As those who are familiar with the goings-on at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse know, one of the more intriguing characters to pass through its doors was a veiled lady named Sarah Slater, a courier for the Confederate government who traveled on several occasions with Mary’s son John. Known as the “French lady” because of her excellent command of the language, Sarah frequently made the journey from Richmond to Montreal, where a number of Confederate operatives were stationed and where Sarah could use her linguistic skills to pass herself off as a local.
Although Sarah’s name was brought up frequently during the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial, she was never imprisoned or called as a witness. During the trial, Connecticut newspapers identified the mysterious veiled lady as the former Sarah Antoinette Gilbert, born on January 12, 1843, at Middletown, Connecticut, and married to a North Carolina-born dancing master, Rowan Slater, but no one else followed up on this scoop at the time, and Sarah remained literally veiled in mystery until 1982, when famed assassination researcher James O. Hall painstakingly traced her history from birth until her disappearance from the scene in 1865.
Nearly thirty years passed until two other researchers, John F. Stanton and Dr. Jeanne Christie, added further details to Sarah Slater’s story. Having settled in New York City, Sarah divorced her husband, Rowan Slater, in 1866. Subsequently, she married a Mr. Long, and then a William W. Spencer, both of whom she survived. She died on June 20, 1920, in the unexotic locale of Poughkeepsie, New York, and was buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery beside her mother and her sister.
Sarah left a will, dated April 8, 1920. As wills are a favorite topic of this blog, I thought I’d give you some highlights of Sarah’s–and as a further treat, I’m placing a scanned image of the original, held at the Dutchess County, New York, Courthouse, on my website.
Sarah first provided for headstones for her own grave and for those of her sister and her mother. As you can see here, they were duly erected–but note the discrepancy between the year of birth on the tombstone and that mentioned above. Either the person who gave instructions to the stonemason was confused, the stonemason made a mistake, or Sarah, like many ladies of her time, saw no reason to be strictly truthful about her age.
Next, Sarah (who was childless) distributed some of her personal belongings. To her friend Frank H. Sincerbeaux, she left two vases in French gilt, painted by Jerome. Margaret Derr, who served as Sarah’s executor, received a gold lorgnette and chain. Helen Drummond got a pair of diamond earrings, a gold watch set in diamonds, and all of Sarah’s souvenir spoons. Mrs. James Warring Gilbert was willed a tortoise shell comb with a gold back, a gold thimble, and an old ivory fan. Frances C. Kolla, Sarah’s niece, got a gold chain and locket set with diamonds, a bracelet, and a stickpin with pearls. James W. Gilbert and Joseph W. Gilbert, Sarah’s nephews, received all of Sarah’s pictures, including her photograph albums.
Sarah then left a number of cash bequests: $1,000 to Margaret Derr; $150 to Mrs. Jennie Fellows; $150 to nephew James W. Gilbert; $300 to nephew Joseph W. Gilbert; $150 each to nephews Robert Gilbert and Oliver Gilbert; and $200 to niece Frances C. Kolla. Sarah directed that her clothing be divided between Margaret Derr and Frances Kolla.
The rest of Sarah’s real and personal property (the “residue”, as it is known in legalese) went to Frances Kolla, Joseph Gilbert, and James Gilbert.
The years and the deaths of various family members had left Sarah comfortably off. Sarah owned land in Hudson County, New Jersey, and in Lenoir County, North Carolina; she also held a mortgage on 8659 19th Street in Brooklyn. James W. Gilbert’s attorney claimed that Sarah owned land in Florida as well. In the same document, he listed numerous items of jewelry that Sarah owned, including a diamond locket, an ebony pearl pin, a watch fob with the initial “S”, her third husband’s service pin, cameo pins, watch fobs, and cuff buttons, gold lockets, and a garnet brooch. As for Sarah’s souvenir spoons, although it is pleasant to think of her picking up spoons for her collection as she traveled from place to place carrying her clandestine messages, such spoons did not become popular until the 1890’s.
Sarah did not owe significant debts at her death. The biggest expense was $593.30 for Ida Chatterton, who had attended Sarah for a couple of months during her final illness.
The beneficiaries who were not related to Sarah came from differing walks of life. Frank H. Sincerbeaux, who had a wife and children and who was active in the Boy Scouts, was a Yale-educated lawyer with a handsome home in Forest Hills, Queens. Twenty-year-old Helen Drummond lived with her parents in East Orange, New Jersey; by 1930, she was working as a magazine editor. Thirty-one-year-old Mrs. James W. Gilbert was the wife of Sarah’s nephew James. Mrs. Gilbert, whose first name was Chloe, lived in Hazleton, Pennsylvania with her husband, a salesman for a brokerage firm, and their eight-year-old son. Jennie Fellows (nee Hogan) born around 1859, was the widow of John Albert Fellows, and lived in East Orange. Margaret Derr, who was born around 1865 and lived on 47 E. 21st Street in Manhattan with her husband George Derr, ran a large boardinghouse at that address. As Sarah chose her for her executor, she must have been particularly close to her, or had a high regard for her administrative abilities. What brought Sarah in touch with this diverse group of people is anyone’s guess. Equally unknown is what these friends and her relatives knew of her adventurous past.
