THE WASHINGTON D.C. ARSENAL PENITENTIARY (Part 2 of 3)

August 4, 2009: Barry Cauchon.

John Elliott has completed his 2nd of 3 parts on the Washington D.C. Arsenal Penitentiary. This segment covers the period from 1865 to 1869 and discusses the trial, the executions, the aftermath and fate of the penitentiary.

Excellent job John.

Enjoy.

Barry

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THE WASHINGTON D.C. ARSENAL PENITENTIARY (Part 2 of 3)

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

Part 2: The Trial and Execution Period (1865-1869)   

One of the hoods worn by the Lincoln Conspirators

One of the hoods worn by the Lincoln Conspirators

Secretary of War Stanton

Secretary of War Stanton

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the failed attempt to cripple the Union government, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton vowed to capture and punish those who carried out the heinous attacks.  It was widely believed that such a strike against the North was a calculated, military tactic by Jefferson Davis and the South to re-ignite the war against the Union.

Stanton initiated the aggressive pursuit of those involved in the conspiracy and ordered the arrest of hundreds of suspects and witnesses.  The investigation quickly led to the apprehension of several people with direct involvement in the plot. Six of these suspects: Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Ned Spangler, Mike O’Laughlen and Sam Arnold were captured and subsequently confined to Union Navy ships while the majority of the general detainees were held in the Old Capitol Prison and Carroll Annex.  Dr. Mudd and Mary Ann Surratt were held in the Old Capitol Prison but were considered prime suspects.

 

The Old Capitol Prison

The Old Capitol Prison

Union Navy Ship U.S.S. Saugus

Union Navy Ship U.S.S. Saugus...one of the monitor class ships that imprisoned some of the conspirator suspects.

In order to group the criminal defendants in one place and separate them from the rest of the detainees, Major Thomas Eckert suggested to Secretary Stanton that the old Arsenal Penitentiary be re-activated.  Major Eckert was the Telegraph Superintendent of the War Department and a trusted friend of President Lincoln. He was one of the many people who had declined the President’s invitation to attend the play “Our American Cousin” that tragic evening.

Major Thomas T. Eckert

Major Thomas T. Eckert

The Penitentiary had not been in use as a prison for three years.   Surrounded by water on three sides, it was considered to be one of the most secure and heavily guarded places in Washington D.C. 

Distant view of the D.C. Arsenal

Distant view of the Washington D.C. Arsenal

It had plenty of cells to accommodate the prisoners and even had a large enough room (on the 3rd floor of the former Deputy Warden’s quarters) to host the trial.  Security was extremely important because it was thought that the Southern forces may try to break the prisoners free or that northern loyalists may try to exact revenge on the conspirators.

On April 28th, 1865 Secretary Stanton ordered the commanding officer of the Arsenal to prepare the prison building for its new inmates.  Prison cells in the female ward (these cells were twice as large as the men’s cells) were cleared and inspected.  Shuck mattresses were delivered to the cells and nails were taken out of the walls to ensure that the prisoners would not harm themselves or possibly others.

General John F. Hartranft

General John F. Hartranft

Andrew Johnson appointed 34 year old General John F. Hartranft to take command of the Arsenal Penitentiary.  He would serve as the provost marshal and military governor of the prison and would be responsible for the defense of the Arsenal as well as the supervision of every aspect of the prisoners’ daily lives.  He would make sure they were fed and cleaned and that no one would communicate with them unless authorized by written orders of Secretary of War Stanton.

Rules of the Prison

By May 4th, all eight of the suspects would be imprisoned at the Arsenal.  Gen. Hartranft was issued a list of rules to guide his governance. Four of the twenty-eight rules of governance were as follows:

1. The keys of the Military Prison will be kept by the Military Governor who will make a personal inspection of each prisoner at least twice every twenty four hours.

The first inspections began at 7 am and the second would usually occur at 8 pm.

2. A medical officer will be assigned to make a medical inspection daily with the Governor twice in twenty four hours.  The inspection will be made in the presence of the Governor and at the times he makes his inspections.

The two medical examinations may seem excessive until you examine the following rule –

3. No prisoner will be allowed to escape alive or to defeat the ends of justice by self destruction.

Dr. George L. Porter

Dr. George L. Porter

Dr. George L. Porter, the appointed army physician of the Arsenal, accompanied Gen. Hartranft and conducted physical examinations of each prisoner.  He was permitted only to ask or answer medical questions from the inmates.  No other communication was allowed.

Dr. Porter also holds the distinction as being one of the few people who saw John Wilkes Booth buried in the storage room of the Penitentiary on April 27th, 1865.

4. The prisoners are to be supplied with nothing but necessary food and water during their imprisonment unless by special order….and the Military Governor will be responsible for preventing any knives, spoons or other articles from going into the possession of any prisoner, wherewith he may attempt to escape or take his own life or injure his person.

The prisoners’ meals usually consisted of coffee or tea, bread and salted meat.  After finishing their meal, the bowl in which their beverage was served was removed.  No other items would be brought in to the cell.

 

The Courtroom Layout

Special modifications were made to the building in order to have the trial on the third floor.  The courtroom was located in the northeast corner of the prison.  According to various sources, the courtroom measured 40 feet by 27 feet in size. Michael Kauffman details the courtroom layout and modifications in “Fort McNair and the Lincoln Conspirators”:

A door  was cut through the wall between the courtroom and the women’s cells, where all of the prisoners were kept. This would allow the accused to reach the courtroom without having to pass through the public areas of the building’s lower floors. The courtroom itself was whitewashed and a raised platform with a wooden railing was constructed for the prisoners to sit on while the court was in session. Flat bars were placed over the windows and gas lighting was introduced into the room.

