz in 1867 (when the penitentiary was to be torn down), they were moved to a storehouse called Warehouse 1. Many believe that Warehouse 1 can be seen in several photos taken in the Arsenal grounds. I have a very large collection of images taken at the Arsenal during the Civil war and continue to collect them as I find them. The warehouse most often stated to be Warehouse 1 is the long building that is the second one south of the Model Arsenal building (the building where the photo of the penitentiary seen at the beginning of this article was taken from).
      Although it is possible that this is the building, recent newspaper accounts I’ve found indicate that Warehouse 1 was fire damaged and not being used for storage at the time of the burials. Maps of the arsenal grounds do not identify any of the buildings as Warehouse 1. However, one map indicates that the long building that sits next to the one believed to be Warehouse 1 burned down. So the question now is, was this the fire damaged building where they were buried or was Warehouse 1 (possibly damaged by the fire in the building that burned down) the one? Stay tuned.

  20. Can we see a modern map of where the Arsenal was? I lived in Anacostia many years and would love to know how much history I missed. Wish I had the same opportunity again. Thanks

    • Hi Frances. I will be happy to post this as soon as I can. Stay tuned.

  21. Barry:
    The brother of my great-great grandfather served in Company C, Fourth Regiment, Hancock’s First Army Corps. (another reference states that it was First Vermont Army Corps.) from Jan 1865-Jan 1866. According to his obituary, he stood guard over the conspirators, and witnessed the hangings. Does a list of the names of soldiers or the units stationed at the Washington Arsenal in July 1865 exist?. Any help would be greatly appreciated as I would like to confirm this if possible.

    • Hi Rick. Thanks for writing. My research partner and I have studied the incarceration and punishments of the Lincoln conspirators for years and work with Ft. McNair often now on research and presentations. We have only come across one list of soldiers so far that guarded the prisoners. It was in a diary which listed the men who guarded the cells of the prisoners on July 7 only (the day of the executions). We have not found any other reference which lists soldiers who guarded the prisoners during their trial period at the penitentiary. Can you tell me the name of your GGG’s brother so I can see if his name is part of that list?

      • Joseph L. Turner. What about units assigned to Washington Arsenal? Thanks for your help. Rick

      • Hi Rick,
        I may have some good news for you but it’s not definitive. Of the twenty or so soldiers listed for guard duty in the diary I mentioned earlier, there is a J. Turner or Tower there. Based on the handwriting of the other names, I’m leaning towards Turner. The notation next to his name says he was part of Company F, Regiment 14 (but that would still need to be verified as I have found one or two discrepancies in the past that were not quite right) and was part of the 2nd Relief Guard on July 7, 1865. So if this guard, J. Turner, is the brother of your Great Great Grandfather, this could be a wonderful piece of the puzzle that you’ve helped me find.

        Next week, I’ll send you an email with a copy of the diary page, along with an explanation of the cell numbers J. Turner was assigned to.

        For security reasons, guards were rotated from cell to cell during their shifts. During his shift on July 7 he guarded cells 153, 151 & 194.

        I’m sorry I can’t get back to you earlier than next week but I’m currently involved in a project that needs my immediate attention. But I’ll free up next week and we can get into more detail then.


      • Thank you Barry. I am very appreciative. That will give me time to find Joseph Turner’s obituary and either find a link to it online, or transcribe it for you.

      • Thanks for keeping me in the loop. Please continue the good and interesting work.

        On Wed, Apr 6, 2016 at 10:44 AM, A Little Touch of History wrote:

        > Rick Turner commented: “Thank you Barry. I am very appreciative. That will > give me time to find Joseph Turner’s obituary and either find a link to it > online, or transcribe it for you.” >

  22. […] in the barn to be immediately and secretly buried in the Old Penitentiary on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal, land now a part of Ft. McNair. A grave was dug beneath the prison floor on the evening of April […]

  23. I’ve been researching Surratt and the trial for a play called The Judicial Murder of Mary Surratt. I would like to play the part of Mary. Is there any way I would be able to visit the space where the trial took place?

    • HI Charlene. How exciting for you. I hope you win the part. The trial room is on the 3rd floor of the building called Grant Hall at Ft. Lesley McNair. This is a working military base so is not open to the public. However, the good news is that 4 times a year, the base opens its doors on a Saturday for public tours. I’m travelling right now so can’t tell you the schedule for sure but I believe the next open house is in August. I hope that is not too late for your audition.
      If I remember, I’ll find out upon my return and post the remaining dates for this year. Break a leg!

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