Sarah never did take to the lecture circuit or publish her memoirs, and her will gives little sense of a connection between her older and her younger selves. Perhaps, though, in two of the friends she chose to remember in her will–an older woman running her own business and a younger woman about to embark upon a career–we can get a glimpse of the daring rebel who carried secrets from Richmond to Canada.
James O. Hall, “The Saga of Sarah Slater.” Reprinted in In Pursuit of: Continuing Research in the Field of the Lincoln Assassination (Surratt Society, 1990).
John F. Stanton, “A Mystery No Longer: The Lady in the Veil.” Surratt Courier, August 2011 and October 2011.
Will and probate file for Sarah A. Spencer, Surrogate’s Court, Dutchess County, NY.
Inspired by this pie chart about how to write a novel about Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, I decided to post a few of my own helpful pie charts on my Facebook page. As not everyone hangs out there, I’m putting them here as well (plus a couple of brand-new ones). Just heed the charts carefully, and you too can get a piece of the publishing pie!
Some of my Facebook friends have created their own pie charts, so check them out on my Facebook page!
In the fall of 1864, Mary Surratt, a widow from Prince George’s County, Maryland, moved to Washington, D.C. and opened her property at 541 H Street (the light-colored house below) to boarders. Mary’s late husband, John, had acquired the house years before as part of a land deal.
So who were the people Mary chose to fill her house on H Street? We’ll save the transients–those who stayed for only a few days, two of whom shared the gallows with Mary–for another time. Here are the seven lodgers who were in Mary’s house for the long term:
Louis Weichmann. Age twenty-two, Louis Weichmann had gone to school with Mary’s son John, and the men had kept up the friendship they formed there. An aspiring priest, Louis had recently got a job as a clerk in the War Department. Finding his lodgings in a large boardinghouse to be lonely, he eagerly accepted John Surratt’s invitation to share John’s bedroom–indeed, his bed, although such sleeping arrangements were common at the time and did not raise eyebrows as they would today. The two men occupied the back bedroom on the house’s third story.
Weichmann’s observations of the goings-on at the Surratt boardinghouse would turn him into a star witness at the conspiracy trial that followed President Lincoln’s assassination. How much he knew of John Surratt’s activities, and how loyal he truly was to the Union, remain hotly debated topics even today.
The events of 1865 ended Weichmann’s aspirations for the priesthood (which may not have been that strong to begin with). He returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, where for many years he held a patronage job with the government until a change of administration cost him his position. His brief marriage to Annie Johnson, a temperance activist, ended in separation. Following the loss of his government job, Weichmann moved to Anderson, Indiana, where some of his siblings were living, and opened a business school. He died in 1902, having left a memoir that was not published until 1975.
Nora Fitzpatrick. Nora, a twenty-year-old fresh out of the convent school of Georgetown Visitation, was a native of Washington, D.C., and the daughter of a widowed bank messenger. As Nora’s father himself was in lodgings, apparently with no suitable quarters for Nora, he placed her with Mary Surratt, probably through a mutual acquaintance. Nora shared a bed with Mary Surratt, who had her bedroom in the back of the house’s second story, and sometimes with Anna Surratt as well, although on the night of the assassination, Anna was sharing an attic room with her visiting cousin.
Along with Anna Surratt, Nora bought a photograph of her exciting new acquaintance, John Wilkes Booth, and kept it in her album, where it would be found by detectives searching the boardinghouse. Along with John Surratt, Lewis Powell, and another boarder, young Mary Apollonia Dean, Nora attended Ford’s Theatre on March 15, 1865, sitting in the same box in which President Lincoln was shot a month later. Booth, who had arranged this visit for Surratt and Powell to familiarize themselves with the layout of the theater in preparation for what was then a kidnapping scheme, stopped by the box.
At the conspiracy trial, Nora testified for both the government and the defense; she reprised her testimony at John Surratt’s trial two years later. She was prominent at Mary Surratt’s reburial in 1869.
In 1870, Nora married Alexander Whelan, a widower with two young daughters, and bore him three sons, but the marriage broke down. So, too, did Nora’s mental health, for in 1885 she was committed by her brother to the Government Hospital for the Insane, now known as St. Elizabeths. Nora died there of tuberculosis in 1896. Her psychiatric diagnosis was “chronic melancholia.” She is buried near her parents in Washington’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery, not very far from Mary Surratt’s grave.
