THE BOOTH AUTOPSY PHOTO: A MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT COMING THIS WEEK

harpers-weekly-may-13-1865

May 29, 2013

Barry Cauchon

As many of you know, my research partner, John Elliott and I have been working on our book, “Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators” which is due for release at the end of this year. On May 17, John was investigating aspects of photographer Timothy O’Sullivan’s involvement in the Lincoln conspirator photo sessions conducted aboard the Union monitors Saugus and Montauk. During his search, John discovered a major find of historical importance related to the John Wilkes Booth autopsy photograph.

For those of you not familiar with the story of John Wilkes Booth’s autopsy photograph and the significance of what will be presented here and on our Facebook page “Inside the Walls”, I will quickly summarize what this is about.

On April 26, 1865, after twelve days of being on the run following Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice David Herold were tracked down by Union soldiers in Bowling Green, Virginia. After a short standoff, Herold gave himself up but Booth, refusing to surrender, was shot and died on site. Herold and the body of Booth were transported back to Washington and in the early morning hours of April 27, delivered to the USS Montauk, a Union monitor anchored 100 yards offshore from the Navy Yard. Moored next to the Montauk was a second monitor, the USS Saugus. The two ships were heavily guarded and received Herold, who joined seven other prisoners suspected of being involved in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and other government officials. Booth’s body was placed on a carpenter’s bench on the deck of the Montauk. Later that morning, photographer Alexander Gardner, who had visited the ships over the previous week and a half for the purpose of photographing some of the prisoners, was called upon again. Gardner and an assistant were summoned to photograph the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth. According to a letter written by Detective James A. Wardell published in Mark Katz’ 1999 book “Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner”, Wardell reported that he was instructed to collect Gardner and his assistant (Timothy O’Sullivan) and escort them to the Navy Yard for the sole purpose of photographing Booth’s autopsy. Only one photograph was to be taken and he was instructed to personally accompany the assistant back to the studio to obtain one print from that negative. He was then to deliver the negative and print to Secretary of War Stanton at the War Department. Based on Wardell’s letter, he did as he was told and went to the War Department where he met Col. Lafayette Baker just outside of Stanton’s office. Wardell gave Baker the envelope containing the negative and print. Once satisfied with its content, Baker dismissed Wardell. The photograph has never been seen since. 

In the world of Lincoln Assassination research circles and Civil War photography investigators, this photograph is considered to be one of the Holy Grails of relics associated with this tragic event.

Besides the Wardell letter, other clues point to its existence. A NY Tribune article published on April 28, 1865 stated that a photograph was taken. Then in May, two woodcut illustrations were published (one in Harper’s Weekly and one in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper). Both drawings looked similar in detail and supposedly were based on Gardner’s actual photograph (a practice often employed by the newspapers since printing technology to reproduce photographs didn’t exist at that time). To further add to the belief that the photograph existed, in 1952, a fourteen year old boy name Ron Rietveld discovered an authentic photograph of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin. This photograph had originally been confiscated by Secretary of War Stanton and was thought to be destroyed. The belief was that if Stanton held onto this photograph, then in all likelihood he kept the photograph of Booth’s autopsy as well.

This week, John and I will publish one of the biggest finds we’ve ever made since we began investigating and researching the story of Lincoln’s assassination. And it will shed new and very exciting information about the Booth autopsy photograph. Stay tuned.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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HANGMAN CHRISTIAN RATH: INCOMPETENCE, COMPLICITY OR JUST COMMON PRACTICE

Captain Christian Rath - Chief executioner / hangman of the condemned Lincoln conspirators

Captain Christian Rath – Chief executioner / hangman of the condemned Lincoln conspirators

According to published reports from the day of the Lincoln conspirator hangings on July 7, 1865, at least two of the four executed did not die cleanly (immediately). In fact, David E. Herold suffered for as much as 5 minutes while Lewis Powell (aka Paine) took even longer. Did the hangman, Captain Christian Rath of the Seventeenth Michigan Infantry, First Division, Ninth Corps, do his best even though it resulted in a questionable outcome? Or did Rath know exactly what he was doing and spitefully adjusted the ropes improperly to ensure that the victims suffered harshly for their crimes!

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Preparations are made for the hanging of the Lincoln Conspirators on July 7, 1865.

One could argue that professional hangmen do not always make the correct decisions in carrying out their duties and as a result, the condemned can unintentionally experience agonizing deaths. In America, during the time of the Civil War, a “short drop” was used as the standard in hanging. This would involve a drop of 4 to 6 feet regardless of the height or weight of the criminal. England would later develop the “long drop”, where precise calculations of the criminal’s height and weight would be made to determine the appropriate distance of the drop. According to the article “Hanged by the Neck Until You Are Dead” at  http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/hanging.html  “A standard drop of 5 feet was used for the Lincoln conspirators despite significant weight variations”.

