July 07, 2010: Barry Cauchon
It was 145 years ago today that four of the eight conspirators tried for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln were marched to the gallows to carry out their sentences of execution.
This account is a simplified version of what occurred that day.
George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell and Mary Surratt (the first woman to be executed by the United States Federal Government) had received the news of their sentences only 24 hours earlier and now, their time had come.
Just after 1:00pm, the four condemned were escorted from their cell block into the south yard of the Arsenal Penitentiary where they had been held since early May. Their trial had been conducted in a makeshift courtroom on the third floor of the east wing of the facility.
As they emerged from the penitentiary’s heavily fortified door, they were accompanied by twenty-two other people (military officers, soldiers, detectives and clergy). One by one the conspirators were assisted up the thirteen steps of the scaffold and seated. The executioner, Captain Christian Rath, placed Mary Surratt in the chair farthest to the left. He later stated that this was the traditional “place of honor” for a hanging. Next to Mrs. Surratt was Lewis Powell, the man who attempted to assassinate the Secretary of State, William H. Seward on the same night that the President was cut down. Next came David Herold, who accompanied John Wilkes Booth during his 12-day flight after the assassination. Herold gave himself up when he and Booth were cornered in the tobacco barn at the Garrett Farm. Finally, George Atzerodt was seated at the far right side of the scaffold. Atzerodt’s assignment had been to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, which he never even attempted, but was still convicted for his part in the conspiracy.
All four sat quietly while General John F. Hartranft read the Orders of Execution (the death warrant). Upon completing the reading, Lewis Powell’s minister stepped forward and spoke on behalf of Powell, thanking the staff and soldiers who had guarded him for all their kindnesses and then said a prayer for Powell’s soul. Next came David Herold’s minister who did the same. George Atzerodt’s minister spoke last and repeated the process, thanking the staff and then praying for Atzerodt’s soul.
The two Catholic priests who accompanied Mary Surratt did not speak publicly and prayed with her quietly during this time.
After the last prayer had been said, there was nothing left to do but prepare the four for hanging. They were told to stand and were positioned on the traps that would be knocked out from under them in a few short minutes. Designated officers, detectives and the executioner bound their legs and arms with cloth strips, fitted the nooses around their necks and placed canvas hoods over their heads.
As soon as all were prepared, the assistants stepped back off of the traps, leaving only the four condemned standing and waiting. Quickly a signal was given and the traps were sprung. The four dropped. Two seemed to lose consciousness immediately and suffered little if any, while the other two remained conscious and ‘died hard’.
Thus brought to a close, the harshest punishments doled out by the military commission assigned to try the conspirators accused in the assassination of President Lincoln.
As many of you know, John Elliott (my writing and research partner) and I are preparing an in-depth study on the executions and the events that happened within the walls of the Arsenal Penitentiary. Our book is called “Inside the Walls: The Final Days of the Lincoln Conspirators”. It will be filled with photographs, illustrations, forensic and detailed analysis, architectural drawings, fascinating stories and a full review of the Alexander Gardner execution photographs.
We anticipate the book will be ready by the end of 2010.
If you wish to receive updated information on the book, please sign up on my update list by writing me at firstname.lastname@example.org and put the word BOOK in the subject line. As well, visit our Facebook page at Inside the Walls (click on the icon at the upper right hand side of this page).