Signature of Nora as a married woman
The Holohan family. John T. Holohan, his wife, Eliza (nee Smith) and their children, Mary Catherine and Charles, moved into the boardinghouse in February 1865. The family occupied two rooms in the front of the third story. According to famed assassination researcher James O. Hall, records show that Eliza once accused her husband of assault. A recollection by one of Mary Surratt’s descendants has it that the couple had just reconciled after a separation before they came to live with Mary.
John Holohan worked as a stonecutter, but in 1865 was also involved in procuring substitutes for those wanting to evade service in the Union army. Business was good enough for him to have plenty of greenbacks on hand when John Surratt, heading up to Canada after the fall of Richmond, needed some gold pieces changed. Along with John Surratt, Louis Weichmann, George Atzerodt, and David Herold, on March 18, 1865, John Holohan attended the play The Apostate, starring John Wilkes Booth, who gave his last performance that evening.
Marriage record for John and Eliza Holohan
Eliza Holohan was friendly with both Mary and Anna, although she testified that she knew Anna better. On the evening of the assassination, she and Mary set out for Good Friday services at church, but the two women turned back home on account of the dreary weather. Booth once sent a telegram to Louis Weichmann, which Mrs. Holohan delivered to him at his office.
Of all of the boarders, Charles Holohan, who was about eleven, left the most insubstantial mark in the record; he may have been the life and soul of the parlor, for all we know, but none of his activities during his stay with Mary Surratt seems to have been recorded. His older sister, Mary Holohan, who was about thirteen in 1865, is known only for what she did not do: she was invited to go to the theater in March, but declined because she was preparing for her First Communion, leaving Nora to take her place.
After the assassination, John Holohan and Weichmann were required by detectives to help search for John Surratt, a journey that ultimately took them to Canada, but the mission failed. Both Mr. and Mrs. Holohan testified at the conspiracy trial. Although Mrs. Holohan moved in with her mother after the assassination, the Holohans returned to the boardinghouse after Mary Surratt’s hanging, apparently in order to help Anna Surratt. The boardinghouse, however, was soon lost to creditors.
John Holohan, then working as a stone cutter, died of cancer on July 3, 1877. Eliza Holohan succumbed to tuberculosis on March 6, 1889; she was employed as a “sewer of books.” Charles Holohan, who had followed his father into the stone-cutting business, died of pneumonia on November 11, 1909. He had married Catherine Culthane in 1885. Mary C. Holohan married Francis Shafer, a printer. The last surviving Surratt boarder, Mary died on February 1, 1927, of a cerebral hemorrhage. All of the family was buried at Mount Olivet.
Mary Apollonia Dean. This splendidly named little girl, a day student at the nearby Visitation School for girls, was about ten when she joined the Surratt household. Her mother, Mary Dean, lived near Alexandria, Virginia, a short distance from Washington.
Where young Mary slept in the boardinghouse is unrecorded. Along with Nora Fitzpatrick, she went to the theater in March 1865 with John Surratt and Lewis Powell. Before the assassination, she left Washington to spend the Easter holiday with her family, and never returned to the boardinghouse. On April 24, 1865, her mother asked the mayor of Washington to help her recover her daughter’s trunk from her H Street lodgings.
On December 19, 1872, in Fairfax County, Virginia, Mary Apollonia Dean married the even more splendidly named Napoleon Bonaparte “Harry” Grant. Then, on February 18, 1894, tragedy struck: Harry, who was employed as an engineer on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, was fatally injured when a freight train and a work train collided near Proffits, Virginia. A widow with two children, Mary Grant received $2,000 from a fraternal organization and $4,000 from her husband’s employer, but she was shattered by her husband’s death. Just three months later, on May 14, 1894, she died. The Alexandria Gazette reported that she had never recovered from the shock her nervous system received from her husband’s death, and that “her death is believed to have been the result of the poignant sorrow and shattered nerves from which she had ever since suffered.” Just a few weeks later, her administrator auctioned off her household goods, which included “two fine parlor sets” and carpets. Husband and wife were buried in Alexandria’s St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.
So here they are–seven ordinary, middle-class roomers, all of whom would likely have vanished quietly into obscurity had it not been for the events of April 14, 1865.
Whatever one believes about the guilt or innocence of Mary Surratt, her daughter, Anna, is surely deserving of our sympathy. On July 6, 1865, she had been given the horrifying news that her mother would be executed; the following day, despite Anna’s desperate efforts to beg for her life, the sentence was carried out.
Anna was left not only to grieve, but had to figure out how to salvage a future for herself. Her mother had gone to the gallows heavily in debt; most of the boarders at the H Street townhouse once frequented by John Wilkes Booth had gone elsewhere; and John Lloyd, the tenant who rented the Surratt tavern in southern Maryland, had his own troubles, having been imprisoned and given testimony at the conspiracy trial which revealed him as a hopeless alcoholic. Neither of Anna’s two brothers could help her: Her older brother, Isaac, had been serving with the Confederate army and had yet to make his way home, and her younger brother, John, was a fugitive who himself was in danger of hanging if he were caught. Anna would have to rely on her mother’s relations and family friends to get through the coming months.