What factors can be attributed to Rath’s performance on the scaffold on that hot July day? Considering that 50% of the hangings appear to have been mishandled, it is easy to become suspicious about the results. The first question to ask is whether Rath was a competent or experienced hangman?  He was not. Only one other time was he scheduled to be the hangman at an execution but a last minute reprieve of the defendant relieved him of that responsibility.  So whether he was capable of performing this multiple hanging or not, the appearance of potential sabotage is raised.

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Apparently, George Atzerodt (right) and Mary Surratt (not shown) were the only two conspirators to die cleanly.

The second question is more ‘conspiracy based’ and hints at a more sinister motive. Could Rath have intentionally manipulated the event, shortening the ropes to the detriment of the victims? Given the mood of the day and the outright blood lust to avenge both Lincoln’s assassination and to punish the South for the war, it is plausible that this scenario is possible. Perhaps Rath, acting alone, or on orders from his commanders or government officials, ensured that some, if not all, of the conspirators experienced difficult deaths. In particular, Lewis Powell, who attacked Secretary of State William Seward, and David E. Herald, who accompanied Booth during their 12-day run from the authorities, suffered the most on the gallows.

In the end, it’s all conjecture but makes for an interesting discussion/debate. My personal belief is that the hangings were appropriately arranged based on the knowledge and standard of the day. Evidence shows that Rath very much respected Powell and had no ill will towards him. His hope that he would die quickly was genuine and I believe that he did everything he could to ensure that Powell’s hanging was quick and painless. Regrettably, the results did not work out that way. Please feel free to add your input and opinions.

I look forward to hearing from you on this subject.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

NOTE: Below, is an excerpt from the article “Hanged by the Neck Until You Are Dead” found at http://www.geocities.com/trctl11/hanging.html which discusses the intricacies of hanging and the protocols involved. It is appropriate for this discussion.
 
How hanging causes death.
Hanging with no or insufficient drop typically produces death by strangulation (asphyxia) due to the weight of the person’s body pulling down on the noose, causing it to tighten and constrict the trachea (air passage) and applying pressure to the large blood vessels in the neck. The condemned person usually struggles for some time after suspension, due to the physical pain caused by the noose. It can take up to 3 minutes for the person to lapse into unconsciousness in this form of hanging, as the rope occludes the jugular veins and carotid arteries but the vertebrae protects the vertebral and spinal arteries which also supply blood to the brain. However, these arteries go outside the fourth vertebrae instead of inside it, which subjects them to blockage if the pressure on the neck is high enough (usually about 40-50 lbs. for a normal person) and this can cause the loss of consciousness in less than 15 seconds. Death can also come from sudden stoppage of the heart due to pressure on the carotid arteries which can cause a lethal carotid sinus reflex or from Vagal reflex (pressure on the Vagal nerve) which causes unconsciousness very quickly. This form of hanging is typical in suicides and it quite normal for the inquest to find that the victim died from heart failure rather than strangulation.
After suspension the face may become engorged and cyanosed (turned blue through lack of oxygen). The tongue may protrude and rippling movements of the body and limbs may occur which are usually attributed to nervous and muscular reflexes. There exist many pictures of actual hangings, both judicial and suicide, which seem to show that the person died quickly and quite peacefully.
In death, the body typically shows marks of suspension, e.g., bruising and rope marks on the neck and in some cases traces of urine, semen and feces. Male prisoners sometimes have penile erections and even ejaculate while hanging.
This form of asphyxial death is known, medically as anoxia, as the brain becomes starved of oxygen. Whole body death results usually within less than 20 minutes.

Where a measured drop is used, it takes between a quarter and a third of a second for a person to reach the end of the rope after the trap opens. The force produced by the prisoner’s body weight multiplied by the length of fall and the force of gravity, coupled with the position of the knot is designed to cause a virtually instant fracture-dislocation of the neck which leads to death by comatose asphyxia. Typically brain death will occur in around 3-6 minutes and whole body death within 5-15 minutes.
The cause of death is still asphyxia but the condemned person is deeply unconscious at the time due to dislocation of the cervical vertebrae and the crushing or separation of the spinal cord. The face may come engorged and then cyanosed and the tongue may protrude. Some slight movements of the limbs and body may occasionally occur and are attributed to spinal reflexes. The prisoner may urinate and/or defecate as their muscles relax. The heart can continue to beat for as long as 25 minutes after the drop.

Does the prisoner feel pain after the drop?
Obviously no one can be sure but it is generally held that if they do feel pain, it is only during the instant that their neck is broken.
The witnessed hangings of WestleyAllan Dodd (see above) in Washington and Billy Bailey in Delaware did not indicate any obvious signs of conscious suffering.
It is probable that many people blackout as they fall through the trap and are already unconscious before they reach the end of the drop.
However, according to Harold Hillman, a British physiologist who has studied executions, “the dangling person probably feels cervical pain, and suffers from an acute headache, as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck. It had been generally assumed that fracture-dislocation of the neck causes instantaneous loss of sensation. Sensory pathways from below the neck are ruptured, but the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them”.
In the opinion of Dr. Cornelius Rosse, the chairman of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Washington School of Medicine, the belief that fracture of the spinal cord causes instantaneous death is wrong in all but a small fraction of cases.

END.

Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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