Courtroom Layout in the Arsenal Penitentiary

Courtroom Layout in the Arsenal Penitentiary

A staircase ran along the east wall and led to a doorway in the northeast corner of the room.  The courtroom had  two windows that faced north and two to the east.  The prisoners were kept in the same seating arrangements throughout the trial. Samuel Arnold was the closest defendant to a window and would often be seen staring out into the freedom of the Washington D.C. skies. Two doors on the south side of the wall led to adjacent rooms. The rooms were supplied with beds and chairs for witnesses, members of the legal teams and military commission.

 The platform that was built for the prisoners stretched along the west wall and led to a doorway that opened to the cell block.  Thirteen chairs were placed on the platform to accommodate seven prisoners and the six guards that sat alternately between them.

Courtroom Sketch

Courtroom Sketch

Mary Surratt and her counsel had their own table that was situated near the platform.  This special arrangement may have been due to the fact that she was having health issues and fell ill during the trial.  It was thought that her condition might improve if she was given more room to breathe.

General Hartranft wrote in his journal that “Mrs. Surratt became so ill that it was necessary to remove her from the courtroom”.  At one point, she was permitted to sit in one of the adjoining rooms in order to avoid the sweltering heat and uncomfortable conditions of the crowded trial room.

In the north side of the courtroom stood a large table for the members of the commission, and on the south side was an equally large table for spectators and reporters.  Between them was the witness stand, where the witnesses faced the commission to give their testimony. Smaller tables were provided for counsel and evidence.

image_b_2_7271  3-727

image_a_2_7273  image_b_3_727

Strict security measures were put in to place during the trial.  A different guard would be used to escort the heavily shackled and hooded prisoners to the courtroom each day. In order to preclude the conspirators from talking with each other, they were forced to wear canvas hoods on their way to the courtroom and in their cells — all except for Dr. Mudd and Mary Surratt.  They were never forced to wear hoods.

General Hartranft also saw to it that the inmates were never allowed to occupy adjacent cells. In order to prevent messages from being tapped out to each other through the walls, every other cell was left empty. Additionally, the prison guard detail was changed out on a daily basis to make sure that no single guard would guard the same prisoner more than once.

General Hartranft respectfully and dutifully fulfilled his obligations as Military Governor of the Arsenal.  This was not an assignment that he took with much enthusiasm.  Even his wife tried to talk him out of becoming known as a “hangman”.  Difficult as it was, General Hartranft could take pride that he was selected due to his outstanding achievements and excellent record as an obedient soldier.  Only the best officer could be counted on to take this role.

During the trial period, Gen. Hartranft showed compassion towards the prisoners’ well-being on separate occasions.  In June, he requested of his commanding officer that five of the six inmates who wore the canvas hoods, be allowed to take them off.  The only exception was Lewis Powell.  The hood didn’t seem to bother him as much as the others.

From Gen. Hartranft’s journal:

“The prisoners are suffering very much from their padded hoods, and I would respectfully request that they be removed from all the prisoners except 195 (Powell). This prisoner does not suffer as much as the others and there may be some necessity for his wearing it, but I do not think there is for any others.”

During that same month of June, Gen. Hartranft requested and was approved to remove the ball and chain attached to the limbs of prisoners Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt.  Powell had been observed by a Sentinel on duty, trying to place a weighted ball against his head in attempt to do damage to himself.

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock

General Hartranft also saw to it that other requests were granted to the prisoners.  He made sure that they received chewing tobacco, writing paper and ink, clothing (including underclothing) and various food items.  All of these requests were granted at the permission of his commanding officer General Winfield Scott Hancock.

On July 7th, 1865, General Hartranft completed his duties by seeing to it that the Orders of Execution of four of the prisoners were carried out.  The four remaining prisoners (Mudd, Arnold, Spangler and O’Laughlen) would later be transferred to the Island of Dry Tortugas to serve their sentences. The bodies of the hanged conspirators were placed in pine boxes and buried in shallow graves next to the gallows.  In November of that same year, the body of Henry Wirz (tried by a military commission and executed at the Old Capitol Prison grounds) would join them. They would remain buried there for the next two years.

In September of 1867, John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators would be reunited. Secretary of War Stanton ordered that the Arsenal Penitentiary be demolished except for the eastern and western ends of the building.  The ends of the building were to be spared and converted to Officer’s quarters.  As a result of the new construction work, all of the conspirators’ bodies would be exhumed and moved to another building on the Arsenal grounds known as Warehouse 1.  A trench that measured eight by eighteen feet and six feet deep was dug for the bodies.  The bodies were examined and then placed in the trench in the following order (east to west): Booth, Surratt, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Wirz.

In February of 1869, Andrew Johnson ordered that the bodies be released to their families.  This final act closed the chapter on the Arsenal Penitentiary’s role in President Lincoln’s Assassination.

End of Part 2 of 3

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Sources:

Surratt Society: Laurie Verge and Joan Chaconas

Michael Kauffman: FortLesley McNair and the Lincoln Conspirators

Michael Kauffman: American Brutus

David K. Sullivan: Behind Prison Walls: The Operation of the District Penitentiary, 1831-1862

Phyllis I. McClellan: Silent Sentinel on the Potomac

Edward Steers Jr., and Harold Holzer: The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators – The Confinement and Execution, As Recorded In The Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft

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Best

Barry

outreach@awesometalks.com

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THE WASHINGTON D.C. ARSENAL PENITENTIARY (Part 1 of 3)

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.

Best

Barry

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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)

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

Sources:

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