Meanwhile, however, Anna had one immediate goal: giving her mother a proper burial. Accordingly, on July 8, 1865, the day after her mother’s death, she roused herself and wrote this letter (held by the Library of Congress):
July 8, 1865
I make my last appeal to the authorities, that is, that they will allow me to receive the remains of my mother. She lived a Christian life, died a Christian death, and now don’t refuse her a Christian burial. If it be in your power I know you will allow me her body immediately.
This favor at your hand will be remembered.
July 8, 1865
Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, was not inclined to give in to this appeal, however. Mary Surratt had had her sympathizers, and the last thing he wanted was to see them flocking to her grave and giving her the status of a martyr. Only in 1869, when President Johnson at last allowed Anna to bury her mother in a place of her own choosing, would Anna get her wish.
The next day, Anna wrote another letter, this time to General John Hartranft, who had been in charge of the Old Arsenal Prison where Mary Surratt spent her last weeks.
July 9, 1865
Genl. Hancock told Mr. Holohan [a boarder at the H Street house] that you had some things that belonged to my poor Ma, which, with my consent you would deliver to him. Don’t forget to send the pillow upon which her head rested and her prayer beads, if you can find them–these things are dear to me.
Someone told me that you wrote to the President stating that the prisoner Payne had confessed to you the morning of the Execution that Ma was entirely innocent of the President’s assassination and had no knowledge of it. Moreover, that he did not think that she had any knowledge of the assassination plot, and that you believed that Payne had confessed the truth. I would like to know if you did it because I wish to remember and thank those who did Ma the least act of kindness. I was spurned and treated with the utmost contempt by everyone at the White House.
Remember me to the officers who had charge of Ma and I shall always think kindly of you.
On July 16, 1865, General Hartranft, preparing to leave his post, informed General Hancock that he had turned over the effects of the executed prisoners to their relatives. Anna had succeeded in one mission at least.
Stanton Papers, Library of Congress
Edward Steers and Harold Holzer, The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft.
On July 6, 1865, General John F. Hartranft, who had been placed in charge of Washington, D.C.’s Old Arsenal Prison, went from cell to cell, informing Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell (known at the time by his alias of Lewis Payne), George Atzerodt, and David Herold that they had been condemned to die for their roles in the assassination of President Lincoln–and that the executions would take place the following day. (The other four defendants, sentenced to imprisonment, would not learn of their sentences until after the hangings took place.) Soon, the newsboys of Washington began shouting the tidings, and workers at the Old Arsenal began building a scaffold for four.
The condemned were each allowed to ask for clergy to support them in their final hours. Mary Surratt chose two priests: Father Jacob Walter of St. Patrick’s Church, and Father Bernadine Wiget of St. Aloysius’s Church. They hastened to the prison to prepare Mary for her impending death.
In the sweltering summer heat of Washington, Anna Surratt, Mary’s daughter, went to the White House to beg for her mother’s life, but was refused a meeting with the President, who referred her to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who had been the chief prosecutor. Holt referred her back to the President. Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt, the inexperienced attorneys who had been entrusted by senior counsel Reverdy Johnson with most of Mary’s defense, did not learn of their client’s sentence until that afternoon. They telegraphed Reverdy Johnson for advice, and were told to seek a writ of habeas corpus. At 2 a.m. on the morning of July 7, Judge Wylie from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, awakened from sleep, signed the writ. For a few hours, it appeared that Mary would cheat the hangman.
On the eve of the hangings, the man appointed to carry out the executions, Captain Christian Rath, fashioned three nooses with seven turns apiece. Wearying of his task, he made only five turns on the fourth noose–that intended for Mary Surratt. Given the likelihood of a pardon due to Mary’s age and sex, he reasoned, it would not be needed.
On the morning of July 7, 1865, Anna Surratt, accompanied by an unnamed female friend, went to the White House to once again beg an audience with the President. Also at the White House were John Brophy, a family friend of the Surratts who was convinced of Mary’s innocence, and Charles Mason, who appears to have no connection to the family but who did not wish to see a woman hang. None were allowed access to the President. John T. Ford, the operator of the theater where Lincoln had been shot, wrote to the President on Mary’s behalf, to no avail.
As Anna and the others waited at the White House, a lady appeared: Adele Douglas, the widow of Senator Stephen Douglas. Pushing her way past the guards, who could hardly stop one of Washington’s grand dames in her tracks, Mrs. Douglas made her way upstairs. No one knows what she said to the President, but he was unmoved by her pleas for Mary Surratt’s life. When the senator’s widow returned downstairs in defeat, John Brophy begged her to try again. She did, with no success. As President Johnson had also suspended the writ of habeas corpus obtained earlier that morning, time and hope were running out.
Defeated, Brophy and Anna returned to the Old Arsenal, outside of which vendors were selling cakes and lemonade to those filling the streets near the compound–although only a few possessed the passes that would allow them go inside the prison walls to see the hangings. Anna joined the others who were saying their farewells to the condemned–Herold’s sisters, Atzerodt’s brother and common-law wife, the defendants’ lawyers. None of Powell’s relations was there to bid him good-bye. Powell’s lawyer. learning his client’s identity, had written to his father in Florida, but the letter did not arrive until the day before the executions. Meanwhile, photographer Alexander Gardner stationed his camera in place, ready to capture the hangings for posterity.
At around 1:00 p.m., the four prisoners, escorted by soldiers and accompanied by their spiritual advisors, processed to the newly built scaffold, where four chairs and four nooses awaited them. Mary Surratt, her face veiled, the skirts of her black dress dragging on the ground, led the procession. The prisoners took their seats and listened as their death warrants were read and the clergy offered prayers. Umbrellas were raised to protect Mary and some of the others on the scaffold from the blistering midday sun.
The preliminaries over, the four prisoners were made to stand as they were bound with strips of cloth, then fitted with a noose and a white hood. Lieutenant Colonel William McCall, who had Mary in his charge, carefully removed her veil and bonnet and replaced it with the noose and hood. It was the first time the federal government would hang a woman.
At around 1:25, Captain Rath clapped his hands three times–the signal for the soldiers standing underneath the scaffold to knock out the props which held the scaffold trap doors in place. The four condemned plunged to their deaths. Mary and Atzerodt died almost instantaneously, but the two youngest conspirators, Herold and Powell, struggled for minutes, Powell trying to lift himself into a sitting position. After about seven minutes, even he gave up life.
About twenty minutes later, the defendants were pronounced dead, then cut down. Nearby, their coffins and freshly dug graves awaited them. But theirs were not the first burials at the prison. One corpse already lay in its grave there–that of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin who had brought the four to their deaths.
It’s a beautiful spring evening in Washington, D.C., way too nice to be sitting in a hotel room, but I had a marvelous two days and wanted to talk about them while they were fresh in my mind. (Apologies for the substandard photography.)
When I heard that Ford’s Theatre was planning a round-the-clock tribute from April 14 to April 15 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, I was determined to get up to Washington , as I was too young to care about the 100th anniversary and probably won’t be around for the 200th anniversary. So as my husband was kind enough to accommodate me, here I am!
I got excited as soon as I approached my hotel in the afternoon of April 14 and saw two young women in hoop skirts getting out of a taxi. The hotel, which is just a block from Ford’s Theatre, played host to many Civil War reenactors , here to depict some of the witnesses to this most tragic night in American history.
As the crowds began to fill the block of 10th Street on which the theater sits, Ford’s Theatre presented “Now He Belongs to the Ages: A Lincoln Commemoration.” I was one of the lucky ones who had tickets to this event (which was also live-streamed via the Internet). There were many wonderful moments, such as opera diva Alyson Cambridge performing a piece from Faust that Lincoln would have heard during one of his many evenings at Ford’s Theatre, the young actress Lauren Williams reading Julia Taft’s recollection of Lincoln’s relationship with his son Tad, and the cast performing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but perhaps my favorite part was singer Judy Collins blowing a kiss to the empty presidential box, then inviting the audience to join her in singing “Amazing Grace.”
In the midst of “Old Hundredth,” the Federal City Brass Band fell silent, marking the time at which Booth’s bullet struck Lincoln. We filed downstairs to find the street packed with a crowd holding candles aloft as reenactors playing figures such as actress Laura Keene and actor Harry Hawk recounted the events of the terrible night.
The vigil lasted all night, but I confess to leaving around midnight to catch a few hours’ sleep. At five in the morning, though, I was up to tour the theatre and to see its special exhibit: “Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination.” For the first time, objects associated with the tragic event—the contents of Lincoln’s coat pocket, his Brooks Brothers greatcoat, Mary Lincoln’s beautiful velvet cape, fragments from the gowns of Mary, her guest Clara Harris, and Laura Keene, Booth’s derringer, and more—were brought together for all to behold.
If you’ve been to Ford’s Theatre, you know that the block it sits on is thoroughly commercialized, with a souvenir store on one corner and a diner known as the Lincoln Waffle Shop. What better place to get a bite to eat after the exhibit than the waffle shop?
I then rejoined the growing crowd in the street. At 7:22 a.m., re-enactor emerged from the Petersen House, where Lincoln was taken to die, to announce the President’s death. There followed a beautiful ceremony where the National Park Service laid a wreath at the Petersen House in memory of the President. Even though this ceremony was taking place during Washington’s rush hour, with cars honking and construction machinery humming, it was if those of us on 10th Street were truly transported back in time for a little while.
With the main part of the ceremony at Ford’s over, I went to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has its own collection of artifacts, including the fatal bullet that wreaked so much havoc.
Back in Washington, I went to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where the barouche that carried President and Mrs. Lincoln is on loan from the Studebaker National Museum.
Finally, I made one last stop at the Newseum, which sits on the site of the National Hotel, where John Wilkes Booth was living at the time of the assassination. There were all the editions of the New York Herald from April 15, 1865, breaking the story of the assassination and adding details (as well as a false report of Booth’s capture) as they became available.
So there ended my Lincoln-related activities for the day. One thing that really struck me was the mix of people I saw who are passionate about Lincoln and about history, like the tattooed young woman in front of me at the theater who showed up in a beautiful Victorian gown, the people crowding around a historian being interviewed as if he were a rock superstar, the woman who brought flowers all the way from Germany for her own tribute to the President, and the many people I saw close to tears this morning. Whatever your historical passion is, I hope that if a similar opportunity comes your way, you will seize it. You won’t regret it.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, on April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, fell to the Union.
The day before, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet had fled the city, having authorized the burning of warehouses and supplies that might prove useful to the approaching Union army. Winds spread the fire, destroying much of the city’s business district. Resident Sallie Putnam wrote, “As the sun rose on Richmond, such a spectacle was presented as can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. . . . The fire was progressing with fearful rapidity. The roaring, the hissing, and the crackling of the flames were heard above the shouting and confusion of the immense crowd of plunderers who were moving amid the dense smoke like demons, pushing, rioting and swaying with their burdens to make a passage to the open air. From the lower portion of the city, near the river, dense black clouds of smoke arose as a pall of crape to hide the ravages of the devouring flames, which lifted their red tongues and leaped from building to building as if possessed of demoniac instinct, and intent upon wholesale destruction. All the railroad bridges, and Mayo’s Bridge, that crossed the James River and connected with Manchester, on the opposite side, were in flames.”
The electrifying news of Richmond’s fall arrived in Washington, D.C., that same day, sending the federal city into a frenzy of celebration which would gain even more momentum with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. During the heady days from April 3 to April 14, Washingtonians lit up their public and private buildings, held parades, and struck up tunes. The saloons, oyster bars, and music halls were packed.
Not all Washingtonians were in a mood to celebrate, however. In the evening of April 3, John Surratt, who had been acting as a courier for the dying Confederacy, turned up at his mother’s boardinghouse. Having just been in Richmond on a mission, he was stunned to hear that the Confederate government had abandoned the city. He also learned that federal detectives were looking for him, having recently arrested one of his fellow couriers.
In any case, John Surratt had a mission to complete: before Richmond fell, Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of War, had given him some dispatches to carry to Southern exiles in Montreal. Accordingly, John, having spent a short time at his mother’s house, went out to eat with one of the boarders, his friend Louis Weichmann, then checked into a Washington hotel. The next morning, he left on his journey to Canada, his dispatches safely hidden in a biography of the abolitionist John Brown. He would never see his mother again, and he would not return to Washington again until 1867, when he was brought there as a prisoner to stand trial for his alleged role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Weichmann would be one of the chief witnesses against him, as he had been at Mary Surratt’s trial in 1865.
Here is a short excerpt from Hanging Mary, as told by Mary Surratt’s boarder Nora Fitzpatrick:
So it came to be that on April 3, 1865, I was sitting by a soldier’s bed, reading to him from Les Misérables (a great favorite among the men), when one of the doctors, a most dignified and reserved man, ran into the ward, threw his hat into the air, and bellowed, “Richmond has fallen!”
There would be no more reading that day.
Some men cheered, and some men cried. Some began to pray, and others just sat in silence, not yet able to grasp the fact that the war at last was nearly at an end. I had been at school when it had started, and I could still remember the nuns gathering us together and praying for a quick end to it. Now, four Aprils later, their prayers were at last being answered.
I slipped out of the hospital and into a city that was going wild. Men were embracing each other in the street; men in uniform were being hoisted up and carried by cheering crowds. Clerks were abandoning their offices; shops were shutting. Who could sit at a desk or stand behind a counter on a day like this? The only people who seemed to be working were the newsboys, and all they had to do was stand still and pocket the money as the extras they held were snatched from their hands. Even if they had tried to shout, they wouldn’t have been heard through the salutes of guns, the ringing of church bells, and the bands that appeared as if out of nowhere to strike up “Yankee Doodle.”
I went upstairs and was reading in the parlor, Mr. Rochester purring in my lap, when Mrs. Surratt and her son went into her bedroom.
Presently, Mrs. Surratt emerged. “Nora, dear, do you have some cologne I can use for Johnny? His head is still pounding.”
I nodded and went into the bedroom, where Mr. Surratt was sprawled out on a sofa, looking rather Byronic. My cologne, straight from Paris, had been a Christmas gift from my father. I wore it on special occasions, such as to the theater—and,I confess, on my last few hospital visits to poor Private Flanagan. Once or twice, I had seen him sniff appreciatively.
After I pulled the cologne from my trunk, Mrs. Surratt dabbed some on Mr. Surratt’s temples with her handkerchief. “Try to rest a little, Son,” she said tenderly. “You have been wearing yourself to rags with your travels.”
We left Mr. Surratt alone on the sofa. An hour or so later, he emerged looking much refreshed and bounded upstairs. When he returned, he had Mr. Weichmann, still wearing the blue pants that had so offended Anna, in tow. “Weichmann and I are going for oysters.”
“Why, you just ate,” Anna said.
“Yes, but there’s nothing like destruction and doom to whet a man’s appetite for oysters. Don’t wait up for us, Ma.”
With Richard III in his final resting place, things have become rather quiet lately, leading me to turn my thoughts to another controversial royal: Anne Boleyn.
Anne, of course, was briefly exhumed in the nineteenth century during renovations in the Tower’s Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, but the Victorians, missing a grand opportunity, quietly reburied her. Isn’t it time we considered digging her up again and giving her a proper burial elsewhere?
Think, for instance, how dull it is going to be now that no one is fighting about where to bury Richard III. With an Anne Boleyn reburial, we have several candidates for a reburial site, all no doubt with their partisans to start Facebook groups, organize petitions, bring actions for judicial review, harass all those who don’t agree, and in general act like four-year-olds on steroids. St. Peter’s at Hever, by her father? Westminster Abbey, by her daughter? Windsor, where she can sneer in death at Henry VIII and his vapid Jane Seymour?
Room for one more?
And there’s the matter of religion, always guaranteed to bring out the best in people. Anne was receptive to certain aspects of Protestantism but died a Catholic. Imagine the fuss over the shape her church service will take!
There’s nothing like a good reburial to stir up an argument over a person’s character, and Anne already has her advocates and her detractors who can most mildly be described as passionate. Just think of all the fun once a reburial heats up this debate, and more partisans, having read a novel or two about Anne and therefore learned all there is to know about her, join in!
Of course, there’s that sixth finger to consider. The Victorians found no sixth finger on the body they identified as Anne’s. Without a sixth finger, will there be a debate as to whether we have the right body? Can a conspiracy theory develop as to the whereabouts of that supposed finger? You bet! I’m simply rubbing my hands in glee.
Inevitably, exhuming Anne is going to stir up the strange story that Anne was Henry VIII’s own daughter. Since every bizarre rumor is clearly rooted in truth, this would be the perfect time to obtain some DNA to determine whether this could be true. (This might entail disturbing Henry VIII as well, but after being so mean to Anne, doesn’t he deserve it?)
Finally, there is the delicious prospect of a reconstructed head of Anne Boleyn to contemplate. If it can be made to look as nearly like Natalie Dormer as possible, all the better.
Can the reconstruction live up to Natalie? We'll see!
Now other people have mentioned the idea of reburying Anne (not to mention a posthumous pardon–what fun that could lead to), so I will not claim complete credit for this idea, but will modestly share the stage with others in the event this comes to pass, as it surely will with all of the history-loving world bored out of their skulls with no one to rebury. Just be sure to invite me to the reburial service, and I’ll be there in the VIP section, wearing my best white dress.
To sign my new petition demanding Anne’s reburial, click here.
Lately, I’ve developed a weakness for cartes de visite—the small photographs that were prized during the last half of the nineteenth century—and have amassed a tiny collection of them, including one of my favorites here of an unidentified lady.
As noted by the American Museum of Photography, cartes de visite (CDVs, as they are commonly abbreviated by collectors) were albumen prints mounted on cards usually measuring 2-1/2″ x 4″. Patented in 1854 by Parisian photographer Andre Adolphe Disderi, CDVs did not become popular in the United States until the end of the decade. Their small size and sturdiness meant that a sitter could buy multiple copies of his or her photograph for a reasonable price–10 to 25 cents apiece– then easily mail them to distant friends and relatives. The American Civil War added to their popularity, as men had their pictures taken before going off to war and in turn carried the portraits of loved ones with them.
Once one began to accumulate CDVs, of course, one had to put them somewhere. Album makers like D. Appleton & Co. hastened to fill this need, informing newspaper readers, “No drawing room table of the day can be considered furnished without its ‘Photographic Album.’”
Not only ordinary people had their photographs taken. Photographic galleries sold CDVs of celebrities–politicians, actors, writers, singers, royalty, generals, and so forth. John Towles wrote, “Everybody keeps a photographic album, and it is a source of pride and emulation among some people to see how many cartes de visite they can accumulate from their friends and acquaintances. . . . But the public supply of cartes de visite is nothing to the deluge of portraits of public characters which are thrown upon the market, piled up by the bushel in the print stores, offered by the gross at the bookstands, and thrust upon our attention everywhere.” Queen Victoria was both a subject and a collector (“such an amusement–such an interest,” she said). Abraham and Mary Lincoln had their own album, bound in fine leather, although Mary lost her enthusiasm for the pastime after the Lincolns’ son Willie died in 1862.
Ubiquitous as CDVs were, it’s not a surprise that they even figured into the Lincoln assassination. The assassin himself, the popular actor John Wilkes Booth, had CDVs of five ladies on his person when he was trapped in a barn and fatally shot in Virginia: Lucy Hale, his secret fiancée, and four actresses, Alice Grey, Effie Germon, Helen Western, and Fannie Brown. (As Lucy was the daughter of a New Hampshire senator, her link to the assassin was kept from the public.) The five CDVs (including Lucy’s, shown below) can be seen at the Ford’s Theatre museum in Washington.
Booth’s celebrity as an actor and his striking looks, of course, meant that his own CDV was much in demand long before he committed the crime of the century. Among the many admiring ladies who bought his picture were Anna Surratt, whose mother, Mary, kept a Washington, D.C., boardinghouse frequented by Booth, and Nora Fitzpatrick, a twenty-year-old boarder. One day in the spring of 1865, Nora, who had had her photograph taken, went with Anna Surratt to pick up the finished product. Seeing CDVs for sale of their exciting new acquaintance, Booth, each lady purchased one.
After the assassination, when suspicion fell upon the occupants of the boardinghouse, Mary Surratt, Anna Surratt, Nora Fitzpatrick, and Mary’s visiting niece were arrested and the boardinghouse searched. Detectives found Nora’s CDV of Booth concealed between two others in her album, while another detective, lifting a popular print entitled “Morning, Noon, and Night” off a mantelpiece, found that someone had punched a hole through the back of the frame and concealed Anna’s CDV of Booth inside. The searchers also found a number of CDVs of Confederate leaders and generals, which cast further doubt as to the loyalties of the inmates of the boardinghouse. As it turned out, the CDVs belonged to Anna, who when testifying for her mother’s defense during the conspiracy trial was questioned about her collection:
Q. [Exhibiting to the witness the picture of “Morning, Noon and Night,” already in evidence.] Do you recognize that picture as ever having belonged to you?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Was it your picture?
A. Yes, sir: it was mine, given to me by that man Weichmann.
Q. Was any other picture ever attached to it?
A. I put one of J. Wilkes Booth behind it.
Q. What was your object in doing that?
A. I went one day with Miss Honora Fitzpatrick to a daguerrean gallery to get her picture (she had had it taken previously), and we saw some of Mr. Booth’s there; and having met him before, and being acquainted with him, we got two of the pictures and took them home. When my brother saw them, he told me to tear them up and throw them in the fire; and that, if I did not, he would take them from me; and I hid them.
Q. Did you own any photographs or lithographs of the leaders of the Rebellion—Davis, Stephens, and others?
A. Yes, sir. Davis, Stephens, Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, and perhaps a few others.
Q. Where did you get these?
A. My father gave them to me before his death; and I prized them on his account, if on nobody else’s.
Q. Did you own any photographs in the house at that time, of Union generals?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Who were they?
A. General McClellan, General Grant, and General Joe Hooker.
Anna’s eclectic taste in CDVs, sadly for her, did nothing to save her mother from the gallows.
Prior to their trial, six of the eight suspects–George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell (known during the trial by his alias of Lewis Payne), Samuel Arnold, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlin, and Edman Spangler–were photographed by Alexander Gardner while they were being held prisoner. Soon Gardner was doing a brisk business in selling CDVs of the gloomy or sullen-looking men, such as the one of Lewis “Payne” shown below. Fake CDVs also circulated, like that of Mary Surratt, who had not had her picture taken by Gardner and who kept her face concealed by a veil during her trial.
As for Booth, the public’s horror at his crime did nothing to reduce the demand for his CDV, to the disgust of the government, which banned its sales on May 2, 1865, but rescinded the order on May 26, 1865. Meanwhile, Boston Corbett, the sergeant who had fatally shot Booth in Virginia, soon found his own image for sale, although the fanatically religious Corbett, who had taken the extreme measure of castrating himself to avoid going sexually astray, was an unlikely celebrity.
Naturally, some of these cartes de visite play a role in my forthcoming novel, Hanging Mary. Look for it next year!
Dorothy Meserve Kunhartdt and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Matthew Brady and His World.
Mark E. Neely, Jr., and Harold Holzer, The Lincoln Family Album.
Benjamin Perley Poore, ed., The Conspiracy Trial for the Murder of the President and the Attempt to Overthrow the Government by the Assassination of Its Principal Officers.
James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg, Lincoln’s Assassins, Their Trial and Execution.
I’ve been tinkering a bit with my website. For my forthcoming novel (for which I hope to be able to post cover art soon), I’ve added a list of further reading as well as a PDF article about my research on Nora Fitzpatrick, much of which concerned Nora’s later life and thus didn’t make it into the novel. So take a look, especially if you’re one of those snowed in or about to be snowed in!
Welcome back. Just a moment while we sign you in to your Goodreads account.